In the early 1930s, the mood in Germany was grim. The worldwide economic depression had hit the country especially hard, and millions of people were out of work. Still fresh in the minds of many was Germany's humiliating defeat fifteen years earlier during World War I, and Germans lacked confidence in their weak government, known as the Weimar Republic. These conditions provided the chance for the rise of a new leader, Adolf Hitler, and his party, the National Socialist German Workers' Party, or Nazi party for short.
Hitler was a powerful and spellbinding speaker who attracted a wide following of Germans desperate for change. He promised the disenchanted a better life and a new and glorious Germany. The Nazis appealed especially to the unemployed, young people, and members of the lower middle class (small store owners, office employees, craftsmen, and farmers).
The party's rise to power was rapid. Before the economic depression struck, the Nazis were practically unknown, winning only 3 percent of the vote to the Reichstag (German parliament) in elections in 1924. In the 1932 elections, the Nazis won 33 percent of the votes, more than any other party. In January 1933 Hitler was appointed chancellor, the head of the German government, and many Germans believed that they had found a savior for their nation.
JUNE 28, 1919
TREATY OF VERSAILLES ENDS WORLD WAR I
In the Treaty of Versailles, which followed German defeat in World War I, the victorious powers (the United States, Great Britain, France, and other allied states) impose severe terms on Germany. Germany, under threat of invasion, is forced to sign the treaty. Among other provisions, Germany accepts responsibility for the war and agrees to make huge payments (known as reparations), limit its military to 100,000 troops, and transfer territory to its neighbors. The terms of the treaty lead to widespread political discontent in Germany. Adolf Hitler gains support by promising to overturn them.
OCTOBER 24, 1929
STOCK MARKET CRASH IN NEW YORK
The plummet in the value of stocks that is associated with the New York stock market crash brings a rash of business bankruptcies. Widespread unemployment occurs in the United States. The "Great Depression," as it is called, sparks a worldwide economic crisis. In Germany, six million are unemployed by June 1932. Economic distress contributes to a meteoric rise in the support for the Nazi party. As a result, the Nazi party wins the votes of almost 40 percent of the electorate in the Reichstag (German parliament) elections of July 1932. The Nazi party becomes at this point the largest party in the German parliament.
NOVEMBER 6, 1932
NAZIS LOSE SUPPORT IN PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS
In the Reichstag (German parliament) elections of November 1932, the Nazis lose almost two million votes from the previous elections of July. They win only 33 percent of the vote. It seems clear that the Nazis will not gain a majority in democratic elections, and Adolf Hitler agrees to a coalition with conservatives. After months of negotiations, the president of Germany, Paul von Hindenburg, will appoint Hitler chancellor of Germany in a government seemingly dominated by conservatives on January 30, 1933.
Copyright © United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, DC
It was a chilly winter day in 1933 when the German dictatorship began. Thermometers showed a temperature of minus 4 degrees Celsius -- the skies were clear. At about 10 a.m., Adolf Hitler, head of the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP), made his way down Wilhelmstrasse in the heart of Berlin.
The 44-year-old Hitler was on his way to the Reichskanzlei, seat of the Weimar Republic's government, where both he and his cabinet were to meet with President Paul von Hindenburg. A feeling of relief was in the air. For months, the German state had been limping from one failed government to the next, with three general elections having been held within 10 months. Hopes were high that the next government would provide some desperately needed stability. The swearing-in ceremony was set for 11 a.m.
Hindenburg, 85 years old at the time, spoke for just a few minutes, expressing his pleasure that all had finally managed to come together to form a coalition. Then he turned the floor over to Hitler, and nodded in appreciation as the new chancellor promised to uphold the constitution and govern for the good of the nation. It was Monday, Jan. 30, 1933 -- exactly 75 years ago -- and Hitler had finally reached his goal.It was a moment Hitler had been working towards for years. Having joined the small German Workers Party in the autumn of 1919, the young World War I veteran -- originally from the Austrian border town of Braunau am Inn -- worked ceaselessly to transform the small group of conservative agitators into a national political force. Relying on a mix of nationalist demagoguery, vicious anti-Communism and virulent anti-Semitism -- topped off with an unceasing flood of invective aimed at the Treaty of Versailles -- Hitler rode a wave of street popularity he hoped would help him overthrow the Berlin government.
His first attempt, in November 1923, would fail in a hail of bullets in Munich -- the so-called Beer Hall Putsch. Yet even though the Weimar Republic -- the democratic regime which emerged out of Germany's post-World War I chaos -- managed to stabilize the country both politically and economically in the mid-1920s, Hitler's Nazis would get a second chance.
From today's perspective, it is tempting to pin the blame for Hitler's eventual rise to power on the great New York stock market crash of 1929, an event which put millions of German workers out of a job. Others point to the onerous conditions placed on Germany by the Treaty of Versailles, which required Germany to accept responsibility for starting World War I and forced Berlin to pay 132 billion goldmarks in war reparations. Still others argue that Germany's history somehow made the country predestined for the kind of murderous dictatorship that Hitler's reign became.
The NSDAP got most of its support in the July 1932 election in northern Germany.
One thing, however, is clear. Nazi Germany, and the flood of destruction it unleashed on Germany, Europe and the world, was far from inevitable.
The ill-fated Weimar Republic emerged from post-war chaos that verged on civil war. German soldiers, defeated on the battlefield, returned home only to be sent into skirmishes against communist revolutionaries. Right-wing monarchists and conservative anti-leftists in the military, judiciary and bureaucracy saw to it that little mercy was shown. Over 1,000 people were killed in the fighting, with Hitler's adopted home of Munich seeing a revolving door of bright red governments that only ended when a local paramilitary force combined forces with a federal army unit to brutally put down the red threat. A number of future Nazis took part in the slaughter, and the political climate in Germany remained poisoned for years.
But stability remained elusive. The Weimar Republic's constitution made it almost inevitable that governments would have a short shelf life, and in the 14 years of the republic, fully 20 different governments would rule. But even still, the infant German democracy had a chance.