The rise of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany form one of the most remarkable episodes in world history. This article looks at the historical roots of Nazi Germany, including the early life of Adolf Hitler. It covers the measures Hitler took to transform a democracy into a dictatorship; the expansion of Nazi Germany in the years prior to World War 2; and its dramatic conquests, followed by decline and fall, during that war.
The roots of Nazi Germany go back to the beginnings of Germany as a united country, in the late 19th century.
In 1871, the whole of Germany had been united under the new German Empire. It was ruled by an authoritarian regime headed by an hereditary monarch, called the Kaiser. Although he was assisted by a chief minister (chancellor), and an elected parliament called the Reichstag, the Kaiser had the final say in policy making.
The fact that the German Empire of the late 19th century and early 20th century was not a full democracy was important. Germans later looked back on this period of their history with pride, and thought that a large part of its success lay in its strong government, untrammelled by petty politicians (especially socialist ones).
This new nation was soon one of the most powerful on Earth; it had gained an overseas empire in Africa, China and the Pacific, and built up a large navy to challenge that of Britain. The German people had developed a keen awareness of themselves as a great nation.
Germany in World War I
During World War I, the German army had at first been able to score some quick successes, but the war had then got bogged down in long years of stationary trench warfare. From time to time one side or the other would make strenuous efforts to break through the enemy’s defences, but to little avail: the main result was the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of soldiers.
By 1917 the German people had been on the point of starvation, brought about by the blockade of their ports by the British navy. In October, however, the stalemate had been dramatically broken when the Russian Revolution broke out and took one of Germany’s chief enemies out of the war. This had allowed the German army to occupy vast swathes of land to the East. The German people had soon been hearing about new victories in the West as German armies, reinforced by a million men from the Eastern front, pushed the French and British back towards Paris.
The Allied lines had not broken, however, and the German advance had come to a halt in June, 1918. The French and British Allies had themselves then been reinforced by huge numbers of fresh American troops (the USA had declared war on Germany the year before).
The German army, exhausted and fast running out of essential supplies, had been rolled back. By September 1918 it had become clear to the German High Command that defeat was inevitable, and during that month the German government opened negotiations with the Allies. The Allies insisted on the Kaiser stepping down before they would consider an armistice (a stop to the fighting while peace terms were negotiated).
The Kaiser refused to go. The following month, the German naval command decided on one last attempt to defeat the British fleet, but the ordinary sailors, realizing the attempt would be suicidal, mutinied. This was followed by strikes and demonstrations against the continuation of the war all over Germany.
These protests were joined by mutinying soldiers. Soldiers’ and Workers’ councils took control of many cities. Their main objective was to end the war but the possibility of a full-scale Revolution, like the one that had taken place in Russia the previous year, seemed a very real one.
The political party which represented the workers and which was the leading party in the Reichstag was the Social Democrats. These were moderate socialists, certainly not communists. Now, however, they realised that unless they stepped in then more extreme groups might well sweep all before them. They therefore threatened to join the revolutionaries unless the Kaiser abdicated.
On the 9th November, a general strike took place in Berlin. The country seemed on the verge of revolution, so the Social Democrats announced the abdication of the Kaiser. The next day the Kaiser went into exile, in Holland (a country that had been neutral throughout the war), and the following day an armistice was agreed with the Allies.
The Social Democrats now formed the government of Germany. However, conditions in the country – particularly in the big cities – were chaotic. Revolution and civil war very nearly triumphed, and it took several months before the socialist government was able to gain a measure of control. It was only able to do this with the aid of the army and irregular paramilitary units of disbanded soldiers called “Free Corps”.
These Free Corps units were mainly composed of those who championed extreme anti-communist view, who acted more out of hatred of the revolutionaries than from allegiance to the socialist government, for which they had little but contempt. They had the support of the majority of the population, terrified at the prospect of a communist takeover of Germany.
In May 1919, whilst still struggling for control of the country, the socialist government was issued with the terms imposed on Germany by the Allies in the Treaty of Versailles.
This was deeply humiliating for the German people. Many clauses were designed to weaken Germany – loss of territory, severe restrictions on the armed forces, massive War Reparations; but the most hated clause of all required that Germany alone accept the blame for starting World War I.
German politicians and officials had not been invited to take part in the discussions, but the government believed that the terms would not be too harsh. It was, after all, the Kaiser’s government that had been in control of Germany in the lead-up to the War. Now that the Kaiser was gone, and Germany was a republic, why should the socialist government be blamed?
When the government saw the terms of the treaty, it promptly resigned from office. However, the Allies said that if the German government did not sign the treaty, the war would begin again. The German government felt that it had no choice but to sign the Treaty of Versailles.
The German people were outraged. Many blamed the socialist government for “stabbing Germany in the back”, and became distrustful of democratic politicians. Millions of Germans yearned for Germany to be great again, and felt that this could only happen under a strong, authoritarian government like the one before World War I.
A general election in January 1919 had elected a National Assembly whose task was to agree a Constitution for the new republic. The National Assembly first met in the town of Weimar, as unrest was still rife in Berlin. The coming period in German history is therefore known as the “Weimar Republic”.
By July 1919 the National Assembly had completed its work, and had written one of the most liberal constitutions in Europe. It gave considerable powers of self-government to the states into which Germany was divided, with national government being largely in the hands of a parliament (reichstag) and an elected president as head of state.
Seats in the Reichstag were allotted to each party according to the number of votes it received, by a system of proportional representation. Unfortunately, this made it very difficult for any one party to have a majority of seats in the Reichstag. Germany was therefore governed by a series of weak coalition governments, and when really hard decisions were needed it was difficult to get a coalition together that was able to command the support of the majority of delegates. This would make it hard for the Riechstag to make clear decisions, especially when times were tough (i.e when such decisions were most needed).
The constitution-makers foresaw this difficulty, and provided for it in the following way. In normal times the president had very limited powers. In times of crisis, however, the president was given the right to rule by emergency decree, with almost dictatorial powers. As we shall see, this power was invoked on more than one occasion in the 1920s and early 30s, so that Germans became accustomed to authoritarian presidential rule even whilst living under a democracy.
Another drawback with the proportional representation system was that it opened up opportunities for small extremist parties to gain the respectability which a presence in the national parliament gave.
One of the terms of the Treaty of Versailles was that the Germans had to pay the Allies ‘Reparations’ in goods as well as money. In January 1923, the Germans delayed delivering a shipment of timber to the French. The French army promptly occupied the Ruhr, the industrial heartland of Germany.
This was a harsh action by the French, and the German people reacted with fury. They refused to deal with the French troops, and strikes disrupted the economy of the region. Unfortunately, this disruption in the richest economic region of Germany had the effect of making a weak economy even weaker.
In February the value of the mark, the German currency, began to go into free fall. There had already been serious inflation in Germany, but this was of a completely different order. By the summer a wheelbarrow full of money could only buy one meal! For most Germans, life became much harder as barter became an everyday necessity.
In September, the German government, realizing the policy of strikes and passive resistance was bankrupting Germany, felt it had no choice but to give in to France and agree to the French occupation of the Ruhr.
For many Germans, on both left and right, the democratic government had again (in their eyes) shown weakness. There was a national outcry, and some groups of armed extremists actually rose up in revolt. The Chancellor, Gustav Stresemann, declared a State of Emergency. For several months the country was ruled by Presidential decree while the army restored order.
One of these abortive uprisings took place in the southern region of Bavaria, which at that time was ruled by an ultra-conservative state government and had become a haven for extreme right-wing groups. One such was a small political party called the National Socialists, or Nazis. It was headed by one Adolf Hitler.
Adolf Hitler had been born in Austria in 1889, near the border with Germany. Hitler adored his mother, but his father was an elderly customs official with whom he did not get on well. He did not do well at school – his teachers thought him lazy.
In 1907, after both his father and mother had died, Hitler went to Vienna, at that time the capital of one of the great powers of Europe, the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He intended to become an artist. However, he failed in his attempts to enter the Academy of Fine Art. He tried to earn a living by painting, but life was tough. He was very poor, and often homeless.
It was at this time that he came into contact with many of the ideas that were to be so important to him in later life. He came to believe that all life is a struggle for survival, and the stronger inevitably dominate the weaker. He (like many others of his time) held that this applied as much to whole races as it did to individuals; some races were innately superior to others, and the Germans and other northern European races were superior to the rest. These were the Aryans, the Master races. Slavs, Negroes, and above all Jews, were at the bottom of the racial hierarchy. He thought that, in order to retain their racial superiority, the Master races should keep their blood “pure” by not interbreeding with members of other races.
These views were coloured by a growing personal hatred of the Jews. Perhaps unfortunate experiences contributed to this: the director of the School of Fine Art who turned down his application was a Jew; and he was sacked from one of the much-needed jobs he had, as a builder’s labourer, when a union official who happened to be a Jew found out that he was not a union member.
Hitler’s war service
He left Vienna in 1913 to avoid being called up into the Austrian army, but in 1914 when the First World War broke out, Hitler immediately joined up, into a German regiment.
The war years were a happy time for him. He belonged to a disciplines organization, had a sense of purpose, and was an excellent soldier. He was a motorcycle courier for much of the war. This was one of the most dangerous jobs a soldier could do. He was awarded the Iron Cross, First Class, for bravery – twice.
When the war ended in Germany’s defeat, Hitler was in hospital recovering from a gas attack. Like millions of other Germans, he was stunned by this turn of events. Like many people, he would later come to believe that the German army had not been defeated in the field, but had been “stabbed in the back” by communist revolutionaries and the democratic socialist politicians who gave in to them – the “November Criminals”, he called them.
Hitler after the war
After the war, Hitler went to live in Munich, where he soon joined a small right-wing party – the German Workers’ Party (DAP). The DAP’s views were very similar to his own, and due to the impression his comments made at the first meeting he attended, he was immediately asked to join the committee. His drive, determination and skill as a public speaker soon brought him the undisputed leadership of the tiny party. Its membership grew dramatically, almost entirely due to his activities. This put him in a position to completely dominate the party.
By this time the party’s name had been changed to the NSDAP – the National Socialist German Workers’ Party: the Nazis.
Under Hitler’s leadership the party grew, and by mid 1921 it had more than 3,000 members. Its base was in Bavaria, but small groups of Nazis were distributed throughout Germany. Hitler had personally designed the Nazi symbol, the Swastika, and he had created the party’s own paramilitary formation, the SA (Sturm-Abteilung, “Storm Troops”). Their job it was to protect party meetings. Its unofficial job was also to attack and disrupt the meetings and parades of other parties.
In October 1923, the Bavarian government, in alliance with the Nazi party and other right wing groups, effectively declared its independence. The Command-in-Chief of the army sternly ordered the troops in Bavaria to obey his orders and put down the revolt, which began to crumble.
Adolf Hitler, seeing his opportunity slipping by, decided to act. He launched a coup in a Beer Hall in Munich. The revolt was easily crushed by soldiers and police.
At his trial a few months later, Hitler did not apologise for attempting to seize power. Instead he proudly stated that he had done it to save Germany from the “traitors” in the Weimar government. Many Germans liked what they heard, and they admired him for trying to do something about the problems of the stricken country. As a result of the trial, Hitler became famous throughout Germany.
He was sentenced to five years in prison, but in fact spent less than 9 months there. He had his own rooms and during this time he wrote a book, Mein Kampf – “My Struggle”. This set out his views of the world, and his place in it. It made very clear to all who read it (which was not many – it was so badly written as to be practically unreadable) his virulent anti-Semitism. It also argued strongly in favour of using war to gain huge additional new territories – Lebensraum (“Living Room”) – for the German people, particularly in eastern Europe and Russia.
Whilst in prison, Hitler decided that a coup against the government would not work – he must get voted into power like other politicians.
In October 1923 the presidential government scrapped the old, utterly devalued currency and replaced it with a temporary new currency called the Rentenmark. The government strictly controlled the amount of money in circulation and successfully stabilized the currency.
The State of Emergency was brought to an end in February, 1924, and control returned to the Reichstag. A period of comparative stability and prosperity followed, lasting several years. The German people became increasingly comfortable with democratic government.
Charles Dawes was an American banker who had been appointed to head a committee set up by the Allies in November, 1923, to find ways of helping Germany to make the Reparation payments. They agreed the Dawes plan in 1924, whereby they (the Allies) would make a huge loan available to Germany. This would be used to rebuild the German economy, which would in turn enabling it to make the Reparation payments to the Allies. The annual payments were also reduced.
The Locarno Pact of 1925 was a general treaty guaranteeing all European borders, including Germany’s borders with France and Belgium. This was an important milestone in the rehabilitation of Germany with the international community but was unpopular with right-wing extremists (such as Hitler), as it implied that the German people recognised the legality of the terms of the Treaty of Versailles.
In that year, Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg was elected president. He had been Germany’s most famous military commander in World War I, and was widely revered by the German people.
The following year, Germany joined the League of Nations. The country’s status as a leading power was recognized in being given a permanent seat on the League’s Council, alongside Britain and France.
In 1928, for the first time since the outbreak of World War I, industrial production surpassed the level achieved in 1913 (the last full year of peace before the outbreak of the First World War). Germany seemed to be truly on the road to recovery, a development underscored in 1929, when the Young Plan was announced.
Like Charles Dawes, Owen Young was an American banker who chaired the Inter-Allied Reparations Commission. He modified the Dawes Plan so that Reparations were slashed to a quarter of their original level, with payments to be made annually until 1988.
Just as with the Dawes Plan, right-wing groups opposed the new plan as it recognized the legality of the Versailles Treaty and Reparations. A “National Opposition” of small right wing parties in the Reichstag was formed to draft a law against agreeing to it. This failed to achieve its aim but the furore it engendered brought the Nazis to the attention of the public again.
As a part of the agreement, the French and Belgian forces which had been occupying the Rhineland since 1918 were withdrawn; it was designated a demilitarized zone.
Hitler and the Nazi Party during these years
By the time Adolf Hitler came out of prison (1925) the Nazi party had lost a lot of members, and the leaders were quarrelling amongst themselves. Some no longer wanted Hitler as leader.
Hitler spent the first year after his release vigorously re-asserting his authority within the party. He finally got what he wanted at a meeting of party leaders at Bamburg, in February 1926. This agreed that Hitler was to be the undisputed Führer of the party. All decisions would henceforth be taken by him alone, not by debate. He would appoint all party officials – they would no longer be elected; and he organised the SS as his own personal bodyguard, whose members swore absolute obedience to him, personally.
At this time he founded the party’s youth organisation, named after himself: the Hitler Youth. Party propaganda now focussed on the person of Hitler, as he believed that the common people related more to a person than a set of policies.
The Nazi party then set about successfully absorbing all the other extreme right-wing parties (which were mostly very poorly led). During the following years Hitler collected around himself a group that would largely form the leadership of the Nazi Party, and later of Nazi Germany, until its end. Foremost amongst these were Joseph Goebbels, the chief of party propaganda; Herman Goering, head of the SA; Ernst Rohm, who would succeed Goering as head of the SA when the former went on to other responsibilities; Heinrich Himler, commander of the SS, which was initially part of the SA and formed Hitler’s personal bodyguard; and Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s personal secretary.
The years following Hitler’s release were difficult ones for the Nazi party. Germany seemed to be on the right road, and German voters were not widely interested in extremist politics. The Nazis worked hard to gain the support of the working class, discovering that their anti-Jewish message was the one that got the best response. But they only had limited success here; their main support came increasingly from the lower middle classes and the farmers.
The fortunes of the Nazi party only changed for the better when those of Germany as a whole changed for the worse.
German businesses were particularly badly affected. They had borrowed massive amounts of dollars from American banks, which now wanted their money back quickly. Many German firms went bankrupt. Those which survived did so by sacking many of their workers. Misery returned to the German people as unemployment soared and poverty spread to all classes of society.
Like all governments everywhere, the German government reacted slowly and ineffectually to the crisis. The parties in the Reichstag were unable to agree on policies, and therefore found it impossible to form a coalition that represented the majority of delegates. Democratic politicians were once more seen as failing the people.
In their desperation many Germans turned again to populist parties of the right and left, which promised quick solutions. The Nazis above all benefited from this trend. In Reichstag elections in September 1930 they got almost 20% of the vote.
Elections, and more elections
With the Reichstag deadlocked, in 1932 the president was forced to step in and rule by emergency decree. This placed the government in the hands of 84-year president Hindenburg, and the small circle of highly conservative people around him – men with little respect for the processes of democracy.
In the Spring of 1932 presidential elections took place, and Hindenburg was re-elected. Adolf Hitler also stood for president, and received a remarkably high share of the vote – more than 30% of the vote. This confirmed him as a national figure in German politics. He had succeeded in projecting himself as an effective ruler-in-waiting.
In July 1932, new elections resulted in further major gains for the Nazis (37% of the vote), making it the largest party in the Reichstag. Although they still did not have an outright majority, Nazi support was now necessary for any government wishing to have the co-operation of the Reichstag. However, Hitler refused to co-operate with any government unless he was chancellor.
In September 1932, the chancellor, von Papen, called yet another Reichstag election, in the belief that support for the Nazis was beginning to slide – in which case, Hitler might be in a more cooperative mood.
The Nazi vote did indeed go down (to 33%). There was a feeling both inside and outside the party that it had passed its peak. But the Nazis were still the largest party in the Reichstag, and Hitler (after a short period of despair) stood firm – he would not join any government except as chancellor.
The power struggles between the men surrounding the president then came to Hitler’s aid. They competed with one another to put forward ideas for alliances which would gain most support in the Reichstag. Hitler – still the leader of the largest party in the Reichstag – could not be ignored.
Von Papen (Hindenburg’s favourite but by now no longer chancellor) persuaded president Hindenburg to follow his plan. This was for Hitler to be appointed chancellor and he (von Papen) vice chancellor. The majority of ministers would be from the conservative parties and not the Nazis. The conservatives would therefore effectively control the government.
On 30th January 1933 Hindenburg reluctantly appointed Hitler as chancellor.
Although chancellor, therefore, Hitler’s hold on power was far from secure. He immediately called new elections so as to gain an outright Nazi majority in the Reichstag, which would vastly strengthen his hand. If possible he wanted a two-thirds majority as this would allow him to change the constitution to give himself more power.
Now that they were a part of government, the Nazis could use all the resources of the state to fight the election. In particular, Hitler used the radio very effectively to project his message to the German people.
Then, on 27th February 1933, the Reichstag building in Berlin caught fire. Hitler immediately accused the communists of starting the fire, and mass arrests of communists immediately followed.
The next day Hitler got Hindenburg to sign “The Decree for the Protection of the People and State”. This suspended all constitutional rights to freedom of speech, press and public assembly for the duration of the crisis.
This temporary decree would remain in force throughout all the remaining 12 years of Nazi rule.
The election results in March were the best so far for the Nazis, but they were still not good enough to give them an outright majority in the Reichstag. And they were a long way short of the two-thirds majority Hitler needed to change the constitution.
Undaunted, Hitler called a meeting of the Reichstag for March 23rd, at the Kroll Opera House, and proposed it pass an “Enabling Act”. This would give him, as chancellor, the authority to pass laws without the agreement of either the Reichstag or the president for four years.
The Enabling Act would of course be a major change in the constitution, for which Hitler needed a two-thirds majority in the Reichstag. The Nazis set about a campaign against opposition delegates, including arrests, intimidation and promises. As a result, Hitler received 444 votes for the Enabling Act versus 94 against.
The Reichstag had now legally voted him all its powers. This represents the culmination of what historians call the “Legal Revolution”. The Weimar constitution had not been dissolved, but the Republican form of government had been thoroughly subverted.
The Nazis now controlled the German state. In March, a solemn ceremony at the Potsdam Garrison Church – a shrine to the old Prussian tradition so dear to the hearts of many Germans – was broadcast to the nation. In this, Hitler identified himself with the proud traditions of Germany’s military past, and did much to bring conservative elements, so strong in German society at that time, over to him.
In February and March, 25,000 opponents of Nazism were arrested. In the following months the machinery of government, along with the press, was put under direct Nazi control. The first measures were taken against Jews (those in government employment were sacked). Trade Unions were abolished and replaced by the German Labour Front (DAF).
In June, the main socialist party, the SPD, was abolished and the other parties (except the Nazis, of course) dissolved themselves. Political arrests, up to now restricted to communists, now took in other non-Nazi political activists, as well as leading Jewish intellectuals and businessmen.
In July, the Nazi party was declared the only legal party. Germany was now officially a one-party state.
By this time, major public work schemes and other measures to reduce unemployment had been announced. One element in this was that the secret re-armament of Germany took its first steps.
In July 1933, Hitler signed a concordat with the Roman Catholic Church, promising the pope that he would protect the rights of the Church in Germany. This helped millions of Roman Catholics reconcile themselves to the rule of the Nazis, whom many had been extremely wary of up to now.
Ironically, given the Catholic Church’s consistent pro-life stance, that same month the Nazis made sterilization compulsory for people with inherited mental and physical disabilities.
In October 1933 Hitler withdrew Germany from the League of Nations on the grounds that it was not being treated on a basis of equality. The issue that triggered this was the French refusal to bring its land forces down to parity with those of Germany.
In the months since the Nazis had come to power, its paramilitary wing, the SA, had been getting out of hand. It had been demanding policies such as the placing of the army under the orders of SA leaders. Its ordinary members had also been throwing their weight around in public, threatening to bring the Nazi party as a whole into disrespect amongst law-abiding Germans.
This had been causing Hitler an increasing amount of embarrassment. On the night of the 30th June, therefore, Hitler and the SS carried out a purge of the leadership of the SA and Nazi party in which some 400 people are killed. This episode is called the ‘Night of the Long Knives’.
For most Germans, who had begun to suspect that the SA thugs were getting beyond Hitler’s control, this action completely restored their faith in him. Here was a man who was prepared to act ruthlessly against even his friends if they stepped too far out of line. The army leaders in particular felt a strong sense of relief and gratitude: Hitler had proved his support for them by turning against his closest allies in this dramatic way.
In August 1934 President Hindenburg died. Hitler immediately merged the offices of chancellor and president, vesting them in himself. He took the new official title of ‘Führer (Leader) of the German Reich and People’. The army and the civil service were required to take an oath of loyalty to Hitler personally, as Führer.
In January 1935 the voters in the Saarland, which for the past fifteen years had been under the control of the League of Nations, voted to rejoin Germany in a fair, properly-run plebiscite. This raised the standing of the Nazi regime both at home and abroad.
In March 1935, the German government announced the existence of the German Air Force, the Luftwaffe. At the same time it introduced conscription and started to expand the army. The Treaty of Versailles had been decisively breached, but the French and British governments did no more than protest.
In September 1935, the Nuremberg Laws were announced, prohibiting marriage between Jews and Germans.
According to Nazi propaganda, Hitler’s Germany was “the Third Reich” of the German nation. The first reich (“realm”) was the Holy Roman Empire of medieval times. The second reich was the German Empire (see above); and now came the Third Reich. These three periods of German history were held to be times when the German people were strong and united under a single ruler, and thus inevitably stood as the leading power in Europe. This was a clear declaration of intent: Hitler and the Nazis were aiming to make Germany the leader amongst the nations of Europe.
In March 1936, Hitler ordered the German army to reoccupy the demilitarised Rhineland. This action was a direct repudiation of the Versailles Treaty, as well as the Locarno Pact (see above). However, neither France nor Britain showed any willingness to intervene, and apart from the usual diplomatic protests, did nothing.
In July, 1936, the youth branch of the Nazi party, the Hitler Youth, was given a monopoly on all youth sports activities.
The following month the Olympic Games were held in Berlin. These were a magnificent propaganda success for Nazi Germany. The only down side for the Nazis was the success of the American Black athletes (who belonged to inferior races, according to Nazi belief), particularly Jesse Owens.
A Four Year Plan was launched in October 1936, with one of Hitler’s leading ministers, Herman Goering, in complete control. Its aim was to prepare the German economy for full-scale war. A key element within this plan was to make Germany as self-sufficient as possible, particularly in key raw materials for the armaments industries and fuel for the armed forces.
In February 1938, Hitler sacked top army officers and diplomats whom he did not trust, and took over personal command of the Armed Forces.
In the following month, German forces invaded Austria, and Hitler declared the union – Anschluss – between Germany and Austria. This move was deliriously popular with the German people, and a triumphal tour by Hitler through Austria indicated that the Austrian people felt very much the same way.
Again, Britain and France did nothing beyond protesting; Mussolini, the Fascist dictator of Italy, congratulated Hitler on his coup.
The takeover of Austria seems to mark a turning point in Nazi persecution of the Jews. Measures against them become more and more severe, and the years running up to the outbreak of World War 2 saw a prelude to the genocide which was to take place during the war, from 1942.
In September 1938, tensions over Czechoslovakia come to a head. This country, as constituted after World War I, had an area of German-majority population in a region called the Sudetenland, near its western border. Repeated clashes between the Sudeten Germans agitating to be allowed to join Germany, on the one hand, and the Czechoslovak police, on the other, brought the Czech issue to a crisis point. Both German and Czech troops were poised to intervene, and there was a real possibility of Britain and France supporting Czechoslovakia if Germany aided the Sudeten activists.
At the last moment, an agreement was signed in Munich between the governments of Germany, Britain and France to settle the issue by ceding Sudetenland to Germany. This was a further huge diplomatic triumph for Hitler.
In November 1938, a German diplomat in Paris was shot by a young Jew. In retaliation, on the night of 9th November, SA men went on the rampage throughout Germany, damaging and destroying Jewish property and injuring and even killing Jewish men, women and children. This episode was known as Kristallnacht, the Night of the Broken Glass.
In November also, membership of the Hitler Youth was made compulsory for all ten to eighteen year olds, including Catholics who until then had been allowed to have their own youth organizations. The Hitler Youth was being increasingly used for first stage military training.
The same month Germany annexed the provinces of Bohemia and Moravia, in Czechoslovakia, and another large part of the country, Slovakia, was made into a German protectorate.
This action was a flagrant violation of the Munich Agreement of the previous year. The British and French finally responded with more than protest. They agreed with Poland that if she was invaded by Germany they would declare war on Germany.
In August, Germany signed a Non-Aggression Pact with the Soviet Union. This stunned world opinion, as the Nazis had, up to this moment, effectively defined themselves as the ultimate shield against world communism.
In September 1939, German invaded Poland, and World War II had begun.
Hitler, it seems, was taken by surprise by Britain and France’s declaration of war. He had thought that they would not stand by Poland, just as they had not stood by Austria or Czechoslovakia. The German people as a whole did not greet the outbreak of war with enthusiasm. Despite the swift conquest of Poland, they were full of apprehension: memories of the slaughter of 1914-8 were still vivid.
Food rationing was immediately imposed, and later the rationing of clothes, soap, tobacco and toilet paper. In December, Hitler issued a series of war economy decrees, imposing strict controls on many aspects of economic life. For the German people as a whole, however, the early stages of the war did not see living standards greatly effected. To a large extent it was “business as usual”.
This state of affairs lasted through much of the following year. The German people were as astonished as anyone by the victories of their forces in Scandinavia, the Low Countries and France. Relieved and exultant, they willingly gave Hitler the credit: his standing with the people was never higher. These triumphs made the rationing – which in any case was not too onerous – and other sacrifices much easier to bear, and in any case it was widely assumed, by Germans at all levels of society, that the war was effectively won. After all the Reich now shared its frontiers with friendly or neutral powers.
Reality sets in
But the war continued, with Britain the next target for German attack. It was soon apparent, however, that this country, protected as it was by the sea, would not succumb as easily as other countries had. And in August 1940 came a shock: the first air raid on Berlin. No great damage was done but the leading Nazi minister Herman Goering had promised that such a thing could never happen. From now on bombing became a regular occurrence, though for a time the damage continued to be limited.
In 1941, things changed for the German people. More and more of those not conscripted into the armed services were employed in the war effort – by the end of the year more than half of the workforce were so employed. Living standards were by now noticeably declining. Rationing was tightening, and regular British bombing was causing increasing damage to civilian life and property.
The whole of German-dominated Europe had now been dragooned into the German war effort; the raw materials and labour from the conquered nations – plus an increasing amount of slave labour provided by the inmates of prisoner-of-war camps, concentration camps and death camps – gave the Third Reich huge economic resources to support its armed forces. All heavy industry within the subject territories had been taken over by the government.
Despite this focus on the war effort the results were disappointing. When drawing up the plans for the invasion of Russia Hitler was dismayed to learn that the German army had only 800 more tanks available to it than a year before when it invaded the west. The growth in other armaments – aircraft above all – had been equally disappointing. This was largely down to the fact that there was no unified direction of the economy, the result being that lots of agencies, all with different priorities and conflicting requirements, had a say in the war effort.
Also, German commanders demanded the highest quality weaponry. This meant that mass-production could not be applied to any great extent: much of the military production was still carried out in small workshops by superb craftsmen with a tradition of supplying the German army going back many years. Moreover, German forces deployed a much wider range of weaponry than their enemies, each type excellently suited for a particular job. To keep functioning they needed a bewildering range of spare parts, delivered over longer and longer distances and long periods of time.
Given that the transport of the German army was still largely horse-drawn, this was an impossibility. The German army’s invasion of Russia, for example, was slowed down more by the falling mechanical effectiveness of its tanks than by enemy action. Their enemies, on the other hand, had perhaps inferior weapons (though this is a moot point), but there were many more of them and they were kept in working order by drawing on a dependable supply of mass produced spare parts.
In February, 1942, Albert Speer was appointed Minister of Armaments with dictatorial powers over the entire economy. This marked a real turning point in the German war effort as the country belatedly mobilized its resources for total war. The myriads of controls on businesses were relaxed. A massive closing down of small businesses began, so that war production was able to be concentrated in larger units were mass-production could take place. Speer tried to limit interference by military officers as much as possible.
The following month, Fritz Sauckel was given charge of the entire labour force of the Reich. He set about meeting Germany’s growing man-power shortages by putting prisoners-of-war to work on a large scale; by drafting in forced labour from the occupied countries; and by using concentration-camp and death camp labour. These workers replaced German workers, who were being called up for military service.
In April, Albert Speer set up a Central Planning Board to give unified direction to the war effort. A number of committees covered key areas of the economy. This allowed the whole war effort to be rationalised. During the following six months alone war production increases by 59%.
In August 1942, boys and women up to 50 years old were called up to war service. By the end of the year the whole economy was concentrating its resources on the war effort. All work on non-war products (including civilian clothing) had been eliminated. Women had been mobilized (despite the Nazi ideal of the woman-in-the-home), though this call-up was somewhat resisted by women and was only partially successful. However, it freed up eight million workers for the war effort as well as making available more men for the armed forces. By now most German men aged below forty-five were in the army.
The concentration camps and death camps were drafted into the war effort, and the area around Auschwitz became an industrial centre. The inmates were literally worked to death. Millions of prisoners of war from Russia fared no better in the factories and mines of the Reich. Foreign workers drafted in as forced labour from occupied Europe were treated according to where they came from: Russians were treated appallingly, western Europeans rather better.
The result of all this was that the German economy was producing more than ever before for the war, despite the intense bombing. Also, the use of forced and slave labour meant that food rations were actually increased for Germans, back up to 1939 levels.
The increasing sacrifices made by the German civilians in 1941 – the rationing, the falling standard of living, the bombing – were offset by the astonishing victories that Hitler and his army were continuing to deliver, especially in Russia – though by the end of 1941 the severe cold had temporarily halted the German onslaught before Moscow.
In 1942 the bombing of German cities continued, with increasingly serious loss of property and life. Rations are became more and more restricted; the food was now monotonous; consumer goods were fast disappearing from shops. Moreover the succession of spectacular advances in Russia was ended with the disaster of Stalingrad. Prospects were further clouded by a British victory at El Alamein and the Allied landings in North Africa. These set-backs came as a crushing blow to a German people grown accustomed to good news from the fronts. The government decided to give out extra food rations at Christmas to cheer people up.
Hitler’s standing with the people remained high, but resentment with the Nazi authorities lower down the chain was growing. Young people in particular were growing more restless. The Hitler Youth attracted fewer active members. ‘Swing’ groups where American and English music were playing and clothes worn, spread, and more aggressive groups formed, such as the Edelwiess Pirates. These splashed anti-Nazi slogans on walls, and some moved into direct opposition by helping deserters and escapees from concentration camps.
1943 was a year of unrelenting pressure as German armies were pushed gradually back in Russia and in the Mediterranean. The Ukraine in the east and North Africa, Sicily and southern Italy were all lost to the Axis powers. It was clear to everybody that the war was no longer going Germany’s way. The bombing of German cities greatly intensified and losses mounted. Hamburg in particular was badly mauled in July.
The sufferings of those caught in the bomb raids was made worse by the shortage of doctors. Many of these were with the troops, and in any case Jewish doctors (there were a disproportinate number of these before the war) had been eliminated. Many city-dwellers were evacuated. A programme of constructing cheap, simple housing for bomb victims was in progress.
Goebbel’s skilfully turned the defeats of the army and the sufferings of the people to good propaganda effect. He did not hide them, but used them to call the people to total war so as to avoid conquest at the hands of the barbaric Russians. This plays on fears already current in the German mind and has a real effect on people’s commitment to the war effort.
War production continued to grow through the first half of 1944, despite the intensity of the bombing. Since 1942 war production had tripled in volume. Almost two-thirds of the workforce was involved in the war effort. Much industry had been relocated to Germany’s subject territories, which the Allies are less willing to bomb; large sections of it had also been located underground, where the terrible working conditions meant that this was where slave labour was concentrated. Nevertheless there was little doubt that by the middle of 1944 the Allied bombing was having a considerable impact: the dislocation of communications, and the need to construct anti-aircraft defences and bomb-proof underground sites, diverted scarce resources away from the production of aircraft, tanks and other weapons for the armed forces.
By now the German war effort is employing nearly 8 million foreign workers: more than 5 million forced labourers from occupied Europe, almost two million POWs, and some 300,000 slave labourers. The entire concentration camp system was geared to the provision of slave labour.
Plots against Hitler
Hitler remained confident that Germany would win the war. He was convinced of German invincibility; the despised Slavs had no hope of overcoming his Teutonic troops. He also believed that the Allies would quarrel – surely America and Britain would rather see Germany undefeated than Communist Russia victorious? – and in any case Germany’s scientists had almost completed some secret weapons which would turn the tide.
Amongst the senior military commanders, however, opposition to Hitler was growing as they increasingly viewed him as leading the army and nation to ruin. Several assassination attempts were organised. They all failed; but on July 20th 1944 an attempt against him came within a few feet of killing him.
The plotters – senior army officers and diplomats, mostly – were hounded down and executed with barbarous brutality, and Hitler took the opportunity to round up 5,000 leading members of German society who were known to be opponents of Nazism and have them killed.
Further measures followed to complete the subjugation of the army: the Nazi salute was made compulsory throughout the army, at all levels; political officers were appointed to oversee the doctrinal loyalty of the army; and finally, with Himmler’s appointment as Commander-in-Chief of the Home Army, this army was brought under the control of the SS.
Hitler’s narrow escape also changed the Nazi government’s relationship with the German people as a whole. Goebbels was given complete charge of the war effort. He shut down all entertainment, introduced a 60-hour week, and even raised battalions from the medically unfit. The SS was given complete control over civilian affairs to a degree not hitherto experienced. The SS now effectively ruled Germany, and the level of brutality of Nazi rule rose significantly. Their special target was “defeatists” who they regarded as undermining the war effort.
Germany itself had effectively become an occupied country, ruled by a regime that was brutally exploiting its own people in order to survive. through all this, however, Hitler’s personal popularity remained remarkably intact, even though, holed up in his command HQ, he had by now all but disappeared from public life.
By the end of 1944, American, British and Commonwealth forces had invaded northern France and advanced right up to Germany’s western borders; and the Russians were on the verge of invading Germany from the east. Most Germans were aware that the war could not be won; many were beginning to resign themselves to defeat. The bombing had reached a catastrophic level, day and night. It was having a widespread psychological effect on the population, manifesting itself in a widespread apathy. Many city-dwellers lived much of their lives in dark, uncomfortable air-raid shelters. But fear of the oncoming Russians, and of the SS at home, kept them soldiering on.
Towards the end of 1944, government started to collapse in many areas of life. Rationing could no longer be enforced, for example; the black market was the source for most people’s food, or scavenging. Opposition to the Nazis was growing at all levels of society. Despite this, the personal popularity of Hitler remained surprisingly intact. Many Germans continued to place their faith in the Führer, who had brought them so many victories in the past.
The occupation of Germany
In the final months of World War II Germany was overrun by the Allied armies, the Russians from the East, the Americans, British and their allies from the West. Germans in the east of the country experienced the full horrors of the Russian soldiers’ vengeance for the terrors inflicted on their homeland by the German occupiers. The western allies, on the other hand, were often treated as liberators, with the civilian population deeply relieved to be falling into their hands rather than those of the Russians.
The last few weeks of the war in Europe saw those left in Berlin battling for grim survival. There was indeed no space for proper civilian life in the shrinking territory still under Nazi control. The Russian army tightened its grip on the city, now reduced largely to rubble. Old men and young boys were drafted into the defending forces; German women and girls were raped on a horrific scale; refugees tried to make their way to safely out of the city.
But Nazi Germany was not quite dead. Just before his suicide, Hitler had designated Admiral Karl Doenitz, the commander of the German navy, as his successor. Doenitz was based, not in Berlin but in northern Germany; he held the office for just a few days before surrendering to the oncoming British and American forces.