The Führer Myth How Hitler Won Over the German People
Part 2: Fertile Terrain Prepared the Way
It was a manufactured consensus, a propaganda construct, with repression of political opponents, "racial enemies" and other outsiders to the proclaimed "national community" as the other side of the coin. The "superman" image of Hitler amounted to the central component of the fabrication. Already before the "takeover of power" it had been the creation of the most modern, hugely successful, political "marketing" strategy of its time, masterminded by Goebbels. And once the monopoly of state control of propaganda fell into Nazi hands in 1933, there was no obstacle in the mass media to the rapid spread of Hitler's "charismatic" appeal.
But even the slick and sophisticated techniques behind the creation of the Führer Myth would have been ineffective, had not fertile terrain been prepared long before Hitler became Reich Chancellor. Expectations of national salvation were by 1933 widespread, not just among Nazi supporters, and had already become vested in the person of Hitler. By the time that he took power, over 13 million voters had at least partially swallowed the Führer cult, which was more fully embraced by the huge (if fluctuating) mass membership of the Party and its myriad subordinate affiliations. The organizational basis was therefore laid for the wider transmission of the Führer cult.
Given the failure of Weimar democracy and the crisis conditions in which the Hitler government came to power, it was clear that if the new Reich Chancellor could swiftly attain some successes, he would substantially increase his popularity. The scope for the rapid widening of the adulation of Hitler, the winning of "the majority of the majority" who had not voted for him in March 1933 had been laid. The speed with which the Hitler cult now spread has to be seen from this background, as well as from the masterly deployment of propaganda imagery.
There were a number of crucial areas where Hitler could win great support by acting in what seemed to be the national, not partisan party-political, interest, and through converting his image from that of Party to national leader. Even his opponents recognized the growth of his popularity. The exiled Social Democratic organization, the Sopade, based in Prague, acknowledged in April 1938 the widely-held view it had repeatedly echoed, "that Hitler could count on the agreement of the majority of the people on two essential points: 1) he had created jobs and 2) he had made Germany strong."
Readily Accepted the Acclaim
In the early years of the Third Reich, most people sensed that after the dismal years of hopelessness there was new direction, energy, and dynamism. There was a widespread feeling that finally a government was doing something to get Germany back on her feet. Of course, Hitler, whose knowledge of economics was primitive, had not personally guided the economic recovery in the early years of the Third Reich. The reasons for the rapid revival were complex and varied. If any single individual could be said to have masterminded the recovery, then it was Hjalmar Schacht, President of the Reichsbank and Reich Minister of Economics. Hitler's contribution was above all to alter the climate, to build an air of confidence that Germany was being revitalized. But propaganda portrayed the economic upturn as Hitler's own achievement. He readily accepted the acclaim, and most people thought it was warranted.
It was the first major step towards winning over those who had not supported him in 1933. It seemed undeniable: while other European countries (and America) still suffered drastically from mass unemployment, Hitler had removed the scourge from Germany and ushered in a kind of "economic miracle". A Sopade report from the Ruhrgebiet in late summer 1934 acknowledged that even "the neutral labor force" largely believed in Hitler, adding: "The 'work creation' by which the unemployed had landed in jobs, even if badly paid ones, has greatly impressed them. They believe that Hitler's 'quick decision-making' will lead him one day, if he is 'properly informed,' to change taxes in their favor." On a clandestine visit to Germany from his Norwegian exile in the second half of 1936, Willi Brandt, no less, admitted much the same: that providing work had won the regime support even among those who had once voted for the Left.
Left a Lasting Mark
By 1936, there was full employment. Of course, by now, rearmament, containing grave dangers for the future, was driving the labor market. But few Germans worried much about where the opportunities were work came from. The fact was, where in the past there had been immense misery through mass unemployment, there was now work. That was seen as largely Hitler's personal achievement. And if image differed from reality, it was the image that left the lasting mark.
That Hitler had rid Germany of mass unemployment and rescued the country from the depths of the depression was seen by many Germans long after the war as a major achievement, whatever disasters had later followed. Good living conditions and full employment were among the positive attributes of Hitler recorded in opinion surveys in the American occupied zone in the late 1940s, while a sample of young Germans in north Germany around a decade later thought Hitler had done much good in abolishing unemployment. As late as the 1970s, Ruhr workers still had positive memories of the peacetime years of the Third Reich, which they associated with full employment and the pleasures of excursions with the Nazi leisure organization, "Kraft durch Freude," or Strength Through Joy.
The second point singled out by the Sopade as the basis of Hitler's support was without doubt a key factor. Hitler never ceased to hammer home the humiliation Germany had suffered in defeat in 1918 -- allegedly the work of the "November criminals" -- and in the Treaty of Versailles signed the following year. The detestation of the Treaty and its perceived unfairness crossed the political spectrum in Germany. The reduction of the army to a mere 100,000 men was the lasting manifestation of national weakness. The bold moves in foreign policy that Hitler undertook to overthrow the shackles of Versailles and reassert Germany's national strength and prestige were, therefore, guaranteed massive popular support as long as they could be accomplished without bloodshed.