Testing Loyalty in Nazi Germany

A Test of Loyalty

Consider how two government employees in Nazi Germany chose to respond to the 1933 Civil Service Law, which suspended employment to Jews and others.
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At a Glance

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English — US


  • History
  • The Holocaust

Jews were not the only people in Germany affected by the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service. The government could now dismiss any civil servant who would not “support the national state at all times and without reservation.” Indeed, the government no longer needed a reason to dismiss a worker. It could now do so without cause.

Civil servants had to accept the new rules or lose their jobs. Joachim Fest described how his father—a devout Catholic and the headmaster of an elementary school—responded to the law:

On April 20, 1933, my father was summoned to Lichtenberg Town Hall . . . and informed by Volz, the state commissar responsible for the exercise of the business of the borough mayor, that he was suspended from public service, effective immediately. When my father asked what he was accused of, the official responded in a sergeant-majorish manner: “You will be informed of that in due course!” But he was a civil servant, objected my father, to which Volz replied, “You can tell our Führer that. He’ll be very impressed.” . . .

As he was on his way to the exit, all at once the building he knew so well seemed unfamiliar. It was the same with the staff, some of whom he had known for years; suddenly, one after the other, their eyes were avoiding his. At his school, to which he went immediately, it was no different, even in his office; everything from the cupboards to the stationery already seemed to have been replaced. The first person he bumped into was his colleague Markwitz who had clearly already been informed. “Fest, old man!” he said, after my father had spoken a few explanatory words. “Did it have to be like this?” And when my father replied, “Yes, it had to be!,” Markwitz objected: “No, don’t tell me that! It’s something I learned early: there’s no ‘must’ when it comes to stupidity!”

On April 22, a good two weeks after the passage of the Law for the Restoration of a Professional Civil Service, my father was summoned again. Remaining seated and without offering my father a chair, the temporary mayor, reading from a prepared text, formally notified him that he was relieved of his duties as headmaster of the Twentieth Elementary School and was suspended until further notice. Given as grounds for the suspension were his senior positions in the [Catholic Center] party and in the Reichsbanner [a pro-democracy group founded during the Weimar years], as well as his “public speeches disparaging the Führer and other high-ranking National Socialists” . . . Under the circumstances there was no longer any guarantee that he would “at all times support without reservation the national state,” as the law put it. “Is the authority aware that this is a breach of the law?” asked my father, but Volz retorted that he couldn’t discuss legal matters with every man who came in off the street. “Because from now on you are not much more than that, Herr Fest, and no longer any colleague of mine!” As he spoke these curt words, he continued leafing through my father’s file and one of the pages fell to the floor—no doubt intentionally, thought my father. Volz clearly expected my father to pick it up. My father, however, remained motionless, as he later reported; not for one moment did he consider going down on his knees in front of the mayor.

Volz then continued in a noticeably sharper tone. As well as being summarily suspended, my father was required within two days to formally transfer charge of the school to his successor, Markwitz. He would be informed in writing of the details. With a gesture that was part dismissal, part shooing away to the door, the provisional mayor added that for the time being my father was not allowed to take up any employment. Everything proceeded as if according to a plan, said my father, when he came to talk about what happened. 1

Joachim Fest’s father was one of the few civil servants to challenge the new rules. Most government employees chose not to do so. Journalist Horst Krüger, then a schoolboy, recalled how his father protected his job in the government:

All his life he left home for the ministry at 8:23 a.m., traveling second class. At home, he read the old-line newspaper and the local daily, never joined the party, . . . never subscribed to the Völkischer Beobachter, the Nazi party organ—but for twenty minutes, until the train pulled into Friedrichstrasse Station, he held it up before his face so that others might recognize his loyalty to the new people’s state. At Friedrichstrasse he left the paper behind. . . .

All his life, he came home at 4:21 p.m., always on the same train, always in the same second-class compartment, if possible always at the same corner window, always holding a briefcase full of work in his right hand, with his left showing his monthly commutation ticket—he never jumped off the moving train. He had achieved his goal; he was a German civil servant. And no matter whether the government was headed by Noske or Ebert, Scheidemann or Brüning, Papen or Hitler, he was obligated to faith and loyalty. His office was his world. 2

Connection Questions

  1. Create identity charts for Joachim Fest’s father and Horst Krüger’s father. What do the stories of these two men reveal about why many people supported the Nazi Party, or at least chose not to dissent? 
  2. How was each man similar to or different from the bureaucrats in reading, The Bear That Wasn’t in Chapter 1? How do bureaucrats help a government function? To what extent is it their responsibility to follow the rules established by the government’s leaders? What options do they have when they believe the rules are unjust?
  3. Can you think of a time when you were part of a larger organization? How did the goals or rules of the organization influence your choices?
  • 1Joachim Fest, Not I: Memoirs of a German Childhood, trans. Martin Chalmers (New York: Other Press, 2006), 46–48. Reprinted by permission from Other Press, LLC and Atlantic Books, UK.
  • 2Horst Krüger, A Crack in the Wall: Growing Up Under Hitler (New York: Fromm International Publishing Corp., 1982), 19–20.

How to Cite This Reading

Facing History & Ourselves, "A Test of Loyalty," last updated August 2, 2016.

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