Transformation came from both directions: from above, Nazis deployed coercion; and from below, they courted support by cultivating the electorate’s paranoia, writes Jennifer Szalai.
Hitler’s First Hundred Days: When Germans Embraced the Third Reich
By Peter Fritzsche
Basic Books, $32
The right-wing elites were confident they could use him to their advantage. Yes, Adolf Hitler was ridiculous and vulgar, a tin-pot demagogue instead of a smooth politician, but he knew how to excite the nationalist base and deliver a whopper of a speech. Germany’s conservative politicians assured one another that they would still be the ones to pull the puppet strings. As one of them put it, “In two months, we’ll have pushed Hitler so far into a corner that he’ll squeal.”
Needless to say, the adults in the room overestimated their own powers of containment. In “Hitler’s First Hundred Days,” historian Peter Fritzsche shows how Hitler and the National Socialists wasted little time after he was appointed chancellor on Jan. 30, 1933, in crushing what remained of the Weimar Republic and installing “the 20th century’s most popular dictatorship.”
The changes were audacious, and they were swift. On Day 4, Hitler and his conservative allies censored any press that showed “contempt” for government. On Day 7, he established links between his brownshirt paramilitaries and the official law-and-order apparatus of the state. The Reichstag fire on Day 29 gave Hitler the pretext he needed to get President Paul von Hindenburg to sign an emergency decree suspending civil liberties, and the Reichstag elections a week later consolidated the Nazis’ grip on power. On Day 61, the Nazis organized a nationwide boycott of Jewish businesses, and six days later purged the civil service of Jews.
“A quarter past 11 led, in only 100 days, to the Thousand Year Reich,” Fritzsche writes, referring to the hour before midnight when Hitler and the conservative elites made their backroom deal to appoint him chancellor.
Fritzsche describes an era that has been covered by other books — not least his own — many times over. As an esteemed historian of how ordinary Germans accommodated themselves to the Nazi regime, Fritzsche is neither revising his scholarship nor breaking new ground here. But there’s something particularly clarifying about the hundred-days framing, especially as it’s presented in this elegant and sobering book, which shows how an unimaginable political transformation can happen astonishingly quickly. Fritzsche quotes the newspaper clippings, diary entries and correspondence of the time to give a sense of what everyday life was like in Germany during the spring of 1933, when the political impasse of Weimar’s divided democracy gave way to decisive, state-sanctioned brutality.
Transformation came from both directions. From above, the Nazis deployed coercion, terrorizing their opponents and eliminating dissent. Violence was key, though it was presented as a defensive reaction to “intellectual instigators” and dangerous provocateurs, which allowed the Nazis to paint themselves not as cruel thugs but as servants of “justice.” There was a national debate over whether those charged with capital crimes should be executed with the hand ax or the guillotine; the guillotine was derided as “soulless, impersonal” and indicative of a lamentable “humanitarianism.” The Dachau concentration camp was opened in March. Political prisoners were subject to what Fritzsche succinctly calls a “licensed sadism.”
From below, the Nazis courted support by cultivating the electorate’s paranoia and gullibility — two traits that are more compatible than they sound. Nazi propaganda helped to stoke a general feeling of unease, or what the chief propagandist Joseph Goebbels called “dicke Luft”, the ambient sense that “trouble is brewing.” Traveling circuses had shuttered with the Depression, and the pageantry of marches offered replacement entertainment. Hitler also promoted the idea of “Volksgemeinschaft”, or “people’s community,” and appealed to a gauzy nostalgia for the outset of World War I, which Germans remembered as a time of national unity and collective strength. The calls for violence and calls for renewal went hand in hand: Only by purifying Germany of undesirable elements (communists, socialists, centrists, Jews), the Nazis declared, could they bring about the glory of the Third Reich.
Indispensable to the Nazi takeover was the radio. Before 1933, Nazi politicians didn’t have access to the airwaves, and after Hitler’s appointment as chancellor they resolved to make the most of this direct channel to citizens. Fritzsche describes how the broadcasts were calibrated for maximum emotional effect. More immediate and intimate than newspaper reports, the radio emitted an aura of authenticity, even if what was broadcast was a mix of theatrics, hyperbole and brazen fabrications. Goebbels pressured manufacturers to mass produce a “people’s radio,” or “Volksempfänger”; by September 1933, Germans could purchase a VE 301, with the three digits standing for January 30, when Hitler’s hundred days began.
One common excuse for the electorate’s embrace of Nazism was economic hardship; the hyperinflation that convulsed Germany after World War I had turned into a deflationary spiral with the Depression. As Fritzsche points out, though, such suffering was unequally distributed; the unemployed tended not to vote for the Nazis, but the “well-to-do burghers” did. He introduces us to Elisabeth Gebensleben, whose husband was the conservative deputy mayor of a town in Lower Saxony. Elisabeth’s letters to her daughter, Immo, who was living in Holland, show how someone who undoubtedly saw herself as a nice, law-abiding middle-class woman could countenance the Nazi regime. Elisabeth was unnerved by the beggars and the unemployed communists who gathered at protests, raising the specter of “civil disorder.” She called Hitler’s paramilitary brownshirts “a wonderful sight.”
Fritzsche’s hundred-days narrative takes us up to May 9, 1933, when Germany had become unrecognizable from the republic it had been just a few months before. The fragmented opposition to the Nazis had been either co-opted or destroyed. The country’s new “constitution,” of Nazi rule by emergency decree, amounted to what one émigré scholar called a permanent “state of siege.” On Day 101, there were book burnings organised by Nazi students; on Day 166, sterilization laws were announced.
Elisabeth continued to support the party, even as her own daughter in Holland hid a Jewish child during the war. Elisabeth told Immo that she had sympathy for the plight of certain individuals, while insisting that the Nazis — and by extension, she herself — were only doing what they had to do.
Fritzsche’s book minutely describes this nationwide slide from credulous delusion to a willful embrace of catastrophe. Just as pernicious as the lies the Germans were told were the lies they insisted on telling themselves.
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