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Hitler's Social Revolution: Class and Status in Nazi Germany, 1933-1939 (Norton Paperback) Paperback – March 17, 1997
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Schoenbaum's thesis--that German society committed suicide by concurrently using the means of industrial society to achieve its goal of destroying industrial society . . . constitutes an interpretation of major historiographical significance. "
Valuable and impressive. . . . A genuinely new contribution to historical understanding. "
About the Author
David Schoenbaum, a professional historian and lifelong amateur violinist, has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Economist, and many other publications. His previous books include Hitler’s Social Revolution and The United States and the State of Israel.
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Top Customer Reviews
Communism nationalized industry; Nazism nationalized the people. The concept of "Volksgemeinschaft" (national community) became the supreme organizing principle of German society and economy, and a mass of controls materialized to ensure that no individual's interest be allowed to interfere with the general welfare of the whole collective (as determined by those in charge). The nationalism espoused by the Nazis was their perceived antidote to the Marxist theory of class struggle, which they sought to transcend by uniting all interests in a fraternal bond embodied within the state. Schoenbaum's incredibly important and unmatched work describes nearly every significant aspect of the move toward social egalitarianism, duty, and endless economic interventions that reduced business owners to mere shop managers as industry under Hitler's regime was forced into a position of prostration "not even demanded of it by a revolutionary SPD."
This book is very accessible but lends itself to serious study, not casual reading. It is quite simply an indispensable component for anyone who wishes to make sense of the less sensational parts of this episode in history and to ascertain just how much of the Nazis' walk in fact matched their talk. I suspect that for many readers, more of their initial assumptions will be challenged than will be confirmed.
Chief among these was the idea of the Volksgemeinschaft, the organic "National Community" in which every German, no matter how mean his name or pay-check, had his place as a fellow-citizen and equal. The Volksgemeinschaft was of course a Germans-Only club, with no room for Jews or other minorities deemed harmful or hostile, but inside it there was a strongly egalitarian ideology. In the Hitler Youth every young man had his own dagger to wear with his dress uniform, symbolic of every freeman's right to keep and bear arms; in the old German Empire this had been the privilege of the aristocratic elites. There were also very real material improvements for the lower classes under Nazism -- The "Socialism" in "National Socialism" was not merely for show, even if it was not Marxian.
David Schoenbaum wrote one of the first pioneering studies of these aspects of Nazi social policy, with his focus on its quantifiable results rather than the underlying ideology. His book remains a classic today, compiling all the data required to show that Nazi Germany was anything but a "reactionary" dictatorship. (On the contrary, its "progressive" agenda frequently scandalized the real conservatives and reactionaries, both in Germany and elsewhere.)
In thematic chapters, Schoenbaum treats the impact of Nazism on various sectors of German society, including Workers (Chapter III), Business (Ch. IV) and Agriculture (Ch. V). The overall trend is clear: The lot of workers and middle class generally improved, both materially and in terms of status and esteem. Wages remained low, but working conditions improved, and welfare benefits mushroomed. (Big business prospered, too, but was taxed at nigh-confiscatory rates to pay for the social programs.) Moreover, social mobility was promoted: gifted lower-class children were favored by the government, receiving grants to study at special high-status boarding schools (Napolas) intended to produce Germany's future elite. Other programs waived the requirements for high-school diplomas to admit especially worthy students with limited education to the universities.
One section that will startle those readers who believe the Nazis were rabid misogynists wanting their women barefoot and pregnant is that on "The Third Reich and Women" (Chapter VI). There certainly were some "conservative" strains in Nazism; for example, Hitler did not believe women should be leaders in party politics. But in the economic and cultural areas, the Nazis were "feminists" in the sense that they increased female participation in the "public sphere" and attacked the old, patriarchal influences (e.g., the church) which wanted women to remain in the home. "Should a woman practice a profession to which she feels herself 'called,' she deserves the same respect, protection and encouragement as any German man" similarly employed, wrote one author (p. 182). Germany, a country with half the population of the US at the time, employed twice as many women (some 11.5 million in 1933). The number of women physicians and other highly educated professionals continued to increase, and some of the Reich's most famous artists (such as film director Leni Riefenstahl) were women. In the Napolas, girls as well as boys were enrolled. This is not mentioning the influence of the radical "Nazi feminists" (such as Sophie Rogge-Börner), who argued that patriarchy was a Jewish-Semitic institution unfit for European women and thus advocated full equality between the sexes, including the option of combat service in the armed forces for women so inclined(!). (Nothing came of that in practice, however; that was too radical for the 1930s, even in Nazi Germany.)
* * * * *
Altogether, Schoenbaum shows Nazism as a radically transforming force, which "modernized" Germany and generally improved the lot of "the common man" (but not, of course, that of the Jews and other groups unwanted by the leadership). The German people lost their political rights, but in return they were given relative material prosperity, much-increased upward social mobility and the best-developed welfare state in the world (at the time). Such benefits go a long way toward explaining why the totalitarian system could command not merely the people's acquiescence, but in many cases their actual heartfelt loyalty to its rule. There was something for almost everyone in the Nazi state, as long as one did not belong to any of the ostracized minority groups; if there were any losers (besides political opponents), they were the small traders and artisans of the backward German crafts sector, who were increasingly rationalized away.
Schoenbaum believed that Nazism had fundamentally reactionary aims, and that the modernization he so carefully documented was a mere unintended side-effect of its policies. Later research has not allowed this hypothesis to stand: the Nazis were, in fact, very self-consciously promoting a modern, industrial society. (See, above all, the seminal study by Zitelmann: Hitler: The Policies of Seduction (Allison & Busby, 2000).) As such, his main argument is obsolete; but the data he gathered in his impressive and ground-breaking study is no less valuable for it. "Hitler's Social Revolution" is essential reading for all who wish to understand the appeal Nazism held for millions of ordinary Germans, who were not deranged or intrinsically "evil" people.