The following is a report filed by Albert Goodwill, an American journalist, after the 1934 Nazi party rally in Nuremberg (an event depicted in the well-known film Triumph of the Will by Leni Riefenstahl ).
Nuremberg, a rather sleepy town in Franconia, had never seen anything like it. Tens of thousands of people, from all parts of Germany, descended on the town on the occasion of the annual rally (Parteitag) of the National Socialist Workers Party (NSDAP). This was the first gathering of the party since it took over the government last year. Understandably, it took place in an atmosphere of triumph and celebration. It commemorated the struggles of the National Socialist movement in the past. More importantly, it was intended to show the spirit and the direction of the new Germany following the taking of power by the NSDAP.
The rally was brilliantly organized. The logistics functioned perfectly”no mean feat, given the numbers involved. Event followed event in a masterful choreography, as one party detachment after another marched forward to proclaim allegiance to the cause. The climax, of course, was the arrival of Herr Hitler himself, now in his capacity of Reich Chancellor as well as leader ( Fuehrer ) of the party. He arrived by plane, viewed the parade, and then delivered one of his customarily long speeches. Observers of Herr Hitler and his movement, of course, had on previous occasions witnessed his remarkable personal magnetism and his capacity to orchestrate ceremonies capable of inspiring mass enthusiasm. In that sense, this rally was nothing new. Its significance, however, does not come from the details of the several carefully staged events. It was, of course, a victory celebration and it was the largest gathering of the party since its beginnings in Munich over ten years ago. But the most significant aspect was the atmosphere that pervaded it from beginning to end.
The atmosphere was festive, uplifting, and, above all, peaceful. There was not a single incident of violence or disorderly behavior. This would be remarkable in itself, given the fact that the majority of the participants were young men, many of them coming from backgrounds of great deprivation and underprivilege. It is more remarkable as one observes the behavior of the large numbers of stormtroopers, the notorious SA in their brown uniforms with the swastika armbands. These are men who have a history of street fighting and aggression. On this day their behavior could not have been improved upon by any group of American Boy Scouts. They were relaxed, friendly, solicitous of people with problems. An old lady who had inadvertently strayed into the path of the parade was gently and courteously escorted off the street by two smiling stormtroopers as bystanders applauded.
This rally showed quite dramatically what has been noted before: Whatever else one may say about it, the NSDAP has given young German men a new sense of identity and self-confidence, and in many cases it has channelled individuals with a criminal past into a disciplined, socially responsible way of life. This achievement must be seen against the background of recent German history. It is a history of defeat, national humiliation, economic misery, and the tangle of social pathologies for which the Weimar period has come to stand. Among these pathologies are the decline of the family, the open display of sexual perversity, crime and juvenile delinquency, and a general disintegration of morality and any sense of national purpose. The NSDAP has been in the forefront of the struggle against all these wounds in the body of German society.
Pointing out these things, of course, is not to endorse the ideology of the National Socialist movement or to admire the personality of its leader. An American observer will inevitably be repelled by the antidemocratic animus of the movement. Its paramilitary paraphernalia- uniforms, banners, chants, general strutting about-will seem slightly ridiculous to him, as will the theatrical mannerisms and the hours-long speeches of Herr Hitler. More seriously, Americans must have moral qualms about the strident anti-Semitism of the NSDAP, and about some of the methods used by it to intimidate its political opponents both before and after its takeover of the German government.
It is important, however, to place these negative aspects in a larger context. And it is very important not to look at these things through American eyes. No American can fully appreciate what these Germans have gone through, and Americans should be wary of imposing their own values on people with very different traditions and experiences.
The outside world, and especially the democracies, must ask what kind of a future Germany is to be desired. Is it a Germany still wallowing in defeat and resentment, suffering from all the social ailments listed? Or is it a Germany confident of its identity, self-assured and disciplined, determined to regain its social health? To ask these questions is to answer them. The events in Nuremberg not only help us to understand the spirit of the new Germany, but provide some grounds for expecting that the harsher undertones of the National Socialist movement will come to be muted as the NSDAP attains political respectability.
It is noteworthy that Herr Hitler’s speech at the rally was not marked by the usual anti-Semitic diatribes or, for that matter, by threats against his political adversaries. The speech accentuated the positive goals of the new regime”national self-confidence, solidarity, and the tasks of reconstruction. As usual, of course, the speech was too long for American ears, and there remained traces of Herr Hitler’s somewhat bizarre views. It is all the more important not to confuse the message and the messenger. It is difficult to find fault with the message.
If one wants to influence a politically powerful movement, it is far better to engage it in dialogue than to isolate it. Nuremberg 1934 suggests that the time has come for a creative dialogue with the new Germany.
Peter L. Berger is Senior Advisor of the Institute on Religion and Public Life and a member of the Editorial Board of First Things .