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cover of Gellately, Backing Hitler

"The Truth Behind Nazi Germany's Citizens"

Book Essay on: Robert Gellately,
Backing Hitler: Consent & Coercion in Nazi Germany
(Oxford UP, 2001), 384 pages

by Sean Kim
March 19, 2007

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
Germany, 1900-1945
UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2007

About the Author
& Abstract
and Links
Plagiarism Warning
$15 & searchable at amazon

About Sean Kim

I am a senior Asian American Studies major and History minor. I became interested in German history, especially during the World War II period, after watching many television and films that portray certain aspects of that time. Although my knowledge on German history is basic, as it is learned from forms of media and classes taken at school, I have great interest and enthusiasm for it. I chose to write about this topic because I have not seen anything on television or in movies that go into detail about Germany’s awareness of concentration camp and the Holocaust.

Abstract (back to top)

Robert Gellately’s Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany is a fantastic book that uncovers many previously unknown facts about Germany, and dispels the myth of Germany’s awareness about the Holocaust and the terror that occurred in concentration and extermination camps. The book first goes into Hitler’s ascension to power and the Nazi way of reforming Germany. Then it covers much about concentration camps. The whole process of who was involved and their functions are intricately explained as it reveals how people in Nazi Germany responded to Hitler’s plans. Gellately argues that the populace of Nazi Germany was well aware of the Holocaust and the maltreatment of POWs and Jews who were imprisoned in the concentration camps. In fact, they were basically sold in to slavery to farmers in nearby villages, as well as international corporations such as IG Farben and Bayerische Motoren Werke (BMW). I am convinced by Gellately’s claim that most Germans supported Hitler’s ideas for personal and/or national gain regardless of the fact that they dehumanized the prisoners.

Essay (back to top)

Robert Gellately is the author of the book Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany. His book’s main argument is that while there was some resistance and opposition against the Nazi regime and its ways, most of the German populace supported the Nazi Party, so that German citizens were unsympathetic to the concentration camps and their prisoners. There was plenty of unbiased media coverage, influence from hearsay, and direct and indirect experience of Nazi activity to inform the German populace about the anti-Semitic policies and brutal coercion tactics, but the Germans still favored them. Despite the fact that the people of Germany were well aware of the horror caused by Nazis, Germans backed Hitler and the Nazi Party.

Gellately does an excellent job explaining how supportive the Germans were of the Nazi mentality when it came to the voting for them throughout the 1930s. Political support, whether it was voluntary or forced by the thuggish antics of Nazi members and fellow supporters, was the main reason for the rise and success of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party, and their ultimate goal of the Final Solution. The citizens of Germany were already in heavy favor of the new Nazi state since the Nazi Party was receiving almost over 90% of the votes in every election that was held. Sometimes there were villages that had recorded 100% of the votes for Hitler and the Nazi Party because “spoiled ballots or those left blank” were counted as a ‘yes’ even though those votes were not needed to win (Gellately 15). But the Nazi Party did not simply claim the top position because of election wins, it was because Hitler had gained such a high level of popularity among the Germans as it was demonstrated when “citizens were asked to express themselves once more on 19 August 1934 in a plebiscite on the issue of uniting the offices of head of state, with that of the head of government” (Gellately 15). That is when Hitler became completely in charge. Perhaps the Germans were so heavily in favor of the Nazi Party and its future goals because the Germans had lost all faith in having a democratic government and needed someone or something to blame for the decline of Germany since World War I. The people disliked where Germany was socially and economically, and they pushed to make sure Hitler was in charge. This was a clear indication of how Germans felt regarding the Nazis’ goals.

Another sign of the Germany’s support for Nazism was represented within the members of the law enforcement. According to Gellately, Hitler’s SS troops, “as well as those in the Nazi Party and the SA, were civilians” and the fact of the matter remained; Germans were always consciously aware of what the Nazis ultimately intended for the Jews and cooperated (Gellately 22). Backing Hitler describes how the Nazis actually wanted to keep the police because they were easy to tweak to the Nazi conduct, once again proving that German citizens volunteered to carry out the Fuhrer’s orders.

Along with the legal and political support the Nazi Party received from highly encouraging Germans, the Nazi Party also had tremendous help from the media. During the 1930s, much of the media, especially the newspapers, were full of stories of Jewish activity to increase the hype for boycotting all types of businesses that were run by Jews. Many of the Germans who were involved in the media were in full support of the Jewish business boycott. And even if Germans who worked in media did not personally witness anti-Semitism, they bombarded the rest of the citizens with newspapers full of negative stories about the Jews. But the discouragement of Jewish existence did not stop there.

The exploitation of Jews and other prisoners in concentration camps for labor was one of the best examples of Germany’s awareness of concentration camps and extermination sites, and empathy towards the Jews during the Nazi rule. Many towns and villages were very closely linked to concentration camps for a couple of reasons. For one, geographically, some of the villages were located near concentration camps. Another reason was because the villages and towns were so nearby it was easy for the farmers to borrow and hire the imprisoned Jews in the concentration camps for cheap labor on their farms. The use of prisoners in this manner led the Germans to think of them as subhuman. It was obvious that Germany’s economic strength and labor for the war was depended upon Jews and POWs that were imprisoned, and the general anti-Semitic consensus was in full support for exploiting them for economical and inexpensive labor. One more example of Germany’s anti-Semitism and willingness to use prisoners for powering the German economy and war effort was evidently shown via private companies. Private companies were without a doubt the “largest exploiters of concentration camp prisoners, and the process began by using them mainly in construction work” (Gellately 213). Concentration camp prisoners were used for all sorts of labor by the major corporations. Anything from building automobile parts to chemical production were aspects of the growing German industry prisoners were used for. Gellately’s text discusses one instance that truly reveals the stance of working Germans on treatment of concentration camp prisoners. IG Farben was the leading corporation that focused on producing all types of chemicals and compounds in Europe and fourth biggest in the world at the time. Because Germany was not in good terms with Great Britain, hopes of having continuous supply for rubber and fuel from there were vanishing. In order to ensure that the resources were not going to be in short supply, IG Farben along with Heinrich Himmler decided to build rubber and fuel factories for war, expanded the concentration camp to hold 30,000 prisoners, and turned the camp into a cost efficient source of labor. At the corporate level, it became apparent that the treatment of concentration camp prisoners, regardless of what kind of working, eating, and living conditions they would be in, was intentionally ignored. Concentration camp prisoners were merely seen as nothing more than expendable slaves.

Several other “companies with international reputation used concentration camp prisoners”, and they were Daimler-Benz, maker of the Mercedes Benz automobiles, Ferdinand Porsche, Volkswagen, and Bayerische Motoren Werke (BMW) (Gellately 215). All of these companies produced for the war and they all relied on labor from the concentration camp prisoners. In fact, Porsche insisted that more prisoners were needed in addition to the 3,500 the company already had and BMW had consulted with the SS about making concentration camp prisoners available for labor. Mistreatment of concentration camp prisoners was common and ubiquitous among Germans in low-paying agriculture work and up to the corporate-level jobs. German citizens were undeniably more interested in fueling the Nazi power rather than opposing their heinous acts on the human race.

But perhaps the worst part of the maltreatment of concentration camp prisoners faced was the apathy of German onlookers. Throughout his book, Gellately mentions several occurrences where German citizens watched and did nothing while the concentration camp prisoners were on their death march from camp to camp. As one German citizen said, “I believe that the people in the village first understood what the words ‘concentration camp’ meant, when they actually came face to face with prisoners”, was not as if the Nazis kept the activities at the concentration camps hidden to the public (Gellately 220). It was not enough that the Germans were neglecting the prisoners who were working at the factories of corporations, the Germans were “all too often willing and eager helpers of the SS” when it came to accommodating to their needs (Gellately 217). This quote only leads to further reinforcement of the argument that the Germans were unconcerned with concentration camp prisoners.

Despite these facts that do support the argument that Germans were not sympathetic towards concentration camp prisoners, Gellately does provide some countering evidence in his book. In one chapter, Gellately says that there were a much bigger number of sympathetic Germans than people generally think, but many of them were unable show their kindness to the concentration camp prisoners because “the usual warning was that the sympathetic Germans would themselves be sent to the camp” (Gellately 217). Although very small and definitely not often exposed, there were groups of German citizens that did not want to follow nor approved of the Nazis’ cruel ways of displaying anti-Semitism. Many of the citizens did not physically and actively demonstrate the anti-Semitic passion the Nazi leaders had. They were more in favor of the new political change that would bring nationalism back to Germany rather than Hitler’s hatred for Jews. In fact, the Nazis’ ploy to ruin Jewish businesses actually failed because “in most areas, people did not respond as positively as the Nazis hoped, and in bigger cities there were those who made a point of shopping at Jewish stores” (Gellately 27). If it were not for the terribly merciless procedures for handling any kind of retaliation against the Nazi ways and sympathy for the Jews, more Germans might have spoken up.

Overall, Backing Hitler is an exciting read into the background story of Nazi Germany’s citizens and their views about concentration camps. Gellately straightforwardly answers the prominent question that is raised from simply reading the title of the book: “did the people of Germany consent to the anti-Semitic ways of the Nazis, or were they forced? Needless to say, much information regarding the citizens’ lack of sympathy and almost overwhelming indifference for concentration camp prisoners is revealed in this book. Gellately uses very credible information from different people and different sources to compose a very convincing argument. His sources include anyone from Werner Best, a civilian administrator of France and Denmark for the Nazi Party, to Professor Victor Klemperer, a Jewish professor at a university in Germany. Because the sources Gellately uses are from opposite ends of the genocide spectrum, he gives us a balanced, educational, and most of all, credible information about the matter in hand. Even without much prior knowledge of the background scene of World War II and the Holocaust, readers can understand the materials Gellately presents without difficulty since he does an exceptional job providing information that can answer broad or very specific questions about Nazi Germany’s stance on the activities within the concentration camps. Perhaps it is because of my small and general knowledge in German history, but I do not see any real significant points that were left out. Most of the central questions I had prior to reading Gellately’s book were answered with each chapter.

All things considered, I would definitely recommend this book to any of my fellow students who are interested in learning about, as the title reads, the consent and coercion in Nazi Germany. Anyone who wants to learn more than just what is taught in regular history classes that only go over the basics of WWII and the Holocaust should read this book. Because it gives so much insight from the people who were not directly involved in the war, Backing Hitler is an essential learning piece to discovering new facts and strengthening the overall knowledge and understanding of Nazi Germany and how the citizens were able to cope with the horror of the Holocaust.

In conclusion, Gellately’s Backing Hitler analyzes the consent and coercion in Nazi Germany in detail, and he does it in a very compelling manner. In Nazi Germany, the majority of the people were in support of what was happening. Concentration camps and their prisoners were seen more as a source for cheap labor to propel Germany back to power rather than as an unreasonable excuse for Germany to place its blames on Jews by dehumanizing them. The text makes German citizens’ stance on the concentration camps very clear: some rejected it, but most took advantage of the opportunity given in that situation.

Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 3/x/07)


  • Antoine Capet, “What did they know? What did they do?” (January 2002).
    This review discusses the main point of how much of the Holocaust the Germans knew. Capet also talks about how difficult life was for Germans that were aware of concentration camps and did not want to participate. Capet supports Gellately’s main theme in his book while providing her own knowledge and opinion.
  • Eric A. Johnson, “Hitler’s Willing Backers”
    http://www.ess.uwe.ac.uk/GENOCIDE/reviewstr51.htm (February 2002).
    Unlike Capet, Johnson main argument is mostly about the Gestapo and their participation in the Holocaust as Gellately lightly touched upon. According to Johnson, although not necessarily directly linked to the Holocaust, they were more involved in the earlier part of the whole process of rounding up Jewish civilians. Johnson points out the flaws in Gellately’s argument saying that Gellately only talked about a small group of people.
  • Conan Fischer, “Book Review: Backing Hitler
    http://www.history.ac.uk/ihr/Focus/Holocaust/Fischer.html (November 2002).
    This is a rather stern review on Gellately. Fischer critiques Gellately saying that the book discusses too many redundant subjects.

Related Books

  • Arad, Yitzhak. Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps. Indian University Press. 1999.
  • Horwitz, Gordon. In the Shadow of Death: Living Outside the Gates of Mauthausen. Simon & Schuster, 1997.
  • Kogon, Eugen. The Theory and Practice of Hell: The German Concentration Camps and the System Behind Them. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux., New York. 2006 [1950].


  • http://www.fsu.edu/~history/facpages/gellately.htm
    This is Robert Gellately’s faculty website at Florida State University. Its main content is a brief biography of Gellately. The site also has links to a list of his publications and his curriculum vitae.
  • http://fcit.usf.edu/HOLOCAUST/arts/litGerma.htm
    This interesting website lists and describes many forms of media that talk about Germans’ awareness of the Holocaust. The list includes books, televisions shows, speeches, and personal narratives.

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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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