The Nazi Party: A Seeming Modernisation

Guest article written by: Stefan Bernhardt-Radu. 4th-year history student at Coventry University.

Whilst it is usually believed that the Nazi Party was antithetical to modernity, or in a philosophical line assonant with it, it is strongly argued that the NSDAP seemed a force for modernisation to the people at the time due to specific conjectural settings. A complex extra-national and national context generated a distinct spin to the meaning of ‘modernisation’, an argument which is visible when three elements are analysed in relation to why they seemed modernising: the Volksgemeinschaft, social welfare, and Wehrwirtschaft (defence-economy).

The building of a ‘national community’ precludes and influenced the German project of societal improvement. When the State could not contain the situation, it became an element of modernisation. It is forgotten that during the interwar period many countries rejected liberalism in a complex international context, indeed that ‘parliamentary democracy […] was a feeble plant growing in stony soil’, especially due to the aftermath of the ‘Great War’, the economic crises and, amongst others, Germany’s authoritarian-inclined society. Thus, there was a need for social harmony, but also quasi-religious salvation. In Ian Kershaw’s words, Germany needed an ‘ethnically pure and socially harmonious ‘national community’ and a ‘project of national salvation’. Therefore, the Volksgemeinschaft acquires both a national and somewhat transcendental character.

An example will show that control and unity got confused, and it became even more blurry when most had their desires satisfied despite the collaterals and the full consequences of Nazi actions. On 2 May 1933, various SA detachments occupied the divisive Free Trade Union Offices, and was replaced by the Reich Trustees of Labour – this was done to gain control of the workforce. Though not to socialists or communists, this was seen as a necessity to deal with unemployment. Erwein Freiherr von Aretin, a Nazi-opposing monarchist, wrote in March 1933 that ‘In the struggle against need and hunger there can be no parties’ and that in dealing with unemployment ‘no one can refuse [the Nazis] active assistance’. The use of force was legitimated as unemployment slowly declined until it hit below a million in 1937. After all, the Bruning cabinet in 1932 also led to the need for central, decisive control – it put the pressure of dealing with unemployment on the shoulders of the local authorities, while cutting funds and diverting them to the central government, intentionally sabotaging the local representatives.

Pre-existing anti-Semitism was a way to fuel this ‘national community’ – in Zygmunt Bauman’s words, this was a ‘garden culture’; the fall of binding religious sentiments and the rise of enlightened nationalism gave way for the need to create an artificial ‘national’ or ‘racial’ order. Furthermore, the ‘Hitler Myth’ stitched any problematic dissent together – the idea of Hitler’s heroic persona magnetising support to his image even while people were critical of the NSDAP itself. As Smesler argues, one can say the Nazi government was a ‘very ‘modern’ form of tyranny’ as many dismissed the idea that a liberal democracy could be modern, let alone modernising. Michael Burleigh argued: ‘under the impact of ontological crises, [Hitler and other demagogues] rapidly burgeoned into masses of people … [and] espoused politics of faith’.

Faith, however, needs visible improvements to survive – and projects of social welfare played precisely this role. Considering the dire economic crises and the profound social disorder immediately before the Nazi ‘seizure of power’ in 1933, these did not have to be fully successful or liberal, but needed to be apparently and limitedly appealing. The investment of thousands of Reichsmarks into the unemployment reduction laws, for instance, meant that jobs could be created and ambitious projects could be planned, such as the Autobahn programme – under Fritz Todt, 3.500 km of highway was already completed in 1938. Along came an ambition for a Germany of affordable cars for everybody. Health provision increased in quantity, such as factory physicians, but typically decreased in quality. On top of that, they implemented well-known programmes such as ‘Strength through Joy’ or ‘the Beauty of Labour’ which gave the impression of a better life, as these allowed people to have holidays and better facilities.

It mattered little whether these projects were incomplete or faulty, due to two factors. One, much of the population had narrow goals. For instance, one wife of a communist stated that: ‘when you’re unemployed for four years you become radical. For two years [now, however] my husband has been working in Toging. […] Every day my girl has to say an Our Father for the Fuhrer, because he has given us our daily bread’. Secondly, even if there were high expectations, those remained prospects for the future. Richard Grunberger argued that ‘in the sphere of consumption, psychologic [sic] affluence did not so much reflect material prosperity as precede it’. And besides the Volkswagen project, there seemed to be much potential for the future even while wages slightly decreased. For instance, ‘voyages of technology’ were made to present future technology, such as household appliances like washing machines or refrigerators – the idea being to accept this technological advancement as the future for all. Moreover, there were extensive plans for a post-war complex Beveridge-like welfare state, which included a mass consumer society, ‘progressive’ labour legislation, preventive medicine, training to match the advance of technology, programmes to suit sudden retirement etc. And some of these were gradually implemented, such as a low-budget universal health-care system in 1941. Of course, this was done to appease people during the war at the Nazi zenith, but it only serves to support the argument: as long as there seemed to be a good future, limited social programmes resembled elements of a specific way to reach a better future.

Lastly, there are many indications that expansion and rearmament seemed as elements of modernisation. Indeed, in 1939, at the height of anti-war rearmament, one report, undoubtedly ideologically influenced, stated: ‘Trust in the Fuhrer and pride in German policy among the population is boundless. Everyone is sympathetic’. There are a number of reasons for this. In the first place, the army high command, having learnt from the ‘Great War’, wanted to connect the economy with the military, in a union called the Wehrwirtschaft, and in 1934 they were looking for the ‘economic dictator’ that would make the military machine truly national – and Hitler and Goring were only eager to combine the Volksgemeinschaft with the Wehrwirtschaft. Colonel Georg Thomas argued that ‘modern war is no longer a clash of armies, but a struggle for the existence of the peoples involved. All resources of the nation must be made to serve the war’. Again, this needs to be seen in context: Revanchism, the ‘Diktat’ of Versailles, and a tradition which made the army a normal component in the society were all contributing factors.

Among the population, too, conscription in 1935 was also seen as a way to cement a man’s education through discipline, while it was equally thought to eliminate idleness. And despite the focus on rearmament, the NSDAP did allow businessmen to maintain private property and gave firms a free hand in their doings. A total military expenditure of 17,247 million Reich marks in 1939 was then not utterly absurd. What is more, the Nazi state did not face insurmountable social and economic problems in 1939, despite this grand rearmament, for after all the Nazi control machine was able to manipulate inflation, prices and even the shortage of skilled labourers by calling for Eastern immigration.

However, this future depended too much upon an unequivocal ‘momentum of success’. According to Kershaw, Max Weber’s conception of the charismatic leader is one in which the leader both cannot lose, and neither can have his rule become ‘routinised’ – as stabilization is contradictory to the image of heroism, and thus to firm, swift change. This explains Nazi Germany’s swift expansionism from 1938. Indeed, Hitler went to war in 1939, as Richard Overy argues, because the economy and his political base were stable enough – both to fuel his charisma and the economy to establish international power which could enable the creation of the Nazi vision.

Overall, the Nazi party was a force for modernisation because many people, including its own members, confusedly believed they would improve the society. This ‘modernisation’, born out of ‘mass stupidity’, dazing and over-stretched ambitions, and a complex international context insufficiently accounted for today, consisted in the creation of a somewhat transcendental, united national community; visible, albeit ephemerally limited, social welfare programmes and a defence and foreign policy to pin Germany strongly on the European map again. Considering the use of the terms fascism and Nazism today, terms for consumption rather than reflection, and the rise of the far-right in Europe and elsewhere, this exercise of trying to apprehend the ‘modernisation’ of 1930s Germany is ever more important. As Bertrand Russell stated somewhere, one should not try at once to prove something wrong, but first understand why it might have appeared to be true.

Image: Adolf Hitler reviewing model of Berlin with Albert Speer,, accessed 27.01.2019.


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