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Nazi party rally

Public Opinion under the Third Reich: Dispelling Traditional Depictions

Book Essay on: David Bankier, The Germans and the Final Solution: Public Opinion under Nazism
(New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 1996), 216 pages. UCSB: DD256.5.B32

by Sam Hedgpeth
March 13, 2009

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
Germany, 1900-1945
UC Santa Barbara, Spring 2009

About the Author
& Abstract
and Links
Plagiarism Warning & Links
Google Books

About Sam Hedgpeth

I am a senior Business Economics major, with a minor in history. I have taken both European and World War II history classes in previous years, but none of them have dealt specifically with society and culture under the Third Reich. One of my long-standing questions regarding Germany during this period was: what did Germans truly think of Hitler and his antisemitic policies? Reconstructive social history during World War II is very interesting because it attempts to delve into the mindset of populaces whilst entering into one of the bloodiest wars the world has ever known. For this, reason, I chose to write about the German public's outlook on its governing body, the Third Reich.

Abstract (back to top)

David Bankier's book The Germans and the Final Solution: Public Opinion under Nazism attempts to dispel the myth that the German populace was an evil mass of brainwashed citizens willing to follow Hitler's policies of antisemitic terror and total war. The book relies on a number of convincing sources, which include: Gestapo and SA reports, personal diaries and testimonies, public broadcasts, foreign intelligence, and post-war interviews. Bankier's main argument is that certain sectors of the populace, including businessmen, peasants, Catholics, and intellectuals disagreed with Hitler's antisemitic policies. Rather than generalize about the public, Bankier focuses on these specific groups; this specificity lends credibility to his argument. Furthermore, he argues that many Germans were aware of the genocide occurring in the east, yet chose either to do nothing or avoid the shame of such knowledge. He also discuses the apathy and unwillingness of many Germans to help their Jewish neighbors in their time of need. His discussion of this topic has flaws, and should be read with caution. Overall, however, Bankier's use of varying source evidence and brilliant commentary make this a phenomenal read for anybody interested in public opinion under the Third Reich.

Essay (back to top)

For history students today, it is easy to get the impression that the German public was a unified mass that blindly followed Adolf Hitler’s policies of antisemitism, terror, and total war. Videos and pictures often show hundreds of thousands of Germans gathered at party rallies; seemingly, most Germans adored Hitler and the policies he sought to institute. In his book The Germans and the Final Solution: Public Opinion under Nazism, David Bankier attempts to dispel this myth. Bankier makes an effective argument that certain sectors of the German populace often disagreed with Hitler and his policies, including antisemitic terrorism, and that at least some portion of the German population was aware of the genocide occurring in the east. His argument that Germans were generally apathetic and unwilling to help Jews, however, is not as effective because he fails to distinguish between various groups within society. Bankier relies on a multitude of sources, including reports from the Gestapo and SA, personal diaries and testimony, foreign intelligence, and radio broadcasts to compile a thorough study of the German public’s opinions.

The first major issue that Bankier discusses is the contradictory nature of the Nazi party itself. He correctly states that the Nazi regime was based on “creating a situation in which the public would be permanently mobilized” (Bankier, 14). However, the public did not understand how permanent mobilization would lead to political stability – something that it craved after the tumultuous Weimar Republic. Thus, Bankier argues, political fanaticism and fervor for the party began to wane as early as the summer of 1934. Bankier first examines the attitudes of the bourgeoisie. According to the Gestapo in Trier, the number of people joining the party was dropping significantly because “Hitler’s methods of repression and brutal terror” were dampening enthusiasm for the party (Bankier, 17). In rural areas too, where Nazi support was traditionally the highest, “political indoctrination bored them” and despite the promises of agricultural reform, “the peasant population continued to have reservations” (Bankier, 18). Bankier attributes this political apathy to the difference between the promised agricultural reform and actual industrialization that was taking place (Bankier, 18). Even the industrial labor force started to have reservations about the Nazi party. According to a Gestapo report from Munster, attendance of workers at May Day celebrations was considerably lower than in 1934, as “’the public mood has considerably deteriorated in recent weeks, particularly among the local workers’” (Bankier, 19). As these reports demonstrate, not all members of German society were completely captivated by the Fuhrer and his new government.

Another area of German society that experienced decreased support for the Nazi party was the SA itself. Once a strong political force, the SA began to feel that Hitler’s policies, specifically the lack of antisemitic action, marked a decrease in their importance. Bankier, based on a report from the Aachen Gestapo, argues that “the organization’s low morale” resulted in decreased participation in local branches (Bankier, 29). For example, in Hanover, only twenty percent of registered activists consistently showed up for duty (Bankier, 28). According to a report from the Wilhelmshaven Gestapo, the SA also feared the army was going to replace it (Bankier, 31). Similarly, the Cologne Gestapo reported that local members of the SA “were convinced that Hitler’s next step would be to dissolve the organization altogether” (Bankier, 31). Thus, even one of the party’s main police branches was experiencing political disillusionment in the early years of Nazi rule.

Bankier also argues that Hitler made foreign policy decisions when confronted with the fact that the general public was becoming apathetic towards party goals. According to Bankier, Hitler viewed “the major crisis” in Germany not as a result of economic hardships, but the “unprecedented political apathy, coupled with the conservative and clerical oppositionist attitudes” in 1937 (Bankier, 48). In light of waning political support, Hitler decided to remilitarize the Rhineland more than one year earlier than planned (Bankier, 50). According to a diary entry from von Hassel, German ambassador to Rome, Hitler’s “’chief motive in foreign policy is internal policy,’” thus, Hitler decided to remilitarize the Rhineland in order to restore national unity and pride (Bankier, 50). Bankier supports his argument by correctly pointing out that the decision to remilitarize was made in February 1936, the same month the Berlin Gestapo reported the largest increase in general uneasiness surrounding Germany’s political situation (Bankier, 52). Reports continued to come in from other regional offices that certain sectors of the public were upset about the lifestyle of party members, corruption within the party, and rumors that the army was mounting a coup to take over the government (Bankier, 52). According to these reports, Hitler was well aware of the political turmoil that was brewing within his state – it was this knowledge that drove him to remilitarize the Rhineland one year earlier. Thus, Bankier makes an effective argument that political support continued to wane through 1936.

In the next section of his book, Bankier focuses on the issue of antisemitism within Germany. Specifically, he seeks to understand how the German public reacted to programs of antisemitism, and what impact those reactions had on shaping Nazi policy. Bankier’s basic argument is that many people, despite popular depictions, did not support antisemitic measures. As he shows, however, the impetus to disagree with these measures did not come from a general abhorrence of antisemitism, but rather from the terror, brutality, and general nuisance it caused in the lives of German citizens. It is important to remember here that Bankier’s argument is that public opinion under Nazism was more diverse than traditional history may teach. He does not argue that all members of certain classes disagreed with Nazi policy, nor does he argue that all members of society were opposed to antisemitism. He does, however, argue that it is impossible to evaluate public opinion during the Third Reich if the public is assumed to be a homogeneous mass that sought the same political, economic, and social goals.

One group of citizens to which Bankier plays particular attention is the business class. He argues that antisemitic legislation and policies were not popular because they upset the flow of business for both large industrialists and small shop owners. Thus, there was an initial outcry from businessmen in 1935 when the Nazis instituted a ban on Jewish shops. Bankier correctly notes that they were aware that “antisemitic activities damaged Germany’s economic interests,” fearing such policies would “hamper their ties with traders abroad” (Bankier, 73). Other criticism came from members of the tourist industry who felt that such policies made Germany an undesirable travel destination (Bankier, 73). Businessmen also became concerned with their own safety after events like Kristallnacht. Opposition to Kristallnacht from the business class largely stemmed from fears that “confiscation of Jewish property could be a precedent for plundering other well-off sections of the public” as well (Bankier, 86). Other policies that continued to bother businessmen included “government intervention and bureaucratic control in the sphere of public enterprise” and a “noticeable shortage of raw materials” for industrial production (Bankier, 97). A Gestapo report from Rhineland – Westphalia indicates that many industrialists felt antisemitic legislation was hindering economic growth and foreign trade (Bankier, 98). Unemployment also became an issue of concern for industrialists, as they too relied on Jewish workers and other businesses that employed Jewish workers. The role that antisemitism played in hindering business opportunities is just one way that Bankier shows not all Germans agreed with Nazi policy.

Bankier also argues that some peasants and workers felt harmed by Nazi antisemitic policy. Bankier argues that peasants, particularly those who worked in agriculture, felt the removal of Jewish stock-dealers was harming their business (Bankier, 96). A report from the Rhineland also comments that stock-dealers preferred to do business with Jews because they were better businessmen (Bankier, 96). Furthermore, a report from Pfalz indicates that peasants deliberately disobeyed orders not to sell grapes to Jewish winemakers, complaining that “the party did not provide any suitable alternative to these traders” (Bankier, 96). Similarly, workers felt antisemitic policies were preventing them from buying the cheapest available goods. A Gestapo report from Dusseldorf claimed that “’when the worker is asked why doesn’t he support small German enterprises, he answers that he goes wherever things are sold cheap’” (Bankier, 93). Other reports indicate that workers felt that if antisemitic policies continued to increase, the unemployment situation would worsen (Bankier, 93). Bankier acknowledges that by no means does the existence of workers and peasants who disagreed with antisemitism mean that all members of these groups felt the same way about antisemitism. The fact that at least some did not agree with antisemitic policies, however, supports his argument that public opinion could be mixed.

Bankier next discusses the German public’s awareness and complicity in the Holocaust. Through a number of different sources, Bankier shows that at least large portions of the German public were aware of the Nazi party’s role in the atrocities and genocide. First, Bankier runs through a list of citizens who claim, either in testimony or through personal diaries, that they suspected what was happening in the east (Bankier, 103). Furthermore, a Gestapo report from Berlin in 1939 indicates that soldiers who returned home on leave were spreading information about atrocities they saw first hand in Poland (Bankier, 104). There are even reports from local agencies that speak of church sermons that directly mentioned genocide, and how “an anxious population began to seek some sort of spiritual comfort” after learning of what was happening (Bankier, 105). Bankier also shows that the German public was even aware of the method of genocide. For one, the BBC launched a massive radio campaign at the end of 1942 to provide the German public with accurate information on the extermination camps (Bankier, 113). This program included details that outlined gassing methods and cremation. Even foreigners, such as the Spanish counselor Fermin Lopez Robertz, heard rumors about the gas chambers; there was “’generally believed to be a certain tunnel outside the city, where they were to be gassed’” (Bankier, 111). As Bankier emphasizes, his use of the word generally indicates some broad acceptance or knowledge of these facts. Bankier’s effective use of a variety of sources make his argument compelling that at least a good portion of the general public was aware of the events in the east.

The final part of Bankier’s book discusses the public’s reaction to knowledge of the genocide. Bankier argues that, while many felt a sense of shame over the atrocities, the general public’s unwillingness to help signals the extent to which the public did not care about the problem. Bankier dismisses accounts of helping Jews in need as “isolated expressions of individual pity derived from various motives” (Bankier, 120). He also claims that “as long as the Jews were ‘merely’ segregated and in most cases not plainly perceived, the public could claim ignorance and deny the reality created by the antisemitic policy (Bankier, 129). And, while some adults “turned away, apparently in shame” over the sight of Jews being forced to wear yellow badges, the constant exposure to such sights dulled their sense of pity (Bankier, 123). Furthermore, Germans “relegated the Jewish issue to a marginal position” because paying attention to it “entailed an unpleasant awareness of the atrocities committed in the name of solving the Jewish question” (Bankier, 146). While Bankier’s use of available data, including SA reports, individual diaries, and testimony supports his claim, he seems to be generalizing about the public too much in this discussion. Rather than break down how individual groups felt about helping persecuted Jews, Bankier comments on the public as a whole. He often resorts to talking about “the Germans,” or “they” in order to make his point. Although Bankier supports his claims with evidence, his argument on this particular subject matter is simply not as convincing.

Critics of his book, like Robert Gellately, argue that Bankier’s argument at the end of the book is not that strong. It is understandable why critics feel this way. However, in his review published in the American Historical Review, Gellately unfairly attacks the rest of the book. He comments that Bankier’s “grand synthesis” and rejection of “in-depth social analysis” make his argument ineffective. Furthermore, Gellately claims that Bankier contradicts himself because he describes the “uphill battle” of convincing the population to believe in antisemitism, while simultaneously arguing that Germans tended to be antisemitic by nature. Firstly, Gellately’s comments on synthesis are unfair. It is nearly impossible to complete a social study and have it apply universally to the subject group, which is why Bankier speaks of specific groups within German society: the SA, peasants, workers, and businessmen. Furthermore, Bankier is not trying to argue that all of German society felt antisemitism was wrong, rather, he argues that certain groups of people did not adopt antisemitic policies with as much fervor as propaganda or post-war reconstructions often depict. Gellately’s comments regarding the contradiction between the struggle to implant antisemitism and German’s antisemitic nature are also wrong. Bankier does not argue that Germans were antisemitic. Instead, he argues that Nazi policies of discrimination on the basis of antisemitism were often unwelcomed because they disrupted daily life. Thus, antisemitic policies were often unwelcomed because of this disruptive effect, not because Germans were antisemitic. Gellately fails to see this distinction, which is why his comments are inaccurate.

Bankier’s book The Germans and the Final Solution: Public Opinion under Nazism successfully points out that German public opinion during the Third Reich was more varied than conventional wisdom may indicate. His discussion of general apathy towards the party and its goals and the backlash against antisemitic violence proves that German society was in fact not as brainwashed as many once thought. His work constitutes an invaluable source of information regarding public opinion under the Third Reich, as it breaks the stereotype that the German public was a homogeneous mass willing to support the Nazi cause at all costs.

Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 3/x/09)

Book Reviews:

  • Gellately, Robert. “Review of Bankier, Public Opinion under Nazism.” American Historical Review, Oct93, Vol. 98 Issue 4, p1279. (jstor link)
    In his review of the book, Gellately attacks the methodology that Bankier uses to understand German public opinion regarding the Final Solution. His main criticism rests with Bankier’s failure to delve deeply into Germany’s social psyche. Rather, according to Gellately, Bankier resorts to “a method of grand synthesis” with respect to German public opinion, which results in a “loss of concreteness and an uncomfortable number of generalizations.” Gellately also criticizes Bankier’s thoughts that Germans were traditionally antisemitic, yet chose to oppose antisemitic measures imposed from the top down. Gellately fails to recognize that Bankier’s argument is that certain groups of Germans disagreed with antisemitic measures because of the nuisance they caused in many peoples’ lives. The drive to disagree with these measures is not the result of compassion for Jews, but rather the annoyance they caused. Furthermore, Bankier purposely speaks of specific groups in order to avoid “grand synthesis.” Gellately clearly does not understand critical parts of Bankier’s argument.
  • Abse, Tobias. “Review of Bankier, Public Opinion under Nazism.” History, Feb93, Vol. 78 Issue 252, p154. <http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/c gi-bin/fulltext/119976428/ PDFSTART>
    Unlike Gellately, Abse believes Bankier’s book correctly understands German public opinion “within the much broader context of German attitudes to the Nazi regime as a whole.” Abse also compares Ian Kershaw’s The Hitler Myth: Image and Reality in the Third Reich. He contends that Bankier’s book differs from Kershaw’s work in evaluating German attitudes after 1941, as Bankier does not view German public opinion necessarily as the result of Nazi propaganda. He then proceeds to summarize Bankier’s argument that Germans tended to not care, despite having knowledge, that the government exterminated mass numbers of people. He has a much clearer understanding of the book, as he discusses the accuracy of Bankier’s arguments surrounding the annoyance and social anxiety stemming from antisemitic policies. Abse does not offer criticism or praise of Bankier’s book, rather he summarizes the main points with little comment.
  • Sheehan, James. “Review of Bankier, Public Opinion under Nazism.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 1994, Vol. 24 Issue 3, pp. 548-550. (uc elinks)
    In this review, Sheehan argues that Bankier has done little to further historians’ understanding of public opinion under the Third Reich. He argues that “Bankier cannot escape the limitations of his data, which provide fragmentary, and sometimes, contradictory” accounts of Germans’ perceptions of Nazi rule. While it is true that conducting research on public opinions under an oppressive regime can be difficult, Bankier’s use of different sources lends credibility to his argument; Sheehan clearly fails to see this. Furthermore, Sheehan should praise Bankier’s inclusion of contradictory evidence, as it shows his willingness to provide an accurate description of public opinion under the Third Reich. Bankier’s inclusion of contradictory evidence does not invalidate his argument because it does not rest on proving that everybody felt the same way about Nazi rule; clearly some, if not many, agreed with Nazi policies. He does seek to show, however, that public opinion was more varied than traditional portrayals may depict, not that everybody opposed the regime.

Web Sites:

  • “The German Experience” (2005), <http://fcit.usf.edu/HOLOCAUST/ arts/litGerma.htm>
    This web page offers a list of different media that discuss life under Nazi rule, knowledge of the Holocaust, and the effectiveness of Nazi propaganda. It offers a list, but no links, of speeches, books, personal recollections, and interviews that discuss these topics. Although not a complete list of sources on these topics, it does offer a good starting point for those interested in life under the Third Reich.
  • Housden, Martyn, “Germans against Hitler. Who Resisted the Third Reich and why did they do it” (1998), <http://www.users.globalnet.co.uk/~semp/germans.htm>
    This is part of a book published by Dr. Martyn Housden, a professor at the University of Bradford in the UK. In it, he describes three broad groups of people that he believes actively participated in resistance against the Third Reich: “those who became disillusioned with the Third Reich, those who acted out of necessity and those who resisted because of political, religious or moral principles.” This supports Bankier’s argument that political disillusionment was present under Nazi rule. One major drawback to this website (not the book as a whole) is that it does not reference cited sources, making it difficult for those interested in this topic to learn more.
  • “Axis History Forum” (2007), <http://forum.axishistory.com/viewforum.php?f=74>
    Although this is not a reference page, it is a good place for people interested in resistance movements and popular opinion, and the Third Reich in general, to meet and discuss these topics. Just browsing through the site for a few minutes shows the extent to which people want to discuss their viewpoints on these topics. It is hard to verify the historical accuracy of claims made on forum pages like this, however, it does serve as a source of differing viewpoints and alternative interpretations about the Third Reich.

Books and Articles

  • Housden, Martyn. Resistance and Conformity in the Third Reich. London: Routledge, 1997. 240pp. (amazon link)
    Housden seeks to understand what groups of people engaged in opposition, resistance, acquiescence, and support of the Nazi regime. He argues that previous attempts to understand the mindset of the German people, and their viewpoints on the government, have been insufficient. He examines public opinion and dissent through the eyes of the working classes, conservative elites, German Jews, churches, and youth; all groups which he believes were particularly receptive to dissentious thoughts.
  • Kershaw, Ian. Popular Opinion and Political Dissent in the Third Reich, Bavaria 1933-1945. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. 433pp. <http://books.google.com/books?id=QAPmule8mdcC>
    Kershaw’s book looks at the social and political history of Bavaria between 1933 and 1939, and then from 1939 to the end of the war. He focuses on peasants, the working class, and the middle class of Bavaria, and the extent to which Nazi policies alienated these groups. Like Bankier, he relies on state and party reports, along with other official groups commenting on opinion and morale. He also discusses the failure of the Nazi party to create the Volksgemeinschaft, and how party ideals (both economically and socially) isolated Bavarians.
  • Kershaw, Ian. Hitler, the Germans, and the Final Solution. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008. 394pp. <http://books.google.com/books?id=uwOXG_Ott9MC>
    This book is a collection of 14 of Kershaw’s essays spanning the last twenty-five years discussing a variety of issues. Topics include the shaping of popular opinion, Hitler’s role in the Final Solution, and public opinions and reactions to the persecution of German Jewry.
  • Welch, David. The Third Reich: Politics and Propaganda. London: Routledge, 2002. 246pp. <http://books.google.com/books?id=mTAJXL69rfAC>
    Welch discusses recent historiography regarding the degree to which Germans willingly accepted Nazi racial doctrine and the regime in general. He argues that support for the regime and its policies is directly related to the effectiveness of the Nazi propaganda machine. While he recognizes that propaganda failed to impress certain groups, he also argues that propaganda campaigns, especially in the area of euthanasia, were extremely successful.
  • Gellately, Robert. Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. 384pp. <http://books.google.com/books?id=hZ1ogJt2ddgC>
    In this book, Gellately discusses the extent to which Germans knew about the Nazi party’s policies of genocide and extermination; he seeks to destroy the notion that Germans were innocent bystanders in the Holocaust. With the use of primary news sources, he argues that Germans had a clear picture of Nazi extermination policies. He further argues that the number of people who willingly reported neighbors for dissentious behavior to the Gestapo is evidence of the citizenry’s acceptance and compliance in Nazi doctrine.
  • Stoltzfus, Nathan. “Dissent in Nazi Germany.” The Atlantic Monthly, Sep92, Vol. 270 Issue 3, pp 86 – 94.<http://mailer.fsu.edu/~nstoltzf/Publications/AtlanticMonthly.pdf>
    This article discusses specific, successful resistance movements in Germany. First, it discusses the Rosenstrasse protest and roundup up the remaining 10,000 Jews in Berlin. Stoltzfus also argues that the resistance to the removal of crucifixes in Cloppenburg set the stage for resistance in 1941 to similar anti-Catholic decrees. Lastly, he discusses protests of Euthanasia programs, and the extent to which these resistance movements are examples of “us-ism.”

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Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

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