"A society of onlookers and bystanders. How far do you agree with this description of German society from 1933 to 1939?
"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.
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Whilst early anti-Semitic policies may have been supported, as illustrated by the generally positive reaction to the Law for the Restoration of a Professional Civil Service, as policy grew more extreme it seems that the policies of the government were accepted rather than supported. The Nuremberg Laws of 1935, drafted by Pfundtner and Stuckart, were far more to appease the virulently anti-Semitic wings of the party rather than the general population. Longerich argues that the lack of opposition and indeed acceptance of the German people reveals an indifferent attitude towards the treatment of the Jews. Whatever the case, such policies originated from within the virulent anti-Semitism of the Nazi elite rather than as a reflection of popular opinion.
Anti-Semitic propaganda helped to make the government’s treatment of the Jews more acceptable, with its pervasive influence illustrated by the fact that Nazi ownership of the German press increased from 2.5% of newspapers in 1933 to a total of 1500 publishing houses by 1939. Recent historiography has emphasised the need for the dehumanisation of an enemy in order to allow for the conditions under which maltreatment is possible, with Herf arguing that the anti-Semitic consensus shaped during the 1930s created an “indispensable reservoir of public hatred, contempt, and indifference… that made it possible… to move on to a final solution”. However, the success of propaganda was far from absolute. Even by 1937 German society was characterised by its scepticism towards the anti-Semitic litany of the Nazi government; the majority continued to patronise Jewish businesses, revealing that the pathological hatred of the Jews encouraged by the government failed to dominate the German psyche as much as was hoped.
Goldhagen, however, argues that the policies of the Nazi government throughout the 1930s were a reflection of popular feeling, rather than coming solely from the party. With regards to the shop boycott, he argues that the German people, unified in their hatred of the Jews, played an active part , and writes of how “Beatings, maimings, and killings of Jews became an all too ‘normal’ occurrence.” Anti-Semitic attacks were often committed by ordinary Germans who had “lived, worked, given birth, and buried parents, side by side with them”. Increasing hostility towards the Jews, culminating with Kristallnacht in November 1938, is seen by Goldhagen as revealing the spontaneous nature of actions taken against the Jews. Although the brutality of the original SA perpetrators had been orchestrated by higher party officials, principally Goebbels, many Germans "availed themselves of the opportunity to join the assault on the Jews", and "without provocation or encouragement, participated in the brutalities". Kater has criticised recent historiography that has “overemphasised the degree of high-level Nazi management,” with Goldhagen suggesting that the actions on Kristallnacht represent the existence of wider societal support for action against the Jews.
Although there was no significant opposition to the actions of the Nazis on Kristallnacht, the attitude of the majority of Germans was one of widespread indifference rather than active support. Far from taking part in the violence, the majority of Germans were not involved in the looting and destruction of Jewish property, with one eyewitness account saying, “…the state of indignation that would lead to such excess... was non-existent.” Erich Johnson points out that had such violence been characteristic of the entire population more Jews would have decided to leave Germany than did so. The passive response of the majority of Germans in watching as the events of Kristallnacht unravelled seem to perfectly capture Friedlander's belief that German society was made up of 'onlookers' rather than 'activists'.
When considering the passive nature of German society, Goldhagen argues that a lack of opposition shows that the Germans approved of Nazi policy towards the Jews. The majority of Germans seemed willing to accept anti-Semitic policy, becoming increasingly accustomed to its ubiquitous existence in everyday life as policy radicalised throughout the 1930s. A lack of opposition, however, does not necessarily derive from ideological agreement; the successes of the Nazi party in their handling of both the economy and foreign policy would have undoubtedly helped in allowing people to overlook increasingly distasteful treatment of the Jews, whilst the unpredictable nature of Nazi policy, intensifying and then dying down year-to-year, further discouraged any widespread dissent. Significantly, Kershaw argues that opposition to the fate of the Jews was not minimal due to widespread ideological support, but because of the “draconian punishment for politically nonconformist behaviour” that served to prevent dissent. Moreover, it is crucial to recognise that a lack of opposition to anti-Semitic policy was not confined to Germany alone; similar measures implemented throughout Europe to those promulgated by the NSDAP were greeted with no greater opposition than they had been in Germany. A fear of nonconformist behaviour and a diffusion of individual responsibility when in the presence of others are common to all societies, with the phenomenon of ‘bystander effect’ positing a psychological explanation that does not rely on the simple castigation of German society as uniquely anti-Semitic.
The intensification of the government’s policy towards the Jews relied on a population which would increasingly accept what would have been unacceptable in the early years of Nazi rule. For this the government relied on the gradual radicalisation of policy and the influence of anti-Semitic propaganda to allow for the population to become accustomed to the violence and discrimination which was to become such a striking feature of everyday life, and for the economic and foreign policy successes of the government to encourage the people to tolerate what they would not have done in 1933. The unpredictable nature of the government’s policy towards the Jews, intensifying and then dying down year-to-year, further discouraged any widespread opposition. This lack of opposition, and the fact that the majority of Germans were not a significant driving-force behind the government’s policy, stands in favour of Friedlander’s view of German society.
They were perpetrated by a minority on the extreme fringes of society, normally members of the SA and other rabid anti-Semites.
Goering, “Not a single person has had a finger nail removed or an earlobe cut off.” This indicates awareness that the population was not, at least yet, supportive of such extreme violence.
Norbert Frei, National Socialist Rule in Germany, p.47.
Longerich, Holocaust: The Nazi persecution and murder of the Jews, p. 60 - 61
Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, p. 90. "Here was the sight of the German volk, organised by the German state, collectively boycotting an entire German group of German citizens"
Ibid. p. 94
Ibid. p. 100
Ibid. p. 101
M. H. Kater, Everyday Anti-Semitism in Pre-War Nazi Germany: The Popular Basis
Any disgruntlement came predominantly from the wasteful destruction of millions of Reichsmarks worth of property rather than due to ideological objections.
Ronnie Landau, Studying the Holocaust, p.63. From the American consul in Leipzig.
Eric Johnson, The Nazi Terror: Gestapo, Jews, and Ordinary German, p.140 “… had the bloodthirsty SA and SS bullies and zealous anti-Semitic Nazi party members been characteristic of the German population, more Jews might have made the decision to leave before it was too late.”
“Individual Germans in Germany could have done little to prevent what happened but if millions of Germans had been opposed to the persecution of the Jews in the 1930s… then they could have done something…”
Ian Kershaw, Hitler, the Germans, and the Final Solution, p.199