Review – Allen, “The Nazi Seizure of Power”

William Allen, “The Nazi Seizure of Power: The Experience of a Single Nazi Town, 1922-1945” (1965) – The town of Northeim is more or less smack dab in the middle of Germany, in what’s now Lower Saxony and what used to be the Kingdom of Hanover. Historian William Allen insisted that Northeim was not truly “average,” whatever that would mean for a town. But Northeim was typical enough for Allen to use it as the basis for this social history/historical sociology of Nazism, especially focused on how the Nazis took power. Apparently when this book was first published in the sixties, they gave it a fake name? But now it’s just Northeim.

With Teutonic thoroughness the inhabitants of Northeim kept meeting notes of their various parties and associations, newspaper archives, diaries and so on, for nosy Americans to eventually mine and figure out what’s wrong with them. At first, Northeim seemed about as good of a Weimar-era town as you were going to get. There was a little freikorps versus communist action early on after the war, but after that, things settled down. The working people — Northeim was a railroad town — supported the Social Democrats, the burgers supported various burger parties from weird Hanoverian particularists to the People’s Party. They didn’t get along, didn’t really interact, but the SPD was determined to make a go of this parliamentary governance thing and for the time being so were most of the others.

The Northeim Nazis, as Allen depicts them, possessed a deadly combination of traits that no one saw until it was too late: an ability to play to the deep loyalties of most Northeimers, especially religion and nationalism; and a complete dedication to winning power at almost any cost. Those two went together- Girmann, the local Nazi chief, despised religion but was perfectly happy courting the town’s influential Lutheran clergy… until he was in power and didn’t need them anymore. There was seemingly no limit, ideological or practical, that the Nazis set on themselves, in the way both the bourgeois parties and the Social Democrats did (the Communists enter into the story of Northeim too late and in too small numbers to really compete as they did in other parts of Germany). I do wonder if that would have applied to compromising the core of Nazism, antisemitism, but Northeim had few Jews and according to Allen, antisemitism was not a major part of their campaign to win the town over.

In Northeim, two forces could have stopped the Nazis. One was the petty bourgeoisie letting the Nazis in and giving them cover. The original leadership of the local Nazis consisted mostly of small business types, clerks, minor professionals and the like. The higher ranks of burgerdom in the town didn’t necessarily like the Nazis, but they didn’t hate them enough to expel them, giving them a foothold- and plenty of them liked the idea of a counter to “the reds.” That would be the other force that could have stopped the Nazis, the SPD. They had a well-organized militia in the town, the Reichsbanner, that successfully fought the Nazis several times in street battles. But they never got the call to arms to really go out and deal with the Nazis. That would have had to come from above. The national SPD, committed to parliamentary democracy as the way forward and terrified of more radical forces to their left and their right, wasn’t about to give the order. Redline after redline passed, until in 1933 it was too late.

The Depression opened the door to the Nazis, in Northeim as elsewhere in Germany, but not in the way one would think. The unemployed didn’t stream into the ranks of the Nazis- maybe a few did, but most either went Communist or just didn’t vote. The Depression didn’t gut local businesses, either- the railroad held on, and so did the businesses that serviced it. It was, again, the ordinary townsfolk of Northeim and especially the bourgeoisie (and farmers) who saw some unemployed people and strikes and decided that what was needed was order. Someone needed to bang heads and make things go right, and the Nazis promised to do that. Especially with the SPD chained to failed Weimar policies, including supporting borderline dictators like Schleicher and Hindenburg, the alternatives were dim, not like the local burgers were going to cross over to even “reds” as dim as the SPD at that time.

It turned out that the Northeimers liked the parts of Nazism that aped things that were popular everywhere, including New Deal America- public spending to put people back to work and slap up some fresh coats of paint. They could assent to the mass public rituals they were expected to participate in, and didn’t seem to much miss their free associational life. They grew tired of the Nazis, Allen shows in the short last part of the book, which covers the actual Nazi regime. They didn’t like being bullied by gangster-ish randos like Girmann, but by then it was too late, and the habit of obedience to those who summoned up the values of the fatherland smoothed the rest of the way to 1945. I wonder if any Northeimers were with the SS, and if their idea of Nazism, the war, and what it meant might be different. The East really was where Nazism expressed itself fully.

The decent people had to stop the Nazis, Allen declares at the end. True, I suppose, but what makes somebody “decent?” It seems that Allen mostly meant “willing to color inside the lines of bourgeois democracy.” Maybe if he meant “committed to … bourgeois democracy” it might make more sense, but that would be a much smaller number of Northeimers, including many allowed in all socially “decent” homes. It might basically have just been the SPD and a few nice liberals, and could they have stood against the reactionary elements of the area? I don’t think Allen set out to reinforce the class war elements of the rise of fascism, but he was an honest enough historian that he couldn’t help it. Moral of the story, you can’t trust the bourgeoisie to keep the Nazis at bay, and you probably can’t trust socialist parties participating in bourgeois democracy to do it either? Robust popular organs of self-defense, I guess, is what it comes down to, if you can’t prevent the conditions that give rise to Nazis- and robust popular organizations generally help prevent those conditions, too. ****’

Review – Allen, “The Nazi Seizure of Power”

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