Harnessing Anarchy for Hitler The Nazis' Bid to Control Carnival

Germany's Carnival is an expression of anarchic fun and mockery of those in power. Yet the Nazis sought to harness the potential of the festivities for their own ends. Anti-Semitic floats and speeches attacking Germany's enemies were commonplace, and defiance was rare.

An anti-Semitic float from 1934 in Cologne: The Nazis had a bigger influence on Germany's Carnival than is widely believed.
NS-Dokumentationszentrum Köln

An anti-Semitic float from 1934 in Cologne: The Nazis had a bigger influence on Germany's Carnival than is widely believed.

By Siobhán Dowling


It was Rose Monday in the German city of Cologne and the festivities for the 1934 Carnival were well underway. Of the many floats taking part in the traditional parade, one featured a group of men dressed up as orthodox Jews. The banner above them read "The Last Ones Are Leaving." This was, after all, Carnival under the Third Reich.

The float was one of the many expressions of anti-Semitism marking the German Carnival season during the years leading up to World War II. Another float from 1935 seems a terrible harbinger of the Holocaust to come. In Nuremberg, where the infamous anti-Semitic race laws would be introduced later that year, a papier-mâché figure of a Jew hung from a bar on a model mill as if on a gallows.

Yet until recently, it has been almost taboo to speak about Germany's Carnival and the Nazis in the same breath. Carnival, the pre-Lent festival celebrated in the predominantly Catholic west and south of Germany, displays the cheerful, humorous, raucous side of Germany. Nothing could seem further removed from the horrors perpetrated by Hitler's regime.

Photo Gallery

8  Photos
Photo Gallery: Carnival in the Third Reich

Yet, the Nazis "quickly realized the potential of Carnival," says journalist and historian Carl Dietmar. He and fellow historian Marcus Leifeld have shed a spotlight on this aspect of Nazi Germany in their new book "Alaaf and Heil Hitler: Carnival in the Third Reich." Trawling the carnival organizations' own archives, they have uncovered the extent to which the Nazis managed to exert control over the festival.

'Suprisingly Heterogenous'

The Nazis saw that the tradition of Carnival could be used to portray their notions of the German Volk or nation. Yet its anarchic fun and potential to mock those in power was something they sought to strictly control. Right from the beginning of the Nazi regime in 1933, there were orders not to mention Hitler during the festivities. And the many officials charged with putting on the festival -- the presidents of the committees, the so-called Büttenredner (carnival speakers) and those designing the floats -- were all careful to obey that order.

On the whole, the Nazification of the tradition was a gradual and incomplete process. The question of just how Nazified Carnival became varied from club to club and town to town. "It is surprising how heterogeneous it was," Leifeld told SPIEGEL ONLINE. Those in charge of Carnival reflected the wider society: There were convinced Nazis and people who just went along with things. There were also disputes within the clubs, though they rarely reflected any fundamental questioning of the Nazi ideology; mostly they were disagreements on how much tradition should be kept and how far things should be changed to reflect the new era.

The authors also debunk a long-cherished myth that in Cologne, carnival organizers had somehow resisted being taken over by the Nazis. The infamous Narrenrevolte ("Jesters' Revolt") of 1935, which saw the local committee refusing to be taken over by the Nazi leisure organization Kraft durch Freude, was merely a way of holding onto power and to the sizeable profits that accrued during the festival, Dietmar told SPIEGEL ONLINE. Similarly, the president of the Cologne Carnival committee had been a member of the Nazi party since 1932 -- but that didn't prevent him from returning to the helm of organizing the annual event after World War II.

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