Nazi doublethink: Race and nation in Germany’s borderlands

By Luisa Hulsrøj

“The national state . . . must set race in the center of all life,” Hitler declared in Mein Kampf, exemplifying his movement’s exaltation not only of the nation but also of its ostensible basis in race. This pernicious ideology encountered challenges, recent scholarship has found, when it met with populations in East-Central Europe that had difficult-to-distinguish ethnic backgrounds and no, or at least no stable, national identities.[1] Such so-called national indifference is difficult to imagine, for today we take nationality for granted as universal and timeless. Yet nations did not emerge in their modern form as the model for state organization until the 19th century. Even then they had to be actively constructed. Compulsory public schooling, for example, was widely introduced to teach standardized national languages and national history in an attempt to make citizens into members of nations. The course of nationalization did not, however, run smooth. Well into the 20th century national indifference persisted, not just in backwaters like the early Soviet Union’s rural Western frontier but also in some of Europe’s industrialized heartlands, such as Bohemia and Upper Silesia. During the Second World War, Nazi occupation authorities in such areas adopted racist rhetoric. However, acknowledging ethnic ambiguity internally, they also instituted policies designed to recruit the nationally indifferent for the German nation.

Long before the Third Reich unleashed its racist war, however, the Nazi movement in Germany’s own long-standing borderlands already faced this conundrum, my research reveals. As a consequence of its defeat in the First World War, Germany had lost thirteen percent of its territory, much of which was granted to neighboring states outright by the Allies in their quest to ensure peace by reordering Europe along national lines. In some regions, though, they recognized that ethno-linguistic markers did not map neatly onto nationality, as far as that even existed, and opted to hold plebiscites. As a result, Upper Silesia and north German Schleswig were divided. This, alongside the outright losses, set Germany up for two decades of pervasive efforts to restore the country’s former territorial extent. Each party pursued these in accordance with its own principles. Predictably, Nazis cast their struggle against Germany’s altered borders as a face-off between opposing, clearly and racially defined, nations. They therefore routinely attacked minority activists and events. Furthermore, they framed elections as contests between themselves, other, irresolute German parties, and minorities that continued to undermine Germany’s territorial and national integrity. And when Nazi thugs savagely beat a Polish-speaking Communist sympathizer to death in 1932 in the border village of Potempa, the Nazi and wider far-right press defended them by arguing that they had really done Germany, whose right to Upper Silesia the presence of Polish-speakers drew into question, a service.

At the same time, however, the Nazi movement in border regions accommodated the reality of national indifference and lack of ethnic differentiation. To the scorn of their opponents, for instance, Nazi organizations admitted many whose German ethnicity was dubitable as long as they were willing to affirm loyalty to Germandom and Nazism. Several of the Potempa murderers thus bore Slavic-sounding last names, as did the leader of the Upper Silesian Nazi party, Joseph Adamczyk, who changed it in 1939 to the Germanized Adams. Two of the murderers had also, the victim’s brother testified, made threats in Polish. Skirmishing with presumed Poles in a small East Prussian town, Nazis there likewise used Polish. For such Polish-speaking party members, Upper Silesia’s party newspaper even ran a dedicated column.

Then, as during the later war, this pragmatism was justified by reference to expansionism. In the post-war plebiscites, Nazis argued, the nationally indifferent had been swayed by promises of greater wealth and stability in countries not saddled with the political and economic consequences of defeat. Nazi activism now had the potential to win the supposedly great number of nationally indifferent voters disaffected from other nations over to Germandom and to thus reverse territorial losses. A proposed second plebiscite in Schleswig, for instance, would surely now, a local Nazi paper wrote in 1932, yield “an overwhelming commitment to the German motherland.”[2] Racist-nationalist ideological purity was expressly subordinated to ambitions to win back lost territories.

Nazi racism was, from the start, not just immoral but untenable practically. Nazis had to perform nationalist doublethink, if you will, simultaneously believing in an essentialist racist vision of the nation and practicing a more pragmatic and inclusive nationalism. Theirs is a cautionary tale about glorifying the nation and specific criteria for belonging to it in a world that has a way of confounding schematic ideology with multi-faceted, richer realities.


[1] Tara Zahra, Kidnapped Souls: National Indifference and the Battle for Children in the Bohemian Lands, 1900-1948 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2008), 169-202.

[2] “Entrissenes deutsches Land muß wieder deutsch werden! Nordschleswigs Schicksal”, Flensburger NS-Zeitung, August 20, 1932.

Image: Hammond’s map of old and new Europe showing peace conference boundaries (C. S. Hammond & Company, 1919), licensed for reuse via Digital Commonwealth

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