From Weimar to the Third Reich: The Birth of a Dictatorship | Daniel Hawker
History has seen its fair share of wicked and corrupt leaders and regimes, from Ivan the Terrible, to Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong, to Pol Pot and Saddam Hussein. These men, and others like them, desired to tightly grip the reins of power and not let go, entrenching themselves and their position within the political system. Of all the possible regimes to explore with this piece, Hitler’s Third Reich was chosen because to its dual notoriety and anonymity – Nazi Germany is known to almost everyone as a significant historical period, but the system’s context, beginning and how Hitler came to be Führer is a far more elusive story.
A solid understanding of Hitler’s time in power requires some historical context, specifically the end of the First World War and the subsequent years of the democratic Weimar Republic. The country’s crushing defeat, as part of the Central Powers, saw the victors gather to decide how both to punish and subdue Germany – the result was the Treaty of Versailles, signed by Foreign Minister Hermann Müller in 1919. The terms were far harsher than the Germans had anticipated, due mainly to France’s involvement: they accepted war guilt, had to pay 132bn marks in reparations (as well as all war pensions), their army was limited to 100,000 men, and they lost the key territories of Saar, Alsace Lorraine and Danzig. From the perspective of almost all Germans, regardless of region or class, Versailles represented the most heinous betrayal by the political elites. Having been the catalyst for the Weimar Republic, this new political system never managed to escape the Treaty’s legacy, with its dark shadow tarnishing the concept of ‘democracy’.
For many German nationalists and monarchists however, even their nation’s military defeat couldn’t be accepted, resulting in the anti-Semitic ‘Stab in the Back’ myth, which essentially argued that, far from being the fault of the soldiers, Germany’s defeat had actually been the result of traitorous elites and politicians (many of whom were Jewish) working to undermine the country’s war effort. This was a narrative that greatly appealed to Adolf Hitler, who similarly couldn’t accept the reality of the situation – he described Germany’s defeat in Mein Kampf as “the greatest villainy of the century”, and one which anti-German propaganda greatly contributed to, “with Jewish, socialist propaganda spreading doubt and defeatism from within”.
With such widespread shared outrage following Versailles, it is no wonder that the Weimar Republic was plagued with social unrest, political violence and attempted coups from the very beginning. From the communist left, you had the Spartacist Uprising in 1919, fuelled by a desire to replace Weimar with a Soviet-style system (inspired by the Bolshevik Revolution), and from the nationalist right, you had the Kapp Putsch in 1920 (and Hitler’s Munich Putsch in 1923), who harkened back to the authoritarian monarchical style of Kaiser Wilhelm II and Bismarck. Add to this list the regularity of politically-motivated street violence, as well as the assassinations of major politicians (the finance minister in 1921, and the foreign minister in 1922), and you have a government unable to defend either itself, or it’s citizenry.
Public confidence in the Weimar regime was perhaps most seriously damaged by the country’s economic instability across the entire period, from 1918 to 1933. Already decimated by mass-printing and borrowing during the War, the German economy would suffer numerous economic crises, beginning with hyperinflation in 1923. The result of a French invasion and occupation, the government was forced to increase its borrowing, further decimating living standards – increased alcoholism and suicide rates were recorded, along with a decline in law and order, and more generally, public trust in the government. Although briefly graced with the ‘Golden Years’ (1923-29), Germany once again faced economic decimation in the form of the Great Depression, which again saw mass social unrest, as well as six million unemployed citizens (1933).
By the early 1930s therefore, extremist anti-Weimar parties were becoming increasingly popular with the angry and struggling German electorate. This is reflected in seat counts: the Nazis went from 12 seats in 1928, to 107 in 1930, before reaching their all-time high of 230 in July 1932 – similarly, the communist KPD reached an impressive 100 in November 1932. Fundamentally, what Hitler and the Nazis were offering increasingly spoke to much of the German population – ending reparations, regaining national pride, the promise of full-employment, a Kaiser-like leader, and an uncompromising stance against the boogeymen of the time, Jews and Communists.
His appointment as Chancellor wasn’t guaranteed by any means however, thanks to President Paul von Hindenburg. Having once described Hitler as a ‘bohemian corporal’, he was concerned with Hitler’s lack of government experience, although had offered Hitler the position of vice-chancellor in 1932. What forced his hand however, was the enormous influence wielded by the industry elites, who viewed Hitler as the authoritarian figure that the chancellorship needed, an opinion fuelled by their fear of communism’s increasing popularity
However, once Hitler’s appointment became necessary and inevitable, Hindenburg, along with former chancellor Papen, conspired to control a Hitler-led government, believing Hitler’s lack of experience meant he would be like a puppet who could be ‘tamed’. The two men thought that, with few Nazis in the Cabinet, and with Papen as vice-chancellor, true power could lie with them, with Hitler being ‘Chancellor in name only’. How wrong they were.
Having attained the chancellorship in January 1933, Hitler now set about securing his position, first through legislative changes. This came most significantly in two forms: the Reichstag Fire Decree in February 1933, and then the Enabling Act in March. Both pieces of legislation legally grounded the fledgling regime, granting them the authority and power to act as they wish, and silence those who opposed them.
The hurried passing of the emergency Reichstag Fire Decree came in the wake of a suspected Communist-led arson of the Reichstag building. Arriving at the scene alongside other leading Nazis, Hitler viewed the crime as a blatant assault on the German state, and all it stood for. In response, Hitler pressured Hindenburg to sign the Act into law, which saw the suspension of essentially all civil liberties (e.g., the right to association, speech, freedom of the press etc). These rights wouldn’t see a revival later on. Aside from removing freedoms, the Decree also saw a brutal crackdown of political opponents (as the police no longer required cause, and could hold people indefinitely). Indeed, the first two weeks following the Decree’s signing saw around 10,000 people arrested in Prussia, including many prominent communist leaders. From the perspective of Richard J. Evans, “this was the first of the two fundamental documents on which the dictatorship of the Third Reich was erected”.
Even more significant, however, was the passing of the Enabling Act. Single-handedly transforming Germany into a legal dictatorship, the Act allowed the Cabinet to pass legislation without requiring the consent of either the Reichstag or the president. Indeed, this paved the way for the Nazis to further tighten their grip on the political system – for example, the founding of new parties was banned in July 1933. Fundamentally, with an unrivalled number of NSDAP Reichstag members, Hitler had made democracy into dictatorship in only a few months – in the words of Evans: “By the summer of 1933 all opposition had been crushed, more than a hundred thousand Communists, Social Democrats and other opponents of the Nazis had been sent to concentration camps, all independent political parties had been forced to dissolve themselves and the Nazi dictatorship had been firmly established”. Combining the offices of president and chancellor in 1934 (following Hindenburg’s death), Hitler’s adoption of the Führer title cemented his authority and the dominance of the Nazi party.
In consolidating Nazi power, Hitler definitely made his position within the new hierarchy very clear. This can be seen in the ‘Hitler Oath’, introduced for the judiciary, military and civil servants. Having previously sworn loyalty to ‘the German Reich’, officials now swore “unconditional obedience” to Hitler personally. This reflected the broader ruling philosophy of the Nazi regime, one in place since the party’s reorganisation in 1924, Führerprinzip (essentially that the Führer’s decisions are always correct, and that he is all-powerful and above the law). With the effective spreading of propaganda, Hitler came to encapsulate a past era of Germany’s history, one dominated by patriotic and statist authoritarians, notably the much-sentimentalized Bismarckian and Wilhelmine ‘Second Reich’.
Regarding institutional control, Hitler set about ensuring political conformity within branches of local government and the Civil Service. Although dominated by conservatives from the Wilhelmine Reich, a purge of ‘enemies of the State’ was still required of civil servants – this came in the form of the anti-Semitic ‘Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service’, which banned Jews and political opposition. Germany’s Jewish community would, later on, see further exclusion from institutions, including education (both as students and as teachers). Additionally, the local government saw its own purge of dissidents, as well as an overhaul of its structure, with Reich Deputies introduced to administer the different states – in doing this, the Nazis ensured that all areas of the country were under their top-down control.
Nazi actions were similar towards the media establishment. Fearing the damaging impacts of dissident reporting, the Reich Association of the German Press was set up, to review all content and keep the journalists, editors and publishers in line with the regime’s messaging. The same happened within the cultural and artistic spheres of German society – fearing the spread of ‘degenerate’ modern art (labelled as Cultural Bolshevism), it was the Reich Chamber of Culture that reversed the artistic developments seen during the ‘Golden Age of Weimar’.
Whilst these two agencies monitored for anti-Nazi media sentiment, it was through the Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda (headed by Joseph Goebbels) that the regime was able to most effectively spread its hateful rhetoric, with a unified radio system being established in 1934, and radios being mass-produced for the population. Allowing Hitler to more easily speak to his people, this communications technology proved vital in further cementing Nazism into the everyday lives of the citizenry. Aside from this, the agency also oversaw the production of pro-Nazi films, which praised Aryan physical qualities, all the whilst presenting Jews as parasitic, manipulative and barbaric (most famously seen with the release of The Eternal Jew in 1940).
These structural changes however, would only get Hitler’s vision for Germany so far. He could make himself the supreme leader, root out opponents in state institutions and the media, and spread the party’s ideas of racial purity all he wanted, but what the Führer really needed was a population ideologically committed to National Socialism, a concept the Nazis referred to as a Volksgemeinschaft, or ‘national/people’s community’. With the population having been divided under Weimar, Hitler aspired to rule a unified Germany, one with a populace devoted to the Fatherland. For this to work however, all social groups would have to see real life improvements.
With unemployment having reached six million by 1933, Hitler’s aim with Germany’s workers was more jobs and improving their living conditions. Emphasizing ‘recovery’ during the first few years, unemployment was indeed reduced, to a staggering 1.6m by 1936. As far as conditions went, the ‘Beauty of Work’ programme managed an overhaul of factories, including improvements to safety measures and the quality of toilets. Alongside this came the ‘Strength through Joy’ (KdF) initiative, which provided workers with cheap leisure activities, such as holidays in the country and trips to the theatre, all of which were eagerly taken advantage of. Despite these steps taken by the German Labour Front (DAF), modern historians have raised the concern that, far from being genuinely dedicated to the regime, workers simply publicly supported Nazism to continue enjoying these benefits.
Having enjoyed uniquely-progressive freedoms under the Weimar Constitution, women under the Nazi regime were reverted back to their traditional domestic childbearing role. Indeed, women under this system were granted easier access to divorce, as well as the ‘Cross of Honour of the German Mother’, to encourage them to have more and more children. With many women enamoured by the image of the Führer as the eternal bachelor, the regime saw essentially no organised opposition by women, along with emotional displays of love for Hitler at public events.
The Nazis’ approach to the youth was focused on combining physical war training with lessons in National Socialism. Achieved through both schools and the Hitler Youth (which became compulsory from 1936), young German boys went on hiking and camping trips, as well as new Nazi content, such as racial science and reading extracts of Mein Kampf. Indeed, many schoolboys became obsessed with the legendary figure of Hitler, and were successfully transformed into puppets of the regime, reporting their neighbours and family members to the authorities for anti-Nazi sentiment. However, the many opposition youth movements of the late-1930s represented a growing disillusionment with the regime and its ideology – groups like the Swingers, who adopted American fashions and jazz music, and the Edelweiss Pirates, who mingled with the opposite sex.
The extent to which a genuine Volksgemeinschaft was actually created however, is greatly debated amongst historians. Fundamentally, whilst these groups may have appeared satisfied and ideologically committed at public events, they were all terrified of what would happen if they weren’t. Everyone in the country was kept in line by the omnipresence of the Reich’s repressive terror apparatus.
Although relatively small in numbers, the Gestapo was, in the mind of the average German, around every street corner – it was this image that people had that made them so terrifying. Reading mail, making midnight arrests and utilising torture, they served to root out enemies of the regime and strike fear into the population. However effective their own methods were, the Gestapo relied even more heavily on public tip-offs and denunciations of neighbours and acquaintances, from which they received 57% of their information from. Established by Goering as the Minister President of Prussia, the Gestapo would soon be transferred over to the head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler.
The parent organisation of the Gestapo, the SS served as the regime’s key intelligence, security and terror agency. Rooting out political enemies (such as remaining party and trade union leaders), it was the SS that oversaw the Fire Decree arrests and executions. Also serving a crucial role in the neutralisation of the regime’s racial targets, the agency would later control the building and running of the concentration (and extermination) camps, as well as the death squads sent into Eastern Europe during the War.
Although these two agencies were ruthless and highly-effective at rooting out opposition, certain figures remained, both within the political and party systems, who posed a serious threat to Hitler’s growing power. This increasing paranoia would culminate in June 1934, with the ‘Night of the Long Knives’. A brutal purge of Hitler’s enemies, it was initiated by growing concern over the direction of the SA, the party’s paramilitary group – they were becoming too brutish and uncontrollable. Thus, to consolidate his position, Hitler had the leadership, including his close friend Ernst Röhm, assassinated in the dead of night. Other victims included internal party rivals, like the aggressively anti-capitalist Nazi Gregor Strasser, and remaining Weimar politicians, like former chancellor Kurt von Schleicher. Serving as a harrowing example of what would become of the regime’s enemies, the purge also guaranteed Hitler the loyalty of the Army, who’d supplied the SS with the necessary weaponry.
Hitler’s rise to power, from a minor nationalist political agitator in the 1920s, to the undisputed supreme leader of Germany a decade later, serves as an extreme example of how charismatic and intelligent figures can take advantage of a peoples’ anger towards a fragile political order, exacerbated by dire socioeconomic circumstances. Having come to be engrossed with the Wagnerian and Pan-German anti-Semitism of the 1910s, Hitler’s vehement racism, combined with his skill for passionate public speaking, would see him go from a semi-homeless failing artist in Vienna, to arguably the most infamous figure in human history, responsible for the deaths of several millions.