USM Open Source History Text: The World at War: World History 1914-1945

Permanent Crisis

We discussed issues of inclusion and exclusion in the Nazi Volksgemeinschaft in this chapter. Already before taking power in 1933 and certainly by the mid-1930s, the Nazis sought to project the idea that the Volksgemeinschaft was under direct and existential threat from a variety of sources. We stated that the two primary threats were an internal threat consisting of a variety of peoples, first and foremost the Jews, and an external threat consisting primarily of the looming Bolshevik menace in Russia undergoing rapid and heavy industrialization, as we discuss in the next section. External threats also included economic threats from global (American) capitalism, threats to members of the Volksgemeinschaft living abroad in Poland and Czechoslovakia, and the perpetual threat of the French on the country’s western border.

In response to a perceived state of permanent crisis, the Nazis pushed forward an increasingly radical agenda in terms of domestic policy, state reformation, and foreign affairs. All three areas of Nazi radicalization were supported by a highly sophisticated propaganda operation, which utilized traditional print media and new forms like radio and film. In terms of domestic policy, the Nazis worked toward two primary goals.  First, they set out to cut Jewish people out of the German community. It was a process of labeling, ostracizing, legal discrimination, and terror. The two most notorious events in this program were the passing of the Nuremberg Laws and the unleashing of violence on November 9, 1938—the Kristallnacht or “Night of Broken Glass,” during which Jewish shops and synagogues were looted and burned and Jews were arrested by the thousands. Second, the Nazis sought to remove or resolve (most often by force) all traditional divisions in German society, bringing all groups under the umbrella of the nation. In the Nazi state, one’s personal loyalty was to the nation and its leader, not to any particular organization, business or political party.

In terms of state formation, the notion of permanent crisis served the development of the Nazis exceedingly well. The state of escalating crisis meant that the state, too, needed to respond to the developing threats. This response is seen quite clearly in the radical growth, both in size and in power, of the state-within-the-state, the Nazi SS (Schulzstaffel) system, under the direct leadership of Heinrich Himmler. The SS began as a circle directly surrounding the Nazi leader Adolf Hitler. It was conceived as an “order” – in the form of cult, religious or secret society. Within this order ruled an “elite consciousness,” which imagined itself as the remaking of an elite class to replace the older conservative, aristocratic elite. The cornerstone of this consciousness was based on Nazi racial ideology. Thus, SS membership required Aryan documentation. SS marriages had be approved on racial grounds. Within SS society, there was an emphasis on child bearing. The SS was the vanguard of radical anti-Semitism. SS ideology emphasizes redemption through increasing generational purification and condemned notions of universalism, pacifism, and judgement in the afterlife. Above all, the SS strongly endorsed the notion of permanent struggle against racial and national enemies.

The SS was to be the dynamic core of the Nazi revolution. Nazi Dynamism. Its mission was to actualize the Nazi vision of creating a new social order based on racial-nationalist ideology. This was not a restoration of older conservative order but a future oriented, dynamic, and radical transformation, a redemption for the subordination caused by WWI and Weimar Republic. This was national, racial renewal, a total struggle against the oppressive system within Germany and internationally. As you might imagine, the SS was a youth Movement (in 1930 60% of SS members were under 40). SS members emerged from the rightwing radicalism in the universities. They were sometimes members of the War Generation, those who fought in WWI, but more often they were representatives of the “War Youth Generation” – youth who didn’t fight themselves but came of age in the context of war pedagogy, war literature, militaristic youth groups, fantasies about military glory, heroic violence, German brutality/strength/domination. This was a hyper-masculine culture in which fathers were essentially absent. The middle class and professional classes were over-represented in the SS structures. Many leaders of the SS had advanced degrees---many held a Ph.D.

The building of the SS state was rapid.  From having only 280 members in 1928, the SS grew to 52,000 members in in 1932, and 200,000 in 1933. As part of the general Gleichschaltung, the internal institutions of state power fell under SS command. Himmler became leader of the SS and gradually brought all police forces in Germany into the SS hierarchy. The SS took control of Concentration Camp System (1936) and formed the “Death’s Head Formations” to rule the camps. As war approached a military arm of the SS grew into what amounted to a parallel army, the Waffen SS. During the war, as we will see, special SS units, Einsatzgruppen, were used as death squads, which rampaged behind the lines of the German army massacring millions of Jews and others. The planning and execution of the Holocaust was directed first and foremost by the SS high command. If the problem the Nazis imagined was that Germany faced permanent and escalating internal and external crises, the tactical solution it prioritized was the development of empowering of the SS to undertake a war of terror on the country’s “outsiders” and eventually on the rest of the world.

The final piece of the state of permanent crisis has to do with foreign policy. In the Nazi imagination, two principle threats confronted Germany from abroad. The first was the threat of global capitalism, globalization. Globalization was a threat because it could cause dramatic economic impacts on the nation. Globalization was also a threat because it provided alternative sites of loyalty, whether these were corporate, political or cultural. The second threat from abroad was much, much greater than the first—it was the threat of communist Russia, the Bolsheviks. It is not an exaggeration to say that the principle guiding force of the Nazi regime was the preparation for what was perceived as the inevitable war against Stalin’s Soviet Russia. This state of preparing for what was seen as an inevitable clash dramatically shifted the traditional German military thinking, which was always focused first and foremost on the West. With Stalin rapidly industrializing in the 1930s, the crisis became even more acute. Foreign policy became a means of preparing for the most opportune moment and context in which to launch a massive military campaign throughout Europe with the ultimate goal of demographically and ethno-racially engineering the zone from the German border on the east all the way deep into Russian territory for the benefits of the German master race. The implications of this plan were clear—war, ethnic cleansing and a term that didn’t exist before the Nazis: genocide. During the 1930s, the Nazis prepared the ground for the coming war. Military restrictions placed on Germany in Paris were ignored. Military spending dramatically increased.

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