‘Civil society’ – as a structure, concept, ambition – is a favoured notion among some groups of educators – especially in adult education, those working for voluntary associations and international organisations. The role of civil societyassociations as revolutionary forces, democratic enablers or associational bulwarks against neoliberal agendas, has long been a cherished concept among more progressively minded educators. And there is no reason why this shouldn’t be the case, with evidence readily available to attest to the veracity of such an understanding.

Because of this it is sometimes all too easy to ignore the other side of civil society, what Simone Chambers and Jeffrey Kopstein have termed ‘bad civil society’. In their study they mention the Nazi party in the context of bad civil society, a connection more fully cxplored in Fred Powell’s new book The politics of civil society: big society and small government. The section on the Nazification of charity is well-worth a read, as it illustrates how important a functioning civil society is to modern democracies, but also just how fragile and open to abuse it can be in the context of political and ideological pressure.

According to Powell, the Nazis needed to

Control civil society as an instrument of communicative power and a means to ensure that their hegemonic ideology was triumphant.

In order to achieve this aim, they

simply co-opted civil society, replacing its ethical principles and turning it into an agency of communitarian totalitarianism.

A key driver of this process of co-optation was what Powell calls the ‘Nazification of charity’ (quoting from Michael Burleigh here):

If faith and hope were integral to National Socialism, so too surprisingly enough was charity. This ceased to be an uncomplicated reflection of human altruism, still less something individuals do discreetly for the good of their souls, or to reap tax exemptions and titles. Instead, it becomes a favoured means of mobilising communal sentimentality, that most underrated, but quintessential, characteristic of Nazi Germany (Michael Burleigh, 219)

Through what Burleigh describes as the ‘black arts of co-ordination’, the Nazis gradually subsumed German charitable organisations.

Initially [Eric] Hilgenfeldt, strengthened the NSV [Nazi People’s Welfare Association] by absorbing smaller charities, such as self-help groups for the blind, deaf, dumb, and distressed gentlefolk. This was followed by a forced amalgamation with the German League for Voluntary Welfare. The German Red Cross adapted by including Nazis in key positions and adopting the Hitler salute and Nazi songs as part of its public face.

By 1939 – 12.5 million Germans had enrolled in the NSV – meaning that the Nazification of charity was highly successful. This Nazification extended to the application of strong-arm tactics to volunteering and fundraising – with fear and extortion becoming defining elements of their take on charity. Powell, again quoting Burleigh:

While they marginalised the confessional welfare agencies, the Nazis reinforced voluntarism with compulsion. Posters reading ‘I am a member of the NSV – are you?’ appeared on buses and trams … Contributions to Winter Aid were deducted at source from wages – with worker consent to this extortion negated by enrolling everyone into the People’s Welfare at works assemblies, and asking anyone who dissented to make this publicly known. Workers were then surprised to find People’s Welfare pamphlets in their wage packets, for which further deductions had already been made. Schoolteachers handed out large quantities of Winter Aid badges to children in the knowledge that they would never be able to dispose of them, indirectly pressurising parents to make up the deficit to spare their offspring shame at school. Some schools introduced display boards showing which pupils had or had not succeeded in offloading their people’s Welfare badges. Passengers on buses and trains morosely suffered conductors who withheld their change for charitable purposes. Winter Aid became a form of licensed extortion (Michael Burleigh, 132).

Although of course Nazification provides an extreme example, it is nevertheless an example that should concern those who view civil society as some kind of benign associational panacea. As is so often the case with educational ideas borrowed from elsewhere, the power of civil society depends on those who wield it – the profane life of civil society oftentimes trumping its more sacred abstract version.

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