Rumors in Nazi Germany: Constructions and Contexts of Informal Communication

Employees (IfZ):   Felix Berge

How did rumors emerge – as a product of collective communication – under the specific conditions of the totalitarian system? To what extent did rumors, as a form of fluid and barely controllable communication, relate to the restricted information supply of the Nazi dictatorship and, furthermore, how did these spheres interact with each other? Which contexts influenced rumors as a constructed reality on the home front andhow did people refer to them as a mechanism of knowledge acquisition?

Although a history of rumors under National Socialism offers a multi-layered perspective on questions about communication and the social and cultural history of the Third Reich and German wartime society, detailed studies of these remain a historiographical lacuna. The totalitarian regime of the Third Reich and the “Volksgemeinschaft,” however, constitute a specific framework and context for rumors. As a mode of gathering, constructing, and communicating knowledge “from below,” rumors have to be analyzed as a performative construction and a product of a vague or undecidable situation or a not clearly defined event. They influenced behavior, and therefore must be understood as an alternative reality, which could question the state-driven information supply, but also existed besides it. An interdisciplinary study of rumors – including practice theory, new approaches of spatial history, and translocality or media studies – posits new questions and conclusions about actors, their agency, and modes of reception as well as public opinion within the “Volksgemeinschaft” between 1939 and 1945. Therefore, this study shifts questions towards how knowledge was acquired and towards modes of communication within and through rumors.

This project about German wartime society aims to tie the micro-historical phenomenon of rumor closely to macro-historical dimensions of the German home front society. For example, it will focus on questions of gender or the reactions of the totalitarian state, which not only sanctioned the so-called “rumor-monger,” but also identified and adopted specific rumors for its own purposes.  Which influence did caesuras – like Stalingrad, which demonstrated that rumors about a defeat, spread by soldiers on home leave, could, in fact, be true – have on rumors and on society’s morale? How were rumors spread through train stations and the railroad system as points of circulation and translocal communication? Which informal information channels existed within the NSDAP or the churches? How did the totalitarian system use certain rumors under parameters of its own policy of controlled and restricted information supply? To what extent did rumors disseminate information and knowledge about safety infrastructure and civil protection during the aerial warfare? How did rumor dynamics escalate during the so-called “Endphaseverbechen,” campaigns of repression and terror directed against civilians and forced laborers in the final stages of the war?

The sources of this project includethe reflection of rumors in formal communication, such as police and SD reports, court cases as well as perspectives in Nazi Party documents and confessionally bounded communication within the church on an organizational level on the one hand. On the other hand, the private sphere generated more direct insights, mainly through ego documents and personal correspondence (diaries, letters). The study of local press will be equally important for references to rumors.

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