After attaining power changes would be made to German society, but before those changes could be made control had to be guaranteed.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 29 - The Third Reich Part 15 - Control. This week a big thank you goes out to Luke for the donation, and Daniel, Colin, Neil, Peter, Thomas, and Benjamin for choosing to support this podcast on Patreon where they now get access to ad free versions of all of these episodes plus special Patreon only content released once a month. If that sounds interesting to you head on over to historyofthesecondworldwar.com/members. After the Nazi party took power in Germany in early 1933 they would begin a series of reforms within the nation, the next two episodes of the podcast will cover those changes during the last 7 years of the 1930s. This episode will cover some of the ways in which the Nazi government changed how the national government functioned. This included changes to the power of the government, what it could and could not do, the personal liberties that were granted to its citizens, and what it did to try and garner the continued support from the people of Germany. These changes would be accelerated in the years after the death of President Hindenburg, because on his death whatever restraints which may have been placed on the power of the government led by Hitler were removed because Hindenburg was the last person that could even theoretically overrule the actions of the Hitler and his cabinet. The years after 1934 would be when Hitler’s prestige and power would reach their zenith as the German economy began to rebound from the depression and the nation began to rebuild its armed forces and to assert itself on the international stage. We will end this episode with a discussion of how this power was presented to the people of Germany and to the world through the use of events like massive rallies and the creation of a whole calendar full of party holidays and national celebrations.
By July 1934 it had been clear for several months that Hindenburg was entering the end stages of his life. In the weeks before the Night of the Long Knives Hitler had worked to secure the support of the army in the event that he did pass away. This was important because as long as Hindenburg was alive he was the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, and it was possible, if the army wished to do so, that a military coup could have been launched on his death with he goal of installing some kind of military dictatorship. Hitler had been able to gain the support of the army quite easily, as I mentioned a few episodes ago, and the only thing that he really had to sacrifice was the SA, which was already becoming a problem for other reasons anyway. Hitler’s agreement with the military leaders meant that on Hindenburg’s death Hitler would add many of the powers of the office of President to his current office of Chancellor. This was critical because the entire legal foundation of the Nazi dictatorship rested upon Article 48 of the Weimar constitution. This was the article that provided the President with the ability to make unlimited emergency decrees. When Hindenburg had agreed to support the Nazi dictatorship after the March 1933 it had become technically legal because it could use these emergency decrees even without the support of the Reichstag. This also meant that if another person were elected to the position of President, and they removed their support things might get dicey. This all seems a bit odd to discuss, but even at this point the Weimar constitution, while gutted of many of its features was still the legal foundation of government. In fact Hitler based the legitimacy of his government on the constitution, which I have always found a bit humorous. The Weimar constitution would, as far as I have been able to determine, never be fully renounced during the Third Reich. It would have very little actual power, and much of its contents would be ignored, but it still existed and was still in force. All of this meant that it became very important to Hitler in July 1934 that some solution to the Presidential problem be determined. On August 1st, just a day before Hindenburg’s death, the cabinet signed the ‘Law of the Head of State of the German Reich.’ This law was them put in place the next day. It abolished the position of President and Hitler, in his capacity as Chancellor, would absorb many of the President’s former responsibilities and powers. Even though the power shift was effective immediately upon Hindenburg’s death, there would be a referendum in Germany to give the German people the ability to vote on the change. The referendum would ask ‘The office of the President of the Reich is unified with the office of the Chancellor. Consequently all former powers of the President of the Reich are demised to the Führer and Chancellor of the Reich Adolf Hitler. He himself nominates his substitute. Do you, German man and German woman, approve of this regulation provided by this law?’ The referendum would pass with almost 90% of the votes in favor, or at least that is what the regime would claim. As with any other election within Nazi Germany the results are very suspect. There were reports of ballots being prefilled with a Yes vote which were then counted, of No votes being counted as a Yes vote, and ballots with a no vote being simply ignored. Even beyond the straight up altering of votes, there were often police, SA, and SS members at polling stations in a nationwide campaign to disparage people who chose to cast their vote in secret. They would pressure voters into openly voting, which of course in the presence of the authorities made it very difficult to vote against those authorities. The actual outcome of the vote mattered very little though, Hitler had already assumed all of the powers that he wanted or needed as soon as Hindenburg was dead, but being able to report such a massive confirmation from the German people was good for propaganda purposes.
Hitler’s role in the day to day functioning of the government would become quite limited after 1934, and there were two reasons for this. The first was a purposeful detachment from concrete policy decisions. This detachment really goes all the way back to when Hitler took control of the Nazi party, at which point he started to distance himself from many concrete decisions made by the party to try and remain aloof and disconnected from possible failure. When it came to ruling Germany this same kind of logic was applied. He kept himself detached from day to day decisions and from many specific policy choices so that unpopular decisions were not traced back to him. This would allow his position as absolute leader of the nation to be unsullied by some of the realities of leading a nation that was not in an optimal position for much of the early years of his regime. It also gave Hitler the ability to contradict any choices made by others, should they turn out to be unpopular or result in failure. The second reason for this detachment was apparently just the fact that it was just part of Hitler’s character. In some ways he could be described as an ideas man, far more concerned with what should be done rather than how those ideas should be specifically implemented. This meant that those around him often had a large amount of power and flexibility in how they implemented ideas. Hitler encouraged this, and often cared far more about results rather than methods, he would always be the final voice and the final decision maker if required, but he preferred that his subordinates simply made the necessary choices without requiring his input. When his decision was required, he was apparently not a big fan of reading any written communications provided to him, with one of his personal assistant Fritz Wiedemann saying ‘He disliked reading files, I got decisions out of him, even on very important matters, without him ever asking me for the relevant papers. He took the view that many things sorted themselves out if they were left alone.’
Ian Kershaw, in his excellent biography of Hitler would use the phrase ‘working towards the Fuhrer’ to describe how the Nazi government functioned during this period. As Kershaw would describe it ‘Through ‘working towards the Führer’, initiatives were taken, pressures created, legislation instigated – all in ways which fell into line with what were taken to be Hitler’s aims, and without the Dictator necessarily having to dictate.’ This was really the only way that the government could function, because during this period discussions in the cabinet essentially ended during 1933 and after 1938 it would not hold another session. This meant that most government policy was entirely dependent on the decisions of Hitler and those around him, and with Hitler pushing many policy decisions down to those under him the result was just a massive amount of legislation from a number of different ministries. Most of these policies were put in place without the direct knowledge or understanding of Hitler, but as long as they were in line with Hitler’s broad policy decisions this was not seen as a problem. This also had a downside, because it made the German government quite inefficient. Often drafts of possible legislation would bounce from ministry to ministry as decisions were discussed and changes were made until consensus could be reached. However there was often a lot of time wasted during this process due to lack of engagement from those at the very top of ministries. In cases where agreements did not occur and the decision had to be escalated to Hitler or the cabinet, he would sometimes make seemingly arbitrary decisions that might undo all of the previous work, sometimes scrapping it all together. He might also completely shift the legislation in a completely different direction, wasting everyone’s time. Another result of the system that was in place, which mixed absolute power with little oversight, was corruption on a monumental scale. Hitler’s overall disinterest in the day to day activities of the government, coupled with his delegation of power to his subordinates and the complete lack of any ability of any structure of oversight within Germany was a recipe for corruption, and it would be present at all levels of government. The problems started right at the time, Hitler was very cavalier with public money, often throwing vast sums of money at various ideas and projects with little further oversight on what was actually accomplished with that money. Many leading figures within the government would also draw a large salary, and also pay essentially no taxes on that income. They also held much of the decision making power, and they were showed with gifts off all kinds to basically just buy decisions. This is one of the reasons that many Nazi officials would live in incredible luxury even into the war years. Hitler did not really care, all he wanted was for his power to not be questioned and for the changes that he was trying to make to German society to be carried out.
While those within the government were making the changes that Hitler wished for them to make, two groups that would go on to form such critical pieces of the Nazi regime would be created or expanded during the first few years of the Third Reich. One of these was of course the Gestapo. One of the reasons that this group was created is related to the Reichstag Fire. When the trial occurred for those accused of starting the fire, 3 out of the four people charged were acquitted due to lack of evidence, only the Dutchman van der Lubbe, would be found guilty, and probably only because he confessed. Hitler and Goering were not huge fans of this development and this anger would be one of the reasons for the creation of the Gestapo. The critical feature of the Gestapo was that in 1935 the Prussian Supreme Court of Administration, obviously influenced by the Nazi leaders, ruled that actions of the Gestapo were not subject to judicial review. Basically, this put the Gestapo outside the law. This would later be made official for all of Germany on February 10th, 1936 when a new law officially made the Gestapo above the law, and that its activities could not be interfered with by the courts. Have a group of secret police that was not accountable to anyone was obviously very useful for the government, but was of course disastrous for any kind of civil liberties in Germany. Through their actions the Gestapo would purposefully cause fear among the German populace, choosing to to example arrest people from their houses in the early morning hours to maximize the amount of uncertainty in any German’s mind. In such an environment fear of the government and fear of what the Gestapo could be watching or who would tell the Gestapo something, ran rampant throughout society. The Gestapo knew this and fostered and fed that fear, they along with the Security Service or SD, used tens of thousands of informants that were just normal people within communities, but they were also tasked with reporting on all activities. This caused paranoia for many Germans, and with no way of holding groups like the Gestapo accountable, it was often felt that there was nothing that could be done other than to try and stay on the good side of the government and the Party.
The other group that would really assert itself during this period was the SS, the group that would take over much of position that the SA had formerly occupied. This organization, under the leadership of Heinrich Himmler would, for example, take over control of the concentration camps, which had previously been mostly controlled by a mixture of SA, Gestapo, and local police. It was under Himmler’s leadership that these camps were transitioned from the haphazard and disorganized set of camps to the organized and efficient installations that they would later become. During this process the number of camps was actually reduced, down to just five camps that would still be open and operating during the summer of 1935. Along with this the number of prisoners would also drop to just 4,000. Remember, during these early years people often cycled in and then out of the concentration camps pretty quickly, and the pool of those at risk of being detained was exhausted. It was also during this period that the future of the camps was somewhat uncertain, and it was not completely clear if they would be used in the future. This began to shift in 1937 when there were serious efforts not to finalize the closure of the camps but instead to one again fill them with people. Himmler would set the number at 20,000; 2,000 prisoners that he wanted in the camps, and for the most part he just expected the SS to find people doing things wrong to fill them. This was generally done by performing sweeps in cities, rounding up the homeless, prostitutes, drunks, and other social misfits. This would not be the first or last time that the SS just found people to arrest, for example the SS would at times detain rich individuals in concentration camps, extort money from them, and only then release them. After 1937 the population in the camps would rise, and new camps would begin to be created with Sachsenhausen in 1936, Buchenwald in 1937, and others being established during this time as well.
One of the criteria that was used by the Gestapo or the SS to determine who might be worth detaining or questioning were those that did not display sufficient amounts of enthusiasm for the nation or the party. The people would be provided with many more opportunities to display this enthusiasm due to the use of public holidays and celebrations in the Third Reich which were designed to publicly show and celebrate the power and influence of the government. This included more trips to the voting booth as well, like in November 1933. These elections were, lets call them interesting, because there was only one political party allowed in Germany, the Nazi Party. This meant that the German people were either voting for the slate of Nazi candidates, or for nobody. 93 percent of all ballots were counted as a “yes” vote for the Nazi party, but as with other elections after 1933 the results were heavily biased, with ballot rejection and vote rigging a frequent occurrence. There was also all of the social pressure aspects that were present in the referendum after Hindenburg’s death. Along with elections of dubious validity, the Nazi party would fill the calendar with national political events. This came in many forms: parades, charity drives, relief programs, and of course political rallies. Even those activities which theoretically helped certain sectors of German society were not necessarily put in place to help those people, but instead simply to constantly mobilize the public with party approved activities. The goal was to make conformance to regime suggested actions and requests part of the norm. There were also many other public mass spectacles, like the anniversary of Hitler’s appointment of chancellor on January 30th, the founding of the party on February 24th, National Hero’s day in March, the swearing in of Hitler Youth members in March, which of course involved speeches and parades all over Germany, then on April 20th Hitler’s birthday, in the fall the party rally at Nuremberg, Harvest festivals, and anniversary celebrations of the Beer Hall Putsch. All of these were put in place to remind the German people that the Nazi party and Germany was important, powerful, and should be celebrated. They were more than anything else propaganda events, and every parade, rally, speech, and event was simply a reminder of the Nazi Party and its new place within society. The list of events goes on and on, and all of them culminated in the Nuremberg Rally in early September.
Starting in 1933 the largest and most important of these events were the Nuremberg rallies, which were held over the course of a week in September. The event took over the entire city and hundreds of thousands of participants would flood in from all over Germany. Special trains and buses were setup to facilitate the transportation of the visitors and behind the scenes there were all kinds of less flashy logistical preparations: field kitchens hygiene facilities, and everything else required to support a mass of people for a week. The schedule was full of speeches, parades, rallies, and other events that would occur over the course of the week. Rally grounds were built on the outskirts of the city to handle this massive influx of people, but Hitler was of course not happy with just simple parade grounds, and he would commission Albert Speer to create a massive complex to hold the rallies. Eventually, this complex was planned to have multiple arenas, parade grounds, meeting halls and stadiums. One some of these structures were actually finished before the war, with Zeppelin Field being the most impressive, capable of holding over 200,000 people both on the field and on earthen embankments. The money and resources were poured into these construction projects to produce awe inspiring results, and seeing hundreds of thousands of SS, Hitler Youth, and other party members flood into these massive fields and parades was certainly awe inspiring, so I guess mission accomplished. These were once again designed to display to everyone how strong the party was, or at least how strong it appeared to be.
While all of these events and holidays were growing in size and scope after 1933 and while the Gestapo and SS were established and grew in strength, for many Germans massive changes to society were not immediately apparent. There were a few more public holidays, but the Gestapo and SS, at least initially, did not effect most Germans. All that was readily apparent to most citizens was that the street violence and political clashes that had become so common place in earlier years were no longer occurring. This was very appealing to many people who had seen Germany split apart by such events, and their disappearance was seen as a huge victory for the new regime. For the party this was once again going exactly to plan, and by solving some of the things that many Germans saw as problematic, when combined with the propaganda produced by the regime, caused the support the regime to increase. This support would then be used to start putting in place the wide ranging societal changes that were the long term goals of Nazi policies, changes that we will discuss next episode.