Adolf Hitler is universally known as
being the dictator of one of the most prejudiced, cruel, and violent political
regimes in history: Nazi Germany. During a time of humiliation and depletion of
national pride, Hitler and the Nazi party were able to rise up, oust the Ally-supported
democratic Weimar Republic, expand the German empire, and commit one of the
world’s deadliest and most horrifying human rights atrocities. The conditions
in Germany were just right for an extreme-right totalitarian regime to rise to
power. The defeated German state was humiliated at the conclusion of World War
I by the Allied powers, which lead to a heavy economic downturn due to the
expensive reparations placed on the German state to make up for the cost of the
war. Anti-Semitism, prejudice towards Jews, had long been a part of European
history, therefore making the Jewish population in Germany the scapegoat on which
to blame German woes and target German anger. The charismatic Hitler used his
radical ideas and passionate speeches to feed the angry crowds and exploit
their fears. This allowed for the Nazi party to manipulate German citizens into
turning a blind eye to injustice in the pursuit of protecting their safety,
regaining their pride, and rebuilding their nation. Many scholars believe that
economic and social factors lead to the rise of Nazism. While these two factors
are important, the rise of Nazism was due to a perfect combination of
political, social, and economic turmoil. These elements combined allowed for
one of the greatest examples in history of how truly fragile democracy can be in
the face of extreme social and economic adversity and how it can give rise to an
overarching totalitarian regime.
European Society’s History
of Deeply Embedded Anti-Semitism:
Prior to 1948, the Jewish population
didn’t have their own nation state. Large Jewish populations were scattered all
over Europe, but were often viewed as unwanted immigrants by native non-Jewish
communities in many different countries. The history of anti-Semitism
extends well beyond the persecution of the Jewish population during ancient
civilizations, most notably being the heavy persecution brought on during the
reign of the Roman Empire. Tensions between Christianity and Judaism have long
existed within Europe’s boarders. While Anti-Semitism had long been prevalent
in most western European countries, during the early 1900’s, this sense of
anti-Semitism was heightenedi.
In Germany, specifically, the need to increase nationalism and improve squalid
conditions allowed for the Germans to easily place the defeat of World War I
and economic crisis on the Jewish population. The Jewish population had been a
source of economic tension. The Nazis used well-established Jewish people that
were involved in commercial and political arena to compare the German
misfortune to the Jewish “wealthy” condition.ii
Anti-Semitism had permeated European
society for centuries, therefore, Hitler and the Nazi Party were able to use
this predisposition to their advantage. Hitler’s speeches were able to rally
the crowds and placed further implanted the idea of blaming Germany’s
misfortune on the Jewish population. Having a scapegoat take on the blame
allowed Germany to rebuild and move forward. Hitler was an enabler for the
German people, exploiting their fears of the impending economic doom and
humiliation on the national stage to create the “final solution” that would
send millions of Jewish people to their final resting place.
Germany Post World War I:
At the conclusion of World War I,
Germany was humiliated by the Allied Powers. The loss brought on
punitive actions that affected Germany territorially, militarily, and
economically. The Treaty of Versailles sought to redraw the lines of the German
boarders, demilitarize Germany, assign responsibilities for reparations, and
set up the democratic Weimar Republic. Economically, the German mark was
experiencing hyperinflation throughout the 1920’s. Many images can be found of
German citizens pushing around wheel barrows of money to purchase daily
necessities such as milk and bread. It was obvious that “…the strain of war finance told heavily upon the German
economy during and after the war.”iii
The defeated soldiers returned home to “…high rates of unemployment, deficient
labor skills, and poor health…”iv
The loss of national pride combined with the post-war economic crisis added to
the plight of the young German citizens, thus “the alienation of young workers
from the republic, moreover, facilitated the Nazi seizure of power.”v
The political side of the turmoil
dealt specifically with the internal factions looking to manipulate politics
within the government. The Weimar Republic was the semi-presidential, democratic
government system set up by the Allied Powers to prevent Germany from acting aggressively.
At the beginning of the Weimer Republic Era, 1918-1933, the Nazi Party was
beginning to slowly work its way to the top of the government. Specifically,
Hitler’s popularity allowed him to move through the ranks. First raising his station
to the top of the Nazi Party before eventually politicking his way to the top
of the government and then becoming Chancellor of the Weimar Republic under
President Hindenburg in 1933. Hitler expanded the powers of the Chancellor making
it far more important than an administrative head of parliament. During 1933,
elections were scheduled to occur in March, however, the Reichstag building
caught on fire the month before elections were set to take place.vi
The incident was assumed to be a part of a communist plot and caused a sense of
panic about a potential communist uprising.vii
The fire prompted Hindenburg, with some urging from Hitler, to respond with the
Reichstag Fire Decree, which gave the president emergency powers to more
efficiently protect safety and order. While there was speculation that this
incident was a communist plot, possibly facilitated by Hitler’s supporters, it allowed for the fascist Nazi Party to be
propelled to the top of command.viii
It was evident that the “Weimar democracy was burdened not only with the memory
of a mythic prewar golden age but with a mythic reconstruction of the war that
placed equally unrealistic demands on the republic,”ix
which lead to its ultimate demise. The transition of power was made final
during Hitler’s placement as Führer of Germany in 1934, which allowed for the
creation of the fascist state that was known as Nazi Germany.
Adolf Hitler contributed heavily to
the rise of the Nazi Party. Hitler was an enabler for the German people. As
previously mentioned, anti-Semitic feelings were already prevalent in European
society. While non-Jewish communities were not outright harassing and committing
violent actions toward the Jewish residing in their communities, there was
still a prevailing sense of racism. Hitler and the Nazi Party radicalized
racism and allowed it to become violent through identifying the Jewish
population as the reason why Germany was in a state of complete economic,
social, and political misfortune. The Nazi Party encouraged non-Jewish citizens
to turn in their neighbors, stop frequenting Jewish businesses, and even commit
violent acts against them. It didn’t take much manipulation on Hitler’s part to
stir the German masses.
The plight of the young German workers during
the 1920’s provided perfect rhetoric for Hitler to use during his speeches. Hitler
was an excellent public speaker. His speeches were filled with passion as he
voiced the concerns and fears of the German people. German citizens were experiencing
high unemployment rates, hyperinflation, and a failing economy forced to bear
the burden of the post-war rebuild. Morale was low due to their impoverished
conditions. They needed an outlet to help cope with the suffering they were
forced to endure—Hitler and the Nazi Party offered it. The Nazi’s sought to
regain national pride through the dismissal of the terms of the Treaty of
Versailles and an expansion of German territory.x
While the German state may not have been ready to enter another war, they
benefited economically from the territorial conquests that they plundered,
which eventually lead to Britain’s declaration of war against Germany.
The post-World War I poor economic
conditions ultimately lead to the rise of Nazism. The Nazi Party seemed to
offer national pride, glory, and designated a scapegoat for their misfortune,
which allowed them to garner public support. The German people turned a blind
eye to the great atrocity that was committed during the Holocaust because the
Nazi Party seemingly delivered on the promises made. The democratic Weimar
Republic was unable to withstand the impending economic crisis and the resulting
social unrest that was increasing with no end in sight. Democracy in Germany
appeared to be weak and ineffective in the wake of adversity. The German
citizens would support anyone that could offer a solution for their misery.
Even though a totalitarian regime would control the citizens by fear of their
safety and protection, turning to this regime promised a boost in national
pride, a way out of the economic crisis, and offered a target for anger. Hitler’s
totalitarian regime seemed to be an ideal and safe option for people looking to
protect their personal interests. The rise of Nazism can be taken as a message
of caution: “Decades later, Hitler’s rise remains a warning of how fragile
democratic institutions can be in the face of angry crowds and a leader willing
to feed their anger and exploit their fears.”xi
Democratic institutions should heed this warning that they are not invincible
in times of panic and crisis.
i William I. Brustein, Anti-Semitism in
Europe before the Holocaust, (2004) 35.
Haim Hillel, et al. Germany. Encyclopedia Judaica,
iii S.P. Chambers, Post-War German Finances,
iv Barry Eichengreen, The Origins and
Course of the German Economic Crisis, (1995) 184.
v Eichengreen, The Origins, 184.
vi Martin Broszat, The Hitler State, (1981).
vii Martin Broszat, The Hitler State, (1981).
viii Martin Broszat, The Hitler State, (1981).
ix Eichengreen, The Origins, 183.
x The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica,
Nazi Party, 2009.
xi Alex Gendler and Anthony Hazard. How
Hitler Did Hitler Rise to Power? Filmed July 2016.
Gendler and Anthony Hazard. How Hitler Did Hitler Rise to Power?. Filmed July
2016. Youtube video, 5:36. Posted July 2016 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jFICRFKtAc4
Ben-Sasson, Haim Hillel, et al, 2nd ed.,
s.v.. Germany. Detroit: Encyclopedia Judaica, 2007.
Broszat, Martin. Hitler State: The Foundation
and Development of the Internal Structure of the Third Reich. London: Longman Publishing
Brustein, William I., and
Ryan D. King. “Anti-Semitism in Europe before the Holocaust.” International Political Science Review /
Revue Internationale De Science Politique 25, no. 1 (2004): 35-53. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1601621.
S. P. “Post-War German Finances.” International Affairs (Royal Institute of
International Affairs 1944-) 24, no. 3 (1948): 364-76. doi:10.2307/3018653.
Eichengreen, Barry. The American Historical Review 100, no. 1 (1995):
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Britannica, 8th ed., s.v.. “Nazi Party.” Chicago: Encyclopedia