This article was first published in the June 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine
Between 1925 and 1945 thousands of letters arrived on Adolf Hitler’s desk. The Soviet army who seized them at the end of the war thought them trivial and so they lay unread in Moscow’s archives until recently discovered by historian Henrik Eberle.
Now published in English, the letters present a history of the Third Reich from the perspective of ordinary Germans rather than that of its leaders. They chronicle how Hitler rose from fringe politician to popular dictator – and how he squandered that popularity.
Hitler’s image as the Germans’ personal saviour and confidant was key to his success. It was also his greatest liability. While he encouraged expressions of adulation, promising a direct line to the Nazi leader meant that he was inundated with opinions, suggestions and questions about politics, economics and foreign policy.
Letter writers asked personal favours, criticised Nazi ideology and openly opposed incidences of repression. They came from all walks of life, and included both Germans and fans and critics from around the world. And they all expected to be answered. Many were – some even influenced policy.
The letters show that while Hitler could exercise absolute authority to silence his opponents, when it came to his subjects he was far less omnipotent.
On 25 May 1925 a 17-year-old metalworker asked for Hitler’s opinion on three very different issues:
(1) Since, as He Hitler himself also says (My Struggle), I say that there must be labour unions, as a metalworker I would like to join a union (just not a ‘free’, Liberal, or Christian one). Thus I ask you to tell me to which nationalist union I can turn in this matter.
(2) What is His stand on the alcohol question?
(3) Is the Nazi Party (if there ever is a nationalist Greater Germany) for the black-white-red colours with the swastika? How does it see this question being resolved now?
I hope He understands me, and will write me his answer as soon as he has time.
With a nationalist Hail salute
(Return postage enclosed)
Rudolf Hess replied on 4 June 1925 “on behalf of the Leader”:
Very esteemed Mr Barg!
Mr Hitler gives you many thanks for your letter. Here are the answers to your questions:
On 1: Unfortunately, we do not yet have any labour unions. However, at present we are engaged in negotiations and discussions regarding the foundation of one. A great deal of money is involved, and the movement doesn’t have it. In any case, don’t join ‘yellow’ unions. Instead, stay in the Marxist ones and try to win over enough like- minded comrades so that you acquire influence in the company council elections and in time the existing unions can in this way be National Socialistically infiltrated and won for us. That is what happened in Czechoslovakia.
On 2: Mr Hitler does not drink alcohol, except perhaps a few drops on very exceptional occasions. He does not smoke at all.
On 3: As to how we stand on the black–white–red colours, as on the swastika, you probably already know that we never deny them. Besides, the main thing is the spirit that is connected with the colours and the signs. We are going to change the spirit, and the flag will follow!
With a German salute
Barg was typical of early Nazi supporters. A teetotaller, he was highly politicised, had supported the Nazis since 1923, and bought Nazi newspapers. He subscribed to Hitler’s developing mythical persona – reverently addressing him as “He”. But he wanted guarantees that the Nazis’ views matched his own.
Hitler’s imprisonment and the stability of the Weimar Republic kept the Nazis weak, and they desperately needed the support of fanatics like Barg. Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s personal secretary, guided Barg’s concerns about the Nazis’ views on the flag and encouraged him to ‘convert’ others through infiltrating unions. Hess also emphasised Hitler’s purity as a teetotaller.
On 7 June 1932, a female supporter wrote to Hitler to offer him advice on how he can attract more women to the cause:
Dear Mr Hitler!
I became a National Socialist through my three sons. I have already begun to work for the coming election campaign. Today I would like to tell you why many women do not go over to the Nazi party. [They say:] We cannot vote for Hitler because he is bringing on another period of inflation. It has taken me years to lay away some savings again, and if it should now be lost again, what then? This and similar arguments are made against me. Another woman told me that she had saved a few hundred marks for her sick son, and has to vote for the man who will try to preserve the savings of widows and orphans. I would advise you to see to it that in all electoral speeches it is said that people with small savings will not lose what they have put by when you take office.
Then our work will be easier, because what the public fears in the coming time is inflation.
With a ‘Hail Hitler’
Mrs Luise Cramer
Mrs Cramer’s letter is marked with the note “lie about inflation” in green pencil. As the Nazi party clearly found her concerns troubling, she received a reply from Albert Bormann, who wrote:
Dear Mrs Cramer!
Your letter of the 7 June was received by Mr Hitler. The lie that the Nazi party intends to produce inflation or that the latter would result from its taking power, was already systematically spread during the last election campaign by its opponents, and in fact precisely by the parties that are themselves partly to blame for the last inflation.
I am enclosing a small brochure stating our position regarding this lie.
With a German salute
Luise Cramer was not ashamed to criticise Hitler, and did not hesitate to point out the potential flaws in the Nazis’ economic policies. She felt she understood women’s views better than him. Just six months before taking power, the Nazis still had trouble attracting female voters, who were seemingly more concerned than men about a repeat of Germany’s disastrous hyperinflation of 1923.
So concerned were the Nazis with this issue that they felt compelled to respond to Cramer. Personal interactions between Hitler’s staff and his supporters were crucial to his image and the party’s success.
Other correspondents worried less about the Nazis’ response to Germany’s economic situation, and more about how to profit economically from Hitler’s prominence. Fritz Dittrich, a printer, wrote to Hitler in May 1932 with the following business plans:
Dear Mr Hitler,
As an old, loyal and long-time supporter,
I hope I may make a request to the future father of our country. I would like to put a Hitler cigarette and a Hitler cigar on the German market, and to that end I would like to politely ask Mr Hitler for exclusive permission or the exclusive right to do so. I would then apply to have these cigarettes and cigars legally protected under this name. In the expectation that Mr Hitler will graciously grant my wish
I remain, awaiting a cherished reply, and with special esteem.
Fritz Dittrich, printing office owner
The reply, sent on 2 June 1932, was negative:
Dear Mr Dittrich,
Your letter of 27 May was received by Mr Hitler. However, the permission you ask for can unfortunately not be granted, because in principle the Leader does not wish his name to be used in commercial propaganda. I regret that I cannot give you a more positive reply.
With a German salute!
In a further letter dated 10 June 1932, Dittrich said that he was “very sorry” that “Mr Hitler has refused” his request”, and mentioned that in England “Prince of Wales” and “Lord so-and-so” were very successful brands of cigarettes. He continued that, “Despite this great disappointment, nothing will prevent me from continuing to be an avid supporter of our Mr Hitler who is respected everywhere…”
Even Hitler’s most ardent admirers felt they had an opportunity to manipulate his success to their own advantage. They viewed Hitler’s popularity and their own success – and indeed also Germany’s – as being connected.
Hitler was not unapproachable; nor were writers like Dittrich nervous about writing again when they received an answer they did not like. Dittrich and Bormann’s correspondence also shows that, while Hitler strove to be a public persona, it took considerable effort to control his image. Individual citizens did not always appreciate the Nazis’ aversion to capitalist marketing, so bombarded were they by similar Nazi propaganda.
By spring 1934, Hitler’s popularity was at its height. Even Berlin artist Ernst Jaenicke, who was denied an opportunity to work for the Nazi party because of his Jewish ancestry, adored Hitler and pleaded to let him work for the Nazi party:
Our great beloved Leader Adolf Hitler!
I ask you now for advice. Must I give up everything? We are also people and perhaps better than some others. Must I leave the Nazi Party, etc.? I can’t see why. But in spite of all, my sincere belief in our German Fatherland, in the National Socialist idea, and above all in you, great Leader, that belief cannot be taken away from me.
And so, great beloved Leader,
Mr Reich Chancellor Adolf Hitler!
Please help us, too.For this is God’s work, and we believe in the one whom he has sent to us.
Rudolf Willi Ernst Jaenicke
Oh, if only I could speak to you personally
Hitler’s private office replied on 5 April 1934:
Dear Mr Jaenicke!
Your letter to the Leader of the 23 March was received here. I regret to tell you that this office can do nothing about your case. I therefore recommend that you approach your local group, which may be able to help you in some way.
With a German salute!
Jaenicke’s letter reveals Jewish citizens’ complete integration into German society, with many unaware of their Jewish heritage. Anti-semitic discrimination came as a huge surprise, despite its central place in Nazi ideology. Supporters clearly ignored policies they did not like. They were also confident that, despite his dictatorial status, Hitler would listen to their pleas, even if they were Jewish. On one level they were right – Bormann still felt compelled to reply to Jaenicke.
Germans did not want to go to war. When it became clear that Hitler did, his popularity plummeted. Hitler received thousands of birthday letters each year. But on his 50th birthday in April 1939, such letters were mainly formulaic expressions of loyalty from organisations, including this one from a stocking factory in the Ore Mountains:
On behalf of the ARWA Factory Association
I take the liberty of sending you, my Leader, my sincerest wishes for happiness and success.
Unalterable loyalty and tireless work in your spirit, my Leader, are pledged you by the ARWA Factory Association.
At my request, a member of our workforce, Hermann Haase, has carved your parent’s home in Leonding in the Erzgebirge style.
The ARWA Factory Association hopes thereby to give you pleasure, my Leader, and asks you to accept the birthday gift.
Hail, my Leader!
ARWA Factory Association
Factory Manager Wieland
The letter of thanks was addressed to the wood-carver Hermann Haase and the ARWA Factory Association:
Please accept my sincere thanks for the pleasure that you have given me with your thoughtfulness on the occasion of my birthday.
By 1939, Hitler was receiving virtually no personal birthday greetings. Perhaps that is why he personally replied to Haase, who had made him a birthday gift. Faced with increasing repression, Germans realised that Hitler did not care about their concerns.
His carefully cultivated image had been revealed to be a myth.
Victoria Harris is a research fellow in history at King’s College, Cambridge