Much archive work is a process of trailing through long series of documents which individually say little but when taken together produce interesting results. However, with the vast quantities of manuscript sources in county record offices and other archives there are of course occasions when a document comes to light which stands out as exceptional.
One of those occasions occurred while I was examining material in the Pennyman of Ormesby Hall papers (Teesside Record Office) which relate to the Heartbreak Hill case study. On a number of occasions parties of German students helped with the work of preparing the allotments, or took part in singing tours accommodated partly in Ormesby Hall.
Some of these students kept in touch with the Pennymans, and it is one of their letters that I want to consider here. The letter was written by Hans Pollmann on 25th May 1933. He had recently returned to Germany after one of the musical tours, and found the immediate aftermath of a coup. He had heard that the Pennymans were interested to hear about the political situation in Germany and so wrote to them about it. He supported the Nazi coup, which he describes as ‘a real revolution’ very enthusiastically and sets out his reasons for this at some length.
He began by explaining that Germany had struggled with war, poverty, reparations, inflation and unemployment since 1914. He felt that although Germany had tried to engage with international efforts to tackle these problems that these had only attempted to make Germany a ‘second-class nation for ever’. He then states that only a unified nation could solve these problems. He identified a number of causes of this disunity including the remains of the nation states that had been unified into Germany in 1871 and the “internal war” between industry trusts and trade unions. Regarding the latter the first anti-Semitic sentiments of the letter are expressed as he claims that “The jewish [sic.] leaders of the Marxist parties ordered their followers to terrorise, to shut down their brothers.” He also claims that “literature glorified all vices” rather than fighting for a “moral Christian life.” Since Hitler was now allowed by parliament to govern as a “dictator” these problems were being addressed. He also claims that society will become collectivistic rather than individualistic, and that while there will be private property the owners will have to administer it for the “commonwealth”.
He believes that most Germans are fully in favour of this, believing that the period of distress and destruction is over, and he celebrates the book burning by students at all universities. Importantly he cites increasing employment as a sign of the success of Nazi policy: “Since January 31st, the day he [Hitler] became premier, 800,000 people could get work, in the same period last year 400,000”. He says that the changes in Germany are a guarantee of peace and of the defence of European culture against “Asiatic” ideas; “if Germany cannot defend itself against Bolshevism the consequences are terror for the whole of Europe”. He also defends rearmament as other countries have not disarmed on the same scale as Germany has had to.
Chillingly, he closes by saying that he has recently joined the Sturmabteilung – the SA; a predecessor of the SS. I don’t know anything further about Pollman other than what is written in the letter, so I do not know what became of him during the war or whether his convictions strengthened or weakened as a result of later events.
What strikes me about the letter is that the justifications that Pollman gives are exactly what I was taught about in school when history lessons addressed the question of why German people supported Hitler; mass unemployment, the reparations clauses of the Treaty of Versailles and an undercurrent of anti-Semitism that was common across the Western world during the inter-war period. It is rare for someone to explain in writing their feelings about a particular period that they lived through at the time it was going on, and so while the document does not perhaps tell us much that we do not already know about the rise of the Nazi regime it is important that the information exists in this form.