Hitler and National Socialism
Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist German Workerís Party (in German, Nationalzocialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei) are historically tied so closely together that it is hard to imagine that each developed independent of the other. Each was a product of their time: dissatisfaction with Germanyís treatment at Versailles and a reactionary fear of Communism. In tandem, Hitler and the NSDAP created a ruthless totalitarian regime which shook Europe to its core and amazed the entire world by the depth of its terror and cruelty.
Hitler was born in Braunau am Inn, a small town in Austria. His father was a customs official who believed that stern discipline was the key to keeping a family together. His mother, who had previously been the nurse of his fatherís first wife and also his mistress, was indulgent to the point of spoiling him. Hitler never lost his affection for his mother. He made special arrangements to see that the Jewish doctor who cared for her during her last illness (she died of breast cancer) was spared any discrimination or persecution, and kept her picture on his desk through his last moments in the Fuhrerbunker. He was a good student in school, but dropped out at age fourteen after the death of his father, when he moved to Vienna in hopes of attending that cityís famous art institute. He was denied admission and the director rather tactfully suggested that Hitlerís talents lay in architecture, since most of his drawings were of buildings. Rather than take the hint, Hitler swallowed every word, and threw himself into planning for a career as an architect. His second attempt to enter the school were also rejected, and he spent the next several years roaming the streets of Vienna, painting postcards which he sold and living off the inheritance he had received from his father.
Like many young men, Hitler was attracted to pornographic literature, particularly a magazine known as Ostara, which contained anti-Semitic overtones. He was also fascinated by Wild West books about an American cowboy named Old Shatterhand by a German writer, Karl May. He developed an intense love of the music of Richard Wagner, an intense anti-Semite and German nationalist. While in Vienna, Hitler was impressed with the cityís mayor, Karl Leuger, who was a master of mass politics. His campaign was largely anticapitalist and antiliberal, and he used propaganda masterfully. Although it is doubtful that Hitler ever met Leuger personally, but he certainly adapted his techniques. Hitler was also influenced by the extreme German nationalism of Vienna. Austro-German nationalists considered themselves to be a superior people and the natural rulers of Europe. They often advocated union with Germany and the expulsion by any necessary means of "inferior" peoples. This they saw as the only method by which they might maintain their domination within the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
It should be remembered that Austria-Hungary was comprised of a number of nationalities before the Empire collapsed at the end of World War I. Interestingly Joseph Stalin was in Vienna at the same time as Hitler. Although it is remotely possible that the two may have brushed shoulders, they never met formally.
Hitler soon developed a virulent hatred of Jews and Slavs, and became the penultimate Social Darwinist. He often stressed his belief in the superiority of the "Aryan" race and the inevitability of racial conflict. Anti-Semitism and racism became his most passionate conviction and his explanation for everything. Influenced by a polemical book, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which claimed to have discovered a Jewish plot to overtake Europe, Hitler claimed that the Jews had directed an international conspiracy of finance capitalism and Marxist socialism against German culture, German unity and the German race. Even though his thinking was completely irrational, he never doubted his conclusions for a moment.
When his inheritance and orphanís pension ran out, Hitler became homeless. He often slept on park benches, surviving on the few postcards he was able to paint and sell, and at times was forced to live in a shelter for homeless men. While there, he was often prone to break out into intemperate speeches against Jews and Marxists. He moved to Munich in 1913 to avoid being drafted into the Austrian army; however he greeted the outbreak of World War I as the salvation of the German people, and the means by which they would earn their rightful place of domination. In Mein Kampf, he wrote of the occasion, "I fell to my knees and thanked heaven out of an overflowing heart."
During the war, Hitler served as a runner, and was wounded by a mustard gas attack. The attack left him blinded for several weeks, after which he received the German Iron Cross medal for valor, and was promoted to the rank of Corporal, the highest military rank he would ever achieve. (Hitler is often portrayed in military uniform. In fact, he only put on the uniform at the outbreak of World War II as a means of supporting and identifying with German troops. He promised the troops he would not remove his uniform until they were able to remove theirs.) Hitlerís dream was shattered with the surrender of Germany in 1918. He was not alone. Because German troops were still occupying positions on foreign soil and no foreign troops had landed on German soil, many nationalistic Germans felt that the Berlin government had delivered a "stab in the back" to the German military. Hitler carried it a step further, insisting that the stab had been delivered by Jews and Marxists. The insurrections led by Rosa Luxemburg, a Jew and Communist, no doubt lent itself to his argument.
After the war, Hitler had nowhere to go, so he remained attached to his army regiment and lived in a barracks. He was often assigned the duty of attending political meetings as a spy. He was assigned the duty of spying on the German Workerís party, an extremist group which railed against Jews, Marxists and Democrats, and promised unity under a form of uniquely German "national socialism." They planned to abolish the injustices of capitalism and create a mighty "peopleís community." Although Hitler was supposed to observe, he succumbed to one of his famous tirades which endeared him to the party members. By 1921, he was the party leader.
Hitlerís greatest talent was the mastery of mass rallies when he often worked his audiences into a frenzy with wild attacks on the Versailles Treaty, Jews, and the Weimar Republic which governed Germany. National Socialist Rallies often featured free beer and fireworks, and fiery speeches about the superiority of the German people. Hecklers were common in German politics, and Hitler always had thugs available to beat them up, which also delighted his audiences. Under Hitlerís leadership, party membership increased 1000% after 1922. In 1923, the Weimar Republic seemed on the verge of collapse and, inspired my Mussoliniís success in Italy, Hitler decided the time was right to seize the state government of Munich, after which his "revolution" would spread all over Germany.
This was the infamous Beer Hall Putsch, in which a National Socialist rally turned into a march on the government, similar to Mussoliniís "march on Rome." The march only made it a few blocks before it was met by armed police. Several people were killed, including the marcher beside Hitler. The man had his arm in Hitlerís and fell so quickly that Hitler did not have time to disengage his arm and dislocated his shoulder. Hitler and those who joined him were tried for treason. He turned his trial into a circus with long diatribes about the failure of the republic, which gained him tremendous publicity. He was sentenced to ten years in jail, but served less than one year.
Hitlerís Road to Power:Hitler was nobodyís fool. He learned from the failed Putsch that he must take over the government by legal rather than revolutionary means. While in prison, he dictated his political testament, Mein Kampf ("My Struggle") to his cell mate. It consists of rants and raves, is disorganized and at times borders on obscene, but stresses Hitlerís basic ideas of the superiority of the Aryan race, virulent anti-Semitism, and the need of the German people for Lebensraum ("breathing space".) He also spoke of the need for a FŁhrer (leader) with unlimited power.
Between 1924 and 1929, Hitler concentrated on building up the National Socialist Party. (The party members referred to themselves as National Socialists; the term "Nazi" was a pejorative term that came about later.) By 1928 the party had 100,000 members with Hitler in absolute control. Hitler did not emphasize the anti-capitalist elements of the party, but rather vowed to fight Communism in order to appeal to the German public. Even so, they did not generate great public support. In 1928, the Naziís received only 2.6 per cent of the popular vote and twelve seats in the Reichstag. However, the onset of the Great Depression presented Hitler with another opportunity.
During the Depression, unemployment climbed from 1.3 million in 1929 to 5 million in 1930. Germany had almost as many unemployed workers as the rest of Europe combined. Industrial production fell by half, and by 1932, 43 percent of the labor force was unemployed. Hitler had never been interested in economics; but this was too good an opportunity to pass up, so he began promising German workers economic help as well as political and international salvation. Hitler rejected free market capitalism and advocated government programs to bring recovery. Nazi economic writers promised to create a "third path" between centralized state planning and laissez-faire capitalism. Hitler aimed his speeches at the middle classes and, as panic and bankruptcies increased and the communists began making headway, people voted with their wallets, and voted for the Nazis. In the 1930 election, they gained 107 seats in the Reichstag, which made them the second largest party. Nazi deputies used every opportunity to disrupt Reichstag proceedings, and blamed the majority Social Democrats for Germanyís economic woes. By 1932, the Naziís became the largest party in the Reichstag.
Several factors led to Hitlerís rise to power:
Hitler had played down his anti-Semitism and racist nationalism in the years in which the party was gaining strength. He had written in Mein Kampf that the people were "the driving force of the most important changes in the world," and were easily driven by fanaticism rather than knowledge. He believed that the way to arouse that fanaticism was through a few simple slogans which were repeated endlessly. When he harangued his audiences with these slogans, such as "One people, one nation, one leader," he spoke often of "national rebirth" and the "crimes" of the Versailles treaty. Hitlerís oratory offered many suffering Germans the hope of a better tomorrow.
Hitler also appealed to the youth of Germany, as he himself was only forty, and most Nazi leaders were young men. The official Nazi slogan of Gregor Strasser, a party organizer, was "make way, you old ones." In 1931, almost 40 per cent of party members were under 30, compared with 20% of the Social Democrats.
Hitler was also aided by the breakdown of normal democratic government. Chancellor Heinrich Bruning, unable to gain majority support from the Reichstag, had convinced the Weimar Republic President, General Hindenburg, to exercise the "Emergency Powers" clause of the constitution, which allowed him to rule by decree for a limited time period. Bruning hoped to use this power to cut back government spending and force down prices and wages. Sadly, his policies intensified the economic collapse of Germany and convinced many voters that the countryís leaders were stupid and corrupt. This added to Hitlerís appeal.
Hitler benefited from the struggle between the Social Democrats and the Communists. The Communists refused to cooperate with the Social Democrats even though the two parties together outnumbered the Nazis in the Reichstag, even after the 1932 elections. German Communists were blinded by the hatred of socialists and by the belief that Hitlerís fascist ideas represented the last throes of capitalism and a communist revolution would soon follow. Social Democratic leaders pleaded with the Communists for a temporary alliance to stop Hitler, at one point even posing their pleas at the Soviet Embassy, but there was no use. This lack of cooperation was exacerbated by a fire which destroyed the Reichstag. The fire was blamed on a young Communist radical who was subsequently guillotined. There was substantial thinking among historians for many years that the Naziís had started the fire to intensify the dispute with the Communists; however recent historical evidence indicates that the young man was indeed a Communist agent intent on bringing down the government by any possible means. Ironically, his actions played into the hands of Hitler.
Hitler was an expert in dirty backroom politics. He gained the support of people in the army and big business, who thought that use him to their own advantage. Conservative and nationalistic politicians also thought that they could use him. Thus, when Hitler demanded that he be named Chancellor as a condition of joining the government, they accepted his demand. On January 30, 1933, President Hindenburg named Hitler as Chancellor.
The Nazi State and Society:The Reichstag fire, after a particularly raucous election, played easily into Hitlerís hands. He used the fire to persuade President Hindenburg to invoke the Emergency Powers provision of the Constitution, which allowed rule by decree. Emergency acts were passed which practically abolished freedom of speech and assembly as well as most personal liberties. When the Naziís won only 44 per cent of the Reichstag seats Hitler outlawed the communist party and had its representatives in the Reichstag arrested. On March 23, 1933, the Reichstag passed the Enabling Act which gave Hitler absolute dictatorial power for four years. Under the guise of legality, the Naziís slowly dismantled the opposition, and Germany was soon a one party state in which only the National Socialist Party was legal. Elections were farces. One commentator remarked that the Reichstag was the most expensive glee club in the country, as its only function was to sing Hitlerís praises. Hitler did not dismantle the government structure, but appointed Nazis to top positions and created a number of overlapping party positions which answered directly and only to Hitler.
Labor unions were abolished and strikes outlawed; all workers were joined together in the National Socialist Labor Front. Doctors, lawyers, and other professionals were also forced into National Socialist organizations. Publishing houses were put under Nazi control, and literature by Jewish authors or advocating democracy or socialism were banned. Forbidden books were often burned in public squares by passionate students who swallowed Hitlerís propaganda wholesale. Modern art and architecture were prohibited, and life became "violently anti-intellectual." Said Joseph Goebbels, a failed intellectual who himself held a Ph.D. and preferred to be addressed as "Dr. Goebbels," "When I hear the word Ďcultureí I reach for my gun."
Only the German army remained independent, and Hitler quickly moved to establish control over it. Big business and the army were suspicious of the Nazi Storm Troopers, the Sturmabteilung, commonly known as the SA. The SA were over three million thugs who had fought communists, beat up Jews, and wreaked havoc in the days before the party was in control. They were known by their brown shirts, and were among Hitlerís staunchest supporters in the early days. The leader of the SA was Ernst RŲhm, who was very close to Hitler, and who was the only person to address him informally. Aside from his credentials as a career soldier, RŲhm was a notorious homosexual who often visited all male spas. Many early SA members were also homosexual. The SA had expected top positions in the Army when the party took control, and had spoken openly about a second revolution, this time against capitalism. Hitler saw the SA as a threat to his rule, and decided to eliminate them.
On June 30, 1934, Hitlerís personal guard, the Schutzstaffel, or "protective force," commonly known as the SS, swooped down on SA leaders in the middle of the night. The attack became known as the "night of the long knives." One leader was found in bed with his chauffer, a young man of nineteen. Hitler was appalled, and shouted, "you are all pigs." Many were shot on the spot. RŲhm, Hitlerís friend, was carried into a separate room, still groggy from sleep, and handed a pistol. He was told he had five minutes to use it. The SS returned five minutes later, found RŲhm still staring at the pistol, picked it up and shot him in the head. His last words as he fell to the floor were "My FŁhrer! My FŁhrer!"
RŲhm had previously left Germany because rumors of his sexual orientation threatened his army career. He traveled to Bolivia where he worked as a security guard to protect gold and silver shipments from bandits. After Hitler took control, he returned to Germany, believing that his friend would lead the revolution which he supported. In fact, he was more interested in the fighting than the results. His decision to return was a fatal one.
Following the night of the long knives, Hitlerís propagandists, led by Dr. Goebbels, spread malicious rumors about SA conspiracies, and all army leaders were required to swear a binding oath of "unquestioned obedienceÖto the Leader of the German State and People, Adolf Hitler." Note that the oath was not to the German nation but was to Hitler personally. Under the leadership of Heinrich Himmler, a former chicken farmer who was been described as "methodically inhuman," the SS grew. It soon joined with the Geheime Staatspolizei, ("Secret State Police") also known as the Gestapo. Together, the two under Himmlerís leadership established special courts and concentration camps. It was Himmler who oversaw the mass extermination of Jews, Slavs, Gypsies, Political Prisoners, and homosexuals in the Nazi Concentration camps.
Jews were a special object of Nazi persecution. By the end of 1934, most Jewish doctors, lawyers, doctors, professors, civil servants and musicians had lost the right to practice their trade. In 1935, the Nuremberg Laws classified anyone with one or more Jewish grandparents as Jewish, and deprived all Jews of citizenship. Scores of Jews left the country, sacrificing everything in order to leave Germany. They were the fortunate ones. After the assassination of a German diplomat in Paris by a young Jewish boy who was trying to strike out at persecution, a well organized night of violence and vandalism erupted, known as Krystallnacht, ("Crystal Night," or "the night of broken glass.") Windows were smashed, shops looted, homes and synagogues destroyed. German Jews were arrested and made to pay for the damage. Although many Germans were opposed to Nazi outrages against Jews, most either went along or looked the other way.
For a chilling first person account of life for a Jew in Nazi Germany, read The Fountain at the Crossroads which is linked to the AP European History page. The author was Gatesí personal friend for many years and he was able to describe the obscenity of it all only in the last few years of his life. It is strongly recommended reading for anyone curious about the Holocaust.
Hitlerís Popularity:Hitler launched a gigantic public works program to pull Germany out of the Depression. He began work on office buildings, sports stadiums and public housing. Among his more lasting accomplishments were the famous German superhighway system, the Autobahn, and the automobile that everyone could afford, the "peopleís car;" in German the Volkswagen. He appointed Hjalmar Schact as Germanyís central banker, and the latter managed to restore credit and improve business; however Hitler broke with him in 1936 and directed the economy toward rearmament and preparation for war, in clear violation of the Treaty of Versailles. His policies (and a little good luck to boot) dropped unemployment quickly. By 1938, there was a shortage of workers as unemployment fell to two per cent. The standard of living for most workers increased moderately and business profits rose sharply. To millions of Germans, the economic recovery was tangible evidence that the National Socialists promises were not just propaganda.
The National Socialist government provided greater equality and more opportunities for "real" Germans that is those who were not Jews, Slavs, Gypsies, Jehovahís Witnesses, communists, or homosexuals. The previously strong social barriers between rich and poor were relaxed, and National Socialist elite often included young and poorly educated dropouts, just like Hitler himself.
Modern historians tend to doubt that Hitler brought about a real social revolution. Although many people believed that Germany was becoming more open and equal, the well educated classes held most of their advantages and the poor and lower middle class made little progress. The Nazis shared with the Italian fascists the view of women as housewives and mothers, and only changed course when women were needed for work in factories and offices.
Since the wars against Napoleon, many Germans had believed they were a superior people with a superior mission. Bismarckís success had furthered that feeling, and the near victory in World War I had made German nationalists eager to expand the country. Hitlerís rabid nationalism played well to these people. When he began his campaign for lebensraum, and initially seemed to meet success after success, the German people were delighted.
Still, Hitler had his opponents. Thousands of political enemies were executed while tens of thousands of others were imprisoned. They did not succeed because they had o common goal. The first to resist his rule were the communists and socialists in the trade unions. Their opposition was smashed when the SS expanded its role. Catholic and Protestant Churches also opposed Hitler, but their efforts were primarily aimed at preserving religious life, not overthrowing Hitler. Even so, they were often the subject of persecution. Hitler himself had been baptized a Catholic, but historical evidence indicates that, once his campaign against the Jews was complete, his next target was the church.
Among those persecuted by Hitler was the German Lutheran theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who wrote chilling lines: "When they came for the Jews, I said nothing, because I wasnít a Jew. When they came for the Catholics, I said nothing, because I was not a Catholic. When they came for the Communists, I said nothing, because I was not a communist. Then when they came for me, there was no one left to say anything."
Several attempts were made on Hitlerís life, but all failed. In one attempt, a bomb was planted behind the podium in the beer hall where the famous Putsch had taken place. Hitler was to deliver a speech on its anniversary. Although Hitler normally spoke for two hours, he cut short his remarks and the bomb exploded after he left. Another plot involved a suicide attacker who attempted to get close enough to Hitler to set off an explosion. However, each time he got close enough, Hitlerís attention was diverted elsewhere.
The most serious attempt (which almost succeeded) was on July 20, 1944 at Hitlerís headquarters known as the Wolfís Lair. A group of army officers had determined that Germany could not win the war and the only way to achieve an honorable peace was to get rid of Hitler. Col. Klaus von Stauffenberg was to carry a brief case containing a bomb and place it next to Hitlerís chair in the conference room. Von Stauffenberg had been an Olympic athlete and war hero who had lost an arm, an eye, and the fingers from his remaining hand to shrapnel. After placing the bomb, Von Stauffenberg said he needed to make a phone call and left. What he could not know was that when Hitler sat at the table, another officer moved the briefcase to the far side of the heavy table support. When the bomb exploded, the officer sitting next to it and four others were killed, and the room destroyed. Hitler received only minor injuries. The table itself saved his life, as it absorbed most of the blast. Von Stauffenberg saw a body carried from the building and assumed it was Hitlerís and notified his co-conspirators in Berlin to seize Army headquarters, which they did. The cunning Hitler knew there was a plot, and telephoned Dr. Goebbels from his bedroom where a direct line was connected. By the time Von Stauffenberg returned to Berlin, all the plot leaders had been arrested. He was taken from his car, lined up against a wall and shot along with several others. Hundreds more were arrested by the Gestapo. Many were subjected to a cruel death, tied to meat hooks with piano wire around their necks which would cut them if they relaxed. Their dancing agony was filmed and later shown at Nazi dinner parties for entertainment.