How the Nazis seized power in three short years

HOW TO EXPLAIN THE NAZI SEIZURE OF POWER?

Naturally, Allen’s aim in undertaking his study was to determine how the Nazis managed to crowd out all effective opposition in such a short time. His answer to the question appears pedestrian at first. “It was the depression, or more accurately, the fear of its continued effects, that contributed most heavily to the radicalization of Northeim’s people.” Which is unsurprising, as far as it goes.

THE NAZI SEIZURE OF POWER: THE EXPERIENCE OF A SINGLE GERMAN TOWN, 1922–1945, REVISED EDITION BY WILLIAM SHERIDAN ALLEN (1983) 414 PAGES ★★★★☆

The city center in Northeim, Germany, today, the site of William Sheridan Allen’s study of the Nazi takeover on the local level. Image: TripAdvisor

VIOLENCE BECAME AN EVERYDAY OCCURRENCE

Allen later goes on to write, “Orderly minded people were sickened by the recurrent fights [on Northeim’s streets], but finally become inured to them. Thus the way was paved for the systematic use of violence and terror by the Nazis after Hitler came to power, and for their relatively indifferent acceptance by the people of Northeim. This was to be the prime factor in the Nazi seizure of power.”

IF YOU WERE ASSAULTED, IT WOULD BE “BECAUSE YOU WOULD DESERVE IT”

To demonstrate how deeply the Nazis injected themselves into the life of the townspeople, Allen quotes from a letter the Nazi Local Group Leader and mayor “sent to a young woman in 1935. ‘It has been reported to me that on the occasion of the Führer’s birthday ceremony you did not raise your arm during the singing of the Horst Wessel song and the national anthem. I call your attention to the fact that by doing this you put yourself in danger of being physically assaulted. Nor would it be possible to protect you, because you would deserve it. It is singularly provocative when people still ostentatiously exclude themselves from our racial community by actions like yours. Heil Hitler!‘”

NO JEWS WERE KILLED IN NORTHEIM, AND FEW WENT TO CONCENTRATION CAMPS

Curiously, “there was hardly any manifest anti-Semitic action by the Nazis in Northeim during the last ten years of the Third Reich.” In 1930, at the outset of the period observed in Allen’s account, some 120 Jews lived in the town out of a total population of about 10,000, a proportion (one percent) that was roughly the same as that for Germany as a whole. But “by the time Hitler determined to murder all the Jews in his power, as his ‘Final Solution,’” Allen writes, “almost all of Northeim’s Jews had left the town for a bigger city and supposed anonymity, or had gone to another country for safety.

AN ACADEMIC ACCOUNT THAT IS OFTEN DULL

I wish a journalist had written this book rather than a historian. The story would have been easier to read and more engaging if the author had related the town’s history through the lives of individual people. A few prominent names do surface throughout the book. The Leader of the Local Group of the Nazi Party who made himself mayor of the town throughout the years of the Third Reich. The local businessman who served as one of the town’s senators during the Weimar Republic and led opposition efforts during the Nazi takeover. And a senior civil servant who was, in effect, the town’s city manager. All three struck me as interesting enough to warrant portrayal in depth. But instead Allen merely referred to them again and again while describing the speeches, meetings, and marches that dominated the political process in the years 1930 to 1935.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

William Sheridan Allen (1932–2013) retired in 2001 as professor of history at the State University of New York at Buffalo. The Nazi Seizure of Power, published in 1965, was his first book. But he made extensive revisions and additions to the text nearly two decades later, based on newly unearthed documentary sources. The book’s original subtitle was “The Experience of a Single German Town, 1930–1935,” but either he or his publisher rewrote it for the revised edition to encompass the full history of the Nazi Party in Germany.

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