HITLER’S RISE TO POWER
World War I ended in disaster
for the German nation. In the aftermath of the war, poverty-stricken Germans
continued to die of starvation and disease. The nation's wealth had been spent
in fighting the Allies. The Treaty of Versailles reduced the area of the German
Empire by one tenth. Germany was made to admit that it was guilty of starting
the war. The German government was forbidden to raise an army of more than a
hundred thousand men, or to build any large weapons of war. Most damaging of
all, the treaty stipulated that Germany pay the Allies enormous amounts of money
as reparations to compensate for the suffering caused by the war. Already
impoverished German citizens were forced to pay heavy taxes to make up these
Not only the economy, but even the spirit of the country
was destroyed by the Versailles Treaty of 1919. Of the nations of Europe,
Germany above all had taken pride in its military strength, and now its armies
were reduced. The new government was weak and many small parties sprang up to
oppose it. Family unity shattered as young people lost respect for their parents
and began to rebel against them. In short, Germany's faith in itself was shaken
deeply by the defeat and its aftermath.
The Search for a Scapegoat
Even before Adolf Hitler and his political party rose
to power, Germany was a nation in search of some person or group on whom to lay
the blame for its defeat. The Jews were readily singled out. They were the
largest German minority--an easy target for prejudice.
Anti-Semitism, religious prejudice against the Jews, had
a long history in Germany. As far back as 1542 the great German Protestant
leader Martin Luther had written a booklet called Against the Jews and Their
Lies. Even earlier the Catholic Church had taught that the Jews had killed
Christ and should therefore be hated. In addition, as the twentieth century
dawned, many Germans identified themselves as members of the so-called "Aryan
race," which they considered superior to any other breed of people in the
world. Yet the Jews persisted in calling themselves the "chosen people,"
as they were known in the Bible. To some, this alone may have made the Germans
and the Jews seem natural enemies in conflict over who was superior. In 1890
Hermann Ahlwardt, a member of the German parliament, wrote an essay called
"The War of Desperation between the Aryan People and Judaism." In it,
he called for the extermination of the Jews.
Just before World War I there was a short period of
patriotism in Germany shared by all. All Germans, Jew and non-Jew alike, took
pride in the fatherland. During World War I Jews served along with non-Jews,
fighting and dying in the armies of Germany. But when the war ended in defeat
the German people, searching for someone to blame, looked back to those they had
hated in the past, the Jews.
Hitler Enters German Politics
In 1919 in the city of Munich, Hitler joined a group
called the German Workers' Party. Within a short time, he became one of seven
committee members who headed the party. The Workers' Party held meetings to
discuss the present government and its weakness, to remember the better days
before World War I, to talk about the threat posed by the Bolsheviks
(Communists) who had recently come to power in Russia, and to discuss the "enemy"
within Germany--the Jews.
Hitler was hardly satisfied with a discussion of ideas.
He sought to create a force for change. For this purpose, he needed followers.
But he was still unsure of himself. Could he lead others? Would others listen to
his ideas and follow him? The only way to know was to try. He planned an evening
of speeches, writing out invitations by hand asking people to attend the
lectures. The committee members came--but no one else responded.
Hitler remained determined. Planning another evening, he
sent out mimeographed invitations. This time, eleven people came. It was less
than a triumph. But Hitler had seen how leaders used anti-Semitism as a tool to
stir the emotions of the working class; and he decided that this might possibly
work for him, too. With the last funds of the club, Hitler placed an
advertisement in a local anti-Semitic newspaper, promising an evening of
anti-Semitic speeches. This time he attracted a crowd. John Toland, in his
biography of Hitler, tells what happened on that fateful night:
... by 7 pm
seventy people had collected in the smoky room. There is no record of the
reception given the main speaker but almost from the moment Adolf Hitler stepped
behind the crude lectern placed atop the head table the audience was "electrified."
He was supposed to speak for twenty minutes, but went on for half an hour,
spilling out a stream of denunciations, threats and promises. ... by
the time he sat down to loud applause sweat covered his face. He was exhausted
but elated "and what before I had simply felt deep down in my heart,
without being able to put it to the test [Hitler wrote], proved to be true; I
could speak!" [John Toland, Adolf Hitler]
That evening Hitler discovered his two most powerful
weapons: the appeal of anti-Semitism and his own ability to speak and excite
people. From then on the meetings grew in numbers and so did the German Workers'
Organizing the Party
Hitler set about organizing his new political party. In
1920 it was renamed the National Socialist German Workers' Party--the Nazi party
for short. In 1928 the party won eight hundred thousand votes. Even then it was
more than just a political group. Hitler had already begun turning it into a
kind of military force. He trained "storm troopers" to act as militia
at his command. And many leaders who remembered past German military might began
to support the Nazi party and its troops.
With former army leaders on his side, Hitler felt the
time had come for direct action. On November 8, 1923, he and his storm troopers
surrounded a group of government officials in a beer hall in Munich. Hitler told
them that he wanted to turn the government over to the military. He forced them
to swear loyalty to his "revolution." To gain their release, the
officials agreed. But when they were freed, they had Hitler arrested. He was
tried, given a sentence of five years, and sent to prison. His "beer hall Putsch"
had failed, but news of it spread and Hitler's name was heard far and wide for
the first time.
Hitler served only nine months of his prison term; then
he was set free by the authorities, many of whom were sympathetic to his cause.
While he was in prison, Hitler had organized his ideas into a book. He dictated
the book to his prison mate, Rudolf Hess. This was the book called Mein Kampf
(My Struggle), destined to become the Nazi bible.
Like most extremists Hitler was filled with prejudices.
And the greatest prejudice of all he saved for the Jewish people. From the
beginning of his book to the end, Hitler spoke of the Jewish people as the cause
of the troubles and ills that Germany was suffering:
If we pass all
the causes of the German collapse in review, the ultimate and most decisive
remains the failure to recognize the racial problem and especially the Jewish
menace. [Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf]
Hitler believed that the Jews were natural enemies of
the "superior" Aryan race (to which the Germans belonged). It was, he
felt, unnatural for Jews and Aryans to intermarry and have children:
Any crossing of
two beings not at exactly the same level produces a medium. ... Such mating is
contrary to the will of Nature... [Adolf Hitler, Mein
Hitler argued that the Jews were dangerous because, in
his view, they controlled the German nation. He said that they controlled not
only money and land, but the press as well. And the Jews, he maintained, were
using the press to tell people what to think:
With all his
perseverance and dexterity [the Jew] seizes possession of [the press]. With it
he slowly begins to grip and ensnare, to guide and to push all public life,
since he is in a position to create and direct that power which, under the name
of "public opinion," is better known today than a few decades ago.
[Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf]
But for Hitler the greatest danger was what he called
the danger of the "blood." He was afraid that Jewish blood would
poison the pure blood of the Aryan Germans:
poisons the blood of others, but preserves his own. The Jew almost never marries
a Christian woman; it is the Christian who marries a Jewess. The [children]
however, take after the Jewish side. ... In order to mask his activity and lull
his victims ... [the Jew] talks more and more of the equality of all men without
regard to race and color. The fools begin to believe him. [Adolf Hitler, Mein
And what did Hitler conceive of as the goal of the Jews?
What did the Jews wish to accomplish?
ultimate goal in this stage is the victory of “democracy,” or, as he
understands it: the rule of parliamentarianism. [Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf]
Hitler's Power Grows
Freed from prison, Hitler turned back to the work of
building and expanding his party and its troopers. In the elections, of 1930 the
Nazi party won six and a half million votes. They had become the second largest
political party in Germany, and where before they had held only twelve seats in
the Reichstag (Germany's parliament), now they held more than a hundred. Why had
a small unknown political party from Austria suddenly become the second most
powerful in Germany?
The Great Depression
In the fall of 1929 a shock wave began in the city of
New York that was destined to help bring Hitler to power in far-off Germany. The
Wall Street stock market crashed. The trading of stocks came to an abrupt halt
when the value of the stocks suddenly fell to practically nothing. Millionaires
became paupers overnight. The middle class saw its savings and investments
disappear. People who had invested in stocks and bonds suddenly had nothing
left. Banks failed and companies went bankrupt; people who had placed their
money in savings accounts and checking accounts found that they could not draw
their money out because the banks had been shut down. Factories and stores
closed. Jobs were scarce.
Germany's economy after World War I had been built on
foreign loans, especially loans from the United States, and on world trade,
which was also based on a system of loans and notes of credit. As a result, the
fate of Germany (and of other countries as well) was tied up with that of the
United States. When world trade and commerce collapsed, the German economy
collapsed with it. Now millions of Germans were out of work. The middle class
saw its savings and investments disappear. To pay their debts, people were
forced to sell houses and furnishings. The Depression was the final blow, coming
on top of Germany’s military defeat and the postwar years of inflation and
unemployment. In Germany more than in any other country a feeling of utter
Germany's major political parties were also stunned and
helpless. Only two parties could turn to the people of Germany to say, “We
told you so.” One of these was the Communist party, which for years had said
that the defeat of capitalism was near. The other was Hitler's party, the Nazis.
Hitler as Speaker
Now, Hitler was tireless. He traveled from city to city
by plane, automobile, and railroad. In the final few weeks before the election
of 1930, he made as many as three speeches a day. He blamed the loss of the
First World War on the old politicians of Germany; he told the people that they
had been betrayed by Jewish bankers and moneylenders; he warned those who would
listen that the time had come to rebuild Germany's army and prepare for war
against the Communists. He promised that there would be jobs for everyone when
rebuilding began. Finally, he reminded the people of their lost pride in the
fatherland, and he proclaimed the superiority of the Aryan race and German
In 1919 Hitler had been surprised to discover that he
could capture the attention of seventy people. By the mid-1930s he had become a
masterful speaker. He spoke at huge rallies organized by the Party, holding
thousands of listeners spellbound with his visionary dreams of what Germany
could become, and arousing them to a frenzied hatred of Jews, Communists, and
In the early 1930s the Depression spread. By 1932 over
three million Germans were out of work. The moderate parties were weak and
helpless, unable to agree on what to do. More and more the military leaders
looked to Hitler for an answer. Above all, they admired his promise to rebuild
German military power. More and more the leaders of industry and business looked
to Hitler. They saw that new factories and industry would be needed to outfit
and equip new military forces. More and more the members of the middle class
listened to Hitler's promises of new jobs.
Hitler campaigned without stopping, and the Nazi party
flourished. His storm troopers, called the Brownshirts because of the uniform
they wore, grew to an army of about half a million. By 1933 most of the other
small anti-Semitic and extreme-right parties had joined forces with the Nazis.
And in this moment, when the government needed leadership, the aging president
of the German republic, Paul von Hindenburg, was faced with the most difficult
decision of his political life. He did not like Hitler. He very much wanted a
moderate leader for the German republic. But there was no moderate leader with a
real program for bringing Germany out of the Depression. And there was no
moderate leader who could bring together enough of the votes in the Reichstag to
rule the country. To Hindenburg, and his political colleagues, Hitler seemed the
On January 30, 1933, President von Hindenburg called on
Hitler to form a new government and to become the chancellor of Germany. Hitler
swore the oath of office, promising to protect the constitution of Germany and
its laws, and to be just and fair to all Germans. But even as he spoke these
words, he had already laid plans for a war on German democracy.
The Reichstag Fire
New elections had been set for March of 1933, and
Hitler wanted to make sure that the Nazis would win these elections decisively.
In the second election of 1932 they had lost votes, losing some of their seats
in the Reichstag. Hitler was determined to ensure that it would not happen
again. Most historians agree that Hitler arranged for a fire in the Reichstag
building and arranged to make it seem that the Communists had set the fire.
Even before the fire was set, Hitler and his chief
lieutenants drew up lists of enemies to be arrested and accused of the fire. On
these lists were many leading members of the Reichstag, leading members of the
Communist party inside Germany, and others who had spoken out from time to time
against Hitler and against Nazism.
Luck was with Hitler; whether by plan or by accident,
his storm troopers discovered a down-and-out Dutchman who happened to be a
member of the Communist party. The Dutchman had been heard bragging that the
only way to change the government in Germany would be to set fire to government
buildings. It is now believed that it was actually the Brownshirts that set fire
to the Reichstag building, using gasoline and other chemicals. In only a few
minutes, the building was ablaze in the night. The Dutchman was immediately
arrested; later he was tried and executed.
When Hitler, the new chancellor of Germany, arrived on
the scene of the fire, he declared that the burning of the Reichstag was the
work of the Communists. With the elections only a week away, he stepped up his
campaign against "Marxists," the press, and organizations of the
To the old President von Hindenburg the fire came as a
great blow. As the Nazis quickly arrested many of Germany's foremost political
leaders, their parties were left stunned and without direction. The government
seemed near collapse. Hitler insisted that the Communists were trying to take
over Germany by force, as they had taken over Russia in 1917. Something had to
be done, he declared. And he knew just what it should be. He called for von
Hindenburg to sign an emergency decree "for the protection of the people
and the state."
The emergency decree canceled all individual and civil
rights, placing power in the hands of Hitler and his party. It became illegal
for Germans to express their opinions freely, or to assemble to hear political
speeches or for any other reason. And the decree made it legal for Hitler and
his Brownshirts to control what was published in newspapers or broadcast as news
over the radio; to open mail, read telegrams, and listen in on telephone
conversations; to search houses without warning; to confiscate personal
property; and to rule by dictatorship in any of the states of Germany, whenever
Hitler thought it necessary.
With von Hindenburg's decree on February 28, 1933,
Hitler became Germany’s dictator.
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