The nature of Professor Allert’s academic training and interest is reflected in the first chapter of The Hitler Salute, in which the author addresses the role of everyday gestures—in this instance, the forms of greeting and address used when individuals encounter each other—in creating mutual understanding among the members of a society. According to Allert, social greetings reflect the way in which the participants see themselves and their relationship to each other and to society at large.
In the Third Reich, the Nazis succeeded from almost the moment of their accession to power in politicizing and homogenizing even the common social greeting, by officially substituting for it the Hitler salute. The National Socialist German Students’ League, for example, promulgated rules for social interaction in no uncertain terms:
“The German greeting (i.e. the Hitler salute) must become second nature to you. Discard your Gruess Gott, Auf Widersehen, Guten Tag, Servus….All who wish to avoid the suspicion of consciously obstructionist behavior will use the Hitler salute.”
By statutory mandate, Germans were required “without prompting” to greet the playing or singing of the Horst Wessel Lied, salute swastika flags and passing police and Wehrmacht officers, and acknowledge the consecrated sites of the Nazi movement, by raising their arms and intoning a fervent “Heil Hitler”.
It is Allert’s thesis that what he calls the “collapse of morals” that characterized Germany during the Nazi time resulted from “a loss of personal sovereignty and the ability to shape one’s own existence” One of the important elements in this “collapse” was the legal and societal compulsion to utilize the Hitler salute instead of other traditional greetings.
Allert demonstrates that prior to the Nazi seizure of power and the ensuing gleichschaltung (elimination of opposition) of German society, there was nothing like a common German greeting. Instead, Germans encountered and acknowledged each other using a variety of vernacular expressions associated with geographically different and culturally distinct regions of the country.
German fascism, however, was nothing if not intolerant of cultural diversity. Within seven months of Hitler’s elevation to the post of Reichskanzler his governmental minions issued an interministerial decree requiring that the Hitler salute be used as a matter of course during the performance of official state business. This mandate was extended within a matter of a few months to public encounters of all sorts, irrespective of whether anyone involved in the encounter was an employee of the state.
The intrusion extended still further, to the extent that the German people were legally required to use the phrase “Heil Hitler” in written correspondence of all kinds, personal or otherwise, as well as in more formal things such as commercial contracts. Moreover, the legal requirements had teeth—-from the very first year of Nazi control, those who refused to employ the Hitler salute in person, or utilize “Heil Hitler” in written correspondence or documents, were subject to prosecution in specially dedicated courts, and if found guilty, made liable for fines or imprisonment in a concentration camp.
Professor Allert makes the point that the Nazis knew exactly what they were about when they required Germans to use the “German Greeting” and all that went with it in everyday discourse. In January 1935, for example, the Reich Interior Ministry promulgated a memorandum on the subject, in which it began by observing that the new laws requiring the use of the Hitler salute…
“have created a highly personal and insoluble bond of loyalty between the German civil service and the Fuehrer and Reich chancellor (emphasis added)….[we] therefore order that civil servants and other employees henceforth use the German greeting while performing their duties and in their place of employment by raising their right hands…and clearly articulating the words ‘Heil Hitler’. And [we] expect from civil servants and other public employees that they use the same form of greeting at other times as well”.
The Nazi urge to collective conformity extended to “the most routine and utilitarian communications”, such as receipts for services, standard business letters, account statements, and business forms of all types, requiring them to end with a standard formula, namely “Heil Hitler”. Metal signs affirming the “German Greeting” appeared everywhere on lamp posts and telephone poles.
Even elementary and secondary schools reinforced the new way of beginning interpersonal contact. At the beginning and ending of each school period, children were required to proclaim the words “Heil Hitler”. Indeed, the very first thing encountered by new first graders was the lesson in their primers on the proper manner of greeting strangers, illustrated with pictures of rapturous crowds lining the streets and giving the “Hitler salute.”
Laws requiring the use of the “German Greeting” did not emanate only from the Reich government itself. For example, the department of education and cultural affairs of the state of Wuerttemberg stiffened a decree of the Reichminister of Interior issued July 24, 1933, to avoid allowing the “German Greeting” to become merely perfunctory:
“[It] is hereby ordered that pupils in all schools rise from their seats and offer a raised-arm greeting at the beginning and end of every school day as well as with every change of instructor between periods. During lessons, pupils are required to greet any adult who enters the classroom in the same fashion. Teachers are required to return the greeting. Individual pupils who encounter fellow pupils inside the school building or on school grounds are also required to use the Hitler greeting”.
Yet, the introduction of a mandatory style of greeting, and the extension of that concept to every facet of everyday life, was intended by the Nazis to do much more than simply bind their subjects more closely to the Party and its regime. As Professor Allert points out, the use in German culture of the term “Heil” in a greeting expresses a desire for the continued physical integrity and general well being of the person being greeted.
But when the name of Hitler is made a part the greeting, there is an ambiguity created, namely whether the greeter is wishing the good health of the Fuehrer, or that of the person being greeted. Either situation is absurd, since in the former the Fuehrer is absent, while in the latter the power to heal is ascribed to Hitler, a claim that not even the dictator would have made for himself.
In Professor Allert’s view, these contradictions can only be resolved if the use of the Hitler salute and uttering of the phrase “Heil Hitler” are understood not as a greeting, but as an oath of allegiance made by all Germans, whether in or out of uniform. Allert argues that this interpretation of the “German Greeting” is supported by the several roles that it played, including reminding Germans of their common purpose, as embodied in the Fuehrer, and as a mutual pledge of loyalty to the community that Hitler and the Nazis had created.
The “German Greeting” was not merely a method of compelling individual inclusion in the Nazi community, but was a means by which others might be excluded from that community as well. It goes without saying that Jews were forbidden to use the “German Greeting”, although interestingly this did not occur until 1937.
But as early as 1933, the Reich began to persecute anyone who refused to perform the Hitler salute. In one case, Carlo Schmid was denied promotion at the University of Tuebigen in 1933 after being observed on many occasions responding to the Hitler salute by tipping his hat. Schmid survived the Nazi time to become a Social Democratic member of the post-war Bundestag.
A more extreme example cited by Allert is that of the Protestant clergyman Paul Schneider. The Nazis initially imprisoned Schneider at Buchenwald because he refused to use the Hitler salute during confirmation instruction. Schneider had also preached in favor of resistance to Hitler, denounced the racial state, and refused to salute the swastika flag on the Fuehrer’s birthday. He died in 1939, succumbing to the effects of poisoning, torture and beating.
As has previously been mentioned, it is Allert’s thesis that what he calls the “collapse of morals” that characterized Germany during the Nazi time resulted from “a loss of personal sovereignty and the ability to shape one’s own existence”. This came about, in part, because of the Reich’s assiduous imposition of the “German Greeting” on the German people, which in turn fostered a culture of distance and distrust.
Perhaps just as important, according to Allert, is the fact that this phenomenon occurred in a country in which the prevailing religious systems had long inculcated the populace with a world view that devalued responsibility for the present. In Germany, both Catholicism and Protestantism, argues Allert, distinguished between the imperfections of this life and future redemption, and saw the present primarily as a time of testing.
For Protestants, the present is largely irrelevant, because salvation emanates from the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, rendering such things as good works entirely meaningless. On the other hand, Catholics may “confront the present unreflectively”, knowing that their salvation is assured so long as they faithfully abide by received religious precepts and inherited customs. According to Allert, the Hitler salute and all it stood for distorted normal human interaction in the Third Reich, alienated persons, families and groups from each other, and fostered a culture of distrust. When these tendencies became intertwined with racism and a religious heritage that made responsibility for the present superfluous, the descent of Germans into the realm of the unimaginable was greatly enabled.
For those who may be interested, my own reaction to Professor Allert’s The Hitler Salute is what is generally referred to as “mixed”. It is likely that my judgment about the book is somewhat skewed by the fact that I am an historian and not a sociologist, with the result that some parts of Allert’s work are not as accessible to me as they might or should be. And, of course, my focus naturally has been on the historical aspects of the work.
But these are my own issues to address, and have nothing whatever to do with the book or its author. From the historian’s point of view, I found very compelling Allert’s insights into the conscious way in which the Nazis consolidated their power, in this instance by legislating collective conformity in a way that would drive home to all Germans the importance of Nazism and the Fuehrer to their lives repeatedly throughout an ordinary day. And Allert succeeds in a subtle manner in demonstrating how something as apparently innocuous as a form of greeting can be used to manipulate the political and moral norms of a culture.
It seems to me, however, that Allert’s most important success with The Hitler Salute, again from the point of view of an historian, is that he makes clear that the use of the Hitler salute in everyday human interaction, as well as the ubiquitous appearance of the phrase “Heil Hitler” on every imaginable document from the Nazi time, were both mandated by law from the very beginning of the Third Reich, and that failure to obey the law in this respect could have the direst of consequences.
In the United States for the last sixty-five years the movies, television, the print media, and, yea, even the writers and publishers of history textbooks have continuously and consistently portrayed Germans in such manner that the word “German” is synonymous with the word “Nazi”. One aspect of this portrayal has been to characterize Germans as ready and willing to give the Hitler salute and shout “Heil Hitler” at every opportunity, and to make clear that they did so voluntarily and genuinely, so as to confirm the veracity of the notion that every German was a Nazi. If it does nothing else, The Hitler Salute illustrates clearly that this characterization of Germans is inaccurate.
My principal criticism of The Hitler Salute (and it should not be taken as detracting from the value of the work to the field of modern German history) is that its author appears to endorse the idea that there was a “collapse of morals” in Nazi Germany, and that the German people as a whole should be implicated in the horrors of the Holocaust and the Second World War. This position is an untenable one for a multitude of reasons, but in this instance it is necessary only to consider Allert’s own focus on the legal aspects of the use of the Hitler salute and the phrase “Heil Hitler” by ordinary Germans.
According to Allert, two of the most significant things that the Nazis did almost immediately upon their accession to power were to compel Germans, under pain of imprisonment, (a) to employ the Nazi salute in place of all other greetings, and to do so in all social settings, and (b) to require the use of the phrase “Heil Hitler” in all official and non-official documents of every description. Allert also seems to make clear that the Nazis were not shy about enforcing these laws, a fact that most assuredly would have been made crystal clear by the Nazi-controlled press. If all of this is true, how can it reasonably be argued that there was a “collapse of morals” among the German people in general during the Third Reich?
Implicit in the phrase “collapse of morals” is the notion that the individuals involved voluntarily abandoned the moral precepts which most Western cultures embrace. Thus it is generally argued that Germans in general knew that the Holocaust was going on (or alternatively that German soldiers in the field, and particularly in the East, knew that Russian civilians, Russian POWs, and Jews, among others, were being murdered or allowed to die in very large numbers) and did nothing to stop these things, thereby establishing their individual guilt, and the guilt of Germans in general, as complicit in these deaths.
If the ordinary German knew (as they most assuredly did know) that the Nazi state had reached down and touched themselves and their families personally (i.e. not in theory, but in reality) by compelling them to introduce themselves by giving the Nazi salute and shouting “Heil Hitler”, and further knew that the Nazi state had reached down and touched their children personally by requiring them to do the same thing in school, and yet further knew that failure to act in accordance with these rules carried with it the risk of being separated, perhaps forever, from their spouse and children, then how can we call the decision of our ordinary German to comply with the law a voluntary abandonment of morality?
During the 1960’s and 1970’s there were literally millions of Americans who decried the immorality, real or perceived, of the Vietnam War. Yet in this much more tolerant society, how many of these avowedly moral people went out and laid down in front of busloads of new recruits being taken to basic training? If by any standard the Vietnam War was indeed an immoral one, does the failure of those who were morally opposed to the war to take steps to put an end to it render such people, and by extension, all Americans, morally bankrupt?