Interview with Claudia Koonz, Historian and Author of The Nazi Conscience

February 27, 2017 | Revolution Newspaper |



Claudia Koonz is a historian of Nazi Germany and the author of Mothers in the Fatherland: Women, the Family and Nazi Politics, The Nazi Conscience, and other works. She was interviewed on The Michael Slate Show on KPFK Pacifica Radio on February 10. The following is a transcript of the interview, slightly edited for length and clarity.


Michael Slate: In broad strokes, let’s talk about how fascism developed in Germany.

Claudia Koonz: OK. First of all, let’s remember that nobody ever heard of Hitler until the early 1930s. He was unemployed. The only steady job he ever had in his life was when he fought in World War I for four years. He was quite brave.

This was a splinter party. As late as 1928, ten years after the defeat in World War I, the Nazis got 2.6% of the vote. 1930, they got 18% of the vote. 1932 they were up to the high point ever, 37.4% of the vote. So, the Nazis were never voted into power. Hitler was appointed into power.

So the question is, how did this disreputable, fringe party of loudmouth, brawling Stormtroopers get from a tiny splinter party to the center in 1932, which put Hitler in position to get appointed as chancellor? Because he was like the prime minister. There was a president above him.

What happened was the Great Depression. Suddenly, one-third of all Germans were unemployed. The government was in gridlock. People were desperate, and Goebbels, Hitler’s sidekick for media, had an important insight. He said, “We can use democracy to kill democracy.” “We come,” is his famous statement, “like wolves to the sheepfold. We will take over.”

And so that’s the crucial thing to look at. What happened between 1930 and 1934 that landed Hitler in a position where he was prime minister/chancellor? And part of that answer has to do with the incompetence and the cluelessness of his opponents, who didn’t think he was very dangerous until too late. Also, one thing I should remind you of, is that the Germans were educated. Their voter turnout was above 88% all the way through the whole Weimar Republic. These were smart people.

Hitler was appointed chancellor in January 1933. He still didn’t have a majority—he had to get a majority. Then, what happened is the Reichstag burned down. It would be like the house of Congress was burnt down, the fire was sufficiently bad. Hitler blamed it on the communists. He called the representatives to the Reichstag, kept the communists out, and this time, there was another election, a national election. Hitler still only got 44% for the Nazis. And finally, in the middle of March 1934, the government, that is, the politicians, did what the people didn’t. The politicians caved in and voted Hitler as chancellor. And from that point forward, he just moved so fast nobody caught up to him.

MS: In your book The Nazi Conscience, you talk about, “The road to Auschwitz was paved with righteousness,” and I thought that was an important point for people to think about.

CK: Right. Ordinary people can’t do evil, unless they see it as good, unless they see it as protective. So until the 1980s, the Germans said, “Oh, we didn’t know anything about it.” Then they said, “Well, maybe people knew about it, but it’s just a few bad apples.” Then the next was, “Well, maybe they were like robots.”

And I wrote my books, Mothers in the Fatherland and this one [The Nazi Conscience], to point out that you can’t have Germans deporting 675,000 other Germans who were Jewish and unwanted without a lot of collaboration at the local level. And people have to believe that what they are doing is protective, because they believe they are in such grave danger, like in wartime. That’s the question: how people feel righteous and good when they do the very evil thing of sending friends and neighbors, betraying friends and neighbors at the grassroots level—and, of course, collaborating in the actual killing sites.

Setting a “Whole Category of Human Beings Outside of the Realm of Moral Obligations”

MS: You write in The Nazi Conscience that “Nazi conscience” is not an oxymoron, but to many people, the words “Nazi” and “conscience” are never conceived of as two words that would go together anywhere.

CK: We’re so naive we believe there’s a universal conscience, like “Thou shalt not kill” and “Do unto others.” But actually, when you think about it... and Freud had this insight, too—he said it’s hard to do unto others who are not like yourselves. And that reminds me of a Nazi slogan, “Do unto others as you would like others to do unto you,” but in the German it’s clearer: “others” are people like you. Do unto others who are like yourself.

MS: You quote Carl Schmitt, a big Hitler supporter. He denounced the concept of universal human rights, and when he was questioned about that, he denounced it by saying, listen, not every being with a human face is a human. And you say that this statement is the bedrock of Nazi morality. What do you mean?

CK: What I mean is, Schmitt didn’t think Jews had a human face. He looked at their faces—and the visual is so important—he looked at their faces and said these people are sub-humans. There are also people who are disabled, but he said these people are not worthy of life. “Life unworthy of living,” was a Nazi medical belief. So they were able to set whole categories of human beings outside of the realm of moral obligations.

Let me give you an example. A young man in the eighth grade, in 1938, he saw his best friend Heinz being taken off, in 1938, to a concentration camp. It was his best friend. Heinz and he grew up together. And looking back—his name was Phillip—he said, “You know, when I saw them taking Heinz, I didn’t say, isn’t it terrible that they’re taking Heinz.” He said, “Isn’t it a shame that Heinz is a Jew?” That’s what happened to his conscience. He grew up and later came to this country and wrote a book and he recognized his ways. But that was his view.

MS: I keep wondering, how the hell did this happen? There’s all these people. They recognized what Hitler was saying, but they thought it was part of their moral stand or whatever, and that it was something that was OK to be doing—for the interests of Germany. How did this happen, and what was this normalization around fascist rule in Germany up until ’39? What actually made that work?

CK: Well, let’s think about that. One of the reasons it worked is because Hitler engineered an economic recovery. Hitler understood that he needed experts in his cabinet, for example. His first cabinet had 12 members, and only three were Nazis. And the genius behind the economic recovery was actually a founding member of the German Democratic Party. He was a Keynesian. They borrowed tremendously, and here was his formula: massive rearmament, because Germany had been disarmed after World War I; infrastructure development, lots of big construction projects; and then labor-intensive projects to give people jobs, like the WPA in the United States.

And so all that was going on. By 1936, there was no more unemployment. In three years, unemployment went from 30% to zero. And all this time, Hitler’s diplomatic corps, who were extremely skilled, were being appeased by the West. So Hitler was going from one diplomatic victory to another.

So the combination of domestic rebuilding and international prestige made Hitler very popular. And let’s also remember: the Germans read Hemingway, they loved Gone with the Wind, they read Faulkner, they drove Fords, they drank Cokes, they went to church. Germans got the first paid vacations of any workers in the world. They went to mass motels and cruise ships.

The very first week of Nazi power—and how important the psychology was, the Nazis were geniuses at this—people in small towns where the buildings were looking kind of shabby got free house paint. They repainted the outside of their houses, so it looks better. That’s what normalization looked like. So people then had a kind of “Yes, but...” attitude. “Yeah, the Nazis are terrible, but—look what they did.” So there was a record of real achievements, which is hard for us to remember, but it was real.

The Social Base of Hitler and the Nazis

MS: Who was the actual social base for the Nazis and Hitler, and why?

CK: First of all, the Germans keep very good records, so we know how every little district voted 13 years before the Nazis took over. They even tabulated male and female votes separately. How did they do that? They had women vote on white slips, and men vote on gray slips. So we have an exact knowledge of who voted for Hitler. And who voted for Hitler we would call today the “left-behinds,” the people who felt that they were not getting a fair share, that the cities were booming, that the wealthy people were doing OK, despite the Depression. They had been through terrible inflation in 1923. They felt they lost everything. These were the left-behinds.

But the other thing we know, because we have such good voting records, is we say, OK, look at the Nazi Party vote increase, and we can see what parties—and there were five major parties—what parties lost votes to the Nazis before ’33, and who held their own. The parties that held their own votes were the Socialist Party, the Catholic Party, and the Communist Party. These three parties were parties that we can’t even imagine today because they were sub-cultures. They had sporting events; they had singing events; they had paramilitary marching. So these three categories of voters did not switch their votes for Hitler. We know that women and young people voted disproportionately for Hitler. But a majority of women never voted for Hitler. But that last-minute bandwagon effect was fueled in part by people who’d never voted before, that is young people and women.

So that’s before ’33. After ’33, when it became clear that the Nazis would be in power for some time to come—and remember, the Nazis right from the beginning were arresting communists, they were arresting people who spoke out against them. The first concentration camp, in Dachau, was set up in 1933, right away, and suddenly the Nazis became the real party. And ordinary people, middle class people, began to think, well, maybe it’s not so bad. Because we are not being affected. Our lives are doing better. And, of course, there’s a very famous statement by a very famous pastor, Martin Niemöller, “When they came for the communists, when they came for the socialists, I didn’t worry. Then they came for the Catholics. But when they came for me there was no one left to defend me.” People got seduced.

MS: After the Women’s March, I was thinking about your book, Mothers in the Fatherland: Women, the Family and Nazi Politics, and it was a very heavy book. I wanted to ask you about that. What did fascism mean for women in Germany? Because it’s one thing when you hear about the men, and how they were appealed to. But there was a lot of stuff aimed at women that, one, denied their humanity, but, two, was something a lot of people just don’t know about in relation to fascism.

CK: That’s why I wrote the book, because this was in the ’80s, and all my friends in Germany said, oh, my dad was bad, but my mother—my mother was really good. So I went to the archives and I found out that actually, if you want to know how Hitler’s ideology permeated at the grassroots, women are at the center of that story. They’re the mothers who sent their kids off to the Hitler Youth, they’re the local knitting society that gets brown yarn for free. Some of them called themselves “Hitler’s little brown geese,” can you imagine? They were proud at being recognized as women. The head of the organization, the name was, I kid you not, Gertrud Scholtz-Klink. Gertrud Scholtz-Klink headed up an organization of nine million women, all out there volunteering, collecting charity for the needy, cooking meals for the hungry, organizing charity. Everything was organized, even charity.

So women felt proud of doing their so-called womanly activities. And the fact that they were kept out of high places didn’t bother them as much as we might think it would. Not that many women were in the universities to begin with.

The Nazis and the University

MS: The other place that had a lot to do with what happened with Hitler’s reputation, what happened with fascism in Germany, was the universities, and the fact that the universities were very open to Hitler. What about the universities and the Nazis?

CK: I work in the university, so I would think that the universities would be the first to see the danger. Not at all. First of all, actually, Jewish professors were over-represented in the ranks of academe, and 10% of all professors were fired because they were Jewish in 1933. And in a time when there were no jobs available, that meant a lot of PhDs got jobs. So there’s that absolutely material benefit.

And while we’re talking about Jews—also, middle-class professors were about as anti-Semitic as other people—but while we’re talking about Jews, I’d like your listeners to imagine: think of what percentage of all Germans in 1933 were Jewish. Pause for a minute, get that percentage correct, and I bet not many of you guessed under 1%. So we’re looking at a very small population. Quite different from the African American population, which is around 15-18%, in this country. So there’s a very big difference.

The amount of anti-Semitism in the universities was actually quite strong, so that was one reason. The other thing that the Hitler administration did, is to recruit followers in the universities who would serve as legal experts, who would justify racial politics. The funding dried up for what we would call liberal research, but funding was suddenly available for research in race, how race impacts literature, how racial thinking impacts social work. So the racialization of the curriculum meant all kinds of funding opportunities. And so as we’re looking to what’s going to happen now about funding for climate change, we can see that kind of incentive system shifting. So suddenly the availability of jobs, funding and prestige was irresistible.

I have to say that the historians were particularly awful. They took a lot of the history that had been written by Jews, talking about all of Jews’ wonderful contributions, in many, many areas, and they took all that research and they said: see, there’s been a Jewish conspiracy. They just plagiarized and turned pride into insult. So the universities were not a bastion of free speech.

MS: It was heavy reading your book and finding that by 1939, they were steamrollers for Hitler.

CK: I called it the “brown steamroller.”

Popularizers for the Fascist Regime

MS: You talked a lot about the professional popularizers for the Nazi regime. One put out the booklet called Der Stürmer, and the other was Das Schwarze Korps. When I read this, I kept thinking about Breitbart. It’s right there.

CK: It’s right there. And, of course, now we look back and the technology was primitive, but the Nazis were way ahead of the curve. One thing to remember is, before ’33, no politics on the radio. So, radio was not an option. But as soon as electric amplification of the voice became possible, they had it. They had movies. They used filmstrips. They had 72,000 versions of one slide show that was displayed by the Hitler Youth. They were at the technological front of the media always. They had insiders’ newspapers for Party members and huge mass circulation newspapers, their own national news circulations, with fake news, fake facts everywhere. And this was very, very important. They were technologically night and day more sophisticated than any of their political rivals.

MS: Der Stürmer, and Das Schwarze Korps, these were both print publications.

CK: Yes.

MS: And one was from the SS, and the other was from the Stormtroopers. One was geared toward a more brutish audience, and the other was geared toward a more intellectual audience, it seemed. So let’s talk about that a little bit.

CK: They understood how to segment their audience. So Der Stürmer was filled with disgusting anti-Semitic cartoons and outrageous lies, like the National Enquirer. But the Schwarze Korps, which was for the SS, which was the elite, had scientific articles, it had pictures of important people. It looked like a professional association in the day. It had racial science there, it had geopolitics, it had interviews with government dignitaries. It appealed to the elite.

Comparisons to What Is Going On Today

MS: Let me ask you about the structural similarities and situations that encourage racist populism. This is exactly what we’re looking at when we look at the regime in power in the U.S. right now, in terms of encouraging racist populism. Let’s talk about that, the structural similarities in these situations.

CK: You know I can’t resist pointing to one enormous difference. And, of course, the structural similarities are here. We have a group of people who feel left out, left behind. But our situation in some ways is different because—and that’s why I think the term “fascism” isn’t so helpful because we have a unique situation, where you look at the white supremacy tradition in this country. We’ve been a country that has been for 270 years—my math is probably a little weak—we have been a country where white supremacy has been legal, except for 77 years. Except for 77 years, we have been a white supremacist country. That didn’t exist in Germany. And that makes us structurally incredibly different, and I think we always have to remember, we’re more like apartheid in South Africa under de Klerk in that respect than like Nazi Germany.

So it’s important when we’re doing the comparisons to remember that there are some alarming differences, too—not necessarily better. But structurally, we have a developed democracy that people take for granted. We think our wonderful history is going to protect us, because we tend to think of history as being upward and onward always getting better. We don’t see it as a battle. We have two traditions in this country: the tradition of the Enlightenment, the tradition of human rights, human dignity; and then we have the tradition of white supremacy. And they’re both confronting one another right now.

Germany didn’t have that legacy of white supremacy, and the Jewish population was miniscule. So that’s one element that makes us different.

MS: What about the similarities, on the other hand?

CK: The similarities. I can’t resist drawing some similarities in the way in which people seem to follow an outsider leader. Now, you can look at Hitler, and of course, he’s ridiculous. He’s got this shock of hair. He has no political experience. He got the idea for his mustache when he saw his first Charlie Chaplin movie. He was extremely vain. He particularly liked that mop of hair that came down in front of his eyes. He had a photographer with him at all times. The photographer took pictures of his gestures, which he repeated. He could not follow a script. He had to extemporaneously speak because he had to have feedback from his audience. In fact, in 1932, he was so vain, his personal photographer took dozens of pictures of him in different poses so that his annual picture wouldn’t look aged.

He curated an image for himself. The opposite of Trump, but therefore interesting because it was extreme. He was a simple man, a bachelor, a teetotaler, a vegetarian who wore rumpled suits. He appeared kind of harmless. So that in an odd way, won him the trust of people who were so disillusioned with the main political parties of the day.

So from the opposite end of the social scale, we have this outsider capturing the people who feel disenfranchised because of an extraordinary ability to understand the media. Hitler also was a master at making headlines, of the provocative statement. He would always make outrageous statements. It didn’t matter if they weren’t so true. He said, tell a lie, tell a big lie, it always leaves a trace.

MS: You mentioned to me that you’re very worried these days, and I want to talk about that, because you’re not alone.

CK: I’m very worried today because in some ways, Hitler was more cautious. He had to be more cautious because of the constitution, because there was a president over him and he never got more than a third of the vote. And there was no voter fraud in Nazi Germany, P.S.

I’m very worried because what I see is a president whose ignorance is legendary. And he has a Rasputin, Steve Bannon. Hitler didn’t need anybody else. Hitler read whole books, believe it or not. He only remembered what he agreed with, but still. I think I’m worried because we, like the Germans, have a political culture that depends on good will and shared norms, and politicians who respect those norms. We take it for granted.

We’re looking at a regime that has a businessman’s ethic. A businessman looks for loopholes, and looks at respect for your enemies, so-called, respect for the person in the other party as being a sign of weakness or stupidity. We also have a track record in this country of a right-wing movement that is extremely well-funded. Read Dark Money. From 1973, when ALEC, the think tank that produces legislation for right-wing politicians, was founded, the Koch brothers. Here in North Carolina we have the Pope brothers. And here in North Carolina, too, we see what you people in California under Jerry Brown don’t see. We see how the Republicans are behaving, that is to say, finding every loophole, doing absolutely everything they can to block progressive legislation, to cut back the rolls of Medicare. They’re ruthless. And we’re learning very quickly how to fight that. It’s a steep learning curve, but we’ve got to learn fast. That’s what scares me.

So the bottom line is, I think what frightens me most is that progressives in pre-Nazi Germany, in late Weimar Germany, were blindsided by the speed and the ruthlessness with which Hitler seized power. And that’s what I’m afraid of. Remember Franklin Roosevelt said in the 1930s, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself? I think the only thing we have to fear is not being afraid enough.

Even though the parallels are not perfect with Nazi Germany, what is similar is the weakness of progressives, people of good will, liberals, lefties, call them what you will, defenders of human rights—our weakness when confronted with overwhelming force, financial and legal, we hope legal not yet. So that’s why I’m scared.

MS: That’s something to be really cognizant of in terms of what’s happening among the people themselves. What do you want people to take away from this book and the whole thing you’ve been laying out here?

CK: What I want them to take away—and I see it here in North Carolina, we have an incredible movement of resistance. We have Rev. Barber, Moral Mondays. We have grassroots organizations going on everywhere. We still have a free press. We’re still using it. We march. We have mobilizations. And we have a court system that is stronger than they ever had in Nazi Germany. So we need to look at what the resources are we have to mobilize because we’ve got a chance, as long as we make activism a part of everyday life.

MS: Claudia Koonz, thank you very much for joining us today.

CK: Thank you.




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