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In spite of all that: Total War and Popular Opinion in Nazi Germany, 1943-1945

posted on 2023-09-07, 05:07 authored by Alexandra Lohse

This dissertation examines worldviews of "ordinary Germans" during the crisis years of 1943 to 1945. Specifically, it asks what National Socialism--both as a system of governance and as a secular faith--meant to people as they faced its simultaneous culmination and dissolution. How did civilians and soldiers interpret the unprecedented convergence of military, economic, social, and political disasters? How did mounting emergency conditions impact people's relationships with National Socialism? How were Nazism and total war linked in the public imagination? And what do all these factors suggest about how "ordinary" the "ordinary Germans" of the waning Third Reich were? I enter debates about the nature and endurance of popular support for the Nazi regime from an inclusive perspective that considers German civilians and soldiers as integral members of a society at war [Kriegsgesellschaft]. I contend that between 1943 and 1945 Germans with or without uniforms were active participants in total war and that their actions and experiences spanned the entire spectrum between complicity and victimhood. Also, I argue that the interactions between military and civilian populations shaped the overall German outlook; this crucial dynamic molded prevalent perceptions of regime and war and generated common reactions to impending defeat. This is a qualitative study based on a wide range of archival sources. My analysis of Allied intelligence reports, Nazi morale and censorship accounts, and citizens' private letters and diaries, among others, yields several useful insights into popular mentalities prevalent during the final war years. Not surprisingly, the escalation of violence and deprivation fostered widespread discontent and disillusionment with party and state apparatuses. However, this growing popular alienation often did not lead to outright rejection of the regime. Just as frequent was a critical dissociation. I will show that the mirage of the redemptive "miracle" rather than the regime itself increasingly commanded popular loyalties. Germans imagined the "miracle" as a sudden and definitive victory that would fulfill the promises of the 1930s and deliver compensation for the sacrifices and disappointments of the war years. For many people, the day-to-day experience of total war meant waiting for the miracle, a process that kept hope for victory alive and allowed them to evade the prospect of defeat even as evidence mounted that the war was lost. Anticipating the miracle also opened spaces for people to vent resentments and anger against a fallible regime they nonetheless thought capable of redemption. In the final war years, Germans forged themselves into the national community of Nazi lore largely despite the Nazis. They also did so despite themselves. My sources suggest that by the end of the war the Nazi regime had achieved a revolution of the mind--recasting not only what people thought but how they thought, the ways in which they processed information, generated knowledge, and reached conclusions. Germans attained truth by blending reason and faith seamlessly. They conceived the world in binaries of good and evil, strength and weakness, dominance or annihilation. And, once again accustomed to notions of German supremacy, they simply refused to contemplate defeat as a real possibility. They deemed the undesirable unthinkable and the unthinkable impossible. And they convinced themselves that somehow, someday--with and increasingly without the Nazis--Germany would achieve her destined world hegemony. My sources suggest that the "Nazi conscience" and consciousness were widespread among "ordinary Germans" during the final war years. Remarkably, many soldiers and civilians seem to have believed themselves immune to official propaganda and indoctrination. They converted to the Nazi mindset with self-conscious pride in their own independent reason and intelligence. For instance, many people show no awareness that the very notion of the "miracle" was a figment of Nazi propaganda. Nor did they connect the implications of the miracle as harbinger of geopolitical supremacy and of a racially homogeneous social order to National Socialist ideology. My sources suggest that in the final war years, many ordinary Germans came to dissociate National Socialism as a means from National Socialism as an end. In the face of evidence of impending disaster, they tolerated the former to attain the later. This dynamic allowed people to detach from a failing regime while anticipating its final and ultimate act of redemption. By the time that Allied armies finally ended the prolonged dissolution of the Third Reich, many ordinary Germans had detached enough to anticipate their destined personal and national fulfillment in a post-Nazi world.





Electronic thesis available to American University authorized users only, per author's request.


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American University. Department of History

Degree level

  • Doctoral

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