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In the century and a half before 1933, the people of Germany created more enduring literature and music, more profound theology and philosophy, and more advanced science and scholarship than did the people of any other country in the world. Germans were highly cultured and literate. Their universities were the most respected in Europe. And yet it was in this country that Nazism developed.
Many factors played a part in Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. Hitler’s arresting personality and his skills as a public speaker and propagandist contributed to his political success. His ability to attract followers can also be attributed to the bitterness many Germans felt following their country’s defeat in World War I, resentment of the Versailles Treaty, weaknesses of the Weimar Republic, the Depression, and the growth of extreme nationalism in Germany.
WEIMAR REPUBLIC BLAMED FOR GERMANY’S DEFEAT
In 1919 after defeat in World War I, Germany set up a republic. The Weimar Republic was created during the period of general exhaustion and shock that followed the war. The Kaiser, Germany’s ruler, fled to Holland and although the military had lost the war, the new government was blamed for the defeat.
Germans were not prepared for a democratic government. The country had always known authoritarian leaders and had been ruled by an emperor since 1871. Many Germans saw the Weimar Republic as an interim government. When Germany held elections, it became a “Republic without Republicans.” It did not have an elected majority and was disliked by many sides.
RESENTMENT OF VERSAILLES TREATY
At the end of World War I, the Weimar government signed the Treaty of Versailles. The treaty fostered feelings of injustice and made many Germans want revenge. Article 231, known to many Germans as the “war guilt” clause, declared that the Central Powers had begun the war and were, therefore, responsible for the destruction it caused in the Allied nations. Germany was forced to give up land and pay reparations which Germans considered excessive and unfair.
HIGH INFLATION IN GERMANY
Following Germany’s defeat, the German mark became almost worthless. In 1914 $1 was equal to 4 marks; in 1921 $1 was equal to 191 marks; by 1923 $1 was equal to 17,792 marks; and by 1923 $1 was worth 4,200,000,000 marks. Hitler benefited from the country’s economic problems. Economic uncertainty and the fear of communism after the Bolshevik revolution offered a rich soil for the seeds of fascism.
HITLER’S EARLY YEARS
Adolf Hitler was born on April 20, 1889, in Austria. He was the fourth of six children. Hitler’s stepfather, a customs official, died when Adolf was fourteen. Hitler’s first years at school were successful until he entered a technical school at age eleven. There, his grades became so poor that he left school at sixteen.
In 1907 Hitler’s mother died. He moved to Vienna, where he lived for seven years. While there he applied for admission to the Academy of Art, but was rejected for lack of talent. In 1913 Hitler moved to Munich, Germany. In 1914, he joined the Bavarian army as a dispatch runner. In World War I, he took part in heavy fighting. He was wounded in 1916 and gassed in 1918. He was recovering in a hospital when the armistice was signed on November 11, 1918. Hitler’s wartime experiences reinforced central ideas he pursued later: his belief in the heroic virtues of war, his insistence that the German army had never been defeated, and his belief in the inequality of races and individuals.
NAZI PARTY FORMED
In 1919, at age thirty, Hitler returned to Munich, where former soldiers, embittered by their experiences, had formed associations. Many groups blamed Germany’s defeat on Jews who had “stabbed the army in the back.” Hitler joined the German Socialist Workers’ party and within a year, had transformed it into the National Socialist German Workers’ party, or Nazi party. By 1922, he was well known in Munich. He rented beer halls and repeated his basic themes: hatred of communists and Jews, the injustice of the Treaty of Versailles, the betrayal of the German army by Jews and pacifists, and the need to acquire enormous amounts of land for German settlement.
HITLER WRITES MEIN KAMPF
On November 8, 1923, Hitler and his followers attempted a take-over of the government in Munich. The failure of this coup attempt resulted in a five-year jail sentence for Hitler. He served only nine months due to a sympathetic judge. During this time he wrote the first of the two volumes of Mein Kampf (My Struggle). This book became the bible of the Nazi movement. It clearly spelled out Hitler’s program. In it, Hitler announces his intention to manipulate the masses by means of propaganda, forecasts a worldwide battle for racial superiority, and promises to free Germany from the limitations imposed by the Treaty of Versailles.
Released from prison in 1924, Hitler realized the Nazis must come to power legally. “Democracy must be defeated with the weapons of democracy,” he said. His task was to reorganize his out-lawed party and work toward his goals. The popularity of Hitler’s racist ideas coupled with his magnificent gift of oratory united the disillusioned of every class: the bankrupt businessman, the army officer who couldn’t adjust to civilian life, the unemployed worker or clerk, and the university student who had failed his exams.
PROFESSIONALS AND WORKERS ATTRACTED TO NAZI PARTY
Hitler’s ideas found support among all classes from lawyers, doctors, and scientists to factory workers. Among his earliest supporters were members of the lower middle class—small shop-keepers, farmers, clerks, and tradesmen. Generally, young Protestant men favored the party, while women, older socialists and democrats, and Catholics opposed it. Hitler offered something for everyone: the return of the glories of Germany; racial war as a normal state of life; the Jew as the common enemy of the German people; the German race as the saviors of the world. Hitler’s racist appeals attracted anti-Semites, but most Germans were more attracted by other aspects of his program.
DEPRESSION BRINGS NEW SUPPORTERS
Hitler’s chance came during the Depression years. After 1929, many people blamed the Weimar government for the country’s economic problems. By the early 1930s, Germany was in a desperate state. Six mil-lion people, one third of the workforce, was out of work. Hitler’s program ap-pealed to a cross-section of the German public who perceived the Depression as a unique German phe-nomenon rather than as a worldwide disaster.
HITLER APPOINTED CHANCELLOR
The Nazi party surprised ob-servers with its success in the parliamentary elec-tions of 1930, winning 107 seats in the Reichstag, or parliament. By July 1932 the Nazis had gained control of 230 seats to become the strongest single party. In January 1933, an aging President Paul von Hindenburg was persuaded to appoint Hitler Chancellor of the Reich. Hindenburg believed Hitler could lead Germany out of its political and economic crisis. Hindenburg also believed Hitler could be controlled. Once in power, Hitler immediately took steps to end democracy and turn the nation into a dictatorship. He began by calling a new election for March 1933. The Nazi-controlled Reichstag then passed the Emer-gency Decree. All civil rights—free speech, freedom of the press, the right to assemble, the privacy of the mails—were suspended.
Until the election, Hitler used the power of emergency decrees to rule. All open opposition came to an end. Newspaper offices and radio stations were wrecked. He created special security forces that murdered or arrested leaders of the communist, socialist, and other opposition political parties.
CIVIL RIGHTS SUSPENDED BY ENABLING ACT
On the first day the new Reichstag met, the Nazis helped push through the Enabling Act. This act provided legal backing for the Nazi dictatorship. No charges had to be filed to lock people up. Warrants did not have to be issued for arrests. “Enemies of the people and the state” were sent to concentration camps. The first camps opened soon after Hitler took power. The Reichstag adjourned, never again to have an effective voice in the affairs of Germany during Hitler’s rule.
THIRD REICH COMES TO POWER
When von Hindenburg died in August 1934, Hitler saw his chance to consolidate his power. He united the offices of President and Chancellor to become the Supreme Head of State and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. The democratic state was dead. Hitler’s Third Reich had come to power.