Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
23 Sept. 2021
Review by Richard Bessel, University of York
Hitler's First Hundred Days: When Germans Embraced the Third Reich
By Peter Fritzsche
New York: Basic Books, 2020. Pp. v, 421. ISBN 978–1–5416–9743–0.
Descriptors: Volume 2021, 20th Century, World War II, Germany, Adolf Hitler Print Version

Historian Peter Fritzsche (Univ. of Illinois) is among the best known historians of Weimar Germany, the rise of National Socialism, and Adolf Hitler's dictatorship.[1] In Hitler's First Hundred Days, he revisits these subjects to demonstrate how Hitler and his movement dismantled the remnants of democracy and erected a one-party dictatorship by collaborating with established political elites and inspiring an unstoppable mass movement.

Fritzsche duly documents the blend of political deals and violence that led to dictatorship and catastrophe. But his underlying thesis concerns how and why Germans embraced the Third Reich in 1933. He offers a compelling discussion of National Socialism before 1933 and the progression of the "coordination" (Gleichschaltung) of German society after Hitler's First Hundred Days. He reflects as well on France's situation in the 1930s. While all this is well trodden ground, Fritzsche adds a wealth of fascinating detail based on his thorough conversance with the vast scholarly literature of the subject.

As the author clarifies, the violence against political opponents, Jews, and anyone who dared resist those who regarded themselves as Germany's new masters destroyed German social cohesion and democracy and spawned der Führer's brutal autocracy. His perceptive discussion of anti-Semitic persecution and violence in 1933 is especially good on the motives of the perpetrators.

Fritzsche gives the impression that National Socialist leaders planned and directed the extraordinary campaign "to destroy Communists, attack Jews, occupy city halls, dismantle the parties, expand their support … in a frenzy of national festivity, and identify biologically unworthy Germans" (288). There remains the question whether the brutality was driven as well from below, that is, by the rank-and-file of the movement, thus providing the leadership with a welcome fait accompli. Though Fritzsche discusses this campaign in detail, he fails to locate the source of its initiative.

That said, the author is well aware of the intricate interplay of coercion and consent that solidified Hitler's dominance. He stresses the significance of popular consent for the new regime and paints a terrifying picture of the intimidation that drove the transformations of 1933. And, too, he reveals the psychological mechanisms used to induce Germans "to see themselves as the Nazis did"; he takes seriously the sense of Volksgemeinschaft (people's community) in drawing Germans into the Nazis' ideological, cultural, and political orbit. This has recently been a subject of serious debate among historians.[2] Fritzsche nonetheless remains clear that "for all its appeal, the union the National Socialists promised rested on violence" (186).

The author makes effective use of diaries, novels, and correspondence, displaying a fine eye for telling observations. This makes for lively, almost journalistic reading. Inevitably, some things are left out. Thus, while the reader is treated to a fine discussion of the role of the Protestant Churches in the transformations of 1933, the same cannot be said of the more ambiguous role of the Roman Catholic Church.

More importantly, there is no discussion of the role of the Army, a serious omission in a book entitled "Hitler's First Hundred Days." Unmentioned are the Reichswehr, Werner von Blomberg (Reichswehr Minister in Hitler's cabinet) and Hitler's crucial meeting (3 Feb. 1933) with the commanders of the various Army districts, shortly after he was chosen as Reich Chancellor. The Völkischer Beobachter newspaper reported on it two days later, under the headline "The Army Shoulder to Shoulder with the New Chancellor." Why did the Army leadership, who alone might have stopped the headlong slide into Nazi dictatorship, opt to cooperate with Hitler's government? We are given no clue.

The book bears the mark of when and where it was written. When we read that history is made when millions of people deeply believe things that are verifiably untrue, it is hard not to think of recent events in the United States. And when Fritzsche describes the themes of Hitler's first speech at the Berlin Sportpalast—"the ruination of the country …, the miracle of Germany's national uprising … and the resolve of the Nazis to join the fight to save the country" (109)—we may be forgiven for seeing parallels with recent claims about stopping "carnage" and putting one's own country "first."

As Peter Fritzsche so eloquently shows, the fate of Germany in 1933 is a frightening lesson on the consequences of politically inspired violence when the levers of governmental and administrative power are pulled by people who support that violence. In this sense Hitler's First Hundred Days is also a stark reminder of how precious and fragile democracy is.

[1] See, e.g., his Germans into Nazis (Cambridge, MA: Harvard U Pr, 1998) and Life and Death in the Third Reich (id., 2009).

[2] See, e.g. Frank Bajohr and Michael Wildt, eds., Volksgemeinschaft: Neue Forschungen zur Gesellschaft des Nationalsozialismus (Frankfurt a M: Fischer, 2009) and Detlef Schmiechen-Ackermann, ed., "Volksgemeinschaft": Mythos, wirkungsmächtige soziale Verheißung oder soziale Realität im "Dritten Reich" (Paderborn: Schöningh, 2012).

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