Dear Führer...

Henrik Eberle (ed.), Letters to Hitler

Polity, 240pp, £20.00, ISBN 9780745648736

reviewed by Belinda Webb-Blofeld

This collection of letters to Hitler is neatly organised into three sections – 1924-32, 1933-38, and 1938-45. Overall, the collection highlights the eerily fanatic following Hitler achieved, particularly from young men. Few women wrote to the Führer during the first period. That Hitler became so adored by these young men signifies the crisis of masculinity that contaminated the nation following the devastation of World War I. But that is not all – for Hitler’s followers also hankered after a new type of spirituality, which they felt the Nazi leader embodied, and could bestow upon them, like a High Priest acting as a conduit from a new God, a God who was definitely on their side – not the God who abandoned them from 1914-18. Hitler is even referred to in some letters as He and Him. This spiritual and religious renewal for which the people itself longed is clearly stated in early letters; Rudolf Hess claimed that ‘religious revival was not one of the goals of the Party’, while conceding that ‘Mr Hitler’ was focussing everything on the ‘political and spiritual renewal of our people’.
The fanaticism of these correspondents is apparent just in their sign-offs, all ‘truly devoted’ or ‘your true devotee’. The ubiquity of the exclamation mark is also telling: ‘Mr Hitler!’ ‘Dear Mr Hitler!’ ‘Esteemed Mr Hitler!’ Hess played an key role in responding to some of these earlier letters, yet it should have been clear from the tone of the replies from the Nazi party, that it would take little note of the citizens’ wishes should it take control of the country - although hindsight is a luxury. A great many of the responses were curt and brusque, which is not the best PR approach in trying to maintain followers in the run-up to power, although it seems the opportunity to tout ‘Esteemed Mr Hitler’s’ book, as Hess did in May 1925 to a ‘Very esteemed Mr Ockel!’, was one taken at every opportunity, as Hess responds to questions by stating ‘in the near future Mr Hitler’s forthcoming book (My Struggle) will answer your questions…’
There is rather a different tack taken by some of the women who involved themselves in garnering support for the Party, particularly Elsbeth Zander, one of the few women to write to Hitler during these early years. She writes in a tone that can only be described as that of an impatient school mistress, demanding to know when she and her women can expect Hitler to pay them a visit, and then insisting upon rapid responses. She even writes ‘And please, dear Mr Hitler, for God’s sake don’t tell me you can’t come.’ The 35-year-old Zander had founded the German Women’s Order in 1923, which was gaining significant members despite, contradictorily, campaigning for the removal of women from public life. Hess’s response is uncharacteristically expansive. However, despite offering Zander some good news by letting her know that Hitler will make a visit, the proviso is that Hitler will only address a few ‘important people’, which, when reading it in the full context, means those with money to contribute to the Party coffers. Subsequent letters carry on in the same vein, schoolboys requesting photos of the Furher, parents declaring that their young daughters would love to marry him, etcetera.
This collection of letters had languished in the former Special Archive in the Russian State Military Archive, where the correspondence had been transported following the Russian takeover of Germany until Eberle, supported by the German Historical Institute in Moscow, finally gained access. Whilst such a collection of letters cannot be on most people’s wish list, it can be read as a study of fanaticism and of the darkness of spiritual bankruptcy and those who step in to exploit it. It is also an excellent example of the increased drive to portray history from the ordinary, everyday people - if that's what Hitler's followers could be called.
Belinda Webb-Blofeld is a writer and critic and has written for the Guardian, Tribune, the Times Literary Supplement and the New Humanist. She lives in London.