The Rise of Nazism
The introduction of Hitler to politics and the rise of Nazi Germany is not a simple story as it seems. There are several factors which lead to the creation of one of the most deadly and organized forces the world ever saw during World War II. In order to truly understand the origins of the Nazi regime and the absolute power that Hitler managed to gain during his reign. We must first understand the political system at the time, the decisions which led them into the First World War and the consequences of these actions.
In the late 1800s the structure of the German Government was based around the principle of a single governing monarch known as the Kaiser. The Kaisers rule over the legislation of the country was supplemented by the upper body of the government. The only democratically elected part of government was the parliament which could be dismissed by the Kaiser at will in favor of new elections. The parliament was only truly responsible for the deciding the amount of military spending1.
One of the most active parties at the time was the Social Democratic Party. It was the only party at the time to demand a republican reform of the government and had tremendous support from the populace. The SDP was also considered to be a supporter of the international labour movement and thus had influence and ties to labor unions in general. It was around this time that several European countries became embroiled in an arms race which came to a head when Germany declared war on Russia on August 1st, 1914 at the start of the First World War there was much support from the public to this decision. The SDP at the time however had differing views among its administrative members about the war however despite its reservations decided to support the government. The free unions during this time also agreed not to revolt or to demand higher wages as a show of support for the German military.
The anti-war faction within the Social Democratic Party soon gained more and more support as the war continued. Reports of casualties among the German military were cited as one of the main reasons for this change in heart. The German industry workers also faced worsening work environments. They were asked to work in difficult conditions, often doing 12 hour shifts without any form of compensation or adequate provisions. The increasing dissatisfaction among the workers regarding their working conditions eventually led to a strike. Nearly three hundred thousand workers at the German Armament factories stopped working putting a dent in war production. The civilian population also suffered several hardships in terms of unemployment. The one time image of an easy victory that brought the population together soon fell apart and brought up old divisions all over again. The Social Democratic Party seeing the increasing discord among the population called for a re-election. When asked for reasons they cited that the Generals in the German Military had an agenda to continuously expand the land held by German forces as well as continue to go on the offensive. This was all being done on the broken backs of the civilian population.
With the ever increasing worker strikes and protests from the German populace, the German military found its problems compounding. The loyalties of the parliamentarians were also called into question. The populace said that the social democrats who were elected at the time were the ones responsible for their military loses and troubles since they did not provide the German forces with the funding they required. This loss of trust and suspicion was also extended to the Catholics and the Jews2.
In order to quell public uprisings and gain public opinion the German military attempted to find a scapegoat for all their troubles. In order to facilitate this they began by choosing the section of the populace which was the most distrusted at the time namely the Jews and they conducted a survey to test their level of patriotism. This caused uproar among the Jewish community who had seen the war as an opportunity to prove their loyalty to their country. The 1st of November, 1916 was the day when the German military high command conducted the Jewish Census or as it known as in German the Judenzählung. Rather than providing a reason to blame all the troubles of the military the Census actually ending up disproving all of the allegations made by the military. They found that over one hundred thousand Jews had enlisted during the war with over eighty thousand of those stationed at the front lines. They also found that twelve thousand Jews had died in service and several of them nearly 30,000 were awarded medals of bravery. The military decided not to release the results of the study to the public3.
There were also other accusations hurled at companies such as Krupp steel of war profiteering. It was alleged that the company was selling arms to the German forces as well as enemy combatants. There were also artificial food shortages created by the German administration further spreading disharmony and causing uprising among the population.
Once the United States entered the war, without armament supplies reaching the German soldiers at the front they were left in a dire situation. The strikes back home continued to expand to 1 million workers leading to over 200 thousand work hours lost. It was around this time that the British propaganda machine was in full swing. They purported the view that Germany was a fascist society that exported militarism. This was so effective that even the German populace began to believe the tabloids. They portrayed the Germans as being responsible for the war and completely disregarded their peace offerings. They said that the Germans were the true aggressors who wanted war, while the rest of the free world was merely defending them in a struggle for peace. When the allies began to promise peace and full restoration support for the war from the German front further decreased. German allies began to question the cause for the war and found their answer in Allied propaganda which solely blamed Germany. On 11th November 1918 German representatives signed an armistice at Compiegne which effectively led to the cessation of hostilities with the west4. This entailed the complete demilitarization of German forces and a naval blockade by the allied forces until the complete peace terms were agreed to.
During the last years of World War I in early 1919 Anton Drexler created the German Workers Party or the Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (DAP) which followed the principles of hard-line military imperialists. The hard-line party was opposed to the armistice, the treaty of Versailles, had an anti-Semitic agenda and believed in the viewpoint of the Germans being a master Aryan race. The party was originally named the German Socialist Workers Party but on insistence of his contemporaries the socialist was left out of its name.
It was also during this time in 1918 after the armistice that a young soldier by the name of Adolf Hitler returned from the frontlines to Munich. Having no job and no skills and no contacts the man was given generally useless assignments before being promoted to an education officer in the armed forces in 19195. It was thought that this was widely due to his speaking skills and his openly anti Semitic views.
Eventually the allegations against the competency of the monarchy caused it to end and led to the formation of the Weimar Republic in 1919. However the economic problems that stemmed from the war caught up to the German government. The cessation of pre war industrial exports along with a complete stop in the military industrial sector led to the loss of over one million German jobs. The Treaty of Versailles was signed by inexperienced socialist German representatives during this time which not only promised the complete demilitarization of Germany along with a major decrease in German military force. This treaty also named Germany as being responsible for starting world war I. Germany also had to pay 66 billion pounds in war reparations as one of the conditions of the treaty which would have taken them a total of 70 years to do so. The condition of the German populace continued to worsen during this time. The continued blockade by the British forces even after the signing of the treaty caused widespread malnutrition leading to the deaths of over one million German civilians, additionally, allied forces also occupied 13% of German territories.
Following the Treaty of Versailles many hard lining left wing politicians such as conservatives and nationalists and veterans began to speak against the Weimar politicians and all socialists and communists. The accusations stated that the Weimar politicians actually benefitted from the treaty and essentially “stabbed them in the back.” They saw the strikes as being started by parties who were seen as acting against German interests and sabotaged the German army by depriving them of supplies when they most required them. Due to their intense distrust most of these allegations were directed towards the Jews. This was exacerbated by the experience of Munich being under the communist rule of Bavarian Soviet Republic whose leaders were Jewish.
It was also around this time the German Workers Party even though having only 60 members came under the attention of the German authorities. An education officer at the time, one of the duties of Adolf Hitler was to investigate any suspicious groups which may be employing subversive tactics6. He infiltrated one of their meetings as an investigator and took offence against a so called professor when he spoke out against the main speaker. Hitler’s speaking skills when used not only lead to this person leaving the meeting before it ended it also impressed Anton Drexler who invited Hitler to join the party. At first he had reservations due to the inherent disorganized nature and non established nature of the party. He soon saw an opportunity for greater influence in the organization and joined it. He was given the number 555; the party would add the number 500 to every member’s number in order to give the illusion of the party being bigger than it was. He later said in his book that he was the seventh executive member of the party7.
The party soon began to notice Hitler’s considerable leadership and speaking skills and soon promoted him in early 1920 to the head of propaganda. Hitler’s influence slowly began to change the party. Eventually the party changed its name to the National Socialist Party or the Nazi party. Hitler began speaking at various locations around Munich about the Treaty of Versailles and the Jewish population. The entire concept of being stabbed in the back by the establishment and the Jewish community also brought the party much support8. Eventually the party grew to two thousand members. In July 1921 Hitler assumed leadership of the Nazi Party from Drexler.
In May of 1923 Hitler brought together several elements in an attempt to overthrow the Weimar republic and to put them on trail as traitors to the German people. However his plan for overthrowing the government failed and he was tried and sentenced to prison for five years. It was during this time that Hitler gained much public attention. The Nazi party was banned from politics in 1924 by the Weimar republic on various charges as well.
Hitler used this time in prison to plan his political strategy and to dictate the first part of Mein Kampf. In the pursuing election however the Nazi party found itself with much support from the German populace despite losing the elections as a proxy taking the name the Nationalist Socialist Freedom Party. Hitler was released at the end of 1924 on the condition that he swear only to pursue political power through legal means and not attempt another coup de tat. The ban on the Nazi party was also lifted two months later. The party would use the scandal of their banishment to further gain support for their cause. This scandal known as the Barmat scandal accused the Weimar republic of having connections with wealthy Jewish families and thus bending over backwards to do their bidding. This allegation was hurled at the Barmat brothers who were Jewish and had several ties to the social democratic government. This scandal also fueled feelings of anti-Semitism that were prevalent at the time9.
At first the party’s return to the electoral process did not garner them many votes. However, violent demonstrations against Jewish businesses and clashes with another political party known as the Rotfront garnered the Nazi party much attention. This along with depressing economic times brought Hitler a surprising victory in the election catapulting his party to the position of the second largest in Germany10. It was also around this time that charges were brought against the security members of the Nazi party for the assault of unarmed Jews as a result of a law that called for maintenance of state authority. The Nazi Party was also banned due to the continuous street battles that were occurring between them and the Rotfront party. However this law was overturned by the chancellor less than a month later. This also ended the trail against the Nazi security forces which was apt for the anti-Jewish culture at the time. Eventually the Nazi party became the largest party in parliament and Hitler gained enough support to become chancellor on January 30, 193311.
In the next five years that followed Hitler systematically eliminated all other political organizations other than his own which could influence the populace and turn the loyalties of groups such as unions. He eventually eliminated all his rivals and brought the country together under the one party system. The state which emerged afterwards was one which followed the orders of the Fuhrer without question. The educational system was also transformed to teach children pro-Nazi ideals and propaganda machines worked overtime to convince the civilian population of the great intentions of those in power12.
Another step he took was to pass a legislation called the enabling act. Previously any amendment to the constitution required the support of two thirds of parliament. However the passing of this law granted Hitler full powers to rule according to his behest. And since there was not enough of an opposition to this law with the dismissal and/or banning of all other political factions. It passed without incident13.
With all of their opponents now dead or out of the picture, the collective energy of the Nazi party now turned their eyes on the Jewish people. Their Anti-Semitic views resulted in the restriction of Jewish political, economic and civil rights. They also passed the Nuremberg Laws in September 1935 which stripped them of their German citizenship and banned marriage and sexual relation between Jews and Aryans. This was followed by the Night of Broken glass in November 1938 in which they launched a campaign to arrest and incarcerate 30,000 Jews and attack and burn thousands of Jewish homes, businesses, synagogues and community centers14.
It must be noted that the power structure that existed at this time in German society revolved around Hitler. Though the Nazi party was prominent in the beginning it slowly lost the support of the German public. It must be noted however that Hitler was as popular as ever in their eyes for several years. The party itself had no influence on the regime everything decision that held any sort of power in the state was in the hands of Adolf Hitler. This power hold would continue through to 1943 and the Second World War.
It cannot be denied that Hitler’s magnetism, charisma and brilliant analytical mind was the main reason for the rise of Nazism in Germany. Without his input and support the German Workers Party would have never become the establishment we know as the Nazi Party today. However, it cannot be denied that the European influences on the German economy were also an important factor in creating an environment where these rebellious elements could thrive and seek control. Still at the end of the 1930s it must be remembered that it was not the Nazis who controlled Germany it was Hitler. He was the one man who lied, deceived and cunningly worked towards getting whatever he desired and in the end succeeded.
1) Thackeray, Frank W. Events that changed Germany pg 24. Troy: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2004.
2) Berkowitz, Michael. The crime of my very existence: Nazism and the myth of Jewish criminality pg 25. California: University of California Press, 2007.
3) Rigg, Bryan Mark. Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers: The Untold Story of Nazi Racial Laws and Men of Jewish Descent in the German Military pg 72. Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2002.
4) Hitler, Adolf. Mein Kampf Volume 1 Chapter 7. New York: Mariner Books, 1998.
5) Hitler, Adolf. Mein Kampf Volume 1 Chapter 8. New York: Mariner Books, 1998.
6) Kershaw, Ian. Hitler, 1889-1936: Hubris pg 82-83. New York: Penguin, 2001.
7) Hitler, Adolf. Mein Kampf Volume 1 Chapter 8. New York: Mariner Books, 1998.
8) Geary, Dick. Hitler and Nazism pg 14. New York: Routledge, 1993.
9) Fulda, Bernhard. Press and Politics in the Weimar Republic pg 90. New York: Oxford University Press US, 2009.
10) Davidson, Eugene. The making of Adolf Hitler: the birth and rise of Nazism pg 282. Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 1997.
11) Mommsen, Hans, Elborg Forster, and Larry Eugene Jones. The Rise and Fall of Weimar Democracy pg 319. North Carolina: UNC Press, 1998.
12) Davidson, Eugene. The unmaking of Adolf Hitlerpg pg 104. Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 2004.
13) Kershaw, Ian. Hitler, 1889-1936: Hubris pg 468. New York: Penguin, 2001.
14) United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “Night of Broken Glass”. 2008. http://www.ushmm.org/outreach/kristall.htm (accessed May 5, 2009).