Germany in Disarray
In the years after World War I, Germany fell deeper and deeper into chaos. By late 1923, its economy had bottomed out, making the German currency, the mark, virtually worthless. This is exactly the kind of environment in which dictators are born, and Hitler knew it. On November 8, he tried to incite a revolution against the Bavarian provincial government during a rally of monarchists and nationalists. Though his efforts resulted in nothing more than a small riot that was quickly put down by armed police, Hitler's Beer Hall Putsch became famous. He was sentenced to five years in prison but served only nine months.
Adolf Hitler's autobiography, Mein Kampf (“My Struggle”), was written while he was imprisoned at Landsberg am Lech for his failed Beer Hall Putsch of 1923. In the book, Hitler details his life and philosophy. Much of it is anti-Semitic, claiming that the Jews were responsible for all that was wrong in Germany.
When he was released, Hitler was more intent than ever on assuming power in Germany. The Germans needed help — they were barely surviving, their national pride in tatters. They needed an explanation, they needed self-assurance, they needed a common cause and a common scapegoat, and Hitler gave them what they asked for. He portrayed himself as the father figure that Germany so desperately needed. All the nation's problems, Hitler told his followers, resulted from unsavory influences and the poisoning of Germany's racial purity. As the years went on, Hitler's closest advisers and confidants came to include Hermann Goering, Heinrich Himmler, and Joseph Goebbels, all of whom would later help Hitler lead the nation into one of the most barbaric periods in human history.
Hitler's original title for Mein Kampf was “Four and a Half Years of Struggle Against Lies, Stupidity and Cowardice.” It was his editor who suggested a title change.
In the 1932 election, Hitler made his first important step toward his goal of assuming power in Germany. Indeed, his timing couldn't have been better. The established coalition between socialists and middle-class parties in the Reichstag, the German parliament, had been all but destroyed by the Depression, opening the door for new leadership. In April, the Nazi Party won control of four state governments, and Hitler finished a distant second (with only 37 percent of the popular vote) after conservative president Paul von Hindenburg. Centrist chancellor Heinrich Brüning, who had grown increasingly unpopular as a result of the austerity measures he had imposed on the already suffering nation, resigned as a result of the election; his successor, Franz von Papen, called for Reichstag elections in July.
Nazis Consolidate Power
Spurred by Hitler's growing popularity, the election gave the Nazis 230 seats, making the party the largest and most influential in the Reichstag. The Nazi delegates, recognized by their brown uniforms, acted more like bullies than legislators, and debates with opposing delegates usually turned into brawls. Meanwhile, the nation's political conflict poured into the streets as Nazi storm troopers engaged Communist paramilitary fighters in almost nightly battles.
Hitler Rises to Power
Chancellor Papen hated the Nazis but needed their support to govern, so he reluctantly extended the hand of partisan friendship by offering Hitler the position of vice chancellor. But Hitler refused, demanding the chancel-lorship. A panicked Papen tried to bolster his own position by dissolving the Reichstag and calling for fresh elections again in November. The Nazi Party lost thirty-four seats but still retained its superior position.
Figure 1-1 A Sudeten woman weeps as she is forced to salute Hitler in 1938.
Photo courtesy of the National Archives (208-PP-10A-2)
Papen tried briefly to convince Hindenburg to declare his own dictatorship in a desperate bid to keep Hitler from power, but both men quickly realized that such a move would be foolhardy because of the strength and number of Nazi storm troopers and because too many of the nation's military officers supported Hitler. Hindenburg dismissed Papen and replaced him with Defense Minister Kurt von Schleicher, who then offered the position of vice chancellor to the leader of the Nazi Party's left wing. However, the gesture only served to unite party members more strongly behind Hitler.
What were the three reichs?
According to Hitler, the First Reich was the Holy Roman Empire, a group of Germanic tribes united by Charlemagne in the ninth century. The Second Reich was Germany unified under Otto von Bismarck and carved up after World War I. Hitler proclaimed the inauguration of the Third Reich, which he said would conquer all of Europe and last 1,000 years.
After failing to form a government with either the socialists or the conservative nationalists, Schleicher resigned as chancellor on January 23, 1933. Both he and Papen remained powerful members of the Reichstag and had convinced themselves that if they couldn't keep Hitler out, they could at least control him by surrounding him with more moderate cabinet ministers. After a frenzy of negotiations, Hitler became chancellor on January 30, 1933.
However, Hitler was not about to be appeased. He and his followers quickly set to work making him supreme and absolute ruler of the German republic by brutally eliminating all who might oppose him politically and making friends with the rich industrialists whose support Hitler desperately needed. When the long-ailing Hindenburg finally died on August 2, 1934, Hitler quickly abolished the office of president and with the cry “One race, one realm, one leader!” proclaimed himself der Führer — the Leader.