Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Peter Fritzsche's "Hitler's First Hundred Days"

Peter Fritzsche is the W. D. & Sarah E. Trowbridge professor of history at the University of Illinois. His books include An Iron Wind: Europe Under Hitler and the award-winning Life and Death in the Third Reich.

Fritzsche applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Hitler's First Hundred Days: When Germans Embraced the Third Reich, and reported the following:
On page 99, we find ourselves in the very first days of the Third Reich, right after Hitler has been appointed Germany’s youngest chancellor on Monday morning, January 30, 1933. The page summarizes the basic conundrum of the Nazis and of any understanding of the Nazis. On the one hand, Hitler had the enthusiastic support of about forty percent of the population, a large percentage in a parliamentary system. And on the other hand, he found it difficult to move well beyond forty percent, as the elections of March 5 would confirm. This meant that the Nazis could rely on substantial consent, but also would have to use coercive measures to intimidate opponents from rising up. What made reading the signs of who was for the Nazis, who was against (and who was wavering) difficult was the fact that life still moved in accustomed rhythms. As we read on, page 99 pans out: Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday were the days of the big white sales in which department stores decked themselves out as luscious fantasy worlds in order to attract hesitant shoppers. The fabulously popular sport of skiing was the favored theme of one department store, “winter paradise on the fourth floor,” a reminder that not all Germans were unemployed or anxious. In a few weeks, the department store would be “Aryanized.” And lots of people were sick in bed. The former chancellor Brüning felt terrible; Goebbels, the Nazi chief in Berlin, “collapsed” with a fever of 104°. Years later, the novelist Heinrich Böll, who as fifteen-year-old himself had the flu back then, wondered whether historians had neglected to consider the epidemic as the cause of the political delirium in the year 1933. For or against, the ski report and the fever chart–page 99 poses the question of how to read the early signs of the public mood in the Third Reich.

Scholars still hotly debate the measure of consent and coercion in the foundations of the Third Reich. Some think I completely exaggerate the degree of support for the Nazis. In any case, the most popular dictatorship in the twentieth century was also one of the most violent. What connected the two parts, the consensual and the coercive, was the steady movement of converts from the opposition camp to the Nazi camp, something which confounded determined anti-Nazis. Since radio broadcasts of the excited rallies of the Nazis in the streets–today we say “social media”--seemed to suggest quick growing support, more and more people stepped across the threshold and quickly, gingerly made their peace with the Third Reich. In so doing, they made the illusions of the media a reality. Hitler’s First Hundred Days explores why so many Germans crowded into the Nazi assemblies despite all the signs that many, many Catholics and socialists remained opponents. Given the signs of national acclamation, I argue that critics found themselves marginalized and branded as traitors. By making so public both the excitement for Hitler and the determination of his regime to crush opponents, the Third Reich forced a decision--us or them, peace or war, the people’s community or the concentration camp–which pushed Germans into line, or at least so it seemed. The first story in Hitler’s One Hundred Days is how quickly the Nazis seemed to be cast as national saviors, a casting they manipulated with a savvy media operation. But the second story is how difficult it was to know who was for and who was against the Nazis and who acted out of idealism or out of opportunism or out of fear. The book asserts that “everything changed!” but also asks “how much?” In the end, the bloated Nazi forty percent made the non-Nazi forty percent look haggard, a trick of mirrors, to be sure, but one that depended on the dynamic energy of the big part that marched and marched, and hailed, and screamed, and kicked.

Ford Madox Ford’s observation works well for me. On page 99, we see the tension between one side and the other, but also the ability of one side to adjust the optics for just about everyone. We see people falling into line, although we are unsure of motive, which is something all the shopping trips, ski vacations, and bed rest remind us to consider. The fact is that all the big debates historians have about the depth of support for the Nazis were the very topics Germans talked about among themselves at the time. What was the responsibility of the individual to justice and civil rights, to the constitution, to the claims of community, nation, and “race”? What was the direction of history? Who was with “us” and who was with “them,” and why did so many Germans appear to become Nazis in just one hundred days? These are the elemental questions of any political science and any historical analysis–of our own times as well as of the times of our grandparents. The “first one hundred days” are by-words for revolution. Do they end in Napoleon’s Waterloo, or with FDR forever on our dimes? In any case, we still talk and talk about Hitler and his murderous men and how they came to be and who they were and what they mean to us. We are always back on page 99.
Learn more about Hitler's First Hundred Days at the Basic Books website.

--Marshal Zeringue