h i s t o r y
Hitler needed little encouragement on this score. But his followers lacked his self-belief and stamina. As 1932 wore on without the Party getting nearer to power, despite amassing the largest share of the vote, frustration grew. Hitler received many requests for loans from desperate party members. A typical communication arrived from an SA man whose plumbing business was on its knees because his working-class neighbours boycotted him. Emmy Hoffmann warned that hardship was driving humble folk into the arms of the Communist Party, so the NSDAP needed to offer them, especially women, a better welfare package.
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Eberle observes shrewdly that the wording of letters from the terrified, cashstrapped middle classes tells us much about their outlook. They combined extremism and belligerence with piety and polite salutations. Ruth Hübner, writing from a town on the Czech border, prayed for Hitler’s safety: ‘wherever God Almighty holds his hand over someone, the murderous rabble can do you no harm.’ As for ministers in the government: they should be put in a cage and fed to wild beasts.
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to handle the immense volume of post addressed to him. This was partly a response to the Führer cult engineered by Goebbels. Berlin postmen must have dreaded 20 April, when postbags bulged with thousands of letters, cards, and presents despatched to Hitler for his birthday. So many parents wanted him as godfather for an expected child that the Führer’s office restricted his beneficence to the seventh son or the ninth living child. Goebbels was careful to manage his image. When asked to accept unsuitable literary or musical dedications, Hitler’s chief secretary responded with magisterial hypocrisy that ‘the Leader does not desire any glorification of his person’.
The cult peaked in 1934 when Hitler received around 10,000 birthday greetings. Many came from ‘old fighters’ grateful for the spoils they had now received. Rising employment stimulated genuine expressions of gratitude from those who had previously been jobless. Hitler started receiving more letters from Austrians and ethnic Germans in Czechoslovakia and Poland who pleaded to be taken into the Reich. Many were from embittered anti-Semites, who contrasted the imaginary prosperity of Jews with their own plight. The regime’s anti-Jewish policies were a useful lever for those seeking an edge over Jewish competitors. Noting the persistence of Jewish cattle dealers in Hesse, Jakob Falkenstein admonished that ‘even the Storm Battalion Reserve does business with Jews’.
Remarkably, Jews or people with Jewish relatives wrote to complain about antiJewish measures. In April 1934, a Jewish plumber lamented that he was ‘inwardly a good German’ and wanted his rights restored. Written grievances such as this could have ugly consequences. A protest by a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses was forwarded to the Gestapo and triggered thousands of arrests.
By 1936, fewer spontaneous greetings reached Hitler’s office on his birthday or during the festive season. However, Eberle notes that the volume rose at moments of national anxiety or triumph. The annexation of Austria stimulated a deluge of hysterically appreciative missives from Vienna, commonly describing the event as a ‘miracle’. An unemployed hotel porter sent Hitler a National Socialist credo that opened with ‘I believe in God the father, the almighty creator of heaven and earth, and in Adolf Hitler, his chosen son.’ As war loomed, a deluded population invested their hopes for peace in Hitler. This was a tribute to Nazi propaganda, but also a sign that not everyone shared the regime’s militancy.
The rate of letters slackened following the outbreak of hostilities. What salutations arrived were increasingly formulaic, often knocked out by Nazi organisations. A rare burst of spontaneity followed the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. Eberle prints a selection of woeful letters from church leaders, inside and beyond Germany, welcoming the crusade against godless Bolshevism. A pathetic letter from Marie Schicklgruber testifies to where this led: in August 1943 she begged help from the Führer to repatriate her son’s body from a military cemetery near Belgorod. In March the following year a phalanx of generals denounced captured officers who had gone over to the Russians. Hitler doubtless noted later that year that several of the signatories became associated with the 20 July plot to assassinate him.
By the end of the Third Reich the correspondence turned full circle. Only diehards bothered to send Hitler birthday greetings. Expressions of support were confined to fanatics who shared his delusions. Several contained proposals for wonder weapons. Willy Emmrich suggested packing shells with sand and dust that would clog up the engines of enemy bombers and tanks when they were detonated. Such fantasies were as much a sign of helplessness in the face of crushing Allied military superiority as an expression of marshal fervour. One of the last, on 8 April 1945, inveighed against the ‘still so presumptuous arrogance of world Jewry’.
These letters cannot be taken purely at face value and certainly not treated as an insight into the minds of ordinary Germans. But they are a good sample of what some Germans thought and, no less important, what the regime was learning about popular feeling. The selections are placed in context concisely and reliably so that Letters to Hitler can be read as an epistolary history of the Third Reich. To order this book for £20, see the Literary Review bookshop on page 41
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