Dominated by a megalomaniacal archetypal dictator, among whom all others are judged, life in Nazi Germany was a constant low-key terror. The power of the Geheime Staatspolizei, or Gestapo, was not in its technology or its omnipresence, but in its ability to convince neighbors to spy on neighbors. The pathos of life in the Third Reich was captured in Bertoldt Brecht’s play, The Private Lives of the Master Race. In it, a couple wonder if their child has gone off to the Hitler Youth meeting to participate, or to inform on his parents.
The Nazis were not the first to develop propaganda, but they were the first to develop it in the age of mass media. Josef Goebbels, the Nazi Party’s Minister of Propaganda, was so effective we still only see his propaganda today. Virtually all the footage of World War II is his newsreels, the propaganda of the Nazi Party, surviving in the twenty-first century to recall the glorious spectacle of the Volk and Blut und Ehre.
But for the average German, life was initially, if consistently, getting more stable under Hitler in the 1930s. The inflation spikes of the 1920s, when you rushed to buy goods before your paycheck was worthless, was ending. Food scarcities and farmer’s strikes were becoming less frequent. Consumer goods were becoming more available. Goebbels got everyone a radio. It had one reception — the Nazi programming — and if you were caught modifying it to receive the British Broadcasting Corporation, you were sent to the new prison at Dachau for Communists and anti-social behavior, like criticizing the new government.
The first days of the war were glorious. Hitler had not listened to the stuffy Prussian officer corps, pushed for an invasion of the Rhineland in 1936, and had gotten that back. He had pushed for Anschluss, unification with Austria in 1938, and the European powers let it happen. He took the Czech Sudetenland in 1938, and they flew to Munich to give it to him. Then the German Staff Generals protested his plans to invade Poland and France, and they had conquered. In the summer of 1940 it looked like the war was over.
Victor Klemperer, who survived the Holocaust through the sheer luck of the SS Headquarters of Dresden being obliterated in the firestorm of February 1945 (that killed 40,000 people) but saved the city’s remaining Jews, documented the language of the Nazis and how they warped and twisted words to mask their agenda and to ostracize those that were no longer worthy of party affiliation. As a language professor, he noted the style and syntax of Nazi propaganda, and his work is just becoming noticed.
As 1941 and 1942 went on, the war did not yet touch the average German. Air raids were constant, but until the first 1000-plane raid on Cologne in 1942, they were not yet a real threat. When Albert Speer demanded that cosmetics be stopped so those resources could be turned over to war production, Hitler overruled him — he knew German women wanted their makeup. Things were not that bad — not yet.
Some far-thinking Germans could see the problems — the joy of the conquest of France was short-lived, and those comparatively light casualties replaced with a never-ending stream of dead and dying, broken men coming home, refusing to talk about extreme atrocities they were committing on the Eastern Front. In quiet places, certainly not at the café, but perhaps with a very close friend — or if you trusted your co-worker and no one was around — you might discuss how the Eastern Front had stagnated, the dead and wounded were piling up, that Dachau seemed to have strange noises and smells emanating nightly. But then, it was best not to get too curious, because that’s how the neighbor’s uncle was taken away, or the butcher’s wife. Best to leave it alone.
By 1943 half of the Jews that would be murdered were already dead. While the Americans took Henry Ford’s concepts and applied them to making planes, ships, guns, and tanks, SS Fuhrer Heinrich Himmler applied the Fordism assembly line to killing humans. IBM processed the train schedules to try to get as many Jews to the secret killing centers across Poland in 1942. We rarely hear about these killing centers because so few survived. Some hundreds of thousands survived Auschwitz, which was a work camp and a death camp. Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka and the other camps of Operation Reinhard had no barracks. There are so few survivors whow ere there for such a short amount of time, we’re not sure what these camps looked like. But in just a few short months in 1942, Operation Reinhard killed two million people, about a third of the Jews who died in the Holocaust. Overall half of the Jews who died in the Holocaust died in 1942, when the Nazi Third Reich was at its zenith.
Reichfeldmarschall Hermann Goering had promised that if bombs would drop on German soil, you could call him a fool, and when they did drop down, most were too tired to recall it. When the Allies and the Nazis were relatively evenly matched — as they were in Hamburg in 1943 — civilian casualties could be held to a minimum, a few thousand. But Hamburg the city was severely damaged. The problem with attrition is that it’s cheaper to build bombs and planes and train aircrews than it is to sustain whole cities, and by 1944 the Allies, especially the Americans, had thousands of bombers, while the Nazis had fewer and fewer defenses. The bombings were an outsized motivation for many German soldiers. Encouraged by Hitler and Goebbels to see the bombings as directed by an “International Jewish Conspiracy” as punishment for the Holocaust, the only sensible thing to do was to speed up the killings in response to the bombings.
But it was getting too late. The Red Army forced Auschwitz to close in November 1944, and overran it in January 1945. Camps across Poland forced marched Jews and political prisoners and homosexuals and all sorts of people discarded and abused in the konzentrationslager system back to Germany, to try to kill them there, and many died or were shot or beaten to death along the way. German civilians looked out of their windows, some taking photographs, at these pathetically neglected souls, and some wondered if the bombings were punishment for what they had done.
But there were plenty of true believers left. When Berlin and Frankfurt and other cities fell, there was panic. Fanatics wanted to continue the war even though everyone could see that it was finished. At the end, they committed suicide rather than face the Red Army or a world without Adolf Hitler. Whole families put on their Sunday best to take poison in the office, or in the park. Some officers just blew their brains out with their service pistols.
Himmler had ordered hundreds of thousands of sterilizations of women across Eastern Europe, to terminate pregnancies from rape by Nazi soldiers, or in some cases, consenting encounters. Now the German women, their men dead on the plains of Stalingrad or in a prisoner of war camp or just too far from home, would be the victims. So many Berliners were raped in May 1945, the Soviet War Memorial is sarcastically called the “tomb of the unknown rapist.” Some victims killed themselves, but most just had self-induced abortions and never talked about the physical, spiritual and emotional pain.
Hitler committed suicide himself, after marrying Eva Braun, on April 30, 1945. His legacy will forever be one of horror and death. The German people went willingly after decades of shocking instability. In the end, the Holocaust infused every aspect of the Third Reich, and while its soldiers committed astonishing martial feats, the man they were fighting for and the ideals he represented must be considered.