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In the 1960s and 1970s, New Left historians in the Federal Republic of Germany reexamined the Third Reich in ways that created major controversies, especially because they found continuity between the Nazi era and attitudes and institutions that existed both before and afterwards. This meant "purging society" of its racist, authoritarian and paternalistic tendencies, and preventing revived Nazi movements like the National Democratic Party (NDP) from gaining a foothold in political life again (Gassert and Steinweiss 1). Fritz Fischer had helped initiate this historical controversy in Griff Nach der Weltmacht (Germany's Drive for World Power) in which he asserted that Germany had been the aggressor in World War I and that Hitler and the Nazis borrowed their ideas about Lebensraum and an empire in the East from their Second Reich predecessors. Indeed, the historical record demonstrates that during the Third Reich, the German people, the old conservative elites, industrialists and 'apolitical' bureaucrats and experts all formed an effective team for wars of aggression and genocide, and that they also profited personally from the plunder and looting of Jews and occupied countries. Only a small minority actively opposed the regime and even though their actions were nothing less than heroic they were also tragically ineffective. Most Germans only regretted that Hitler had lost the war, and they denied any knowledge of the crimes of the regime or complicity with them.
Germans had always had a well-developed sense of victimhood about both world wars in which the country had lost a great deal of territory and population. Even after World War II, they regarded themselves as victims of the Nazi regime, Allied bombing, military occupation, division of the country in two and millions of refugees driven out of the regions east of the Oder River that were annexed by Poland. To be told by leading historians that Germany was ultimately responsible for the world wars, going back to the pre-1914 period, came as a shock to public sensibilities. In the 1960s there were also more trials of the perpetrators of genocide, but even then the majority of Germans refused to believe that these crimes "had not been the actions of a few outsiders but instead had come from the mainstream of German society" (Gassert and Steinweiss 4). They were also reluctant to pay compensation to the survivors, not least because many Germans had profited from the looting and plunder of the Jews and occupied countries during the war. Even the German police saw themselves "as victims, having been exploited by an overwhelmingly coercive authority" despite incontrovertible evidence of their complicity and participation in all the crimes committed by the Nazi regime (Gassert and Steinweiss 5).
Ian Kershaw explained the strangely dualistic nature of the Nazi state, which was a totalitarian police state which at the same time had many chaotic and anarchic features as a function of Hitler's Social Darwinist ideology. He believed in violent competition and conflict and survival of the fittest, which is why he encouraged the creation of numerous competing agencies run by 'little Fuehrers," and parallel Nazi Party organizations overlapping with those of the state. Lower level bureaucrats and officials were always "working towards the Fuehrer" and developing "radical initiatives from below" in attempting to anticipate his wishes based on their interpretation of his intentions and orders (Collier and Pedley 1). Hitler tolerated a wide variety of initiatives and variations on Nazi ideology as long as he perceived no threat to his own power and position, although he also eliminated Nazis like Ernst Roehm and Gregor Strasser when he concluded that they intended to overthrow him. His experience as a common soldier in World War I was also central to his worldview, based on "the concept of slaughter and sacrifice," along with his intense belief that Germany would avenge the humiliation of defeat by overturning the Versailles Treaty. Nor did he think that Germany had lost World War I in any case, but that the country had been stabbed in the back by Communists, socialists and Jews (Collier and Pedley 9).
In the1930s, the Nazi state was not yet complete, and Hitler was forced to compromise with the army, the great industrialists and landowners, the civil service and other members of the old conservative elites. For this reason, the Third Reich was "a tangled mixture of the new and old," although the S.S. And other Nazi organizations began to gain predominance during the war (Collier and Pedley 10). According to German historians like Fritz Fischer and Ralf Dahrendorf, the Prussian-German road to modernity after the failed revolutions of 1848 had been a Sonderweg (Special Path) in which "intensive industrialization was not accompanied by a corresponding social or political modernization" (Collier and Pedley 11). In culture, politics and government, the country was still authoritarian and even semi-feudal, and after 1933 these institutions coordinated themselves with the new Nazi state. All competing political parties and labor organizations were destroyed by the Gestapo and the concentration camp system, which meant that opposition to the Nazi regime could "only ever be expressed through the actions of individuals" (Collier and Pedley 14). Only in 1944, when the war was clearly lost, did the army and the conservative elites attempt to overthrow Hitler, and were ruthlessly crushed when their coup failed.
One example of the cooperation of conservative and 'apolitical' civil servants the Nazi regime was that of the financial and economic technocrats who assisted in the preparation for war and plundering the Jews and occupied countries. Indeed, neither the war nor genocide would have been possible at all without the assistance of these specialists and experts, who also ensured that the German people profited from these actions. Even before 1939, they had followed Hitler's orders in "reshaping public finances so that state debts would be covered by a war of imperialistic plunder" (Aly and Chase 310). Both the Fuehrer and his advisors knew from the start that Germany could not win a prolonged war, which is why they gambled on a series of short, quick Blitzkrieg campaigns. They also realized that they were running the war economy on deficits and IOUs and were warned by conservative anti-Nazis like Carl Goerdeler that this could not be sustained indefinitely. Hitler was no expert on finance or economics, which were subjects that bored him, but he did all these experts to do whatever they pleased in foreign countries as long as the German people benefited. Industrialists, bankers, bureaucrats and the Wehrmacht all collaborated in conquest, slave labor and genocide, as well the "state-sponsored campaign of grand larceny" that accompanies these (Aly and Chase 311).
To prevent inflation, shortages and popular discontent at home, they encouraged the use of foreign currency to buy up food and consumer goods abroad. No Nazi leaders believed in laissez faire economics and they were "continually handing out benefits to ordinary Germans, keeping them remarkably well fed and well supplied" at least until the final defeat and collapse in 1944-45 (Aly and Chase 314). Given that the finance experts also had to feed and supply an army and millions of forced laborers -- albeit at a minimal level for the latter -- they welcomed the destruction of Jews, Soviet prisoners and mental patients as freeing up more resources for the rest. Hitler was well aware that the defeat in World War I and the revolutions of 1918-19 were not simply the work of Bolsheviks and Jews, but also the result of severe shortages of food and consumer goods on the home front. He did not intend to repeat the same mistake, and he made sure to keep the masses tamed with "a combination of low taxes, ample supplies of consumer goods, and targeted acts of terror against social outsiders" (Aly and Chase 324). For theses reason, the Nazi state retained the loyalty (or at least the acquiescence) of most Germans right up to 1945 -- and even considerably longer than that.
During the war years, the Nazi state became increasingly radicalized and genocidal, which reflected not only the ideology of its leaders but the momentum of the machinery of Party and state. At first the concentration camps existed to terrorize and destroy the political opposition to the Nazi state, as well as Gypsies, German Jews, homosexuals and others targeted for elimination. Once the war began, their numbers and size expanded greatly, and their inmates consisted of political opponents, slave laborers and POWs from all over occupied Europe. Under the pressure of wartime labor shortages, the camps "became more like transit stations, processing constant arrivals of new labor en route to the expanding network of satellite camps" (Caplan and Waschmann 9). Death camps in Poland and other areas were also an innovation of the wartime period, and began as an extension of the 'euthanasia' program, with doctors overseeing the extermination of sick and debilitated inmates under the code name 14f13. Up to 1943, most Jews were held in ghettos and forced labor camps, being gradually worked and started to death and…[continue]
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