1934 cartoon from the Nazi magazine Die Brennessel (The Nettle) with the heading: “If you give them enough time, they get the idea.”
The above cartoon is a succinct portrayal of one of the principal aspects of what the Nazis meant the concept Volksgemeinschaft to incorporate – exclusivity. The term Volksgemeinschaft translates, as near as is possible, to “people’s ethnic community”. National Socialism envisaged this as a racially exclusive organic society of unequals which nevertheless was somehow going to be classless and harmonious, or at least class position was to be regarded as irrelevant. “Equality of blood” or “equality of race” rather than economic equality was both an ideal and a putative key to creating social harmony, and was instrumental in the issuing of the 1935 Nuremberg Laws outlawing marriage or relations between Jews and non-Jews.
National Socialism’s apparently sociopathic tendencies were a modern pseudo-scientific variant of the religious certainties of earlier ages. Their ideological roots lay in the development of 19th century theories of race and race hierarchy, given spurious legitimacy by the evidence of white empires dominating the globe. Into this core idea run feeder streams such as Cultural Elitism (Nietzsche being the best known of this movement), crude meritocracy (the best deserve whatever they desire), and the closely related theory of Social Darwinism, fundamentally an assertion that the strongest not only will prevail, but should prevail. Tie all of this up in strident nationalism and add hefty doses of hubris, fear of other nations surrounding and threatening you, and some unfortunate contingency events such as the presence of a Bolshevik state on your doorstep, two economic crashes in one decade, and smouldering resentment at having been humiliated in WWI (or at least the perception of that) – and there you have a structural, political and ideological set-up for extremely bad individual and group behaviour.
The Volksgemeinschaft was just one of four interlocking fundamentals which went to make up the essential core of National Socialist ideology or Weltanschauung (world-view). Although that belief system did undergo changes between 1920 and 1945, it is still possible to recognise these four factors as consistent and constant assertions underlying a rational if odious ideological model. It is unproductive to write off Nazism as simply mad or bad. Such an approach does not aid in understanding how such an extreme and amoral/immoral system could have attracted so much support in one of Europe’s apparently most advanced and cultured nations.
The second fundamental was the belief that the German Volksgemeinschaft had to be constantly protected against both racial impurity and the attempts of other racial groups to displace, destroy, debilitate or dominate the intrinsically superior German race, a task which would never end, which required periodic war, and which called for Germans to have a larger living space at the expense of one of the perceived lowest racial groups in the cosmic order – Germany’s eastern Slavic neighbours.
Closely related to racial purity was the third fundamental – racial fitness and health. This amounted to intolerance of the mentally ill, the physically disabled, the senile, and anyone who was deemed a burden on the Volksgemeinschaft. Along with Gypsies and Jews, these categories were viewed as undesirable and dispensable, candidates for sterilisation, “euthanasia” and the gas chambers.
Racial health was underpinned by the Social-Darwinist philosophy of survival of the fittest among races and individuals. This had a long pedigree stretching back to the 19th century when thinkers such as Herbert Spencer, Francis Galton and Ernst Haeckel promoted the idea of intervening through eugenics and social manipulation to produce healthier human stock. Such ideas had some traction in Great Britain, the USA and Scandinavia by the interwar years. They were largely inspired by an elitist belief that racial degeneration was occurring because the lower sorts of people were breeding faster than the more worthy classes. The cost of maintaining these less valuable individuals was seen as a social burden, so they should be dissuaded from procreating. Calls for sterilisation of such people were widespread, and in Nazi Germany became a reality. As early as July 1933 the Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring was enacted, followed some time after by compulsory abortion for those within the category of “hereditarily diseased” who had conceived before they could be sterilised. 400,000 forced sterilisations were carried out by 1945.
Nazism did not just stop at the physical and racial in deciding who was undesirable in the Volksgemeinschaft. Those whom they labelled as “deviant” such as homosexuals, prostitutes and criminals were caught up in racial-hygiene measures, justified by a pseudo-scientific claim that such people’s unacceptable behaviours were the result of “social biology”. Thieving, alcoholism, “perverted” sexual orientation and prostitution, it was asserted, were most often inherited characteristics. Sterilisation, murder and being worked to death in concentration camps were the fate of such groups as the regime radicalised. The progressive coarsening of values and the way in which people who were deemed to be “other”, either mentally, physically or morally, is illustrated by two sinister terms, “a life unworthy of life” and “ballast existence”.
Michael Burleigh has shown that the “euthanasia” program of the Third Reich was rooted in attitudes widespread in the Weimar era, but that it took on a reality and an enlarged range of targets within the Nazi regime. It was a carefully planned decision with well defined objectives, principal among which were the saving of resources and the creation of space for the anticipated absorption of ethnic Germans returning from south-east Europe – part of the great plan for creating Lebensraum (living space) for racially pure and healthy Aryan Germans. But even more central to the program (and also even more important for the goal of Lebensraum) was the conquest of new lands, something which required “clearing the decks in order to wage war.”
As the cartoon at the head of this piece shows, there was yet a further category whom the Nazis decreed to be outside the Volksgemeinschaft. These were people with different political viewpoints. Communists, socialists, social democrats and trade unionists were among the first to be ostracised, their leaders physically removed from the community by incarceration in the earliest concentration camps. Surprisingly, perhaps, these categories of individuals were more likely to survive the Third Reich because they could theoretically be rehabilitated or re-educated. While their views were deemed un-German, their physical attributes and their “blood” were held to be sound and they should, if possible, be readmitted to the national community. The same situation applied to freemasons and Jehovah’s Witnesses who were also rounded up but offered their freedom if they renounced their beliefs and accepted the Führer as the highest authority and sole focus of loyalty.
This brings us to the fourth fundamental – the Führerprinzip (leadership principle) which entailed a strict hierarchical structure and demanded total obedience to superiors, and above all to Hitler. Besides the racial hierarchy, Nazi ideology saw differences in intrinsic worth among individuals, even “master-race” Germans. Hitler himself said, “I evaluate peoples differently on the basis of the race they belong to, and the same applies to the individual men within a national community.” An inflexible, domineering hierarchy of power within the Volksgemeinschaft was justified by the tautological reasoning that because those at the top were there at the top, then, within the survival-of-the-fittest doctrine, they must be the strongest and therefore the best. The propaganda value of Hitler at the head of the Volksgemeinschaft as “the personification of the nation” was immense. In many ways it was the ultimate integrative mechanism of the Third Reich.
The question of how the desired Volksgemeinschaft could become the goal not just of zealous Party members, but of the German population as a whole elicited, among other strategies, the use of propaganda. Joseph Goebbels was clear about propaganda:
That propaganda is good which leads to success, and that is bad which fails to achieve the desired result. It is not propaganda’s task to be intelligent, its task is to lead to success.
He quickly realised that the relatively new medium of radio with its sense of involvement and immediacy was the ideal vessel for the coordination of citizens and nation, for manipulating emotions and opinions into identifying with the Volksgemeinschaft vision of the Party. The Nazi state imposed a total monopoly of the airwaves, while radio-set manufacture was one of the few consumer-goods industries whose production was maintained throughout the whole Nazi era. Similarly the print media was subject to full supervision and instructed as to which stories to highlight. All press agencies became state-run and attendance for instruction and indoctrination at a Reich School for Journalism was made mandatory for young journalists.
The conclusion that propaganda was effective might be construed from the fact that the regime did not experience any significant domestic resistance during the years of peace, nor even when it went to war. However, much of that is due to the recovery from the nadir of the Depression years and a perception (fuelled of course by Nazi propaganda) that the new regime was wholly responsible for that. Equally, any potential sources of opposition were ruthlessly repressed. Organisations remotely capable of providing a forum for that or for loyalties beyond the Führer were swiftly disposed of or taken over in the process known as Gleichschaltung (coordination) between 1933 and 1934. It is important also to bear in mind that certain state welfare measures, such as health, recreation and support for large families, were highly popular, and this gave the regime a credibility and acceptability which it maintained and exploited for many years.
Ian Kershaw has argued that there was wide variation in the effectiveness of propaganda. He sees it as having its greatest success where it built upon pre-existing aspirations, beliefs and prejudices. This does much to explain the rise to power of the Nazis, because among these widespread convergences of people and party were hostility to the Weimar Republic (except among supporters of the Social Democrats and Centre Party), anti-Marxism, and anger at the provisions of the Versailles Treaty with which most right-wing opinion associated the Republic itself. Once in power, anti-left-wing attitudes were skilfully directed outwards towards the Soviet Union, depicted as eager to devour Germany. He sees more limited success in harnessing popular prejudices where people had little experience of the issues or factors in question. Although there was a broad anti-Semitic current in interwar Germany, the exclusion of Jews from the Volksgemeinschaft was effected more by legal discrimination and terror than propaganda. Nevertheless it succeeded in creating a public acceptance that there was such a thing as a “Jewish Question”, and it effectively depersonalised Jews. This produced an indifference to their treatment which was an essential precondition for deporting and murdering them. Anti-Russian and anti-Polish prejudices were also encouraged by propaganda showing them as sub-humans inimical to Germany’s welfare and threatening her precious Volksgemeinschaft.
Kershaw further says that where no pre-existing beliefs existed, there was far less success in creating a national consensus. He argues that the attempt to create a Nazi-style Volksgemeinschaft foundered upon fundamental religious and class fissures. He sees this resulting from a failure to alleviate social divisions, in particular grievances affecting the working class, and also among Catholics who did not renounce their other centre of loyalty, their church with its headquarters in Rome. Similarly there was an enduring city-countryside antagonism. Workers forced to take low-paid jobs or work extremely long hours were less impressed by the regime’s propaganda than were those less directly affected by the Depression years’ impact.
The least successful area for propaganda was where disbelief had to be tackled. This became particularly marked during the war years , and even before the first military defeats there was profound scepticism about propaganda assertions over living standards. Long working hours, coal shortages, rationing, lack of housing and reduced food supplies demonstrated clearly that government propaganda denying this was false. The failure to report the disaster at Stalingrad and the relentless pounding of German cities by Allied bombers discredited Goering’s claim that enemy bombers would never get through. Because it was blindingly clear that these were government lies, other facets of propaganda manipulation also came in for greater scrutiny, scepticism and ultimately disbelief.
Before they came to power and when material conditions were going well for the Nazis, propaganda extolling the benefits of an exclusive German Volksgemeinschaft met with much success and the majority of the population allowed themselves to believe that the benefits outweighed the costs. Before taking power, National Socialism portrayed itself as a party of hope and, importantly, as one of opportunity and social cohesion. The Weimar Republic was characterised by strife and division throughout its brief history, and even though much of this was deliberately fostered by parties of the right, including the National Socialists, the prospect of a Volksgemeinschaft was a very attractive one to many – in spite of (or perhaps because of?) the fact that so much Nazi propaganda was based on an us-and-them conceptualisation. On a rising tide of economic security, most people were prepared to accept what the Nazi government told them without realising that they were being manipulated by a sophisticated propaganda machine in the hands of a master-craftsman of deceit, Joseph Goebbels. However, by his own measure (“propaganda’s task is to lead to success”) and despite early successes, it did not achieve its ultimate goal of selling the whole exclusivist Volksgemeinschaft package to the German people.
Burleigh, Michael. Death and Deliverance: ‘Euthanasia’ in Germany 1900-1945. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Burleigh, Michael, and Wolfgang Wippermann. The Racial State: Germany 1933-1945. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
Crew, David V. Nazism and German Society 1933-1945. London: Routledge, 1994.
Evans, Richard J. The Coming of the Third Reich. London: Allen Lane, 2003.
Fest, Joachim. The Face of the Third Reich. London: Penguin, 1979.
Goldwag, Arthur. Isms and Ologies . London: Quercus, 2007.
Griffin, Roger. The Nature of Fascism. Abingdon: Routledge, 1993.
Hitler, Adolf. Mein Kampf. Translated by Ralph Manheim. London: Hutchinson, 1973.
Housden, Martyn. Resistance and Conformity in the Third Reich. New York: Routledge, 1997.
Kershaw, Ian. Hitler, 1889-1936: Hubris. London: Allen Lane, 1998.
—. Hitler. 1936-1945: Nemesis. London: Allen Lane, 2000.
Kershaw, Ian. “How Effective Was Nazi Propaganda?” In Nazi Propaganda, edited by David Welch, 180-205. Beckenham: Croom Helm, 1983.
Overy, Richard. Goering: The ‘Iron Man’. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984.
—. The Dictators. Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia. London: Allen Lane, 2004.
Payne, Stanley G. A History of Fascism 1914-1945. The University of Wisconsin Press: Madison, WI, 1995.
Taylor, Richard. “Goebbels and the Function of Propaganda.” In Nazi Propaganda: The Power and the Limitations, edited by David Welch, 29-44. Beckenham: Croom Helm, 1983.
 Ian Kershaw, Hitler, 1889-1936: Hubris (London: Allen Lane, 1998), 332.
 Stanley G. Payne, A History of Fascism 1914-1945 (The University of Wisconsin Press: Madison, WI, 1995), 194; Ian Kershaw, Hitler. 1936-1945: Nemesis. London: Allen Lane, 2000, 38.
 Kershaw, Hitler: Hubris, 289, 569.
 Kershaw, Hitler: Hubris, 289-90, 316
 Michael Burleigh and Wolfgang Wippermann, The Racial State: Germany 1933-1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 23-43.
 Arthur Goldwag, Isms and Ologies (London: Quercus, 2007), 154.
 Kershaw, Hitler: Hubris, 486-88.
 Martyn Housden, Resistance and Conformity in the Third Reich (New York: Routledge, 1997), 10-12.
 Burleigh and Wippermann, Racial State, 167-97.
 Richard J. Evans, The Coming of the Third Reich (London: Allen Lane, 2003), 145.
 Michael Burleigh, Death and Deliverance: ‘Euthanasia’ in Germany 1900-1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 3-4, 11-42.
 Burleigh, Death and Deliverance, 3.
 Richard Overy, The Dictators. Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia (London: Allen Lane, 2004), 189.
 Kershaw, Hitler: Hubris, 541.
 Kershaw, Hitler: Hubris, 289.
 Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf. Translated by Ralph Manheim (London: Hutchinson, 1973), 402.
 Richard Overy, Goering: The ‘Iron Man’ (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984) , 4.
 David V. Crew, Nazism and German Society 1933-1945 (London: Routledge, 1994), 198.
 Crew, Nazism, 9.
 Joachim Fest, The Face of the Third Reich (London: Penguin, 1979), 141.
 Richard Taylor, “Goebbels and the Function of Propaganda.” In Nazi Propaganda: The Power and the Limitations, edited by David Welch (Beckenham: Croom Helm, 1983), 29-44.
Kershaw, Hitler: Hubris, 478-79.
 Crew, Nazism, 8-9.
 This paragraph and the following two draw much from: Ian Kershaw, “How Effective Was Nazi Propaganda?” In Nazi Propaganda, edited by David Welch (Beckenham: Croom Helm, 1983), 180-205.
 Roger Griffin, The Nature of Fascism (Abingdon: Routledge, 1993), 97-99.
 Housden, Resistance and Conformity, 143-45.
 Kershaw, Hitler: Nemesis, 201, 400-01.
 Kershaw, Hitler: Hubris, 576-78.
 Kershaw, Hitler: Nemesis, 547-56.
 Kershaw, Hitler: Nemesis, 309, 535.