restricted access Germans into Nazis (review)
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Germans into Nazis. By Peter Fritzsche (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1997) 269 pp. $24.95

This elegant, provocative historical essay argues against several recurring lay and scholarly explanations of how the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP) rose to power. Fritzsche rejects, first, the claim that National Socialism was an alien movement that only (barely) managed to ride to power on German backs bent low by World War I and the disastrous Great Depression. Rather than a harvest of peculiar circumstances, the NSDAP was, he contends, a homegrown, well-rooted outgrowth of German society. He overturns, second, the myth of the apolitical German who, uninterested in public life as he was, voted Nazi with only the vaguest notion of its message. As he garners evidence against these slightly exculpatory explanations, Fritzsche also discards interpretations that equate National Socialism with German culture, or at least with the culture of its bourgeoisie. Thus, he contends that German antisemitism, though pervasive, did not motivate voters to choose the NSDAP. Finally, he rebuffs the assumption that the Nazis represented the reactionary, elitist authoritarianism of the German middle class. The Nazi party drew voters from every corner of German society with a program for national reform, not a plan to return to a stratified world.

Fritzsche does not deny that war and economic crisis, class relations, or cultural beliefs influenced the electoral behavior of Germans during the Weimar republic. These factors cannot explain, however, why the NSDAP, and not one of its competitors in a crowded political field, was able to knock the Social Democratic party from first place and emerge as the plurality party in 1932. To understand the NSDAP’s rise from relative obscurity in 1928 to mobilizer of millions of voters several years later, Fritzsche would have us consider, on one hand, the varied and increasingly politicized self-mobilization of ordinary Germans after 1914 and, on the other, the ideology that this broad, though splintered, organizational activism signified and fostered. According to Fritzsche, Germans were moved to engage in voluntary, socially improving activity by an intense attachment to “the idea of the Nation”—the belief in a unified German Volk, organized to express its interests as a people. This nationalism was socially inclusive, a yearning for the harmony of the Volksgemeinschaft (people’s or national community) that Marxists and conservatives repudiated as a pernicious dream. Rather than deferential and passive, this emergent “national socialism” was confident and participatory. Its many adherents despised the republic, Social Democrats, and Communists, but they had little use for monarchical authority. The NSDAP, Fritzsche argues, was the first German party to articulate a militant ideology of national renewal based on popular participation. The Nazis forged its apparently inconsistent borrowing from the worldviews and organizing methods of the Right and the Left into a potent political program and revolutionary movement. [End Page 329] The transmutation of “Germans into Nazis” was less instinctive than cultural explanations assume, though more thorough than the crisis model postulates.

Neither Fritzsche’s critique of counter-explanations nor his own thesis is completely new. He draws on his own earlier work and that of other scholars who have documented the NSDAP’s extraordinary talents as a political machine and ideological medium and tracked its emergence as the first German Volkspartei. His service is to offer a concise, clear, evocative synthesis of a huge body of social, politico-cultural, and electoral evidence in an imaginative, graceful composition from which both undergraduates and experts can profit. Each chapter is dedicated to a turning point in the story that he wants to tell—July 1914, November 1918, January 1933, and May 1933—and is preceded by a photograph of a huge throng of Germans drawn into the public sphere by the event in question. Fritzsche reads a new historical significance into these famous pictures of crowds anticipating the war, rejecting the monarchy, exalting in Adolf Hitler’s appointment as chancellor, and participating in the first “nazified” May Day celebration. They depict, he claims, stages in the transformation from loyalty to an aristocratic state to faith in a mobilized people, and in the conversion from devotion to privilege to defense of the Volksgemeinschaft...