Seventy-seven years ago, allied forces defeated Adolf Hitler’s (1889-1945) Third Reich and the Axis powers, bringing an end to World War II. In the years following Germany’s defeat, historians have authored books, filmmakers have published documentaries and social media provides endless content about the man who ignited a world conflict. In the wake of the war, outspoken critics of the Third Reich were vindicated in their belief that Hitler would cause Germany’s destruction. He nearly succeeded and following the nation’s surrender on May 7, 1945, the German people faced the cruel reality that their country was in ruins, they were widely despised and faced years of rebuilding, de-Nazification and coming to terms with what had been done in their name. As we have sought to understand the aura of Hitler and his ascension to the position of Chancellor, sharp focus was needed on how and why the Nazis were able to take over Germany. Author William Sherian Allen decided to focus on the town of Northeim to examine the Nazi seizure of power. Northeim lies in the Lower Saxony area of Germany and between the years 1922-1945, the Nazis executed their plan to take over Germany one town at a time. This is the story of how it was done.
Prior to reading this book I did not know the story of Northeim but there are countless stories from the war that have yet to be told or discovered. World War II will continue to produce more material even as it fades further into the past. This story of Northeim helps capture the rise and fall of the Third Reich. After World War I, the Treaty of Versailles had forced Germany to relinquish territory, recognize Poland as an independent nation and crippled the country with brutal financial penalties, the result of which was widespread poverty and anger. Northeimers were not immune to this, and its residents wanted a better life but as we see in the book, it was not at first a Nazi stronghold, but the Third Reich was determined to leave no stone unturned. Hitler knew that touching on German resentment towards the treaty’s penalties would play into Nazification efforts. The signatories of the first treaty could not have known that twenty years later Germany would once again destabilize the world. As I read the book, I noticed that Northeim was not the prime territory for indoctrination yet the resistance to Nazism was non-existent. And as for any resistance that did exist, the Nazis had tools at their disposal to eliminate all opposition.
The most interesting part of the story is that the Nazi takeover was not as violent as one would expect. In fact, subversion and deception were the primary tools employed. But the Nazis did break down critical social institutions that obstructed their path of total domination. The suppression of free speech, free press and religion are on full display. However, the Nazis could have not succeeded without local help. And this is where the story becomes even more interesting, and it features two central figures, Wilhelm Spannaus and Ernst Girmann (1896-1969). Spannaus was a bookstore owner who had aligned himself with the N.S.D.A.P. but never comes across as a hardcore Nazi. In fact, the undesirable aspects of the Third Reich would not have earned his approval. Officials knew Spannaus would never conduct their plan to the satisfaction needed and turned to Girmann who took his fanaticism to astonishing heights. Girmann was more than willing to carry out the Nazi ideology and bring Northeim under the grip of Berlin. The step-by-step seizure by the Third Reich took time but was successful and as Allen remarks:
“The single biggest factor in this process was the destruction of formal society in Northeim. What social cohesion there was in the town existed in the club life, and this was destroyed in the early months of Nazi rule.”
By 1933, Hitler had become Chancellor and anyone who second guessed the outspoken Austrian, paid full attention to the recent changes in Germany society. The old way of life for Germans and the democracy they believed existed, vanished instantly. Once the Nazi propaganda and dictatorial machine started, there was no turning back and Northeim soon found himself under the boot of Nazism. The process of indoctrination kicks into high gear and the Nazis begin to target the areas that need it the most. Sherian captures the impact of the changes with this observation:
“More than any other institution in Northeim, the schools became active instruments of Nazism.”
The Nazis attacked every segment of society and with Girmann in control, Northeim was doomed from the start. Early in the war, Germans were optimistic that the war would be short but in June 1942, that all changed with Hitler’s decision to invade the Soviet Union which helped seal Germany’s fate. By 1944, the Allied effort had touched Northeim directly resulting in death and destruction. Readers will find themselves in disbelief at Girmann’s actions as defeat is imminent. His actions call into question the ideas of honor and courage in Nazi Germany. Northeim was eventually liberated, and the town began to repair itself and purge the remnants of the Nazi menace. And one of the people they turned to is Spannaus. Northeim comes full circle at this point in the book.
I should point out that the story here is not about the Final Solution or why Germany lost the war. Allen’s focus is on the Third Reich’s control of Northeim and its existence as a Nazi stronghold. Undoubtedly similar methods were employed across Germany as Hitler turned up the heat domestically and abroad. And had he not been defeated, what we see in Northeim might have taken place in parts unknown. Students of World War II and history buffs will find this to be an interesting account of Northeim’s experience during the war and life in the Third Reich. It is also a blueprint for how to resist future dictators from executing the same. Highly recommended.
“What was needed in Northeim to stop the Nazis was a political coalition of the decent people, regardless of party, to recognize that—whatever it promised—Nazism was an indecent thing. That such a coalition never developed was the main reason the Nazis got into power.”