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 Concepts series. Nazi Gleichschaltung

  By Dr Edgar Feuchtwanger. new perspective [ISSN 1352-6359] Vol 7,  No 2



As a totalitarian regime the Third Reich developed its own language, a perversion of the German language. The control of hearts and minds, to which totalitarian political systems aspire, necessitates such a perversion of the normal use of language. Meaning is twisted and distorted in such a way that the citizens of a totalitarian state can no longer distinguish truth from falsehood. They are reduced to such a state of confusion and impotence that they can be fully manipulated by the dictatorial government. George Orwell’s famous books 1984 and Animal Farm are the classic fictional statements of this aspect of totalitarianism. In 1984 there is a Ministry of Truth, modelled on the Ministry of Propaganda and Popular Enlightenment established by Goebbels.

Gleichschaltung is an example from the early days of the Nazi dictatorship of this use of language to manipulate and confuse. It is a word rarely to be found in older German dictionaries. ‘Gleich’ means equal, ‘Schaltung’ means switch, as in an electrical switch; Gleichschaltung therefore means switching on to the same track or wavelength, or, to put it in one word, alignment or co-ordination. It became, in 1933, the word for the process by which all organisations and associations existing in society were nazified and some, such as the political parties and the trade unions, were simply suppressed. The word was meant to hide the fact that what was going on was in flagrant breach of all previous notions of freedom, civil rights and self-government. It was a way of glossing over the threat of terror and violence that compelled individuals and organisations to come to heel. People could say that their organisations had been gleichgeschaltet (aligned, co-ordinated), when what had really happened was that former colleagues, who had become politically or racially inconvenient, had been brutally thrown out and often subjected to physical violence. The word Gleichschaltung made it easier for those, the vast majority, who had condoned such treatment, to salve their consciences. There was already, in the early weeks and months of the Third Reich, a sizeable minority of committed and even fanatical Nazis, who welcomed these developments. They took an active part in the violence and accepted the Nazi ideology that declared individual rights an outmoded aspect of the now defunct liberal age. What mattered was what was good for the Volk and the Führer was the sole judge of that.

Two examples from different areas of society will illustrate the process of Gleichschaltung in practice. On 5 April 1933 Baldur von Schirach, the leader of the Nazi youth movement, became head of the Reich Committee of Youth Organisations, a national body of which most of the youth organisations of political parties, churches and other organisations were members. On 17 June he was appointed leader of all male and female youth organisations and given the title Reich Youth Leader. All existing youth organisations were then taken over by the Hitler Youth and the other Nazi bodies, such as the Bund deutscher Mädchen (Association of German Girls), that catered for the various categories of young people. It caused considerable friction in particular with the Catholic Church, which tried to cling to its own youth organisations.

Similarly, Hans Frank, later notorious as Governor-General of Poland and condemned to death at the Nuremberg trial, was, on 22 April 1933, appointed ‘Reich Commissar for the Gleichschaltung of Justice in the Länder and for the renewal of the legal order’. He took steps, through the takeover of existing associations of lawyers, to gather all those practising the legal profession into the Association of National Socialist German Jurists (Bund Nationalsozialistischer Deutscher Juristen). This body had only 1,347 members at the end of 1932; at the end of 1933 it had 80,000. Such examples could be multiplied from other professions, like medicine, and from the many associations devoted to the representation of economic interests. Gleichschaltung was a method of excluding persons actively associated with the democratic parties as well as persons of non-Aryan descent. ‘Aryan’ was another word brought into use by the Nazis. The only definition of it, which the thoroughly spurious Nazi race ideology could ever supply, was a person who had four grandparents who did not practise the Jewish religion. A purely biological definition of race, as required by the Nazi ideology, could not be found.

There are several reasons why Gleichschaltung met with so little resistance. A good third of the German population had already voted for Hitler before 1933, when they were entirely free to do otherwise. Their motives were naturally very diverse. Some were looking for change as radical as those on the extreme left; others were looking for the restoration of a happy past, which had, in fact, never existed. Once the Nazis were in power large numbers joined them out of opportunism. In March and April, there were long queues outside Nazi party offices of people applying for membership. By May, a temporary block had to be put on the acceptance of further applications. Those previously belonging to other parties frequently burnt their party books. Nationalism was a powerful force in Germany and nationalist feelings had been humiliated by the defeat of 1918, the treaty of Versailles and Germany’s weakness. Nazi propaganda was designed to make it difficult to distinguish between nationalism and the radical and revolutionary implications of the Nazi racialist ideology. For many the distinction remained blurred throughout the 12 years of the Third Reich. Hitler’s successes, particularly in foreign policy after 1934, made the majority succumb to his charismatic leadership. When success turned to catastrophe after 1941, many took a long time to say ‘good-bye to the Führer’. Gleichschaltung had been all too effective.

Dr Feuchtwnger taught in the University of Southampton

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