Review – R. Gellately: Hitler’s True Believers

Kategorie Allgemein

Robert Gellately: Hitler’s True Believer. How Ordinary People Became Nazis, Oxford: Orxford University Press 2020.

Rezensiert für den AKHF von Bill Niven, Emeritus Professor of Contemporary German History, Nottingham Trent University

In Hitler’s True Believers, Robert Gellately examines what it was that drew Germans to the Nazi movement, both during the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich itself.

In his introduction, Gellately emphasises that, in post-World War One Germany, nationalism and socialism were ideals many individuals, movements and parties identified with, even if they had different ideas as to what socialism really meant. Antisemitism, too, was very much in the air when Hitler began promoting his obsession with the supposedly pernicious influence of Jews after World War One. National Socialism, in other words, represented a synthesis of preexisting trends: it did not invent them. Gellately is sceptical of the idea that it was Hitler’s “charisma” which drew supporters to the Nazi Party. He is also sceptical of the claims by some historians that we cannot take the socialism of the NSDAP seriously. The reason for the popularity of the Nazi Party before 1933, as Gellately sets out to explore in his study, lies in the appeal of its ideas.

In the opening chapter on Hitler’s early development, Gellately traces the emergence of Hitler’s staple beliefs: antisemitism, nationalism, socialism, and the need for more “living space”. Hatred of the Jews infused all his antagonisms, notably towards bolshevism and capitalism. If Gellately emphasises Hitler’s insistence on the need for a truly “Germanic” socialism, by which Hitler meant prising the workers away from Marxist ideas and offering them instead a nationalistic “people’s community”, then because he believes Hitler’s idea of socialism was not simply a ruse or a subterfuge, but a conviction.

The following chapter explores the “Early Leaders’ Paths to National Socialism”. What these leaders had in common was anger at the humiliation of defeat in World War One, a rejection of the Versailles Treaty and the Weimar Republic, ardent nationalism and, in most cases, virulent antisemitism. They started out in the postwar period serving in the Freikorps, or were associated with the Deutschvölkischer Schutz- und Trutzbund, Alldeutscher Verband, or other branches of the völkisch movement. And they all shared a vision of “German” socialism, however vague this might seem to us today. As Gellately shows, Ernst Röhm, for instance, had little to learn from Hitler in terms of nationalism, Germanic socialism or antisemitism, while Hermann Göring had had ideas about blending nationalism and socialism before he met Hitler. Later Nazi leaders such as Alfred Rosenberg, who developed his hatred of Bolshevism when studying in Moscow at the time of Russian revolution, read the same racist, antisemitic literature such as Houston Stewart Chamberlain’s Foundations of the 19th Century, or the notorious Protocols of Zion, as Hitler did. Gellately then provides an in-depth exploration of the motives and beliefs of the so-called “National Socialist ‘Left’” in a chapter which looks particularly at the early biographies of the two Strasser brothers, Otto and Gregor Strasser, but also at the development of Goebbels, whose blend of antisemitic, “anti-international” yet also socialist thinking was evident in the early 1920s already. While Goebbels certainly was impressed by Hitler when he first heard him speak in 1925, his world view was already well established. Gellately nevertheless points out that differences on whether National Socialism was socialist enough, or what was meant by socialism, led to tensions and the creation of fractions within the Nazi Party especially in the early 1930s before Otto Strasser was outmaneouvred by Hitler.

Gellately then turns his attention to the “Militants” (Chapter Four) and “The Nazi Voters” (Chapter Five), introducing the concept of the “self-mobilisers”, male and female. In his analysis of a study of over 140 Kreisleiter (county leaders) in Westphalia and Lippe, for instance, Gellately examines how a common front-generational experience combined with anger at defeat and revolution led many fledgeling Nazis to promote the movement in the hope of contributing to the development of the much-vaunted Volksgemeinschaft, the very embodiment, it seemed to many at the time, of a new community spirit. Many of the political militants who built Nazism did so without ever have met or even heard Hitler. It was not just Hitler’s charisma, then, which drew these self-mobilisers and many voters to the Party, but in fact often far more the Nazi doctrine itself with its mix of nationalism, socialism and antisemitism. While the Party implemented a new speakers’ school to produce a nationwide corpus of speech-makers in preparation for the Nazi bid for power, it could hardly have done this without willing personnel to recruit. Still, as Gellately discusses, Hitler did have to intervene to allay the fears, say, of farmers and big landowners that they might be expropriated under Nazism, and stave off concerns among the German economic elite about the Party’s apparently anti-capitalist stance, as when Hitler defended the Party against the charge that it was “anti-business” in his address to the Industry Club on 26 January 1932.

In the following two chapters on “National Socialism Gains Power” and “Embracing the Volksgemeinschaft”, Gellately explores the reactions of Germans to Hitler’s coming to power and the measures introduced by the Nazis to create and institutionalise the “People’s Community”. The first of these chapters focuses mainly on the way in which the Nazis consolidated their power after January 1933, and while much of this is well-known, Gellately illuminates the degree of popularity which Nazism could already count on, as when 600,000 people turned out to watch the ceremonial state funeral held in honour of Hans Maikowski, an SA man killed by communists when on his way home after celebrating Hitler’s victory on 30 January. Gellately also focuses in some detail on the very rapid establishment of a police state, a process which, while in many ways driven from the top, was also supported by Nazi militants acting on their own initiative. Describing that process makes clear how quickly the Nazis repressed and criminalised all forms of communist and socialist activity and opposition – sending a clear message to all Germans. Gellately goes on to outline all the measures undertaken by the Nazi Party to create a “Germanic” sense of community, from the massively orchestrated celebrations in honour of the “Day of National Work” on 1 May 1933 through to the establishment of Strength Through Joy with its organised holidays and concerts, and the activities around the Winter Aid Scheme. Here and there Gellately quotes from the thoughts of ordinary Germans to indicate that these attempts to generate a sense of community met with genuine enthusiasm, although one could perhaps have wished for more examples. Gellately shows that repression was the obverse side to efforts to create community, as when the Nazis cracked down on the unions immediately following the “Day of National Work” in 1933, so that one wonders to what extent some Germans might have identified with the Nazi vision of community out of fear as to what might happen if they didn’t.

Hitler, of course, wanted absolute support, as Gellately outlines in the chapter on “Striving for Unanimity”, but he could only be assured of more support thanks to a downturn in unemployment by the mid-1930s, when most Germans “began to feel the return of the economic good times, and that made the idea of the Volksgemeinschaft seem attractive” (p. 192). After considering the effects of the Marriage Loan Scheme and Hereditary Farm Law, Gellately argues that the Nazis also used plebiscites and continuing elections to energise the people. Plebiscites in particular were designed to give the populace the feeling they were deciding, as a community, on political issues such as whether or not to leave the League of Nations in 1933 – support for Hitler’s wish to do so was voluntarily offered by members of the German Academy of Literature and academics at German universities. The massive increase in SA members in 1933 and 1934 also pointed to the increased support for Nazism, with some of these members even being former communists. Still, Hitler had to deal with hopes within the movement of a “second” (more “socialist”) revolution, which he did in the Night of the Long Knives at the end of June 1934. At the same time, he and Goebbels pushed forward the Nazi cultural revolution against supposed artistic “degeneration”, the subject of Chapter Nine (“Quest for a Cultural Revolution”). Here they found the support not just of many second-rate artists who sensed their time had come, but also of more “ordinary” Germans happy to participate in pageantry around the “Day of German Art”. When the House of German Art opened in Munich on 18 July 1937, exhibiting examples of supposedly Nordic art, it did not however generate as much interest as the “Degenerate Art” exhibition which opened nearby a day later.

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Empfohlene Zitierweise:

Bill Niven, Rezension zu: Gellately, Robert: Hitler’s True Believer. How Ordinary People Became Nazis. Oxford 2020 , in: H-Soz-Kult, 07.12.2023, <>.