Workers and Nazis in Hitler's Homeland
What did ordinary people in Nazi-controlled Austria really think about their native-born Führer, Adolf Hitler? Tim Kirk opens a window on a unique record of public opinion – a Gestapo equivalent of 'Mass Observation' in 30s Britain.
Politicians have always been anxious to know what people are really talking about, and in this respect authoritarian regimes are caught in a dilemma. They are reluctant to tolerate the free expression of public opinion, and accordingly institute censorship and surveillance systems and encourage snooping and denunciation. Yet public opinion which is so tightly controlled by the state is no real guide to popular morale or the level of support for the regime. Most emperors, after all, would like to have some son of warning if their new clothes are about to he ridiculed, and in this Hitler was no exception.
Secret police forces were well established in Europe long before the Nazis came to power and had been used in a variety of modern states from Elizabethan England and pre- revolutionary France to Tsarist and Soviet Russia. The secret state police force inherited by the Nazis in 1933, the Geheime Staatpolizei (known by the familiar abbreviation Gestapo) was used to detect political subversion and dissent, and its agents arrested thousands of Communists, trades unionists, supposed strike leaders, turbulent priests, Jehovah's witnesses and homosexuals every year. But modern rulers cannot afford to restrict their attention to the opinions and activities of conscious dissidents alone. In the age of popular politics even dictators derive their political authority, at least in part, from the consent of a significant proportion of the population; and the Nazis never forgot that one of the keys to their success had been their ability to deliver for the Right the sort of mass support which labour movements had traditionally delivered for the Left.
Nor could the Nazis rest once they were established in office. Many of the regime's leaders were convinced that Germany had been betrayed – stabbed in the back – in 1918 by insurgent workers led astray by Jews and Marxists. One way of preventing this happening again was to imprison and intimidate workers' leaders. But repression alone was not enough: the Nazis remained constantly aware of the need to mobilise support and to win acclamation for their policies from the German people. Nor was the propaganda they deployed in pursuit of this aim merely a relentless torrent of political slogans. Cleverer propagandists, conscious of the limited attention span of their audiences produced material that was suggestive rather than insistent. But attention to the production of propaganda was not enough, and the Nazis went to extreme lengths to ascertain how it was received and, indeed, what people thought about a whole range of things, from Hitler's speeches and wartime newsreels to the shortage of children's shoes.
Such curiosity was not restricted to the German government. In Britain the pioneers of 'mass observation' were writing up their reports, while opinion polling was established both in the United States and in Western Europe. In Nazi Germany a whole range of institutions, from the judicial authorities and munitions inspectorate to the underground Social Democratic Party, compiled reports on popular morale. From 1938, however, the most comprehensive reports were those drawn up by the security service (SD) of the Reichsführer of the SS, which collected material at a very local level (whether a village or a block of flats) on a more or less daily basis. This material was then condensed into reports at one of a number of regional headquarters, such as Vienna, before being passed on to Berlin. Several times a week between 1938 and 1944 the Reports from the Reich were circulated among the secret policeman and senior civil servants of a regime which could learn nothing of the everyday realities of wartime Germany from its own media.
It is such reports that enable us to ascertain not only the attitudes of the people, but the preoccupations of the regime as well. And eager as they were to monitor whatever grumbles there might be about egg rations or higher taxes, the main concern of' SD opinion-gatherers was that the jewels in the crown of Nazi Germany's plebiscitary consensus – the positive reception of the party's charismatic leader, and popular approval of the government's foreign policy – remained untarnished, and their reports reflect these preoccupations. But, of course, they also wanted to be sure, too, that no rebellion was brewing among the Reich’s fickle industrial workers, even in the absence of their Marxist Pied Pipers.
After the Anschluss the attitudes of Austrians constituted a particularly important yardstick of popular opinion. First of all, Hitler himself was an Austrian. His earliest political education had come from the German nationalist and anti-semitic movements of imperial Vienna. Despite the humiliation of military annexation, the Anschluss was for many Austrians the homecoming of a local hero. In addition, Hitler was seen as a successful chancellor who had solved Germany's pressing economic problems and restored the country-'s international standing, the fragility of these achievements, and the precariousness of Germany's apparent stability, was not necessarily clear at that time, even to anti-fascists.
Whether Austrians hoped for special treatment was a different matter. Propaganda for the plebiscite on the 'Reunification of Austria with the German Reich', to he held a month after the invasion on April 10th, 1?38, made much of. Hitler's Austrian connections. And Upper Austria – and especially Braunau and Linz – stood to benefit from their association with the Führer. Nor did it take long for more substantial patronage to take effect. Within a month of the occupation Goering announced that a massive industrial complex which had been planned for Franconia would now be sited at Linz, generating thou- sands of jobs: the economic basis for Hitler's grandiose architectural plans for the town.
Secondly, the response of Austrians to the Reich's foreign policy was interesting in that they were the first community of Germans outside Germany's 1914 borders which the Nazi regime sought to integrate into the Greater German Reich that was to stand at the centre of a re-ordered Europe. Annexed Austrians might choose to see themselves as victims of German aggression (as they did in increasing numbers after the tide of the war turned at Stalingrad), but they might also see themselves as beneficiaries of Hitler's foreign policy, rescued from the backwaters of post-Habsburg central Europe. In the weeks immediately following the German occupation such positive feelings were certainly uppermost.
A third consideration was the organised working class of Red Vienna. Austria's Social Democratic labour movement had been the strongest in Europe during the 1920s and Vienna was its greatest stronghold. Here almost two in three voters had supported the Social Democratic Workers' Party and one in three had been a card-carrying member. Not only that, but in 1934 the establishment of a fascist regime had been resisted more resolutely in Austria than anywhere else in Europe hither- to, and had been defeated only by the sheer force of the government's heavy artillery, which had been extensively used on civilian targets (such as council flats). The fact that the Austrian labour movement had fragmented under the impact of this defeat – and the summary justice which followed – went only some way to mitigate German apprehensiveness.
Finally, Austria was a Roman Catholic country and some of the most persistent opposition to the Nazis had come from German Catholics, particularly Catholics in industrial areas. Austria's Catholic- Conservative establishment and its supporters, from dispossessed Austro-fascists and Habsburg legitimists to conscientious objectors among the rural clergy, posed the new regime with a further testing ground, If Cardinal Innitzer of Vienna rang the bells of St Stephen's cathedral in thanks- giving for the Anschluss, it was not long before his sister was provoked into outspoken criticism of the regime on his behalf (and was overheard by a Gestapo informer in the Stadtpark!)
In the event the Nazis' anti-clerical- ism probably increased their support among Austrian workers rather than diminished it. Austrian conservatism and Austrian fascism were both clerical in orientation and as the Social Democratic leader Karl Renner observed: why should the workers mourn the passing of a clerical fascist regime which had oppressed them and kept them impoverished, if it was to be replaced by a 'national fascism' that was repressive, certainly, but which would bring work and prosperity? And whereas Schuschnigg and his government remained intransigent and uncompromising towards labour to the end, the Nazis had given money to the unemployed in some districts and immediately after coming to power announced a whole range of 'social' measures, marginal in economic terms, but effectively publicised and important in the difference they made to individuals' housekeeping. Working-class resistance such as had been seen in 1934 was almost non-existent.
Initial enthusiasm for the Anschluss was undeniable (but perhaps less extreme than the ardour of the Nazi vote-riggers: in one part of Vienna more than 100 per cent of the electorate appeared to vote 'yes' to the Führer in the plebiscite for the 're- unification of Austria with the German Reich). But it was soon dissipated, and a reaction had set in by the end of the summer. The Internationale was sung in workers' bars, Communist graffiti and flysheets were everywhere and minor neighbourhood Nazis were mocked and insulted. By the end of the summer Berlin had ordered an SS swoop on the illegal Communist underground.
The main reason for the rapidly spreading disaffection was that the promised economic miracles had not materialised. Although unemployment fell very quickly in general, it also rose in isolated communities producing consumer goods such as textiles. Moreover, much of the demand for labour was not in Austria's backward industrial sector but in Germany itself. Workers with families objected to being allocated to jobs in the old Reich, and 'emotional scenes' were reported at Vienna's Westbahnhof; others were initially enthusiastic when they first arrived in the Reich (often to the despair of their German workmates) but were writing back within weeks to their families in Austria in the hope of securing a job nearer home. There was an upsurge of underground Communist resistance activity in Vienna and a number of provincial industrial towns during the summer of 1938, but little opposition was reported from the countryside. There was some unrest when German income tax was introduced, and once established, anti-German grumbling, albeit intermittent and never really prevalent anywhere before the last months of the war, was nevertheless persistent. By the summer of 1939 the political geography of consent and dissent was largely similar to that in Germany itself.
This was also true of Hitler's personal appeal and political function as a leader with 'charismatic' authority. Hitler was venerated in the official media and was a powerful force for political integration in Nazi Germany; but he also attracted enough personal vituperation for the Gestapo to reserve a special category, that of Führerbeleidigung (a sort of down- market lese-majesté), for the opprobrium piled upon the leader of the German people in some quarters.
Much of the public criticism that was recorded was voiced by the shoppers, tram passengers and above all the late night drinkers of Vienna's outer industrial suburbia, where drink loosened cantankerous tongues. Naturally there were easy pickings for vigilant Gestapo informers in public houses all over Austria. Among the vast majority of men who were not involved in the active resistance, informers mingled at their Stammtisch (regulars' table) at the local pub – as they had been advised, in fact, by their political leaders; and after a jug or two of beer (seventeen and a half in one exuberant case) they were inclined to let off steam, and an apparently trivial remark might unleash a comprehensive (if not always coherent) critique of the regime, generally accompanied by personal criticism of its leaders and functionaries, their greed, incompetence, duplicity, ostentation and, not least, their sex lives.
Strikingly, the bar-room bigotries which Hitler himself articulated so well, and which were used to such great effect in mobilising a positive popular identification with the regime, were turned against him. Most bizarrely of all, and without a trace of irony, Hitler was frequently disparaged as a Jew; a number of instances were recorded by the Gestapo, reflecting perhaps above all the casual anti-semitism of the time and the widespread use of 'Jew' and 'Jewish' as insults. 'Queer' was less frequent, but one Viennese night-watchman was arrested by the Gestapo for claiming to have slept with Hitler, and for having commented on the deficiencies of the Führer's genitalia.
Such remarks did not represent a peculiarly Austrian antipathy to Hitler. More often than not, as in Germany, the pretensions of the local Nazis were criticised and unpopular government policies attributed to senior Nazis other than the Führer himself. Nevertheless (here remained a core of virulent and insistent criticism of Hitler, expressed in terms from the cogent to the coarse, but often incorporating the observation that the Fuhrer could kiss the speaker's arse, a category of critique so frequent that it was filed by the Gestapo under the separate euphemistic heading 'Götz quotation' – a reference to its use by Goethe in Goetz von Berlichingen.
In many cases of führerbeleidigung recorded in Vienna there was rarely a mention of Hitler's Austrian origins. Indeed, the identification with a com- mon 'German' identity which the new regime was eager to promote, though still intermittent, seems to have been more widespread than the Nazis might have hoped. In a denunciation of 'our soldiers' for their invasion of Poland, all the more surprising at a time when the level of popular approval of Nazi foreign policy was high, a Viennese washer- woman suggested that 'they [the Poles] should have put out the eyes of our soldiers'; the Poles 'had never done anything to us'.
Upper Austrians, on the other hand, were more conscious of Hitler's local associations: they sought, after all, to exploit them for material ends. In what a later generation of 'heritage consultants' might have called 'Adolf Hitler country' sentimental reminiscences of the Fuhrer's selfless boyhood were at a premium. The precocious social conscience of the young Hitler, wrote one ex-schoolmate just before Christmas 1938 in a fawning, newspaper article, had prompted him to share his sandwiches with his playmates until 'very often there was nothing left for little Adolf. As elsewhere, however, opinions differed, and in September 1940, when the war was going well, and disaffection at its lowest ebb, another local contemporary of Hitler's, a woman from Fischlham, expressed a different point of view. 'Don't talk to me [about Hitler] ... I went to school with the Führer. He was always a crook, even as a ten- year-old. And more than anything he liked torturing animals'. Her opinions cost her six months in prison.
Similarly, the attempt on Hitler's life in the Munich bier keller in November 1959 shocked 'the greater part of the population' or 'the entire National 'Socialist population', but government eavesdroppers knew that not everybody was as outraged as the official media suggested, and were sceptical at the expressions of regret from some quarters. In addition, people were arrested in various parts of Austria for expressing approval of the attack, including a worker from Vienna who offered to go and finish the job, and a mechanic from Wiener Neustadt who had commented: 'Those lads deserve the Iron Cross'.
In fact, despite the swift victory in Poland, the early weeks of the war were not an easy time for the regime. The war itself had been anticipated with apprehension since the time of the Sudeten crisis, and there had been little of the jingoism of 1914 when it finally came. A small but significant strand of opinion remained opposed to it. In working-class districts 'Heil Stalin' and 'Up with Moscow' mere used as slogans to provoke local Nazis both before and after the invasion of the Soviet Union, and the arrival of the Red Army was anticipated in some quarters with a degree of Schadenfreude (which was soon dissipated in the event).
But the particular disaffection which characterised the early weeks of the war, expressed in widespread absenteeism, falling rates of productivity, sabotage, insubordination and general grumbling, was immediately ascribed by the authorities to the impact of the War Economy Decrees. These measures, introduced after the outbreak of war, abolished overtime, shift work bonuses and paid public holidays. The measures were all repealed before Christmas, and it was not until Goebbels' appeal for total mobilisation after Germany's defeat at Stalingrad in 1943 that a similar attempt was made to effect a symbolic mobilisation of the workforce behind the regime.
Such further steps as were taken to maximise production in the mean- time were less politically ostentatious and more technical and pragmatic, the most powerful weapon in the hands of oppositional workers was one of which they were scarcely aware: the Right's own memory of l918, and the regime's reluctance to do anything that might provoke political unrest at home during the war. The Nazis – understandably, among the 'Heil Stalins' and 'Up with Moscows' – did not feel they could rely entirely on popular patriotism.
Yet militant working-class dissent was relatively easily contained. There was no further wave of protest such as that which had accompanied the War Economy Decrees, although there were persistent cases of sabotage and subversion throughout the war, both in the factories and in the fields. Colliding trains and burning haystacks (in season) were a weekly event in wartime Austria, Whether a spanner (or, in one case, a shovel) in the works was sabotage or industrial accident was a question of interpretation. Most of the sabotage was carried out by activists, and much of the rest by those with temporary grievances – workers unfairly disciplined or men who had received their call-up papers. And as more and more men were called-up Austria's expanding industrial base employed more women and foreign workers, also mainly women, overseen by a diminishing core of skilled Austrian men who suddenly found themselves in supervising positions.
The factories were soon full of unskilled Russian women, with the government shipping hundreds more Soviet prisoners up the Danube every week, and the fields were full of Polish peasants, all of whom were openly anti-German, and with increasing assertiveness as the Red Army got nearer. The point was to avoid con- scripting women, but working-class women came increasingly under pressure to take on industrial work after 1943, and popular opinion was shaped by a whole new set of anxieties and preoccupations, from concern about Austrian women mixing with Polish farm-hands and prisoners- of-war to the conflicting demands of domestic responsibilities and paid employment. At the same time the Allies were now able to bomb Austrian towns with increasing frequency and people's thoughts turned to defeat and what might follow it. The early military successes helped the regime to contain disaffection. The fall of France and the prospect of a Nazi Europe for the foreseeable future took the wind out of the sails of opponents. Communists were particularly disarmed by the German- Soviet pact of 1939 (although the rank and file of the party were disinclined to shift their perspective unduly).
The Battle of Stalingrad changed popular attitudes profoundly. The German media's optimistic view of events was widely and openly disbelieved, and rumour spread rapidly, claiming sources ranging from the BBC in towns to soothsayers in the countryside. One of the most powerful of these rumours claimed that Austrian regiments had suffered disproportionately at Stalingrad, that they had been selected as cannon fodder by senior 'Prussian' officers. It not only confirmed the existing suspicions of Austrian conspiracy theorists, but fuelled the tendency of Austrians to distance themselves from Germany (just as some Germans in the Reich itself distanced themselves from Prussia). This may not have been the discovery of a genuine and patriotic Austrian identity – the credit for that goes to much more concerted and official efforts to distance Austria from Germany after the war – but it marked a turning point away from union with Germany as a solution to Austrian problems. 'We Austrians are second class Germans' was a comment heard in the last months of the war, 'it's all the same to them whether Vienna goes down or not'.
As the war neared its end, fewer were convinced by the official news and rumour was rife. What the Reports from the Reich had to say to Berlin about popular morale was increasingly unwelcome, and by the autumn of 1944 they had outlived their usefulness. The SD continued their opinion-gathering work at local level, however, and their reports depict a people at once panic-stricken and resigned. The Austrians were no longer interested in the war at all, except for the approaching southern front. .All sections of the population thought the military situation hopeless and wanted an end to the 'senseless murder'. Even Nazis were critical: 'All the things they promised! They were prepared for every eventuality, and now everything has collapsed. How are we supposed to have the trust in them that they demand!'
Everyday life in the last war winter was dominated by air raids and the imminent arrival of the Russians: 'Whether I lose everything in an air- raid or whether the Soviets take everything, it's all the same' was one comment shortly before Christmas 1944, and 'the Russians can't be any worse than the air raids' was another, from a Nazi.
Defeat and a future under Soviet occupation dominated expectations of the future. 'Bolshevism is for the workers anyway', commented one worker, 'and even being carried off [to Russia] won't be so bad; you can't work where you want now anyway'. A farmer from Lower Austria was more hopeful 'Nothing can happen to us – they'll always need farmers'. There was also a widespread belief that the regime would suddenly deploy invincible new weapons, but others were less optimistic, fearing enemy gas attacks before the end of the war. Such anxieties were fuelled by the unreliability of any news, official or unofficial, and the increasing ability of the Allies to broadcast into the Reich. Passive resistance was encouraged by Allied broadcasts and the covert oppositional strategies of earlier years were now discussed openly by people desperate for 'peace at any price': 'Don't go to work. Report sick. The less work gets done the sooner the war will be over'.
Finally, the guarantee of Austrian independence – dependent on the Austrians' contribution to their own liberation – which had been given by the Allies in Moscow in 1943, now found its echo on the streets of Vienna, where it was rumoured, in March 1945, that the city would be completely destroyed unless the Austrians complied with an Allied ultimatum and overthrew the Nazis. By the end of the month the first acts of open militant resistance were reported, but within the week Vienna had fallen to the Red Army.
Popular political opinion in Nazi Austria was volatile and insecure. Information, whether official or rumoured, was unreliable and attitudes fluctuated with the situation. Expressions of approval or dissent were often limited to a particular policy or event and depended very much on the gender, generation, class or political background of the speaker: there was no national resistance, but, apart from the weeks after the Anschluss, there was no convincingly national acclamation of Hitler either. If popular opinion hardened against the regime it did so only in the latter years of the war, and by then Austrians – like many other Europeans – were too busy picking their way to work through the rubble to give coherent expression to their disgruntlement with the war and with the regime.
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