Conformity and compromise

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A young woman’s experiences of life in 1930s Germany

A young woman’s experiences of life in 1930s Germany

These quotations are taken from an autobiographical account written in the winter of 1939-40 by Barbara Sevin, who did Reich Labour Service in 1934 in order to be able to complete her doctoral degree. She subsequently emigrated before the war broke out.

  1. ‘A mood of uncanniness and anxiety pervaded everything in Germany. Danger might be lurking behind the most innocent appearances. […] Everyone in Germany fluctuates between two conceptions respecting the Gestapo. The first is that it is simply impossible to exercise such surveillance as they claim; that it is just another instance of bluff, designed to intimidate people; that they would need to have half of Germany in their pay. On the other hand, there is the idea that perhaps they know everything; that one’s closest friends or relatives are perhaps in their pay; that perhaps everything has long since been in readiness, and that all that is necessary is to spring the trap.’
  2. ‘In Nazi Germany one has no choice but to obey; otherwise one shows that one is afraid or actually suspicious.’
  3. In a Reich Labour Service camp, 1934: ‘The word of the leader was everything: a human being was a mere speck of dust, a cipher. […] Blind obedience was supreme, still further intensified as a result of incessant yielding. Everyone sought to divine in advance the wishes and thoughts of the leader, so as to make a good impression. Nothing counted by labour service, “Körper,” “Volksgemeinschaft.” […] The girls were like automatons or puppets, more or less alike in what they said, did, or wished. […] it was astounding that young people should have permitted such a degree of uniformity to be imposed upon them.
    […] What these girls actually thought – they who cooperated so obediently, peacefully, and attentively in heeding every expressed or unexpressed wish and command of their leaders, just like little dachshunds – what they actually thought, say, no one knew. They were all little masqueraders, playing the role of innocent comrades. Behind this mask must have lurked at least a hatred, a potential envy, of others. […] As for myself, it was a question, during this period, of keeping my nerves steady and not letting myself become provoked.’
  4. ‘Even in their relations with one another the girls […] showed the utmost distrust and preserved the maximum of silence, notwithstanding he marked comradeship that was supposed to prevail. […] Everyone was afraid not only of the leaders but, to an even greater extent, of her comrades; for denunciation had become a recognized method of government and was no longer branded as dishonorable.’

The quotations touch on key issues which have been the subject of significant historiographical debates. What do they suggest about the following questions:

  1. perceptions and likely impact of the Gestapo on German society;
  2. the reasons for widespread conformity;
  3. the ways in which historians can draw conclusions about attitudes and opinions from the evidence of appearances and behaviours?

Harvard Houghton Library (HHL), b MS Ger 91 (262), Barbara Sevin, pp. 29-30; p. 31; pp. 37-8; p. 46. (Sevin’s own translation into English.)