So, why did the German people acquiesce to Nazism? Why did so many of the population willingly turn in Jews or dissidents to the Gestapo or the police?
Everyone assumes that it was terror, that Nazis intimidated people. Hitler himself, after 10 years in power, said "One can not rule by force alone."
In reality the Nazis were often terrified of public opinion. When people expressed outrage at the involuntary euthanasia of the retard or mentally ill the National Socialist regime backed down. When the White Rose students were caught the Nazis rushed them to judgment and executed them before the public could even find out. The parents didn't even know they were on trial until the day of the trial—four days after their arrest. (See Noble Treason, by Richard Hanser) The regime was frantic that resistance could be indicative of a wider anti-Nazi movement. In Denmark (see Countrymen by Bo Lindegaard) resistance by the Danish government and population got the Nazis to pull back. One reason the Jews of Denmark escaped was that the Nazis regime was worried that any real effort to round them up would destroy their most important illusion—that National Socialism was popular and widely accepted. When the Nazis tried to round up the Jews of Berlin with "Aryan" wives (most of the spouses were German women married to Jewish men) the wives gathered outside the center where the men were being held and protested. The Nazis tried to hide the protests by shutting down public transit in the area, but after seven days they gave in and released the men—even to the point of returning several who had already been sent to Auschwitz. Most of these men, and a few women and children, survived the war.
Nazis used intimidation on open dissidents and troublemakers only, not the general public. The public, however, were heavily paid off by the government. (See Hitler's Beneficiaries: Plunder, Racial War and the Nazi Welfare State by Gotz Aly) First, Jewish owned businesses and wealth was plundered and redistributed to the German public. Then the Nazis plundered the nations they occupied, using the proceeds to win the favor of the German public.
Some want to pretend it was a "Keynesian" solution that caused German "prosperity" after Hitler took over. Not so. It was stealing massive amounts of wealth and redistributing it within Germany itself. Of course, you can rely on stolen bounty for only so long before it too runs out. A lot of Hitler's popularity was purchased by a welfare state.
But, another important tool of control was to change cultural values in Germany. Reinhard Heydrich, who was a key figure in the "Final Solution" said "The control of the Jews through the watchful eye of the whole population is better than having him by the thousands in a district where I cannot properly establish a control over his daily life through uniformed agents."
The Nazis used various cultural values held by the population to stay in power. Consider the anti-Semitism of Germany. First, the Catholic Church had pushed anti-Semitic images for centuries. Martin Luther's reformationists were even worse with Luther himself penning a virulent anti-Jewish tract for the public. The far Right in Germany hated the Jews but so did the Marxists. Marx claimed capitalism was Jewish in nature and the Jewish exploiter and the capitalist exploiter were one and the same. (See Capitalism and the Jews by Jerry Muller) Hitler didn't create hatred for the Jews, he used a pre-existing hatred but exaggerated it.
The Nazis used fear of exploitation of young girls by evil, perverted Jews using the foundation laid by Catholicism, Luther and Marx. As Nathan Stoltzfus points out in Resistance of the Heart: Intermarriage and the Rosenstrasse Protest in Nazi Germany, these beliefs meant that people started reporting Jews for dating gentiles long before the Nazi state tried to end intermarriage. The Nazis set up a complex system of rewards and punishments to make it unacceptable to intermarry and the general public became willing accomplices because they believed the values the Nazis held.
Cultural values are critical in a free society. The paleo-conservatives dismiss liberal values in our society, arguing against a libertarianism which emphasizes culture and liberal moral values. They want us to believe that intolerance is conducive to a free society "just as long as they don't initiate force." Of course, they are deluded to think hateful values won't lead to the initiation of force. It will be justified as a form of self defense. They are protecting the children, or putting an end to shameful exploitation, or preventing the defilement of the race, but they will get there eventually.
Cultural values ultimately determine the direction of the society. Ayn Rand argued that such values determine the politics of a nation. It isn't that politics determine values, but values determine politics. She had confidence in the American public at large because she felt they ultimately clung to values of tolerance and liberty. (Intellectuals she wasn't so sure about, but the "masses" in America she held in very high regard—contrary to the image portrayed by people who don't understand her, or hate her.)
A couple of years ago in a lecture, I said:
"Individuals live in a cultural bubble that surrounds them. Like it or not, it inhibits how people behave. Remove the cultural inhibitions and people act on their prejudices. When certain levels of intolerance are achieved within a culture restraints disappear and people begin acting on their hatreds. Values matter. A culture that believes that women are inferior will deny women equality of rights. A society that believes that homosexuals are a threat will persecute homosexuals. A culture that fears foreigners will impose barriers to immigrants. Actions follow values.” That’s really it—actions follow values. They always have and they always will.
James Peron is the President of the Moorfield Storey Institute.