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Susan Green

Civil Life in Wartime Germany
A Book Review

(27 August 1945)

From Labor Action, Vol. IX No. 35, 27 August 1945, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Civil Life in Wartime Germany by Max Seydewitz, a former leader of the Social Democrats in Germany, is recommended as an antidote to the dishonest propaganda rampant on the subject of the“guilt of the German people.” This reviewer especially recommends the book to Labor Action readers, and particularly to its good friend, W.S. of Detroit, who has taken issue with the stand of Labor Action on the question of the relationship of the German people to the Nazi regime.

Mr. Seydewitz shows that after six years of concentrated terror and propaganda to prepare the German people for war, “The lethargy of the masses at the beginning of the war disproved the frequent and vociferous assertions that the German nation stood unitedly behind its Fuehrer.”

Hitler never had the wholehearted support of the German people.“Even at the time of Hitler’s greatest successes, when he waged his blitzkrieg campaign, the major part of the people stood aloof from Hitler’s volksgemeinschaft, assuming either a passively waiting or indifferent attitude, or one that was downright hostile, ” writes Seydewitz, Before the Russian Campaign, another thorough purge of the population was made and terror was again stepped up. The torture and extermination of Communists, the imprisonment of all subjects, still did not stop all underground activities.

When the blitz swept through western Russia, the high spirits of the bigwigs did not communicate themselves to the masses.

“The masses did not seem greatly impressed by the grandiose victories, ” writes Seydewitz. “...experience had taught them that even the most striking victories seemed to be unable to restore peace ... What the masses wanted was peace ... the average German was thinking not so much of the victories as of his own troubles, of the son, the husband, or the fiancé at the front ... The public’s indifference to the favorable bulletins was so striking as to evoke censure in the Nazi press.”

The situation on the home front was, of course, going from bad to worse. In 1941, with long wartime hours, wages averaged twenty-five percent less than in 1930. Prices were up 22.8 percent from 1933 to 1937, and continued upward during the war years. Assessments and taxes on workers’ wages amounted to tremendous cuts. For instance, an unmarried worker earning 160 marks a month was docked 55.32 marks; a married worker, doing heavy overtime, earned 206 marks but received only 148.17 a month. The black market, of course, flourished. Dividend payments, in contrast to the people’s misery, ran as high as thirty percent.

Organized Terror

“The overwhelming majority of the working classes held the National Socialist regime responsible for their unhappy lot, ”writes Seydewitz. This was reflected in the actions taken by the regime.

The third Winter of the 1941–42 saw the first crisis of the home front. The setback in their calculations of victory over the Russians brought need for increased production. Arrests of recalcitrant workers would not solve the manpower shortage. The Nazis tried persuasion and propaganda. Decorations were given for “outstanding achievements” and the workers were exhorted that “two must do the work that three did before.” But the workers countered with the slogan, “No increased production without more food.”

, During this period there were strikes in Dortmund, Berlin and the Westphalia industrial regions. In Hamburg a spontaneous riot procured for the people delicacies unloaded for the moneyed classes. Sabotage increased. “The Gestapo expressed the belief that all railway accidents could be traced back to calculated sabotage, ” writes Seydewitz. Underground handbills and wall messages were plentiful, on bombed walls could be read: “Thanks to our Fuehrer.” It must be remembered, to get the full significance of this home front crisis, that it happened in 1941–42 when the German troops were holding lush Russian soil. The military tide had not yet turned definitely. Stalingrad was not freed till February 1943.

By the summer of 1942 the authorities again got the upper hand. Great shifts of labor took place. Workers were sent to the front. There were transfers from civilian manufacture to war production. More women were drafted into responsible work, older men came under the labor draft. There was also the influx of foreign labor. But above all this, the most effective instrument was the new terror. Spies in factories were increased; the shop police force was improved; the Gestapo intensified its efforts with thirty-two varieties of “enemies of the State” to sort out and punish. At this time there also appeared the street fortresses in central localities, with machine gun emplacements, innocently called“air-raid shelters.”

Signs of Dissatisfaction

The air raids produced in the people nothing but the desire to escape the war. Those not bombed out wanted nothing more than the end of the war before the horror came to them. The rage at Allied fliers who rained destruction was equalled by hatred for the government held responsible for the war and the inability to protect the homeland. Anti-Nazi propaganda made wide use of Air Minister Goering’s promise in ’39: “I’ll be hanged if the enemy succeeds in penetrating anti-air defense and drops bombs on Germany.” It was suggested that he be hanged in the Ruhr where the devastating bombing was going on.

There was another epidemic of slow-downs n the factories. Sick leaves played a big part so that Himmler threatened to sterilize workers whose constitutions were too weak to allow them to work. Anew form of sabotage developed. The workers used the “leader principle” to cause much waste of labor and material. They followed orders blindly in spite of apparent mistakes made by new supervisors. To keep workers on the job during times when enemy planes appeared on reconnaissance flights or on way to targets, factory gates were locked and machine guns placed at entrances. The SS guards and factory police mounted guard in factories with revolvers drawn. “From the beginning of the fifth year of the war the only means of maintaining the Hitler régime remained – terror, ” writes Seydewitz.

This review would not be complete without a few words oh the German youth and the German troops, as presented by Seydewitz. He divides the youth into three groups. There are the anti-Nazi youth mainly in the universities. The German universities had been breeding spots of Nazism in the early days.

The second group represents the dyed-in-the-wool Nazi faithfuls. Seydewitz estimates that those are about ten percent of the youth. Their number seems larger because they have been more in evidence. They are always on display. Also this group seems more numerous because the main body of youth, the third group, which really has no convictions at all, still howls with the wolves of group two.

Army Discipline

How about the troops? Why did they continue to fight? First we must understand how the Nazis built their army. In the Kaiser’s army there was one man of higher rank for each eight soldiers. In Hitler’s army each four soldiers had a petty boss. In the Kaiser’s army there were five ranks of non-commissioned officers; in Hitler's army there were nine. The Kaiser’s army was notorious for its iron discipline. In Hitler’s army the discipline was steel. Then there was the terror organization within the army. Besides the military police culled from the Nazi SS troops, there were outright SS formations, and on top of all, the numerous Gestapo spies. There were concentration camps for erring soldiers. And punishment was meted out to the families of soldiers who missed a goose step. “The Third Reich has hammered home the fact that for soldiers and their families, its regime of terror is a greater danger than the enemy, ” writes Seydewitz.

Terror held the army together, and terror held the home front together. Any mass disaffection in the army would have to have been based on organized revolt at home, but the terror over the masses and their political decapitation made this impossible.

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