The Question of Nazi Modernity


Alexander Mosca

Florida State University


Germany was burning. By late 1944, the British and American air forces had achieved air superiority over the heart of the Third Reich.[1] One by one, Germany’s major cities were subject to massive bombardments from huge numbers of heavy, four-engine bombers. City centers were gutted, and millions left homeless, while strategic targets such as factories, transportation centers, and oil production sites were repeatedly hammered. The once vaunted Luftwaffe, which had ushered in a new age of aerial terror with their bombing of Guernica, had been slowly ground away. Earlier in the war, they had been able to successfully defend much of Germany from the allied bombers, but years of fighting had sapped its strength and wiped out its experienced pilots. They were but a shadow of their former power, helpless to halt the streams of bombers nightly setting the fatherland aflame.

The thousand-year Reich, with its dreams of the ascendancy of blood and soil, was collapsing from all sides. In this hour of increasing desperation Adolf Hitler still clung to hope; he believed that advanced new technologies would turn the tide of war, while the alliance between the western capitalists and eastern communists would crumble in the face of renewed German offensives. The Type XXI submarine would renew the Battle of the Atlantic, while the V2 Rocket would burn London or Antwerp to the ground.[2] The skies would need to be retaken, and new fighters, such as the jet-powered ME-262, were built to bring down the British Lancasters and American Flying Fortresses. One fighter design was the Zeppelin Rammer, a diminutive rocket powered glider.[3] After firing its small payload of anti-air rockets, the Rammer’s true design was to come into play: with its high speed and the leading edges of its wings reinforced and sharpened, it was supposed to physically attack the tails of enemy aircraft - the Rammer was a rocket-powered sword-plane.

This bizarre design, though never put into production, can serve as a personification of the Nazi regime. Equipped with advanced technology, in the form of high-powered propulsion and attack rockets, the plane was on the cutting edge of design. Nevertheless, with its sharpened sword-wings, the plane harkens back to an age of blades and bayonet charges. This marriage between technology and anachronism, between modernity and romanticism, is one of the most confusing aspects of the Nazi philosophy.  Though the Nazis may have had futuristic technology, highways, and automobiles, though Hitler spoke to the German people using the airplane and the radio, the Nazis also called for a return to blood and soil, to the pastoral romanticism of the pre-modern world. Though a simple question can be phrased - “was the Nazi regime modernist or anti-modernist?” – there is no simple answer to satisfy it. After over half a century of debate among historians and sociologists, this question is still open and has yet to be fully settled, though a general trend towards a more modernist interpretation can be found.

One of the first books to broach the subject was Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Modern Enlightenment. Written during the Second World War, and published shortly thereafter, the book is the fundamental work of the Frankfurt School of critical theory.  Adorno and Horkheimer explore what they perceive as the failure of the enlightenment: how is it that societies that internalized the values of the enlightenment could somehow arrive at Auschwitz? They argue that from the very beginning of the enlightenment, from the inception of modernity, forces inherent to the enlightenment began to reverse its changes, leading in time to its destruction. Though the modern age was supposed to be the apogee of reason, it would instead lead to its nadir. This was due to the irrational roots of the enlightenment, which can be traced back to man’s mythical past – “Myth is already enlightenment, and enlightenment reverts to mythology.”[4] The brutal, anti-intellectual, and anti-rational Nazi Regime was the culmination of the modern era, with the furnaces of Auschwitz at its summit – “The wholly enlightened earth is radiant with triumphant calamity.”[5] Though Adorno and Horkheimer make a powerful argument, Dialectic does not substantiate its claims; is a work of philosophy rather than history. Nevertheless, it did establish the perception of the Nazi regime as highly modernist. Adorno and Horkheimer did present a plausible answer to the question of Nazi modernity, yet it was a deeply upsetting one, for it directly blamed the modern world that stemmed from the enlightenment for the Holocaust, seemingly discrediting hundreds of years of human advancement.

An entirely different picture of the Nazi regime is painted by Hugh Trevor-Roper in The Last Days of Hitler. Written shortly after the war and published in 1947, the book is now generally considered quite dated, as Trevor-Roper did not have access to numerous sources and archives that are now available. Nevertheless, the work still stands as a source of much common knowledge about the dying days of the Third Reich.

Unlike Adorno and Horkheimer, Trevor-Roper argues that the Nazi regime was decidedly anti-modern. Rather than being the culmination of the enlightenment, Hitler and his thugs were a throwback to a more barbaric time. Hitler did not attempt to create a new German order or usher in the dawn of modern age, instead “his ultimate purpose was indeed clear to those who did not willingly deceive themselves: he aimed at the destruction of European civilization by a barbarian empire in central Europe, - the terrible hegemony of a new, more permanent Genghiz Khan.”[6] Throughout Last Days, Trevor-Roper uses anachronistic terms to describe the Nazi regime: Hitler did not rule with a government, but with the court of an “oriental sultanate;[7] Nazism is not a philosophy or political platform, but rather “the religion of the German revolution,” a “vast system of bestial Nordic nonsense;”[8] Himmler was not a general or administrator, but rather “the high priest of the S.S;”[9] Hitler’s whole court was “a set of monkeys.”[10]

The few possible elements of modernity that may have existed were but figments in Trevor-Roper’s eyes. Although Hitler may have used “perverted science” to help achieve his goals, his regime was specifically anti-technocratic: “the decline of German science under the Nazis has become apparent.”[11] Even military science suffered due to the overwhelming authority of a single Fuhrer – “Hitler began the war the a group of generals trained to uniform efficiency in the greatest military tradition in the world; he ended it with a handful of obedient nonentities, and himself.”[12] The German nation had become led by a group of barbarians, who pillaged and burned their way across Europe before being themselves crushed.

Clearly there is a sharp contrast between Adorno and Horkheimer’s belief in Nazism as enlightenment ascendant, and Trevor-Roper’s view of Nazism as resurgent barbarism, yet the dissimilarity of these two arguments was not seriously considered for almost two decades. The publication of Society and Democracy in Germany quickly led to a revolution in conceptualization of Nazi modernity. Written in 1964 by Ralf Dahrendorf, the work is an attempt to answer the “German Question” which he views as “why is it that so few in Germany embraced the principle of liberal democracy?”[13] Dahrendorf argues that the peculiar nature of German industrialization caused the nation to have an industrial revolution without developing associated liberal political and social institutions. Thus, when the Third Reich arose, Germany was still predominantly pre-modern in character. Rather than viewing the Nazis as a step backwards, he instead argues: “National Socialism completed for Germany the social revolution that was lost in the faultings of Imperial Germany and held up by the contradictions of the Weimar Republic. The substance of this Revolution is modernity.”[14]

However, the social revolution towards modernity was not the original intent of the Nazis, and the push to modernity was a reluctant one. It grew out of the need for the party to secure their power base. Only by destroying the traditional authorities of Germany could the Nazi party affirm their existence. The Nazi party had to “break the traditional and in effect anti-liberal loyalties for region and religion, family and corporation, in order to realize their claim to total power. Hitler needed modernity, little as he liked it.”[15] Though the National Socialist revolution was totalitarian, it had to “create the basis for liberal modernity”[16] in order to succeed. Commensurately, resistance to National Socialism constituted a reactionary counter-revolution. Thus, the regime was neither directly modern nor anti-modern, but rather included aspects of both. However, Dahrendorf’s analysis, though groundbreaking, was brief, only a single chapter in a larger work. He himself declared that “the social history of National Socialist Germany had not yet been written.”[17]

David Schoenbaum’s Hitler’s Social Revolution: Class and Status in Nazi Germany 1933-1939, published in 1966, fulfilled Dahrendorf’s request for a more comprehensive work. Schoenbaum sought to explore the “impact of National Socialism not on German thought or statecraft, but on German society.”[18] Rather than perceiving the National Socialist revolution as being modern or anti-modern, Schoenbaum’s thesis built on Dahrendorf’s more nuanced approach by advocating a “double revolution.” He perceived the Nazi revolution as having two disparate pieces:


It was at the same time a revolution of means and ends. The revolution of ends was ideological – war against bourgeois and industrial society. The revolution of means was its reciprocal. It was bourgeois since, in an industrial age, even a war against industrial society must be fought with industrial means and bourgeois are necessary to fight the bourgeoisies.[19]


Schoenbaum highlights the socialist aspects of National Socialism, arguing that the Nazi regime did initially advocate for the elimination of class divisions and the creation of a volksgemineschaft (people’s community). It did so by attempting to return to a romanticized past, one that would “make the German speaking world safe for small business, small farmers, and small-towners.”[20] But, the Nazi regime was not only concerned with social aspirations; political goals, such as overturning the Treaty of Versailles and securing Lebensraum were paramount. According to Schoenbaum, herein lies the contradiction: “the threat of force in an industrial age presupposed industry.”[21] If the Nazi regime was able to turn back the clock and return Germany to some sort of utopian, pre-modern age, they would not have the military and technological might to carry out their crusade in the east. The Nazi regime was thus schizophrenic, looking backwards and forwards at the same time. Each half of the double revolution followed one of these two paths. Their social revolution against industrialized society was clearly anti-modern, but the end result, the revolution of means, was increased modernization. Thus, although the Nazi regime initially called for the “revision of the tyranny of big industry, big cities, big unions, big banks,”[22] “ in 1939 the cities were larger, not smaller; the concentration of capital greater than before; the rural population reduced, not increased.”[23] Nazi Germany attempted to use the tools of industrialized society to destroy industrialized society, and in the end, “destruction was all that was left.”[24]

Schoenbaum’s double revolution hypothesis is able to at last present a plausible answer to the question of Nazi modernity, as it incorporates both the technological and reactionary aspects of the regime’s character. Yet rather than stifle debate on the subject, Hitler’s Social Revolution served to increase the amount of discourse. Written in 1971 Richard Grunberger’s the Twelve-Year Reich: A Social History of Nazi Germany 1933-1943, covers the same field of information as Schoenbaum’s work, and is presented in the same format, with each chapter dedicated to one particular facet of life in the Third Reich. However, Grunberger’s book presents yet another theory of modernity.

The Nazi regime was simply a continuation of many of the anti-enlightenment and pro-authoritarian trends that had already been present in German society. There was no social revolution, only the appearance of one, specifically crafted to dupe the masses; “they used the slogan of revolution to divert attention from the realities of political continuity and slacked anti-capitalist yearnings with a diet of pseudo-social change: Jews were attacked as the embodiment of capitalism.”[25] However, actual capitalist structures were never destroyed and no anti-capitalist policy ever implemented, as this would have undermined the capacity of the regime to exercise international power, which was its true goal. Though the Nazis had preached about the necessity of blood and soil, “schemes of rural resettlement...accorded ill with the Nazis’ overriding aim, which was to revise the Versailles Treaty.”[26] The same process that took place in the field was occurring in the factories. The demands and needs of big business won out over those of the small business or the workers. Though the Nazis had preached about a return to the pre-industrial good old days, they were more than willing to discard the artisan for the heavy industrialist.

Though this argument appears to be similar to Schoenbaum’s thesis, there are two critical differences. Firstly, Grunberger rejects the notion that there was any sort of revolution associated with the Nazi rise to power. Secondly, while Schoenbaum wrote that there was a conflict between modernism and anti-modernism within the Nazi regime, Grunberger sees only the trappings of anti-modernism, rather than a serious attempt at anti-modernist policy that had a paradoxical effect. Nazism was not a break with the continuity of gradual modernization within German history, but rather a continuation of it.

The impact of Schoenbaum’s double revolution theory continued to influence historians examining the Nazi regime. A direct line of effect can be drawn between Hitler’s Social Revolution and the next influential work in the development of the question of modernity. Detlev Peukert’s 1982 book Inside Nazi Germany: Conformity, Opposition, and Racism in Everyday Life, had a profound impact on the study of the Third Reich. Rather than focusing on political or economic questions, or the lives of the Nazi elite, Peukert instead examined the everyday experiences of life within the Nazi regime. This approach, which was novel at the time, afforded him new opportunities and angles with which to study the regime.

Schoenbaum’s influence is visible throughout the work, as Peukert takes every opportunity to explore the modernity or anti-modernity of the regime. Peukert argues that the Nazi system exhibited elements of both fields, oftentimes conflicting with its own goals and rhetoric. Though the Nazis claimed to support the interests of small farmers, championing the importance of blood and soil, they also desired to increase crop yields. Their agricultural policy was conflicted between the “ideological promotion of the peasantry and soil, as reflected particularly in the Reich Hereditary Farm Property Law of 1933, and campaigns to increase agricultural output (such as the annual battles for production), which inevitably led to preferential treatment being given to efficient concerns.”[27] Meanwhile, white-collar workers were affected by their own set of conflicting facts; though the regime railed about the evil of cities, they “sketched a plan for society in which industry and technology, and hence engineers and other technical workers, would play a central role.”[28] The conflict inherent in this position is apparent, yet somehow the regime was able to embrace modernity and romanticism concurrently.

Though the Nazis advocated a return to the pre-modern world, the end result of much of their social policy was to erode preexisting structures and replace them with nazified equivalents. Peukert identifies this trend as actually speeding the modernization of Germany rather than halting or reversing it, giving “further impetus to the secular modernizing trend.”[29] For example, the Hitler Youth was supposed to “enforce the restoration of the system of order and authority threatened by modern mass society;”[30] but this new source of authority conflicted with the traditional role of parents and their influence over their children, and thus served to begin destabilizing it.

Peukert does not advocate the idea that the Third Reich was a “brown revolution” or a “thrust towards modernization.”[31] Rather, the regime merely continued the existing trends within industry and science towards increasing production and rationalization. Yet, their social policy was ostensibly highly reactionary, calling for a return to a romanticized past. Here Peukert cites Schoenbaum directly, arguing that the regime was “reactionary in its goals, but revolutionary in its methods.”[32] These revolutionary methods served to work against the desired outcome, as the method is - in part - the message.

Peukert, however, is quick to point out that there were still some aspects of the regime that were decidedly anti-modern and not affected by the more general trend towards modernization. Notably, the use of slave labor, racism, and outright terror anchor parts of the regime in a pre-modern world:


The social realities of the Third Reich, then involved these two aspects simultaneously: the dawning of the new achievement-oriented consumer society based on the nuclear family, upward mobility, mass media, leisure and an interventionist welfare state (though much of this still lay in the realms of propaganda and had not yet come into being); and the encroaching shadows cast by a project of social order based on racialist doctrines and terror.[33]


               Thus, in addition to Schoenbaum’s double revolution, there also existed elements of Trevor-Roper’s barbarity in Peukert’s answer to the question of Nazi modernity.

               As more historians developed theories on Nazi modernity, the answers have become increasingly complex. From simple modern or anti-modern, the status quo shifted to a double revolution of modern and anti-modern simultaneously and then to Peukert’s perception of a double revolution with attached elements of anti-modernism from another source. If this trend continued, the historical debate would have collapsed under the sheer weight of increasingly nuanced descriptions that moved farther and farther away from any readability or usefulness. Fortunately, a new theory was presented that combined the disparate elements into one single idea: reactionary modernism.

               This theory was first promulgated by Jeffrey Herf in his aptly titled 1984 book, Reactionary Modernism. From the very first pages of the book he clearly states his thesis: “an important current within conservative and subsequently Nazi ideology was a reconciliation between the antimodernist, romantic, and irrationalist ideas present in German nationalism and the most obvious manifestation of means-ends rationality, that is, modern technology.”[34] Rather than perceiving the modernist and anti- modernist behaviors and values of the conservatives and the Nazis as stemming from two disparate sources that competed with other another, as Schoenbaum did, Herf argues that these two forces became enmeshed within one another. The technology of the modern world was separated from modernist, enlightenment values and became associated, not with western Zivilisaiton, but with German Kultur.

               To support this thesis, Herf relies on the theories of intellectual writers from Weimar and Nazi Germany, as well as essays in technical and engineering journals. He identifies the reactionary modernist trend within their work that sought to teach “the German Right to speak of technology and culture,”[35] rather than technology or culture. Again, this rejection of enlightenment values but embrace of modern technology is paradoxical. However, as a rejection of technology would only lead to “national impotence,” the nationalist and conservative forces within Germany engaged in a rapprochement with modern technology. It was to be, in the words of Joseph Goebbels “the century of stählernde Romantik, steellike romanticism.”[36]

               In contrast to Schoenbaum, who argued that the double revolution saw no value in technology and was only using it to overthrow modern society, Herf believes that the conservative nationalists became ideologically enamored with technology. There was a “strong push to modernity or at least to certain aspects of modern society... but not at the expense of Nazi ideology.”[37] Similarly, Herf also rejected Adorno and Horkheimer’s belief in Auschwitz as the pinnacle of modernity, instead arguing that National Socialism grew out of the lack of enlightenment values rather than their fulfillment: “the unique combination of industrial development and a weak liberal tradition was the social background for reactionary modernism.”[38]

               Reactionary modernism can be characterized by several elements: the importance of technology and technical innovation; rejection of natural science; the centrality of Volk, community, and blood, that is nationalism; irrationalism; and a rejection of both capitalism and Marxism. To this idea the Nazis welded anti-Semitism, and commensurately Jews were attacked as both dangerous elements of the future and the past, as both bolshevists and bankers. To the reactionary modernist, the Autobahnen was not a symbol of the destruction of the nature, but rather coexistent with it; as the roads wove through the German countryside they united a Volk and preserved the beauty of the landscape. “Building these ‘highways bound to the land’ (landschaftsverbundene Strassen) and saving the German soul were mutually reinforcing projects.”[39] The Nazi embrace of technology was a third path, one that rejected both the capitalist and Marxist views of the modern world. By uniting technology with Volk and blood, the reactionary modernists were able to create the idea that “technology was a biological rather than an economic phenomenon.”[40] Thus the Nazi approach to modernity and technology “built on German racial foundations to ward of the threats from both capitalism and socialism.”[41]

This new emphasis on technological salvation would display its full effect during the second half of World War II. Hitler and some members of his court still believed that German technology - filled with the spirit of the Volk - would reverse the course of the war, even as Soviet artillery shells were bursting around them. Herf identifies this as symbolic of the irrationalism inherent in the reactionary modernist ideology: “Reactionary modernists the primacy of Nazi ideology and politics over technical rationality and means-end calculation of the national interest up to the end of the Hitler regime.”[42] Though the regime embraced the power of technology, the irrationalism inherent within reactionary modernism led to a breakdown within the creation of new technological power. Huge amounts of resources were poured into the V1 and V2 rocket programs, despite their negligible ability to affect either strategic or tactical concerns, while real theoretical advancements, such as atomic weapons, were relegated to the sideshow. The V1 and V2 “were to be the wonder-weapons that would reverse the course of the war and demonstrate that the German racial soul could compensate for quantitative (an in many cases qualitative) inferiorities.”[43]

By 1945, the notion that any technological advance could stop the Red Army, the British and American forces, or the bomber streams is simply ludicrous. “Had the Nazis been committed Luddites, they would not have been able to start World War II. Had they been cynical, calculating technocrats, they might have won a more limited victory, or at the very least avoided catastrophic defeat.”[44] Instead, they were reactionary modernists, and Germany burned because of it.

Although significant research has been performed into the nature of Nazi modernity, some historians have begun questioning the validity of the entire endeavor. No less an authority than Ian Kershaw, perhaps the foremost scholar on Adolf Hitler, has refuted the entire field. In The Nazi Dictatorship: Problems & Perspectives of Interpretation, first published in 1985, Kershaw directly challenges the previously held interpretations. He rejects Dahrendorf’s and Schoenbaum’s analysis of the regime, arguing that there was no social revolution to speak of, and interpretations that led to that conclusion are “largely attributable to an over-ready acceptance of the regime’s own pseudo-egalitarian propaganda and exaggerated claims, and partly too, to actual social changes of the post-war era which were often projected backwards into the

Third Reich, though they had little to do with Nazism, even indirectly.”[45] The regime was not attempting to reshape German society beyond the creation of a new racial identity, which was, in part, used to blunt disappointment at the failure to fulfill the promised social revolution that was halted by the murder of Ernst Röhm, the leader of the SA, during the Night of the Long Knives.

               According to Kershaw, the character of the regime was not revolutionary: “Hitler was uninterested in tampering with the social order.”[46]  Kershaw argues the Nazi social policy was not attempting to reshape German society: “the idea of the national community was not a basis for changing social structures, but a symbol of transformed consciousness.”[47]  Attempts to reshape the social fabric of Germany by destroying industry or capitalist structures were simply nonexistent; these would have been tantamount to international suicide. There was no double revolution of romanticism that led to modernity. Family, church, and class structures were not broken down or significantly changed. Thus, Kershaw argues, “it seems clear then, that Nazism did not produce a social revolution in Germany during the Third Reich.”[48] Similarly, he argues against the notion of Nazism representing a backwards and reactionary movement seeking to overthrow the modern world. While Nazism may have included some forms of romanticism, they “served as propagandistic symbols or ideological cover for wholly modern types of appeal.”[49]

               Kershaw’s interpretation of the Nazi regime emphasizes continuity over change. There was no dramatic shift either in attempted behavior or outcome that led to either a backwards or futurist stance. Any social change that did occur “was simply that of an advanced capitalist economy, if one with an unusual degree of state intervention.”[50] Kershaw rejected the entire notion of using modernity to explore the Nazi regime, stating, “in evaluating the brief era of the Dictatorship itself, the modernization concept is unhelpful.”[51] The twelve year period of Nazi rule was but “a flash in time,”[52] one part of Germany’s long and gradual shift towards modernity, which had already begun before the Nazis came to power and continued on after they were defeated.

               Despite Kershaw’s protests, the use of modernity to study the Nazi regime has not abated. Rather, new works are still being written about the phenomenon and old theories revisited. One of these, Zygmunt Bauman’s Modernity and the Holocaust, published in 1989, returns to one of the first studies in the field. Bauman, a sociologist having written at length about the nature of modern and post-modern society, echoes the words of Adorno and Horkheimer four decades prior, as he explores the relationship between Auschwitz and the modern world. Like his predecessors, Bauman argues that “the Holocaust was not the antithesis of modern civilization,”[53] but rather it was “fully in keeping with everything we know about our civilization.”[54]

               In his examination, Bauman finds the necessary elements for the Holocaust stemming from the modern world. Auschwitz was literally a factory of death, taking in raw materials and producing a product in a mechanized fashion. Only a bureaucratic state could attempt to organize and carry out such a massive endeavor, and in the end the Holocaust was administered as any other state project. Rather than being barbarous, the destruction of the European Jews was carried out in a highly rational fashion. It was a calculated program designed to achieve a set goal, the removal of the Jews from Europe, with the highest chance of success and lowest cost. The Holocaust was carried out with “co-operation between various departments of state bureaucracy; of careful planning, designing proper technology and technical equipment, budgeting, calculating and mobilizing necessary resources: indeed the matter of dull bureaucratic routine.”[55] Simply put, “the Holocaust...was clearly unthinkable without such bureaucracy.”[56]

               Bauman does break with Adorno and Horkheimer in one important manner. He does not view modern society as necessarily leading to the Holocaust; his words are not meant to suggest that bureaucracy inevitably leads to Auschwitz. Unlike the prior authors, Bauman’s modern world is not “radiant with triumphant calamity,”[57] rather it is but a necessary factor in allowing the Holocaust to occur. Nevertheless, both groups of authors clearly associate the Nazi regime with a high degree of modernity.

               This general trend towards a more modernist view of Nazism is mirrored in research that investigates the links between the Third Reich and technology.  Science, Technology and National Socialism, published in 1994, is one of the foremost works in the field. Rather than focusing on narrow topics, such as the oft-studied German atomic bomb project, the authors cover a wide swath of subjects relating to the area of study. Through their research, they are able to show that technology and technocracy were increasingly important sections of the Third Reich: “by the end of the war and the ‘Thousand Year Reich,’ technocracy – and with it science and engineering – was emerging as one of the most powerful and last pillars of the National Socialist State.”[58] This is not to say that the Nazi regime was directly modernist, but rather their embrace of technology was a continuation of the “growing trend towards technocracy, both before and after 1933.”[59] However, there was one particularly novel interaction between technology and Nazism:  “the use of rational means and technocratic principles to achieve both rational and irrational ends. In other words, technocratic methods were decoupled from technocratic goals.”[60] This argument falls squarely in line with Herf’s reactionary modernism – technology itself was embraced, but not the values that normally coexist with it.

               In recent years, a new angle of research had begun exploring modern or anti-modern aspects of the Third Reich. How Green Were the Nazis? Nature, Environment, and Nation in the Third Reich, published in 2005, explores the complicated field of Nazi environmentalism. Green movements are in themselves an amalgam of modernist and anti-modernist tendencies – from desires to “return to nature” and regress back to a pastoral existence to scientific and rational arguments for conservation and resource management. Thus, they provide an excellent opportunity to explore these forces at work in the Third Reich. The authors examine the paradox between Nazi rhetoric, which championed the national landscape as synonymous with the German soul and Nazi policy, which in actuality did little to preserve the national landscape. If in the Nazi mindset “Germany’s mountains, meadows, and rivers bore the peculiar imprint of German history, German culture, and German tastes”[61], if “Blood and Soil” was central to Nazi policy, then how is it that they chopped down significant portions of Germany’s sacred forests?

The conservationist movement within Nazi Germany at no time overshadowed the regime’s international goals. Although the “eternal forest” was seen as a source of the German Volk, “Hitler’s military-industrial machine...consumed Germany’s timber reserves just as it consumed those elsewhere in Europe.”[62] Even though the Nazis may have enacted conversationalist legislation, notably the Reich Nature Protection law of 1935, it was “mostly honored in the breach once war preparations came to dominate policy.”[63] Like much of the party’s anti-modernist rhetoric, romantic attachment to Germany’s landscape was but another tool of propaganda to be used or ignored as more important situations demanded.

Significant amounts of research have investigated the question of Nazi modernity. While a satisfying conclusion has yet to be reached, a broad research trend can be found within the past half-century of study. Generally, it appears that the conception of the Nazi movement has moved away from an anti-modernist stance and towards a more modernist perspective. However, Nazism was not a push to modernity, but rather a continuation of more general modernizing trends inherent in industrialized society, perhaps accelerated by the potential power of modern technology in both propaganda and warfare. Thus, there is a progression from Trevor-Roper’s Nazi barbarity to Schoenbaum’s double revolution, to Herf’s reactionary modernism, to Kershaw’s focus on continuity over change.

One powerful example of this shift in perspective can be seen through the attitudes towards Nazi technology. Trevor-Roper described the “decline of German science under the Nazis,”[64] Herf spoke of a technocratic but irrational regime, and Science, Technology, and National Socialism argued that sections of the regime were indeed quite advanced – “the German Army rocket program was one of the first examples of state mobilization of massive engineering and scientific resources for the forced invention of a radical, new military technology.”[65] Though the Nazis (thankfully) never constructed an atomic weapon, many of their advances were groundbreaking. They developed wire-guided, anti-ship missiles (famously used to cripple the battleship HMS Warspite), infrared night vision systems for tanks, flying wing aircraft, and a multitude of other advances. Many of these were never successfully deployed or were still in the testing stages in 1945, but they nevertheless represent an incredible achievement of engineering and science.[66]

Fundamentally, the question of Nazi modernity will likely never be fully satisfied. It is an impossible question, for the terms themselves are ill defined. Modernity is a highly complex topic that contains within itself numerous potential debates and disagreements. Similarly, what exactly is Nazism? Should the term refer to the Hitler’s original designs; Nazi policy and laws; the dreams and aspirations of Nazi officials; or should it examine end results? Nazism was not a single concept nor single event; rather, it was millions of individual events and people, changing over time and adapting to new situations. Depending on how one defines the terms Nazi and modernity, different answers to the question can be reached. Historians must remember, “Theory construction must not fly in the face of the empirical historical facts.”[67]  No matter what answer, if any, is reached regarding the question of modernity, the Nazis spoke of blood and soil and built guided missiles, while Germany and the rest of Europe burned.


[1] For a general survey of the bombing of Germany in World War II see the chapter “The Crescendo of Bombing” in Hart, B. H .Liddell. History of the Second World War. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1970. For a more comprehensive analysis, read Knell, Herman. To Destroy a City: StrategicBombing and its Consequences in World War II. New York: Da Capo Press, 2003.

[2] Weinberg, Gerhard L. A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005, 763-764

[3] The Rammer is briefly mentioned in Albrecht, Ulrich. “Military Technology and National Socialist Ideology” in Science, Technology, and National Socialism, ed Monika Renneberg and Mark Walker. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.  For technical specifications see Johnson,    Dan.

[4] Adorno, Theodore and Max Horkheimer. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002, xvi

[5] Ibid, 1

  [6] Trevor-Roper, Hugh. The Last Days of Hitler. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1947, 231

  [7] Ibid, 1

  [8] Ibid, 3

  [9] Ibid, 6

[10] Ibid, 237

[11] Ibid, 234

[12] Ibid, 234

[13] Dahrendorf, Ralf. Society and Democracy in Germany. Garden City: Doubleday & Company, Inc, 1967, 14

[14] Ibid, 402

[15]Ibid, 404

[16] Ibid, 412

[17] Ibid, 402

[18] Schoenbaum, David. Hitler’s Social Revolution: Class and Status in Nazi Germany, 1933-1939. Garden City, Doubleday & Company, Inc, 1966, xcii

[19] Ibid, xxii

[20] Ibid, 276

[21] Ibid, 276

[22] Ibid, 276

[23] Ibid, 285

[24] Ibid, 288

[25] Grunberger, Richard. The 12-Year Reich: A Social History of Nazi Germany 1933-1945. New York: Da               Capo Press, 45

[26] Ibid, 151

[27] Peukert, Detlev J. K., Inside Nazi Germany: Conformity, Opposition, and Racism in Everyday Life. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987, 92

[28] Ibid, 94

[29] Ibid, 179

[30] Ibid, 99

[31] Ibid, 180

[32] Ibid, 179

[33] Ibid, 180

[34] Herf, Jeffrey. Reactionary Modernism: Technology, Culture, and politics in Weimar and the Third Reich.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984, 1

[35] Ibid, 2

[36] Ibid, 3

[37] Ibid, 7

[38] Ibid, 10

[39] Ibid, 205

[40] Ibid, 213

[41] Ibid, 208

[42] Ibid, 17

[43] Ibid, 214

[44] Ibid, 215

[45] Kershaw, Ian. The Nazi Dictatorship: Problems and Perspectives of Interpretation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000, 174

[46] Ibid, 173

[47] Ibid, 174

[48] Ibid, 179

[49] Ibid, 181

[50] Ibid, 176

[51] Ibid, 181

[52] Ibid, 180

[53] Bauman, Zygmunt. Modernity and the Holocaust. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989, 7

[54] Ibid, 8

[55] Ibid, 17

[56]  Ibid, 17

[57] Adorno, 1

[58] Renneberg, Monika & Mark Walter. “Scientists, Engineers, and National Socialism” in Science,Technology, and National Socialism, ed Monika Renneberg and Mark Walker. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994, 9

[59] Ibid, 7-8

[60] Ibid, 6

[61] Bruggemeier, Franz-Josef, & Mark Cioc & Thomas Zeller, eds. How Green Were the Nazis? Nature Environment, and Nation in the Third Reich. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2005, 5

[62] Ibid, 9

[63] Ibid, 9

[64] Trevor-Roper, 234

[65] Neufled, Michael J. “The Guided Missile and the Third Reich: Peenemunde and the Forging of aTechnological Revolution” in Science, Technology, and National Socialism, ed Monika             Renneberg and Mark Walker. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994, 51

[66] For a humorous but still rational examination of some Nazi weapons see Parsons, Zack. My Tank is Fight. New York: Citadel Press Books, 2006.

[67] Peukert, 180.


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