"A society of onlookers and bystanders.” How far do you agree with this description of German society from 1933 to 1939?
In the years following the electoral victory of the Nazi Party, German attitudes towards the treatment of the Jews can be characterised as passive; the majority were neither actively involved in supporting anti-Semitic policy nor were they willing to offer any significant opposition to it. Saul Friedlander coined the phrased “onlookers and bystanders”, arguing that the majority of Germans did not share the same degree of enthusiasm for anti-Semitic policy as the Nazis. Goldhagen, however, would argue that Nazi policy towards the Jews was indicative of wider German support, and that the lack of opposition to such policy shows a society that shared in the party’s commitment to eliminationist anti-Semitism. Significantly, from this debate there arises questions of even greater sociological significance – to what extent is every society comprised of ‘onlookers’ rather than ‘activists’?
The attacks on Jews during the weeks following the March 1933 elections, resulting in 40 deaths by June, may seem to indicate a society characterised by the existence of widespread anti-Semitism. However, such actions did not hold the support of the majority of the German people, with even the government distancing itself from these events. Moreover, Frei talks of the popular reaction to the boycott of Jewish shops as being far from widespread support, with the majority of people were unable to "identify with it." Having been called by the Gauleiter of Nuremberg in March 1933 without any popular demand, the majority of Germans neither opposed the boycott nor supported it; a sense of collective indifference seems to best characterise the reaction of ordinary Germans. The fact that many households stocked up on goods from these shops in anticipation of the boycott and continued to patronise them after it ceased, reveals that although the majority would not have wanted to publicly break it, there was a lack of strong ideological anti-Semitism within the 'centre-ground' of society as there existed at the extremes.