The Time When Hitler Blinked

Hitler’s Compromises: Coercion and Consensus in Nazi Germany
By Nathan Stoltzfus
Yale University Press, 432 pages, $40

In late February and early March 1943, “Aryan” spouses in mixed marriages, primarily women, gathered in Berlin’s Rosenstrasse to demand the release of their Jewish husbands from detention. After threatening to shoot the protesters, the Third Reich unexpectedly relented, and the women got their husbands back. Most of those freed — nearly 2,000 people — survived the war.

Nathan Stoltzfus, author of “Resistance of the Heart: Intermarriage and the Rosenstrasse Protest in Germany” (1996), has asked why that successful protest was not more widely celebrated — as compared to, say, the failed July 20, 1944, plot to assassinate Hitler, which came to symbolize the German resistance movement.

The answer, Stoltzfus suggested, was that Rosenstrasse illustrated that it was possible to resist Hitler’s regime — and survive. And that conclusion was at odds with the postwar desire of the German people to paint themselves as the victims of irresistible propaganda and unblinking terror.

In fact, as Stoltzfus argues in his important but somewhat ponderous new book, “Hitler’s Compromises,” the dictator did blink, on several occasions — a tendency that the author believes other historians have minimized.

“The history of popular protests was repressed by the Third Reich, and the remaining evidence of them has too often been routinely overlooked,” he writes. “Although public social opposition without punishment was possible, such resistance by ordinary persons is easily construed as a rebuke to the vast, overwhelming majority who did nothing.”

As murderously vicious as he was to conquered peoples in the East, Jews and other minority groups, Hitler was not impervious to domestic opinion. In Stoltzfus’s view, far from being an unhinged madman, he was a “deft opportunist,” able to weigh the benefits of legality versus force, of persuasion or retreat over coercion. He zealously guarded his personal popularity, believing it indispensable to his martial ambitions and to the creation of a 1,000-year Reich, sustained by Nazi ideals.

In the meantime, though, compromise was essential. So when (non-Jewish) Germans took to the streets, unhappy about one Nazi excess or another, he sometimes listened.

Not always, of course. Among Hitler’s first moves when he gained power in 1933 was decapitating the leftist political opposition and locking up, torturing and sometimes murdering Communist and Socialist leaders in the first concentration camps. Those measures, Stoltzfus says, as well as the repression of social outsiders, were popular ones, “encouraged by millions and millions of Germans.”

Hitler dealt mercilessly with other resisters, too, executing members of a nonviolent student group, the White Rose, for leafleting against his anti-Semitic policies and war of aggression. Such morally based resistance (not mentioned by Stoltzfus) posed a fundamental threat to the regime’s legitimacy.

But opposition to euthanasia also had a moral dimension. It remains difficult, even in hindsight, to demarcate the borderline between potentially effective protest and speech or action that would lead to imprisonment or worse.

In “Hitler’s Compromises,” Stoltzfus makes the case that those nebulous boundaries shifted with Hitler’s military fortunes, with crackdowns more likely when his armies were winning and his popularity was at a zenith.

After the momentous 1943 defeat at Stalingrad and the increasingly deadly Allied bombing of German cities, public discontent mounted. Hitler, while not hesitating to execute thousands of soldiers for insubordination, chose to tread more carefully with the civilian population. “By mid-1943,” Stoltzfus reports, “complaints and jokes about the regime leaders were so prevalent that prosecutors thought that singling out one person for punishment on such an offense was untenable….”

Most of Hitler’s course corrections, Stoltzfus suggests in his book, occurred when Nazi ideology collided with long-standing traditions, often involving religion.

Hitler aimed to supplant religious authority with a Nazi-run Reich Church, whose symbol would be the swastika rather than the cross. But religious repression stirred resistance, including the emergence of the Protestant Confessing Church. In the late 1930s, some Catholics refused orders to remove crucifixes from their schools and to replace them with pictures of Hitler. Individual bishops and Protestant ministers protested Nazi encroachments, most without withdrawing their overall support for the regime. Stoltzfus unpacks the complicated maneuvering in dense detail.

In the case of euthanasia, as with the churches, Hitler beat a series of tactical retreats. When mass gassings of the disabled, mentally ill and others aroused protests from both the pulpit and the street, the regime shuttered one controversial facility, only to ramp up operations elsewhere. Hitler eventually replaced the gassings with a program of “wild euthanasia,” a more piecemeal approach involving surreptitious, harder-to-detect murders by medical personnel. The public protests didn’t stop the killings, but they did slow their pace.

Another form of rebellion, of sorts, involved unauthorized population movements (or lack thereof). Germans often defied evacuation orders; many kept their children home or dispatched them to relatives or friends in safer areas rather than consign them to official Nazi-indoctrination camps. Hitler sought compliance, but stopped short of coercion, Stoltzfus says.

Even under the threat of intense Allied bombing, refugees often returned to their native cities. Enforcement attempts, including the withholding of ration cards, fizzled. Far too many people were involved, in circumstances that were growing increasingly chaotic.

Hitler’s accommodations, Stoltzfus says, were often in service to his own mythic image as a benevolent dictator. “His first line of defense,” he writes, “was the people’s eagerness to protect him in their own minds by blaming other party officials for anything they did not like.” Ironically, to maintain his power, Hitler had to cede some of it. Stoltzfus’s aim is to challenge lingering myths of the regime’s inflexibility — an endeavor that will no doubt spark new historiographical controversies.

Julia M. Klein, a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia, is a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review and a contributing book critic for the Forward. Follow her on Twitter, @JuliaMKlein

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