Hitler and the Nazis Seize Power in Germany
Hitler and the Nazis Seize Power In Germany
The rise of an extreme nationalist party in Germany was all but inevitable after the Treaty of Versailles. Germany’s industry was destroyed, its military greatly reduced, some of its territory gone, and its economy devastated. Workers’ revolutions broke out in several German cities, but all were eventually put down. With the proclamation of the Weimar Republic in 1919, Germany could begin to pick up the pieces and move forward.
The Treaty of Versailles required Germany to reduce the size of the army to a very small force. Already bitter because they had lost the war, thousands of veterans now found themselves out of a job. Blaming the new German government for abandoning them, they took revenge at the polling place. Robbed of their parliamentary majority, the Social Democrats—those committed to a democratic constitutional government—had no choice but to form a coalition with representatives of the other parties. These coalition governments, of which there were more than a dozen between 1919 and 1933, were unable to accomplish much because their members had too many different goals. Conservatives, monarchists, and Democrats could not work together effectively even in the area of foreign policy, which traditionally united political opponents against the common enemy. Unable to negotiate effectively, Germany lost a series of arguments over Versailles Treaty provisions during the 1920s. As a result, Germans grew more nationalist and at the same time more contemptuous of their own government.
By 1922 France had determined the amount of the reparations Germany owed: more than 130 billion marks. The German people reacted furiously to the news that their government had agreed to this demand. As far as the people were concerned, the demand was unjustified; it was simply revenge on a defenseless nation. Moreover, the money simply was not there.
The French, deciding to take in fuel what Germany would not hand over in money, marched into the Ruhr—the coal-producing region of western Germany that had been made a demilitarized zone by the Treaty of Versailles. Although this was not cost-effective for the French, it brought economic ruin to Germany. Inflation soared to unimaginable levels. In December 1921, a loaf of bread cost 4 marks; in December 1922 it cost 163 marks; by December 1923 the price had risen to a staggering 400 billion marks!
This was the low point of German fortunes after World War I. Beginning in 1923, France and Britain showed a willingness to compromise over the payment of reparations, and France began to withdraw troops from the Ruhr. The United States also loaned money to Germany, and the ensuing years saw a steady recovery of the German economy as prices dropped back to normal levels. In another sign that the rifts of the war were beginning to heal, the Western nations welcomed Germany into the League of Nations in 1926. In addition, the Weimar Republic became famous for bold, experimental works by such artists as composer Kurt Weill, writers Bertolt Brecht and Thomas Mann, painters George Grosz and Wassily Kandinsky, and film director Joseph von Sternberg.
The U.S. stock market crashed in the fall of 1929. It had been soaring on an insubstantial foundation of margin buying and unpaid debts. When people began selling stocks to pay debts, others lost confidence in the market and it collapsed with stunning speed. When the market collapsed, the banks failed; when the banks failed, the businesses closed; when the businesses closed, the workers lost their jobs and could find no others. This economic failure is known as the Great Depression.
The Depression was not confined to the United States; the fact of inter- national banking and trade made it a universal economic crash. Banks closed throughout Europe and prices dropped. No one could find a market for goods because no one had cash with which to buy them. The Great Depression was the deathblow to the recovery that Germany and other European nations had been making since the end of the Great War. The German government, faced with strikes, violent protests in the streets, and rising unemployment, collapsed. The Nazi Party (the name is an abbreviation of “National Socialist German Workers’ Party”) now rose to power under its founder and leader, an obscure Austrian named Adolf Hitler.
Born in 1889 in Branau on the Austrian-German border, Hitler had been a failure all his life, often living on charity, unable to settle down to any profession until he joined the German army during World War I. Hitler served with some distinction in a low rank and felt great personal bitterness over Germany’s defeat. He used his extraordinary ability to stir the emotions of crowds to gain power; his rhetoric about the greatness of the German Empire hit a nerve with people who desperately needed decisive leadership. Hitler believed that the way to win the support of the voters was to use simple slogans and propaganda to appeal to their national pride, their emotions, and their prejudices. He had no experience of government or politics, nor the skill or the desire to present logically thought-out social programs. Because of this, the established German political parties made the great mistake of underestimating him and his mass appeal.
In 1930, the Nazis won a large number of seats in the Reichstag (the German parliament). Hitler never looked back from this success. He and his closest followers now carried out a campaign of intimidation that brought him quickly to the top position in the German government. By 1932, the Nazis had become the most powerful party in Germany. In 1933, Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany. It was not long before he exchanged this democratic title for the imperial title “Führer (Leader) of the Third Reich.” With the eager collaboration of the majority of Germans, this foreign nobody had made himself an absolute dictator whose orders could not be questioned by anyone.
One of Hitler’s first acts was to establish one-party rule by the Nazis. His close associate Heinrich Himmler soon created the Gestapo, a secret state police force responsible only to the führer. Hitler also had the SS (Schutzstaffel, or “Protection Squadron”), a rogue militia like Mussolini’s Blackshirts, at his command. These two organizations promptly and efficiently carried out many of the orders—executions and other acts of brutal violence against Ger- man citizens—that have cemented Hitler’s reputation as the greatest villain in modern European history.
Hitler soon made it evident that he espoused two of the most common aspects of fascism: expansionism and racism. In Hitler’s case, the two impulses were linked. He considered that Germans and other northern European nationalities, such as Scandinavians and British, were racially superior, while Slavs and southern Europeans were inferior. Territorial expansion would provide living space for the Aryans (his term for the racially superior) while at the same time subduing the Untermenschen (literally “subhumans,” or inferior races). His persecution of the Jews was the most obvious manifestation of his prejudices. Under Hitler’s rule, German Jews were soon stripped of all civil rights, deprived of their professions, and forced into menial jobs. Later, conditions would become much worse for them (see Chapter 18). Historians estimate that perhaps one-fourth of all German Jews fled the country in the early 1930s.
Although the mass of the population had confidence in Hitler’s leadership, thousands of Germans considered him a demagogue and a madman and were dismayed and appalled by his lightning rise to absolute power. Tight censorship of the press and the arts made it clear that Germany simply was not a safe place to live for those who were not committed to the Nazi ideology. Many German intellectuals, artists, journalists, and teachers packed up and left the country, hoping that Hitler would soon fall.
In order to expand, Germany needed to rearm. In 1933, Hitler withdrew Germany from the League of Nations, and the country began to rearm despite the ban contained in the Versailles Treaty. Rearming increased considerably in 1936, as Hitler made it clear that he expected Germany to be ready to launch a war of aggression by 1940.
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