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Was Nazi Germany Everyone's Fault?

In a new essay collection, historian Richard J. Evans argues against the popular conception.
(Photo: tk_five_0/Flickr)

(Photo: tk_five_0/Flickr)

Totalitarian regimes tend to either be framed as no one's fault or everyone's fault.

The "no one's fault" interpretation powered the invasion of Iraq. When George W. Bush and company geared up to remove Saddam, the hopeful propaganda suggested that the people of that country would rise up and join the United States in overthrowing their hated dictator. Hussein, in this view, relied entirely on force to overcome an utter lack of popular support.

The "everyone's fault" interpretation, on the other hand, can be seen in the reaction to the 2013 film Olympus Has Fallen. The movie portrays an (excessively improbable) attack on the U.S. by North Korea. That country has an extremely repressive dictatorship, obviously, but that didn't stop many Americans from reacting to the film with visceral expressions of hatred directed against the Korean people generally. You can see a similar calculus in action, perhaps, in the U.S. decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japanese civilians, who were, at least implicitly, seen as collectively guilty of the actions of their authoritarian rulers. When looking at dictatorships, it seems like it's hard to figure out a middle point between collective innocence or collective guilt.

Ballots were often marked beforehand, and those who tried to vote against the regime, or even just declined to vote, were "beaten up by the brownshirts, or dragged through the streets with placards round their neck, calling them traitors."

This difficulty isn't just confined to dictatorships today; academics who research the Nazis have struggled with it too. In his new collection of essays, The Third Reich in History and Memory (which will be published in March), historian Richard J. Evans devotes two chapters to the problem of authority and complicity in the Nazi regime. Was Hitler's regime imposed by terror and violence, the kind that would make the broad mass of the people not culpable for its atrocities? Or did authorities have widespread public support, or at least, widespread public acquiescence? Was Hitler like Saddam (as seen by Bush)? Or were the Germans collectively culpable?

Evans explains that many historians have, in recent years, argued for an everyone's fault interpretation. A survey of elderly Germans conducted in the 1990s found that a majority said they had supported the Nazis. Most also said they had had little fear of being arrested by the Gestapo. Historians have also pointed to plebescites and votes during the Nazi regime in which Hitler received more than 90 percent approval for his policies. Evidence like this, Evans argues, has led some historians to conclude that Nazi terror was directed almost entirely against marginal groups like Jews and gypsies. The left-wing German historian Götz Ally concluded that Hitler did not maintain power by violence, but instead headed a regime supported by popular acclaim.

Evans thinks that this interpretation is vastly overstated, and he does a good job of punching holes in it. He points out, first of all, that Germans surveyed in the 1990s would mostly have been young in the 1930s—and that Nazi propaganda was most effective with younger Germans. Evans also argues that there is substantial evidence of Nazi political violence directed against major sections of the German population, especially the working class.

German workers had a long, vital tradition of Communist and Social Democratic sympathies. During 1933, as the Nazis seized power, Evans writes, around 100,000 Germans (most Communists and Social Democrats) were thrown in prison. Repression was not perpetrated just by the Gestapo, but by the regular justice system, block wardens, and even landlords.

Similarly, plebiscite elections were hardly free or fair; ballots were often marked beforehand, and those who tried to vote against the regime, or even just declined to vote, were "beaten up by the brownshirts, or dragged through the streets with placards round their neck, calling them traitors," Evans writes. Catholic parties and lay organizations were targeted too—and, Evans notes, "working-class parties and the Catholic Centre represented a majority of the electorate."

Evans' discussion makes it clear that the Nazis maintained power in part through massive political repression and violence directed against the German people. It also demonstrates, though, just how difficult it is to determine levels of public approval for a totalitarian regime. Going on six decades now, historians have been studying the Nazis as intently as historians study anything. Still, the level of Nazi support, and how that support was maintained, remains a controversial subject. Given the fact that researchers still aren't exactly sure how much support Hitler did or didn't have, it's little wonder that policymakers and the public end up with befuddled and contradictory analyses of current-day dictatorial regimes.

Along the same lines, the analysis of the Nazis demonstrates how complicated, and various, sources of political authority can be. It's clear from Evans' discussion that the Nazis relied on political terror against the working class especially; but, at the same time, to use it effectively meant that, as Evans writes, "the number of people who were willing to some degree or other to play a role in the coercive apparatus of the regime must have run into several millions." Millions more would have tacitly supported the regime. Evans suggests that the middle class—for whom the Nazi's rabid anti-Communism would have been congenial—was much more sympathetic than the lower class.

Nazi propaganda in favor of the regime, or against Communists and Jews, was hardly universally successful. Pretty much nobody believed Goebbels as he desperately assured the German public that the war was still winnable in 1944 and '45. But, again, propaganda did sway younger people especially. And, of course, Nazi economic successes and military victories were widely popular—even with those who suffered from Nazi terror in other respects. People certainly knew about the Holocaust, but that didn't mean all supported it. Some actively participated. Some were tacitly accepting. And some substantial number disapproved, but were politically neutralized by widespread Nazi terror.

The complexity of the relationship between Nazi authorities and the German population also seems like it explains why the U.S. has had such bad luck with removing dictators in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Totalitarian regimes may not have majority support, but their control is nonetheless built on numerous complex mechanisms, both violent and otherwise. Untangling that control isn't easy. With the Nazis, it required full-scale mobilization of the U.S. economy and a protracted world war. Evans' careful discussion serves as a reminder of the naiveté of thinking that dictators have no popular support in the countries they control, or that removing them is easy. But he also shows how unfair it is to assume that everyone (or even the majority of people) in a dictatorship is responsible for the regimes' actions. Collective guilt and collective innocence are appealing myths, but the realities of power are much messier.