In the aftermath of World War I, Germans struggled to understand their country’s uncertain future. Citizens faced poor economic conditions, skyrocketing unemployment, political instability, and profound social change. While downplaying more extreme goals, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party offered simple solutions to Germany’s problems, exploiting people’s fears, frustrations, and hopes to win broad support.
How did conditions in Germany and Europe at the end of World War I contribute to the rise and triumph of Nazism in Germany?
Paris, 1900. More than fifty million people from around the world visited the Universal Exposition—a world’s fair intended to promote greater understanding and tolerance among nations, and to celebrate the new century, new inventions, exciting progress. The 20th century began much like our own—with hope that education, science and technology could create a better, more peaceful world. What followed soon after were two devastating wars.
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The Path to Nazi Genocide
The first “world war,” from 1914 to 1918, was fought throughout Europe and beyond. It became known as “the war to end all wars.” It cast an immense shadow on tens of millions of people. “This is not war,” one wounded soldier wrote home. “It is the ending of the world.” Half of all Frenchmen aged 20 to 32 at war’s outbreak were dead when it was over. More than one third of all German men aged 19 to 22 were killed. Millions of veterans were crippled in body and in spirit. Advances in the technology of killing included the use of poison gas. Under the pressure of unending carnage, governments toppled and great empires dissolved. It was a cataclysm that darkened the world’s view of humanity and its future. Winston Churchill said the war left “a crippled, broken world.”
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Aftermath of World War I and the Rise of Nazism, 1918-1933
The humiliation of Germany’s defeat and the peace settlement that followed in 1919 would play an important role in the rise of Nazism and the coming of a second “world war” just 20 years later. What shocked so many in Germany about the treaty signed near Paris, at the Palace of Versailles, was that the victors dictated a future in which Germany was deprived of any significant military power. Germany’s territory was reduced by 13%. Germany was forced to accept full responsibility for starting the war and to pay heavy reparations. To many, including 30-year old former army corporal Adolf Hitler, it seemed the country had been “stabbed in the back”—betrayed by subversives at home and by the government who accepted the armistice. In fact, the German military had quietly sought an end to the war it could no longer win in 1918. “It cannot be that two million Germans should have fallen in vain,” Adolf Hitler later wrote. “We demand vengeance!”
Many veterans and other citizens struggled to understand Germany’s defeat and the uncertain future. Troops left the bloody battlefields and returned to a bewildering society. A new and unfamiliar democratic form of government—the Weimar Republic—replaced the authoritarian empire and immediately faced daunting challenges. Thousands of Germans waited in lines for work and food in the early 1920s. Middle class savings were wiped out as severe inflation left the currency worthless. Some burned it for fuel. Economic conditions stabilized for a few years, then the worldwide depression hit in 1929. The German banking system collapsed, and by 1930 unemployment skyrocketed to 22%. In a country plagued by joblessness, embittered by loss of territory, and demoralized by ineffective government, political demonstrations frequently turned violent. Many political parties had their own paramilitary units to attack opponents and intimidate voters. In 1932, ninety-nine people were killed in the streets in one month. Right–wing propaganda and demonstrations played on fears of a Communist revolution spreading from the Soviet Union.
New social problems emerged from the impact of rapid industrialization and the growth of cities. Standards of behavior were changing. Crime was on the rise. Sexual norms were in flux. For the first time, women were working outside the home in large numbers, and the new constitution gave women the right to vote. Germany’s fledgling democracy was profoundly tested by the crumbling of old values and fears of what might come next. Adolf Hitler had been undisputed leader of the National Socialist German Workers Party—known as Nazis—since 1921. In 1923, he was imprisoned for trying to overthrow the government. His trial brought him fame and followers. He used the jail time to dictate his political ideas in a book, Mein Kampf—My Struggle. Hitler’s ideological goals included territorial expansion, consolidation of a racially pure state, and elimination of the European Jews and other perceived enemies of Germany. He served only a short jail sentence, and after the ban was lifted on his National Socialist Party, Hitler and his followers rejoined the battle in the streets and in the countryside.
The Nazi Party recruited, organized, and produced a newspaper to spread its message. While downplaying more extreme Nazi goals, they offered simple solutions to Germany’s problems, exploiting people’s fears, frustrations, and hopes. In the early 1930s, the frequency of elections was dizzying. So was the number of parties and splinter groups vying for votes. Hitler proved to be a charismatic campaigner and used the latest technology to reach people. The Nazi Party gained broad support, including many in the middle class—intellectuals, civil servants, students, professionals, shopkeepers and clerks ruined by the Depression. But the Nazis never received more than 38% of the vote in a free national election. No party was able to win a clear majority, and without political consensus, successive governments could not effectively govern the nation.
Adolf Hitler was not elected to office and he did not have to seize power. He was offered a deal just as the Nazis started to lose votes. In January 1933, when the old war hero, President Paul von Hindenburg, invited Hitler to serve as Chancellor in a coalition government, the Nazis could hardly believe their luck. The Nazis were revolutionaries who wanted to radically transform Germany. The conservative politicians in the new Cabinet didn’t like or trust Hitler, but they liked democracy even less, and they saw the leftist parties as a bigger threat. They reached out to the Nazis to help build a majority in Parliament. They were confident they could control Hitler. One month later, when arson gutted the German parliament building, Hitler and his nationalist coalition partners seized their chance. Exploiting widespread fears of a communist uprising, they blamed Communists for the fire, and declared emergency rule. President Hindenburg signed a decree that suspended all basic civil rights and constitutional protections, providing the basis for arbitrary police actions.
The new government’s first targets were political opponents. Under the emergency decree, they could be terrorized, beaten and held indefinitely. Leaders of trade unions and opposition parties were arrested. German authorities sent thousands, including leftist members of Parliament, to newly established concentration camps. Despite Nazi terror and brutal suppression of their opponents, many German citizens willingly accepted or actively supported these extreme measures in favor of order and security. Many Germans felt a new hope and confidence in the future of their country with the prospect of a bold, young charismatic leader. Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels planned to win over those who were still unconvinced.
GOEBBELS [speaking German]:
One must govern well, and for good government one must also practice good propaganda. They work together. A good government without propaganda is not more possible than good propaganda without a good government.
Hitler spoke to the SA, his army of storm troopers.
HITLER [speaking German]:
Germany has awakened! We have won power in Germany. Now we must win the German people.
White Rose, German anti-Nazi group formed in Munich in 1942. Unlike the conspirators of the July Plot (1944) or participants in such youth gangs as the Edelweiss Pirates, the members of the White Rose advocated nonviolent resistance as a means of opposing the Nazi regime.
Three of the group’s founding members—Hans Scholl, Willi Graf, and Alexander Schmorell—were medical students at the University of Munich. While on the Eastern Front, the trio observed the murder of Jewish civilians by SS troops. When they returned to Munich, the three joined with other students—including Hans’s sister Sophie—to discuss their opposition to the Nazi regime. Coupling youthful idealism with an impressive knowledge of German literature and Christian religious teachings, the students published their beliefs in a series of leaflets under the name “the White Rose” (and later as “Leaflets of the Resistance”).
The first of those leaflets, published in June 1942, quoted liberally from the works of Friedrich Schiller and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and it advocated passive resistance to the Nazi war effort. The first White Rose essay concluded with the statement, “Do not forget that every nation deserves the government that it endures.” Using addresses obtained from a telephone directory, the leaflets were mailed to individuals across Munich. Five more leaflets followed over the next eight months, and the Gestapo became increasingly concerned about the potential threat posed by them. By early 1943, members of the White Rose were scattering leaflets by hand, and they began an anti-Nazi graffiti campaign, painting “Freedom” and “Down with Hitler” on buildings throughout Munich.
Those actions increased the risk faced by the students, and on February 18, 1943, a Nazi party member observed Hans and Sophie throwing leaflets from a University of Munich classroom building. They were arrested that day, and an investigation uncovered the participation of Christoph Probst, a fellow University of Munich medical student, in the White Rose. The Scholls and Probst were quickly tried, and the three were beheaded on February 22, 1943. In the months that followed, dozens were imprisoned for their (real or imagined) connections to the White Rose, and some, including Graf and Schmorell, were executed.