The Nazi term Gleichschaltung (German pronunciation: [ˈɡlaɪçʃaltʊŋ] (listen)) or "coordination" was the process of Nazification by which Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party successively established a system of totalitarian control and coordination over all aspects of German society and societies occupied by Nazi Germany "from the economy and trade associations to the media, culture and education".[1] Although the Weimar Constitution remained nominally in effect until Germany's surrender following World War II, near total Nazification had been secured by the 1935 resolutions approved during the Nuremberg Rally, when the symbols of the Nazi Party and the State were fused (see Flag of Germany) and German Jews were deprived of their citizenship (see Nuremberg Laws).

While the traditional German states were not formally abolished (excluding Lübeck in 1937), their constitutional rights and sovereignty were eroded and ultimately ended. Prussia was already under federal administration when Hitler came to power, providing a model for the process.
The Gau system of the Nazi Party effectively replaced the federal structure of the country.


The Nazis used the word Gleichschaltung for the process of successively establishing a system of totalitarian control and coordination over all aspects of German society and societies occupied by Nazi Germany. It has been variously translated as "coordination",[2][3][4] "Nazification of state and society",[5] "synchronization'", and "bringing into line",[5] but English texts often use the untranslated German word to convey its unique historical meaning. In their seminal work on National Socialist vernacular, Nazi-Deutsch/Nazi-German: An English Lexicon of the Language of the Third Reich, historians Robert Michael and Karin Doerr define Gleichschaltung as: "Consolidation. All of the German Volk’s social, political, and cultural organizations to be controlled and run according to Nazi ideology and policy. All opposition to be eliminated."[6]

The Nazis were able to put Gleichschaltung into effect due to the legal measures taken by the government during the 20 months following 30 January 1933, when Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany.[7]

One day after the Reichstag fire on 27 February 1933, President of Germany Paul von Hindenburg, acting at Hitler's request and on the basis of the emergency powers in article 48 of the Weimar Constitution, issued the Reichstag Fire Decree. This decree suspended most citizen rights provided for by the constitution and thus allowed for the arrest of political adversaries, mostly Communists, and for terrorizing of other electors by the Sturmabteilung (SA) (Nazi paramilitary branch) before the upcoming election.[8]

In this atmosphere the general election of the Reichstag took place on 5 March 1933.[9] The Nazis had hoped to win an outright majority and push aside their coalition partners, the German National People's Party. However, the Nazis won only 43.9 percent of the vote, well short of a majority.[10] Nevertheless, though the Party did not receive enough votes to amend the federal constitution, the disaffection with the Weimar government's attempt at democracy was palpable and violence followed. SA units stormed the Social Democrats' headquarters in Königsberg, destroying the premises, even beating Communist Reichstag deputy Walter Schütz to death.[11] Other non-Nazi party officials were attacked by the SA in Wuppertal, Cologne, Braunschweig, Chemnitz, and elsewhere throughout Germany, in a series of violent acts that continued to escalate through the summer of 1933; meanwhile the SA's membership grew to some two-million members.[12]

During the debate on the Enabling Act, Social Democrat chairman Otto Wels spoke the last free words in the Reichstag: "Freedom and life can be taken from us, but not our honor." The subsequent passage of the Act did away with parliamentary democracy.

When the newly elected Reichstag first convened on 23 March 1933—not including the Communist delegates because their party had been banned on 6 March—it passed the Enabling Act (Ermächtigungsgesetz). This law gave the government—and in practice, Hitler—the right to make laws without the involvement of the Reichstag. Throughout Germany, the Nazis were able to tighten their grip upon the state thanks to the Enabling Act.[13] For all intents and purposes, the entire Weimar Constitution was rendered void.[14] Soon afterwards the government banned the Social Democratic Party, as an "avalanche" soon buried the other parties.[15] By midsummer, the other parties had been intimidated into dissolving themselves rather than face arrests and concentration camp imprisonment and all non-Nazi ministers of the coalition government had been compelled to resign their posts.[16]

The "First Gleichschaltung Law" (Erstes Gleichschaltungsgesetz, 31 March 1933), passed using the Enabling Act; this law dissolved the diets of all states of Germany except the recently elected Prussian parliament, which the Nazis already controlled. The same law ordered the state diets reconstituted on the basis of the votes in the last Reichstag election (with the exception of Communist seats), and also gave the state governments the same powers the Reich government possessed under the Enabling Act.[17]

The "Second Gleichschaltung Law" (Zweites Gleichschaltungsgesetz, 7 April 1933) deployed one Reichsstatthalter (Reich Governor) in each state, apart from Prussia. These officers, responsible to Interior Minister Wilhelm Frick, were supposed to act as local proconsuls in each state, with near-complete control over the state governments.[18]

Another measure of Nazi Gleichschaltung was the passing of the "Law for the Restoration of a Professional Civil Service", decreed on 7 April 1933, which enabled the "co-ordination" of the civil service—which in Germany included not only bureaucrats, but also schoolteachers and professors, judges, prosecutors and other professionals—at both the Federal and state level, and authorized the removal of Jews and Communists from all corresponding positions.[19]

On 14 July 1933, the Nazis passed the "Law Against the Founding of New Parties", which declared the NSDAP as the country's only legal political party.[20][lower-alpha 1] The "Law Concerning the Reconstruction of the Reich" (Gesetz über den Neuaufbau des Reiches) (30 January 1934) formally did away with the concept of a federal republic, converting Germany into a highly centralized state.[21] The states were reduced to mere provinces, as their institutions were practically abolished altogether. All of their powers passed to the central government. A law passed on 14 February formally abolished the Reichsrat.[22]

Propaganda and societal integration

One of the most important steps towards Gleichschaltung of German society was the introduction of the "Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda" under Joseph Goebbels in March 1933 and the subsequent steps taken by the Propaganda Ministry to assume full control of the press and all means of social communication. This included oversight of newspapers, magazines, films, books, public meetings and ceremonies, foreign press relations, theater, art and music, radio, and television.[23] To this end, Goebbels said:

[T]he secret of propaganda [is to] permeate the person it aims to grasp, without his even noticing that he is being permeated. Of course propaganda has a purpose, but the purpose must be concealed with such cleverness and virtuosity that the person on whom this purpose is to be carried out doesn't notice it at all.[24]

This was also the purpose of "co-ordination": to ensure that every aspect of the lives of German citizens was permeated with the ideas and prejudices of the Nazis. From March to July 1933 and continuing afterwards, the Nazi Party systematically eliminated or co-opted non-Nazi organizations that could potentially influence people. Those critical of Hitler and the Nazis were suppressed, intimidated or murdered.[7]

Every national voluntary association, and every local club, was brought under Nazi control, from industrial and agricultural pressure groups to sports associations, football clubs, male voice choirs, women's organizations—in short, the whole fabric of associational life was Nazified. Rival, politically oriented clubs or societies were merged into a single Nazi body. Existing leaders of voluntary associations were either unceremoniously ousted, or knuckled under of their own accord. Many organizations expelled leftish or liberal members and declared their allegiance to the new state and its institutions. The whole process ... went on all over Germany. ... By the end, virtually the only non-Nazi associations left were the army and the Churches with their lay organizations.[25]

For example, in 1934, the government founded the Deutscher Reichsbund für Leibesübungen, later the Nationalsozialistischer Reichsbund für Leibesübungen, as the official sports governing body. All other German sport associations gradually lost their freedom and were coopted into it.[26] Besides sports, another more important part of the "co-ordination" effort was the purging of the civil service, both at the Federal and state level. Top Federal civil servants—the State Secretaries—were largely replaced if they weren't sympathetic to the Nazi program, as were the equivalent bureaucrats in the states, but Nazification took place at every level. Civil servants rushed to join the Nazi Party, fearing that if they did not they would lose their jobs. At the local level, mayors and councils were terrorized by Nazi stormtroopers of the SA and SS into resigning or following orders to replace officials and workers at local public institutions who were Jewish or belonged to other political parties.[27]

The Gleichschaltung also included the formation of various organizations with compulsory membership for segments of the population, in particular the youth of Germany. Boys first served as apprentices in the Pimpfen (cubs), beginning at the age of six, and at age ten, entered the Deutsches Jungvolk (Young German Boys) and served there until entering the Hitler Youth proper at age fourteen. Boys remained there until age eighteen, at which time they entered into the Arbeitsdienst (Labor Service) and the armed forces.[28] Girls became part of the Jungmädel (Young Maidens) at age ten and at age fourteen were enrolled in the Bund Deutscher Mädel (League of German Maidens). At eighteen, BDM members went generally to the eastern territory for their Pflichtdienst, or Landjahr, a year of labor on a farm. By 1940, membership in the Hitler Youth numbered some eight million.[29]

Strength Through Joy

An all-embracing recreational organization for workers, called Kraft durch Freude ("Strength Through Joy") was set up under the auspices of the German Labor Front (German: Deutsche Arbeitsfront or DAF), which had been created when the Nazis forcibly dissolved the trade unions on 2 May 1933, thus nullifying the labor movement.[30] Hobbies were regimented, and all private clubs, whether they be for chess, football, or woodworking, were brought under the control of Strength Through Joy, which also provided vacation trips, skiing, swimming, concerts, and ocean cruises. Some 43 million Germans enjoyed trips via the Strength Through Joy initiative and it was this effort which helped inspire the idea of Germans enjoying the acquisition of automobiles and the construction of the Autobahn. It was the largest of the many organizations established by the Nazis and a propaganda success.[31] Workers were also brought in line with the party, through activities such as the Reichsberufswettkampf, a national vocational competition.[32]


Historian Claudia Koonz explains that the word Gleichschaltung stems from the arena of electricity, where it refers to converting power from alternating current to direct current, which is called "rectification" in English; the word Gleichschaltung translates literally as "phasing". Used in its socio-political sense, Gleichschaltung has no equivalent in any other language. Other similar terms were also used by the Nazis, such as Ausschaltung, which constituted the removal or "switching off" of anyone who stained or soiled the German nation.[33] This seemingly clinical terminology captured both the mechanical and biological meaning for members of German society, as one German citizen visiting London explained, "It means the same stream will flow through the ethnic body politic [Volkskörper]."[34]

Former University of Dresden professor of romance languages, Viktor Klemperer—dismissed from his post for being Jewish in 1935 and who only survived his time in Germany due to being married to a prominent German woman—collected a list of terms employed in everyday speech by the Nazis, which he discussed in his book, LTI – Lingua Tertii Imperii, published in English as The Language of the Third Reich. In this work, Klemperer contends that the Nazis made the German language itself, a servant to their ideology through its repetitive use, eventually permeating the very "flesh and blood" of its people.[35] If it was sunny and pleasant, it was described as "Hitler weather" for instance, or if you failed to comply with Nazi ideals of racial and social conformity, you were "switched off."[36]

When the blatant emphasis of racial hatred of others seemed to reach an impasse in the school system, through radio broadcasts, or on film reels, the overseers of Nazi Gleichschaltung propaganda switched to strategies that focused more on togetherness and the "we-consciousness" of the collective Volk, but the mandates of Nazi "coordination" remained: pay homage to the Führer, expel all foreigners, sacrifice for the German people, and welcome future challenges.[37] While greater German social and economic unity was produced through the Gleichschaltung initiatives of the regime, it was at the expense of individuality and to the social detriment of any nonconformist;[38] and worse—it contributed to and reinforced the social and racial exclusion of anyone deemed an enemy by National Socialist doctrine.[39] The Nazi Gleichschaltung or "synchronization" of German society—along with a series of Nazi legislation[40]—was part and parcel to Jewish economic disenfranchisement, the violence against political opposition, the creation of concentration camps, the Nuremberg Laws, the establishment of a racial Volksgemeinschaft, the seeking of Lebensraum, and the violent mass destruction of human life deemed somehow less valuable by the National Socialist government of Germany.[41][42]

See also

Further reading

  • Bracher, Karl Dietrich (1972). "Stages of Totalitarian 'Integration' (Gleichschaltung): The Consolidation of National Socialist Rule in 1933 and 1934", in Republic To Reich The Making of the Nazi Revolution Ten Essays, edited by Hajo Holborn, New York: Pantheon Books. pp. 109–28
  • Gisevius, Hans Bernd (1947). To The Bitter End: An Insider's Account of the Plot to Kill Hitler, 1933–1944. New York: Da Capo Press.
  • Hughes, Everett (December 1955). "The Gleichschaltung of the German Statistical Yearbook: A Case in Professional Political Neutrality". The American Statistician. Vol. IX. pp. 8–11.
  • Kroeschell, Karl (1989). Deutsche Rechtsgeschichte 3 (seit 1650), 2nd ed., ISBN 3-531-22139-6
  • Kroeschell, Karl (1992). Rechtsgeschichte Deutschlands im 20. Jahrhundert, ISBN 3-8252-1681-0


Informational notes

  1. For all practical purposes Germany had been a one-party state since the passage of the Enabling Act.


  1. Strupp 2013.
  2. Evans 2003, p. 381.
  3. Kershaw 1999, p. 479.
  4. Burleigh 2000, p. 272.
  5. Hirschfeld 2014, pp. 101, 164.
  6. Michael & Doerr 2002, p. 192.
  7. Evans 2003, pp. 381–390.
  8. Evans 2003, pp. 332–333.
  9. Evans 2003, pp. 339–340.
  10. Evans 2003, p. 340.
  11. Evans 2003, pp. 340–341.
  12. Evans 2003, pp. 341–342.
  13. Childers 2017, p. 254.
  14. Evans 2003, pp. 351–355.
  15. Childers 2017, pp. 261–262.
  16. Evans 2003, pp. 355–361.
  17. Benz 2007, pp. 28–30.
  18. Benz 2007, p. 30.
  19. Evans 2003, pp. 382, 437.
  20. Benz 2007, p. 34.
  21. Shirer 1990, pp. 200–201.
  22. Hildebrand 1984, p. 7.
  23. Bytwerk 2004, pp. 58–66.
  24. Evans 2005, p. 127.
  25. Evans 2005, p. 14.
  26. Wedemeyer-Kolwe 2004, pp. 389–390.
  27. Evans 2003, pp. 381–383.
  28. Benz 2007, pp. 73–77.
  29. Stachura 1998, p. 479.
  30. Childers 2017, p. 310.
  31. Childers 2017, pp. 310–311.
  32. Schoenbaum 1997, p. 95.
  33. Koonz 2003, p. 72.
  34. Koonz 2003, pp. 72–73.
  35. Klemperer 2000, p. 14.
  36. Koonz 2003, p. 73.
  37. Koonz 2003, pp. 161–162.
  38. Taylor & Shaw 1997, p. 109.
  39. Laqueur & Baumel 2001, p. 241.
  40. Taylor & Shaw 1997, p. 110.
  41. Wildt 2012, pp. 9, 109, 125–128.
  42. Laqueur & Baumel 2001, pp. 241–251.


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