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Gauging Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany

Book Essay on: Robert Gellately, Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany
(New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 359 pages.
UCSB: DD256.5.G45

by Eric Schnaubelt
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
Get it at amazon

About Eric Schnaubelt

I am a third year History major. I became interested in learning about Germany when I discovered my family history could be traced to the region between Austria and Germany. I have always enjoyed the culture of Germany and taken courses around that subject and World War II. I chose to read Gellately's book because I am interested in understanding how involved regular German citizens were in genocide and how readily Nazism was accepted.

Abstract (back to top)

Robert Gellately's Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany covers the rise of Hitler and his power until the end of World War II. Gellately describes the development of the Gestapo and the concentration camp system. Gellately tries to answer the question of how aware Germans were of genocide and whether coercion or consent was the largest contributor to accepting the camps. Backing Hitler describes how the camps developed over time and how their inmates shifted from political prisoners to Jews and what steps were taken to make the populace aware of the benefits of the camps. Gellately argues that consent was prominent in Nazi Germany and although coercion was used, it was not the major factor in gaining support for Hitler. I agree with Gellately and believe that the power of the Nazi state was based more on consent than coercion

Essay (back to top)

Nazi rule in Germany held much popular support. Hitler used many different tactics to ensure his popularity and success as the leader of Germany—but the largest amount of support was garnered by the Gestapo, the media, and the information of regular citizens. The Nazis centralized the police force and used it to enforce conformity and gain support. In his book Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany, Robert Gellately describes the development of the police and the grasp it had on society. He also describes the important role the media and concentration camps played in Nazi ideology. Gellately argues that the Nazi party used policies and personnel that were developed under the Weimar Republic, and that the strict discipline enforced on society was supported not just by the police, but by a large portion of society. Gellately uses Gestapo reports, newspapers, memoirs and recent studies to demonstrate that the populace gave popular support to the Nazi and also for the persecution and imprisonment of non conformists. The power of the Nazi state was based more on consent than coercion. Popular support came from the people and was developed through the police, media, and exploitation systems of the nation.

Gellately believes the first phase in Hitler gaining popular support was his appointment in 1933. Nazi Germany was able to gain so much support because the populace saw in the party the great tradition of German society. During the early elections Nazi claimed over ninety percent of the vote—coerced or not, that is a staggering statistic. The police force and the German populace wanted to see laws enforced on a society that had experienced crime and disorder. The first targets of the Gestapo were not Jews, but Communists and asocials. Many Germans welcomed the assaults and mini wave of terrors on these target because they were viewed as people who caused disorder and were morally corrupt. The German populace wanted “radical steps to be taken to deal with the wide-ranging crisis facing the country,” including “…lawlesness in the street, long welfare lines, and the scale of social chaos” (Gellately, 10). German society was tormented by the depression and the Treaty of Versailles. Hitler was able to curb unemployment with the help of government programs and police. The police put people in camps and cleared the streets of vagrants, beggars, and other unemployed people. The streets appeared cleaner and there was less competition for jobs creating mass support for Hitler. Gellately claims that “most people seemed prepared to live with the idea of a surveillance society…in return for crime-free streets, a return to prosperity, and what they regarded as good government” (256). Hitler used the idea of a return to the Germany of old to gain support and consent, but the Gestapo was instrumental in coercing the others that rejected them.

The Gestapo was not created out of thin air, but rather a continuity of ideas and people from the Weimar Republic. The Nazis developed criminal codes that were based on enforcing already existing laws more vigorously and many detectives kept their jobs and used their experience for the benefit of the Party (Gellately, 35). The police became such a formidable force because it was able to function outside the norm and relatively free from government intervention. The Prussian Law of 1936 cemented this idea and stated that the actions taken by the Gestapo were not subject to court review, giving them the power to operate above the law (Gellatelty, 40). The Gestapo had the power to act preventively to stop crime and disorder and reverse sentences and imprison people without evidence of a crime. The power to protect the community and the fear that the Gestapo did not have to answer to anyone made coercion and consent possible among citizens, but the Gestapo’s power would have been nothing without the aid of common citizen.

The Gestapo was able to operate effectively because of the consent of citizens. Popular support was maintained through the Gestapo because people were willing to inform on other citizens. Even when defeat in the war was imminent, many people still informed on their colleagues and neighbors even though they knew the result would most likely be death (Gellately, 226). The Gestapo did not hold society in its grasp but their existence fostered popular support, even among non party members. Many non-Nazis and Nazis volunteered information to authorities (Gellately, 133). To demonstrate this point, Gellately uses Nazi policies towards Jews and Gestapo files in the Würzburg archives. These records show that the Gestapo discovered their allegations of criminal behavior because of the informants in the populace. Nearly sixty percent of 210 cases came about from denunciations by the populace. Out of the 210 cases, only one was discovered by the Gestapo. This evidence demonstrates that the Gestapo not only used coercion, but garnered its success through consent. Gellately states flatly that this archive shows that “without the active collaboration of the general population it would have been next to impossible for the Gestapo to enforce policies” (135). Nazism was able to gain support through their secret police and ordinary citizens, but the media also played an important role in creating popular support for Hitler.

The media was able to spin information and foster popular support for Nazism and the harsh action of the secret police. Many Germans were aware of the concentration camps and the actions taken by the police. The camps and harsh actions of the police were highly publicized, and “even populations living in the vicinity of the camps were generally in favour of them” (Gellately, 257). The media presented the police as bettering the conditions of criminals and introducing order and more humane methods of imprisonment. Hundreds of stories were printed depicting the imagery of crime and punishment. These stories followed strict guidelines set by the Propaganda Ministry (Gellately, 49). Actions by the police were expressed in the media to win support for the dictatorship and show how Nazis fought harmful behavior. The Gestapo was highly aware of the public relations involved in their actions and in 1935 permission to publish cases was required. The police would determine when or if a case was reported in the press (Gellately, 63). The media presented information and the populace chose to accept it as truth. Nazi ideology was reinforced by the media. The media portrayal of concentration camps and the camps themselves also helped to garner support for the Third Reich.

The concentration camps were portrayed as pedagogical sites in the early years of the dictatorship. The camps were places not for punishment but for education. Prisoners could reflect on their harmful actions and educate themselves to the benefits of Nazism. Articles and picture galleries put a positive spin on the camps. These articles and pictures followed guidelines “of hard but healthy work, good and plentiful food, and leisure time for sport, reading, and relaxation” (Gellately, 57). The newspaper said nothing about long term plans but commented on the negative elements of society who were interned at the camps. People saw the camps as a necessity and applauded the Nazis for their harsh stance on crime and order. These camps had wide support for the populace and set the groundwork for the populace accepting the concentration camps for Jews.

The camps geographic location next to villages and cities helped to gain support for the Party too. The Catalogue of Camps and Prisons list huge numbers of populations that were based next to camps. The catalogue also lists some of the businesses involved in the exploitation system (Gellately, 209). Many dissidents, foreign nationals, criminals and Jews were forced to do hard labor in places like Cologne and their deplorable condition and pathetic appearance was seen by everyday Germans walking the streets. The look of the prisoners, especially the Jews helped to play into the Nazi ideology of vagrants and the unwanted as subhuman. The Germans used cheap internment and prisoner labor to fuel the economy and help the war effort. Himmler ordered labor be used for munitions factories and the creation of rubber and fuel. The necessity for the internment to help the war effort led to many Germans accepting or turning a blind eye to the harsh concentration camps.

Gellately also talks about how the private business used concentration camp labor. Major international and German companies like BMW, IG Farben, and Daimler-Benz used the labor to run their businesses. The corporate use of cheap concentration camp labor created favor for Nazism in the private sector and helped to feed support for Hitler. When IG Farben struck a deal with the SS it provided many other companies with a model to get involved with the “enslavement and murder of concentration camp prisoners” (Gellately, 215). Concentration camps were known to the German populace and many accepted or ignored the inhumane and torturous conditions of the camps, but Gellately does give some evidence that there was a part of German society that was sympathetic to concentration camp prisoners.

Many citizens in Germany were unable to express their negative views of the Reich because they feared being sent to the camps themselves (Gellately, 217). Some Germans wanted to restore the traditional values of Germany and were less inclined to follow the race ideology and hatred for Jews that Hitler expressed. When the government ordered a national boycott on Jewish stores and businesses, many people “made it a point” to shop at Jewish stores. The lack of positive support forced Goebbels to end the boycott and the government had to face the fact that the boycott “won less than whole-hearted support” (Gellately, 27). The boycott made it clear that antisemitism was going to play a central role in the Nazi government. Many German citizens felt the positive aspects of Nazism outweighed the negative, and fear of reprisal probably caused many to hold their opinions. Gellately writes that “citizen involvement and their willingness to inform the police or Nazi Party about their suspicions had devastating effects on resistance” (262). Many did not voice their opinion because they did not want to face the harsh reprisals the government would hand down.

Gellately’s book looks to answer the question of whether the population positively engaged in the support for the Reich, even while knowing about the persecution of non Aryans and others; or did people conform out of fear of the government. Gellately gives detailed evidence that the Gestapo and the camps could not have been successful without the support of German citizens. The media and the police helped to coerce popular support, but the people accepted and consented to the ideology of Nazism. “The coercive or terroristic side of Hitler’s dictatorship was a socially constructed by what was passed along by word of mouth, by what they read of it in the press, or heard on the radio” (Gellately, 257). Actual coercion in Nazi Germany was not the main tactic used to gain support. Coercion played a role but would not have been possible without substantial consent. There was much popular support for the ever changing and enlarging mission of the police and their camps. The police put away what many considered the “dregs of society” and by doing so gained support for Hitler and his goals.

Gellately uses a wide variety of sources to analyze roles of consent and coercion in Nazi Germany. He uses detailed evidence to demonstrate that the majority of German citizens consented to the actions of Nazi officials and supported the government to the fullest. They actively engaged in the system of coercion and exploitation installed by the government. Some people may have disagreed with the practices of the Third Reich, but the larger part of the population was swept up by Hitler’s talk of a community of people and played into the ideology of the party. The German populace backed Hitler through consent. Nazi ideology appealed to them and they were swept up by its promises, even if those promises meant death and hardship to others.

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


Herbert, Ulrich. Review of Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany by Robert Gellately. The American Historical Review, Vol. 108, No. 1 (Feb., 2003), pp. 276-277 (http://www.jstor.org/stable/3090846)
This review focuses on how the targets of concentration camps changed over time and how the police force in Nazi Germany was consolidated. Herbert supports claims of consent but states that Gellately is just building on his previous work and only focuses on smaller groups of people. Herbert adds some adds some of his own thoughts on how effective certain means of coercion. Herbert believes the chapters dealing with informants among the populace are the most gripping.

Ross, Corey Review of Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany by Robert Gellately. The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 75, No. 2 (Jun., 2003), pp. 462-464 (http://www.jstor.org/stable/3555393 )
This review comments on the broad support of National Socialism in Germany. Unlike Herbert, it focuses on the support of Nazism by the populace and not on Nazi organizations. This review supports the argument that persecution and repression garnered more support for the regime than it caused it to lose. The review also compares a book that deals with a similar issue of German awareness and support of Nazism, namely, Peter Fritzsche’s Germans into Nazis.

Stephenson, Jill Review of Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany by Robert Gellately. The English Historical Review, Vol. 117, No. 474 (Nov., 2002), pp. 1382-1383 (http://www.jstor.org/stable/3490905)
This review is an excellent summary of the main themes of Backing Hitler and provides more evidence for the argument of using police force as an effective means of gaining support without losing much.

Hist 133b review essay by Dan Schneiderman, March 2009

Web Sites

James M. Glass, “Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity: Nuremburg Laws” 2009 < http://www.enotes.com/genocide-encyclopedia/nuremberg-laws >
The genocide encyclopedia is an online collection of resources on the topic of genocide. It gives information on the holocaust and genocides in other countries like Armenia. The site contains articles, essays and film indexes all dealing with genocide. This site is a detailed account of how Nazi ideology rose throughout Germany. Explains how genocide and antisemitism were developed through Nazi laws and practices and how the public responded

Mark P. Mostert, “Useless Eaters: Disability as Genocidal Marker in Nazi Germany” (questia.com)
This is a select view of the origins of genocide and how it was justified. Demonstrates the fact that genocide did not happen overnight and not solely to Jews. This site helps to further Gellatelly’s argument that camps were first designed for political dissidents, criminals, and other asocials. This site gives more information on how the camp system was developed.

Florida State University, “Robert Gellately, Earl Ray Beck Professor of History” < http://www.fsu.edu/~history/staff/gellately.html >
Gellately’s faculty website gives a brief biography of the professor and his interests and courses. It also gives information on his current and past projects and works and volumes he has edited, like Accusatory Practices: Denunciation in Modern European History, 1789-1989 (Chicago University Press, 1997). It gives a list of the courses Gellately teaches and provides an understanding of Gellately’s perspective as a genocide historian.

Related Books

Steinberg, Jonathan. All or Nothing: The Axis and the Holocaust, 1941-1943. 2002
This book uses comparisons between Germany and Italy to try to understand the motives and dominant forces within Nazism and Fascism. The book talks about the different treatments of Jews by officers, the government, and citizens. Steinberg uses the comparisons to draw on support for Nazism and why there was such different treatment. This book goes hand in hand with Gellately’s, and will help to understand the support Germans had even untill it was clear the war was going to be lost.

Goldhagen, Daniel. Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. 1996
Goldhagen argues that antisemitism was so ingrained in German society that the order to kill Jews was not seen as a major crime by the majority of the German populace. This book deals with the same issue of the awareness and willingness of Germans to take part in and acknowledge genocide. Both books deal with issues of how much German citizens actually knew about camps and genocide and how very few decided to not stand up against the Reich.

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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.

prepared for web by Harold Marcuse on 3/23/09; last updated: 3/x/09
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