Historian Q & A
Martin Kitchen is professor emeritus of history at Simon Fraser University and an internationally recognized expert on German and Austrian military and economic history. His many books include Nazi Germany: A Critical Introduction (Tempus, 2004), The Cambridge Illustrated History of Germany (Cambridge University Press, 1996), and Nazi Germany at War (Longman, 1995).
Here he answers questions on Joseph Goebbels, the Third Reich, and America.
How did Joseph Goebbels contribute to the success of the Nazi Party?
Goebbels was a vital part of the Nazi Party, its leading propagandist. He controlled the press and the arts, including the film industry. He was clearly a key figure.
On the other hand, one has to consider how far his propaganda came across. As the war turned bad for the Germans after December of 1941, it became increasingly difficult for many people to believe what Goebbels was saying. His radio addresses were popularly called "Little Clubfoot's Fairy Tale Hour". His speeches were boring and repetitive, enlivened by occasional rhetorical flourishes. There were a substantial number of people who simply did not believe what he was saying.
He also knew that people wanted to be entertained and not harangued. Propaganda had to be subtly packaged if it were to be digestible. This caused Adolf Hitler to complain bitterly that German culture under Goebbels' aegis was not nearly National Socialist enough and that the Propaganda Minister was more concerned with box office returns than with ideology. And of course, the effectiveness of propaganda is very difficult to assess.
Why did the German people support the Nazis?
The fundamental reason was that the regime was astonishingly successful on all fronts until Hitler decided to attack the Soviet Union. Without such success no amount of propaganda, however skillful, would have been effective.
Goebbels' major contribution was to introduce what the German-Jewish philology professor Victor Klemperer, who survived under the Nazis in Dresden, called "Lingua Tertii Imperii -- The Language of the Third Reich," in which common words took on new meanings. This enabled people to accept certain aspects of Nazi policy, particularly anti-Semitism, in a way that they previously wouldn't have done, because they learned to think and speak in a different language.
Take for example the different words used to describe how the Nazis intended to deal with the "Jewish problem": "removal", "resettlement", "evacuation", "final solution", "eradication", "annihilation". Most of these words are imprecise and their real meaning changed until they all finally meant "murder". Endless repetitions, euphemisms and shifting meanings became internalized, lowered the threshold of acceptance, and individuals treated with indifference what they would have previously found morally questionable. As Schiller wrote: this was a new vocabulary that insidiously became "a language that writes and thinks on your behalf."
In part this is due to peculiarities of the German language. Hitler was always described as the Führer, a word that has many meanings in German. "Leader" is the best-known, but it also means "guide", or simply "person in charge."
"Faith" was the key word in the creation of the Hitler myth. As he himself said: "All certainty comes from faith". A faith that he contrasted to "sterile intelligence." He insisted that "feelings have to take the place of thinking." The amazing thing is the number of people who had an absolute faith in Hitler. As Goebbels said in 1944: "We do not need to know what the Führer is going to do -- we believe in him." Even after the war, there were people who said they still believed in Hitler. It was a kind of religious fervor that had nothing to do with the realities of the war situation itself. Hitler constantly talked about will. His attitude was, if you will it, you can do it. This was part of his appeal. People saw him as a strong figure, a man of destiny, able to convey the absolute conviction that he was correct. He had a mission and a will to fulfill it.
Even when things were completely over for Germany, people continued to follow Hitler. He introduced the V weapons, those magic weapons that were gong to save the day. There was even a rumor that the Nazis had developed an airplane that flew so fast it had to shoot backwards so it didn't run into its own bullets. That people could believe something as idiotic as that is quite astonishing. It required blind faith.
How did Hitler consolidate his power in the 1930s?
Even in the March elections of 1933, when Hitler was already chancellor, he did not get a majority for his party. There was never a time when a majority put him into power. The process whereby he became appointed chancellor is a very complex one, due to the fact that there was a major political crisis in Germany at the time. The political system ceased to function; parliamentary democracy no longer worked. This was compounded with a major economic depression, which began in Germany in late 1928. Hitler was a master demagogue who managed to come up with a vague program, a promise of national renewal, of strength, in strict opposition to everything the discredited Weimar Republic stood for. This resulted in the Nazi Party becoming the largest single party in Germany by 1932.
Hitler actually came to power, in the last stages, as the result of an intrigue by a small group of people who were close to the president, Paul von Hindenburg. A number of influential people were looking for an authoritarian solution, an alternative to parliamentary democracy, and realized this could not be achieved without reaching a majority in the Reichstag, which was needed to change the constitution, and that this majority could not be won without bringing the Nazis into a coalition government. There were only two other Nazis in Hitler's first cabinet in 1933 and the conservatives imagined that he was under their control.
Once Hitler was chancellor, he acted to obtain more power by a process of emergency decrees. These were permitted by the president, Hindenburg, and could not be overruled because there was not a majority in the Reichstag to oppose them. In August 1934, when Hindenburg died, Hitler combined the offices of chancellor and president and pronounced himself "Führer and Chancellor." He was now an unchallenged dictator.
Why was Hitler so successful politically? How did the rest of the world view his rise?
I think Hitler's great successes were largely due to the fact that his opponents or potential opponents were pathetically weak and that the foreign powers, particularly in Europe -- France and Britain -- undertook a policy, right from the beginning, of appeasement. They felt Germany had justified grievances: against the Treaty of Versailles, for example; the reparations payments; certain restrictions on its sovereignty; and that these should be addressed.
On the other hand, there were aspects of Nazi rule, particularly in the very early stages, like 1933, that were abhorrent -- outrages against Jews, a boycott against Jewish businesses in April 1933. This caused strong reactions abroad, particularly in the United States. Hitler reacted and ended the boycott largely due to foreign pressure.
Most foreign nations saw Hitler as a strong man who was gradually turning Germany back into a powerful state with a rightful place in Europe. The economy was making an astonishing recovery, unemployment was largely overcome, and Hitler was regarded as a major statesman. He was Time Magazine's Man of the Year for 1938. He was, on the whole, admired. It was largely in left-wing and Jewish circles that there were strong criticisms of Nazi fascism, for obvious reasons. Generally speaking, foreign governments took a favorable or supine attitude toward Nazi Germany. Until it was too late.
Why did the Nazis call their government the Third Reich? What were the First and Second Reichs?
The First Reich was the Holy Roman Empire founded by Charlemagne. The Second was the empire of Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, founded in 1871. The Nazi era was seen as the Third Reich, the third empire, following on these two examples. The Nazis looked back to what they saw as the great traditions of Germany: the Germany of the great medieval emperors; the Germany of Frederick the Great, who was particularly a hero of Hitler's; the Germany of Bismarck, when Germany was the most powerful country in Europe. This was the Germany to which Hitler appealed.
The word "Reich" meaning "kingdom" also has strong religious overtones, as in "Thy kingdom come" in the Lord's Prayer.
The Nazis spoke of the "Thousand-Year Reich." This was also essentially a religious belief -- the millennium, the thousand years in which Christ will reign in person on earth. In many ways, National Socialism was kind of a secular religion; it used lots of religious images. Goebbels asked in the 1920s, when he read Hitler's Mein Kampf, "Is this man Christ, or is he just John the Baptist?" Goebbels talks about Nazism in strictly religious terms. In 1944 he said: "Now is the time to turn away from your false gods and to render homage to him." Christian religious imagery is used to describe the political process. Göring said: "All of us from the simplest SA man to the Prime Minister are of Adolf Hitler and through Adolf Hitler." And the millennium represents the idea that this was the apotheosis of German history -- in their blasphemous terms, that the kingdom had come at last.
What was the Nazi vision of national expansion?
Right from the very beginning, Hitler insisted that Germany was in desperate need of "living space" (Lebensraum) and this was a "people without space," a phrase he took from a popular novel by Hans Grimm. It was essential for Germany to find space, which in his view meant in the East, in Poland and the Soviet Union, in order for Germany to survive. His worldview was based on the twin concepts of space -- Lebensraum -- and race -- the purification of the German race. The two go hand in hand.
He wanted, like everyone else in the Weimar Republic, to overcome the Treaty of Versailles, to return to the German borders of 1913. But, unlike most Germans he felt that was not nearly enough. His one major concession was over the South Tyrol, which had been given to Italy in the peace treaties in 1919, which he argued should remain part of Italy, even though it was populated by Germans and German-speaking people. This was the price he paid to sustain an alliance with Italy. It was an unpopular decision in party circles, because it was believed that all Germans should return "home to the Reich."
Before the First World War, Germany had had a fairly substantial overseas empire, but Hitler never really had any interest in that. He believed that Germany was a continental power. His initial vision was that Germany should take over Europe and that Britain could keep its empire.
How did Nazi Germany view the U.S.A.?
The Nazi attitude toward the U.S. is very strange because it was the opposite of everything Nazism stood for -- a racial melting pot, even during times of racial segregation. Yet at times, Hitler speaks of America in glowing terms, as a country with more than adequate "living space" led by a racially pure elite. At others he talks about a country dominated by "Jewish finance capital," as a bastion of the "world Jewish conspiracy." In short, he was as profoundly ignorant of the United States as he was of other foreign countries.
It's only when the U.S. takes an increasingly strong stand against Nazi Germany, under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, particularly with America's lend-lease and other policies to help the British, that a hatred of America comes to the fore. German propaganda insisted that Roosevelt was probably Jewish, was surrounded by Jews, and at the forefront of a worldwide Jewish conspiracy -- all this in spite of the fact that the president's entourage was well known for its anti-Semitism.
Why did Germany declare war on the United States?
Just before Japan attacked the U.S. at Pearl Harbor, Hitler told a number of people, including the foreign ministers of Denmark and Croatia, that he felt the war could not be won. This was after the German Army had been stopped outside Moscow in winter 1941. Pearl Harbor came a few days after Hitler made these remarks. Then he declares war on the United States -- after he's admitted the war can't be won. It's really very perplexing.
Some historians say that by declaring war he could go all-out to try and cut off American support for Britain, which was vital. Alternatively, it has been suggested that this was a gesture of solidarity with Japan, but since there was no coordination between Germany and Japan, that doesn't seem plausible. It has also been suggested that by declaring war on the U.S., he was guaranteeing that Germany would be defeated. This would result in a national suicide that would coincide with his own suicide at the end of the war.
So is there a self-destructive element in the Nazi rhetoric?
Yes. After admitting the war couldn't be won, Hitler said the German people deserved to be destroyed, because they had revealed themselves to be weak and feeble. They had been defeated in the racial and ideological struggle with the Slavs, had shown themselves to be inferior and should be wiped off the face of the earth. Toward the end of the war, he actually issued orders that the country should be laid waste.
Goebbels also thought in terms of all or nothing as in his famous speech calling for "total war" in February 1943. This was made a few days after Stalingrad, which he described as a "virtually irreparable loss of prestige" and after he had confided in his diary that it was "shattering" to think that the "superior European race" was about to become the victims of a "race of semi-apes."
Quite obviously, by the last stages, Goebbels knew there was no possible hope of winning, and realized that Hitler was living in a fantasy world, issuing orders to divisions that no longer existed. In March 1945 Heinrich Himmler told him that "rationally" there was no possibility of Germany winning the war, but his instinct told him that "politically" there was a chance for a separate peace with the Soviet Union. Goebbels initially shared this faint hope, but soon realized it was totally unrealistic, and prepared to die with his Führer, having first murdered his wife and six children.