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    M. Steber, B. Gotto (ed.), Visions of Community in Nazi Germany (Jill Stephenson)

    Francia-Recensio 2015/3 19./20. Jahrhundert – Histoire contemporaine

    Martina Steber, Bernhard Gotto (ed.), Visions of Community in Nazi Germany. Social Engineering and Private Lives, Oxford (Oxford University Press) 2014, XX–336 p., ISBN 978-0-19-968959-0, GBP 65,00.

    rezensiert von/compte rendu rédigé par

    Jill Stephenson, Edinburgh

    This collection of essays derives from a conference on the Volksgemeinschaft(national community) held at the German Historical Institute London in March 2010. It comprises some of the conference papers written up for publication, along with other essays which did not figure at the conference. Ian Kershaw’s very welcome paper had already been published elsewhere. The conference was inspired by the then recent findings of Michael Wildt, who did not attend but who has contributed to this volume. The essays in the book are of a high standard, and each is worth reading in its own right. Yet the book, like the conference, is merely the sum of its parts. There is some agreement about what the Volksgemeinschaftwas and/or aspired to be, but few essays can genuinely demonstrate that, as an idea and a motivating force, it penetrated the consciousness of the mass of Germans. Most authors are magnetically drawn to a ‘top-down’ approach, with the regime – often through the medium of the NSDAP – trying to mould the population to its own ideals.

    The editors detail the parameters of the concept and its practice in an exhaustive introduction. Volksgemeinschaftwas »a social promise … encompass[ing] both a social utopia and precise instructions for realising it«(p. 2). The Volksgemeinschaftidea, and its realisation in practice, was dynamic, not static, as »individuals vied with each other to serve the new ideal«(p. 7). Yet virtually the only evidence presented to sustain this claim comes from examples of actions by NSDAP functionaries, rather than ordinary citizens. This is a constant motif throughout the book. Examples of activism to promote the Volksgemeinschafton the part of ordinary Germans are few and far between. Nevertheless, this volume derives from the belief among some historians that Volksgemeinschaftcan provide an explanatory framework for the entire social history of Nazi Germany. The editors endeavour to refute criticisms that have been made of this approach, only partially successfully.

    The essays that follow are bookended by two excellent contributions, those by Ian Kershaw and Richard Bessel. Both are sceptical about the ways in which the term Volksgemeinschaftis now being deployed – as a »blanket application to explain developments that need demonstration, not simple assertion, of the importance of the Volksgemeinschaft«(Kershaw, p. 37). Bessel asks the 64 000 USD question: about whether, looking back from 1945, the Volksgemeinschaft»had been more than a collection of propaganda phrases that spurred Germans to take advantage of fortuitous circumstances and do what they found easy to do« (p. 288). In his view, it certainly had little application in 1945. Kershaw pertinently asks: »Rather than simply resort to a Nazi propaganda term to generalise about consensus, would it not be better to aim for a more balanced assessment of where the regime appears to have had popular support and where it was less forthcoming?« (p. 38).

    Michael Wildt’s essay is somewhat subdued, given his previous claims that Volksgemeinschaftwas about the ‘self-empowerment’ of Germans through committing antisemitic violence1.This assertion hangs over the collection like a ghost at a feast. Wildt does say that »the concept of the Volksgemeinschaftdrew its political power not from a social reality achieved, but rather from its promise, and the mobilisation it inspired«(p. 49). This »mobilisation«meant violence against Jews on the part of ordinary Germans. Yet Wildt produces no evidence to suggest that such violence was a private initiative by such people, rather than being at the instigation of the NSDAP and its formations. Certainly, Nazi mass organisations eventually had a mass membership. But many of the members joined as the price of demonstrating »political reliability«without their having to make much further effort. Like Armin Nolzen in his essay on the NSDAP, Wildt assumes that functionaries had one function, whereas many Nazi low-level leaders tried to hold down anything up to half a dozen different posts as functionaries. My own research on Württemberg demonstrates this. Thus, fewer individuals were functionaries than appears from a mere head count of offices.

    Lutz Raphael is concerned with the Weltanschauungand its diffusion. Once again, this becomes a top-down exercise, with many »political leaders« either not undergoing an ideological training course or else not completing one. The area of success was the SS, which was scarcely representative of the population as a whole. »Political education and ideological training played a part in the regime’s power structures, but outside the SS they were never fully realised and influenced only a minority of Party leaders and office holders«(p. 84).

    There are valuable contributions from Birthe Kundrus on the consumer society, Frank Bajohr on examples of some who accommodated themselves to Nazi demands for reasons of personal advantage, and Rüdiger Hachtmann on the values of gentlemen’s clubs, where »partial disagreement with Nazi ideology and the Volksgemeinschaftconcept failed to impair the enthusiastic self-mobilisation of the old elites in support of the new regime«(p. 212). Jane Caplan provides a fascinating insight into the ways in which relatively minor officials, the civil registrars, recorded the personal details of citizens which determined their (racial) place in Nazi society, not once but at various stages during their lives. Willi Oberkrome describes the well-known problems of agrarian society and that same society’s reluctance to embrace Nazi norms: »plans for a progressive, normatively goal-oriented, and rabidly rationalised Volksgemeinschafthad little impact as confessional ties persisted and all efforts to draw a socially engineered peasantry out of the Nazi font eventually petered out« (p. 278–279).

    Some aspects of the themes set out by the editors are ventilated to good effect, but some authors spoil the effect by making a grand claim too far. One such is Thomas Scharschmidt, who shows how Gauleiters[sic – throughout] tried to mobilise their populations for Nazi purposes, not least in wartime, concluding that »they deployed propaganda persuasively enough to transform German society into a reliable and disciplined Volksgemeinschaft, a solid bloc behind the Führer«(p. 115). This is not what his material, for example about evacuees, demonstrates. Nor does the »solid bloc« idea map onto the other essays in this collection.

    The book as a whole is well worth reading, with much enlightening detail and interesting ideas. But the practical application of the Volksgemeinschaftas a model for German society in the Nazi years remains elusive.

    1 Michael Wildt, Volksgemeinschaft als Selbstermächtigung. Gewalt gegen Juden in der deutschen Provinz 1919 bis 1939, Hamburg 2007.

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    PSJ Metadata
    Jill Stephenson
    Deutsches Historisches Institut Paris
    Visions of Community in Nazi Germany
    Social Engineering and Private Lives
    CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0
    Zeitgeschichte (1918-1945)
    Deutschland / Mitteleuropa allgemein
    Sozial- und Kulturgeschichte
    1930 - 1939, 1940 - 1949
    Drittes Reich (4013021-6), Volksgemeinschaft (4273270-0), Deutschland (4011882-4)
    PDF document steber_stephenson.doc.pdf — PDF document, 339 KB
    M. Steber, B. Gotto (ed.), Visions of Community in Nazi Germany (Jill Stephenson)
    In: Francia-Recensio 2015/3 | 19./20. Jahrhundert – Histoire contemporaine | ISSN: 2425-3510
    URL: https://prae.perspectivia.net/publikationen/francia/francia-recensio/2015-3/zg/steber_stephenson
    Veröffentlicht am: 11.09.2015 16:53
    Zugriff vom: 27.01.2020 00:39
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