Germany was a powerful empire in the early years of the twentieth century. It fought the First World War (1914-1918) alongside the Austrian empire and against the Allies (England, France and Russia). The Allies were strengthened by the US entry in 1917 and won the war in November 1918.
The defeat of the Imperial Germany paved the way for democratic republic in Germany. The parliamentary parties met at the National Assembly at Weimar and established a democratic constitution with a federal structure. Universal suffrage was allowed for electing the Deputies to the German Parliament (Reichstag).
Versailles Treaty: But after the First World War, Germany was forced to accept certain terms which hurt the pride of the German people. As per the peace treaty signed at Versailles, Germany lost its overseas colonies, a tenth of its population, 13% of its territories, 75% of its iron and 26% of its coal to France, Poland, Denmark and Lithuania. To weaken its power, the Allied Powers demilitarized Germany. The War Guilt Clause forced Germany to pay compensation amounting to £6 billion. The resource rich Rhineland was occupied by the Allied armies for much of the 1920s. Because of these developments, many Germans were not happy with the Weimar Republic.
Europe had turned into a continent of debtors from being a continent of creditors, after the war. The Weimar Republic was forced to pay for the sins of the old empire. The supporters of the Weimar Republic became easy targets of the attacks by the conservatives.
Glorification of Soldiers: After the First World War, the soldiers came to be placed above civilians all over Europe. Politicians and the media glorified the life of a soldier. Aggressive war propaganda and national honour became the theme of public debate. Democracy was a nascent idea which could not survive the war-ravaged Europe.
This was the time when the Spartacist League revolution began to rise on the pattern of Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. There was a charged political atmosphere in Berlin and there were demands for Soviet style governance.
The socialists, democrats and the Catholics met in Weimar to give shape to the democratic republic. The uprising of the Spartacist was crushed with the help of war veteran organizations called Free Corps. The Spartacist later founded the Communist Party of Germany.
The economic crisis of 1923 further heightened the political radicalization in Germany. Germany had to pay war reparations in gold which led to depletion of gold reserve. When Germany refused to pay in 1923, the French occupied its leading industrial area Ruhr; to claim their coal.
Germany responded with passive resistance and printed paper currency recklessly. Increased circulation of currency led to hyperinflation in Germany. Price rise was phenomenal.
Finally, America decided to bail out Germany from this mess. America introduced the Dawes Plan. According to this plan, the terms of reparations were reworked to ease the financial burden on Germany.
Some stability could be seen between 1924 and 1928. But that stability was short-lived because the industrial recovery in Germany was dependent on short-term loans. A large portion of those loans came from the USA. This support was withdrawn after the infamous Wall Street crash.
The Wall Street Exchange crashed in 1929 and people sold their shares in a mad spree. This was the beginning of the Great Depression. The effects of this recession in the US economy were felt all over the world.
The German economy was the worst hit by Great Depression. By 1932, industrial production became 40% of what it was in 1929. Number of unemployed touched a high of 6 million. Unemployment also led to an increase in criminal activities.
Fragile Republic: The Weimar Republic was politically fragile as well. Its constitution had some inherent defects and hence the Weimar Republic was prone to be unstable and vulnerable to dictatorship. The provision of proportional representation meant that majority by a single party was impossible and coalition government was the norm. Article 48 gave the President the powers to impose emergency to suspend civil rights and to rule by decree. The average life span of a cabinet was just 239 days and emergency was declared many times. People were losing confidence in the republic.
Hitler was born in 1889 in Austria and spent his youth in poverty. He served in the army during the First World War where he rose through the ranks. He was furious at various sanctions imposed on Germany through the Versailles Treaty. In 1919, he joined a small group called the German Workers' Party. Subsequently, Hitler took over the organization and renamed it the Nationalist Socialist German Workers' Party. This came to be known as the Nazi Party.
In 1923, Hitler made an unsuccessful bid to capture power at Berlin. He was arrested, tried for treason and later released. Till early 1930, the Nazis could not mobilize popular support. The Nazi Party got about 2.6% votes in 1928 but emerged as the largest party; with 37% votes; in 1932.
Oratory Skills of Hitler: Hitler was a powerful orator. He could sway the masses with his powerful words. He promised to build a strong nation and restore the dignity of German people. He promised all around development and employment to youth.
Hitler understood the significance of rituals and spectacle in mass mobilization. He used the Swastika symbol, red banners, pamphlets and ritualized rounds of applause to great effect during his massive rallies.
Hitler was projected as a messiah; who could free people from their distress. For people who were shattered by acute economic and political crises; Hitler provided a ray of hope.
The Destruction of Democracy
On 30 January 1933, Hitler was offered the Chancellorship by President Hindenburg. It was the highest position in the cabinet of ministers. After acquiring power, Hitler began to dismantle the structures of democratic rule.
A mysterious fire broke out in the German Parliament in February and it gave an excuse to Hitler to assume all the powers. A Fire Decree was announced on 28 February 1933. Under the Decree, various civic rights were suspended.
After that, Hitler turned on to his archenemies, the Communists. Most of the Communists were packed off to the newly established concentration camps.
The famous Enabling Act was passed on 3 March 1933. This Act gave all powers to Hitler and established dictatorship in Germany. All political parties and trade unions were banned; leaving the monopoly to the Nazi Party. The state acquired complete control over the economy, media, army and judiciary.
Special surveillance and security forces were created to control and order the society. The regular police in green uniform and the SA or the Storm Troopers were the existing police forces. Additional police forces were also raised; viz., the Gestapo (secret state police), the SS (the protection squad), criminal police and the Security Service (SD).
These police forces enjoyed extra-constitutional powers. People could be detained in Gestapo torture chambers, rounded up and sent to concentration camps, deported at will or arrested without any legal procedures.
The responsibility of economic recovery was given to the economist Hjalmar Schacht. He initiated a state-funded work-creation programme to ensure full production and full employment. The famous Autobahn and Volkswagen were the results of this period. The economy was on the road to prosperity.
Hitler got quick successes in foreign policy as well. In 1933, he pulled out of the League of Nations. He reoccupied the Rhineland in 1936 and integrated Austria and Germany in 1938. After that, he went on to wrest German-speaking Sudentenland from Czechoslovakia and usurped the entire country. England gave unspoken support to Hitler in these endeavours.
Expansion Spree: Hitler was convinced that expansion of territory was a surefire way to acquire resources and more resources would help tide the economic crisis. Germany invaded Poland in September 1939 and this event started a war with France and England. A Tripartite Pact was signed between Germany, Italy and Japan in 1940. This fact strengthened Hitler's claim to international power. In a large part of Europe, puppet regimes (which were supportive of Nazi Germany) were installed. By the end of 1940, Hitler was at the zenith of his power.
Soviet Hegemony over Eastern Europe: Now Hitler moved to achieve his long-term aim, i.e. of conquering the Eastern Europe. Hitler attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941 which proved to be a historic blunder. With this step, the western front of Germany was exposed to British aerial bombing and the eastern front was exposed to the powerful Soviet armies. The German Army was handed a crushing defeat by the Soviet Army and the Soviet forces finally reached the heart of Berlin. This established the Soviet hegemony over the entire Eastern Europe for half a century thereafter.
US involvement in War: The USA did not want to face all the economic problems which were caused by the First World War. Hence, the USA was unwilling to get involved in the Second World War. But Japan's advances in the east, its support to Hitler and bombing at the US base at Pearl Harbor, forced the US to enter the Second World War. The US dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima in Japan and the war ended in May 1945 with Hitler's defeat.
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