Life in Nazi Germany: everything you wanted to know

What was life like for women and children in Nazi Germany? How were Jewish people and other minorities persecuted? And how much did ordinary citizens know about the horrors of the Nazi regime? We found out from Richard J Evans, a leading historian of Nazi Germany and regius professor emeritus of history at the University of Cambridge…

The aftermath of Kristallnacht, when businesses and properties owned by Jews were the target of vicious Nazi mobs

Note: Richard J Evans was speaking on the HistoryExtra podcast, answering popular questions about life in Nazi Germany (defined here between January 1933, when Adolf Hitler was appointed Reich chancellor of the Weimar Republic, to Hitler’s death in May 1945). A selection of his answers have been transcribed and edited for clarity, and are shared below…

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Listen to the full conversation on the HistoryExtra podcast


 Q: How were women treated in Nazi Germany?

 A: The Nazis were a male supremacist organisation. This was part of the general racist doctrine that governed the Nazi ideology. They believed that politics was for men, so you won’t find any women in any positions of power in Nazi Germany. There was a so-called Reich women’s leader, Gertrud Scholtz-Klink, but she had no influence on Nazi politics at all. She just spoke to organised women.

Women were there to support their men, and for breeding and having lots of children. The Nazis introduced the Mother’s Cross: if you had six children, you got an award; if you had 10 children, Adolf Hitler became godfather to the tenth child, which had the unfortunate effect that you had to name the child ‘Adolf’, if it was male.

Women were organised in the Nazi Frauenfront, and in the broader based but less successful Deutsches Frauenwerk . They made clothes for the troops and organised supplies and welfare. But they were shut out of politics altogether. Women had the vote, of course, from 1918, and Hitler did not abolish that. But in Nazi elections, there was only one list of candidates. You had no choice as to whom to vote for.

Women were there to support their men, and for breeding and having lots of children

In referendums, of which there were quite a few in Nazi Germany, women were a kind of lobby fodder. Basically they – just as with men – had to vote for the Nazi party and its policies.

Women work at a factory in Nazi Germany
The Nazis were a male supremacist organisation, and women were there to support their men, and for breeding and having lots of children. (Photo by Imagno/Getty Images)

Q: What was life like for children in Nazi Germany?

A: Hitler said that the aim was to bring up children as physically fit and healthy – if they were so-called Aryans, if they were basically ‘pure’ Germans – not if they were of mixed origin, with Slavic blood, or least of all with Jewish. By the time of the Second World War, non-Jewish, non-Slavic, non-foreign-born German children were obliged to enrol in the Hitler Youth or the League of German Girls, which was essentially aimed at preparation for war.

A young boy fires a gun in the Hitler Youth
Nazi youth organisations such as the Hitler Youth were essentially aimed at preparation for war. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

From a very early age, they had to wear uniforms. As soon as they went to school, every day began with singing Nazi anthems and saluting the Nazi flag. They had to go on lots of camps and expeditions, which included drills and military terms. Both girls and boys were indoctrinated – not just by those organisations, but also in schools. School textbooks were rewritten to become instruments of Nazi ideology.

Some children enjoyed this; it was quite nice going out into the countryside at a weekend, camping out, singing patriotic songs, and so on. But the idea that these youth organisations would be run by young people themselves was never really fulfilled. It was older Nazis – Brownshirts and Storm Troopers – who were put in charge of them, and they were quite authoritarian and often rather brutal. Children got bored with the ideology, so it was only partially successful. But there was a whole generation under the Nazis who were heavily indoctrinated.

Both girls and boys were indoctrinated – not just by those organisations

You can see one example of this in the notorious Reich pogrom, the so-called Night of Broken Glass (lead picture) on 9–10 November 1938, when Hitler and his minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, unleashed attacks on Jews, on Jewish property, on synagogues that were burnt down. Seven and a half thousand Jewish shops were smashed up. The young took part in this. They joined in the destruction. Not all of them, of course, but there were a lot of young people who smashed windows and helped beat up Jews on the streets and in their houses. Whereas older people, whose ideas had been formed before 1933, tended to look on in horror or in sympathy with the Jewish victims, or in appalled shock at the destruction of property.

Young girls with dolls in Nazi Germany
A group of girls with their dolls ready to take part in a Mothers’ and Children’s day procession in Berlin, 1934. (Photo by FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images) 

 

Q: How many black people, citizens or otherwise lived in Germany? And how were they treated in comparison to other minorities?

A: There were about 500, I would say, either black people or mixed-race African-German people. They had been the subject of massive ultranationalist propaganda already in the Weimar Republic.

In 1923, when Germany defaulted on its reparations payments, the French occupied the Ruhr (the heavily industrialised area in western Germany). They sent in troops to requisition coal, iron ore, and other substitutes for reparations payments. And these troops included black troops from the Senegalese colony and from other parts of French Africa. This gave rise to massive racist outcry on the far right, including the Nazis.

When it came to 1933, when the Nazi regime was set up, these 500 or so black and mixed-race Germans were said to be ‘Rhineland bastards’; in other words, they were alleged to be the offspring of rapes carried out on German women by these Senegalese/Cameroonian troops. The result of that was that the black and mixed-race Germans were sterilised, forcibly sterilised by the Nazis, about 500 of them.

The allegation of the rapes was of course a propaganda lie. Most of them were the offspring of consensual unions in the German colonies before 1918. The Germans had their own colonial empire, including Cameroon which was then handed over to the French and British at the end of the war. These were the offspring of unions, mostly between white German settlers and black African women. The numbers of rapes in the Rhineland during the occupation of 1923 was extremely small. But they were all tarred with the same racist brush, and they were sterilised.

Black and mixed-race Germans were forcibly sterilised by the Nazis

Some black and mixed-race people appeared in films; the Nazi film industry made some films about what they depicted as ‘heroic’ German settlers and explorers. And these black Germans came in rather handy as extras on the set playing African tribesman. Others were in the entertainment industry in one way or another, but they had a very bad time. And indeed, in Nazi Germany, they were stigmatised and maltreated.

 

Q: How were Jewish people persecuted in Nazi Germany?

A: Initially, they were sacked from their jobs. In 1933 Hindenburg, the president, had initially insisted that Jewish war veterans – of whom there were many who had fought for the Germany in the First World War – should be protected. But ultimately, they were fired from their jobs. They became the object of Nazi conspiracy theories. They were seen as being disloyal, inclined to conspire behind the scenes against Germany. They were deprived of their citizenship, thrown out of their jobs.

By 1939 and the outbreak of war, they were unable to make a living for themselves. They had been deprived of their property, by so-called ‘Aryanisation’ – by which Jewish-owned banks, shops and businesses were forcibly transferred, either with compensation or even without it, to non-Jewish Germans. They were not allowed to go to German schools. The possibilities of emigrating were limited because the Nazis would confiscate your assets if you were a Jew. Half of them did manage to get out to other countries by 1939; these were predominately younger, middle-aged people.

A man clears away the broken glass after Kristallnacht
A man clears away the broken glass after Kristallnacht in 1938, during which a mob murdered Jewish people and destroyed their property. (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Of course, it became considerably more difficult in the war itself, and by 1941, Jews were being expelled from their homes, forced to live in overcrowded accommodation with other Jews, and then they were deported to Auschwitz and other death camps in the east and exterminated.

Antisemitism was not the same as other aspects of Nazi racism, in the sense that the Nazis thought of the Jews as a huge global threat, believed that all Jews everywhere – no matter what they did or who they were – were going to try and destroy Germany. It was a total paranoid fantasy with no basis in reality at all. But that’s what drove the Nazi extermination campaign.

Q: How did the Nazis convince the public to carry out such atrocious acts on Jewish people?

A: The answer is you should never think of the German public as a single entity. It’s extremely diverse and divided, by religion, by class, by region. It was also divided into active Nazis – members of the party, members of the SS [Schutzstaffel, political soldiers of the Nazi party] and the armed forces – and what can be called the more passive public on the other.

We know a lot about how people felt because the Nazis had continual reports on a very local basis. Also the Social Democrats had secret reports smuggled out to their headquarters in exile, about what people were saying and thinking.

Hitler and high-ranking Nazis
Nazi Germany can be considered divided into active Nazis and what can be called the more passive public on the other. Here Hitler is photographed with other high-ranking Nazi party members. (Photo by Hugo Jaeger/Timepix/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

Some people did buy into the Nazi view that the German Jews, and then later other European Jews, were a huge threat and should be exterminated. But a lot of Germans, particularly in the Catholic south, felt that this was wrong. There are records of people saying that it was wrong when Jews were taken away from towns in south Germany – put on trains and taken away in public, taken to the east. But they felt powerless to do anything about it.

Later on, when the strategic bombing offensive (from 1942–early ’43) was launched to destroy German cities, Joseph Goebbels tried to persuade Germans that this was steered from behind the scenes by the Jews, in revenge for what the Nazis tacitly admitted they had been doing to them. Again, when Goebbels tried to publicise atrocities committed by the Red Army in 1944 when it had invaded eastern parts of Germany, there are records of people, particularly in Catholic towns in the south, saying, “Well, we should have expected this, it’s what we’ve done to the Jews, we can’t be too outraged by it, the atrocities are real”.

You shouldn't assume that all Germans supported it. The propaganda also made people angry and more determined to resist

Lots of people bought into the idea that it was the Jews behind the Allied war efforts, and ridiculously, behind Stalin and Churchill and Roosevelt. To that extent, the huge propaganda apparatus of Goebbels had scored a success. It was the effect of years of indoctrination in the schools, in the youth, in the army and jobs, in huge organisations like the Labour Front and the Nazi party, and of course, all the controlled orchestrated media, newsreels, cinema, magazines, newspapers, radio. All of those things had been blasting out anti-Jewish propaganda from 1933 onwards.

It had some success, but you shouldn’t assume that all Germans supported it. The propaganda also made people angry and more determined to resist. There were some small groups who tried secretly to help Jews. You can see the contrast from 1933 itself, the early stages of the Nazi regime. They tried on 1 April 1933 to have a nationwide boycott of Jewish-owned shops. Massive numbers of Germans objected to this. They said: “Why? Why should we not go into these shops? We’ve always been to them and they sell good products that are reasonably cheap. We know the owner.” It wasn’t the case that the Nazis tapped into a mass of pre-existing extreme anti-Jewish sentiment.

Q: How much did the ordinary citizen of Nazi Germany know about their concentration and death camps?

A: I’m glad there’s a distinction made in the question between the concentration camps and the death camps.

The concentration camps were opened up in the course of the Nazi seizure of power in 1933, and were for the enemies of the Nazis; socialists and communists and some others. Very quickly in 1933, the task of prosecuting and imprisoning these enemies of Nazism was handed over (by various decrees that established new treason laws) to the regular police, the courts and the state prisons and penitentiaries. So the number of people who were put in the concentration camps fell very rapidly, until it was only about 4,000 by 1935. By that time there were 23,000 prisoners in state prisons who were explicitly designated political prisoners.

Prisoners at Buchenwald concentration camp
A view of prisoners in striped uniforms standing in rows before Nazi officers at the Buchenwald concentration camp, c1943. (Photo by Frederic Lewis/Getty Images)

So the concentration camps acquired a new function in 1937–38, which was to house so-called asocials, petty criminals, the work-shy, vagrants and others. They again changed during the war, becoming places for putting slave labourers and forced labourers into. And that’s when they expanded in number and size. About over 700,000 people – overwhelmingly slave labourers – were in them by the beginning of 1945. So the concentration camps changed.

They were a kind of open secret. Plenty of newspaper and magazine stories in 1933 featured pictures of concentration camps and the inmates in them. That had a dual function. It said: “Look, this is what happened to these communists. We’re dealing with the communists.” That appealed to people who wanted the communist movement suppressed.

But it also said: “Watch out, because if you misbehave yourself, if you oppose what we’re doing, that’s where you will end up.” There was approval – particularly from the middle classes, when vagrants and ne’er-do-wells were put in the camps in the mid-to-late 1930s. But there was also a certain amount of fear and apprehension as well.

The extermination camps were a different matter. These were opened during the war, essentially from late 1941 and early ’42, for the purpose of exterminating Jews, by gassing in closed chambers or closed vans. There was an extermination action, the so-called Reinhard Action, named after Reinhard Heydrich, a top SS officer who had been assassinated in Czechoslovakia in 1942. Camps such as Treblinka, Sobibór and Belzec existed purely for the purpose of killing people. Jews were arrested, taken out by train and marched straight into gas chambers where they were murdered.

Was this well known? It wasn't supposed to be, but the Nazis didn't go to too much trouble to keep it quiet

Many Jews were also killed by SS forces behind the eastern front and buried in pits. A lot of them were put into ghettos before they were transported to the death camps and lived in conditions which had an extremely high death rate. They were malnourished, there was disease, and no attempt was made to give them decent human living conditions.

The railway line to the Treblinka death camp
The railway line to the Treblinka death camp. The existence of the camps “was well known; you weren’t supposed to talk about it, but people knew”, says Richard J Evans. (Photo by Votava/Imagno/Getty Images) .

Auschwitz is famous for three reasons. One is that it was a very large camp. Two, a lot of people from all over Europe were taken there (whereas extermination camps like Treblinka were almost entirely for Eastern Europeans). And thirdly, it was mixed; there were three camps at Auschwitz. There was a labour camp, a kind of synthetic rubber factory run by IG Farben. Then there was the main camp, Auschwitz-I, where inmates were kept and marched out on work details and so on. The third one was Auschwitz-Birkenau, which was an extermination camp. At Treblinka and the other extermination camps, hardly anybody survived, except a handful. But at Auschwitz, there were thousands of people who were registered, who lived in the main camp and knew what was going on in the extermination facility.

Now, was this well known? It wasn’t supposed to be, but the Nazis didn’t go to too much trouble to keep it quiet. Particularly because all these camps are located in occupied Eastern Europe, soldiers would return home on leave from the front and would tell stories about the mass murders. It became known to the Allies by 1942. In December 1942, the Allies issued a statement which they had printed in thousands of copies and dropped from aeroplanes over Germany, condemning the extermination of the Jews and promising that justice would catch up with the perpetrators. So it was well known; you weren’t supposed to talk about it, but people knew. The claims that many, many Germans made after the end of the war, that they had known nothing, were basically lies.

Q: Do we know the actual numbers of high-ranking Nazis who organised the regime and orchestrated its horrors?

A: It’s usually thought there were about 300,000 Nazis who were actively involved in the extermination programme of the Jews. But of course, complicity in the various atrocities that the Nazi regime committed went much further down the social and political scale. It depends: how much power do you have to wield in order to qualify for being regarded as one of the regime’s leaders?

There were government ministers, judges, industrialists, employers, the SS, the Brownshirts, the party itself, the regional administrators. This is partly reflected in the war crimes trials that take place at the end of the war. We know that the Allies put the major war criminals on trial, surviving Nazis like Goering or Ribbentrop. But there were many other trials, both those carried out by the Americans or the so-called Judges’ Trial (of judges who condemned people to death; something like 16,000 executions were sanctioned by the judges in the Nazi regime). There were trials of generals, of industrialists, of the SS task forces. There was a whole string of other trials that went on to the end of the 1940s.

The Nuremberg trials have not been universally praised. To some, the trials were a blown-up case of victors' justice. (Image by Bettmann/Getty Images)
Defendants during the Nuremberg trials. (Image by Bettmann/Getty Images)

Then there were trials which took place in the countries where the crimes had been committed, in Poland, Italy, France, Belgium, all the occupied countries. Nazis in their thousands were put on trial. That included very junior Nazis like SS camp guards. Over a thousand of them were put on trial in Dachau after the end of the war. There was a very big justice operation.

Complicity in the various atrocities that the Nazi regime committed went much further down the social and political scale

As for those who were actively responsible for shaping and framing policy, this has been a question of debate amongst historians for a long time, because Hitler wasn’t one of those national leaders like chancellor Otto von Bismarck who sat at his desk and formulated detailed policy all the time and read his briefs. He was very much a man who acted on the hoof, and issued commands verbally. When he wanted to intervene in an issue, his word was law. Nobody ever objected to what he said. But a lot of the time, Nazi officials had to work out what he would want in the absence of any firm and detailed policy, particularly in areas like the economy. He would just say to the economic experts, “Right, get me these guns and produce these ships”. He left the details of how to pay for it to them. So it’s quite a complicated picture with very different levels and degrees of responsibility.

Q: Did most German citizens fear the Nazis or simply acquiesce?

A: I think the answer is both, really, it depends who you were. The Nazis kept a very close eye on former activists for the socialists and communists. They had what were called block wardens; in every city, every town, every street block was looked after by an active Nazi. And in working-class areas with high degrees of support for the communists and socialists, the Nazis put in middle-class or lower-middle-class Nazi party members who had no love for the socialists and made sure that if there was any resistance movement – secret meetings in flats and so on – they would be found out and punished. People had to put up their flags on Hitler’s birthday. There was a lot of coercion. The numbers of people imprisoned shot up in the Nazi period. I’ve talked about the concentration camps. There was a lot of fear.

But at the same time, there was a lot of acquiescence. Most people wanted a quiet life. They wanted to get on with their jobs and their lives, raise their families. There was a certain retreat into private life under the Nazis, because to take part in public life, you had to be an active Nazi and do all sorts of things that many people really didn’t want to do.

By 1939, there was a kind of tacit agreement that people wouldn’t object to the Nazis or oppose them (apart from very some very small resistance groups), and in turn the Nazis wouldn’t make too many demands on them either. This agreement changed during the war, because one of the main objects of Nazism was to make the Germans love war, and the great majority of Germans didn’t. They had been through the First World War and had seen the death and destruction; they didn’t want that repeated. Nazi foreign policy up to 1939 was very successful not least because it made Germany great again, as it were, without very much bloodshed. The great foreign policy triumphs, such as the remilitarisation of the Rhineland and the annexation of Austria, the Anschluss, the annexation and destruction of Czechoslovakia, the victories over Poland and then France and western European countries, were all achieved very quickly at a minimal cost in lives and made the Nazis incredibly popular.

There was a kind of tacit agreement that people wouldn’t object to the Nazis or oppose them

Probably 1940 is the height of the Nazis’ popularity. But after that, as the war became more destructive and claimed more lives, people began to lose faith in the Nazis. How German people reacted to the Nazis is a complicated picture. They, I think, appreciated them for restoring the economy, though a lot of that was done by statistical manipulation and trickery. But ironically, there was popular appreciation of the Nazis’ restoration of law and order, even though in the late years of Weimar Republic, a lot of the disruption on the streets had been caused by the Nazis. Most people didn’t like their attacks on religion, particularly Catholics did not at all like the Nazis’ attempts to curb the Catholic Church and bring it under Nazi control. They didn’t particularly like the Nazi education system, and a number of aspects of the regime were also unpopular. It was a very mixed picture.

Sir Richard J Evans is regius professor emeritus of history at Cambridge University. He is the author of numerous books, including In Defence of History (Granta, 1997), The Coming of the Third Reich (Allen Lane, 2003) and The Pursuit of Power: Europe, 1815–1914 (Allen Lane, 2016)

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Evans was talking with BBC History Magazine editor Rob Attar. Listen below, or on Spotify or Apple Podcasts