Modern history





For Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen, the Third Reich represented the coming to power of the mob and the overthrow of all social authority. Although Reck lived in aristocratic style in Upper Bavaria, where he had an old country house with eleven hectares of land, he was in fact North German; he owed his origins and his allegiance, he explained to a Munich newspaper in 1929, not to the Bavarian but to the ancient Prussian aristocracy. Deeply conservative, snobbish, steeped in nostalgia for the days before the Junkers were dragged screaming into the modern world by Bismarck, Reck loathed Nazi Germany with a rare intensity. From the comparative safety of his rural retreat, he poured into his diary all the distaste he felt at the new order of things. ‘I am the prisoner of a horde of vicious apes,’ he wrote. Hitler was a ‘piece of filth’ whom he should have shot when he had had the opportunity when, carrying a revolver to protect himself against the raging mob violence of the times, he had encountered him in the Osteria restaurant in Munich in 1932. Listening to Hitler speak, Reck’s overwhelming impression was one of the Leader’s ‘basic stupidity’. He looked ‘like a tram-conductor’; his face ‘waggled with unhealthy cushions of fat; it all hung, it was slack and without structure - slaggy, gelatinous, sick’. And yet people worshipped this ‘unclean . . . monstrosity’, this ‘power-drunk schizophrenic’. Reck could not bear to witness the ‘bovine and finally moronic roar of “Hail!” . . . hysterical females, adolescents in a trance, an entire people in the spiritual state of howling dervishes’. ‘Oh truly,’ he wrote in 1937, ‘men can sink no lower. This mob, to which I am connected by a common nationality, is not only unaware of its own degradation but is ready at any moment to demand of every one of its fellow human beings the same mob roar . . . the same degree of degradation.’1

The Nazi leaders, Reck thought, were ‘dirty little bourgeois who . . . have seated themselves at the table of their evicted lords’.2 As for German society in general, he wrote bitterly in September 1938:

Mass-man moves, robotlike, from digestion to sleeping with his peroxide-blonde females, and produces children to keep the termite heap in continued operation. He repeats word for word the incantations of the Great Manitou, denounces or is denounced, dies or is made to die, and so goes on vegetating . . . But even this, the overrunning of the world with Neanderthals, is not what is unbearable. What is unbearable is that this horde of Neanderthals demands of the few full human beings who are left that they also shall kindly turn into cavemen; and then threatens them with physical extinction if they refuse.3

Wisely, perhaps, Reck hid his diary every night deep in the woods and fields on his land, constantly changing the hiding place so that it could not be discovered by the Gestapo.4

Reck was particularly distressed at what had happened to the younger generation of the aristocracy. Visiting a fashionable Berlin nightclub early in 1939, he found it filled with ‘young men of the rural nobility, all of them in SS uniforms’:

They were having a fine time dropping pieces of ice from the champagne coolers down the décolletages of their ladies and retrieving the pieces of ice from the horrible depths amidst general jubilation. They . . . communicated with each other in loud voices that must certainly have been understandable on Mars, their speech the pimps’ jargon of the First World War and the Free Corps period - the jargon which is what the language has become during the last twenty years

... To observe these men meant looking at the unbridgeable abyss that separates all of us from the life of yesterday . . . The first thing is the frightening emptiness of their faces. Then one observes, in the eyes, a kind of flicker from time to time, a sudden lighting up. This has nothing to do with youth. It is the typical look of this generation, the immediate reflection of a basic and completely hysterical savagery.5

These men, he wrote prophetically, ‘would turn the paintings of Leonardo into an ash heap if their Leader stamped them degenerate’. They ‘will perpetrate still worse things, and worst, most dreadful of all, they will be totally incapable of even sensing the deep degradation of their existence’. Aristocrats of ancient and honourable lineage, he raged, accepted meaningless titles and honours from a regime that had degraded them and so brought disgrace on their famous names. ‘This people are insane. They will pay dearly for their insanity.’ The traditional moral and social order had been turned upside-down, and the man he blamed more than any other was Hitler himself. ‘I have hated you in every hour that has gone by,’ he told the Nazi leader in the privacy of his own diary in August 1939, ‘I hate you so that I would happily give my life for your death, and happily go to my own doom if only I could witness yours, take you with me into the depths.’6

Reck was unusual in the vehemence of his disdain for what he saw as the Nazified masses. The sharpness and percipience of some of his observations perhaps owed something to his extreme marginality. For the claims to noble lineage made in his 1929 article in the Munich newspaper were as false as the details of his supposed origins in the Baltic aristocracy that he provided in his elaborately constructed family tree. He was, in truth, just plain Fritz Reck. His grandfather had been an innkeeper, and though his father had acquired enough wealth and standing to get himself elected to the Prussian Chamber of Deputies in 1900, it was in the lower house that he sat, as befitted a commoner, not in the upper house, where the hereditary nobility belonged. Reck himself was a qualified physician who devoted most of his time to writing - novels, plays, journalism, film scripts and much more. He constructed a whole fantastic past for himself, involving military service in many different theatres of war, and even service in the British colonial army. All of it was invented. Yet Reck’s claim to be an aristocrat seems to have aroused no suspicion or animosity in the circles in which he moved. It was underpinned by his notoriously superior and arrogant bearing in public. Reck took on in his social and personal life all the attributes of the Prussian Junker. His belief in his own aristocratic character and in the virtues of the social elite of the titled and the cultured seems to have been absolutely genuine.7 And however many of the details in his diary were invented, Reck’s hatred for Hitler and the Nazis was unquestionably authentic.8

Reck’s conservatism was far more extreme than that of most of the genuinely old Prussian aristocracy. As he astutely recognized, it was scarcely shared by the younger generation at all. The German aristocracy had undergone an unusually sharp generational divide during the Weimar years. The older generation, deprived of the financial and social backing they had enjoyed from the state under the Bismarckian Reich, longed for a return to the old days. They regarded the Nazis’ pseudo-egalitarian rhetoric with suspicion and alarm. But the younger generation despised the old monarchies for giving up without a fight in 1918. They saw in the Nazi Party in the early 1930s the potential vehicle for the creation of a new leadership elite. They regarded the aristocracy to which they belonged not as a status group based on a shared sense of honour, but as a racial entity, the product of centuries of breeding. It was this view that had prevailed in the 17,000-strong German Nobles’ Union (Deutsche Adelsgenossenschaft) in the early 1920s as it had banned Jewish nobles (about 1.5 per cent of the total) from becoming members. But it was not universally held. Catholic nobles, overwhelmingly concentrated in the south of Germany, stayed aloof from this process of racialization, and many took the side of their Church when it began to come under pressure in the Third Reich. Relatively few even of the younger Bavarian aristocracy followed their North German Protestant counterparts into the SS, although many had opposed the Weimar Republic. They felt instead more comfortable in other right-wing organizations such as the Steel Helmets. Older nobles in all German regions were usually monarchists, and indeed an open commitment to the restoration of the German monarchies was a precondition of belonging to the Nobles’ Union until it was dropped under the Third Reich. Yet many of them were attracted by the Nazis’ hostility to socialism and Communism, their emphasis on leadership, and their rhetorical attacks on bourgeois culture. For the younger generation, the rapid expansion of the armed forces offered new opportunities for employment in a traditional function in the officer corps. The Nazi prioritizing of the conquest of living-space in Eastern Europe appealed to many in the Pomeranian and Prussian nobility who saw it as reviving the glorious days in which their ancestors had colonized the East. Conscious of the need to win votes from the conservative sectors of the population, the Nazis frequently brought scions of the nobility along to stand with them on electoral platforms in the early 1930s. The younger members of the Hohenzollern family took the lead in supporting the Nazis: Prince August Wilhelm of

Prussia was an officer in the stormtroopers well before 1933, and Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm urged people to vote for Hitler against Hindenburg in the Presidential elections of 1932.9

Although the brownshirts and a good number of ‘old fighters’ continued to pour scorn on what they saw as the effete degeneracy of the German nobility, Hitler himself recognized that its younger generation would be indispensable in staffing his new, vastly expanded officer corps and in giving a continued veneer of respectability to the foreign service. He even allowed the German Nobles’ Union to continue in existence, duly co-ordinated under Nazi leadership. However, as soon as he felt it was no longer necessary to treat the conservatives with kid gloves, Hitler made it clear he was not going to contemplate the restoration of the monarchy. Aristocratic celebrations of the ex-Kaiser’s birthday in Berlin early in 1934 were broken up by gangs of brownshirts and a number of monarchist associations were banned. Any remaining hopes amongst the older generation of German nobles were finally dashed with Hitler’s assumption of the headship of state on the death of Hindenburg, when many had hoped for a restoration of the monarchy. But if Hitler’s treatment of the aristocracy became cooler, this was more than compensated for by the growing enthusiasm shown towards them by Heinrich Himmler, Reich Leader of the SS. Bit by bit, the older generation of SS men, with histories of violence often going back to the Free Corps of the early years of the Weimar Republic, were pensioned off, to be replaced by the highly educated and the nobly born. Nazi populists might have castigated the German aristocracy as effete and degenerate, but Himmler was convinced he knew better; centuries of planned breeding, he thought, must have produced a steady improvement in its racial quality. Soon he was conveying this message to receptive audiences of German aristocrats. Figures such as the Hereditary Grand Duke of Mecklenburg and Prince Wilhelm of Hesse had already joined the SS before 30 January 1933; now young aristocrats fell over themselves to enrol, including many from the Prussian military nobility such as the Barons von der Goltz, von Podbielski and many more.10

By 1938 nearly a fifth of the senior ranks of SS men were filled by titled members of the nobility, and roughly one in ten among the lower officer grades. To cement his relations with the aristocracy, Himmler persuaded all the most important German horse-riding associations, preserves of upper-class sportsmanship and snobbish socializing, to enrol in the SS, irrespective of their political views, much to the disgust of some of the older generation of SS veterans, so that SS riders regularly won the German equestrianism championships, hitherto the preserve of privately run riding clubs. But some, especially those who had come down in the world under the Weimar Republic, took a more active and committed role. Typical here was Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski, who had volunteered for service in the war at the age of fifteen, joined a Free Corps, then been cashiered from the army in 1924 because of his proselytizing for the Nazis. He had made a living running a taxi firm, then a farm, before joining the Nazi Party and the SS in 1930; by the end of 1933 he was already moving rapidly up the hierarchy. Other young noblemen with similar careers included Ludolf von Alvensleben, who had also served in a Free Corps, lost his Polish estate at the end of the war and his compensation for the loss during the inflation, and made an unsuccessful attempt to run a car firm, which eventually went bankrupt; or Baron Karl von Eberstein, who had tried to eke out his existence in the 1920s as a travel agent. Reck-Malleczewen’s observation in the Berlin nightclub had been shrewd and percipient: many of the younger members of the Junker aristocracy had indeed joined Himmler’s new German elite. Others, especially those who had enrolled in the army or the foreign service, enthusiastic though they may have been to begin with, were in time to become bitterly disillusioned with the regime.11


Germany’s aristocracy had traditionally made its living from the land. Although over the years nobles had come to play a significant and in some areas more than significant role in the officer corps, the civil service, and even industry, it was the land that still provided many of them with the main source of their income, social power and political influence in the 1920s and 1930s. Reich President Paul von Hindenburg had been particularly susceptible to the influence of the Prussian landed aristocrats with whom he socialized when he was down on his estate in East Prussian Neudeck, and a great deal of public comment had been aroused by the special concessions the government had made to landowners like him, in the form of aid for agricultural producers in the rural East. As far as the Nazis were concerned, however, it was not the large landowner but the small peasant farmer who constituted the bedrock of German society in the countryside. Point 17 of the Nazi Party programme of 1920 indeed demanded ‘a land reform suited to our national needs’ and the ‘creation of a law for the confiscation of land without compensation and for communally beneficial purposes’. Following on point 16, which demanded the abolition of the department stores, this clause seemed on the face of it to be directed against the great estates. But Nazism’s critics made it look as if the Party was threatening peasant farms with expropriation as well, so on 13 April 1928, Hitler issued a ‘clarification’ of this clause in what had in the meantime been repeatedly trumpeted as a fixed, unalterable and non-discussable list of demands. Point 17 of the Party programme simply referred, he said, to Jewish land speculators who did not control land in the public interest but used it for profiteering. Farmers need not worry: the Nazi Party was committed in principle to the sanctity of private property.12

Reassured by this statement, and driven to despair by the deep economic crisis into which agriculture had fallen even before the onset of the Depression, the North German peasantry duly voted for the Nazi Party in large numbers from 1930 onwards. The landowning aristocracy stayed aloof, preferring to support the Nationalists. On the face of it, Nazism seemed to have little to offer them. Nevertheless, their interests were well represented in the coalition that came to power on 30 January 1933. Alfred Hugenberg, the Nationalist leader, was not only Minister of Economics but Minister of Agriculture too, and in this capacity he swiftly introduced a series of measures designed to pull his supporters, and German farmers more generally, out of the economic morass into which they had sunk. He banned creditors from foreclosing on indebted farms until 31 October 1933, he increased import duties on key agricultural products, and on 1 June he introduced measures providing for the cancellation of some debts. To protect dairy farmers, Hugenberg also cut the manufacture of margarine by 40 per cent and ordered that it should include some butter amongst its constituents. This last measure led in a very short space of time to an increase of up to 50 per cent in the price of fats, including butter and margarine, and caused widespread popular criticism. This was yet another nail in Hugenberg’s political coffin. By late June the process of co-ordination had long since overwhelmed the key agricultural pressure-groups and was reaching Hugenberg’s own Nationalist Party. By the end of the month, Hugenberg had resigned all his posts and disappeared into political oblivion.13

The man who replaced him was Richard Walther Darré, the Party’s agricultural expert and inventor of the Nazi slogan ‘blood and soil’. For Darré, what mattered was not improving the economic position of agriculture but shoring up the peasant farmer as the source of German racial strength. In his books The Peasantry as the Life-Source of the Nordic Race, published in 1928, and New Aristocracy from Blood and Soil, which appeared the following year, Darré argued that the essential qualities of the German race had been instilled into it by the peasantry of the early Middle Ages, which had not been downtrodden or oppressed by the landowning aristocracy but on the contrary had essentially formed part of a single racial community with it. The existence of landed estates was purely functional and did not express any superiority of intellect or character on the part of their owners.14 These ideas had a powerful influence on Heinrich Himmler, who made Darré the Director of his Head Office for Race and Settlement. Himmler’s idea of a new racial aristocracy to rule Germany had many aspects in common with Darré’s, at least to begin with. And Darré’s ideas appealed to Hitler, who invited him to join the Party and become head of a new section devoted to agriculture and the peasantry in 1930. By 1933 Darré had built up a large and well-organized propaganda machine that spread the good news amongst the peasantry about their pivotal role in the coming Third Reich. And he had successfully infiltrated so many Nazi Party members into agricultural pressure-groups like the Reich Land League that it was relatively easy for him to organize their co-ordination in the early months of the new regime.15

By the time of Hugenberg’s resignation, Darré already effectively controlled the Nazified national farmers’ organization, and his appointment as Minister of Agriculture cemented his existing position as leader of some nine million farmers and agricultural workers, who with their dependants made up something like 30 per cent of the population of Germany as a whole.16 Within a couple of months of his appointment he was ready to introduce measures which aimed to put his ambitions into effect. Apart from the Reich Food Estate, these focused on new inheritance laws through which Darré sought to preserve the peasantry and build it into the foundation of a new social order. In some parts of Germany, notably the South-west, partible inheritance customs and laws meant that when a farmer died, his property and assets were divided up equally between his sons, thus leading to morcellization (the creation of farms so small as to be unviable) and thus to the proletarianization of the small peasant farmer. Darré’s ideal was a Germany covered by farms that were big enough to be self-sufficient. Instead of being inherited by all the heirs equally, or, as in most of North Germany, the eldest son, farms should pass, he thought, to the strongest and most effective of the heirs alone. Keeping them in the family in this way would also isolate them from the market. Over the years, encouraged by this new rule, natural selection would strengthen the peasantry until it fulfilled its destiny of providing a new leadership caste for the nation as a whole. On 29 September 1933, in pursuit of this ambitious goal, Darré’s Reich Entailed Farm Law was passed. It claimed to revive the old German custom of entailment, or inalienable inheritance. All farms of between 7.5 and 125 hectares were to fall under the provisions of the Law. They could not be bought or sold or split up, and they could not be foreclosed because of debt. Nor could they be used as security on loans. These were extremely draconian restrictions on the free market in land. But they were not very realistic. In practice, they owed most to Darré’s abstract and ideal image of the solid and self-sufficient peasant farmer. Yet Germany was a country where centuries of partible inheritance had already created thousands of very small farms at one end of the scale, while the accumulation of property by landowners had led to the development of large numbers of estates far bigger than 125 hectares at the other. Only 700,000 farms, or 22 per cent of the total, were affected by the Law, making up about 37 per cent of the area covered by agricultural land and forests in Germany. Of these, some 85 per cent were at the lower end of the scale, between 20 and 50 hectares in size. In some areas, notably in Mecklenburg and estate-dominated parts of the East Elbian plain on the one hand, and in the heavily morcellized South-west on the other, the Law applied to relatively few properties and had little effect. But in parts of central Germany its impact was potentially considerable.17

Darré hoped to get round the problem of what to do with the heirs who were disinherited by the Law by encouraging them to start new farms in the East. This revived the tradition, much hallowed by German conservatives, of the ‘colonization’ of the East, but with one crucial difference: the area that was now to be colonized to create a new society of small and self-sufficient peasant farms was already occupied by large and middling Junker estates. On 11 May 1934, Darré spoke out bluntly against the estates’ current owners who, he said, had destroyed the peasantry of East Elbia over the centuries and reduced many small farmers to the status of landless labourers. It was time, he declared, to return to the peasants the land that the Junkers had stolen from them. Of course, since the abandonment of the idea, originally mooted in point 17 of the Nazi Party programme, of expropriating the large estate-owners and dividing up their land between small peasant farmers, it was not possible even for Darré to urge compulsory measures in order to carry out his proposals. Instead, therefore, he urged that the state should do nothing to help estate owners who got into financial difficulties, a position not far from that of Hitler himself, who had declared on 27 April 1933 that large estates that failed should be ‘colonized’ by landless German peasants.18

Darré’s ambitious plans were only partially fulfilled. They made him deeply unpopular in many sections of the population, including large parts of the peasantry. Moreover, for all his willingness to let failing estates be divided up, Hitler basically saw the conquest of living-space in the East as the main solution to Germany’s agrarian problems. Colonization in his view thus had to wait until Germany had extended its dominion across Poland, Belarus and the Ukraine. In any case, for all his verbal egalitarianism, Hitler did not want to destroy the economic basis of the Prussian landed aristocracy. Many economic experts realized that the Junker estates, many of which had successfully rationalized and modernized their production and management since the late nineteenth century, were far more efficient as food producers than small peasant farmers, and the maintenance of food supplies in the present could not be mortgaged to the creation of a racial utopia in the future. In practice, therefore, the number of new small farms created east of the river Elbe did not significantly increase over what it had been in the last years of the Weimar Republic. Reich Entailed Farmers’ sons disinherited by the Law did not, by and large, manage to find new properties under the scheme, and in any case, many Catholic peasants from the South German hills were less than enthusiastic about being uprooted to the distant shores of Pomerania or East Prussia, far from their families, surrounded by alien Protestants speaking strange dialects in an unfamiliar, flat and featureless landscape.19

Map 12. Reich Entailed Farms

Under the debt clearance scheme initiated by Darré’s predecessor Alfred Hugenberg, 650 million Reichsmarks were paid out by the government to make peasant farmers and estate owners solvent. This compared well with the 454 million paid out under Weimar between 1926 and 1933. Indebted farmers who fell under the aegis of the Reich Entailed Farm Law suddenly found that the threat of foreclosure had disappeared. However, the owners of entailed farms were frequently refused credit on the grounds that they could no longer use their farm as collateral. The fact that some used their new status to refuse to pay their existing debts only reinforced the determination of suppliers and merchants to make them pay cash for everything they bought. The Law thus made it more difficult than before for farmers to invest in expensive machinery, or to buy up small pieces of agricultural land adjoining their own farms. ‘What use to us is a hereditary farm that’s going to be debt-free in about 30 years’ time,’ one said, ‘when we can’t raise any money now, because nobody’s giving us anything?’20 There was bitterness and resentment amongst the sons and daughters of farmers who now saw themselves suddenly disinherited: many of them had worked hard all their lives as unpaid family assistants in the expectation of inheriting a portion of their father’s land, only to have this prospect brusquely removed by the provisions of the new law. Farmers sympathetic to their children’s plight could no longer follow the custom, common in areas of primogeniture, of remortgaging the farm to raise money for dowries or cash sums to be made over to their disinherited offspring in their last will and testament. In the practice of one notary alone, it was reported in the spring of 1934, twenty engagements had been called off since the Law’s introduction since the brides’ fathers could no longer raise the money for the dowries.21 Moreover, it was now more difficult for the disinherited to buy their own farms even if they did possess some cash, since by taking 700,000 farms out of the property market the Law increased prices for non-entailed farmland. Ironically, therefore, the Reich Entailed Farm Law left the unsuccessful sons and daughters of farmowners no option but to leave the land and migrate to the cities, the very opposite of what Darré had intended. So onerous were the restrictions it imposed that many entailed farmers no longer felt they really owned their property at all; they were merely trustees or administrators for it.22

The removal of automatic inheritance rules created serious tensions in the family. Farmers thought the Law would be ‘the occasion for an embittered sibling war’, it was reported, ‘and see as the consequence the introduction of a system of one-child families’ - another respect in which the effects of the Law promised to be the reverse of what Darré had expected. In Bavaria towards the end of 1934 one such farmer, the longest-serving Party member in his district, was sent to prison for three months for saying in public that Hitler was not a farmer and did not have any children himself, or he would not have passed the Law. In court he repeated these sentiments, though without the earthy obscenities that had accompanied them in his original statement. Peasant farmers even brought court cases challenging the decision to designate them as Reich entailed farmers.23 By the summer of 1934 peasant farmers had turned against the Nazis’ agrarian policies everywhere; in Bavaria the atmosphere on market-days was said to be so hostile to the Party that local gendarmes did not dare intervene, and well-known Nazis avoided the farmers for fear they would be subjected to a barrage of aggressive questions. Even in areas like Schleswig-Holstein, where the rural population had voted in overwhelming numbers for the Nazi Party in 1930- 33, the peasants were said by July 1934 to be depressed, particularly about the prices they were getting for their pigs. In addition, a Social Democratic agent reported at this time from North-west Germany:

Formerly the middling and large landowners of Oldenburg and East Friesia were very enthusiastic for the Nazis. But nowadays they are almost unanimously rejecting them and returning to their old conservative tradition. A particular contribution to this change had been made amongst East Friesian cattle-breeders and rich polder-farmers by the Entailed Farm Law, and amongst the middling farmers and land-users above all by the compulsory regulation of milk and egg production.24

The problem here was that instead of selling their milk and eggs direct to consumers, as they had done previously, the farmers were now having to go through the elaborate structure of the Reich Food Estate, which meant that they were only getting 10 pfennigs a litre of milk instead of the previous 16, since the wholesalers raked off 10 pfennigs and the price maximum was fixed at 20. Not surprisingly, a black market in eggs and milk soon emerged, to the irritation of the authorities, who responded with police raids, the mass seizure of contraband eggs and arrests of those people involved.25

Older peasants remembered the grand promises made by Darré in 1933 and continued to grumble more openly and unrestrainedly than almost any other sector of the population, because the regime felt unable to crack down on them hard in view of their indispensability. Nazi speakers continued to encounter heckling at farmers’ meetings; at one such assembly, in Silesia in 1937, when the speaker lost his temper and told his audience that the Gestapo would soon teach them how to be National Socialists, most of the listeners simply got up and walked out. Farmers complained not only about low prices, the flight of their labourers from the land, the cost of machinery, fertilizer and the rest, but also about the high salaries of Reich Food Estate officials who did nothing but interfere. Many, like other Germans, resented the continual demands of the Party and affiliated organizations for donations and contributions.26 Particularly vociferous were the owners of Reich Entailed Farms, who felt so secure in their tenure that they could afford to speak with a sometimes astonishing openness. Asked by a young Nazi whether the peasants in a particular Bavarian village could really be supporters of the Party when they were so ready to curse it, one such farmer replied, ‘Nah, we’re no Hitlerites, they only have those in Berlin.’ When the young man then said he thought he should enlighten them and bring them to their senses, the farmer, applauded by the others present, told him: ‘We don’t need any enlightening, you scamp! You ought to be still at school!’ Peasant farmers felt they had lost their freedom to buy and sell their goods, and in the cases of the Reich Entailed Farms their property too, on the open market, and had gained nothing in return. Yet many observers remembered ‘that farmers have always cursed every government through the ages’. Grumbling at the Nazi regime was no different. Moreover, younger farmers and farmers’ sons saw opportunities in the regime as well, in many cases in terms of jobs in the administration of the Reich Food Estate itself. The Nazi ideology of ‘blood and soil’ had more appeal to them than to cynical old peasant farmers who thought they had seen it all before and who paid more attention in the end to material factors. But even the older farmers were aware that their situation by 1939 was not so bad as it had been six or seven years earlier.27


Despite the many and often contradictory pressures to which they were subjected under the Third Reich, village communities did not change fundamentally between 1933 and 1939. In rural areas of Protestant North Germany, the Nazi Party had been able to unite local opinion, often backed by leading figures in the community such as the village pastor and schoolteacher, the more prosperous farmers and even sometimes the local estate owner, behind the promise to keep the class struggle that was raging in the towns and cities from disturbing the relative peace of the countryside. Here as elsewhere, the promise of a united national community was a potent slogan that won Nazism many supporters before 1933.28 Leading peasant families in many villages slipped effortlessly into leading roles in the new Reich. In rural Bavaria, the Nazi Party was wary of upsetting local opinion by parachuting ‘old fighters’ into village councils or mayors’ offices if they did not already have the respect of the villagers by virtue of their family or their place within the traditional hierarchy of the farming community. Particularly where Catholicism was strong, and villagers had continued to vote for the Centre Party or its Bavarian equivalent, the Bavarian People’s Party, up to 1933, the Nazis trod warily. Generating consensus and neutralizing potential opposition were the priorities. For their part, villagers were mostly quite happy to adapt to the new regime if this preserved existing social and political structures.29

In the Bavarian village of Mietraching, for example, village treasurer Hinterstocker, who had held office since 1919, was persuaded by other members of the Bavarian People’s Party to join the Nazi Party in 1933 so that he could keep his post and prevent a rabid ‘old fighter’ from getting his hands on the community purse-strings. When a particularly disliked Nazi threatened to take over the mayoralty in 1935, the village elders once more persuaded the popular and ever-obliging Hinterstocker to do the decent thing and become mayor himself. In this position, Hinterstocker was said to have done everything he could in subsequent years to keep the most unpopular measures of the regime from impacting on the village, and he made a point of taking part every year without fail in the village’s religious processions, much to the satisfaction of the other villagers. On 12 December 1945, as the regional administrator told the American occupation authorities, 90 per cent of the villagers were reported to be in favour of his reappointment.30 In another Bavarian village, when the local Party tried to put an ‘old fighter’ into a key post, the local administrator’s office registered its alarm:

The district office is not in a position to agree to the suggestion that the master tailor S. should be appointed mayor of the commune of Langenpreising. In discussion with the councillors, the latter have unanimously expressed a wish to leave the existing mayor Nyrt in office, since as a farmer he is better suited to this post than the master tailor S ... The district office is also of the opinion that the appointment of a respected farmer is a better guarantee for the smooth running of communal business.31

Village council members even had to be reminded from time to time that mayors were appointed and not elected under the Third Reich, when the minutes of their meetings reached higher authority.32 In parts of rural Lippe, things could be even more disconcerting for the Party, as in the case of Mayor Wöhrmeier in the village of Donop, who refused to take part in Nazi Party functions or to use the ‘Hail, Hitler!’ greeting when signing off his letters, never possessed a swastika flag and organized successful economic boycotts against village artisans and tradespeople who backed the efforts of the local Party Leader to oust him. Despite repeated denunciations, Wöhrmeier successfully held on to his post all the way up to 1945.33

The solidarity of village communities in many parts of Germany had been created over centuries through a dense network of customs and institutions, which governed common rights such as gleaning, wood-collecting and the like. Villages often consisted of intertwined groups of family and kin, and the role of unpaid family assistants, who might include at times of particularly heavy demand for labour cousins, uncles and aunts from nearby farms as well as the family itself, was similarly governed by long-hallowed tradition. The precariousness of everyday life on the land had generated an economy based on a system of mutual obligations that could not easily be disturbed - hence the resentment in many parts of the countryside against the Reich Entailed Farm Law, even among those it ostensibly benefited. At the same time, there were also considerable inequalities of class and status within village communities, not only between farmers on the one hand and millers, cattle dealers, blacksmiths and the like on the other, but also amongst the farmers themselves. In the Hessian village of Körle, for instance, with roughly a thousand souls around 1930, the community was split into three main groups. At the top were the ‘horse-farmers’, fourteen substantial peasant farmers with between 10 and 30 hectares each, producing enough of a surplus for the market to be able to keep horses and employ labourers and maids on a permanent basis and more temporarily at harvest-time. In the middle were the ‘cow-farmers’, sixty-six of them in 1928, who were more or less self-sufficient with 2 to 10 hectares of land apiece but depended for labour on their own relatives and occasionally employed extra labourers at time of need, though they generally paid them in kind rather than in money. Finally, at the bottom of the social heap, there were the ‘goat-farmers’, eighty households with less than 2 hectares each, dependent on the loan of draught animals and ploughs from the horse-farmers, and paying for their services by working for them at times in return.34

By the 1920s, the economic situation of this last group had become precarious enough for a number of the menfolk to have to earn a living during the week by working as industrial labourers in nearby towns, to which the village was linked by a good railway connection. This brought them into contact with Communism and Social Democracy, which soon became the political preference of many of the poorer families in Körle. Nevertheless, the network of mutual dependencies and obligations helped unite the community and cement the role of the horse-farmers as its natural and generally accepted leaders; political differences worried the village elite, but they were still expressed largely outside the traditional structures of the village. The horse-farmers and cow-farmers were mostly Nationalist by political conviction, and cannot have been very pleased when the existing mayor was ousted in 1933 to make way for a leading local Nazi. Yet the rhetoric of Nazism had a powerful social appeal to the community at all social levels. Villagers, suitably encouraged by the outpourings of the Propaganda Ministry and its numerous organs, could readily identify with the image of Hitler as head of a national household based on a network of mutual obligations in the organic national community. If propaganda had its limitations in the countryside, with only one radio set for every twenty-five inhabitants compared with one in eight in the towns even in 1939, and no direct access to cinemas, then the Ministry did its best to get its message across through encouraging the purchase of ‘People’s Receivers’ and sending mobile cinemas round the villages. The message they conveyed, of the new People’s Community in which the peasantry would occupy a central place, was not unwelcome and helped reassure the older farmers that not a lot would change; perhaps the new regime would even restore the hierarchical community structures that had been undermined by the drift of young men from poor families into the towns and the spread of Marxist ideology amongst the goat-farmers.35

Given such cohesive social structures, it is not surprising that village communities remained largely intact during and after the Nazi seizure of power. There was little resistance to the takeover; the local Communists were subject to house-searches and threatened with arrest, and in social terms the suppression of the labour movement in Körle, such as it was, clearly represented the reassertion of the dominance of the horse-farmers and cow-farmers over the village lower class, the goat-farmers. However, using the rhetoric of community to crush opposition to the new regime also had implications in the village as to how far the process of co-ordination could go. The goat-farmers and their sons were too valuable to the village elites to be crushed altogether. Thus the monarchist father of the local Nazi who led the police and brownshirt raids on the homes of the local Communists in 1933 threatened to disinherit him if any of those affected were taken out of the village, and thus he limited the effects of the action. When stormtroopers were brought in to the village from outside to confiscate the bicycles of the local cycling club, which was close to the Communist Party, the local innkeeper, a long-established Nazi Party member, presented them with a fictitious deed purporting to show that the club owed him so much money that he was entitled to seize the bicycles in lieu of payment. The stormtroopers withdrew, and the innkeeper stowed the bicycles away in his loft, where they remained until they were retrieved by their former owners after the war. Village solidarities were often more important than politics, particularly when they were threatened from outside.36

Nevertheless, the Third Reich did not leave them wholly untouched. In Körle, for example, as in other parts of rural Germany, the Nazi regime opened up generational tensions as most fathers of all social groups remained opposed to Nazism while many sons saw membership and activity in the Party as a means of asserting themselves against an authoritarian older generation. By joining a variety of Nazi Party organizations they found a new role that was not dependent on their elders. Interviewed after the war, villagers said the early years of the Third Reich brought ‘war’ into every household.37 As the demand for industrial labour grew, more young men, and, increasingly, young women from the goat-farmer households spent more time working for wages in the towns, bringing new prosperity into the home but also getting exposed to new ideas and new forms of social organization. The Hitler Youth, the Labour Service, the army and a whole variety of women’s organizations took boys and girls, young men and women out of the village and showed them the wider world. The escalating Nazi attack on the Churches also began to undermine another central village institution, both as an instrument of socialization and as a centre of social cohesion. At the same time, however, these changes had their limits. The older generation’s belief in the community and the farmers’ dependence on the labour and other obligations of the young meant that the arrogance of the younger generation was tolerated, the tensions it generated dispelled by humour, and the household and community preserved intact. And the younger generation’s involvement in Nazi Party organizations did not bring them much new independence as individuals; it mainly meant they extended their community allegiance to a new set of institutions.38

The fact that village social structures were not fundamentally affected by the regime perhaps helps explain why in the end, for all their grumbling, the peasants were not driven into outright opposition. The major bones of contention - labour shortages, the unwelcome side-effects of the Reich Entailed Farm Law, the low prices for their produce set by the Reich Food Estate - presented the peasantry with obstacles they did their best to circumvent with their traditional cunning, adulterating flour to make it go further, selling produce directly on the black market and so on. They could also have recourse to the law, and many did so. The effects of the Reich Entailed Farm Law, for example, were mitigated by the inclusion of provisions for legally removing entailed farmers who refused to pay their debts, or failed to run their farms in an orderly manner. Special local courts, on which the local farming community was well represented, were not afraid to disbar such miscreants, since it was clearly in the interests of efficient food production as well as of peace and stability in the countryside that they do so.39 On the whole, indeed, these courts took their decisions on a practical rather than an ideological basis, and they went some way towards assuaging the anger of the farming community at the deleterious consequences of the Entailed Farm Law.40

In the rural Protestant district of Stade, on the North German coast, where the Nazis had already won far more votes than average in the elections of the early 1930s, peasant farmers were basically in favour of a system of fixed prices and quotas, since that made life less uncertain, and the whole ethos of peasant society there, as in other parts of Germany, had never been wholly attuned to free market capitalism in any case. What they did not like were prices that were fixed too low. The lower the prices, the more they grumbled. As might be expected from people whose whole lives, like those of their forebears, had been constructed around the need to eke a precarious living from the land, their dissatisfaction with the regime was limited to the instances in which it had an adverse effect on their livelihood. Moreover, evasion of the production quotas laid down by the Reich Food Estate or the Four-Year Plan often sprang more from the contradictory and irrational ways in which the agrarian economy was managed than from any objection to the quotas in principle. Thus, for example, when small farmers refused to meet their grain quotas, as they often did, this was in many cases so that they could use the withheld grain to feed their livestock and so meet their milk and cattle quotas. The solidarity of rural communities also meant that farmers felt relatively safe in evading the quotas or indeed in voicing their dissatisfaction over the regime’s agrarian politics: in contrast to the situation in urban Germany, it was rare for anyone in the countryside to be denounced to the Gestapo or the Party for uttering criticism of the regime, except where really severe conflicts emerged between the old village elites and the aspiring but politically frustrated younger generation. Despite the exhortations of the Reich Food Estate and the Four-Year Plan administration, peasant farmers often remained suspicious of agricultural modernization, new techniques and unfamiliar machinery, quite apart from the practical difficulties of obtaining these things, and the Third Reich did little in consequence to push on the modernization of small-farm agriculture. Instead, grandiose nationwide pageants like the annual Harvest Thanksgiving Festival, which drew more participants than any other ceremony or ritual occasion in the Third Reich, confirmed the peasants in their stubbornness through the uncritical celebration of their contribution to the national community. In the end, therefore, Darré’s promise of a new rural utopia was no more realized by 1939 than was the contrary ambition of the regime to achieve national self-sufficiency in food supplies; but few peasants were really interested in these things, however flattered they might have been by the accompanying propaganda. What really mattered to them was that they were making a decent living, better than they had done in the Depression years, and they could live with that.41

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