Category: Non-fiction

Christian Adam
Lesen unter Hitler. Autoren, Bestseller, Leser im Dritten Reich [Reading under Hitler. Authors, Bestsellers and Readers in the Third Reich]


In the past, research on National Socialism frequently made a distinction between perpetrators, followers, those who went into “inner emigration”, and insurgents. Yet a new study of the book market in the Third Reich demonstrates just how artificial such a classification is since, ultimately, it is too rigid and inadequate to uncover the truth.

The study’s author, Christian Adam, doesn’t focus – as readers may expect – on the oft-depicted history of the May 10, 1933 book burning. Instead, he is the first provide a systematic account of the exact opposite: the opportune books, blood-and-soil prose, and nationalist writings of the years from 1933 to 1945. And the results are rather stunning. Whereas Nazi Germany had an easy time designating what was to be immolated during the “Action against the Un-German Spirit”, the cultural heavyweights of the day hemmed and hawed when trying to decide which works they should advocate and enshrine. They proved themselves to be open to compromise (to the point of compromising their ideals), while acting like pragmatic businessmen and fighting tooth and nail among themselves. As the 1938 annual report of the Department of Security states: “The Ministry of Education, Ministry of the Interior, Propaganda Ministry, the Rosenberg Office, the Cultural Department for the States and Provinces, the NS Department of Culture, the Reich Cultural Chamber and its individual chambers, the organization ‘Power through Joy’, the University Teachers League, the Students League, the relevant trade associations […] have all been attempting to implement NS cultural policies and cultural work, though have as yet succeeded in unifying their various energies into a single coordinated and clear-sighted cultural policy.”

Thomas Mann’s verdict that books given a license to be printed from 1933 to 1945 are altogether worthless was considered irrefutable for many years. Christian Adam, who read 350 bestsellers of the Third Reich, demonstrates that Mann’s theory can no longer be upheld. The National Socialists’ main problem was that they didn’t have enough authors who toed the Party line. Yet the German people wanted to read. And so Party leadership became willing to compromise.

It’s true that Hitler’s propagandist screed “Mein Kampf” and Alfred Rosenberg’s “The Myth of the 20th Century” were considered catechisms of the NS age, yet these books proved too brute to become absolute German favorites. Instead, popular fiction became predominant. One genre enjoying great popularity was so-called “army fiction” – war stories of brave soldiers whose heroic deeds and reports from the front were meant to infuse the German people with courage and the fighting spirit. Hans Zöberlein landed not one, but two hits with his chauvinistic memoirs “Believing in Germany” and “The Command of Conscience”. And P.C. Ettinghofer’s “Verdun, the Grand Judgment” was the best selling book on the First World War in the Third Reich. Then there were the rows and rows of seemingly innocuous non-fiction books, such as Anton Zischka’s novel about natural resources entitled “Oil War”, in which, however, Germany’s independence from foreign energy sources was propagated in a style of pseudo-objective scientific prose. The biographies of researchers, which lauded their protagonists (for example, the physician Robert Koch) as folk heroes, also flew off the shelves. The same held for self-help books like “The German Mother and Her First Child” and “Man and Sun. The Aryan-Olympic Spirit”, a bizarre book about nude hiking.

Yet it was the army fiction that carried special risks. Ernst Jünger’s “On the Marble Cliffs”, a book that many at the time read as a ghastly NS parable, surprisingly wound up free from incrimination in the book stores on the front, whereas Erich Maria Remarque’s bestseller from 1929, “All Quiet on the Western Front”, was boycotted by NS leadership on account of its overly naturalistic depictions of the horrors of World War I.

Soon there were inconsistencies wherever you looked. Sci-fi novels had to be reactionary since the Nazis were already visionary. Detective stories were bestsellers, but had to be rid of any Anglo-American influences. Paul Alfred Müller pumped his sci-fi dime novels “Sun Koh – the Legacy of Atlantis” full with ideological mumbo-jumbo. Censors later criticized the “debasement of questions, whose solutions the heroes are attempting to reach.”

It was, however, in the area of popular fiction that Nazi in-fighting reached its peak. Alfred Rosenberg, as commissary “for the surveillance of the entire intellectual and ideological instruction and education of the Nazi Party”, saw in the gooey stories of someone like Hedwig Courths-Mahler a danger for the “health of the German folk.” Goebbels, on the other hand, who knew of the Führer’s love of Karl May (since Hitler had once told him, according to Albert Speer later in his Spandau diaries, “that it is not necessary to travel to get to know the world”), attempted to co-opt the peaceful effects of popular fiction. In the year 1940 and at war, he noted in his diary, “A little relaxation never hurts!”

With regard to the literature in the Third Reich, is it really possible to speak of an “effectively enforced conformity”? No, writes Christian Adam. In order to belie the paucity of artistic achievement during the twelve years their thousand-year Reich lasted, the National Socialists were forced to compromise. “The commercially successful ‘dissidents’ and the entertainment pros with their sensitive feelers nearly dominated the scene at the end of those twelve years.” Without them, as Adam conjectures, a unified Nazi state wouldn’t have been possible.

And upon closer examination, the Federal Republic of Germany wouldn’t have been possible either. Numerous authors who wrote bestsellers under the Nazis kept right on producing them into the fifties. “Die Feuerzangenbowle” [The Punch Bowl] from 1933 by Heinrich Spoerl is just one of many popular subject matters that blended in perfectly with the post-war era. Reading Under Hitler thus calls our attention not only to the fissures within NS cultural policies, but also to such continuities, which generally have been the subject of little research. That in Hitler’s library a book was found on the “The effect of several vertebrate hormones on the freshwater polychaete Lydastis raunaensis Feuerborn” is merely a strange footnote that goes to show how one can read a lot into books without necessarily getting a lot out of them.
Katharina Teutsch

By Katharina Teutsch, 01.06.2011

​Katharina Teutsch is a journalist and critic. She writes for newspapers and magazines such as: the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Tagesspiegel, die Zeit, PhilosophieMagazin and for Deutschlandradio Kultur.

Translated by Franklin Bolsillo Mares