Thursday, February 25, 2016

A Survey of German Opinion in 1939

I'm reading a biography of Geoffrey Pyke (1893-1948), a half mad Englishman who, among other things, escaped from a German prison camp in 1916, made and then lost a fortune speculating in metals futures, founded a "scientific" kindergarten where the Bloomsbury set sent their children in the 1920s, organized volunteer mechanics to repair abandoned trucks and cars to serve as ambulances in the Spanish Civil War, tried to interest Churchill in a scheme to tie the Nazis down in Norway with a troop of saboteurs mounted on snowmobiles, developed a system for de-icing ships in winter storms, and convinced MI-5 that he was a senior Soviet agent, although they never proved it.

In the 1930s Pyke got interested in opinion polling and was one of the founders of Mass Observation. As World War II approached, Pyke convinced himself that if he could find out and publicize the actual opinions of Germans about Hitler and his plans for war, he could somehow either shame Hitler out of attacking Poland or even drive him out of power. In the summer of 1939 he recruited ten volunteers who spoke good German and sent them all to Germany to ask people a fixed list of ten questions. The idea was to engage people in conversation and then ask the questions as casually as possible. Pyke encouraged the volunteers to perform as mad Englishmen (one took his golf clubs), acting too silly and British to be taken for spies. Since Hitler at that point was still hoping that Britain would not go to war over Poland, these crazy British tourists were monitored by the Gestapo but tolerated.

And what did they find out?
According to their survey, most Germans did not think Hitler's desire for territorial conquest justified war. Nor did they think war was imminent. 'Though they admitted the political situation was dangerous,' explained Raleigh, 'they seemed to have perfect faith in the fact that Hitler didn't want war and could obtain what he wanted without precipitating one.' Equally surprising, and key, was the high proportion of those interviewed who were either fed up with the government or professed no opinion. Ambivalence about the Nazi regime – given its nature and the effort required to be anything other than supportive – suggested that these subjects were closer to being anti-Nazi in sentiment than pro-Nazi. A surprising number of people wanted a war just to see Germany lose, as this would mean the end of Nazi rule. Others opened up about their dislike of anti-Semitic discrimination, one man confiding in Smith that he had recently been playing the Violin Concerto in E Minor by Mendelssohn, a banned Jewish composer. 'If that's bad music,' he had said, 'then it's bad government.' . . .
Using a modified version of the Gallup technique, based on 232 completed conversations, they estimated that just 16 percent of the German population felt that territorial conquest justified war. If there was a conflict, just over a third of those interviewed wanted Hitler and Germany to lose. Only 19 percent imagined German was capable of victory if facing an alliance of Britain, France, Russia, and Poland, while more than half the German population felt the Nazi Party was unjust in its treatment of society, failing to treat rich and poor alike. Sixty percent of those Germans they spoke to disapproved of the government's attitude towards Jews.
Of course this was just a few hundred people, and the sample could have been biased since by definition they were all willing to talk to Englishmen about politics. That did not exclude Nazis, since they did talk to a few quite rabid Hitlerites, but you can certainly see how this might have tilted the findings. But these findings fit with other facts, such as that the Nazis never actually won an election. If Hitler ever had the real support of a majority of Germans, it was only for a brief period in 1940-41, and personally I doubt that.

But it didn't matter. Modern history shows that a highly motivated, highly organized minority can take over great states and mold them to its will, creating situations in which personal opinion matters not at all.

Quotations are from Henry Hemming, The Ingenious Mr. Pyke (2015), pp. 200, 214.

1 comment:

G. Verloren said...

It's a shame that so many Americans even still today seem to automatically equate being German in World War II with being a monster. Glimpses into the realities of the time, like this one, are invaluable tools in disillusioning people of that regretable notion.

The simple fact is that although humans are incredibly complicated creatures, ultimately we're all essentially the same. Individuals just want to go on leading their lives, and when great and terrible things happen, it's almost always the result of larger forces sweeping them up in chains of events that they can't control. When the most destructive conflict in all of human history is raging all around you, what can you do other than try to muddle through?

Look at the scientists of all the major nations who were racing to develop atomic bombs. Almost none of them genuinely believed the successful completion of such a weapon would actually result in its usage - and most were astounded and horrified to learn that the American military actually chose to deploy such weapons. Scientists on both sides of the conflict, German and American alike, are on record to this effect, and almost universally they were far more interested in trying to twist the war effort to further scientific progress rather than the other way around.

Then consider the average citizen drafted into the army, or into the reserves, or into the national guard. Consider the pilots on both sides who knowingly bombed civilian centers, and the mechanics who maintained the planes, and the factory workers who built the bombs. Consider the citizens in occupied regions faced with a choice between grudging collaboration with the enemy orresistance with the guarantee of reprisals. Consider the desperate parents trying to feed their children on half rations and next to no money, fearful of losing their jobs, fearful of bombs dropping on their heads in the middle of the night, fearful of suspicion from their neighbors and those in power that perhaps they were disloyal for not being more overtly "patriotric" or enthusiastic enough about the war effort.

If German citizens were monsters for going along with their government's attrocities, then so too are American and British citizens for the crimes of their own governments. Some individuals will try to argue about which side was more abominable, as if that somehow changes anything, but the truth is war is awful for everyone, and individuals on all sides share the exact same motivations for their choices and actions.

This is just the reality of war - there are no heroes or winners, just corpses and survivors. And it's startling and depressing how easily and frequently people seem to forget that.