Hitler’s Rise to Power
One nation in crisis and a saviour
author Liviu Sadovschi, September 2016
After his unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the government of the province of Bavaria, Hitler was imprisoned. In prison, he wrote his autobiographical book Mein Kampf, ‘My Struggle’. Mein Kampf was the reference work for the entire Nazi ideology. It was the inspiration which ‘justified’ Germany’s expansion and its entire genocidal policy.

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In spite of the fact that Italy had been a victor state in World War I, the Italian political elite was dissatisfied that not all of their territorial pretensions had been fulfilled after the Treaty of Versailles. The accumulated frustrations led Italy on the path of revisionism and towards an alliance with another power which was contesting the status-quo: Nazi Germany.

Italy withdrew from the Paris Peace Conference and returned only because it was afraid of losing what it had already obtained. Furthermore, it threatened to withdraw a second time from the conference, at the point of the proposal to form a Danubian customs union. Multiple reserves concerning the Treaty of Versailles facilitated the rise of fascism.

There were many similarities between the fascist and Nazi ideologies. The only major difference was that, in its primary phase, fascism was not racist or xenophobic. Mussolini implemented racist and xenophobic politics later under pressure from Hitler.

Mussolini, leader of the fascist movement, came to power after a coup. He quickly installed a totalitarian regime, a term invented by the fascists. In his opinion, totalitarianism differed from democracy because it rested on total and unconditional popular support. The fascist leader would lead his people on ‘the road to glory’.

The fascist regime did not have good diplomatic relations with Nazi Germany from the beginning. Italy blocked Germany’s attempt to unite with Austria by creating the ‘Stresa Front’. The three Great Powers, together with Italy, tried to guarantee Austria’s independence. The deal only lasted for two months.

The fascists had to choose between the control of Austria, hotly contested by the Germans, and expansion into Africa, which was blocked by England and France. Mussolini decided to try to form a colonial empire in Africa and an alliance with Nazi Germany. From that point, fascist Italy became Hitler’s loyal ally.

In his youth, Benito Mussolini was the editor of a socialist newspaper. The First World War gave him the conviction that nationalism embodied much more force than the Marxist class battle. The fascist ideology propagated by Mussolini was nothing other than extreme nationalism.

Instead of helping Germany, fascist Italy’s military and economic weakness hindered the rise of the Wehrmacht. Hitler had to offer consistent aid to Italy during the war with Ethiopia and Greece. Mussolini’s troops, sent to the eastern front against the Soviets, once again showed up Italy’s problems.

After his unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the government of the province of Bavaria, Hitler was imprisoned. In detention, he wrote his autobiographical book Mein Kampf, ‘My Struggle’. Mein Kampf was the reference work for the entire Nazi ideology. It was the inspiration which ‘justified’ Germany’s expansion and its entire genocidal policy.

In Hitler’s opinion, liberalism and socialism were marked by enlightenment influences. These influences were nothing other than ‘Jewish ideas’. Due to this, all ideologies characteristic of the ‘weak races’ must be viewed as mortal enemies of Nazism.

For Hitler, the notion of the German people did not refer to all those born within the German borders. The leader of the Nazi party only acknowledged those belonging to the Aryan, ie nordic race, as being part of the group with a glorious destiny. It would be enough for Germans to unite in a single mind to be able to build a thousand-year Reich.

According to Hitler, the white race was superior to the yellow, and the yellow superior to the black. The Aryans were superior to the Slavs and Latinos, and these were superior to the Jews or gypsies. The Latin and Slavic peoples must be conquered, and their populations become slaves. Jews and gypsies did not deserve to be considered humans, so they would be exterminated.

The Führer, the supreme ruler, promised to bring in Germany’s Third Reich, ie Empire. The first was the Holy Roman Empire, and the second the German Empire constituted by Otto von Bismarck.

The German Reich needed Lebensraum, ‘living space’. This living space was represented by the territories to the east of Germany, populated by Slavic peoples. Historians are divided as to whether Hitler was planning the invasion of Poland and the Soviet Union as early as the time of his imprisonment. What is certain is that this ambition is found in Mein Kampf.

According to Hitler, Germany was betrayed in World War I. The main culprits were the Jews, the communists and all those wishing for the destruction of the German people. In reality, Hitler believed that Germany had a great destiny. This could only be fulfilled through the unification of the entire German people under one party, belonging to one ruler.

The Nazi ideology has also been called ‘national-socialism’. However, socialism as defined by Mein Kampf was nothing other than a nationalism which all society believed in. To be socialist meant to be able to unconditionally adopt the cause of the people to the end.

The creation of the Nazi party had highly significant consequences for the future of Germany and Europe. However, no one would have predicted that a relatively small group would come to hold absolute political power in just one decade. Even less that a then-anonymous person would be the personality that historians would write about most.

At the age of 18, Hitler tried to enrol in the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, but was rejected. He enrolled as a volunteer in the German army during World War I and was decorated for his bravery. At the end of the war, like many other German war veterans, Hitler believed that Germany could have won the war, but had been betrayed from within.

Overcome by resentments against the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, Hitler began to attend the meetings of the German Workers’ Party. Together with the rest of the German population, laborers had a very difficult time after the end of the war. Germany had lost important territories and was forced to pay considerable war damages. Hitler recognized the opportunity which had arisen and his popularity grew more and more.

Hitler soon became the leader of the German Workers’ Party and changed its name to the National Socialist German Workers’ Party. He also created a paramilitary wing of the party, called ‘Stormtroopers’. Amongst other tasks, they had the role of terrorizing socialist and communist movements.

Mussolini carried out a coup in Italy without encountering serious opposition. Hoping the situation would be repeated, Hitler tried to overthrow the government of the province of Bavaria, in the so-called ‘Beer Hall Putsch’. The operation failed, and the Nazi leader was arrested and condemned to 5 years in prison for treason. He served only nine months.

The fifth condition of the armistice signed by Germany, ending World War I, demanded the evacuation of the territory on the left-hand bank of the Rhine by German troops. The territory was to pass under the control of the Allies and the United States.

The Allied and US troops had to ensure the occupation of the main crossing points: Mayence, Koblenz, and Köln with bridgeheads from a 30km strip situated on the right-hand bank of the Rhine.

The German troops had to evacuate the territories on the left and right bank of the Rhine within 31 days of signing the armistice. The right-hand bank of the Rhine would become a neutral, demilitarized zone, while the left bank was occupied by the French. Occupation troops replaced the German troops 24 hours after the last German soldier left the Rhineland.

The military occupation of the Rhineland gave the Allied governments, especially the French, difficult and complex problems. In a few days, a territory comprising approx. 6 million people and containing well-developed industrial regions must be organized, in spite of the dissatisfaction and aversion shown by the local population towards the occupiers.

Article 429 of the Treaty of Versailles stated that the German territories to the east of the Rhine could be occupied by Allied troops for 15 years. Furthermore, article 428 stipulated that the duration of the occupation could be extended if the Allies wished, if they considered that war damages had not been paid in full.

The occupation of the Rhineland area, instituted by the Treaty of Versailles, had a double role: on the one hand, it was a guarantee of France’s security. At the same time, it was a financial guarantee offered by Germany for the material obligations it had assumed towards the Allies.

J.M. Keynes, one of the best known economists in the world, was part of the English delegation at the Paris Peace Conference. He maintained that many provisos of the treaty would impoverish Germany in the short and medium-term.

Germany after World War I was confronted with serious economic problems. In spite of this, the French decided to occupy the Ruhr area to guarantee the payment of war damages. This occupation worsened the socio-economic crisis in Germany and gave the extremist movements the opportunity to come to the fore. Furthermore, France did not manage to collect the sum established in the Treaty of Versailles.

Great Britain and the USA put pressure on France to make it return the war loans it had received from the two allies. The French government declared that it would not pay its debts until Germany honored the reparations due to it.

Germany told France that it was no longer able to pay war damages. Due to the situation created, France was determined to take the step of occupying the Ruhr, invoking as a pretext for the action the fact that Germany had not paid reparations. Actually, Germany had failed to carry out a delivery of telegraph and wooden poles.

Germany’s economic situation got even worse, and inflation reached catastrophical levels. Also, Germany was behind in delivering coal to France, deliveries which were part of the program of reparations.

The German government, strongly supported by public opinion, advised laborers and functionaries in the Ruhr to practice ‘passive resistance’. All deliveries as reparation were stopped, and the local population went on strike. These people received financial aid from the German government not to work. The German ambassador in Paris was called back to the country.

The ‘passive resistance’ tactic drained Germany, which was confronted with terrible hyperinflation, aggravated by the financial aid given by the German government to those striking in the Ruhr. Besides this, unemployment had reached worrying levels amongst German laborers. In these circumstances, the German government ended the policy of ‘passive resistance’.

Confronted with the German resistance, the French decided to support separatist movements in the Ruhr area. Separatist insurgents were transported to the theaters of operations in trains put on by the French and Belgians. Weapons confiscated from the German civil population were distributed by the separatist French.

The Palatinate, a region in western Germany, was recognised by France as an autonomous state with a provisory government. Palatinate was the old name given to this region, made up of several duchies, from the time of the Holy Roman Empire. Great Britain proposed that this issue be taken to the Permanent Court of International Justice at the Hague. After the British did this, France completely withdrew its support for the separatists. The High Commission of the Rhineland Territories ordered the dissolution of the local nationalist organizations.

The Locarno Pact was a deal between the great European powers to guarantee the western borders of Germany. In spite of positive intentions, this treaty had negative consequences on the peace in Europe. Guaranteeing only part of the borders and not the entire status-quo settled after World War I, it undermined the Versailles deal.

The Pact made in Locarno, Switzerland, had several provisos. The most important was concerning the fact that Great Britain, France, Belgium, Germany and Italy promised to guarantee peace in Europe. All these states promised to offer support if these demarcation lines were breached.

Another important part of the deal was the arbitration through which Germany would guarantee the borders of France and Belgium. In their turn, France and Belgium promised to protect the western borders of Germany. These issues went against the terms of the Paris Peace Conference, creating the impression that the Treaty of Versailles had become shaky after only 6 years.

The fundamental error was represented by the fact that Germany’s eastern borders also needed to be guaranteed. Great Britain’s refusal to guarantee the territorial integrity of Czechoslovakia meant that Germany did not have its eastern borders guaranteed. The pact installed a dualist foreign policy, in which the Great Powers were privileged. The act could be interpreted by a German opportunist leader as a chance for eastern expansion. Although it had been treated at Versailles as a state which had unconditionally surrendered, Germany’s importance was recognised through Locarno.

Locarno also meant that Germany represented, for the Great Powers, a lesser danger than the USSR. In fact, beginning with Woodrow Wilson, western leaders and public opinion saw communism as a deadly enemy. Soviet Russia was isolated from a diplomatic standpoint, even more than the Weimar republic. The Locarno treaty did nothing but accentuate the Soviets’ isolation. It was hoped that, in the long term, Germany would be able to stop the expansion of the Bolsheviks.

After World War I, several nation states were created in central and eastern Europe. The Locarno treaty stated that Germany accepted the arbitration concerning these countries. Germany and France promised to protect the borders of Czechoslovakia and Poland. The problem was that Great Britain did not accept involvement in the protection of an area in which it had no major interest.

Czechoslovakia had been part of the Austrian Empire before the First World War. Poland was in a similar situation, and had been divided between the three Great Powers. These new countries could not last long on their own against a rebuilt Germany. France, the only one guaranteeing their borders, could not risk getting involved in a major war with Germany. Even if they had had this sincere intention, the French would have come up against grave logistical problems. Germany could have occupied the two countries before military aid arrived.

The Locarno treaty became null in the moment Germany reoccupied the Rhineland. France protested this act, accusing Germany of breaking the deal made at Locarno. Even so, Great Britain did not want to intervene. Confronted with the fait-accompli, the French were forced to retreat.

In many western European countries during the interwar period, public opinion, in a considerable majority, considered that a new world war was impossible. The Kellogg-Briand pact was signed by the foreign ministers of France and the United States. It was an act which condemned war as a way of solving political conflicts between nations.

The pact had three main articles. The first condemned war as a means of solving conflicts. The signatory states committed to renounce all forms of war. The second article concerned the regulation of peaceful ways to resolve disputes. Finally, the third article invited all states to ratify it, remaining open for all who wished to adhere.

Lacking any pragmatic provisions in which countries could be called to account, the pact reflected western pacifist movements. The naivety of these movements favored a policy of appeasement towards the revisionist powers. Most historians consider that liberal optimism offered new opportunities for countries wishing to contest the status quo.

Great Britain, Germany and Japan viewed the treaty with disinterest. It didn’t allow exceptions, not even for war as a legitimate defense. The terms ‘aggressor’ and ‘victim’ were not clearly defined. The irony of history is that, only a decade before the outbreak of a new world war, this pacifist treaty was ratified by 62 countries. Lacking any practical consequences, the future Axis powers signed without hesitation. It proved that a simple act, without powers of constraint, had no effect on international relations.

Even if it was not able to prevent the war, the Kellogg-Briand pact did have positive aspects. It was an attempt to regulate international businesses. ‘Crime against peace’ was condemned for the first time. This accusation would lie at the foundation of the condemnation of those responsible for the outbreak of World War II.

The Great Depression generated social and economical problems which had never been encountered before. The Great Depression accentuated the internal chaos in Germany. On the other hand, the economic crisis increased electoral participation, which reached surprising levels. In 1932, 80% of the population participated in parliamentary elections. All of these conditions favored the rise of the Nazi party.

The Great Depression began, initially, due to unjustified loans accorded by the Federal Reserve. The Wall Street stock exchange crashed, with stocks losing their value overnight. This crushed the hopes of those who still believed in the League of Nations. It had become clear that the United States would not change its isolationist policy.

The economic crisis also amplified the war debt problem. Right from the end of World War I, the USSR refused to pay its war debts. Germany could not pay its war debt, and France’s demands accentuated the domestic economic crisis. In its turn, France did not pay its war debts to Great Britain and the United States. These disputes blocked all diplomatic relations between the former allies, giving free rein to extremist movements.

Unemployment during the Great Depression in Germany was highest in very industrialized cities. One example of this is the town of Herne, in the Ruhr area. The Communist Party and the German Nazi Party benefitted from this crisis.

In a local newspaper, Hitler acknowledged that 300,000 of the 400,000 members of the Nazi Party were unemployed. The massive unemployment led people to desperation, and rescuing solutions became much more popular. Finding a common enemy united the German masses left without an occupation.

Another side to the crisis was the inflation which had grown to alarming levels. Viewed from the perspective of the history of economics, inflation is a 20th and 21st century phenomenon. Inflation had been unknown until then. The Weimar Republic decided to intervene in the free-market economy. This did nothing but raise prices even further. Many German citizens began to doubt the ability of democracy to bring prosperity.

In the middle of the crisis, the Nazis were not very popular among the working class in big cities. Instead, they had great success with people from rural areas or from small towns. There was also an exponential growth in the rate of crime during this period. Leftist movements were very divided. In these conditions, the Nazi Party seemed an option which would bring stability in the long term.

According to the majority of historians, unemployment during the depression reached as high as 6 million people, i.e. 30-35% of the available workforce. Some estimates even go as high as 9 million Germans. On the other hand, it must be said that unemployment manifested itself differently according to the region. This only served to divide the German society even further, taking it along the route of radical solutions.

Violence became a generalized phenomenon during the election period. The Nazi Party claimed that 1,000 people were wounded and 84 killed in fights with the Communist Party. On their side, the communists reported 75 deaths from their ranks. The economic crisis was a gunpowder keg from a social point of view. After the chaos that was created, the Nazi Party became dominant in Germany.

In the first round of presidential elections, an Anti-Nazi coalition came to the fore, made up of liberals and social democrats. Hindenburg, the only candidate with chances of defeating Hitler, obtained only 8 million votes and fell short of the majority needed to take power. A second round was organized.

Goebbels, the famous future minister of Nazi propaganda, managed to create a positive image of Hitler. According to him, Adolf Hitler was a young man of perspective who would lift Germany out of the economic crisis. The German nation just needed to unite under the energetic command of this charismatic and determined leader.

Hindenburg barely missed electoral victory in the first round, with 49.6% of the votes. Hitler won 30% and Theodor Duesterberg 6.8%. If there had not been divisions in the democratic coalition, Hindenburg would have won in the first round.

The effect of Hitler’s campaign during the second round was considerable. He won 37% of the votes, which meant approx. 13 million Germans. Hindenburg won the elections with a majority of 53%. This victory of the moderate parties was actually an illusion. Hindenburg only just managed to win the election with the support of all the democratic parties in Germany.

Franz von Papen was chancellor, which was the most important role in German politics. Since he no longer had a majority in the German parliament, he tried to outlaw the Communist Party and the Nazi Party. Furthermore, the chancellor hoped to receive the support of the army. The operation failed, and Papen was forced to resign.

The Nazi propaganda machine set to work at full power for the second round of presidential elections. Hitler flew around the whole of Germany, giving 46 speeches in a very short time. His oratory won the sympathy of many people who wanted someone to put an end to the chaos which had been ruling for more than a decade.

The results of the parliamentary elections were not encouraging. The Nazi Party occupied 196 seats and the communist party 100. Both extremist movements were planning to destroy representative democracy and the parliamentary system. They now had the opportunity to do this from the inside.

Schleicher was the last chancellor before Hitler took hold of power. Schleicher could not govern because he did not have a majority in parliament. Under these conditions, he accepted Hitler’s requests. The Nazis would take power through a coalition government. Hitler would become the chancellor of Germany, and Wilhelm Frick was appointed as Minister of the Interior. Although they were in the minority in the executive body, the Nazis held two key positions.

The effects of the economic crisis seemed to be fading. The Nazis were losing their popularity, while the government was dominated by a majority of the Conservative Party. The German political elite believed that, if Hitler were to try to create a dictatorship, it would not be supported by the army. The democratic parties thought that the Nazis would be easy to control and manipulate.

As soon as he took power, Hitler organized a new round of speeches. These had the role of mobilizing the population and turning the population’s resentment on those outside Germany. The newspapers of that time described the atmosphere of mindless euphoria. It was a similar mood to that at the beginning of World War I. Hitler wanted to prepare the population for war.

With the Minister of Interiors in their hand, the Nazis launched a new campaign of violence. They sent the SA, a paramilitary organization from the extreme right of the party, to terrorize the leftist movements. The forces of order did not intervene, since they were controlled by Wilhelm Frick. From that moment on, the paramilitary branches could torture and assassinate anyone they considered to be a possible threat.

The new parliamentary elections tested Hitler’s ability to appeal to the masses. This time, he was in a position of power. The Nazi’s electoral campaign was based on anti-Marxist rhetoric. Hitler also made solemn promises to the German people. He would rebuild the economy without outside help. The unification of the masses under his command was the master solution to any problem. Furthermore, Hitler promised that, after 4 years of governance, he would let the German people judge his actions.

To celebrate Hitler’s appointment as chancellor, Goebbels organized a march on the streets of Berlin, which the Nazis claimed was attended by 700,000 people. In fact, the estimates of other newspapers talk of 61,000 people.

Hitler declared that the deadly enemy of the Nazis was Marxism. By Marxism, he was referring to the Social Democratic Party and the Communist Party. The German people and communism cannot exist together, he claimed. However, repression was not limited to the leftist movements. The Nazis began a campaign of violence against all political parties in Germany.

Hitler used the power of paramilitary organizations to supervise the electoral process. In spite of the fact that its popularity was diminishing in favor of the Communist Party, the Nazi victory was overwhelming. They obtained 44% of the votes, in conditions in which the democratic parties no longer mattered. The only competitors were the leftist parties. The Nazis were able to govern, together with DNVP, another extreme right party. The two parties had a majority of 51.9%.

The Reichstag, the German Parliament, was set on fire by a Dutch communist, Marinus van der Lubbe. Hitler, a master of political metaphors, considered this to be a divine sign. Looking back, it was certainly a symbol of the fall of representative democracy. Hitler officially became the uncontested dictator of Germany.

Nazi propaganda took advantage of the opportunity. Goebbels created a negative image of the Communist Party, suggesting that the arson of the Reichstag was just the beginning of an attempt to start a civil war. People were terrified by this thought. Due to this terror, Hitler’s support grew.

The repressions were not enough for the extreme right. Hitler outlawed the Communist Party. In one year, the campaign of violence had claimed over 2 million victims, who suffered from the aggressions of the ‘forces of order’.

The social-democrats were blocked from entering parliament. Many of them were arrested or just not allowed to enter the Reichstag building. A good part of the party leadership had to flee the country to save their lives. The most important examples were Otto Braun, Albert Grzesinski and Karl Höltermann, president of the Parliament. The Nazi victory was complete.

The Communists held 17% of the seats in Parliament. The arson of the Reichstag gave Hitler the chance to take out the Marxist resistance. In this context, the Nazis obtained a three-quarter majority in Parliament. Left without opposition, they passed the Enabling Act. This law gave the chancellor legislative power. Hitler could pass laws without even consulting Parliament.

Official reports show that, in just two months, in the areas around the Rhine and the Ruhr, approximately 8,000 communists were arrested. Through this generalized terror, Hitler intended to change the entire public administration, down to the lowliest clerks. Where this couldn’t be done in one fell swoop, the Nazis made sure they placed at least one key person of their own.

In the conditions in which Hitler held absolute power, Himmler, the architect of the Holocaust, came up with the suggestion of creating concentration camps. This was not a new idea, since it had been used in the past by colonial powers. For example, during the war in south-western Africa, Germans placed 14,000 natives in concentration camps. The death rate was 45%, justified by the principle of ‘natural selection’. This rhetoric returned and was imposed on a scale never before seen.

Concentration camps appeared in all corners of Germany. The Communist Party claimed that, in one year from gaining power, the Nazis interned 130,000 party members. Of these, 2,500 were killed. By destroying the entire political opposition, the Führer fulfilled one of his main goals. The totalitarian regime had begun to manifest itself in full power. Now that it controlled all aspects of socio-economic life, Germany could begin to implement a foreign policy that was just as aggressive.

The Night of the Long Knives was a historic event designed to be a symbol. The event was the assassination of the SA leaders, a political movement inside the Nazi Party. They were killed for several reasons. Hitler no longer trusted them, since they had become much too independent. Furthermore, their assassination won the appreciation of the army leaders, attracting many military commanders to the Nazi cause. Their assassination once again confirmed Hitler’s power. From that moment, Hitler was not only becoming the ruler of Germany, but also the absolute leader of the Nazis.

In spite of the fact that Hitler had gained increased powers through the ‘Enabling Act’, he was still afraid of the army’s intervention. Beyond the assurance of loyalty from his superior officers, the Führer wanted to consolidate his influence inside the party. The Nazis had only just come to power, and any conflict within the party could lead to the rise of the communists.

Himmler, Goering and Goebbels had a very important role in Hitler’s decision to get rid of Ernst Röhm, the leader of the SA. These three were important figures in the Nazi Party, and were worried by the increasing power Röhm had.

In order to understand the motives for liquidating the SA, it is necessary to first understand Nazi ideology. Mein Kampf proclaimed the fact that final victory can only be gained by uniting all forces under the firm leadership of one savior-leader. Destroying former collaborators was a common tactic for Stalin, Mao Zedong and many others. In this sense, Hitler was no different from other dictators. The logic of a totalitarian system is represented by unconditional submission.

From the moment the SA leaders were killed, the SS became the main Nazi paramilitary movement. The leader of the SS, also called ‘The Protection Detachment’ was Heinrich Himmler. He became a central figure of the Nazi movement, and the architect of the Holocaust.

The SA was very active during the interwar period, especially during the recent electoral campaign. The paramilitary movement had been very efficient in terrorizing any political opposition. It was mainly made up of people who had been left unemployed by the Great Depression. Due to this, the SA was an unpredictable faction, which was very difficult to control.

The army hesitated in offering total support to Hitler, due to the central role that the SA had played in the Nazi’s power takeover. The army looked with disdain on disorganized paramilitary movements such as the SA. The leadership of the army wanted to become the main participant in imposing order. Through liquidating the SA, Hitler obtained the support of the army. He offered leadership positions from the SA to career military men, under the condition of an oath of total loyalty.

Around 77 people were executed due to Hitler’s decision. Part of these had no link to the SA, but were killed based on unproven accusations. The official reason was that Röhm had tried to carry out a coup. This was contradicted by all historical evidence. Röhm was loyal to Hitler, but this didn’t count in the Nazi leader’s political calculations.