Two Third Reich Objects and What They Tell Us About Nazi Germany

History Hit Podcast with Roger Moorhouse

3 mins

25 Sep 2018

This article is an edited transcript of The Third Reich in 100 Objects with Roger Moorhouse on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 20 November 2017. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.

The Mother’s Cross

The above photo shows the famous Mutterkreuz, which was instituted in 1939.

It was awarded to German mothers who had produced upwards of six children – including in retrospect.

The first recipient was a 61-year-old whose six children had long since grown up.

What it represents is quite significant. In some ways it’s the politicisation of the German womb. It encouraged German women to have more children. It encouraged them to bear children for the Führer and for the Reich.

It’s part of the biological war that the Nazis saw themselves as being engaged in. In many ways it was the perfect definition of total war.

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The Mutterkreuz is probably the most famous example of such an award. But it’s not the only one we can find from totalitarian Europe in the 1930s. The Soviet Union did exactly the same thing.

Even the French had an award for producing children, although, after the slaughter of World War One, perhaps the French example is less surprising. It was perhaps more benign than the German example.

The Mutterkreuz, meanwhile, not only represented the politicisation of the German womb, but it was also an aspect of Germany’s race war.

The award criteria was very strict. If you were divorced or you’d had six children with various men, you wouldn’t get the award.

To qualify, you had to be of Aryan background, in a stable relationship and to have demonstrated political reliability.

Wolfgang Willrich Postcard

The Wolfgang Willrich postcard depicting Günther Prien.

This is a postcard by quite a prolific artist under the Third Reich named Wolfgang Willrich.

Willrich found his niche under the Third Reich, creating what was essentially racist art. His work typically consisted of busts or head and shoulder portraits of, for example, a typical Pomeranian peasant, or a Danubian farm labourer.

His specialism was stereotypical images of Germans, showing off their pale eyes, cheekbones, and buff, muscular figures. All of that familiar racial stereotyping was present in his postcard art.

Initially, he did a lot of this stuff for the SS Race Office, with his work peddled out as collector’s items. Then later on, once war came, Willrich forged a very useful relationship with people like Nazi Field Marshal Erwin Rommel.

He applied to accompany Rommel’s staff for a time in 1939-1940 and would do sketches of Rommel and other senior leaders which would then be water coloured like this postcard and sold in the masses.

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These postcards were the Nazi equivalent of Panini football stickers. They would be bought for something like 10 pfennigs and then be traded in school playgrounds and stuck up on walls.

It was the seduction of the mass population and the seduction of children, as well as the selling of a message of bluff Germaneness, of capability and military heroism.

This particular example is of Günther Prien, a U-boat commander who sunk the HMS Royal Oak at Scapa Flow in October of 1939, one of the earliest big successes of the war for Germany.

Prien was one of the earliest recipients of the Knight’s Cross, one of the most esteemed versions of the Iron Cross. He was one of the regime’s first military heroes.

We might lazily assume that Nazi propaganda was lowest common denominator stuff. It really wasn’t, it had to cover all the bases.

Look at just the press, for example. All the way from the bottom feeders of Der Stürmer to something like Das Reich, which was quite a high-brow production.

A lot of the messaging in these publications was very similar, if, admittedly, cruder at the lower end and more subtle at the top end.