An insight into how practices of coercion and exclusion functioned as components of normal life in Nazi Germany can be gained from an analysis of everyday rituals that became ubiquitous in the country after 1933. Through their participation, or refusal to participate, in these rituals, Germans signaled their feelings toward National Socialism and the national leadership. The complex ways in which Germans engaged in these rituals on a daily basis served as gestures of approval, deference, acquiescence, fear, or disapproval toward the regime. We will briefly look at three such rituals: use of the Hitler salute, the display of flags, and charitable contributions to the Winter Relief.
The “Hitler Greeting,” consisting of a salute with an outstretched
right arm accompanied by the acclamation Heil Hitler, had been required practice inside the Nazi movement before 1933. After the seizure of
power, it was adopted as the standard greeting throughout all of German
society, replacing more traditional greetings such as guten Tag (good
day) or, in southern Germany, grüß Gott (may God greet you). Millions
of Germans recited the phrase multiple times daily in their routine
interpersonal interactions in public, for example entering a shop
or meeting an acquaintance on the street. Among Nazi Party members of long standing, doing so simply continued an established practice of
expressing loyalty to their Führer. To explain why millions of other
Germans began to employ the Hitler salute after January 1933 it is not
sufficient to point to political and social pressure from above, which was
certainly considerable. Many adopted the practice as an autonomous
personal decision to conform to the new order, whether they believed in
it or not. By virtue of its ubiquity in everyday life, the greeting colonized and politicized the sphere of routine interpersonal communication with
a Nazi principle, underscoring the Nazi claim to power over ordinary
people in their private lives.
Precisely because the use of the Hitler salute became normative, Germans
could voice criticism of the regime by using a more traditional
greeting, exclaiming “Heil Hitler” with demonstratively little enthusiasm, or crossing the street to avoid acquaintances expecting to hear it.
Friedrich Kellner, an anti-Nazi civil servant in the small town of Laubach
in north-central Germany, wrote in his diary about being scolded
by the town’s former mayor for greeting him with “good day.” “You
say ‘Heil Hitler,’ young man!” Kellner vented in his diary: “When this
tyranny by Nazi big shots has broken down, and I am asked which Nazi
requirement gave me the biggest headache, I will say without hesitation
it was the greeting ‘Heil Hitler.’ This criminal of all criminals forces even
those he has suppressed to worship him daily in greeting.”
The practice of displaying flags (Beflaggung) also, for a time, offered
opportunities to express a range of opinions toward the regime. On Nazi
holidays, such as Hitler’s birthday, and on other politically significant
days, the regime rallied the population to fly flags from their balconies, in
front gardens, and on building entrances. The flags would create a colorful
visual accompaniment to parades and other forms of public celebration.
They would give an impression of national unity, or, in the words of
Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, that the German people formed “a single giant living organism.” The preferred flag, of course, was the
red, white, and black Nazi banner with a swastika at its center, while the
red, black, and gold flag of the Weimar Republic (which had been based
on the flag of the liberal revolution of 1848) was no longer tolerated.
During the early phase of the regime, many Germans who desired to
distance themselves from Nazism did not display flags. Some, as a means
for avoiding the swastika, hoisted the red, white, and black flag of the old
German Empire. Some raised the flags of their states or municipalities.
This method of signaling dissent continued even after 1935, when the
government issued the Reich Flag Law, which declared the Nazi flag as
the sole valid flag for the Reich. To bring people into line, local Nazi
officials, who kept close tabs on who flew which flag, would issue threats,sometimes veiled, sometimes explicit. Over time, as it became clear that
failure to display the Nazi flag could result in negative consequences,
people began to display the Nazi flag defensively, to pre-empt stigmatization
by the authorities. Citizens found imaginative ways to satisfy the
party while continuing to distance themselves from Nazism. One could, for example, display a large flag of the German Empire while appending
a much smaller swastika flag to its side. Such practices ended in 1937,
when a new decree expressly banned the flying of flags other than the
Nazi one. Meanwhile, Jews were prohibited from hoisting the Nazi flag
under any circumstances.
Our third example of ritualized obeisance to Nazism in everyday life
is found in the charity drives of the Winter Relief Organization (Winterhilfswerk).
This project was launched in 1933 by the Nazi Party’s official
social relief organ, the National Socialist People’s Welfare Organization
(NS-Volkswohlfahrt), which would, by the beginning of World War II,
develop into a mass organization with 14 million members. The Winter
Relief drive ran annually from October 1 through March 31, soliciting
donations of both money and goods to support needy cases. The collection
drives were elaborately orchestrated campaigns, organized in cooperation
with the Propaganda Ministry, which dubbed the Winter Relief “the greatest charity of all time.” During the first couple of years of Nazi
rule, when unemployment in Germany remained high, and the number
of needy cases was, in fact, high, even anti-Nazis could give to the Winter
Relief with a clear conscience. But for the regime, encouraging personal
charity was not enough. It framed the Winter Relief politically, as an
opportunity to demonstrate one’s readiness to sacrifice for the Volk.
Collecting for the Winter Relief (ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images).
Collectors stationed themselves with their donation boxes on streets and
in front of shops. Such practices were, and are, common in
many countries, but the Nazi Winter Relief employed additional methods
that were quite coercive. Collectors armed with lists of donors appeared at
people’s homes soliciting contributions. They often wore uniforms of the
party or the SA, presenting themselves not as representatives of a private
charity but as agents of the regime. Donors were rewarded with a certificate posted on their door, in the process stigmatizing neighbors whose
doors remained unmarked. The Nazi Party maintained records of who
contributed and how much, and this information was included in evaluations
of political reliability provided by the party to Germans applying
for jobs or educational opportunities. Not uncommonly newspapers published
lists of citizens who had not contributed, which sometimes resulted
in angry demonstrations of Nazi activists in front of homes. Even as it
brought such pressures to bear on its citizens, the regime maintained the
fiction that giving to the Winter Relief was a voluntary act. From the very beginning, the Winter Relief served as a demonstration of the power of the Nazi order to infringe on the private lives of its citizens.