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Interwar years continued

Following WWI, Germany's old governent was replaced with a new one, called the Weimar Republic. It was created as part of the Treaty of Versailles, and was given a new constitution very similar to the American constitution to establish a better German government. This was an unstable time for Germany, and like so often in history, it gave birth to several new political groups. One of these groups was the Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (DAP), or German Worker's Party. The DAP was fueled by the right-wing anti-Semetic völkish movement and the left-wing National Socialist movement, and because it was not supported by the Weimar Republic, they assigned a German soldier to monitor the party's activities: a young man named Adolf Hitler. Hitler was chosen because of his exceptional speaking abilities, and even though he wasn't initially a participant, over the next few years his role became increasingly important. He believed them to be patriotic, and he accepted their offer to join as their 555th member. However, Hitler was not content to merely follow--he had his mind set on shaping the party to his liking. He brought in the swastika or Hakenkreuz as their symbol, which had Norse roots and an anti-Semetic connontation. He also charged a 1 mark admission fee to the meetings and adopted the "Heil!" greeting which would become the rallying cry of Nazi Germany. Some political opponents attended just to laugh at Hitler's outragous speeches, so brown-shirted veterans were brought on to be security guards. These uniforms, left over from old army desert gear, would later become a symbol of terror in Germany.

Hitler soon displayed a unique talent for stirring up a crowd into a frenzy and by 1920 he was not popular in Munich, but had become well known, something he could use to his advantage. That same year he left the army and the party became the National Sozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, or the Nazi party. They were a strong right-wing party designed to counter the leftist movements, like Communism. Because many of the Communist revolutionaries were Jewish, Germans soon linked the Bolsheviks and Jews together. The Nazis targeted these people, saying that the Treaty of Versailles was an injustice, and the Jews were to blame. They vowed to return Germany to the old way of life by eliminating the Jews from their country. By the end of the year they used the Völkischer Beobachter (People's Observer) to publicize their beliefs and in August 1921 the Sturm Abteilung (SA), or storm troopers was formed to be the muscle of the party. Hitler became head of the SA propaganda and then führer (leader) of the Nazis but at this point in time the Nazis were a tiny minority.

Soon after, the Weimar Republic underwent some serious problems when the German monetary system failed and inflation became epidemic throughout Germany. If that were not enough, because the Germans could not pay the reparations to the French, the Rhineland became occupied by French soldiers, which caused German coal and iron workers to strike in protest. In September 1923 Gustav Streseman became chancellor of Germany and ordered the strike over to help the German economy recover. Hitler saw this instability as an opportunity to sieze power so on 8 November he took his SA troops and the support of several key government figures and interupted a speech, calling for a national revolution. Unfortunately for Hitler, the Reichswehr sided with the Weimar Republic and a small conflict ensued, killing 4 policemen, 16 Nazis and wounding many others, including Herman Göring. Hitler was forced to hide, but was soon arrested and put on trial. Even though Hitler was unapologetic for his treason, the judge was merciful and gave him the minimum sentence: 5 years in jail. He acted bravely because he knew the judge would be sympathetic to him: two years earlier he was given the light sentence of a month in jail for his involvement in the Nazi beating of a liberal politician. That same judge gave Hitler his 5 year sentence, and in fact he only served 9 months and while in prison dictated his influential book, Mein Kampf (My Struggle), the blueprint for Hitler’s actions in the next decade.

When Hitler was freed, he found his Nazi party and the Völkischer Beobachter had been banned, but Hitler had them reinstated after convincing the Bavarian prime minister he would comply with the Weimar Republic. Then Hitler's future partner in government, Paul von Hindenberg, was elected President. In 1926 Hitler made Joseph Goebbels the Nazi district leader of Berlin and Pfeffer von Salomon the head of the SA, which was constantly recruiting members and widely recognized by their brown uniforms. The Nazis often immitated the other German parties but publically denounced them any chance they got, even though they had very little public support at the time. Most Nazi supporters did not join for anti-Semetic reasons, but rather because they identified with the Nazi speeches and saw Hitler as the man to strengthen Germany and carry them through the 20th century.

The May 1928 election was promising for the Weimar Republic, as it gained strength while the Nazi party was at an all time low, capturing just 2.6% of the vote. Times were good again, as the Weimar had recovered from their earlier problems by borrowing money from the US, then paying off the French. Then something happened that created a breeding ground for Hitler's determination--Germany plunged into turmoil again. The US stock market crashed, and the money flow to Germany ceased, putting millions of Germans out of work and into poverty. Consequently the government was in dire straits. The existing cabinet, under Müller, resigned and the more stringent Brüning cabinet took over, imposing higher taxes and cutting benefits. This government was disliked by other parties for being too left wing and there were frequent skirmishes between the SA and Communists. After becoming dissatisfied with Brüning, President Hindenberg dropped his support and Brüning was replaced with Fritz von Papen and his more right wing Nationalist party. Hitler then saw support for his own Nazis soar with these troubled times. His policies hadn't changed one bit, but because of the economic crisis, people were ready for a change. All over Germany, people felt that democracy had achieved nothing and that they needed a good, strong, right wing leader. Even those who had never seen nor heard Hitler's platform voted Nazi.

Although Hitler had promised to solve Germany's economic problems by eliminating its internal enemies, Hitler lost the 1932 presidential election. Even in losing, Hitler had gained enormous support and now had 37% of the votes. German politics had been completely polarized: most citizens supported the Nazis or the Communists, but nearly all were against the democracy the Allies had tried to set up. Feeling the sting of defeat, Hitler demanded he be named Chancellor of Germany, but Hindenberg refused to give such a lucrative position to a volatile man like Hitler. Soon Hindenberg was buffeted from all sides, even the Reichswehr, to appoint Hitler, but Hindenberg would not hear of it. Initially, Hindenberg wanted to listen to Schleicher, the Minister of Defense, and gave him the Chancellorship on 3 December 1932 and offered Gregor Strasser the Vice-Chancellorship, but Hitler's wild accusations caused him to quit.

In January 1933 government then held a series of meetings in which Schleicher resigned on the 28th because of disagreements with Hindenberg over phasing out the Reichstag. The Nazis had to act now on this opportunity because their popularity was dwindling in the aftermath of the loss and their constant campaigning was putting them in debt. Things looked grim, but the Weimar Republic's right wing politicians felt Hitler's Nazi party had the necessary public support for success, so Fritz von Papen suggested to Hindenberg that if Hitler was made Chancellor, Papen would become the Vice-Chancellor and only put 2 Nazis in the cabinet, thus containing Hitler. Hindenberg agreed and on 30 January 1933 sealed Germany's fate by appointing Hitler as Chancellor, foolishly believing that the German congress could control him. As if by an evil omen, that night the Nazis held a torch-lit rally in Berlin to symbolize their rise to power. The following month, Göring & Goebbels orchestrated a fire in the Reichstag lit by Marinus van der Lubbe, a Dutch communist. Lubbe was jailed and later beheaded, but Hitler used it as justification for scaring Hindenberg into giving the Chancellorship emergency powers. With the distorted impression there was a state-of-emergency, von Papen helped Hitler get the 2/3 majority vote he needed to essentially assume total authority. That became the dying breath for the Reichstag, followed by Prussia and Berlin itself. They now belonged to the Nazi Reich.

Once Hitler was in power, millions of Germans rejoiced, expecially the SA troops, while the Socialists and Communists were treated as enemies and put in concentration camps. Although most only spent less than a year in the camps, they were beaten into accepting the Nazi ideology. The Jews also felt the wrath of the Nazis on 1 April 1933 when there was a one-day boycott of all Jewish stores, and Jews were constantly harassed, assaulted, and humiliated by the Germans. There were also public book burnings of any book that was questionable to the Nazi doctrine, adding fuel to the hate that was swelling in Germany. Hitler then announced that he would restrict citizens' freedoms in order to protect the Reich's interests. This included removing freedom of speech, press and religion, as well as any other liberty that might undermine Nazi authority. Simultaneously, Hitler wanted the SA merged with the military, but this was an unpopular idea since the military hated the SA troops for their reckless behavior.

In the summer of 1934, Hitler became disturbed by how loyal the SA troops were to their chief, Ernst Röhm, and feared they could be turned against him if there was a coup. The only way to be sure was to have him and his deputies arrested. Göring fabricated a story that Röhm was planning a coup, so he, von Schleicher, and von Schleicher's wife were shot by the SS. Soon the SA was disbanded and the SS, or Schutz Staffeln (which began as Hitler's bodyguards) became more powerful every day as their replacement. A wave of fear swept across Germany as paranoia was rampant. Lists of "enemies of the state" were made, with either immediate death or incarceration as the order. Germans threatened one another and turned each other in to the secret police, the Gestapo. Although the numbers of the Gestapo were limited, they were helped along by the ordinary German citizens to do their work for them. The German people were not brainwashed into service; most simply "went along." These were strange times in which normal people did things they would not think of doing otherwise.

The next big step in Hitler's ascent to power was the merging of the presidency and chancellorship, with an overwhelming majority support. This ensured Hitler would have complete control over Germany once the ailing Hindenberg died. When this happened in 1934, Hitler made it clear that he was the undisputed leader of Germany and would not tolerate anything less than total obedience. Soon all parties in the Reich, except the Nazis, were banned and dissenters faced imprisonment. While Berlin enjoyed 147 different newspapers before the collapse of Weimar, all disappeared in Hitler's Berlin. Every bit of news, radio and film was tightly regulated and scrutinized. Hitler told his people to wipe away any ideas of resistance and asked them simply to obey, obey, obey. He then made his soldiers swear an oath of allegience not to the army they were in, but the führer who led them.

I swear by God this sacred oath, that I will render unconditional obedience to Adolf Hitler, the Führer of the German Reich and people, supreme commander of the armed forces, and will be ready as a brave soldier to risk my life at any time for this oath

Ironically, despite the mention of God in the oath and "God with us" on his infantry's belt buckles, Hitler made sure religion would not play any significant part in Germanic life. Although his brutal contempt for the Jewish religion was much more severe, he also placed many restrictions on Christianity as well. Church collections, religious pamphlets, and services in non-registered locations were forbidden, and many prominent Christians were locked up. He also made clear his intentions for Germany's future, namely rearmament, to be paid with a series of loans. He raised defense spending so much during the first year that the military couldn't spend it all. With so much military production and building highways across Germany, unemployment soon vanished, just like Hitler promised.

Hitler then put German troops into the Rhineland, a forbidden act under the Treaty of Versailles, but it received little international protest. With the Anglo-German Naval Agreement of June 1935, Hitler was only allowed a navy one-third the size of Britain, but he lied about the number of ships he had and kept his proliferation secret. However, Britain foolishly ignored the illegal German production of submarines, something which would come back to haunt them a few years later. Amazingly, in the summer of 1936 he also tried to set up an alliance with the British, of whom he had a perverse admiration because of their colonization of India. Britain, however, wanted no part in the alliance with Germany and the German diplomat, Joachim von Ribbentrop, offended the British with his brash manner. Hitler was not too set back by this as his Third Reich was getting stronger. Also in 1936 the Germans withdrew from the Treaty of Locarno and signed a pact with Japan, a clear indication of Hitler's intentions for the future.

To the 21st Century observer, it seems impossible that Hitler could have come to power in an advanced society like western Europe, and even more incredulous that he would have millions of followers. In early 20th century Germany, however, it was seen with different eyes. Germany's capital, Berlin, had existed some 700 years but had known democracy for only 14 years. Berliners themselves were largely liberal and did not particularly care for Hitler, but the nation as a whole was quite used to tyrants. Kings and emperors had imposed their will on the Germanic people since medieval times, and often with an iron fist. Yet when democracy was finally brought to Berlin, it turned into 14 years of inflation, political anarchy, and the virtual collapse of society. Consequently when Hitler came along, he was seen by many as the one man who could reverse the status quo...and more. Within 2 or 3 years he had virtually eliminated unemployment, ended the street fights, improved highways, legitimized the military, and reestablished Germanic pride. Of course, this all came about at the cost of their freedom, but to many it was worth it--anything but going back to the revolutions, poverty and shame of the Weimar Republic. The Germans knew about the brutality and intolerance of the Nazis: they saw it when their neighbors were taken away in the night, or when their Jewish friend's shop was vandalized. As disgusted as they were, many believed that once order was established, there would be no need for any more hate. This seemed to be the case in 1936 for the Olympics in Germany. With the world's attention turned to Berlin, the anti-Semetic signs came down, the newspapers cleaned up their opinions, and anti-Jewish laws were relaxed...for the time being. The Olympics brought a festive atmosphere to the capital, and when Germany took top honors with 33 gold medals, spirits were high throughout the country. Many Germans thought the storm had passed and that this truly was the beginning of the thousand-year Reich.

The Nazis may have looked like a well-oiled machine, but in reality they were the most unorganized major government of the 20th century. They were a tangled mess of confusion and backstabbing members, each out to gain favor in Hitler's site at each other's expense. Hitler himeself was the worst of the lot, never awaking before noon, watching movies all afternoon, partying at night and seldomly working on running the country he had fought so hard to win over. Instead, he relied on his subordinates to get the job done, yet never gave details for the tasks he wanted them to carry out. He held onto the idea that things would work themselves out if they were left alone. However, things below the Nazi surface seldom worked out that way and often Nazis would persue their own interests while claiming to be doing the "will of the Führer," and one had no way of knowing if it was true or not. Even the mail was corrupted by whoever got to it first before it reached Hitler. People often think of Hitler as an absolute dictator, but he often let others flesh out their ideas on their own when he did not have a particular opinion. When it came down to it, Hitler was often indecisive and for all the power he had, he avoided doing paperwork, reading documents and other basic tasks that world leaders must do.

Still, Hitler had his mind set on Germany's future, and wouldn't hear any opposition. When his chief economist stressed the impracticality of his defense spending, he was replaced with Göring. In November 1937 Hitler told his generals that Germany couldn't survive without expanding and targeted Austria and Czechoslovakia as their destiny. Many of his men scoffed at this plan, which enraged Hitler as he began changing his cabinet to his liking. His advisors told him that expansion would cause too many problems with Allied nations because they knew Germany was not yet ready for a full-scale war. Hitler refused to accept that notion, so he began ridding Germany of his adversaries. The minister of war, Werner von Blomberg, was removed for marrying a prostitute, followed by Werner von Fritsch, whom Hitler despised, was accused of being a homosexual and was passed over for a job. November 1937 also brought Hitler a visit from the British political official Lord Halifax, who wanted to clearly define Hitler's ambitions as a world leader. Hitler put up his usual act of innocence, and Halifax implied that he could impose his will upon eastern Europe as long as he did not go to extremems. This fueled Hitler's confidence that Britain and France were not as strong as once thought and that their leaders would back down if a challenge was made. Hitler was not far off in his assumptions, as both the British and French wanted to believe that Hitler was a rational man with legitimate national goals. They could not have been more wrong.

The Nazis then continued their fiendish ways by retargeting their old enemy, the Jews. The Nazis began systematically excluding Jews from society by destroying their businesses under the guise of "the law," which was becoming increasingly anti-Jew, with new laws such as preventing Jews to intermarry with non-Jews. German citizens also followed the Nazi propaganda that stated Jews were concentrating in certain professions to take power. It was true that Jews were concentrated in certain professions, but it was because those were the only jobs they were legally allowed to hold. This hatred for Jews came to a head in November 1938 when a young Jew named Herschel Grynszpan killed German ambassador Ernst vom Rath because he was upset with the Nazi treatment of Jews. Goebbels suggested revenge to Hitler, and the stormtroopers were sent out to bring havoc on the Jews. Called Kristallnacht, (night of broken glass) Jewish homes were destroyed, Jews were dragged out and beaten, and synagogues were desacrated. In the end 800 Jews were killed, but because Hitler never addressed it, the public assumed it was soley the work of the overly aggressive storm troopers.

The origins of war

Prelude to war

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