The Führer Myth How Hitler Won Over the German People

By Ian Kershaw

Part 3: Vast Approval for Hitler's Iron Fist


The withdrawal from the League of Nations in 1933, the Saar plebiscite in 1935, the re-introduction of compulsory military service and announcement of a big new Wehrmacht the same year, the re-militarization of the Rhineland in 1936 and the "Anschluss" or annexation of Austria two years later were all seen as huge national triumphs, openly demonstrating the weakness of the western powers which had lorded it over Germany since the war, and a feat -- unimaginable only a few years earlier -- solely possible through Hitler's "genius" as a statesman. Even oppositional circles were forced to concede this, as a Sopade report on the reactions to the introduction of the military conscription in March 1935 illustrates:

"Enormous enthusiasm on March 17. All of Munich was out on the streets. You can force a people to sing, but you can't force them to sing with that kind of enthusiasm. I experienced the days of 1914 and I can only say, that the declaration of war didn’t make the same impression on me as the reception for Hitler on March 17. … The trust in Hitler's political talent and honest will is becoming greater, as Hitler has increasingly gained ground amongst the people. He is loved by many."

The Sudetenland crisis in the summer of 1938, as the threat of war loomed ever larger, posed the first significant challenge to the image, which Hitler had earlier sought to cultivate, of the fanatical defender of Germany's rights who had restored his country's standing in the world but had striven to avoid bloodshed. The western powers then, at Munich at the end of September, allowed Hitler one final great triumph in foreign policy -- even if it was one which, inwardly, he resented, since he had been set on war over Czechoslovakia.

The resignation, rather than enthusiasm, that greeted war when it finally arrived in September 1939 again shows that Hitler had extended his popular support during the Third Reich's peacetime years on a false prospectus. Most people wanted the preservation of peace. Hitler had sought war. He effectively admitted the need to mislead the public in a confidential address to representatives of the German press in November 1938, when he remarked:

Unlimited German Conquest

"Circumstances have forced me to almost only speak of peace for decades. It was only through the continued emphasis on the German desire for peace and peaceful intentions that it was possible to give the German people the arms that were always a requirement for the next step."

For the vast majority of Germans, the restoration of national pride and military strength, the overthrowing of the Versailles Treaty and the expansion of the Reich to incorporate ethnic Germans from Austria and the Sudetenland were goals in themselves. Most could not, or would not, comprehend, that for Hitler and the Nazi leadership they were the prelude to a war of unlimited German conquest.

In addition to his presumed achievements in bolstering Germany's external standing, Hitler unquestionably won much support through what was taken to be the restoration of "order" at home. Nazi propaganda had been influential in the last, crisis-ridden years of the Weimar Republic, in instilling in much of the population an exaggerated image of criminality, decadence, social disorder and violence (much of which the Nazis themselves had instigated). Once in power, Hitler had much to gain through seeming to represent "people's justice," and the "wholesome national sensibility." His public image was that of the upholder of public morality who would clamp down, wherever he encountered it, on those posing a threat to law and order.

At the end of June 1934, Hitler took what many thought was ruthless but necessary action to crush the leadership of the SA, an increasingly unpopular sector of his own Movement. In his Reichstag speech of 13 July 1934, Hitler took personal responsibility for the murders that had taken place. What had in reality been a brutal, Machiavellian power-political coup was portrayed as a necessary move to crush an imminent internal threat to the nation and to root out corruption and immorality. Hitler emphasized the homosexuality, loose living and extravagant life-style of Ernst Röhm and other SA leaders. Playing on existing, commonly-held prejudice, he was able to override any adherence to fundamental legal principles by claiming to have acted in the national interest as the highest judge of the German people.

Upswing in Support

Instead of condemnation for his authorization of mass murder, he reaped extensive approval for appearing to have acted ruthlessly to eradicate the evils and misdeeds that endangered the nation. "Through his energetic actions the Führer has hugely won over the broad masses, particularly those who had still reacted hesitantly to the Movement; he is not only admired, he is idolized," was the verdict in one confidential report from within the lower levels of the regime's bureaucracy. Many other reports echoed the same sentiments. Reports filtering out of Social Democrat oppositional circles -- whose main thrust was, naturally, criticism of the regime -- acknowledged the upswing in support for Hitler.

According to one report from Bavaria: "In general, it has unfortunately become clear that the people don't think politically. They think, 'now Hitler has created order, now things will go forward -- the saboteurs who sought to hinder his work have been destroyed.'" A report from Berlin added: "Hitler's authority is strengthened in the widest circles. Increasingly, one hears people saying: 'Hitler is cracking down.'"

The view that Hitler had brought order to Germany was one that persisted well into the postwar era. That, despite "mistakes" (presumably those which had brought his country's ruination through war, and death and destruction to millions) he had "cleaned up" Germany, putting an end to disorder, stamping out criminality, making the streets safe to walk again at night, and improving moral standards, belonged -- together with the credit for eradicating mass unemployment and building the motorways -- to the lasting elements of the Führer Myth.

Alongside economic recovery, rebuilding military strength and restoring "order," Hitler gained support by personifying the "positive" values invested in national unity and the "Volksgemeinschaft" or national community. Propaganda incessantly depicted him as the stern but understanding paterfamilias, prepared to sacrifice normal human contentments and to work day and night for no other end than the good of his people. Whatever the frequent criticism of his underlings and the negative image of the "little Hitlers" -- the Party functionaries whom people daily encountered and often found wanting -- Hitler himself was widely perceived as standing aloof from sectional interests and material concerns, his selflessness contrasting with the greed and corruption of the Party big-wigs.

Goebbels' published ritual incantations to "our Hitler" each year on his birthday, and the popular photographic books mass produced by Heinrich Hoffmann (each selling in huge numbers) which seemingly revealed the "private" Hitler -- "The Hitler Nobody Knows" (1932), "Youth Around Hitler“ (1934), "Hitler in his Mountains" (1935) and "Hitler Off Duty“ (1937) -- all aimed to highlight the "human" side of the Führer and show that his "heroic" qualities arose from the very fact that he was a "man of the people."

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