Holocaust and Genocide Studies 17.2 (2003) 363-366
[Access article in PDF]
Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany, Robert Gellately (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), xvii + 359 pp., cloth $35.00, pbk. $17.95.
Robert Gellately's most recent work, Backing Hitler, like his previous book The Gestapo and German Society (1990), emphasizes the "active" contributions of Germans, who legitimated the Nazi regime's network of repression. Far from uniformly terrorizing its population with an all-powerful and arbitrary police, the Third Reich selectively targeted "enemies" for persecution and elimination, confident of and fueled by the support of ordinary "Volk comrades." Without that popular agreement, the regime could not have pursued its lethal agenda to horrifying ends. Backing Hitler thus reinforces the now dominant view among historians—a view that the author deserves much credit for establishing—that Nazism's brutality arose from a mutually reinforcing animosity by the Party faithful and ordinary Germans toward a host of outcasts. [End Page 363] Although more intense among Party leaders than the German population, this approach nonetheless guaranteed that no serious opposition would arise.
Yet, Backing Hitler represents the expanded scope of Gellately's investigations into denunciation in the Third Reich. The author discusses popular attitudes toward the entire range of the Nazi regime's "enemies," while not neglecting the racial policy that chiefly commanded his attention in The Gestapo and German Society. In so doing, he aims to support his contention that Nazism's uniqueness, compared to other "great modern revolutions, like those in France, Russia, or China" (p. 257), resided in the relative absence of terror applied to the general population. The effectiveness of coercion against selected groups such as leftists, Jews and other racial "undesirables," and those who simply violated normative social behavior, lay in the acceptability of police justice, not to mention its practical advantages for denouncers.
Gellately traces the expansion and evolution of the regime's police network into the war years, underscoring the war's radicalizing impact and, chillingly, the durability of popular support for the regime despite increasing hardships at home. The increasing frequency of popular denunciations in turn resulted in the skyrocketing number of arbitrary arrests, draconian verdicts, and executions as the definition of "crime" became totally politicized. The Führer appears in Gellately's account as not simply setting the hideous ideological tone that propelled his underlings in murderous directions. Rather, Hitler directly intervened on numerous occasions to radicalize the terror or, in isolated instances, to temper it as Germany's interests dictated. Thus, if "workingtoward the Führer" constituted for many the chief avenue for advancement and a major impetus to the regime's viciousness, as Ian Kershaw has argued, the Führer himself planted well-marked signposts on the road to genocide.
The book's most original contribution resides in Gellately's argument that the German press publicized the regime's punitive measures so that no German could have remained ignorant of the scale of repression. Thus the press forged a consensus between the Third Reich and ordinary Germans that violent campaigns against "undesirables" were essential to restoring order and preserving community values. Although tightly controlled and centralized, the media became the prime channel for disseminating the regime's justifications for its repressive measures and for conveying in turn popular attitudes that confirmed the correctness of the regime's course. Indeed, the media became the purveyor of morality plays that sought to curry favor by exploiting longstanding fears and images. Precisely because the Third Reich assumed that its initiatives would satisfy prevalent fear of crime and suspicion of "deviants," news stories were published on the edicts that underwrote the expansion of police powers at the expense of the judiciary, the construction of concentration camps, the incarceration and killing of domestic enemies, the brutal treatment of foreign workers, and the increasing persecution and extermination of the Jews. In short, the regime treated its terror as very much a public issue. Its savage measures became open demonstrations of the regime's determination to rid the "national community" of "undesirables." Gellately's [End Page...