CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - Seventy-five years after the Nazis rose to power, historians still struggle to explain how the Nazis could take such effective hold of Germany and bring it to such murderous extremes in war and in the Holocaust.
In a new book that draws extensively on German diaries and letters of the period (1933-45), University of Illinois historian Peter Fritzsche argues that much of the Nazis' appeal was driven by deep German fears of national destruction. At the same time, however, most Germans ultimately were not seduced by Hitler and the Nazis, but made deliberate and informed political choices.
The politics of the Third Reich were "premised on both supreme confidence and terrifying vulnerability; both states of mind co-existed and continuously radicalized Nazi policies," Fritzsche writes in his introduction to "Life and Death in the Third Reich," published by Harvard University Press.
"The sense of 'can do' was wrapped in 'must do' " - including the eventual large-scale murder of Jews, which most Germans were well aware of - because they believed they were fighting for their very existence as a nation, he writes. "The Nazis delivered upon their enemies the very destruction they imagined awaited Germans."
"It is a huge enabling thing, this worldview," Fritzsche said. "The perpetrator murders because he believes he is a victim." It meant "being able to accept almost everything."
The Nazis shared with many Germans a strong sense of victimhood resulting from the nation's defeat in World War I, followed immediately by revolution. It was the foundation on which the Nazis built their racial ideology and a national sense of community, and through which many Germans were attracted to Nazi ways of thinking.
The Nazis "completely mobilized the ground on which they stood," Fritzsche writes, meaning they thoroughly understood the German sense of vulnerability and used it.
"Life and death were thus deeply entangled in the Third Reich," he writes. "The ways in which Nazism promoted an ideal of German life were inextricably linked to the near-death they believed Germany had suffered in 1918."
Ultimately, it led to a "dynamic of unconditional destruction that led to the Holocaust. Given these aims, German life meant death."
In his book, Fritzsche documents that Germans knew quite a bit about the Holocaust, starting with the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, during which Jews were killed en masse. The knowledge was common enough that Germans on the home front were warned by the government in 1942 that they would hear some "pretty hard stuff" from soldiers returning on leave from the eastern front, Fritzsche said.
Rather than being duped or seduced by Hitler and the Nazis, German citizens, to a large extent, made "deliberate, self-conscious, and knowledgeable political choices," Fritzsche writes. National Socialism "exerted strong pressure on citizens to convert" to Nazi ideas and ways of thinking, he writes. But it also designed institutional settings, such as community camps, in which citizens had to grapple with many of the issues involved.
National Socialism "did not succeed through seduction or paralysis or hypnosis. It was by turns unsettling and meaningful to millions of people," he writes. In letters and diaries, as well as reports from visitors at the time, Germans showed a surprising willingness to discuss their political experiences, he writes.
"The National Socialist revolution intensified self-scrutiny," Fritzsche writes. Individuals "debated for themselves the whole question of becoming - of becoming a National Socialist, a comrade, a race-minded German, of remaining true to the old or joining the new." They grappled with questions of fitting in or going along, with the morality of anti-Jewish policies and the conduct of the war.
"The outcome of these examinations varied from person to person," Fritzsche writes, but "this struggle is what Germans came to share in the Third Reich."
In the ongoing historical debate about to what extent Germans became Nazis during the years 1933-45, Fritzsche makes the case that "more Germans were Nazis and Germans more National Socialist than was previously thought."
Fritzsche also found in diaries and letters that "Hitler was not the central figure that one might think" for those living under the Third Reich. "The political scene in most diaries involves the local activities of the National Socialists and their auxiliary organizations ... The Nazi project, not Hitler's charisma, was the main point of orientation; Nazi ideas, and not Hitler's words, the guiding maxims," he writes.
Even after years of researching the topic, Fritzsche says "the whole phenomenon of Nazism represents a fundamental challenge to explanation."
Given that the Nazis "redescribed the world, and got the German people to go along some of the way, scholars need to take seriously National Socialist ideology and its concepts of community, nation, and race," Fritzsche writes.
"The Nazis are frightening because they expanded notions of what is politically and morally possible in the modern world."