The Holocaust Historiography Project

Book Reviews

Social Life, Local Politics, and Nazism: Marburg, 1880-1935

  • Social Life, Local Politics, and Nazism: Marburg, 1880-1935, by Rudy Koshar. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1986, xviii + 395 pages, hardbound, $35, ISBN 0-8078-1694-9.

Reviewed by John M. Ries

By focussing on the “interpenetration of organizational and political life” as it took place in one German town from 1880-1935, Rudy Koshar sets out to provide a fresh perspective on the sociopolitical development of modern Germany and its relation to the rise of National Socialism.

An important if not unique characteristic of the urban bourgeoisie in Germany, beginning in the late 1sth century, was its tendency to organize in social groups, or Vereine. According to Mr. Koshar, these groups began to take on greater significance as the traditional political party system of Imperial Germany seemed to lose its hold over the allegiance of the local Bürgertum. This “disengagement” from national politics and the resulting sociopolitical “asymmetry,” whereby non-political organizations were able to attract a greater political following than the liberal and conservative parties, were the end result of a process which the author calls “apoliticism.” As defined here, apoliticism means a “desire to make political concerns, practices, and structures inapplicable to public life.” The principal argument of this book is that the success of National Socialism was to a great extent the result of its ability to infiltrate the intricate network of Vereine and replace the existing “sociopolitical asymmetry” with a national consensus paradoxically derived from the apolitical tendencies in German social and political life. In other words, the Hitler movement effected the transformation of apoliticism into a mass political party.

Mr. Koshar selected the Hessian town of Marburg an der Lahn as the focus of his study. Marburg was an important religious center dominated by its university, with little large-scale manufacturing or industry, and no significant working-class element. Although not a perfect model, he felt that its predominant bourgeois character within the confines of a small urban area would serve as a sound indicator of the development of middle-class political activity on the grassroots level.

Because of the rich matrix of local Vereine that dotted the social landscape of Marburg, the extent of apoliticism could be fairly well documented. One indication was the support given to the so-called traditional personalistic parties like the antisemitic party of local political agitator Otto Bockel, which became quite popular around the turn-of-the-century in Marburg. This fragmentation became so pervasive that as early as 1887 no single bourgeois party was able to establish or maintain hegemony. Within the safe confines of the club or organization, national issues could be divorced from “hateful party politics,” even though they probably remained just as divisive.

Marburg’s status as an important Universitätstadt further underscored the significance of the local Vereine as foci of political activism. Student enrollment quadrupled between 1880 and 1914, witnessing a corresponding increase in membership in student fraternities (Burschenschaften). These organizations were particularly active centers of apoliticism, even when their numbers declined following the end of the First World War. The role played by a student paramilitary group in the killing of Communist workers in March 1920 gave Marburg the reputation of being a reactionary city, a designation which seemed to be borne out in the Reichstag elections of May 1924, when the Völkisch-Sozialer Block, in which the NSDAP played an important part, garnered 17.7% of the local vote. In light of its subsequent rapid decline, however, such a relatively concentrated show of support for the radical Right, according to Mr. Koshar, should be regarded as an anomaly. During the remaining years of the decade, apoliticism widened the gap between politics and social life in Marburg.

This was demonstrated by an increase in political party disunity as the bourgeois parties on both the national and local levels “gave way to splinter parties, municipal special interest alliances, and, in 1929, an unsuccessful mobilization of opponents of the Young Plan.” By 1930, the incipient effects of the Depression on an already badly fragmented political milieu earned Marburg the description of a “political no-man’s land.”

Within this wide breech between social and political life, an almost paradoxical situation had been reached when the forces of apoliticism needed a “political anchor” if the energies that had been released through the disintegration of the political system were to be harnessed. The NSDAP was able to fill this need. Utilizing so-called party “joiners,” the Hitler movement brought its message within the intricate organizational network. Eventually, a fusion between the political and social realms was attained which resulted in the swallowing of popular politics by the NSDAP through the absorption of local clubs. For example, white-collar workers who attended a meeting of the National Socialist Labor Front in 1935 were told by the speaker that “the commonweal, the entire Volk must benefit from labor, not the individual.” These workers could no longer consider themselves part of the local business or club in which they belonged, since all organizations were an integral part of the community. All of this was accomplished, according to Mr. Koshar, not by Hitler’s charisma or fanaticism, but by the “moral imperative of the Party, its unique standing in the tradition of bourgeois apoliticism.”

Yet cracks began to reappear in the sociopolitical consensus that seemed to be established by the National Socialists. In Marburg the Bekennende Kirche (Confessional Church), founded in 1934, fought to reassert the boundary between the social and the political realms by countering the Party’s strident anti-Christian measures. As a result the Protestant church remained “a fundament of local life” outside of the grasp of National Socialist control.

The growth of the Party through the increased influx of new Marburgers contributed to the dilution of fervor and ideological conviction, as it seemed to appear that the NSDAP had peaked as an eschatological movement and was not just another political party. As it turned out, the failure of the Party to gain full moral authority was caused by more than apathy, resentment, or distrust. It was also more than a result of changes in party membership after Hitler gained power. National Socialist ideology, though “suffused throughout the local culture, had not displaced Verein apoliticism.” Although one may find fault with the essential premise of this study, that modern German society was inherently apolitical — a recasting of the well-known Weberian dictum of the German bourgeois as a “political philistine” — the logic of the author’s approach must be conceded. Certainly the transcendent nature of National Socialism as a “party above politics” enabled it to take advantage of the chronic political fragmentation that beset the Weimar Republic. Yet this reviewer must take issue with the author’s relative neglect of the critical nature of the defeat in the First World War and the ensuing peace treaty in creating the atmosphere for a national reception of the Hitler movement. It is akin to neglecting the effects of the dissolution of Parliament by Charles the First in setting in motion the events which led to the English Civil War. Nevertheless, the mounting confusion in German political life as seen through the history of the organizational life of Marburg proves quite effective. Whether the importance of social organizations is overstressed at the expense of more fundamental causes can only be resolved through a satisfactory answer to the question of the primacy of group behavior as a determinant of human action. All in all, this book is recommended for those interested in a different approach to the “problem” of modern German history.

Source: Reprinted from The Journal of Historical Review, vol. 9, no. 1, pp. 92-95.