Why did Germans keep supporting Hitler and the Nazis until the end of the war? Why didn’t they rise up against a regime that was committing mass murder and atrocity on an unimaginable scale? Why didn’t the mass Allied bombing of German cities lead to a popular revolt against Hitler?
Many historians have tried to answer these questions over the years since the Nazi regime collapsed in ruins in 1945. Older explanations looked to stereotypes of the German national character for an answer–militarism, love of violence, willingness to obey authority, desire for strong leadership, civil passivity and similar clichés of dubious validity. More recently, some historians have argued that propaganda played a central role in rallying Germans to the Nazi flag; others have stressed the growing terror to which the Nazi Party subjected the German people, above all in the later stages of the war. A few years ago, American political scientist Daniel Jonah Goldhagen suggested that the overwhelming majority of Germans were fanatical supporters of Nazi anti-Semitism from the outset. Others have sought an explanation in the Germans’ mindless enthusiasm for the charismatic leadership of Adolf Hitler.
None of these explanations by itself has proved very convincing. Simplistic notions of a German national character have foundered, like Goldhagen’s sweeping generalizations, on the objection that a majority of Germans, in the Social Democratic and Communist parties, the Catholic community and many other parts of society, refused to lend their support to the Nazis in any of the elections of the Weimar Republic, where the Nazis never got much more than a third of the vote. There is plenty of evidence that Nazi propaganda, though not wholly ineffective, was limited in its impact, especially among these previously resistant sectors of the population and above all in the second half of the war, when Germany was demonstrably heading toward defeat. Hitler certainly seemed immune from popular criticism, at least until 1943, but he was admired as much for what he did as for the image he projected. And terror, though a very real, continuing and in 1944-45 rapidly escalating force, was surely not enough in itself to keep the entire German population in thrall.
In this startling and absorbing new book, which created a considerable storm in Germany when it was published in 2005, Götz Aly advances another explanation. It was, he says, material factors that persuaded the great mass of Germans to support Hitler and the Nazis almost to the very end. The Nazi leadership, he claims in Hitler’s Beneficiaries, made the Germans into “well-fed parasites. Vast numbers of Germans fell prey to the euphoria of a gold rush…. As the state was transformed into a gigantic apparatus for plundering others, average Germans became unscrupulous profiteers and passive recipients of bribes.”
Already by the late 1930s, Aly argues, even former Social Democrats had become reconciled to the regime because it replaced the mass unemployment and economic misery of the Depression with full employment, generated not least by rapid rearmament, prosperity and consumer satisfaction. During the war, he continues, “the cascade of riches and personal advantage–all derived from crimes against humanity…led the majority of the populace to feel that the regime had their best interests at heart.”