In early February a political earthquake struck Thuringia, a small East German state widely regarded as flyover territory. Parties of extreme left and right had won most seats at an election the previous October, inspiring talk of “Weimar conditions,” a throwback to the fractious pre-Nazi period in which radical parties ate away at the foundations of Germany’s post–W.W. I democratic settlement. The parliamentary scheming of Thuringia’s parties yielded a devastating, and apparently accidental, result: the head of a small pro-business party was elected minister-president (equivalent to a state governor) with support from the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. Germans called it a “dam break”: no state premier had ever been elevated to power with AfD votes. The row disrupted the ambitions of a top politician, triggered anti-Fascist demonstrations, and inspired parts of the German press to draw parallels with the darkest periods of the country’s history.
It is not the only advantage of Hitler’s First Hundred Days, Peter Fritzsche’s account of the Nazis’ swift consolidation of power after January 1933, that it quickly renders such comparisons absurd.
True “Weimar Conditions”
Fritzsche, a history professor at the University of Illinois, depicts a late-Weimar society rent by polarization, primed for revolt, and split into haves and have-nots, the latter enduring the bitter consequences of a depression in which one-third of the country’s citizens had lost their livelihoods within three years. (Before the coronavirus struck, in January 2020 unemployment in today’s Germany stood at barely 3 percent.)
In such grim circumstances, it was not just the political extremes that were pressing for revolution. Fritzsche opens his book with a gripping fly-on-the-wall account of the meeting in which the Make Germany Great Again conservatives, who had the ear of Paul von Hindenburg, the ailing president, decided to make Adolf Hitler chancellor. This was no surrender to the inevitable: by early 1933 the Nazis’ popularity had slid to the point that the Berliner Tageblatt imagined future historians asking each other, “What was his first name again, Adalbert Hitler?” It was rather an expedient grab at what looked like opportunity. Hitler, these men thought, could be the agent of Weimar’s destruction; but they would reap the harvest.
“What was his first name again, Adalbert Hitler?”
The opportunity was Hitler’s alone. The Nazis rapidly consolidated the power they had unexpectedly been handed by tapping Germans’ desperate desire for an end to the cleavages and privations of the Weimar period. The tools included mythmaking, pageantry, repressive violence, and, especially after the still-unsolved Reichstag fire of February 27, administrative decree. The Communists with whom Nazi storm troopers had brawled in the streets, and the Social Democrats who put up the only parliamentary resistance, were quickly rendered irrelevant, many of them carted off to the burgeoning concentration camps.
Any lingering defense of the republic evaporated as the Nazis “dramatized the combustibility of the present” with breakneck speed. Old divisions yielded new ones: patriot versus Communist, German versus foreigner, Aryan versus Jew. Boycotts of Jewish businesses, and the ejection of Jews from public service, paved the road for the enormities to come but also forced awkward questions into German minds: Did Jews have too much power and wealth? Was “biology” a useful prism through which to evaluate society? Did the presence of aliens (1 percent of the total population) hinder the formation of the collective spirit for which Germans had been yearning?
Embracing the Third Reich
Fritzsche injects fresh life into this familiar story via extensive primary sources, including novels, films, journalism, and diplomatic memos. These animate the means through which Hitler’s system fused party with nation and forged ordinary Germans into Nazis, whether rebirth-of-the-nation rituals, state-organized festivities (including the brazen co-opting of May 1, the traditional workers’ day), or mass rallies, artfully stage-managed by Joseph Goebbels and broadcast to enthralled millions over radio. Cowed media relayed the particulars, but Fritzsche emphasizes the importance of physicality to the method. His book’s most unsparing passages document the savage treatment of “mixed” (Jew-Gentile) couples, paraded through the streets by force before baying crowds, bearing signs advertising their shame.
Old divisions yielded new ones: patriot versus Communist, German versus foreigner, Aryan versus Jew.
Through the personal diaries and letters Fritzsche excavates, we accompany Germans on their varied explorations of the new reality the Nazis were forging. Some, such as Elisabeth Gebensleben, the wife of a functionary in Braunschwieg, whose observations are threaded throughout the book, are primed from the start, artlessly manufacturing justifications for every new Nazi barbarity. Others make their own journey, learning to accept the legitimacy of the questions forced on them by the Nazis’ domestic blitzkrieg, if not always the unpleasant answers. Others still retain skepticism, or even acquire it, as the brutality intrinsic to Nazi rule is manifested. None can remain untouched; some even find their dreams penetrated by Hitler.
The Nazis knew how to revive the latent power of old enmities, anti-Semitism chief among them. But for its adherents what helped distinguish the movement was an orientation to the future. For the Volk who remained inside the tent, Nazism offered a seductive vision of unity and greatness that left space for each individual to carve out a specific role. And so most did, with a speed and intensity that sometimes surprised even the regime itself. The Third Reich’s biggest achievement, Fritzsche writes, “was getting Germans to see themselves as the Nazis did.”
Tom Nuttall is The Economist’s Berlin bureau chief