Why the Nazis? A minute with Peter Fritzsche

KalshovenS14Between Two Homelands: Letters across the Borders of Nazi Germany provides a glimpse into the everyday lives of one family living during the tumultuous years of World War Two.

The book, which was assembled from family letters by Hedda Kalshoven, gives voice to ordinary Germans in the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich and in the occupied Netherlands.

University of Illinois history professor Peter Fritzsche edited, abridged, and annotated Between Two Homelands with the assent and collaboration of Hedda Kalshoven. Fritzsche also wrote the Preface to the book.

The University of Illinois News Bureau spoke with Fritzsche for the “A Minute With”™ feature. Below is Fritzsche’s conversation with News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain. . . .

News Bureau Editor’s note: Sept. 1 marks 75 years since Germany invaded Poland, beginning World War II, and historians still debate what caused the German people to follow the Nazis into conquest and the Holocaust. Peter Fritzsche, a historian of modern Germany, has written several books based in part on the letters and diaries of average Germans, from before and through Nazi rule and the war. Perhaps the most valuable collection of letters came from four generations of a single German family, separated by politics and the German-Dutch border. Those letters were recently published in the book Between Two Homelands for which Fritzsche did translation and wrote the preface.

We’ve recently passed the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I, and a common refrain is that the end of that war and its treaty demands led directly to the Nazis and World War II. Was the connection that simple?

There is a connection, especially since Germans – Nazis and non-Nazis – genuinely believed that Germany was fighting for its freedom, even for its very existence – astonishing as that may sound to us today.

But Hitler was very clear: World War II was not about former German territory assigned to Poland or about the national self-determination of Germans living outside Germany. The war was about creating a new racial order in which there were German superiors and Slav inferiors and in which Jews had no place. It was about creating an exploitative empire in which might determined right. The Nazis were not traditional German nationalists but radical revolutionaries in terms of foreign policy and morality.

To what extent do you believe Germans were seduced by Hitler and the Nazis? Or did they make more of a conscious choice?

Germans after World War I were highly politicized. That is why we think of the Weimar Republic as a time of political turbulence and unrest. The active descriptions of politics before 1933, the year Hitler came to power, undermine notions of seduction or brainwashing in the years after. It is not possible to explain the demise of all sorts of political institutions before Hitler in one way, and to explain the power of the Nazis after that in another way.

Germans constantly deliberated questions of race, authority and loyalty. Only a minority became full-fledged Nazis, but most accepted the basic premises of the regime, including the isolation of German Jews. While most Germans had at least a vague idea of the Holocaust, they almost certainly did not endorse mass murder, which is not to say they were not complicit in the persecution of their neighbors along the way to the “final solution.”

You call the collection of letters in the “Homelands” book “an indispensible source for understanding the Nazis.” What are the key insights you find there?

Historians have access to lots of propaganda tracts and to the most extreme statements made by leading Nazis, but we don’t have many transcripts of more-ordinary Germans explaining their choices. In this case, family members lived both in Holland and Germany and were divided politically between enthusiastic pro-Nazism and skeptical anti-Nazism, a situation that forced correspondents to explain themselves, to argue matters out.
The letters also reveal the holes or seams in Nazi appeal. The son, for example, broke with friends over his loyalty to the Nazis, but also fell in love with a woman with a Jewish grandparent, something that complicated his assumptions.

What the letters and diaries reveal is the qualified, not always easy, but nonetheless unmistakable desire to be part of the National Socialist movement. We see people as actors, not as victims; we see them deliberating, rather than being seduced. This collection offers extraordinary insights into why Germans became Nazis, and how a Nazi mother in Germany came to disagree with her beloved anti-Nazi daughter in Holland.
In the end, the letters indicate just how self-absorbed Germans were by their sense of having been victimized, which means that the question of World War I remains relevant to World War II, even if the Nazi leaders themselves wanted something far more than a victory in a rerun of World War I.

Read more at the University of Illinois News Bureau site


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