Part IV: Citizenship  in a Totalitarian State: Nazi Germany

This is the fourth essay in a series devoted to examining citizenship and the American citizen, the rights, duties, and norms of which have become ever more contentious beginning in the divisive Sixties. They have become especially relevant in recent years with the actions of Edward Snowden and Colin Kaepernick, and with the election of Donald Trump and his proposed policies on immigration reform.

As a human body is only as healthy as its individual cells, so a civilization or modern state is only as healthy as its individual citizens. As a healthy human body is sustained by new, healthy cells, so a modern state needs continuous rejuvenation with new, healthy, good citizens to sustain itself, especially in times of stress.

From the point when Adolf Hitler became chancellor in 1933 until the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945, the German citizen had ever-diminishing freedom of thought and action, as National Socialism’s program of propaganda and terror prescribed the duties of the German citizen. Rights were not emphasized at all to the degree they were in Revolutionary France, Republican Rome, and ancient Athens. Under a totalitarian regime which demanded total and active loyalty from its citizens, enforced by terror and fear, the German citizen became atomized and isolated. The citizen became a member of a mass movement which sought not only redemption from World War I but also continental conquest to secure Lebensraum (living space). Moreover, in systematically hunting, herding, brutalizing, and exterminating six million Jews as well as millions of other undesirables, German citizens took various roles beginning with acquiescent bystander all the way to fervent killer of innocents. At the extreme they were the proud, efficient, fully Aryan, Nazi executioners of people they considered sub-human.

During the period 1933-1945, Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist German Workers’ (Nazi) Party sought to impose a totalitarian system upon Germany and its citizens, a system seeking to control all aspects of their lives, from politics to the ways in which citizens entertained themselves.

Hitler announcing armistice w FR, LoC

Hitler at the Signing of the Armistice with France, 1941 

(Library of Congress)

The average working-class or middle-class citizen, angered by the perceived injustices of the Treaty of Versailles ending World War I,  destabilized and demoralized by the postwar runaway inflation and then a decade later by the worldwide economic depression, never gave full support to Germany’s postwar attempt at republican government—the Weimar Republic. When the economic depression hit in the 1930s, the leaders of the government, hapless Social Democrats, proved incapable in dealing with the economy or with the increasing radical elements in society, including the Nazi Party. The average German citizen, remembering the successful Russian Revolution of 1917, also feared the rise of the communist party in Germany. Conditions were ripe for the ascension of a charismatic leader.

All these factors affected the average citizen’s view of Adolf Hitler, which evolved over the course of the 1930s, from disregard, to consideration, to acceptance, to—in many cases—adoration. In his landmark book, Behemoth, The Structure and Practice of National Socialism, 1933-1944, Franz Neumann, asserts that the individual citizen became a “mass-man,” part of the mass movement in German society in which ruling elites were consolidated, subordinate social segments and autonomous groups were eliminated, and “autocratic bureaucracies” were created by the Nazis to control society. “National Socialism has annihilated every institution that under democratic conditions still preserves remnants of human spontaneity: the privacy of the individual and of the family, the trade union, the political party, the church, the free leisure organization.” In terms of rights, so emphasized in ancient Rome and the French Revolution, “[i]n a totalitarian society … even if his rights are still recognized on paper, they are completely at the mercy of private bureaucrats.”

The Nazi Party gave the opportunity to the average citizen to raise his status in this new society, as long as he met the critical condition: “…if they are pure Aryans, physically outstanding, and politically docile.”

According to Neumann, the Nazis employed five “principles” to assert and maintain their control. First, the former pluralist German society was to be replaced by a “monistic, total, authoritarian organization.”

Second, the citizen was to be isolated physically and psychologically, leading to the “atomization” of society. There was to be no social intercourse among workers, civil servants, even family members, outside the approved totalitarian organizations. The church was to remain focused on matters spiritual and holy, not secular and political. Eventually these citizens would be molded into a “super-machine” driven by “an irresistible force of nature, by providence, or by a fate that is stronger than any individual—leading to the ultimate victory of Germany.” Even leisure time was to be controlled by the appropriate and approved Nazi organization: Strength through Joy. “Free leisure was incompatible with National Socialism. It would leave too great a part of man’s life uncontrolled.”

Third, ruling elites were to be created to control the masses. They “receive preferred treatment, greater material benefits, a higher social status, and political privileges. In return the elites act as the spearhead of the regime within the amorphous mass.”

To accomplish the necessary control, the elites—especially the SS (Schutzstafel), SA (Sturmabteilung) and Gestapo—employed propaganda, the fourth principle, and terror, the final principle. Neumann states that propaganda is “violence committed against the soul. The two have the identical purposes of making men amenable to control from above.”  Regarding the use of physical violence, he maintains that violence “is the very basis upon which society rests” and that it “not only terrorizes but attracts.”

In Revolutionary France, all were citizens and therefore all—in theory—were equal before the law. In Nazi Germany there was essentially no equality before the law. The general applicability of existing law evaporated. Judges lost their autonomy. The law ultimately became subject to the command and whims of Hitler. In the words of Hans Frank, all “political power of the German race is united in the Leader, it rests in his hand. All law, therefore, derives from him.” Concerning the equality of citizens, National Socialism sought to destroy any protections and rights offered by the law. “The new equality of National Socialism is an equality of duties, and not of rights.”

When we consider the role of the German citizen in the horror of the Holocaust, the citizen’s image is anything but that sketched above: a citizen mesmerized by propaganda and terrorized by the militant organs of the Nazi state. According to Daniel Goldhagen in his book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, “ordinary” German citizens conducted, contributed to, or at least acquiesced in the most extensive genocide in history, the mass killing of six million Jews, not to mention millions of others considered undesirable.

It is impossible, he maintains, to arrive at precise numbers. Nonetheless, he asserts that “antisemitism moved many thousands of ‘ordinary’ Germans … to slaughter Jews.” Beyond this, “hundreds of thousands of Germans contributed to the genocide and the still larger system of subjugation that was the vast concentration camp system.” And finally, he asserts that “millions knew of the mass slaughters.” (Emphasis added)

Goldhagen argues that it was a virulent, already-existing anti-Semitism which moved many thousands of “ordinary” Germans to slaughter Jews. To understand the behavior of these German citizens, one must understand the German way of thinking—its culture—at the time. There developed “in Germany well before the Nazis came to power … a virulent and violent ‘eliminationist variant of antisemitism, which called for the elimination of Jewish influence or of Jews themselves from German society.”  Goldhagen asserts that this thinking had its modern roots in the 19th century; however, its ancient roots harkened back to the writings of the early Christian fathers.

This thinking regarding the Jews included a “set of beliefs that defined a Jew in a way that demanded Jewish suffering as retribution, a set of beliefs which inhered as profound a hatred as one people has likely ever harbored for another.”

Devoting an entire section to German police battalions, units consisting of men who were probably not fit to be members of more elite military organizations such as the SS or the Einsatzgruppen, Goldhagen argues that at least 38 of these battalions killed or deported Jews to death camps, 30 of which took part in mass killings. “These genocidal executioners were not the clichéd, atomized individuals that they are asserted to have been.” And later states: “These were not robotic Germans ….” He concludes with two fundamental facts: “First, ordinary Germans easily became genocidal killers. Second, they did so even though they did not have to.”

Goldhagen maintains that the behavior of these more representative members of German society in the police battalions indicates the existing beliefs of the wider German population. “What these ordinary Germans did also could have been expected of other ordinary Germans.” Steeped in racial vocabulary, thinking, and stereotypes, the annihilation of Jews made sense to Germans. “In order to safeguard the existence of the Volk (people), the extermination of the Jews was to be a German national project. Behind their problems and the problems of the world “stood the global ogre, variously called “World Jewry” (das Weltjudentum) or “the Jew” (Der Jude)….”

Nazi totalitarian Germany required German citizens essentially to surrender their rights. Emphasizing duties instead of rights, it demanded that they fulfill these duties to save Germany from the vengeful victors of World War I and to restore Germany to glory. This Germany did not subscribe to any code of rights derived from the Enlightenment. The German citizen was defined in narrow, exclusive terms. Aryanism was the key litmus test. This citizen was to obey, not to question or to challenge. Commands and orders came from on high; the German citizen’s duty was to obey. To disobey was to denigrate the Fatherland. Echoing Aristotle’s idea in part, Nazi Germany asserted that the German citizen was nothing apart from the German state and that Adolf Hitler and Nazi party officials defined the right and the wrong. Enculturated to think of Jews as subhuman, ordinary German citizens—not just hardline Nazi functionaries—contributed at various levels to the mass execution of Jews and other undesirables.

(See Part V: Citizenship in Postwar America.)

Carsten, F. L. The Rise of Fascism. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1982.

Goldhagen, Daniel Jonah. Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. NY: Random House, 1997.

Neumann, Franz. Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism, 1933-1944. NY: Harper & Row, 1944.

Schoenbaum, David. Hitler’s Social Revolution: Class and Status in Nazi Germany, 1933-1939. NY: Doubleday, 1966.

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