- Hitler was born in 1889 in Austria, then part of Austria-Hungary, and raised near Linz.
- He moved to Germany in 1913 and was decorated during his service in the German Army in World War I.
- He joined the German Workers’ Party (DAP), the precursor of the Nazi Party, in 1919 and became leader of the Nazi Party in 1921.
- In 1923 he attempted a coup in Munich to seize power, called the Beer Hall Putsch.
- The failed coup resulted in Hitler’s imprisonment, during which he dictated the first volume of his autobiography and political manifesto Mein Kampf (“My Struggle”).
- After his release in 1924, Hitler gained popular support by attacking the Treaty of Versailles and promoting Pan-Germanism, anti-semitism, and anti-communism with charismatic oratory and Nazi propaganda.
- Hitler frequently denounced international capitalism and communism as part of a Jewish conspiracy.
- National Socialist German Workers Party: A political party in Germany that was active between 1920 and 1945 and practiced the ideology of Nazism. Its precursor, the German Workers’ Party (Deutsche Arbeiterpartei; DAP), existed from 1919 to 1920. The party emerged from the German nationalist, racist, and populist Freikorps paramilitary culture, which fought against the communist uprisings in post-World War I Germany. The party was created to draw workers away from communism and into völkisch nationalism.
- Beer Hall Putsch: A failed coup attempt by the Nazi Party leader Adolf Hitler — along with Erich Ludendorff and others — to seize power in Munich, Bavaria, during November 8-9, 1923. About two thousand men marched to the center of Munich where they confronted the police, which resulted in the death of 16 Nazis and four policemen.
- Mein Kampf: A 1925 autobiographical book by Nazi Party leader Adolf Hitler. The work outlines Hitler’s political ideology and future plans for Germany. In it, Hitler used the main thesis of “the Jewish peril,” which posits a Jewish conspiracy to gain world leadership. The narrative describes the process by which he became increasingly antisemitic and militaristic, especially during his years in Vienna. He speaks of not having met a Jew until he arrived in Vienna, and that at first his attitude was liberal and tolerant. When he first encountered the anti-semitic press, he says, he dismissed it as unworthy of serious consideration. Later he accepted the same anti-semitic views, which became crucial in his program of national reconstruction of Germany.
Adolf Hitler (April 20, 1889 – April 30, 1945) was a German politician who was the leader of the Nazi Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei; NSDAP), Chancellor of Germany from 1933 to 1945, and Führer (“Leader”) of Nazi Germany from 1934 to 1945. As dictator of the German Reich, he initiated World War II in Europe with the invasion of Poland in September 1939 and was central to the Holocaust.
By 1933, the Nazi Party was the largest elected party in the German Reichstag, which led to Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor on January 30, 1933. Following fresh elections won by his coalition, the Reichstag passed the Enabling Act, which began the process of transforming the Weimar Republic into Nazi Germany, a one-party dictatorship based on the totalitarian and autocratic ideology of National Socialism. Hitler aimed to eliminate Jews from Germany and establish a New Order to counter what he saw as the injustice of the post-World War I international order dominated by Britain and France. His first six years in power resulted in rapid economic recovery from the Great Depression, the effective abandonment of restrictions imposed on Germany after World War I, and the annexation of territories that were home to millions of ethnic Germans — actions that gave him significant popular support.
Hitler sought Lebensraum (“living space”) for the German people in Eastern Europe. His aggressive foreign policy is considered to be the primary cause of the outbreak of World War II in Europe. He directed large-scale rearmament and on September 1, 1939, invaded Poland, resulting in British and French declarations of war on Germany. In June 1941, Hitler ordered an invasion of the Soviet Union. By the end of 1941 German forces and the European Axis powers occupied most of Europe and North Africa. Failure to defeat the Soviets and the entry of the United States into the war forced Germany onto the defensive, and it suffered a series of escalating defeats. In the final days of the war, during the Battle of Berlin in 1945, Hitler married his long-time lover, Eva Braun. On April 30, 1945, less than two days later, the two killed themselves to avoid capture by the Red Army, and their corpses were burned.
Childhood and Education
Adolf Hitler was born on April 20, 1889 in Braunau am Inn, a town in Austria-Hungary (in present-day Austria), close to the border with the German Empire. He was one of six children born to Alois Hitler and Klara Pölzl. Three of Hitler’s siblings—Gustav, Ida, and Otto—died in infancy. When Hitler was three, the family moved to Passau, Germany. There he acquired the distinctive lower Bavarian dialect rather than Austrian German, which marked his speech throughout his life. The family returned to Austria and settled in Leonding in 1894, and in June 1895 Alois retired to Hafeld, near Lambach, where he farmed and kept bees. Hitler attended Volksschule (a state-owned school) in nearby Fischlham.
The move to Hafeld coincided with the onset of intense father-son conflicts caused by Hitler’s refusal to conform to the strict discipline of his school. Alois Hitler’s farming efforts at Hafeld ended in failure, and in 1897 the family moved to Lambach. The eight-year-old Hitler took singing lessons, sang in the church choir, and even considered becoming a priest. In 1898 the family returned permanently to Leonding. Hitler was deeply affected by the death of his younger brother Edmund, who died in 1900 from measles. Hitler changed from a confident, outgoing, conscientious student to a morose, detached boy who constantly fought with his father and teachers.
After Alois’s sudden death on January 3, 1903, Hitler’s performance at school deteriorated and his mother allowed him to leave. He enrolled at the Realschule in Steyr in September 1904, where his behavior and performance improved. In 1905, after passing a repeat of the final exam, Hitler left the school without any ambitions for further education or clear plans for a career.
From 1905, Hitler lived a bohemian life in Vienna, financed by orphan’s benefits and support from his mother. He worked as a casual laborer and eventually as a painter, selling watercolors of Vienna’s sights. The Academy of Fine Arts Vienna rejected him in 1907 and again in 1908, citing “unfitness for painting.” The director recommended that Hitler study architecture, which was another of his interests, but he lacked academic credentials as he had not finished secondary school. On December 21, 1907, his mother died of breast cancer at the age of 47. Hitler ran out of money and was forced to live in homeless shelters and men’s hostels.
At the time Hitler lived there, Vienna was a hotbed of religious prejudice and racism. Fears of being overrun by immigrants from the East were widespread, and the populist mayor Karl Lueger exploited the rhetoric of virulent anti-Semitism for political effect. German nationalism had a widespread following in the Mariahilf district where Hitler lived. German nationalist Georg Ritter von Schönerer, who advocated Pan-Germanism, anti-Semitism, anti-Slavism, and anti-Catholicism, was one influence on Hitler. Hitler read local newspapers such as the Deutsches Volksblatt that fanned prejudice and played on Christian fears of being swamped by an influx of Eastern European Jews.
World War I
In 1914, at the outbreak of World War I, Hitler was living in Munich and voluntarily enlisted in the Bavarian Army. Posted to the Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment 16, he served as a dispatch runner on the Western Front in France and Belgium, spending nearly half his time at the regimental headquarters in Fournes-en-Weppes, well behind the front lines. He was present at the First Battle of Ypres, the Battle of the Somme, the Battle of Arras, and the Battle of Passchendaele, and was wounded at the Somme. He was decorated for bravery, receiving the Iron Cross, Second Class, in 1914.
Entry into Politics
After World War I, Hitler returned to Munich. With no formal education or career prospects, he remained in the army. In July 1919 he was appointed an intelligence agent, assigned to influence other soldiers and infiltrate the German Workers’ Party (DAP).
At the DAP, Hitler met Dietrich Eckart, one of the party’s founders and a member of the occult Thule Society. Eckart became Hitler’s mentor, exchanging ideas with him and introducing him to a wide range of Munich society. To increase its appeal, the DAP changed its name to the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (National Socialist German Workers Party; NSDAP). Hitler designed the party’s banner of a swastika in a white circle on a red background.
Hitler was discharged from the army on March 31, 1920, and began working full-time for the NSDAP. The party headquarters was in Munich, a hotbed of anti-government German nationalists determined to crush Marxism and undermine the Weimar Republic. In February 1921 — already highly effective at speaking to large audiences — he addressed a crowd of over 6,000. To publicize the meeting, two truckloads of party supporters drove around Munich waving swastika flags and distributing leaflets. Hitler soon gained notoriety for his rowdy polemic speeches against the Treaty of Versailles, rival politicians, and especially Marxists and Jews.
Hitler’s vitriolic beer hall speeches began attracting regular audiences. He became adept at using populist themes, including the use of scapegoats, who were blamed for his listeners’ economic hardships. Hitler used personal magnetism and an understanding of crowd psychology to his advantage while engaged in public speaking. Historians have noted the hypnotic effect of his rhetoric on large audiences, and of his eyes in small groups. Alfons Heck, a former member of the Hitler Youth, later recalled:We erupted into a frenzy of nationalistic pride that bordered on hysteria. For minutes on end, we shouted at the top of our lungs, with tears streaming down our faces: Sieg Heil, Sieg Heil, Sieg Heil! From that moment on, I belonged to Adolf Hitler body and soul.
Arrest, Imprisonment, and Mein Kampf
In 1923 Hitler enlisted the help of World War I General Erich Ludendorff for an attempted coup known as the “Beer Hall Putsch.” The NSDAP used Italian Fascism as a model for their appearance and policies. Hitler wanted to emulate Benito Mussolini ‘s “March on Rome” of 1922 by staging his own coup in Bavaria, to be followed by a challenge to the government in Berlin.
On November 8, 1923, Hitler and the SA stormed a public meeting of 3,000 people organized by Gustav Ritter von Kahr (Bavaria’s de facto ruler) in the Bürgerbräukeller, a beer hall in Munich. Interrupting Kahr’s speech, he announced that the national revolution had begun and declared the formation of a new government with Ludendorff.
Hitler’s forces initially succeeded in occupying the local Reichswehr and police headquarters, but Kahr and his cohorts quickly withdrew their support. Neither the army nor the state police joined forces with Hitler. The next day, Hitler and his followers marched from the beer hall to the Bavarian War Ministry to overthrow the Bavarian government, but police dispersed them. Sixteen NSDAP members and four police officers were killed in the failed coup.
Hitler fled to the home of Ernst Hanfstaengl and by some accounts contemplated suicide. He was depressed but calm when arrested on November 11, 1923 for high treason. On April 1, Hitler was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment at Landsberg Prison.
While at Landsberg, Hitler dictated most of the first volume of Mein Kampf (My Struggle; originally entitled Four and a Half Years of Struggle against Lies, Stupidity, and Cowardice) to his deputy, Rudolf Hess. The book, dedicated to Thule Society member Dietrich Eckart, was an autobiography and exposition of his ideology. The book laid out Hitler’s plans for transforming German society into one based on race. Some passages implied genocide. Published in two volumes in 1925 and 1926, it sold 228,000 copies between 1925 and 1932. One million copies were sold in 1933, Hitler’s first year in office.
- The Nazi Party, officially the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, was founded in 1920 by Anton Drexler, an avid German nationalist.
- It evolved out of Drexler’s earlier party, the German Workers’ Party (Deutsche Arbeiterpartei; DAP), started in 1919.
- Drexler followed the typical views of militant nationalists of the day, such as opposing the Treaty of Versailles, having antisemitic, anti-monarchist and anti-Marxist views, and believing in the superiority of Germans, whom nationalists claimed to be part of the Aryan “master race.”
- Adolf Hitler joined the DAP in 1919 and quickly became their main orator and spokesperson.
- Around that time, the party only had around 6o members.
- During 1921 and 1922, the Nazi Party grew significantly, partly through Hitler’s oratorical skills, partly through the SA’s (party militia) appeal to unemployed young men, and partly because there was a backlash against socialist and liberal politics in Bavaria as Germany’s economic problems deepened and the weakness of the Weimar regime became apparent.
- In 1923, Hitler and other Nazi Party members attempted a coup, which landed Hitler in prison for one year.
- Upon his release, Hitler continued to expand the Nazi base and by 1929, the party had 130,000 members.
- Despite its growth in popularity, the Nazi Party might never have come to power if not for the Great Depression and its effects on Germany.
- Nuremberg Rally: The annual rally of the Nazi Party in Germany, held from 1923 to 1938. They were large Nazi propaganda events, especially after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933.
- eugenics: A set of beliefs and practices that aims at improving the genetic quality of the human population.
- Hitler Youth: The youth organization of the Nazi Party in Germany, which originated in 1922. From 1933 until 1945, it was the sole official youth organization in Germany and was partially a paramilitary organization.
- Aryan: A racial grouping term used in the period of the late 19th century to the mid-20th century to describe multiple peoples. It has been variously used to describe all Indo-Europeans in general (spanning from India to Europe), the original Aryan people specifically in Persia, and most controversially through Nazi misinterpretation, the Nordic or Germanic peoples. The term derives from the Aryan people from Persia, who spoke a language similar to those found in Europe.
The National Socialist German Workers’ Party (German: Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, abbreviated NSDAP), commonly referred to in English as the Nazi Party, was a political party in Germany that was active between 1920 and 1945 and practiced the ideology of Nazism. Its precursor, the German Workers’ Party (Deutsche Arbeiterpartei; DAP), existed from 1919 to 1920.
The party emerged from the German nationalist, racist, and populist paramilitary culture, which fought against the communist uprisings in post-World War I Germany. The party was created to draw workers away from communism and into populist (German: völkisch) nationalism. Initially, Nazi political strategy focused on anti-big business, anti-bourgeois, and anti-capitalist rhetoric, although such aspects were later downplayed to gain the support of industrial entities. In the 1930s the party’s focus shifted to anti-Semitic and anti-Marxist themes.
Pseudo-scientific racism theories were central to Nazism. The Nazis propagated the idea of a “people’s community.” Their aim was to unite “racially desirable” Germans as national comrades, while excluding those deemed either to be political dissidents, physically or intellectually inferior, or of a foreign race. The Nazis sought to improve the stock of the Germanic people through racial purity and eugenics, broad social welfare programs, and a collective subordination of individual rights, sacrificed for the good of the state and the “Aryan master race.” To maintain the supposed purity and strength of the Aryan race, the Nazis sought to exterminate Jews, Romani, and the physically and mentally handicapped. They imposed exclusionary segregation on homosexuals, Africans, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and political opponents. The persecution reached its climax when the party-controlled German state organized the systematic murder of approximately six million Jews and five million people from the other targeted groups in what has become known as the Holocaust.
The party’s leader since 1921, Adolf Hitler, was appointed Chancellor of Germany by President Paul von Hindenburg on January 30, 1933. Hitler rapidly established a totalitarian regime known as the Third Reich. Following the defeat of the Third Reich at the conclusion of World War II in Europe, the party was “declared to be illegal” by the Allied powers, who carried out denazification in the years after the war.
Origins and Early History
The party grew out of smaller political groups with nationalist orientation that formed in the last years of World War I. In 1918, a league called the Freien Arbeiterausschuss für einen guten Frieden (Free Workers’ Committee for a good Peace) was created in Bremen, Germany. On March 7, 1918, Anton Drexler, an avid German nationalist, formed a branch of this league in Munich. Drexler was a local locksmith who had been a member of the militarist Fatherland Party during World War I and was bitterly opposed to the armistice of November 1918 and the revolutionary upheavals that followed. Drexler followed the typical views of militant nationalists of the day, such as opposing the Treaty of Versailles, having antisemitic, anti-monarchist and anti-Marxist views, and believing in the superiority of Germans, whom nationalists claimed to be part of the Aryan “master race.” He also accused international capitalism of being a Jewish-dominated movement and denounced capitalists for war profiteering in World War I. Drexler saw the situation of political violence and instability in Germany as the result of the new Weimar Republic being out-of-touch with the masses, especially the lower classes.
Though very small, Drexler’s movement did receive attention and support from some influential figures. Supporter Dietrich Eckhart brought military figure Count Felix Graf von Bothmer, a prominent supporter of the concept of “national socialism,” to address the movement. On January 5, 1919, Drexler created a new political party, the German Workers’ Party (Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, DAP). To ease concerns among potential middle-class supporters, Drexler made clear that unlike Marxists, the party supported the middle-class, and that the party’s socialist policy was meant to give social welfare to German citizens deemed part of the Aryan race. The DAP was a comparatively small group with fewer than 60 members. Nevertheless, it attracted the attention of the German authorities, who were suspicious of any organization that appeared to have subversive tendencies.
Adolf Hitler joined the DAP in 1919 and quickly became the party’s most active orator, appearing in public as a speaker 31 times within the first year. Hitler’s considerable oratory and propaganda skills were appreciated by the party leadership as crowds began to flock to hear his speeches.
To increase its appeal to larger segments of the population, on February 24, 1920, the same day as the biggest Hitler’s speech to date, the DAP changed its name to the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (National Socialist German Workers Party). That year, the Nazi Party officially announced that only persons of “pure Aryan descent” could become party members; if the person had a spouse, the spouse also had to be a “racially pure” Aryan. Party members could not be related either directly or indirectly to a so-called “non-Aryan.”
The SA (“storm troopers”, also known as “Brownshirts”) were founded as a party militia in 1921 and began violent attacks on other parties.
During 1921 and 1922, the Nazi Party grew significantly, partly through Hitler’s oratorical skills, partly through the SA’s appeal to unemployed young men, and partly because there was a backlash against socialist and liberal politics in Bavaria as Germany’s economic problems deepened and the weakness of the Weimar regime became apparent. The party recruited former World War I soldiers, to whom Hitler as a decorated frontline veteran particularly appealed, as well as small businessmen and disaffected former members of rival parties. Nazi rallies were often held in beer halls, where downtrodden men could get free beer. The Hitler Youth was formed for the children of party members, although it remained small until the late 1920s.
After a failed coup (Beer Hall Putsch) in 1923, Hitler was arrested and the Nazi Party was largely disbanded.
Nazi Party Rises to Prominence
Adolf Hitler was released from prison on December 20, 1924. In the following year he re-founded and reorganized the Nazi Party with himself as its undisputed leader. The new Nazi Party was no longer a paramilitary organization and disavowed any intention of taking power by force. In any case, the economic and political situation had stabilized and the extremist upsurge of 1923 had faded, so there was no prospect of further revolutionary adventures.
In the 1920s the Nazi Party expanded beyond its Bavarian base. The areas of strongest Nazi support were in rural Protestant areas such as Schleswig-Holstein, Mecklenburg, Pomerania, and East Prussia. Depressed working-class areas such as Thuringia also produced a strong Nazi vote, while the workers of the Ruhr and Hamburg largely remained loyal to the Social Democrats, the Communist Party of Germany, or the Catholic Centre Party. Nuremberg remained a Nazi Party stronghold, and the first Nuremberg Rally, a large annual propaganda rally, was held there in 1927. These rallies soon became massive displays of Nazi paramilitary power and attracted many recruits. The Nazis’ strongest appeal was to the lower middle-classes – farmers, public servants, teachers, small businessmen – who had suffered most from the inflation of the 1920s and thus feared Bolshevism more than anything else. The small business class was receptive to Hitler’s antisemitism, since it blamed Jewish big business for its economic problems. University students, disappointed at being too young to have served in the War of 1914–1918 and attracted by the Nazis’ radical rhetoric, also became a strong Nazi constituency. By 1929, the party had 130,000 members.
Despite its growth in popularity, the Nazi Party might never have come to power if not for the Great Depression and its effects on Germany. By 1930 the German economy was beset with mass unemployment and widespread business failures. The Social Democrats and Communists were bitterly divided and unable to formulate an effective solution. This gave the Nazis their opportunity; Hitler’s message, blaming the crisis on the Jewish financiers and the Bolsheviks, resonated with wide sections of the electorate. At the September 1930 Reichstag elections, the Nazis won 18.3% of the votes and became the second-largest party in the Reichstag after the SPD. Hitler proved a highly effective campaigner, pioneering the use of radio and aircraft for this purpose. His dismissal of Strasser and appointment of Goebbels as the party’s propaganda chief were major factors. While Strasser used his position to promote his own leftish version of national socialism, Goebbels was totally loyal to Hitler and worked only to improve Hitler’s image. Over the next several years, Hitler’s Nazi Party would continue to gain power and influence.
- Hitler’s rise to power occurred throughout the 1920s and early 1930s. He first gained prominence in the right-wing German Workers’ Party, which in 1920 changed its name to the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, commonly known as the Nazi Party.
- In the early 1930s, the Nazi Party gained more seats in the German Reichstag (parliament), and by 1933 it was the largest elected party, which led to Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor on January 30, 1933.
- Following fresh elections won by his coalition, the Reichstag passed the Reichstag Fire Decree, which suspended key civil liberties of German citizens, and Enabling Act, which gave the Hitler’s Cabinet the power to enact laws without the involvement of the Reichstag.
- With the passing of these two laws, Hitler’s power in government became nearly absolute and he soon used this power to eliminate all political opposition through both legal and violent means.
- On August 2, 1934, President Hindenburg died. Based on a law passed by the Reichstag the previous day, Hitler became head of state as well as head of government, and was formally named as Führer und Reichskanzler (leader and chancellor), thereby eliminating the last legal avenue by which he could be removed from office.
- Over the next few years, Hitler continued to consolidate his power, taking care to give his dictatorship the appearance of legality, by eliminating many military officials and taking personal command of the armed forces.
- Reichstag Fire Decree: This decree was issued by German President Paul von Hindenburg on the advice of Chancellor Adolf Hitler in direct response to the Reichstag fire of February 27, 1933. The decree nullified many of the key civil liberties of German citizens. With Nazis in powerful positions in the German government, the decree was used as the legal basis for the imprisonment of anyone considered an opponent of the Nazis and to suppress publications not considered “friendly” to the Nazi cause. The decree is considered by historians to be one of the key steps in the establishment of a one-party Nazi state in Germany.
- Night of the Long Knives: A purge that took place in Nazi Germany from June 30 to July 2, 1934, when the Nazi regime carried out a series of political extrajudicial executions intended to consolidate Hitler’s absolute hold on power in Germany. Many of those killed were leaders of the SA (Sturmabteilung), the Nazis’ own paramilitary Brownshirts organization; the best-known victim was Ernst Röhm, the SA’s leader and one of Hitler’s longtime supporters and allies.
- Enabling Act: A 1933 Weimar Constitution amendment that gave the German Cabinet – in effect, Chancellor Adolf Hitler – the power to enact laws without the involvement of the Reichstag. It passed in both the Reichstag and Reichsrat on March 24, 1933, and was signed by President Paul von Hindenburg later that day.
Hitler Runs for President
The Great Depression provided a political opportunity for Hitler. Germans were ambivalent about the parliamentary republic, which faced challenges from right- and left-wing extremists. The moderate political parties were increasingly unable to stem the tide of extremism, and the German referendum of 1929, which almost passed a law formally renouncing the Treaty of Versailles and making it a criminal offence for German officials to cooperate in the collecting of reparations, helped to elevate Nazi ideology. The elections of September 1930 resulted in the break-up of a grand coalition and its replacement with a minority cabinet. Its leader, chancellor Heinrich Brüning of the Centre Party, governed through emergency decrees from President Paul von Hindenburg. Governance by decree became the new norm and paved the way for authoritarian forms of government. The Nazi Party (NSDAP) rose from obscurity to win 18.3 percent of the vote and 107 parliamentary seats in the 1930 election, becoming the second-largest party in parliament.
Brüning’s austerity measures brought little economic improvement and were extremely unpopular. Hitler exploited this by targeting his political messages specifically at people who had been affected by the inflation of the 1920s and the Depression, such as farmers, war veterans, and the middle class.
Hitler ran against Hindenburg in the 1932 presidential elections. A January 1932 speech to the Industry Club in Düsseldorf won him support from many of Germany’s most powerful industrialists. Hindenburg had support from various nationalist, monarchist, Catholic, and republican parties, as well as some social democrats. Hitler used the campaign slogan “Hitler über Deutschland” (“Hitler over Germany”), a reference to his political ambitions and campaigning by aircraft. He was one of the first politicians to use aircraft travel for political purposes and utilized it effectively. Hitler came in second in both rounds of the election, garnering more than 35 percent of the vote in the final election. Although he lost to Hindenburg, this election established Hitler as a strong force in German politics.
Appointment as Chancellor
The absence of an effective government prompted two influential politicians, Franz von Papen and Alfred Hugenberg, along with several industrialists and businessmen, to write a letter to Hindenburg. The signers urged Hindenburg to appoint Hitler as leader of a government “independent from parliamentary parties,” which could turn into a movement that would “enrapture millions of people.”
Hindenburg reluctantly agreed to appoint Hitler as chancellor after two further parliamentary elections—in July and November 1932—did not result in the formation of a majority government. Hitler headed a short-lived coalition government formed by the NSDAP and Hugenberg’s party, the German National People’s Party (DNVP). On January 30, 1933, the new cabinet was sworn in during a brief ceremony in Hindenburg’s office. The NSDAP gained three posts: Hitler was named chancellor, Wilhelm Frick Minister of the Interior, and Hermann Göring Minister of the Interior for Prussia. Hitler had insisted on the ministerial positions to gain control over the police in much of Germany.
Reichstag Fire and March Elections
As chancellor, Hitler worked against attempts by the NSDAP’s opponents to build a majority government. Because of the political stalemate, he asked Hindenburg to again dissolve the Reichstag, and elections were scheduled for early March. On February 27, 1933, the Reichstag building was set on fire. Göring blamed a communist plot, because Dutch communist Marinus van der Lubbe was found in incriminating circumstances inside the burning building. According to the British historian Sir Ian Kershaw, the consensus of nearly all historians is that van der Lubbe actually set the fire. Others, including William L. Shirer and Alan Bullock, are of the opinion that the NSDAP itself was responsible. At Hitler’s urging, Hindenburg responded with the Reichstag Fire Decree of 28 February, which suspended basic rights and allowed detention without trial. The decree was permitted under Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution, which gave the president the power to take emergency measures to protect public safety and order. Activities of the German Communist Party (KPD) were suppressed, and some 4,000 KPD members were arrested.
In addition to political campaigning, the NSDAP engaged in paramilitary violence and the spread of anti-communist propaganda in the days preceding the election. On election day, March 6, 1933, the NSDAP’s share of the vote increased to 43.9 percent, and the party acquired the largest number of seats in parliament. Hitler’s party failed to secure an absolute majority, necessitating another coalition with the DNVP.
The Enabling Act
To achieve full political control despite not having an absolute majority in parliament, Hitler’s government brought the Enabling Act to a vote in the newly elected Reichstag. The Act—officially titled the Gesetz zur Behebung der Not von Volk und Reich (“Law to Remedy the Distress of People and Reich”)—gave Hitler’s cabinet the power to enact laws without the consent of the Reichstag for four years. These laws could (with certain exceptions) deviate from the constitution. Since it would affect the constitution, the Enabling Act required a two-thirds majority to pass. Leaving nothing to chance, the Nazis used the provisions of the Reichstag Fire Decree to arrest all 81 Communist deputies (in spite of their virulent campaign against the party, the Nazis allowed the KPD to contest the election) and prevent several Social Democrats from attending.
On March 23, 1933, the Reichstag assembled at the Kroll Opera House under turbulent circumstances. Ranks of SA (Nazi paramilitary) men served as guards inside the building, while large groups outside opposing the proposed legislation shouted slogans and threats toward the arriving members of parliament. The position of the Centre Party, the third largest party in the Reichstag, was decisive. After Hitler verbally promised party leader Ludwig Kaas that Hindenburg would retain his power of veto, Kaas announced the Centre Party would support the Enabling Act. The Act passed by a vote of 441–84, with all parties except the Social Democrats voting in favor. The Enabling Act, along with the Reichstag Fire Decree, transformed Hitler’s government into a de facto legal dictatorship.
Having achieved full control over the legislative and executive branches of government, Hitler and his allies began to suppress the remaining opposition. The Social Democratic Party was banned and its assets seized. While many trade union delegates were in Berlin for May Day activities, SA stormtroopers demolished union offices around the country. On May 2, 1933, all trade unions were forced to dissolve and their leaders were arrested. Some were sent to concentration camps.
By the end of June, the other parties had been intimidated into disbanding. This included the Nazis’ nominal coalition partner, the DNVP; with the SA’s help, Hitler forced its leader, Hugenberg, to resign on June 29. On July 14, the NSDAP was declared the only legal political party in Germany. The demands of the SA for more political and military power caused anxiety among military, industrial, and political leaders. In response, Hitler purged the entire SA leadership in the Night of the Long Knives, which took place from June 30 to July 2, 1934. Hitler targeted Ernst Röhm and other SA leaders who, along with a number of Hitler’s political adversaries (such as Gregor Strasser and former chancellor Kurt von Schleicher), were rounded up, arrested, and shot. While the international community and some Germans were shocked by the murders, many in Germany believed Hitler was restoring order.
On August 2, 1934, Hindenburg died. The previous day, the cabinet had enacted the “Law Concerning the Highest State Office of the Reich.” This law stated that upon Hindenburg’s death, the office of president would be abolished and its powers merged with those of the chancellor. Hitler thus became head of state as well as head of government and was formally named as Führer und Reichskanzler (leader and chancellor). With this action, Hitler eliminated the last legal avenue by which he could be removed from office.
As head of state, Hitler became supreme commander of the armed forces. The traditional loyalty oath of servicemen was altered to affirm loyalty to Hitler personally, by name, rather than to the office of supreme commander or the state. On August 19, the merger of the presidency with the chancellorship was approved by 90 percent of the electorate voting in a plebiscite.
In early 1938, Hitler used blackmail to consolidate his hold over the military by instigating the Blomberg-Fritsch Affair. Hitler forced his War Minister, Field Marshal Werner von Blomberg, to resign by using a police dossier that showed that Blomberg’s new wife had a record for prostitution. Army commander Colonel-General Werner von Fritsch was removed after the Schutzstaffel (SS paramilitary) produced allegations that he had engaged in a homosexual relationship. Both men fell into disfavor because they objected to Hitler’s demand to make the Wehrmacht (German armed forces) ready for war as early as 1938. Hitler assumed Blomberg’s title of Commander-in-Chief, thus taking personal command of the armed forces. On the same day, sixteen generals were stripped of their commands and 44 more were transferred; all were suspected of not being sufficiently pro-Nazi. By early February 1938, 12 more generals had been removed.
Hitler took care to give his dictatorship the appearance of legality. Many of his decrees were explicitly based on the Reichstag Fire Decree and hence on Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution. The Reichstag renewed the Enabling Act twice, each time for a four-year period. While elections to the Reichstag were still held (in 1933, 1936, and 1938), voters were presented with a single list of Nazis and pro-Nazi “guests” which carried with well over 90 percent of the vote. These elections were held in far-from-secret conditions; the Nazis threatened severe reprisals against anyone who didn’t vote or dared to vote no.
- One of the central tenets of the Nazi regime was a pseudo-scientific racial hierarchy placing the Nordic or Aryan races at the top and Slavs, Romani, and especially Jews at the bottom.
- Antisemitism in the Nazi regime was manifested in propaganda that scapegoated all of Germany’s problems on the Jews, various discriminating laws, and finally mass-scale violence and murder culminating in the Holocaust, or in Nazi terms, the “Final Solution.”
- In April 1933, Hitler declared a national boycott of Jewish businesses and passed the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service, which forced all non-Aryan civil servants to retire from the legal profession and civil service.
- On September 15, 1935, the Nuremberg Laws were passed, which included the Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honour. This forbade marriages and extramarital intercourse between Jews and Germans. The Reich Citizenship Law declared that only those of German or related blood were eligible to be Reich citizens.
- In November 1938, persecution of the Jews became violent when Nazi paramilitary damaged or destroyed synagogues and Jewish property throughout Germany during what became known as Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass.”
- Up until the outbreak of World War II, when the racist policies of the Nazis turned into outright genocide, the persecution of Jews and other “subhumans” continued under mostly legal means.
- Nuremberg Laws: Antisemitic laws in Nazi Germany introduced on September 15, 1935, by the Reichstag at a special meeting convened at the annual Nuremberg Rally of the Nazi Party (NSDAP). The two laws were the Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honour, which forbade marriages and extramarital intercourse between Jews and Germans and the employment of German females under 45 in Jewish households, and the Reich Citizenship Law, which declared that only those of German or related blood were eligible to be Reich citizens; the remainder were classed as state subjects without citizenship rights.
- Kristallnacht: A pogrom against Jews throughout Nazi Germany on November 9-10, 1938, carried out by SA paramilitary forces and German civilians. German authorities looked on without intervening. The name comes from the shards of broken glass that littered the streets after the windows of Jewish-owned stores, buildings, and synagogues were smashed.
- stab-in-the-back legend: The notion, widely believed in right-wing circles in Germany after 1918, that the German Army did not lose World War I on the battlefield but was instead betrayed by the civilians on the home front, especially the republicans who overthrew the monarchy in the German Revolution of 1918-19. Advocates denounced the German government leaders who signed the Armistice on November 11, 1918, as the “November Criminals.”
- “master race”: A pseudo-scientific concept in Nazi ideology in which the Nordic or Aryan races, thought to predominate among Germans and other northern European peoples, were deemed the highest in an assumed racial hierarchy.
Racism and antisemitism were basic tenets of the NSDAP and the Nazi regime. The Germanic peoples (the Nordic race) were considered by the Nazis to be the purest branch of the Aryan race and therefore viewed as the master race. The Nazis postulated the existence of a racial conflict between the Aryan master race and inferior races, particularly Jews, who were viewed as a mixed race that had infiltrated society and were responsible for the exploitation and repression of the Aryan race.
Nazi policies placed centuries-long residents in German territory who were not ethnic Germans such as Jews (a Semitic people of Levantine origins), Romanis (also known as Gypsies, an Indo-Aryan people of Indian Subcontinent origins), European non-Nordic peoples including Slavs (Poles, Serbs, Russians, etc.), and all other persons of color as inferior non-Aryan subhumans (i.e. non-Nordics, under the Nazi misinterpretation of the term “Aryan”) in a racial hierarchy with the Herrenvolk (“master race”) of the Volksgemeinschaft (“people’s community”) at the top. Jews were at the bottom, considered inhuman and thus unworthy of life.
Using the “stab-in-the-back legend,” the Nazis blamed poverty, hyperinflation in the Weimar Republic, unemployment, and the loss of World War I and surrender by the “November Criminals” all on the Jews and “cultural Bolsheviks,” the latter considered in conspiracy with the Jews. German woes were attributed to the effects of the Treaty of Versailles, also considered a Jewish conspiracy. The Nazi Party used these populist antisemitic views to gain votes.
Early Persecution of Jews
Discrimination against Jews began immediately after the Nazi seizure of power. Following a month-long series of attacks by members of the SA (Nazi paramilitary) on Jewish businesses, synagogues, and members of the legal profession, on April 1, 1933, Hitler declared a national boycott of Jewish businesses. The Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service, passed on April 7, forced all non-Aryan civil servants to retire from the legal profession and civil service. Similar legislation soon deprived Jewish members of other professions of their right to practice. On April 11, a decree was promulgated that stated anyone with even one Jewish parent or grandparent was considered non-Aryan. As part of the drive to remove Jewish influence from cultural life, members of the National Socialist Student League removed from libraries books considered un-German, and a nationwide book burning was held on May 10.
Violence and economic pressure were used by the regime to encourage Jews to voluntarily leave the country. Jewish businesses were denied access to markets, forbidden to advertise in newspapers, and deprived of access to government contracts. Citizens were harassed and subjected to violent attacks. Many towns posted signs forbidding entry to Jews.
In November 1938, a young Jewish man requested an interview with the German ambassador in Paris. He met with a legation secretary, whom he shot and killed to protest his family’s treatment in Germany. This incident provided the pretext for a pogrom the NSDAP incited against the Jews on November 9, 1938. Members of the SA damaged or destroyed synagogues and Jewish property throughout Germany. At least 91 German Jews were killed during this pogrom, later called Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass.” Further restrictions were imposed on Jews in the coming months. They were forbidden to own businesses or work in retail shops, drive cars, go to the cinema, visit the library, or own weapons. Jewish pupils were removed from schools. The Jewish community was fined one billion marks to pay for the damage caused by Kristallnacht and told that any money received via insurance claims would be confiscated.
By 1939, around 250,000 of Germany’s 437,000 Jews emigrated to the United States, Argentina, Great Britain, Palestine, and other countries. Many chose to stay in continental Europe. Nonetheless, emigration was problematic, as Jews were required to remit up to 90 percent of their wealth as a tax upon leaving the country. By 1938 it was almost impossible for potential Jewish emigrants to find a country willing to take them. Mass deportation schemes such as the Madagascar Plan proved to be impossible for the Nazis to carry out, and starting in mid-1941, the German government started mass exterminations of the Jews of Europe.
Damage caused during Kristallnacht. On November 9-10, 1938, a pogrom against Jews was carried out by SA paramilitary forces and German civilians throughout Nazi Germany.
Hitler and the Nazis may not have invented propaganda, but they certainly perfected it. In his early speeches and his book Mein Kampf, Hitler combined persuasion with fabrication, creating false disparaging stories about Jewish people and reinforcing those ideas through repetition and the use of sharp slogans like ‘enemy of the people’. Later, the responsibility of disseminating propaganda was handed to Joseph Goebbels – the Reich’s Minister of Propaganda.
The Nuremberg Laws were introduced on September 15, 1935, by the Reichstag at a special meeting convened at the annual Nuremberg Rally of the Nazi Party. The two laws were the Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honour, which forbade marriages and extramarital intercourse between Jews and Germans (seen as “race disgrace”) and the employment of German females under 45 in Jewish households, and the Reich Citizenship Law, which declared that only those of German or related blood were eligible to be Reich citizens; the remainder were classed as state subjects without citizenship rights. A supplementary decree outlining the definition of who was Jewish was passed on November 14, and the Reich Citizenship Law officially came into force on that date. The laws were expanded on November 26, 1935, to include Romani people and Afro-Germans. This supplementary decree defined Gypsies as “enemies of the race-based state,” the same category as Jews.
The Nuremberg laws had a crippling economic and social impact on the Jewish community. Persons convicted of violating the marriage laws were imprisoned, and (subsequent to March 8, 1938) upon completing their sentences were rearrested by the Gestapo and sent to Nazi concentration camps. Non-Jews gradually stopped socializing with Jews or shopping in Jewish-owned stores, many of which closed due to lack of customers. As Jews were no longer permitted to work in the civil service or government-regulated professions such as medicine and education, many middle-class business owners and professionals were forced to take menial employment.
- The foreign policy of the Nazi regime, outlined by Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf in 1925, expanded upon the German ideas of a “Greater Germany” that had been discussed and enacted in various ways since the 19th century.
- Similar to the Italian expansionist policy of Spazio vitale (“vital space”) under Mussolini, Hitler sought to expand the territory of Germany to give room ( Lebensraum: “living space”) for ethnic Germans to live and work.
- This territorial aim was combined with the racist ideologies of the Nazis to form the idea that people deemed to be part of inferior races (Slavs and Jews, for example), within the territory of Lebensraum expansion, were subjected to expulsion or destruction.
- Thus under the Nazi policies and military plans, the indigenous populations of Eastern Europe would have to be removed permanently, either through mass deportation to Siberia, death, or enslavement.
- The invasion of Poland, which started World War II, was motivated by this Lebensraum principle.
- Similar to the Lebensraum principle, the Nazis wanted to build a Great Germany by annexing ethnically-German territories, especially Austria.
- The annexation of Austria (termed Anschluss ) occurred in 1938 when Hitler ordered troops into Austria to pressure its president to appoint a Nazi chancellor who would orchestrate the unification.
- Within two days of installation, Nazis transferred power to Germany, and Wehrmacht troops entered Austria to enforce the Anschluss, which was then ratified by a controlled popular vote.
- Anschluss: This is the term used to describe the annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany in March 1938, but the idea goes back to the 19th century.
- Lebensraum: German for “living space,” this term refers to policies and practices of settler colonialism proliferated in Germany from the 1890s to the 1940s.
- “Heim ins Reich”: A foreign policy pursued by Adolf Hitler during World War II, beginning in 1938. The aim of Hitler’s initiative was to convince all Volksdeutsche (ethnic Germans) living outside of Nazi Germany (in Austria and the western districts of Poland) that they should strive to bring these regions “home” into Greater Germany and relocate from outside German-controlled territories following the conquest of Poland in accordance with the Nazi-Soviet pact.
- settler colonialism: A form of colonial formation whereby foreign people move into a region. An imperial power oversees the immigration of these settlers who consent, often only temporarily, to government by that authority. This colonization sometimes leads, by a variety of means, to depopulation of the previous inhabitants, and the settlers take over the land left vacant by the previous residents.
The German concept of Lebensraum (English: “living space”) refers to policies and practices of settler colonialism proliferated in Germany from the 1890s to the 1940s. The most extreme form of this ideology was supported by the Nazi Party (NSDAP) in the Third Reich until the end of World War II. First popularized around 1901, Lebensraum became a geopolitical goal of Imperial Germany in World War I (1914–1918).
In Mein Kampf (1925), Adolf Hitler dedicated a full chapter titled “Eastern Orientation or Eastern Policy,” outlining the need for the new living space for Germany. He claimed that achieving Lebensraum required political will, and that the National Socialist Movement should strive to expand the population area of the German people and acquire new sources of food. Hitler rejected the restoration of the pre-war borders of Germany as an inadequate half-measure toward reducing purported national overpopulation. From that perspective, he opined that the nature of national borders is always unfinished and momentary, and that their redrawing must continue as Germany’s political goal. Hence, Hitler identified the geopolitics of Lebensraum as the ultimate political will of his Party:And so, we National Socialists consciously draw a line beneath the foreign policy tendency of our pre–War period. We take up where we broke off six hundred years ago. We stop the endless German movement to the south and west, and turn our gaze toward the land in the East. At long last, we break off the colonial and commercial policy of the pre–War period and shift to the soil policy of the future.
Following Hitler’s rise to power, Lebensraum became an ideological principle of Nazism and provided justification for the German territorial expansion into East-Central Europe. The Nazi Generalplan Ost policy (the Master Plan for the East) was based on its tenets. It stipulated that most of the indigenous populations of Eastern Europe would have to be removed permanently (either through mass deportation to Siberia, death, or enslavement) including Polish, Ukrainian, Russian, and other Slavic nations considered racially inferior. The Third Reich aimed at repopulating these lands with Germanic colonists in the name of Lebensraum during World War II and thereafter. The entire populations were to be decimated by starvation, allowing for their own agricultural surplus to feed Germany. The invasion of Poland, which started WWII, was motivated by the Lebensraum principle and planned under Generalplan Ost.
Hitler’s strategic program for world domination was based on the belief in the power of Lebensraum, pursued by a racially superior society. People deemed to be part of inferior races within the territory of Lebensraum expansion were subjected to expulsion or destruction. The eugenics of Lebensraum assumed the right of the German Aryan master race (Herrenvolk) to remove indigenous people they considered to be of inferior racial stock (Untermenschen) in the name of their own living space. Nazi Germany also supported other “Arian” nations pursuing their own Lebensraum, including Fascist Italy’s Spazio vitale.
Anschluss (English: “connection” or “joining”) is the term used to describe the annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany in March 1938. The idea of an Anschluss (Austria and Germany uniting to form a “Greater Germany”) began after the Unification of Germany excluded Austria and the Austrian Germans from the Prussian-dominated German nation-state in 1871. The idea of grouping all Germans into a nation-state country had been the subject of debate in the 19th century from the end of the Holy Roman Empire until the end of the German Confederation.
Following the end of World War I in 1918, the Republic of German-Austria attempted union with Germany, but the Treaty of Saint Germain (September 10, 1919) and the Treaty of Versailles (June 28, 1919) forbade both the union and the continued use of the name “German-Austria.”
The constitutions of the Weimar Republic and the First Austrian Republic included the political goal of unification, which was widely supported by democratic parties. In the early 1930s, popular support in Austria for union with Germany remained overwhelming, and the Austrian government looked to a possible customs union with German Republic in 1931.
When the Nazis, led by Adolf Hitler, rose to power in the Weimar Republic, the Austrian government withdrew from economic ties. Austria shared the economic turbulence of the Great Depression, with a high unemployment rate and unstable commerce and industry. During the 1920s it was a target for German investment capital. By 1937 rapid German rearmament increased Berlin’s interest in annexing Austria, rich in raw materials and labor. It supplied Germany with magnesium and the products of the iron, textile, and machine industries. It had gold and foreign currency reserves, many unemployed skilled workers, hundreds of idle factories, and large potential hydroelectric resources.
The Nazis aimed to re-unite all Germans either born or living outside of the Reich to create an “all-German Reich.” Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf that he would create a union between his birth country Austria and Germany by any means possible (“German-Austria must be restored to the great German Motherland.” “People of the same blood should be in the same Reich.”).
Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany on March 12, 1938. There had been several years of pressure from supporters in Austria and Germany (both Nazis and non-Nazis) for the “Heim ins Reich” (“back home to the Reich”) movement. Earlier, Nazi Germany provided support for the Austrian National Socialist Party (Austrian Nazi Party) in its bid to seize power from Austria’s Fatherland Front government.
On March 9, 1938, Iin the face of rioting by the small but virulent Austrian Nazi Party and ever-expanding German demands on Austria, Chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg called a plebiscite referendum (popular vote) on the issue, to be held on March 13. Infuriated, on March 11 Adolf Hitler threatened invasion of Austria and demanded Chancellor von Schuschnigg’s resignation and the appointment of the Nazi Arthur Seyss-Inquart as his replacement. Hitler’s plan was for Seyss-Inquart to call immediately for German troops to rush to Austria’s aid, restoring order and giving the invasion an air of legitimacy. In the face of this threat, Schuschnigg informed Seyss-Inquart that the plebiscite would be cancelled.
Nevertheless, the Hitler underestimated his opposition. Schuschnigg did resign on the evening of March 11, but President Wilhelm Miklas refused to appoint Seyss-Inquart as chancellor. At 8:45 p.m., Hitler, tired of waiting, ordered the invasion to commence at dawn on March 12 regardless. Around 10 p.m., a forged telegram was sent in Seyss-Inquart’s name asking for German troops, since he was not yet chancellor and was unable to do so himself. Seyss-Inquart was not installed as chancellor until after midnight, when Miklas resigned himself to the inevitable.
As Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Edgar A Mowrer, reporting from Paris for CBS, observed: “There is no one in all France who does not believe that Hitler invaded Austria not to hold a genuine plebiscite, but to prevent the plebiscite planned by Schusschnigg from demonstrating to the entire world just how little hold National Socialism really had on that tiny country.” Clearly it was Hitler and not Schuschnigg who was terrified by the potential results of the scheduled plebiscite, and that was the best indication of where Austrians’ loyalty lay.
The newly installed Nazis within two days transferred power to Germany, and Wehrmacht troops entered Austria to enforce the Anschluss. The Nazis held a controlled plebiscite in the whole Reich within the following month, asking the people to ratify the annexation, and claimed that 99.7561% of the votes cast in Austria were in favor. Austrian citizens of Jewish origin were not allowed to vote.
German and Austrian border police dismantle a border post in 1938.
Text adapted from Boundless World History. Revisions and additions by History Guild.
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