Monday, January 03, 2005

Denationalization of the Masses

Gerhard Hirschfeld has an article that reconsiders the attitude of Germans in the last days of WWI.

The mass psychology of Nazi Germany suggests many reasons why the nation followed Hitler into a conflict of elimination and annihilation. The Nazi regime took advantage of the emotions of Germans over defeat in WWI and bound them to a strong leader who promised national redemption. Once bound to the Fuehrer, citizens were constrained to follow because of their sense of duty and (at least in part) by the coercive and repressive tools of the state.

Hermann Claasen's photo of the bombed Kaiser Wilhelm Bridge before the Cologne Dom.

Gerhard Hirschfeld points out that this does not explain why Germans continued to support the war in its last years. They were disillusioned about what the war could hope to achieve. People had become aware that they were being misdirected by a criminal regime. And propaganda was dismissed as unrealistic and manipulative. It was "already clear what kind of character the Reich had."

Mass psychology that examines the effects that Nazi discourse is not valid for the years after 1943. And "the last weeks and days of the war did not come across as a collective experience." People hid from the constant bombardments, alone, hoping that Hitler might find some way out, but lacking faith in his ideology. In many ways, Hitler and the nation had parted ways, each supporting the continuation of the war for different reasons. The question that must be asked is how did the Germans 'own' the war independently from Nazism?

Hirschfeld suggests that it was partly out of uncertainty of the future. The call for unconditional surrender and plans to deindustrialize Germany created some fears. However, Germans sensed more than the collapse of the state as they hid from bombers: it was the collapse of their system of values. The stake of Germans in the war became personal, broader than the meager legacy of the Third Reich, and they hoped to salvation even as lost faith in the war itself.

However, they also hoped for an end. Defeat so complete offered the opportunity for renewal: it represent a clean break from the past as well as satisfied the desire the horrors of the war would come to an end. The enthusiasm for democracy that followed the war can be contextualized as a solution to the ironic and disillusionment that colored German traditions in the war's waning moments.


At 4:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

>>The call for unconditional surrender and plans to deindustrialize Germany created some fears. <<<

To say nothing of life under 5 million Russian soldiers flooding in from the east.

It's interesting to ponder what the German people would have done if they were at war ONLY with Britian and America. They may have risen to demand the Reich throw in the towel by 1944.

At 12:04 PM, Blogger Nathanael said...

There is no doubt that the Soviet Union had problems with the treatment of peoples that came under their authority over the course of the war. Nevertheless, German fears about Russian attrocities were, in Omar Bartov's opinion, irrational. The psychological state produced by the failure of quick victory in the east compounded with propaganda to make the Red Army appear merciless and bestial, moreso that it really was.

At 2:07 PM, Blogger Orac said...

"More so than it really was"? I'm not so sure about that.

The brutal treatment of the conquered Germans by the Soviets as they made their way through eastern Germany to Berlin and in the immediate postwar period is well-documented, including mass rapes and kilings. By no means was it as bad as the horrors inflicted upon the Soviet Union by the invading Germans and their Einsatzgruppen units, but it was not unreasonable, knowing how the German Army had behaved in Russia, to be fearful of the retribution of the Red Army. Indeed, Soviet propaganda was designed to fire up the troops with a sense of hatred and the need for revenge for the treatment of the Motherland at the hands of the Nazis.

At 3:09 PM, Blogger Nathanael said...

I am not denying crimes committed by the Red Army, rather noting that the German imagination amplified them beyond reality. I would refer directly to Bartov, but I don't have his book at hand. However, there are other German scholars, like Theweleit, who have made similar points: that Germans produced an image of Russian Communists that was not itself a reflection of the behavior of Communists, rather it was product of the fears of Germans. Fantasy may have resembled reality, but it was fantasy nonetheless.


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