The Führer Myth: How Hitler Won Over the German People

By Ian Kershaw

There were still many Germans who were skeptical of Hitler when he became chancellor in 1933. But Führer propaganda and military success soon turned him into an idol. The adulation helped make the Third Reich catastrophe possible.

"Today Hitler Is All of Germany." The newspaper headline on Aug. 4, 1934 reflected the vital shift in power that had just taken place. Two days earlier, on the death of Reich President Paul von Hindenburg, Hitler had lost no time in abolishing the Reich Presidency and having the army swear a personal oath of unconditional obedience to him as "the Führer of the German Reich and People." He was now head of state and supreme commander of the armed forces, as well as head of government and of the monopoly party, the NSDAP. Hitler had total power in Germany, unrestricted by any constitutional constraints. The headline implied even more, however, than the major change in the constellation of power. It suggested an identity of Hitler and the country he ruled, signifying a complete bond between the German people and Hitler.

The referendum that followed on 19 August 1934, to legitimize the power-political change that had occurred, aimed at demonstrating this identity. "Hitler for Germany -- all of Germany of Hitler" ran the slogan. As the result showed, however, reality lagged behind propaganda. According to the official figures, over a sixth of voters defied the intense pressure to conform and did not vote "yes." In some big working-class areas of Germany, up to a third had not given Hitler their vote. Even so, there were one or two tantalizing hints that Hitler's personal appeal outstripped that of the Nazi regime itself, and even more so of the Party. "For Adolf Hitler yes, but a thousand times no to the brown big-wigs" was scribbled on one ballot-paper in Potsdam. The same sentiment could be heard elsewhere.

Beneath the veneer of Führer adulation constantly trumpeted by the uniform propaganda of the mass media, there are numerous indicators that Hitler's appeal remained far less than total, even in what later memory often recalled as the "good years" of the mid-1930s. One example of strong criticism leveled at Hitler can be seen in a report from the Gestapo in Berlin in March 1936. Hitler's toleration of the corruption and luxury life-style of the Party big-wigs at a time when poor living standards still afflicted most ordinary Germans was, the report noted, heavily criticized. "Why does the Führer put up with that?" was a question on many people's lips, noted the report, and it was evident "the trust of the people in the personality of the Führer is currently undergoing a crisis."

Forgotten in Euphoria

One day after this report was submitted, however, German troops marched into the demilitarized zone of the Rhineland. In a spectacular move that fully exposed the weakness of the western democracies, Hitler could celebrate his greatest triumph in foreign policy to date. The domestic problems of previous months -- shortage of foodstuffs, high prices, low wages and, in Catholic areas, much antagonism towards the regime over the struggle between the church and state were temporarily forgotten in the euphoria.

The dramatic rise of the Nazis.
SPIEGEL ONLINE

The dramatic rise of the Nazis.

Despite the absurdity of the "election" result at the end of the month, when -- amid ballot-rigging, electoral manipulation and intense propaganda to conform -- according to the official figures 98.9 per cent voted "for the list and thus for the Führer," the re-militarization of the Rhineland was unquestionably a hugely popular move, and one widely attributed to Hitler's bold and skilful leadership. Much suggests, in fact, that between the death of Hindenburg in August 1934 and the expansion into Austria and the Sudetenland four years later Hitler was indeed successful in gaining the backing of the vast majority of the German people, something of immeasurable importance for the disastrous course of German policy ahead. Apart perhaps from the immediate aftermath of the astonishing victory in France in summer 1940, Hitler's popularity was never higher than at the height of his foreign-policy successes in 1938.

Sebastian Haffner plausibly reckoned that Hitler had succeeded by 1938 in winning the support of "the great majority of that majority who had voted against him in 1933." Indeed Haffner thought that by then Hitler had united almost the entire German people behind him, that more than 90 percent of Germans were by that time "believers in the Führer." In the absence of any genuine test of opinion, and in conditions of intimidation and repression for those who might dare to challenge official propaganda, when the only public opinion which existed was that of the regime's agencies, such a figure can only be guesswork, and is probably too high. At the same time, it seems hard to deny that the regime had won much support since 1933, and that this owed much to the perceived personal "achievements" of Hitler. The personalized focus of the regime's "successes" reflected the ceaseless efforts of propaganda, which had been consciously directed to creating and building up the "heroic" image of Hitler as a towering genius, to the extent that Joseph Goebbels could in 1941 with some justification claim the creation of the Führer Myth to have been his greatest propaganda achievement.

The propaganda image was never better summarized than by Hitler himself in his Reichstag speech of 28 April 1939 (which Haffner also cited):

'By My Own Efforts'

"I overcame chaos in Germany, restored order, enormously raised production in all fields of our national economy...I succeeded in completely resettling in useful production those 7 million unemployed who so touched our hearts...I have not only politically united the German nation but also rearmed it militarily, and I have further tried to liquidate that Treaty sheet by sheet whose 448 Articles contain the vilest rape that nations and human beings have ever been expected to submit to. I have restored to the Reich the provinces grabbed from us in 1919; I have led millions of deeply unhappy Germans, who have been snatched away from us, back into the Fatherland; I have restored the thousand-year-old historical unity of German living space; and I have attempted to accomplish all that without shedding blood and without inflicting the sufferings of war on my people or any other. I have accomplished all this, as one who 21 years ago was still an unknown worker and soldier of my people, by my own efforts..."

Hitler enjoyed widespread support in Germany.
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Hitler enjoyed widespread support in Germany.

The claim that the change in Germany's fortunes had been achieved single-handedly was, of course, absurd. Fascinating, nevertheless, in this litany of what most ordinary Germans at the time could only have seen as astonishing personal successes of the Führer, is that they represented national "attainments" rather than reflecting central tenets of Hitler's own Weltanschauung. There was not a word in this passage of the pathological obsession with "removing" the Jews, or of the need for war to acquire living space. Restoration of order, rebuilding the economy, removal of the scourge of unemployment, demolition of the restrictions of the hated Versailles Treaty, and the establishment of national unity all had wide popular resonance, ranging far beyond die-hard Nazis, appealing in fact in different ways to practically every sector of society. Opinion surveys long after the end of the Second World War show that many people, even then, continued to associate these "achievements" positively with Hitler.

Compared with the state of Germany six years earlier, it was hard for those listening to Hitler's 1939 speech, even many who had earlier opposed the Nazis, not to admit that Hitler had accomplished something extraordinary. Few were clear-sighted or willing enough to analyze what lay behind the "achievements," to reject the gross inhumanity on which Germany's rebuilding had been founded, to perceive the undermining of governmental structures and ruination of Reich finances that was taking place, above all, to comprehend the colossal risks for the country's very existence involved in the regime's course of action. And few were in any position to contradict the fundamental lie in the claim that Hitler had constantly endeavored to avoid bloodshed and to spare his people (and others) the suffering of war. What for most Germans in spring 1939 were aims in themselves, which Hitler appeared triumphantly to have accomplished, were for Nazi leaders merely the platform for the war of racial-imperialist conquest which they were preparing to fight.

But, however false their underlying basis, the claims in this speech point to areas of great success in winning over the mass of the population to support for Hitler. With all the caveats that are necessary for generalizations about approval, where those disapproving were mainly forced into silence, it is surely not mistaken to speak of a wide-ranging consensus which the integrative force of the Hitler Myth had cemented during the peace-time years of the dictatorship.

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