A Fooled Nation: Hitler’s Rise to Power
With a lock of hair falling over his forehead and a square little mustache on his often, somber face, Adolf Hitler seemed a comical figure when he first entered into politics. He was a public speaker who ranted and raved until his voice was hoarse and sweat dripped from his brow. Hitler was an evil genius. With the help of fanatic disciples and gullible masses, he profoundly changed Germany and the political face of Europe; unleashing the most terrible war in history and unprecedented genocide in which more than six million Jews died.
Hitler is called mad; but were the men around him also mad? They were cultivated, educated, learned men. Germany wasn’t a backward country, preyed on by ignorance, but one of the most advanced nations in the world; renowned for great scientific and cultural achievements. His program was one for evil and destruction and yet the majority of the people in Germany accepted it. How did Hitler come to power? His ideas have lived on, unfortunately. Many around the world still find inspiration in his words. Also have lived on, the memories. Time has not dimmed the terms storm troops, gas chambers, death camps, and holocaust. A new generation asks, why?
On the morning of September 15 1930, early editions of newspapers across Germany brought the first reports that Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP) had scored a stunning electoral triumph. Only two years earlier, the party had languished in obscurity. The appeal of the Nationalist Socialists was so small that most commentators, those who recognized them at all, saw them as a minor and declining party. Yet, when the polls closed on the evening of September 14, 1930 the NSDAP had become the second largest party in the Weimar Republic.
The NSDAP was founded as “Deutschearbei Partei”, the German Workers Party (DAP) in Munich, during January 1919. It was one of a number of German political parties clustered along the outskirts of German politics in the immediate post-war period. Initially, it was hardly more than a debate society. It had less than thirty members, only three of which were active political speakers. The organization would probably have remained this way had it not been for the extraordinary leadership and propagandistic talents of Adolf Hitler who joined the party in 1919.
Adolf Hitler was born in Austria in 1889. He stood out in no way as a boy and didn’t finish High School. He moved to Vienna in 1907 and applied to the Vienna Academy of Art, twice, but was rejected. The heads of the department felt he was not talented enough. They had no idea how this decision would affect history. When World War I broke out, Hitler enthusiastically enlisted in the German army. His life was going nowhere and the war provided him with something to fill the void. He was looking for an adventure. In the war, he proved a dedicated and brave soldier. He was temporarily blinded by poisonous gas and was shot on the leg. He learned a lot about violence and its uses. But he was never promoted to a leadership position. His supervisors claimed that he had no leadership qualities. They were quite wrong.
At the end of the war, Hitler was disillusioned and angry: Germany had lost. He became very nationalistic and anti-Semitic like many other disillusioned soldiers. He was sure, suddenly, that the purpose of his life was to lead Germany. Adolf the artist was the dead and Hitler the politician was soon to emerge. It was his remarkable energy and magnetism as a public speaker that first shot the party into the local Munich limelight and later catapulted the movement into national recognition.
From it’s beginning, the DAP was distinguished from other German parties. Like the others, it was extremely nationalistic, anti-Semitic, anti-Marxist and anti-Weimar Republic. But the DAP was determined to win the support of the working class for its cause. The party emphasized its commitment to “ennobling the German worker.” They claimed the Jews were controlling Germany and taking over. In reality, there were only about six hundred thousand Jews living in Germany and they represented less than one percent of the population.
From the very moment of his early entry into the tiny DAP, Hitler was determined to transform the party into a prominent political organization. He had great plans, most of which came true. His tireless activity (he was unemployed) and his surprising success as public speaker soon made him indispensable. By the end of the year, Hitler had become both propaganda chief and a member of the executive committee. At the same time the party changed its name to the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP); or Nazis for short.
Hitler, ordinary as he seemed, turned out to be a mesmerizing speaker. During 1920, his reputation as a fiery and effective speaker continued to attract increasingly large audiences to his carefully orchestrated and powerful public appearances. His voice, his features, his words, the passion he displayed put a spell on his audiences. He was like a magician. But it wasn’t just magic: the meetings were always held in the late afternoons after his audiences had left work. They were more susceptible to what he had to say. The mood in Germany was grim and his public was depressed. Hitler took advantage of all their weaknesses. Doctors, lawyers, teachers and other members of the upper class, as well as workers began to join the Nazi party.
Hitler dressed up his creed with symbols of power. He put his early Nazi followers into brown-shirted uniforms and called them storm troops or SA. The name inspired fear. So did the way they looked and the sound of their boots. Hitler also created a Nazi flag: a red banner with a black swastika on a white circle. He did not invent the swastika and before he adopted it, the swastika was a positive, spiritual symbol that meant life and was used by many cultures.
Hitler’s followers left the meeting halls after he spoke shouting “Heil Hitler! Heil Hitler!” Fired by his words, they went out into the streets singing angrily, “When Jewish blood flows from our knives, things will be better!” Not only did they sing, they looked for Jews to beat up. With bully bravado between 10 and 15 of them would gang up on just one person. Hitler’s followers were everywhere. Out of fear or out of sentiment, the public hesitated to interfere.
Did the German government try to stop the brutality? It did, but by the time, the police got there, the aggressors had dispersed. In addition, the Weimar Republic was not very powerful. From it’s foundation during the coalition of 1918, two days before the end of World War II, until it’s demise with Nazi assumption of power in 1933, the Weimar Republic was burdened by a series of overlapping, political, social, and economic problems. A lot of hostility towards it was due to the Versailles Treaty.
Germany had agreed with the Allies to stop the fighting, believing that President Woodrow Wilson’s idealistic “Fourteen Points” would be the basis for a negotiated peace treaty. They found that the treaty was not negotiable and the German delegation was advised to agree or be taken over. The Allies, against President Wilson’s wishes, were determined to get their revenge on Germany. Under the terms of the treaty, Germany was charged with sole responsibility for the war, stripped of it’s colonial empire and a huge chunk of its land, and forced to pay heavy reparations. The treaty seriously disrupted German political and economic life and was considered horribly unfair by Germans and non-Germans alike.
By early 1923, Hitler was in firm command of the Nazi party. As he was responsible for the growth of the group, he could and did set himself up as its leader. Hitler was ready to test the political waters. He wasn’t willing to wait any longer and ruled out participation in electoral politics as the road to power. He was convinced that the Republic could be toppled by revolution. At the time, the Republic seemed vulnerable.
The Weimar Republic was determined to avoid the postwar recession and mass unemployment among the millions of demobilized veterans. It also had to pay pensions to millions of injured veterans, widows, sons and other surviving dependents of the war dead. It also, of course had to pay billions of dollars in war reparations. The result of all these economic demands was high inflation and the result of the inflation was a dramatic deterioration of the Reichmark’s (RM) value. In January 1922, a dollar was worth 8.20 RM. By December, it was worth 7,589.27 RM. In January 1923, it was worth 17,952 RM. By August the exchange rate reached an astronomical 109,996.15 RM to the dollar.
Economic life in Germany acquired an almost surrealistic quality. Imagine that in August you buy a ticket for a streetcar in Berlin for 100,000 RM. One month later the same ticket costs 4,500,000 RM and by November, it’s 150 million RM. In January you buy a kilo of potatoes for 20 RM. In October, the same kilo costs 90 billion. Bread was more than five times that, eventually at 467 billion. The price of one kilo of beef at 4 trillion simply defies imagination. Life was madness not to mention how it affected the cost of living. As prices went up, salaries went up but not quite as quickly as prices.
Meanwhile, the Allies refused to accept payment for the war offered in devalued German currency. They sent French and Belgian troops to occupy the Rurh. A broad political and economic crisis soon developed in Germany. There was rampant inflation, high unemployment, uprisings in the Rhineland, a communist coup in Hamburg, and mobilization of rightist forces in Bavaria. The Republic had the world on its shoulders.
This atmosphere of political and economic crisis inspired Hitler to enlist the NSDAP in a conspirational alliance with a number of other German, political parties and right-wing groups. They planned to overthrow first the Bavarian government and eventually the Third Reich. When at last the accordingly named Beer Hall Putsch went into action it was a fiasco. It was not very organized nor supported by the army. The conspiracy was immediately crushed, Hitler was arrested and the NSDAP was banned throughout the Reich. The humiliation of the Beer Hall Putsch taught Hitler patience. If he wanted to gain power, he would have to do it the hard way: by getting elected.
Although he was found guilty of treason and sentenced to five years in prison, Hitler was released within a year. During his short stay, he was given private quarters and allowed to receive visits often. While in prison he wrote Mein Kampf (My Struggle), the bible of the Nazi party. In Mein Kampf, Hitler set forth his racial views. He said that Germans were the master Aryan race and deserved to rule the world. Actually, the Aryans were one of the first settlers of India and had nothing to do with Germany. He also said that the Jews were evil. The evil was in their genes and could never be eliminated.
While Hitler was in jail, the NSDAP participated in their first Reichstag election. Although the failure of the Putsch had sent the already shaky movement into disarray, some order was restored in the first few months of the following year. Shortly after the failed rebellion, Hitler had entrusted the leadership of the group to Alfred Rosemberg, a man with little organizational experience and less personal authority over the group; qualifications which may have highly recommended him to Hitler. The future Der Fuhrer didn’t want the Nazis to be entirely without leadership but he also didn’t want to be upstaged.
With it’s leader arrested and it’s organization banned throughout Germany, the NSDAP floundered. Before the Putsch, Hitler had given very little thought to any type of plan B should the plot miscarry. As a result, the party wavered on the brink of disintegration. But the election of 1924, nicknamed the “inflation election” because it was during a time when Germany was in a chaotic state due to hyperinflation, was a successful one. They brought in 6.5 percent of the vote.
Starting in 1925, with the institution of the Dawes Plan, Germany entered a period of relative prosperity and political stability. Just as economic turmoil and political unrest characterized the early postwar period, the years from 1924 to 1929 would be remembered as the Golden Twenties. It was the calm before the storm.
For the National Socialists, the next four years were filled with failed tactic after failed tactic to regain a foothold in German politics. After his release from the Landsberg prison, Hitler was determined to reestablish his control over the National Socialist movement. He was also still determined to climb to power the legal way. In practical terms this meant he needed to recruit more supporters for his Nazi party and needed to get them to vote for him.
But nothing worked. When the Reichstag that was elected four years earlier was dissolved, new elections were set for May 20, 1928. The NSDAP brought in 2.6 percent of the vote. It seemed that the organization was done with. Until Black Tuesday.
Half a world away from Germany was the US. But the distance didn’t stop the Great Depression in America from devastating the German economy just when it was getting back on its feet. In late 1929, industrial production began a steady slide. As production fell, unemployment rose. By January 1930, over three million Germans were unemployed. Once again the state of Germany was disrupted and there was misery.
Meanwhile, the NSDAP was better organized and better financed than at any other time in their brief history. Hitler had used the years spent in obscurity to firmly establish his leadership and came to be seen almost like a god to his fanatic followers. The Nazi machine began to take up steam and they began an extensive propagandistic campaign.
They promised debt relief to desperate farmers, new jobs for the unemployed and the perfect answer to very problem plaguing Germany. But it was more than that. Hitler and his Nazis provided hope. Hitler with his words wove a comforting picture of a united, prosperous Germany, which was exactly what they needed to hear.
He told them he would save them from the long chain of disasters. They had lost World War I and been forced to accept the brutal Versailles Treaty and then had to deal with inflation. Now this, the Depression. Screaming, his voice charged with emotion, he spoke of acquiring territory and winning glory for Germany. He told them they were not to blame for losing World War I, they had lost it because of their enemies, the Jews. Again and again he made the same points. Germans were a master race fit to rule the world. Nazis were a force of good in the world, Jews were a force of evil.
Soon, there appeared an upward curve in the Nazis’ electoral fortunes. They became incredibly popular and had a major breakthrough in the elections of September 1930. Their status as a major political party was instituted. As the depression deepened, the Nazi’s membership began to swell. By 1932, the NSDAP had a membership of 1.5 million. The most important election for the Nazis and for the whole world took place in 1937 after a very illustrious campaign. In its most dramatic stroke, Hitler took to the skies in a highly publicized tour appearing in 21 cities in six days. Their campaign was a great success. At this election, the Nazis took 37.3 percent of the votes. They had finally won.
The result put Hitler in a commanding position. But refused to name him Chancellor. This was a very unpopular decision. The Nazis were not yet the most numerous group in Germany but they were certainly the most active and rather most menacing. They desperately wanted Hitler to be chancellor. In January of 1933, President Hindenburg finally asked Hitler to become Chancellor. Because the Nazis did not have a majority of seats in the Reichstag, Hitler had to form a coalition government. In 1933 after the death of President Hindenburg, the German cabinets combined the offices president and chancellor to make Hitler, Der Furher. He had achieved his goal. He was supreme leader and unlimited master of all Germany.
Now he had the power to make war on the Jews. He wanted to make Germany Judenrein, free of Jews. He was going to scare them out.
As soon as Hitler took power he put his beliefs into practice. He abolished freedom of speech and assembly, banned all parties except for the Nazi party and had his political enemies murdered; including seventy-seven Nazis whose loyalty he questioned. Herman Goering, Hitler’s second-in-command, ran the Gestapo, the dreaded secret police. They arrested, tortured and killed any one who opposed Hitler. Joeseph Goebbels was in charge of propaganda and utilized all media to spread hatred of the Jews. The black-shirted SS wore on their uniforms the death emblem, a skull and crossed bones to signify that they were as obedient as corpses. Their duties were to conduct door-to-door searches looking for Hitler’s opponents. The list was a long one: Jews, communists, Gypsies, Poles, Russians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, socialists, unfriendly writers, homosexuals…. You could be arrested for anything or nothing at all.
Even his precious Germans weren’t always satisfactory. German cripples, the deformed and mentally ill, orphans, and the homeless marred his image of the master race. Hitler wanted to make all Germans perfect physical specimens. All of them tall and strong with blue eyes and blond hair though he himself was short, with brown eyes and hair. The Nazis controlled every aspect of German life. They organized Germany’s schoolchildren into “Hitler Youth Groups”. They wore swastika bands and were taught to hate Jews. They were also encouraged to spy on their parents and other adults and to report anyone who said anything against Hitler or his party.
And what of the German Jews? They were caught in a terrifying, situation. No one had ever expected Hitler to become Chancellor; and certainly didn’t expect him to become Der Furher. HIs raving speeches and messages of hatred were to be ignored in a civilized world. Right? The Jews had suffered from the war and the inflation and the Depression just like everyone else. Now their home was a strange, hostile, dangerous place no matter where in Germany they lived and eventually no matter where in Europe you lived.
The SS beat Jews in the streets, raided synagogues, trod on sacred Jewish objects, and burned holy books, laughing and joking as they did so. They mocked, humiliated and murdered Jews. Goebbels fed the flames of hatred. All over Germany, the press reported false acts of Jewish treachery. Stories about Jews drinking the blood of Christian children. The lies rang like truth when they appeared in bold, black ink on the pages of respected newspapers.
Moviehouses, cafes, concert halls and other public places began to put up signs reading, “Jews not wanted.” Signs at swimming pools read, “No Jews and no Dogs.” As if there was no difference. In cabarets, German entertainers put on mock weddings between a German and a pig that was wearing a sign that said, “I’m a Jew!” Hatred and suspicion were everywhere. Germans began to shun their former neighbors and friends. German mobs felt free to loot Jewish stores and homes. German children felt free to bully their Jewish classmates. April 1, 1933 there was a national boycott of Jewish stores. Armed, glaring, uniformed Nazis stood guard outside every Jewish store and allowed no one to enter.
On March 12, 1938 German troops marched into Austria. They were met not with resistance, but with flowers. Here too, Hitler launched a campaign against the Jews. Soon, Austria hated the Jews too. Jewish stores were, again, boycotted. The SS made Jewish men get down on all fours and eat grass, then climb trees and twitter like birds. They made Jewish women run until they fainted.
Now Hitler wanted Austria to be Judenrein too. But they were so annoying he wanted them out of all Europe. Let the Americans deal with them. Then one day, he decided he wanted them off the face of the Earth. He would make the whole world free of Jews. He needed an excuse to do so and was given one by a very enraged Herschel Grynszpan.
The seventeen-year old was living in Paris when he received word from his Jewish family that, being Polish they had been expelled from Germany and sent back to Poland. But Poland no longer recognized them as citizens and they were wandering around, stateless with invalid passports in the “no man’s land” between Poland and Germany. On November 7, 1938, or Kristallnacht, “Night of Broken glass” the angry boy went to the German embassy in Paris and shot the first official he saw. The boy was arrested and the official died two days later. This act triggered off events the dimensions of which Herschel could not have begun to understand or even guess at. It led to the Final Solution, the systematic murder of millions of Jews all over Europe. The Holocaust.
Hitler committed horrible crimes against the Jews and many others in the concentration camps, and ghettoes but he was never punished. In anticipation of his downfall Hitler killed himself in 1945. Because he did it himself he had the last laugh. His book, Mein Kampf is banned in Germany and considered a dirty word. Most Germans want to forget any of it ever happened. But perhaps they shouldn’t. The holocaust was plain, undeniable truth of the horror of humanity. It has been immortalized in pictures, in visual and verbal accounts of those who experienced it and the horrified minds and hearts of the world. If we always remember it and learn to understand it, then we can prevent it from ever happening again; if we answer the question, how did Hitler come to power?
Perhaps it is the weakness of democracies that anyone can take control. Hitler came to power the legitimate way, through participating in elections. True he broke or bent a few rules and cheated and lied but probably no more than any other politician. It is common belief that had Hitler come along at another less desperate time for Germany, history would have played itself out very differently. Germany was weak. The people were miserable and Germans were scared after being hit with wave after wave after wave of calamity.
The Nazis provided the answer for impoverished farmers, ruined shopkeepers and small-business owners, workers disillusioned with the socialists and communist parties, and a host of frustrated and embittered young people of all classes, brought up in the postwar years and without hope of personal economic security. Hitler did a lot of good for Germany, fulfilling most if not all his promises. He provided employment and stabilized the economy. Hitler told Germans they were the master race and promised them the world. He also provided them with a scapegoat; someone to pinpoint their anger at: the Jew. If someone had to suffer and pay the price for Germany’s prosperity then let it be the Jew. Such was their mentality. History books should not portray the Germans as evil; their eager acceptance of Hitler’s ideas and policies is the product o human weakness and imperfection.
But Hitler was evil. Perhaps the most evil of men. An amoral man he viewed his fellow human beings as mere bricks in the political structure he wanted to erect. Hitler has hurt and permanently scarred the world with his destructive message, a message that still lives. But he too deserves understanding. He was born to a submissive, quiet mother and a cold, fearful father. When he was eighteen, his mother whom he was moderately close to, died. He failed at his life’s ambition, to become an artist and saw the country he loved torn apart in a million directions; saw the people he loved starve. Maybe he did believe in every crazy thing he said. Who knows? But we must never forget the Holocaust or Hitler. Both event and figure have something to show about humanity that is ugly but always there. Always ready to strike out. If we forget, it might happen again.