Book Review: Hitler’s Compromises
Coercion and Consensus in Nazi Germany
by Nathan Stoltzfus
Yale University Press, 2016
Historian Nathan Stoltzfus opens his completely invigorating new book Hitler’s Compromises: Coercion and Consensus in Nazi Germany by asking the same essential question that always comes up in any study of the Nazi regime: “Why did the most literate of nations, well known for its poets, philosophers, and composers, jump on the bandwagon as Hitler sped impatiently toward Armageddon?”
But unlike a great many more simplistic treatments, this one favors a very refreshing subtlety of approach to what Stoltzfus calls “the soft side of Hitler’s dictatorship.” The book looks at the many ways Hitler’s functionaries altered and adapted the new strictures they were imposing on Germany society, usually in response to public outcry or institutional resistance, the two things so many histories are quick to dismiss as easy victims of the Nazi steamroller. “The dictatorship,” Stoltzfus writes, “could not have won over the Germans so well if its brass knuckles had not been paired with the solicitous hand of national welfare and compromise.”
The note of national welfare was sounded most strongly in the early years on the subject of societal “contamination” by the mentally handicapped, minorities, Jews, and other groups the Nazis argued were parasites on the pure Teutonic fatherland. In the reading put forward by Stoltzfus, the dictator knew early on that he’d need to acclimatize the nation to his level of blood-thirst:
Hitler was eager to start killing hundreds of thousands of German-blooded “incurables” who burdened the new social order. But he estimated that it would take more than a few years of reshaping German values before these murders could be conducted openly without offending large numbers of people and that this goal could not be accomplished with anything like the terror and savagery the regime unleashed against its enemies.
Hitler faced similar resistance to his order that all classroom crucifixes be replaced with swastikas and pictures of the Fuhrer himself. Parents and clergy and educators were appalled and resisted in large enough numbers to prompt Hitler’s gauleiters to urge moderation and accommodation. They knew the limits of simple violence as a method of social coercion, and as Stoltzfus reminds his readers throughout his book, their boss knew it too: “Hitler preferred the legitimacy of legalities – but only for practices done openly of course.”
The vicious ugliness at the heart of the Nazi machine is clearly the fuel of that machine – when police broke up a Nazi student demonstration in the pre-power years, Hitler muttered that one day his Nazis would “wield the rubber truncheon with exactly the same legitimacy as others do today” – but Stoltzfus illustrates so sharply and memorably, the Nazis may have dreamed of the rubber truncheon, but they were also opportunistic brutes, willing to lie and wheedle to get their way if they sensed that mere force wouldn’t work. Hitler’s Compromises is a brilliant exploration of that side of Nazism – indispensable reading for students of the period.