Bread and circuses

Part of living in a militarized state is the martial pageantry, and Nazi Germany excelled at that. Parades served several purposes: they showed off the might of the military forces, they established the power of the state, and they served as a focus for displays of patriotism. By the heavy use of the swastika, which was a party symbol turned into a national emblem, the NSDAP was effectively telling the people that – to paraphrase Louis XIV – “the state is us”.

The photo above shows a parade in some major German city. I haven’t been able to identify the building, but none of my Berlin maps and guidebooks from 1923 – 1936 show a stately building like the one in the picture. A company of sailors march past the tribune, which is full of military top brass and Party functionaries. Men in Sturmabteilung uniforms salute the troops, as do the civilians out in the streets to gawk at the display.

The initial victories were celebrated with parades through Berlin, but as the war progressed and the victories dried up, the parades were more Party business than military. The enthusiasm shown in the newsreels shouldn’t be interpreted as the Germans were 100 % Nazi, but that many years of hardship and humiliation were exchanged for successes that promised a brighter future.

Carefully orchestrated propaganda reinforced national pride, and laid the credit for the victories at the feet of the Führer. As in all 20th century dictatorships, the image of the strong leader was a priority. The fact that the “true believers” were convinced that miracle weapons and the genius of Hitler would turn the fortunes of war even as the Allies crossed the German borders in 1945, just goes on to show how effective the propaganda was.


All in the family

This German family portrait shows the men engaged in different aspects of the Nazi state. Judging by the uniforms, it was taken in 1934 or later. The father is a member of the SA – the Sturmabteilung, the infamous Stormtroopers – with the rank of SA-Scharführer (equivalent to an Army NCO), and wearing the brown service tunic introduced in 1932. The two sleeve rings (SA-Ehrenstreifen) identify him as an “old fighter” with a join date of 1931 (those who joined after the Nazi power-grab in 1933 were seen as opportunists by some). He wears two sports badges, the Deutsches Reiterabzeichen and the Deutsches Fahrerabzeichen (the German horse rider’s and the horse-and-wagon driver’s badges, respectively).

The younger son (on the left) is in the RAD (Reichsarbeitsdienst, National Labor Service), doing his compulsory six months of service with the rank of Arbeitsmann (worker). The older son is wearing the old-style Army service tunic used for parades and other formal occasions. While the mother and daughter are in civilian clothing, it’s a rather safe bet that the are engaged in a Nazi organization for women or two, as the Party permeated every aspect of the State. Some Germans embraced the new order with enthusiasm, while others paid lip service and did the minimum in order to not appear in opposition.

It is hard for those of us who live in democratic countries to imagine life back then. What would one do? Go for it all, just hang on, or be a rebel? The Nazi state never had a complete grip on the German people, but enough people went along with it for it to work, even though the much-touted “Thousand Year Reich” only lasted for twelve years…


Thanks to Axis History Forum members HPL2008 and Waleed Y. Majeed for the identification of the SA uniform.

Working girl

A Jungführerin of the Reichsarbeitsdienst der weiblichen Jugend (RAD/wJ, Female Youth National Labor Service) with her floppy hat and swastika-adorned brooch. At the same time that the RAD was officially established in July, 1934, it was also divided into separate sections for males and for females. The Reichsarbeitdienst Männer, or RAD/M, was set up for men, and the Reichsarbeitdienst der weiblichen Jugend, or RAD/wJ, for females. All young women between 18 and 21 years of age were expected to serve. For women the period of service had been six months since 1939, but this was often extended by an emergency service obligation. In July 1941, the service was extended by a further six months to twelve months, extended to 18 months in April 1944, and finally made indefinite in November 1944. The extra (wo)manpower gained by the extended service term of 1944 was mainly used for anti-aircraft defense.

The female RAD replaced male agricultural workers as they entered Wehrmacht service, but they also joined the workforce in offices, in the armaments industry, and in public transport. Their main tasks were to assist peasant families with childcare and as teachers or nurses, or to work in the household, in the field, or taking care of farm animals, milking cows, and so on.

The daily routine, with its detailed schedules, left the members of the RAD/wJ with little time at their own disposal and resembled that of the soldiers: not counting the lunch break, the work hours amounted to about 76 hours per week. Also, the evenings were usually planned, and with no time for activities outside of the camp; this required special permission, as in the case of the military. The RAD completely replaced the existing social environment. Thus, a collective identity was to be developed in the new “community”, indoctrinating the RAD/wJ members into the Nazi state.

Women were also able to serve as Wehrmachthelferinnen (Army female auxiliaries), like telephone operators (“Blitzmädel“). To this end, the period of service was extended by six months. From 1944 the RAD/wJ was also used for the operation of anti-aircraft searchlights in support of anti-aircraft guns and Luftwaffe nightfighter units.

The manpower shortages required that women served, just like in many other countries affected by the war. For the Nazis, women were mainly to be mothers and to take care of the household. The war production relied on slave and forced labor, which often resulted in sabotaged munitions and other war materiél. Had German women been employed earlier, the war industry might’ve run smoother.

Reaching out to younger generations

A soldier shows off his athletic skills on the bar while carrying a full combat load, schoolkids watching raptly. In many countries in the 1930’s, the reasons for the outbreak of the Great War (WW1) differed depending on who you asked. History was an important subject in school, where it mainly served to tell about a nation’s glorious past and to push a more or less nationalist agenda. In the 1960’s, the narrative began to change, and became less focused on kings and battles. Over the decades, the subject has deteriorated. In Swedish schools, the only thing they read about when it comes to WW2 is the Holocaust. That’s important, but considering what a decisive event WW2 was, and how it influences politics and life to this day, it should be taught a lot more, of course together with the rest of 20th century history.

A couple of weeks ago, I watched “Dunkirk” in the local cinema. Christopher Nolan’s latest movie is very stylish, but the non-linear, intersecting storylines can confuse the viewer. To make matters worse, there’s extremely little exposition on why the soldiers are where they are, what year it is, and even who the enemy is. The audience numbered perhaps 30-35 people, at least a dozen about 18 years old. I felt sorry for them, as they couldn’t possibly have enough knowledge of the background to fully appreciate the movie. Even someone with passing knowledge of WW2 would be probably be a bit confused, at least at first.

Given that many movies and TV series have historical themes, the poor public understanding of the periods portrayed probably helps productions with crappy historical accuracy to succeed more than they deserve. This is nothing new, though, and has left history buffs stewing in cinema seats and livingroom sofas for decades. My take on it is that the makers of such movies and series shouldn’t count on the audience needing to be clueless and ignorant in order to swallow the ludicrous plots.

I talked to a friend who is a teacher about the state of the history subject these days. He teaches young teenagers, all of them born after events like 9/11. To them, events two or three generations ago have a have an almost mythological air. They have only superficial knowledge of WW2, Hitler being reduced to a bogeyman like Darth Vader, or a ranting madman in countless “Downfall” YouTube clips spoofing some current trend. This sad state of affairs is common and surveys show a shocking lack of knowledge. Of course, it depends on who you ask… The problem has been around for decades, though, and the realist in me realise that it won’t go away.

Knowing about history, what caused this or that event, and what effect that had on other events, is essential to the understanding the world around us. If you have a sound schooling in history, you are less prone to fall for nationalist agendas or fake news. Also, it gives you a better appreciation of your own place in the chain of events that has led up to the world we live in today. We cannot know where we might be heading if we don’t know where we come from.

Your tax money at work

Curious German civilians crowd around a Messerschmitt Bf 109, probably an E-1, patiently waiting in line to get a chance to take a look in the cockpit. It’s apparently a publicity stunt, showing the people that Germany possessed some of the finest fighter aircraft in the world. The all-metal construction, powerful engine, and, starting with the E-3, improved armament made it a respected adversary on all fronts.

The Bf 109 was the mainstay of the Luftwaffe, serving in different versions during the entire war. 33,984 were built between 1936 and 1945, making it the most numerous fighter aircraft in history. It was the mount of aces like Adolf Galland, Hans-Joachim Marseille, Gerhard Barkhorn, Günther Rall, and the ace of all aces: Erich Hartmann, who with his 352 aerial victories will probably never be bested.

Today, just a few original Bf 109’s are in flying condition. The roar of their Daimler-Benz engines can still be heard at some airshows, and I hope to see one in the air sometime before I die.


“Links, rechts, links!”

Recruits of the 1. Zug (1st platoon) of some unknown company marching, commanded by Leutnant (2nd Lieutenant) Förster. This is probably in 1940 or 1941, as Förster wears a Wound Badge on his uniform, indicating that he has participated in the campaigns in Poland and/or France. The soldiers wear Drillich linen fatigue uniforms in a mix of off-white and olive green items.

Learning to march was one of the first things that new recruits were taught. To function as a unit, follow orders, and build up stamina were some of the goals. Later the soldiers were able to march up to 40 km (25 miles) in a day, as the bulk of the divisions weren’t motorized. Those marching boots would see many kilometers…

A boy and his cat (and soldier father)

It’s Caturday again, and the son of that Luftwaffe soldier is so proud of his cat, that he wants it in the family photo. The soldier himself appears to belong to a ground unit, possibly an antiaircraft unit. He also seems a bit older, probably in his 30’s. Family photos are common among soldiers’ photos, and while they aren’t that interesting from a military aspect, they meant a lot to the people in the photographs. Sometimes a collector stumbles on a photo that has something extra, making it a keeper. This is one of those.