on May 25, 2001
Although many books have been written within the past decade regarding the policies and power of Hitler during the 'Third Reich'-including "Nazi Terror", by Eric Johnson and the duelling theories of Daniel Goldhagen and Christopher Browning- this is so far the most complete history of the Nazis power and terror. In Gellately's study, he examines the methods that Hitler and others in all levels of the heirarchy used propaganda and popular german sentiment to shape both policy, the public opinion of said policy, and the manner in which his policies were policed. In every example, from the sweeping national arrests and terror against the Communists, to the use of slave labor at wars-end, Gellately is very thorough in documentation and in using examples to make his points. This is a key point I think, which also happens to be one of the failings of Goldhagen's book-if an author is going to make a sweeping generalization(for example Goldhagen's 'the women camp guards were more brutal and sadistic than the male camp guards'), then he needs more than a few examples to make it. He makes his points very clearly using case after case from Gestapo files and other sources, without demonstrating the tendancy to revert back to the same few examples as proof positive of a specific trait, such as Goldhagen does. Another strong point is that he does not tend to 'bulls-eye' on any single topic in his book. Gellately gives a fair accounting of a wide variety of issues in which the German people were willing accomplices in sending Communists, Jews, asocials, and increasingly in the war years, their fellow neighbors and relatives to the gallows or camps. My single largest complaint with this book is in the manner of presentation. It is a bit too clinical at times and never really engaging, such as I found Eric Johnson's "Nazi Terror", and the best so far regarding the Jewish persecution; volume 1 of Saul Friedlander's "Nazi Germany and the Jews". All in all though I found it to be a very worthwhile read, as it definitely raised some good questions and was a thorough study of Germans during the Third Reich, and their support of Hitler.
Robert Gellately's "Backing Hitler" may be the most thought provoking, extensive study as to how and why the German people ultimately embraced both Nazism and Adolf Hitler during the course of the Great Depression and World War II. Gellately makes the startling claim that most Germans were aware of Nazi atrocities - though not necessarily the worst - and yet found them tolerable as a means to combat crime. Indeed, he notes how Germans embraced Nazism as a succesful antidote to the financial and cultural corruption they'd seen in the 1920's and early 1930's during the Weimar Republic. With the notable exception of the Holocaust, Nazi goverment officials and agencies such as the Gestapo and the SS did not hide the existence of concentration camps and torture from the general public, but instead, allowed them to be published both in Nazi popular journals and daily newspapers (And the Holocaust itself was not hidden, except for its most virulent, deadly phases, in which Jews were dealt with via "special handling", the Nazi euphemism for genocide.). Only towards the end, during the final months and weeks of the war, did the German public see the most brutal aspects of the Nazi regime. Yet surprisingly, many Germans continued to support the regime until the very end. Gellately's premise may seem unoriginal in light of Daniel Goldhagen's popular book indicting the entire German nation for the Holocaust, yet unlike Goldhagen, Gellately offers substantially more persuasive evidence to demonstrate how a social consensus was reached within German society in support of the Nazi regime. Gellately's book may be the seminal work looking at how the Nazis successfully used the media in disseminating their philosophy to Germany.
"Backing Hitler" tackles a difficult question: how much did the German people know about what Hitler was actually doing to the groups he so zealously persecuted? The answer to this, according to the author, is that they were well aware of what Hitler was doing.
By examining the surviving newspapers, magazines, and dossiers from the police and Gestapo, the author explores what the German people knew, and how they participated in the Holocaust. We learn, for example, that the Gestapo appears to have largely relied on denunciations from the public, not its own research and intelligence.
The mathematician in me would like to have seen more discussion of the sampling techniques used in the book. In many cases where the author examined police dossiers, he said that he looked at "every other" file. This raises many questions: what exactly does he mean by every other file? What order were the files in: chronological, alphabetical, random, some ordering scheme he used while going through them? This question is not answered. With a good ordering, it would be trivial for him to adjust the files to give the results he wanted to "prove".
Ignoring my reservations on the statistical methods used by the author, this book is an excellent discussion on the propaganda fed to the public. It is not an introductory reader for those interested in Nazi Germany, but would make an excellent complement to a book collection with a heavy emphasis on that time period.
on July 19, 2001
In this relatively brief but searching analysis of how much the German public knew about the underside of the Third Reich--from violations of civil liberties to euthanasia and the Holocaust--Gellately demonstrates fairly conclusively that there was a fair amount of both media publicity and common knowledge about Nazi excesses. Far from being reluctant to have the public know about their misdeeds, Hitler and the Nazi leadership are shown to have been concerned about how the public perceived what they were doing and to have carefully manipulated public opinion in the process.
The destruction of civil liberties and the rule of law from the Wilhelmine and Weimar eras was depicted as restoration of "law and order," in terms that are hauntingly reminiscent of those used by some of the more extreme American proponents of "law and order." The concentration camps during the prewar era were portrayed as places for reforming and reeducating those who for one reason or another had gone astray politically or socially; in this sense, the common threads of totalitarianism are evident, as the Third Reich sounds similar to Stalin's Russia and Mao's China.
Gellately argues persuasively that there were three distinct phases to how the Nazis portrayed themselves and in the degree to which they resorted to radical means of controlling society. The prewar era showed much more concern about public opinion and rationality. Once the War began, the methods became more radical and the arguments to support them became more extreme. (As others have also shown, Gellately posits that this is when the genocide against the Jews really went into high gear.) In the final months of the Reich, literally "anything goes" became the attitude and relatively little concern was given to public opinion--though Gellately argues that the majority of Germans stuck with Hitler to the very end.
Especially intriguing are the author's review of a number of Gestapo files on individuals who were accused of betraying the regime in one way or another. From an admittedly limited sample that he has thoroughly analyzed, Gellately demonstrates that the Gestapo and other police agencies had the active cooperation of the citizenry in ferreting out offenders. Indeed, their sources were overwhelmingly citizen complaints, most of them quite open and non-anonymous. But the specifics of a number of these cases are both fascinating and disturbing in the extreme. Clearly, a number of citizens used the Gestapo and the mechanisms of terror to get even with innocent people who had never violated the law.
Gellately's final synoptic chapter is the best part of the book and is especially well written. (In fact, it might warrant being read first.) The rest of the book, especially the early chapters, is somewhat turgid and difficult going; one wishes that it had been written and edited as well as the end. But this is a book that will clearly repay the time spent on it. I doubt that general readers new to the subject would find it as useful as those with more background, however.
Traditionally, I have read books on American history rather than European history, but this one caught my eye because of the premise - that ordinary Germans played a role in enforcing Hitler's mandates of Aryan supremacy.
Backing Hitler: Consent & Coercion in nazi Germany is a thought-provoking book that looks at ordinary German citizens and their involvement in the governmental policies of forcing "racial purity". By examining the police (both ordinary uniformed police and undercover officers), Gellately has given us a view into Hitler's Germany that hasn't been explored much before.
Gellately explored the police and contends that ordinary people made up the police force and were consentually backing Hitler's policies. These people opted to enforce the policies, regardless of whether they felt that the policies were right because their personal experiences told them so or that the propaganda won them over. The folks that were coerced into compliance were often herded into concentration camps such as Auschwitz or Dachau.
The concepts in the book are well argued, though it appears that the author is not overly familiar with all of the rules of English grammar (i.e. placement of commas, etc.), thus making the book a touch more difficult to read, but it is a book that really should be on your list if you are interested in German history between 1933-1945.
on September 9, 2012
Competently told but the prose is plodding; the narrative moves like a donkey cart on an autobahn.
- How popular Nazi ideology was
- How prevalent the system was (not too surprising, considering fascism is considered totalitarian)
- How the KZs were well documented in the media
- How the "We didn't know" excuse common among postwar German citizenry doesn't hold up
In particular, Chapter 9, concerning concentration camps in public spaces is eye-opening
There is a small but very good collection of photographs
on June 6, 2002
Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany by Robert Gellately is a interesting and thought provoking study of what the German people knew and when they know it. Gellately does a fine job delving through the historical achieves, especially old newspapers, to give the reader an insight into what information was available to the German public.
What is fascinating about the book is the insight which the author only touches on concerning the need of the Nazi Government to form firm a basis of popular support and their decision to take drastic steps to insure that the support did not falter. While the Nazi could act with ruthlessness maybe only equaled by Stalin in dealing with foreigners or subhumans, when it came to its reflation with its Aryan brethren, the Nazis were sure to only go as far as they believed that their policies would be accepted. While this limitation may have ceased with the end of the war, it does not mitigate against the fact that the German public by backing the main polices of Nazism facilitated the regimes evils deeds.
The fact that the Nazi publicized the formation of the concentration camps and the marginalization of the Jews and Gypsies speaks volumes about the anticipated public reaction. Gellately points out that most Germans saw these steps as part of the larger Nazi law and order campaign as well as moving Germany toward a more wholesome future. What is terrifying about the book is not only that the German public bought in to the Nazi propaganda, but the chance that if they had not that millions upon millions of people might have lived through the war.
The down side of the book is that at times it is repetitions and it could have used a good editing. The subject matter is dense, but that may not have been able ti be avoided. This is an important book, and even with the above limitations it is a worthwhile read.
There is no point, at this late date, for retelling German horrors, unless the retelling provides an insight into what was behind them. This Robert Gellately's "Backing Hitler" does, successfully but in irritating fashion.
He also adds some new information not used by earlier historians, from newspapers and Gestapo files.
For a long generation after 1945, most reports of German atrocity, if they tried to maintain any balance at all, just threw up their hands and asked "How could this have happened?" Stated or implied was a caveat: Germans were human beings, too, so this inhuman behavior could not really be explained.
Few indeed turned that conundrum on its head to propose that Germans were not humans, at least not humans advanced out of savagery. It was scarcely 10 years ago when Daniel Jonah Goldhagen seriously suggested, in "Hitler's Willing Executioners," that savagery ran deep and true in Germans. The outrage that greeted Goldhagen's book was, in the most charitable light, testimony to the reluctance of most people to think anybody could sink so low as Goldhagen sank the Germans.
Less charitable commentators, like me, saw the antagonism to Goldhagen as the late 20th century expression of 1930s appeasers who declared that Germany could not be nearly as bad as its enemies portrayed it, because Germans had written so much lovely music. This infantile outlook has been all too powerful in the historiography of the Hitler era.
Gellately knocks the idea in the head, stuns it and drags it off to history's towering scrapheap of silly ideas. "The great majority of the German people soon became devoted to Hitler and they supported him to the bitter end in 1945" sums the findings.
One myth is easily disposed of: the claim that the "good Germans" were unaware of what the Nazis were up to. Gellately finds front page stories in mass circulation newspapers and magazines in which the German public was told about the concentration camps, from the start of Hitler's regime, and told that they were a good thing -- originally to dispose of "Communists." Some Communists were indeed disposed of, along with, as time passed, an expanding menagerie of unGermans: Gypsies, drunkards, the mentally ill or physically handicapped, even a few Catholic priests who, although the Roman church got on well with Hitler, persisted in a sentimental appreciation for the Catholic Center Party.
The German version of the Gallup Poll, the Gestapo listeners-in, found that the good Germans massively approved of it. The village of Heuberg preferred to have a concentration camp nearby because it displaced a children's home, which the Heubergers found offensive.
Really, it is hard for civilized people to comprehend, much less understand, how German the Germans were. Gellately doesn't make it much easier. The first half of "Backing Hitler" is mostly a recapitulation of atrocities that are well known already to anybody who has studied Hitlerism.
Also, he fails to make the crucial distinction between German love of Hitler and love of Hitlerism. Not all Germans loved Hitler, even if most did. The social elite despised him as a common Austrian who spoke German with a hick accent. They sat around, drinking stolen wine and whispering to each other how Germany would be better off without that schwein. Not without his policies, which satisfied them very well, just without the individual.
In the second half of the book, the pace picks up and Gellately summarizes dozens and hundreds of examples of how ordinary Germans cooperated with the regime. The police state could not have operated without that. There were never more than 7,000 Gestapo men in Germany, a nation of nearly 70 million. Any medium-size American city has more cops.
There were other police, the uniformed Order Police, the detectives or Kriminal Police, and the rural constables, but for a police state Germany had remarkably few cops. (During the war there were plenty of German cops in the conquered lands, but Gellately explicitly limits his history to Germany proper.)
The argument of "Backing Hitler" is powerfully persuasive. It offers to English readers a taste of what a new generation of German historians has produced at home, although their books have not generally been translated into English.
Now the bad word. Gellately is a scholar, but practically illiterate. "Backing Hitler" was not edited or even proof-read. In general, the sense of Gellately's sentences is clear, although there are a few exceptions, but the book is an agony to read.
Nevertheless, it should be read, at least until a better version of the same facts is given us by a better writer.
on September 5, 2013
Gellately is able to present evidence that shows that evil that is not hidden can still be accepted by a people who in different times would not consider the actions acceptable. A sobering description showing the extent that the Nazis were mindful of public opinion and were able to lead opinion by reflecting beliefs that had become legitimate.
on June 5, 2015
Very informative, well written and researched. A good resource for both history buffs and students.