To (Dis-)Engage and to Work, or: How to Reconstruct German Fascism from the Perspective of AlltagsgeschicteSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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In general, historians of German fascism claim to focus on what they consider to be "fundamental" drives of either whole societies or individuals. This focus on "underlying" structures and forces neglects, even destroys surfaces. Thus, the emphasis on "structure" cuts across those ambivalences historical actors "act out" and experience. In other words, both the practical and the emotional dimensions of historical processes remain beyond the reach of this approach.
An effort to re-adjust perspectives ought to turn to the historical concrete. Practices of people, their interactions and encounters produce, re-produce and transform this historical "concrete." Exploring the concrete can unfold at least two ways. One is the usage of that linear order language provides (or requires). Here, it does not matter whether the text of an historical account is labeled as "narrative," "documentary" or otherwise. In this view historical diachrony resonates strongly with the sequential order of words provided in and by texts. The second would be to employ the simultaneity of pictorial representations.
Not academics but artists introduced non-linear forms of representations into public discourse. In the early 20th century protagonists abandoned the coherence of the artwork and turned to "open" assemblage and collage. Only juxtapositions of non-mediated items would render the ruptures they experienced as pivotal of modern times. However, more recently historians have amply revealed non-linearity as a crucial feature of people's everyday. Thus, collage may re-emerge as the appropriate means for representing the heterogeneity of practices and emotions historical actors produce and experience. In other words, history may go "dada" — at least for a period of experimentation. Or at least: Why not writing history as bricolage?
Encounters and Voices I
Let me suggest we begin our enquiries into everyday life and political rule of German fascism in a laundry located in southeastern Berlin. It's a hot day in May, 1941. Several hundred women and men are hard at work. Two women are busy packing clean clothing and wash into large cardboard boxes. They help each other carry the cartons that are especially heavy. A few months later, one of the women, who had herself barely escaped deportation to one of the ghettos and death camps in the East, decided to type up her recollections , urged to do so by her daughters, who themselves had been forced to emigrate from Germany in 1937. In her account, this woman, Elisabeth Freund, chose the heading "forced labor" for the six months of "conscripted service" from April to October 1941 (when she and her husband were among the very last to emigrate from Germany).
A scene from her description of work at the laundry:
Suddenly the director is standing there right next to us. We didn't even hear the guy come over because of his rubber-soled shoes. Naturally we're very frightened. He asks, 'What kind of work are you doing?' Reply: 'We're filling up the boxes. Single pieces.' The boss wants to know whether they give each other any help. The answer: 'We give each other a hand when the boxes are especially heavy." Muttering a curt "uh-huh," the director walks off. Time for a break. Then the boss comes back again, accompanied now by the section head. He begins to shout, `Look, I've just inquired You're not allowed to help one another. So make sure that doesn't happen again! This Jewish shift here has a helluva lot of nerve. If the Aryan women can carry the boxes by themselves, we're not gonna make any special exception for the Jews, see? You got that?
The two women were classified as 'Jews' in line with Nazi racial criteria, quite separate from their religious beliefs and own gut sense of cultural identification. Yet both women very obviously made use of the expression 'the Jews'—a formulation that was certainly anything but their own coinage. Right from the outset of Nazi rule, the Nazis had begun to take this exclusion and its discursive strategies more and more seriously — not only the activists in their ranks, but innumerable government workers and local civil servants as well, along with journalists, yes, even one's next-door neighbors. The demarcation of 'Jews' in matters public and private had been laced into an administrative corset by a series of individual decrees and other legislation, such as the September 1935 Nuremberg Laws (defining citizenship and marriage restrictions). At the same time, the regime was apparently able to use these legislative forms deftly to generate a semblance of legality. In any event, many of those who were persecuted (not just these two laundry workers) made use of the discourse of their oppressors.
Beginning in 1939, a program of "conscription of service" was implemented in several stages for all persons classified as Jews. Elisabeth Freund, the author of this text describing the laundry, was "conscripted" too, but only in April 1941. Born in 1898 in Breslau as daughter of a neurologist she had studied economy; upon marriage (with a distant cousin) she turned housewife and mother in an upper-middle class family in Berlin. In the late 1920s, however, Mrs. Freund authored several books of practical advice for housewives. After her (much older) husband had been forced to abandon his profession in a lawyer (in 1937), she went in search of gainful employment and began to work as a photographer. As such, she carried on until April 1941.
Back to the laundry in May 1941. Freund recalled in her account which she wrote during winter 1941/42, only several weeks after having landed safely in Cuba:
We know that the Aryan women working here always lend each other a hand with carrying the boxes. This box here, the one he caught us with, weights 38 pounds… Now, of course, each of us works alone, by herself. Ilse is very scared, she's so intimidated she doesn't even want to use a pushcart…When the heavy boxes are really full and haven't been tied up yet with string, the thin wartime cardboard gives way. Then you can't manage with the cartons by yourself. Ilse loses her balance, a box falls down behind the table and opens up, and all the laundry comes tumbling out… No, uh-uh, we can't go on working like this.
But if they gave one another a hand, the factory director could have them sent to a concentration camp for sabotage. In this case, the official responsible, the section head (naturally an "Aryan") is a kind of "saint in disguise." At any rate, he gave Elisabeth Freund a bit of advice. She should be careful not to stand out or to raise any attention. Because, as he told her:
"There are some complaints about you. They say you sit down a lot. But that's not the real reason either. You've simply come to people's attention, you get noticed. The way you work, it looks like you think it's easy ... You don't cringe and cower, see, and that rubs a few people here the wrong way!" And he goes on: "You walk around here standing so tall and straight, you don't let yourself be fazed by anything" Elizabeth Freund comments: "I always walk that way, tall and straight, how can I change that? Maybe it looks provocative seeing how tall I am. OK, so they don't want you to walk with your back erect. They want us to be slaves, poor cowering slaves! Oh God, I can't, and I'll never learn how either!
Along with the Reich-German (or so-called 'Aryan') female workers and a small number of foremen, the laundry also employed a goodly number who belonged to the various groups of what were termed 'foreign' or 'Eastern' workers (a label used not just by ardent Nazis), categories with diverse subdivisions and gradings.
Elisabeth Freund experienced these distinctions between worker subclasses in all their minute and humiliating detail. The bulk of her paltry wages (always at the level of what was paid to unskilled beginners) were transferred to a closed account. She had no chance to ask to be hired by another firm; that privilege was exclusively reserved for 'Aryans'. Nor was she granted a day off to work in the household ('Hausarbeitstag') once every four weeks; exclusion and discrimination were comprehensive, all the way to the "Aryan toilet." With bitterness, she records all the 'many little jabs' that are part of her everyday existence as a worker; yet at the same time, she expresses her pride in their not being able to break her spirit.
A few days after being upbraided, Elisabeth was transferred to another job, sent to work at the steam press as a form of punishment. She needed to be in excellent physical shape for that job. But Elizabeth Freund had heart trouble. Her new foreman told her that now she'd have to demonstrate "whether she wanted to work or not." Elizabeth Freund recalled: "This man and another foreman in the section there never looked directly at a Jew when speaking with him or her. As if they were delivering their instructions right into the thin air."
Only three or four days later, Elisabeth Freund collapsed. She managed to have herself checked by a health service physician (the Jewish doctor had explained to her that a document from her would be worthless now). The factory doctor then issued her a pass for sick leave (exceptional), allowing her a few weeks of rest and recuperation.
Encounters and Voices II
In his diary "Zeugnis ablegen bis zum Letzten," Victor Klemperer carefully observed those classified by the Nuremberg Laws as "Reich Germans" and "Aryans" (and who often proudly referred to themselves by these same terns). Klemperer, who had volunteered as a soldier in WWI, was a university professor and taught romance literature at the Technical University of Dresden. To write day after day minute notes on his life was his way of dealing with his "shame for Germany," and his own dire situation and fears for survival.
Klemperer made note of those he dubbed "the steadfast:" they were apparently few in number and proved "steadfast" in the face of the various expectations, demands and temptations of the new Nazi officials (who were often the same old authorities and bosses in new boots). For the most part, Klemperer and other "Jews" but also gypsies — in short, all those who were excluded and persecuted as "enemies" or "persons alien to the folk community" — had contact basically with another category of individuals, what Klemperer labeled "the lukewarm ones."
Klemperer repeatedly insists that committed Nazis were never amongst neighbors; to him they came from the outside or "from above." But that appears doubtful in the light of Elisabeth Freud's observations: many ordinary workers and supervisors fervently pursued Nazi policies. Also other memoirs reinforce the suspicion that in many cases it was the neighbors themselves who were quite assiduous, even enthusiastic in helping to make "Jews" out of their former, now "non-Aryan" nextdoor neighbors.
Accounts from Hindsight
Given that those who 'went along with it all' were so numerous: can one discern any different of support for or acceptance of Nazism among Germans as to cultural milieu, social class, or gender? Again, an individual's voice shall allude to facets of people's orientation and behavior.
Harald Menzel, born 1907, wrote his memoirs `after the event,' in the late 1950s, when he was living in East Germany. Having tried various jobs, Menzel entered church service and worked in a nursing home. He was employed there in the 1930s. Sometime after 1940 he learned about the opportunities in German civilian "in the East." In 1942, he was sent to the occupied Ukraine as part of a Ministry for the East labor recruitment program. There it was his job to recruit (or, as he put it, to "win over") young men and women for deployment in German war industry as "Eastern workers" for the supposedly grand "cause," the struggle against Bolshevism. He remembers this job as an unusually fascinating task.
He had considerable powers of discretion and a great deal of latitude, and wished to make use of the chance this afforded him by performing well. Yet it was precisely at this point that a rupture occurred. In the polycratism of the Nazi regime, there was a head-on clash between an approach predicated on carefully calculated exploitation and one aimed at the ruthless draining of work energy to the last ounce. In the East, that latter approach was represented among others by the East Prussian Gauleiter Erich Koch. A memo by Menzel criticizing such ruthless practices led to his dismissal (although no further punitive action was taken). Of course, Menzel's memo was by no means an incident of resistance; rather, it was one of those many instances in which Germans not only "went along" with things but cooperated actively and intensively, anticipated matters and provided impetus and input for their further development.
In each such instance, the active participation of section heads, administrators and even of clerical personnel in fulfilling the job of "their agency" or "their company" was more than mere passive obedience. Active participation and involvement was also a part of the picture where organizational routines and bureaucratic forms created or reinforced a semblance of order and regularity.
"Quality Work" - and its Exclusive Imagery
Let's take a step back in time, and also widen the focus. Right from late imperial Germany on, German labor and industry were increasingly regarded as reflective of "quality work." Here the workers' movements, entrepreneurs, and managers (and their respective associations) found themselves in one and the same national boat. Yet it was not only functionaries or journalists or managers who saw the role of German labor in this light — many workers, men and women, viewed their everyday practice, the toil of their handiwork and machine production, in terms of the formulae and symbols of "German quality work." Accordingly, the workers on the shop floor in their own ways employed manual dexterity, experience, and physical strength. In this view, workers in other countries seemed to follow constraints or inducements, but it was self-reliance that made Germans strive for achieving a "first-rate" product. While workers elsewhere would need "fool proof" instructions (as it seemed to be the case in the USA) German workers set out on their own to find the best solutions for their tasks. Around 1930, this pervasive "myth of everyday life" (Roland Barthes) encompassed simple handicrafts as well as technically sophisticated machine operation. Most importantly though, this interpretation had conflated both images of quality work and notions of Germanness. And it was specific and emotionally charged view of oneself and of others that cut across divisions of class, gender, and generation-its symbolism was overarching.
Thus, work was more than just a means to an end. Instrumental orientations were mixed together with meanings, in which work showed itself to be an exhausting, but fascinating "metabolism with nature" (Karl Marx). To endure daily hardships and to conquer the numerous risks of an accident at work imbued many workers with a sense of assertiveness. It was this experience which fuelled people's "Eigensinn" (obstinate self-reliance): the effort to carve out niches of space time and resources "for oneself." Not resistance against "above" but distance from everyone — also from maters — would be a preferred form to display "Eigensinn."
At the same time, organized labor (re-)presented itself more and more as "national labor." The "patriotic" or "national" purpose inherent in wage labor in field or factory was celebrated. This interpretation got enormous momentum among all generations by the 1914 general mobilization for the war effort. And after the military defeat in 1918 most people beyond the boundaries of class, gender and generation would agree that "revenge for Versailles" required ever more "German quality work." Across the board labor organizations subscribed to the call for furthering "German quality work." At the same time, representatives of the socialist and even of the communist movement envisioned increased production as the only means to improve the living conditions of their members but of all working men and women.
Significantly, efforts to develop a republican counter-perspective and counter-symbolism during the agitated years of 1918-23, so rocked by revolution and reaction, proved unsuccessful. On the contrary, trade unions seized upon "German quality work" as a first line of defense in the struggle against the division of labor and assembly-line production, a means to ensure a minimum of "living labor."
By the same token, notions and symbols of "German quality work" excluded all "non-Germans," totally and without compromise. When German workers emigrated to the thousands to the Soviet Union around 1930 they either desperately looked for a job, or they wanted to further the good cause of building a new society. After several months or even years some of them lamented in detailed accounts to Soviet unions what they saw as deplorable work ethics among their Soviet or, for that matter, Russian comrades. Thus, even militant Communists framed their standards of proper work on the image of "German quality work."
"German Quality Work:" How To Connect Production and Destruction
Through their role in arms production, "Aryan" German workers, male and female, were directly involved in the genocidal destruction that characterized fascist rule in Germany. Yet beyo nd the factories, it was also the workers from 1935 on who constituted the majority of men in military uniform. An attitude of passive acceptance and readiness to participate were the dominant tone in these pre-war years, and after war broke out in September 1939.
Independent of their intensity of support for the state regime, the minds of the conscripted men turned again and again to the home front; what was it like down in the factories, back home on tile shop floor? For example. the soldier Karl Schroiber, who had been a production worker in an agricultural machine factory in Leipzig before the war, wrote in July 1942:
I heard from a buddy that you guys now are hard at work. And that's the main thing. But it's too bad there are so few German workers in the plant. Those Russians are not gonna accomplish much. You see here what kind of people the Russkis are. The best method is to set up a machine-gun and keep it pointed at them. We Germans still have too much sympathy with the likes of them. They wouldn't treat us that way, and don't. Since you've all got a large number of that sort back in the plant, you're gonna see for yourselves what they're made of. Mainly, the Russian's a liar, we've seen that for ourselves often enough."
Another worker-soldier made clear his criteria in a letter in December 1941: "Although the best skilled workers are not around due to the war, I think the foreign temporary workers are not lowering the quality of the machines. Though I can well imagine that you hardly hear much German these days in the plant." That same month, another one of the men who'd been employed earlier at the farm machinery factory in Leipzig commented: "The German worker simply can't be compared to any other worker anywhere in the world."
These statements apparently assume it is obvious that war means to kill other people. Hardly anyone addresses that particular point directly. When such a topic was broached, then an indirect form was used; such a remark might give a person a way to refer to the crimes of the "others," and perhaps provide an opportunity to allude to or work through one's own misgivings. Thus, Herbert Habermalz, a Wehrmacht sergeant, who had flown north over Warsaw, wrote in a letter to his firm in June 1943:
"Circling over the city a few times, one is very pleased to see that the huge Jewish section of town had been totally destroyed. They did a really good job of that. Not a single house left standing, everything destroyed right down to the foundation walls."
For many, a soldier's life was a totally new experience, not always so simple. But there were various similarities with everyday life in the factory, especially the physical exertion. And the subordination was also a familiar feature — even if you had to "listen to" more commands than "were acceptable in civilian life." It is not surprising that in one of his letters about the march to the East, a man drafted into the army wrote to his buddies at the plant back in Leipzig that he didn't feel like a soldier, he felt like a "worker." Wasn't it enough to encourage and justify oneself with reference to "a job well-done?" Hadn't the superiority of "German quality work" been amply demonstrated on all fronts in the "victorious" onslaught on the enemy and the "successful defense" against enemy attack? Moreover, whoever had completed a "job well-done" had also "cleaned up" afterwards. After those "clearing-up operations," could there ever be any unwanted residues?
Levels of Analysis
Let me backtrack a bit in my argument. I've tried to illustrate my initial thesis by examples, but haven't stated it in precise terms. It is my contention that despite differing emphases and conceptions, the various analyses of German fascist society and rule have, almost without exception, for decades been framed in terms of a dominant model: that of perpetrator and victims.
Only in the course of a deeper shift in perspective has the myth of German victimization been explicitly repudiated. Work by Lutz Niethammer and others on people's life courses and related recollections has demonstrated just how positive people's memories of National Socialism remain, including the memories reported by industrial workers. They recall as the "best time ever" the economic "upswing" after 1936/37 and the "peaceful years" down to 1939. Many, though, did not hesitate to include also the first three years of the war.
More recently, detailed empirical work on the Gestapo had revealed the existence of the widespread practice of denunciation. This research sheds light on a huge readiness and enthusiasm among the masses to go along with and participate in the configuration (and practices) of domination. It was this active participation that helped facilitate the power of the regime to carry through with its policies, and thus helped to ensure the (relative) stability of German fascism. Reinhard Mann showed in his pioneering study of the Gestapo office in Dusseldorf that almost two thirds of Gestapo activity there was not initiated by the apparatus itself (or as a result of inputs from party and state offices). Rather, these Gestapo investigations and arrests were the result of information stemming directly from the population.
Following this lead, Robert Gellately has stressed that there was a basic agreement in terms of content with the objectives of the Nazi regime. In particular, he traced an unmistakable mass anti-Semitism. Klaus Mallmann had Gerhard Paul point to a broader spectrum of interests in securing personal survival and enhancing status, intermingled with hopes for a "better" future life. The institutions of the Nazi state were able to link up with and tap these popular orientations.
The Patchwork of Practices
It is undoubtedly important to concentrate on ideological motivations and socio-economic interests. Yet that approach can, I believe, help only in part to explain the motives underlying the willingness to accept the regime and actively participate in its policies and programs. There is a tendency to overemphasize the conscious areas of agreement. It is presupposed that both individuals and groups orient their behavior primarily in terms of maximizing calculated personal benefit. Yet such a perspective excludes that experiences come as composites and multiples; such a view ignores their hodgepodge or patchwork character. It also underplays the power of symbols to confirm and facilitate experience. The multiple logics of behavior can only be grasped if attention is paid simultaneously to both calculated and "experienced" motives. More concretely, the interest among workers in new shower rooms down at the plant, a premium from the German Labor Front, found a reinforcing echo in the old and familiar "image" of the "quality worker," now strengthened by propagandistic means. In such a context of reward, it was only more probable that workers might participate in the "great deeds" of the Nazi bigwigs and Wehrmacht generals — or at least adopt a curious, wait-and-see attitude.
Perspectives that stress the system of rule, ideology and calculated interests tend to ignore the patchwork of practices and orientations which people co-produce and in which people themselves live and operate. It is the dynamic simultaneity of dependence and independent action or self-willed action that people act out as compliant acceptance and active complicity.
Reconstruction of everyday social practice reveals a meandering which strongly resonates with and is informed by this simultaneity. People participate (in relationships of domination) and follow their (occasional?) desire to be a part of things; this very participation is time and again, however, undercut by silent or self-willed distance, momentarily even by acts of resistance. For individuals, that constituted a melange containing assent, passive acceptance, going along with and participating in events-as well as by "lying low," distancing themselves or here and there resisting.
These stances are not contradictory, they mingled. In their everyday lives people constantly meandered, always changing gear and direction. Seen from the "inside," being a part of things had many external faces.
Of course, in the teeth of the possible consequences and the victims it might claim, variety contracted. Complicity could spring both from hesitant compliant acceptance or "enthusiastic" assent. Yet it was on this composite that the system of domination and exploitation of German fascism relied right down to its final minute.
Alf Lüdtke is Professor of Modern History at the University of Hanover, a Fellow of the Max Planck Institute for History, and a leading architect of Alltagsgeschichte (History of Everyday Life) in Germany. He was visiting professor to the Department of History at the University of Michigan in Fall, 1997.
For encouraging comments and stimluating criticism I want to thank both the participants of a conference on Macro- and Micro-History at UCLA, June 6 and 7, 1997 and the members of the CSST-seminar, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, December 3, 1997. At either occasion I presented a much longer version of this text.
Carola Sachse (ed.), Als Zwangsarbeiterin in Berlin. Die Aufzeichnungen der Volkswirtin Elisabeth Freund, Berlin 1996; cf. On the Nazi-administrative and police introduction, pp. 10-12; on forced labor see pp.31-35.
See the letters written between 1931 and 1933 and subsequent articles derived from such complaints in the Moscow daily newspaper "Deutsche Zentral-Zeitung," State Archives of the Russian Federation (GARF), Fonds 5451, list 29, No. 100ff.
See the more extended discussion in my "Die Praxis von Herrschaft: Zur Analyze von Hinnelmen and Mitmachen im deutschen Faschismus," in Brigette Berlekamp, Werner Rohr (ed.), Terror, Herrschaft und Alltag im Nationalsozialismus. Probleme einer Sozialgeschichte des deutschen Faschismus, Munster 1995, pp.226-245.
Lutz Niethammer (ed.), Die Jahre weiB man heute nicht mehr wo man die heute hinsetzen soll, (Berlin, Bonn 1983); important contributions also by Ian Kershaw, "The Hitler-Myth," Image and Reality in the Third Reich,2nd., Oxford, 1987.
Reinhard Mann, Protest und Kontrolle im Deutschen Reich. Nationalsozialistische Herrschaft im Alltag einer rheinischen Grofstadt, Frankfurt a.M. 1987; Robert Gellately, The Gestapo and German Society: Enforcing Racial Policy, 1933-1945, Oxford 1992; Gerhard Paul, Paul Mallmann, Widerstand und Verweigerung im Saarland, 1935-1945, Bd.2: Bonn 1991; Bd: Bonn 1995; Gerhard Paul, Paul Mallmann (ed.), Die Gestapo. Mythos und Realitat,Darmstadt 1995.