The most ominous development after World War I and one of the primary causes of World War II was the rise of Adolph Hitler in Germany. The Treaty of Versailles helped lead to this in five ways. First, there was the common belief that Germany had been betrayed, since the Armistice had been signed before allied troops had reached German soil. Germans, looking for scapegoats, blamed bankers, Catholics, and especially the Jews. Second, the Treaty of Versailles angered the German people and destabilized Germany both economically and politically. Third, the Weimar Republic, which succeeded the Kaiser’s monarchy, was moderate, but weak, and thus let matters get out of hand. Fourth, the German economy’s over-dependence on American loans caused it to collapse with the Stock Market Crash in 1929. Finally, the Depression, especially with the renewed raising of tariffs, created tense international relations. All these provided the conditions for Hitler to seize power.
Adolph Hitler was born in 1889 in Braunau, Austria. His early ambition was to be an artist, but he failed to gain entrance into Vienna’s main art academy. Drawing upon strong anti-Semitic sentiments already in Vienna, Hitler blamed the Jews for conspiring to keep him out. He got by as an artist for soap and deodorant ads, having few expenses, since he was neither married, drank alcohol, or smoked. In 1913, having failed to get into the Austrian army, he crossed into Germany. Then came World War I.
Hitler served in the German army with distinction, was wounded twice (once by poison gas) and decorated for bravery. Being a loner, he actually enjoyed the war and the comradeship of the army, since it gave him a sense of belonging. Therefore, he felt especially disappointed and betrayed when Germany surrendered in November 1918. The Treaty of Versailles the next year merely added to this bitterness. Not surprisingly, he conveniently blamed the Jews for Germany’s plight.
After the war, Hitler served as a reservist, spying on political parties to make sure they did not add to the chaos then besetting Germany. One such party was the National Socialist, or Nazi, Party. This right wing group attracted Hitler with its racist ideas about a master Aryan race and the so-called “inferior” races, such as the Slavs and especially the Jews who must be destroyed. Hitler became the Nazis’ seventh member and soon afterwards its leader. He also found a new talent, speech making, which attracted large audiences and funds to the new party’s treasury.
As disturbing as the Nazi ideas were, they were nothing new or original to European culture. Persecution and hatred of the Jews went back to the Middle Ages where they were often resented as moneylenders, accused of such things as the execution of Christ and conspiring with the Devil to cause the Black Death, and subjected to expulsion from their homelands and at times even massacres. Even such a revered figure as Martin Luther said the Jews should be deprived of their property and that:
“…their synagogues or schools be set on fire, that their houses be broken up and destroyed…and they be put under a roof or stable, like the Gypsies… in misery and captivity as they incessantly lament and complain to God about us.”
The idea of an Aryan super-race was also rooted in German philosophy, in particular Freidrich Neitzsche, whose idea of a new superior type of human (“ubermensch”) was easily taken out of context and narrowly applied by the Nazis to the German people:
“A daring and ruler race is building itself up…The aim should be to prepare a transvaluation of values for a particularly strong kind of man, most highly gifted in intellect & will. This man and the elite around him will become the ‘lords of the earth’” — The Will to Power
Ordinarily, such ideas would have little appeal in normal prosperous times. However, conditions in Germany after World War I were anything but normal or prosperous. Political strife rocked the country as extremists from both the right and left. Notably the Communists, fought for power. Another problem came as the government printed vast amounts of money to support a strike against occupying French troops trying to force Germany to pay its huge indemnity. However, Germany’s inability to back up its currency led to a wildly uncontrolled cycle of inflation. As a result, a single turnip would cost 50 million marks and people literally burned money for fuel, carted it around in wheelbarrows, and shoveled it out of bank vaults.
Given these conditions, it is hardly surprising that many Germans were drawn to the idea of themselves as a super-race that had been treacherously betrayed by “inferior” enemies from within and without. Therefore membership in the Nazi party grew rapidly in the early 1920s, prompting Hitler to try to overthrow the government in 1923. His Putsch, as it was called, was a total disaster, but the resulting trial earned Hitler a good deal of publicity as a national hero defending German honor against domestic violence and foreign humiliation. While in prison for nine months, he wrote Mein Kampf (“My Struggle”), which outlined his political beliefs and strategies for seizing power.
While its racist ideas were just rehashed versions of older ideas, Mein Kampfdid provide a blueprint for modern politics through the use of radio, posters, mass rallies, lies, and catchy slogans which appealed to the emotions without really telling anything of substance in order to manipulate the political process. Nazism was a negative philosophy that thrived on Germany’s miseries. However, by the mid 1920’s, the illusion of prosperity and the apparently fading hostility toward Germany caused Nazi membership to stagnate.
All that changed in the 1930’s, as other two effects of World War I created conditions favoring the Nazis. For one thing, the Depression with its higher tariffs raised international tensions, which Hitler could exploit to gain popularity. Also, the war had created an unstable economy that was overly dependent on financial support from the United States. Therefore, the stock market crash in 1929 dragged Germany down with the American economy. By 1932, six million Germans were unemployed, which played right into Hitler’s hands. This time he would use the democratic process to gain power and then use that very democratic process to destroy itself.
The Nazis reacted to these conditions in two ways. First, Nazi thugs, known as Brownshirts in imitation of Mussolini’s Blackshirts, started riots with opposing groups, especially Communists, while blaming them for the disorder, embarrassing the government for failing to keep order and portraying themselves as the defenders of the peace. Second, they bolstered their popularity with free food and festivals, making them look like nice concerned Germans, and by staging huge mass rallies to display their popular support.
In late 1932, rich German industrialists, prompted by fear of a Communist takeover, pressured the government to make Hitler chancellor (prime minister), hoping they could control him while he contained the Communists. Little did they suspect that this was just the beginning for Hitler.
From chancellor to dictator (1933-38)
Once in power, Hitler worked to increase his own power and German national pride in three ways: destroy any possible rivals to his position, rearm Germany, and launch a campaign of violence against the Jews. In the months following his becoming chancellor, he skillfully used his government powers, propaganda, lies, and brute force to divide his enemies and then destroy them one by one. Needing a majority in the Reichstag (German parliament), Hitler immediately called for new elections, hoping his new position as chancellor would win the Nazis more seats. In order to scare people into supporting them, the Nazis burned the Reichstag building and blamed the Communists. The resulting hysteria allowed Hitler to suspend civil rights and arrest the Communist leaders, thus gaining the Nazis more seats in the Reichstag.
Now it was time to eliminate the Reichstagand the democratic process along with it. Hitler planned to do this by passing the Enabling Act, which would give him legislative and executive power for four years, plenty of time to get a stranglehold on power in Germany. With the Brownshirts outside threatening violence, the law easily passed, giving Hitler the legal framework in which to establish a dictatorship.
In the following months, Hitler used a combination of threats to opposing leaders, alluring promises to their followers, and brute force to eliminate his enemies. One by one they fell: the Social Democrats (with a strong labor backing), the Catholic Center Party, and the German Nationalists (ultra-conservatives who were forced to merge with the Nazi Party). Next came the press and universities, institutions with many educated people who saw through Hitler’s lies and might be able to mobilize public opinion against him. In each case, Hitler formed a comprehensive national association that all members of that profession were required to join if they were to keep working. Of course, Nazi officials headed these new organizations, which gradually strangled freedom of speech and thought in Germany.
With Germany firmly under his heel, Hitler moved to gain firm control of his own party. His main rival, Ernst Rohm, was the head of the powerful Brownshirts, the para-military gang of thugs the Nazis used for violence and intimidation. Many army officers and industrialists feared Hitler would replace the army with the Brownshirts, while Hitler himself feared Rohm’s power. Therefore, he won the support of the army and industrialists while serving his own interests by having Rohm and his associates murdered in the so-called “Night of the Long Knives.” (It is widely believed that Hitler himself pulled the trigger in Rohm’s murder.) The Brownshirts were dissolved and replaced by the much more efficient and deadly black-shirted Storm Troopers, commonly known as the Schutzstaffel or SS. From now on they would be the main agents of the Nazi Terror.
In August, 1934, President Hindenburg, symbol of the old Prussian order with which Hitler had been careful to associate himself, died. To symbolize the dawn of a revolutionary new order and the 1000-year reign of the Third Reich, Hitler demanded a loyalty oath from the army, not to Germany, but to himself. From now on Germany was to be Hitler, and Hitler was to be Germany.
The growing darkness
Hitler’s second goal was the rearmament of Germany. He did this through a massive arms build-up (in direct defiance of the Treaty of Versailles) and public works projects (such as highways for moving armies from front to front). At least in the short run this did provide jobs and prosperity and restore pride in Germany. However, in order to fund all this, the Government budget grew seven times from 1932 to 1938, with 74% of that budget for the military. This put a growing strain on the German economy, which helped lead to German aggression and World War II.
Finally, Hitler attacked the Jews, whom he imagined had kept him out of art school and betrayed Germany in the war. His Nuremberg Laws in 1935 subjected Jews to an ever-growing number of restrictions and acts of violence. The climax of this stage of persecution was the Kristallnacht, or Crystal Night (11/9-10/38), named after the shattered windows of Jewish merchants’ shops that were looted that night. Using an incident in Paris between a Jew and German diplomat, the Nazis instigated this wave of violence against Jews across Germany. Nazi-led gangs looted Jewish owned shops, brutally beat their owners, and then rounded them up for the growing number of concentration camps springing up in Germany.
Many Jews, including Albert Einstein, left Germany, costing it many of its brightest minds. The horror stories they took with them led to growing fears of Nazi aggression and eventually World War II. They also took with them talents that the Nazis could have used but claimed were part of a worldwide plot to pollute science and destroy civilization. Einstein’s theory of Relativity was especially singled out by one Nazi writer as being:
“directed from beginning to end toward the goal of transforming the living — that is the non-Jewish– world of living essence, born from mother earth and bound up with blood, and bewitching it into spectral abstraction in which all individual differences of peoples and nations, and all inner limits of the races, are lost in unreality, and in which only an unsubstantial diversity of geometric dimensions survive which produces all events out of the compulsion of its godless subjection to laws.”
Wilhelm Mueller, in his book, Jewry and Science, claimed the worldwide acclaim given to Einstein for his theories was really only rejoicing over “the approach of Jewish world rule which was to force down German manhood irrevocably and eternally to the level of the lifeless slave.”
“…the Jew conspicuously lacks understanding for the truth…being in this respect in contrast to the Aryan research scientist with his careful and serious will to truth…Jewish physics is thus a phantom and a phenomenon of degeneration of fundamental German physics.” — Nazi, Prof. Philipp Lenard
From 1905 to 1931, ten German Jews won Nobel Prizes in science. Hitler would kill six million more.
Why did Germany go along with this madness? A combination of factors gives at least a partial answer. First, Hitler was a master of dividing and attacking his enemies one by one. He would win over people with tempting promises while eliminating their, leaving them helpless before him. He also effectively used lies and propaganda to deceive the public and turn them against helpless scapegoats, such as the Jews, making people relieved they were not under attack at that time and not seeing what was happening until it was too late to save themselves. Finally, Hitler’s programs did restore national pride and relieve some of the Depression’s misery. Little did they realize the price they and the world would have to pay for this temporary bit of comfort.