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Sound and Fury in Germany

Alice Hamilton, M.D.

Professor of Industrial Medicine, Harvard Medical School

November 1933

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A VISIT to Hitler's Germany sends an American home a passionate democrat, at least that is the effect it had on me. The Statue of Liberty thrilled me for the first time, it really seemed to stand for something more than spread-eagleism. The newspapers that appeared on the steamer from somewhere as we sailed up the harbor were wonderful—they had news, facts, criticisms, not woolly masses of sentimentality, fantastic nonsense about the Nordic race, vile lies about political opponents. New York seemed to breathe a spirit of freedom; if there was shocking poverty, at least the fact was faced and admitted; even Tammany Hall seemed a tolerable nuisance so long as one could call it a nuisance at the top of one's voice without fear of landing in a concentration camp.

I feel like advising all the bitter critics of our "planless, disorganized state" to make a sojourn, as long as possible, in a country where every detail of life has been carefully planned by a small group of supermen and the plan imposed on the nation with finality, no time being wasted on persuasion and conversion. Those who have been urging us to abolish Congress and legislatures and city councils might try living for a while under the "leadership principle." I prophesy they will return home either anarchists or Patrick Henry patriots.

The Revolution was less than six weeks old when I reached Germany and though matters were moving with lightning speed, so that people dreaded to open their morning papers lest they find some new devastating governmental decree, there was much that was still only foreshadowed, there was hope that the whole program might not be put through. This was true with regard to labor and the status of the great trades-unions. The working-class quarters of Berlin in April were waiting, breathless, silent, to hear what their fate was to be. They had been, of course, the strongholds of Socialism, for the organized workers belonged to that party, but they were a lso centers of Communism, especially among the unemployed.

A social worker well known to many Americans, who must remain anonymous, was one of the first people we visited and she gave us the picture as she saw it:

I cannot tell you anything definite about the labor movement. Most of the leaders are gone, they have disappeared or they are known to be in concentration camps or they have escaped over the border. Our people are cowed and silent and I think many have lost heart. You see nothing has been printed except Nazi propaganda against the Republic for the last three months and nothing but that has been heard over the radio and it has had some effect on the rank and file, especially as no refutation could possibly be made in any newspaper. There were, it is true, irregularities in the former government of Berlin and other cities, many inefficiencies and some dishonesty, so that the stories in the newspapers have some basis and this is having an effect on the workers who have been left leaderless. About two thirds of the workers in this city were Socialists, one third Communists. We do not know what the labor program of the Nazis is, if they have one So far it is only abuse of Marxism and vague promises of jobs which may perhaps be kept but we cannot see how, since industry is utterly disorganized. If Hitler fails, anything may happen. Many of the Nazis were formerly Communists, they could easily revert. What hunger, cold and disillusionment would bring, one does not dare imagine. One of our hardest problems now is how to feed the familiee, hundreds of them, with no bread-winner left, afraid to ask for public relief.

The papers told us to wait for Hitler's speech on labor, to be given on May 1, on the day long consecrated to labor. A tiood of propaganda had prepared us for this great day, which was to be the dawn of a new future for German labor. Goebbels had been in his best form in a proclamation issued just before. I extracted one paragraph, which is typical of the whole:

Marxism lies in ruins on the ground. It had to die in order that German labor might find its way to freedom, that our nation might again be a nation. Where formerly Marxist songs of hate resounded, there shall we proclaim brotherhood to the workers. Where once the machineguns of the Reds scattered bullets, there we will make a breach for class freedom; where once a spirit of materialism triumphed there we, resting on the eternal right of our nation to freedom, labor and bread, will proclaim the union of all classes, races (sic!) and callings in a new glowing idealism before our own nation and before all the world.

May Day came, with its processions of boys and girls, men and women, singing as they marched to the Tempelhof, where they gathered, the largest single audience ever assembled in Germany, to hear the labor speech of the Leader. We listened to it over the radio with a little group of countrymen, all full of eagerness to know what the Nazi labor program would be, how they would deal with unemployment and with the great trades-unions. We got nothing but what we disrespectful Americans call ballyhoo. It was the sort of speech that would be made before a Civic Federation audience or a Manufacturers' Association: flowery sentiments about the brotherhood of workers with brawn and workers with brain, about commonweal instead of individual profit, about a united country where employer and employe march hand in hand for the Fatherland. There was nothing that could be called a program, a definite plan, and our little group of Americans marvelled that Hitler would dare to so disappoint his waiting followers.

But the next day his real plan was carried out without warning. The trades-unions were dissolved, a leader of labor was appointed (the Ley whom the labor representatives in Geneva later refused to recognize), the "principle of leadership" was substituted for democratic majority rule, the funds and properties of the unions were taken over. I talked later about this with two liberals. One was a writer of sociological articles. He said:

The unions built their own headquarters, using their own money, they also built workers' houses, some very good, these are all now in the possession of the government. It has also taken possession of all funds, though Goebbels says that this is not confiscation, only protection of the workers' money from cheats and thieves. The unions had sent some three million R.M. out of Germany to their international offices, which they had a legal right to do, but when things began to look very serious after the Reichstag fire, they wished to be absolutely above reproach and, against the advice of their comrades abroad, they called the money back. Now it has been confiscated.

The other, a prominent social worker in an industrial city, pointed out to me a great building which the unions had put up with their own funds, but which was then headquarters for the Brown Shirts. He said:

The unions still preserve their identity within the great group but their heads are all Nazis, appointed by Berlin. Hitler is trying to follow the Italian plan in this as in so many fields, but the Italian unions were never really strong, the German unions were. It is a question whether they will be as submissive.

I did my best to discover what the policy of the Nazis with regard to labor really was. The whole world has known for years that Hitler's movement was financed by the great industrialists on his promise to drive out Communism and break up the trades-unions, but on the other hand we were told that many workers had been won to his cause by his promise to make Germany truly Socialistic, a country of equal opportunity, where there should be neither rich nor poor.


Kay Davis, University of Virginia, © 2001-2003