Political Violence in Germany in the lead up to Nazi capture of power

Length: 869 words

Document analysis: Extract from Bernt Engelmann’s autobiographical memoir, In Hitler’s Germany, (1986), pp.1-4

While political violence during the reign of the Third Reich is copiously documented, the intimidation and oppression in the lead up to Nazi capture of power is less well known. Bernt Engelmann’s autobiographical memoir In Hitler’s Germany, written half a century after the event in 1986, serves to fill this lacuna. In the extract in question Engelmann recounts a dramatic event he experienced when he was a school kid growing up in late Weimar Germany. Even eight months before Germany came under the grip of the Third Reich there were troubling early signs of what is in store. Engelmann’s Jewish French teacher (Dr.Levy) was vilified and victimized right before his eyes and for not fault of his. Merely by the fact of his religious faith and by his legitimate act of removing a Swastika flag from the school mast, Dr. Levy would incur the wrath of the Nazi Youth.

Engelmann’s memoir is both instructive and revelatory, for it presents with clarity the roots of Nazi support in the early 1930s when the German Republic was undergoing radical political transformation. But as Engelmann suggests, political success

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is not a measure of popular support, for even in the incident involving Dr. Levy, the Hitler Youth were only a minority. What the young Nazis lacked in numbers they made up through their overt aggression, giving the illusion that they were a larger (if not the majority) constituency. Scholar Dirk Schumann’s book on the same subject extends Engelmann’s observations. Schumann presents a slightly alternative view, noting how “endemic political violence never directly threatened the existence of the republic and most often took the form of self-limiting “small violence” rooted in small-town traditions of public rebuke that sought to humiliate opponents but not annihilate them” (Schumann as quoted by Kunath 2012). In this manner, Schumann’s analysis concurs with that of William Sheridan Allen, whose classic work The Nazi Seizure of Power (written two years prior to that of Engelmann’s memoir). Allen’s point is that the simmering violence in 1932 was not extensive. The outcomes of violence

“tended most often to be bruises and concussions, not dead bodies. Even the sharpened violence of 1932 resulted in only nine deaths in Saxony, and the Weimar government’s ban on the Nazi SA was effective in Saxony (and throughout Germany)…the Weimar political violence was, in principle, always controllable, if the political will to assert control was present” (Kunath, 2012)

William L. Shirer was a heroic journalist covering the rise of the Third Reich amid increasing censorship of the press. He spent six years covering the events, atmosphere and politics of Nazi Germany for audiences elsewhere in Europe. He witnessed

“the Germans’ descent into madness and violence, and he possessed the reporters eye and ear for details that would have exposed the Nazis’ wickedness. Yet he lived under extreme censorship. Adolf Hitler’s propagandists suppressed all news except officially sanctioned messages that extolled the virtues of the Third Reich.” (Sweeney, 2012)

Now that the nature and intensity of Nazi anti-Semitism is fairly well established, it is interesting to study the Jewish perceptions on the phenomenon. Jewish assimilation into Christian dominated societies goes back several centuries starting from Babylonia. This sensitive and complex trend continued well into the modern era, with the German-Jew ‘symbiosis’, proving for a while to be a triumph of social integration. Indeed, German Jews themselves “touted their identification as Germans. Non-Jews like Gotthold Lessing and even Goethe wrote and spoke about their colleagues of ‘the Mosaic persuasion’”. (M, 2001, p. 138) But such a glorious communal bond had deteriorated into the Holocaust under the Nazis. It is fair to claim that the Jews were not a party to this grave decline in relationship. This stance is attested by German historians of the Alltaghistoriker tradition, whose focus is on recording the multitude of histories in quotidian life and by studying “the relationships between Jews and non-Jews in the German communities of Frankfurt am Main, Gie?en, and Geisenheim, symbolized by the Hessian heraldic lion.” (M, 2001, p. 138)

In conclusion, it emerges that Engelmann’s description of the unfair treatment of his French language teacher Dr.Levy is typical of the Jewish experience during the rise of the Third Reich. Various other scholars on the subject, including Sidney M, Wick Steve and M.S. Sweeney have extended, enhanced or offered fresh perspectives to Engelmann’s account of the early 1930s. But no scholar has refuted Engelmann’s facts. In this respect, Engelmann’s autobiographical memoir, despite its personal tone, style and point of view, serves as an important historical scholarship.


Kunath, R. C. (2012). Political Violence in the Weimar Republic, 1918-1933: Fight for the Streets and Fear of Civil War. The Historian, 74(2), 419+
M, S. (2001). The Lion and the Star: Gentile-Jewish Relations in Three Hessian Communities 1919-1945. Shofar, 19(4), 138.
Sweeney, M. S. (2012). The Long Night: William L. Shirer and the Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Journalism History, 38(1), 59+.
Wick, The Long Night: William L. Shirer and the Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. NewYork: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. 288 pp
Extract from Bernt Engelmann’s autobiographical memoir, In Hitler’s Germany, (1986), pp.1-4

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