Tag Archives: Nazi Germany

Hitler’s Compromises: Nathan Stoltzfus interview

Hitler’s Compromises: Nathan Stoltzfus interview
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
14 June 2019

The popular perception of Adolf Hitler is of an all-powerful leader, the most evil individual in modern history, using extreme barbarity to crush his opponents at home and abroad.

In 2016’s Hitler’s Compromises: Coercion and Consensus in Nazi Germany Nathan Stoltzfus, professor of Holocaust Studies at Florida State University in the United States, challenges this simplistic representation, raises important questions about our understanding of the Nazis in power, while providing a hopeful analysis about the possibility of non-violent resistance in highly repressive societies.

Ian Sinclair: What is the central thesis of your book?

Nathan Stoltzfus: Hitler’s Compromises makes an argument about the nature of the Nazi state.   I do not question Hitler’s reputation as the most evil person, only the common image of him as a madman, carpet-biter foaming at the mouth. Hitler was able to achieve such monumental evil only because he used a range of tactics. While his dictatorship murdered millions in the name of ideology, Hitler managed his “German-blooded race” with persuasion, enticement, cooptation, compromise – tactics scholars now associate with ‘soft’ dictators of the twenty-first century. Hitler aimed to shape the “German-blooded” people into Nazis – fellow perpetrators and ruthless enslavers and murderers of “racial” and war enemies, the “incurables” and outsiders. “We must be honest, decent, loyal and comradely to those of our own blood and to no one else,” Heinrich Himmler told his SS. “Whether other peoples live well or whether they die from hunger is important to me only in so far as we need them as slaves for our culture.” Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels said, “We do not subscribe to the view that one should feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty or clothe the naked… We must have a healthy people in order to prevail in the world.”

In Hitler’s cold, cost-benefit calculations, Germans could not be refashioned as Nazis by terror alone. Stemming political opposition with terror, Hitler then led by incentives – the familiar ones of material well-being and future prosperity, national prowess and domestic security. As the foundation of his 1000-year Reich that would pass on Nazism as a way of life, Hitler sought to refashion popular attitudes and social patterns. To build a total society to buttress a total state, Hitler had to annihilate some Christian norms. He aimed to change their hearts and minds rather than to merely control their outward behaviour by police force.

Hitler led a dance with his own people, pausing and even backtracking if the people stumbled or hesitated, so that they remained united about his authority over them. Hitler was willing to move laterally so that he could resume moving toward his goals while sidestepping frontal attacks.

These compromises worked in tandem with Nazi terror. Hitler did not compromise his ideology but he remained willing to compromise with his people, particularly when popular obstinacy was based in traditional habits and customs, up until late in the war when he became convinced that popular backing would not win the war.

Hitler’s compromises began with his decision to seek power the ‘legal way’. They continued in power with a recognition that he must win the people away from their non-Nazi traditions and into unquestioning obedience by awing them with his great feats, which all previous German leaders had failed to deliver. A key benefit for Hitler of his willingness to compromise was in maintaining the notion, widespread across Germany regardless of denomination, region, or class, that Hitler always made things right, as soon as he learned about injustices. Across Germany people maintained their belief that “if only Hitler knew” all would be well, blaming what they did not like on officials they thought were working against Hitler.

IS: Your analysis seems to contradict the traditional understanding of how Nazi Germany functioned?

NS: According to the earliest perspectives, the Nazi state ruled Germans of the Reich by terror; Germans were forced to cooperate against their will as the Gestapo crushed every sign of dissent from Germans. These interpretations, which still hold sway today, coincide with one-dimensional images equating monstrous evil with uncontrolled fits of rage and brutality. Scholars have come to acknowledge the role of popular support – when it buttressed Nazi terror tactics. Germans joined the party, denounced outsiders, stole Jewish property. These mainstream perspectives, however, have shied away from acknowledging the corollary popular influences on Hitler of mass popular noncompliance and public protest. Standard interpretations screen this out; they challenge entrenched common wisdom that resistance by ordinary persons was always futile (even the resistance of mighty military men failed). While support for Hitler can be written off as a response to terror, any indication that the regime was sensitive to collective, popular opposition in public raises questions about public responsibility for Hitler’s crimes. Also according to common beliefs, Jewish assimilation or integration did not aid Jewish survival. But history shows that 98 percent of the German Jews who survived without going into hiding or being sent to the camps, survived because they were married to non-Jews.

Hitler also did not rule by charisma alone but as a politician and strategist. Many wish to portray Hitler as monster rather than mortal. Demonization is comforting, suggesting that neither we do not share anything with Hitler and will not face a similar threat. Flat moral condemnations are easy and popular but do not sufficiently disclose the complexity of Hitler’s evil; he was able to do so much evil precisely because he knew how to manage and manipulate, throwing fits of rage for effect.

The grassroots perspectives on the influence of masses that grew in the decades following the war was illustrated by the bottom up approach of historians examining East German communism after 1989. It’s very possible that the established history of Nazi Germany would be different today had scholars and others approached it with the help of bottom up perspectives emerging during the 1970s and 80s. Many views on popular autocracy in our own era not only apply to Hitler’s rule but were defined by fascism – which recognized that the masses could no longer be left out by claiming to rule on their behalf.

IS: Can you give a couple of examples when the Nazi government compromised in the face of nonviolent resistance to its policies? 

NS: Hitler’s effort to centralize control over the Protestant Church foundered in 1934 – within months of the gory Night of the Long Knives purge. Two bishops (out of 28) mobilized their congregations in peaceful protests, resulting in strife among Nazi regional leaders and the house arrest of the two bishops, causing churchgoers to rise up in protests more fervently than ever. To stem this unrest and its danger of slowing his momentum, Hitler restored the arrested bishops to their dioceses, sidelining his plans. To stem Christian influence, some Nazi leaders replaced crucifixes in Catholic schools with pictures of Hitler. This sparked nonviolent Catholic revolts, leading in more than one case to restoration of the crucifixes. Mass unrest and public protest by a Catholic bishop also caused Hitler to halt and then radically alter the way he carried out “euthanasia” of the “incurables” and “useless mouths.”

The defining example of defiance by street protest and Nazi compromise is the Rosenstrasse Protest by non-Jewish women that persuaded Hitler to release rather than deport their Jewish husbands in early 1943. Many Germans compromised step by step, accepting or perpetrating Nazi crimes, but the personal lives of intermarried persons forced them into a series of increasingly demanding steps of defiance, beginning with Hitler’s first days in power and culminating in a street protest that thwarted Goebbels resolve to declare Germany free of Jews in March 1943. Again Hitler relented, releasing some 2,000 intermarried Jews from the deportations.

Cases of social dissent and mass noncompliance so visible the regime could not ignore them were common enough that by November 1943 Goebbels wrote in his diary that the people were already sure that they could use public protest to assert their will on the streets: “The people know exactly where to find the leadership’s soft spot and will always exploit it.”

Hitler’s Compromises: Coercion and Consensus in Nazi Germany is published by Yale University Press.

Book review. Hitler’s Compromises: Coercion and Consensus in Nazi Germany by Nathan Stoltzfus

Book review. Hitler’s Compromises: Coercion and Consensus in Nazi Germany by Nathan Stoltzfus
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
June0July 2019

Think of Adolf Hitler and invariably an image is conjured up of an all-powerful leader, the most evil individual in modern history, using extreme barbarity to crush his opponents at home and abroad.

The latest study from Nathan Stoltzfus, professor of Holocaust Studies at Florida State University in the US, challenges this simplistic representation, raising profound questions for historians, citizens and activists alike.

Citing a huge range of German- and English-language sources – there are nearly 100 pages of references – he argues that, contrary to popular understanding, Hitler and the Nazi party elite showed a ‘willingness to compromise with the German people when the political stakes were high enough.’

This accommodation took a variety of forms ‘ranging from his delaying a policy until the people were ready to accept it to redirecting a course already taken in response to popular dissent, to simply not punishing those who publicly opposed a regime policy.’

A series of case studies make up the core of the book, including chapters on Hitler’s push to achieve power legally through the electoral system (with all the political compromises, incentivising and persuasion that come with this), and on the Nazi party’s struggle to subdue and overcome oppositional forces within the Protestant and Catholic churches.

Stoltzfus describes how the Nazi’s policy of (involuntary) euthanasia – established in secret in 1939 to minimise public concern – was significantly curtailed in 1941 after a public outcry led by Clemens August von Galen, the Catholic bishop of Munster.

Along with this important U-turn, two street protests stand out.

In 1943, in the city of Witten, around 300 women successfully demonstrated against the local Nazi chief who had manipulated the women’s food rations to force them to relocate to the countryside.

In the same year, hundreds of non-Jewish women protested in Rosenstrasse after their Jewish husbands had been rounded up in Berlin, their likely final destination a death camp. In reaction to the days-long demonstration most of the men were released, the defiant women saving ‘some two thousand German Jews from death in the Holocaust’, according to Stoltzfus.

Though it deals with some of the darkest events of the twentieth century, Hitler’s Compromises is ultimately a hopeful book, highlighting how there is political space for dissent, however limited, in even the harshest of dictatorships.

Moreover, for peace activists, Stoltzfus provides compelling evidence that nonviolent action was successful in forcing the government’s hand on a variety of issues in Nazi Germany, important victories that deserve to be better known – and remembered in any discussions about the effectiveness of nonviolent activism.

My favourite books of 2017

My favourite books of 2017
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
18 December 2017

Published a long twenty years since her Booker Prize winning debut novel The God Of Small Things, Indian writer Arundhati Roy’s new book The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (Hamish Hamilton) is a sprawling epic about contemporary India – from a guesthouse for trans women in Delhi, to grassroots protest movements and the dark arts of the intelligence services. Since her initial success, Roy has turned her attention to activist politics, eloquently questioning and criticising the government and corporate elites in her own country and across the world. These concerns worm their way into the narrative, evidenced by her vivid descriptions of India’s brutal actions in Kashmir and the perilous lives of those enduring and resisting the military occupation. Though it doesn’t quite reach the giddy heights of her first book, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’s ingrained left-leaning politics and its yearning friendships and romance between school friends make for an affecting literary journey.

Tom Mills’ The BBC: Myth of a Public Service (Verso) is an essential corrective to mainstream journalists and commentators blowing a gasket about fake news and alternative media. From the 1926 General Strike to the 2008 financial crisis, Mills, a Lecturer in Sociology and Policy at Aston University, highlights the BBC’s long history of towing the British establishment line on key issues. The censure of the BBC’s Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg by the BBC Trust for erroneously editing a 2015 interview with Jeremy Corbyn, the BBC’s shameful lack of coverage of the UK-enabled humanitarian crisis in Yemen, and the corporation’s North Korea-style coverage of Prince Harry’s recent engagement suggest little has changed.

Somewhat amateurish in its presentation, George Paxton’s Nonviolent Resistance to the Nazis (YouCaxton) is nevertheless one of the most important books I’ve ever read. While Western political culture unquestionably repeats the idea that violent struggle against Nazi Germany was the only option, Paxton, a trustee of the Gandhi Foundation, tells the stories of those who non-violently resisted the Nazis in Europe. Even in the most authoritarian circumstances there was, it turns out, opportunities to challenge – and sometimes win small, but important, changes to – Nazi policies. A 1941 strike in France against food shortages involving 100,000 miners won more food coupons, while in Berlin in 1943 the non-Jewish wives of Jews protested in the street and stopped the threatened deportation of their husbands. Fascinating and inspiring in equal measure.

Nonviolent Resistance to the Nazis: Interview with George Paxton

Nonviolent Resistance to the Nazis: Interview with George Paxton
by Ian Sinclair

Open Democracy
19 July 2017

In his 2016 book Nonviolent Resistance to the Nazis George Paxton, a Trustee of the Gandhi Foundation, sets out what is effectively secret history in a culture that reveres the violent struggle against Nazi Germany – Dunkirk and Churchill being the latest films that focus on the military campaign.

Ian Sinclair asked Paxton about the nonviolent resistance to Nazi Germany in Europe – its breadth, the methods it used and how it compares to the military struggle.

Ian Sinclair: What was the scale of the nonviolent resistance to the Nazis in occupied Europe? What were some of the methods used?

George Paxton: The extent of nonviolent resistance (NVR) used against the occupiers varied from country to country with the most active probably being Norway, Denmark, Belgium and the Netherlands. The attitude of the Nazis to Eastern Europe, which they wanted to clear of its population in order to settle Germans, meant that the resistance was different in nature.

The size of the different campaigns of resistance ranged from a single individual to large sections of the population. In the case of the Norwegian teachers opposition to Nazification of the schools it was around 10,000 teachers supported by about 100,000 parents. Some strikes elsewhere involved even more than this.

The methods used in the various campaigns were very diverse such as marches, wearing symbols of resistance, private and public letters of protest, refusing to be conscripted for work, resigning from professional bodies taken over by the Nazis, hiding Jews, helping Jews escape, listening to BBC radio broadcasts, producing underground newspapers, collecting funds for resistance, deliberate slow working and many more.

IS: You include a section with a number of case studies of nonviolent resistance to the Nazis. Do you have a favourite?

GP: It is difficult to choose one but for a small scale resistance, involving just dozens of individuals, the White Rose group in Germany is one of the most impressive. Set up mainly by students at the University of Munich and including a brother and sister, Hans and Sophie Scholl, the group produced leaflets attacking the immoral nature of the Nazi regime and also the likelihood of its failure. Leaflets were printed secretly then posted out to individuals and left in public places. Groups were also started in other German towns and leaflets were transported by a resister by train in a suitcase. But due to a careless act when Hans and Sophie were distributing leaflets at their university, they were arrested, interrogated, quickly tried and executed.  This was followed by other arrests, executions and imprisonments. While their resistance was a failure in that the revolt of students they hoped to trigger did not occur, knowledge of their courageous acts spread widely in Germany and indeed abroad.

A contrasting successful resistance was the rescue of Jews, mainly children, by the villagers of Chambon-sur-Lignon on a high plateau south-west of Lyons in France. This village (and others in the region) became a hide-out for those escaping the Nazis and became a centre of safety, particularly for children. The inspiration for this action came from the Protestant pastor and his wife, André and Magda Trocmé. André was an incomer from the north-east of France and a pacifist and his actions were a product of his Christian belief which influenced also the nature of the resistance. Thus he did not deny that Jews were hidden in the village and surrounding farms but refused to tell the police where they were hidden. André survived the occupation, although imprisoned for a time, and several thousand Jews and others hidden there survived until liberation.

There are detailed studies of these two cases published but many more have not been studied in detail and indeed no doubt some actions have been lost to history.

IS: What struck me reading your book was how Nazi Germany was not all powerful in the countries they occupied, but was often forced to compromise and, occasionally, to back down because of nonviolent resistance. Can you talk about some of the successes those carrying out nonviolent resistance had?

GP: One of the most outstanding successes of resistance was the rescue of the Danish Jews. Denmark was treated relatively mildly by the Germans in part because the Danes were willing to supply Germany with agricultural produce. Their own government was allowed considerable independence for a while although the relationship soured eventually and the Germans took over. The local German administration was then ordered to round up the Jews for deportation to Germany. But at the German embassy was an attaché, Georg Duckwitz, who contacted a leading Danish politician to tell him when the round-up was to take place. He in turn informed the Chief Rabbi who passed the word to the Jews, while non-Jewish friends hid Jews and then transported them to the coast where boats were hired to take them to neutral Sweden.  Although there were only about 8,000 Jews in Denmark almost all of them survived, even the few hundred who were captured and sent to Germany were not sent to the death camps as a promise had been given to SS General Werner Best, the German head of government in Denmark, that they would not be.

In the Netherlands an attempt to conscript former Dutch soldiers who had been disarmed by the Germans was met by the largest strike in the occupied countries. It began in mines and factories and spread until it involved half a million people who took to the streets. In response more than 100 people were executed but far fewer former soldiers enrolled than the Germans wanted.

In Belgium, students and staff at the University of Brussels protested at the employment of Nazi staff and then organised teaching underground.

In the Netherlands and Norway the Germans failed to bring the doctors’ professional associations under their control due to non-cooperation by the doctors.

Opposition in Germany, particularly by Catholics, forced the stopping of the ‘euthanasia’ programme although many had been murdered before it was abandoned.

A recent study, Hitler’s Compromises by Nathan Stoltzfus, shows that Hitler was very careful to keep the German population ‘on side’. He was wary of dissent and compromised if it looked as if opposition to a policy was growing, e.g. the euthanasia programme and the Catholic opposition to attempted Nazification in the Catholic Church; also the effective opposition of German wives to the deportation of their Jewish husbands from Berlin.

NVR in Eastern Europe was different due to the more ruthless methods of the invader. In Poland, in spite of the extreme repression, the Nazis failed to destroy Polish culture due to the extensive development of underground organisations. School and university teaching continued in people’s houses with degrees being awarded and research papers published; courts conducted trials; political parties operated with a parliament and government departments also; separate military and civilian resistance groups operated; money was obtained from the Polish Government-in-exile in London.

The hiding and rescuing of Jews was on a large scale throughout Europe with possibly as many as one million Jews being saved (see Philip Friedman’s Their Brothers’ Keepers); this being done at great risk to the rescuers.

IS: Why do you think some campaigns were successful and others not?

GP: I think solidarity within the resisting group must be of great importance. The absolute numbers of resisters may not always be significant. For example, in Belgium insufficient solidarity and firmness by the higher civil servants and judges led to the Germans ultimately achieving their aims. Support from the general population was important elsewhere, e.g. funds to pay teachers on strike or working underground.

There were some quite important incidental factors such as nearness of mountains and forests for hiding and a border with a neutral country for escape.

The use of nonviolence itself is of great importance. A violent opposition will be resisted with maximum violence from the controlling power but nonviolent resistance will send different signals, e.g. we are less of a threat to you. This may give rise to a degree of sympathy among the security forces. The resisters have to be firm but not aggressive. The occupied population has the advantage of superior numbers if they choose to use their power.

IS: You contrast what you call Gandhian resistance with the pragmatic nonviolent action that people like Gene Sharp advocate. What are the main differences between the two?

GP: There isn’t a great deal dividing Sharp and Gandhi. But most of the NVR used by resisters during the Nazi occupation was pragmatic in the sense that it was not usually underpinned by nonviolent theory; in fact it simply did not involve the use of weapons and so other writers prefer to call it civilian resistance.

Sharp developed NVR theory which was independent of religious belief, Gandhi’s or others. In reality Gandhi’s beliefs were very inclusive although he tended to use Hindu terms which Sharp wanted to avoid as he did not want to tie nonviolence to any particular culture. Both of their approaches are grounded in ethics. Sharp’s academic work actually grew out of his interest in Gandhi’s career but Sharp put more emphasis on the use of power in considering the possible mechanism of NVR; Gandhi hoped for conversion of the opponent.

IS: How do you respond to the argument that it was ultimately violent action that ended the Third Reich, not nonviolent resistance?

GP: People in general and governments in particular think of defence only in terms of military action. This is still true today as it was in the 1930s. Therefore for most of the occupied populations a nonviolent resistance was simply not in their minds, except for a small number of pacifists. However, when their country was occupied and they did not have the means to resist in the conventional way the braver and more imaginative sometimes turned to non-military means.

Most people expected their countries to be liberated by military means from outside but what we need to take into consideration is the cost of violent resistance, which in WWII proved to be enormous in terms of deaths and destruction. And as Gandhi pointed out before WWII began the Allies would need to resort to the Nazis’ foul methods in order to ‘win’. When one remembers the blanket bombing of the German and Japanese cities which were largely occupied by civilians it is difficult to disagree.

The NVR used in the occupied countries was too small in scale to defeat the invaders but I believe the potential is there, and with the knowledge we have today future conflicts could be handled by NVR.

Book review: Nonviolent Resistance to the Nazis by George Paxton

Book review: Nonviolent Resistance to the Nazis by George Paxton
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
June-July 2017

“But what about Nazi Germany?” No doubt many Peace News readers have been asked this question when they have voiced support for nonviolence outside activist circles.

Summarising a range of published material, George Paxton shows that nonviolent resistance to Adolf Hitler’s government was widespread. And though it is often poorly referenced and somewhat repetitive, Nonviolence Resistance to the Nazis feels like one of the most important books I’ve read in a long time.

From underground newspapers, open letters, graffiti, socially ostracising the occupiers, to slow working, boycotts and hiding and rescuing Jews, Paxton sets out what is effectively secret history in a culture that reveres the violent struggle against Nazi Germany. Who knew, for example, that on the first day Copenhagen was occupied handwritten leaflets appeared on the streets, titled ‘Ten Commandments for Passive Resistance’?

In the book’s middle section Paxton zeros in on case studies of resistance, such as the extraordinary White Rose Group. Active in Munich in the 1940s, this secret band of young people printed thousands of anti-Nazi leaflets and distributed them throughout Germany – often travelling to other cities to post them on to avoid detection.

Though they worked under an extremely repressive state, individuals, groups and populations were able to win some limited successes – highlighting the fact the Nazi leadership was not all powerful, but often compromised for political reasons. In Denmark nearly all of the Jewish population were rescued from the Holocaust, while a 1941 strike in France against food shortages involving 100,000 miners won more food coupons. In Berlin in 1943 the non-Jewish wives of Jews protested in the street over the threatened deportation of their husbands. Though the Gestapo HQ was close by “they did not act against the women fearing that the protests might spread”, notes Paxton, and the deportations were suspended.

Citing French historian Jacques Semelin, Paxton argues a number of factors increased the chances of success: a united front by the occupied populace, strong democratic traditions and grassroots organisations, a belief in tolerance and a good source of money and food. Like nonviolence guru Gene Sharp (PN 2543), Paxton, who is a Trustee of the Gandhi Foundation, believes that nonviolent resistance would have been most effective against Nazi Germany if it had been deployed at the earliest stage possible.

A goldmine of information, fascinating stories and inspiration for peace activists, Nonviolent Resistance to the Nazis deserves a wide readership.