According to historians, social and economic problems that plagued Germany after World War I enabled a dictatorship to come to power there in the 1930s. Promising to restore glory to a defeated nation, skilled orator Adolf Hitler and his right-wing Nazi party exploited distrust of democratic leadership to gain a foothold in the government via elections. In January 1933 Hitler became chancellor of Germany, and by July, all other political parties in the country had been outlawed. A year later, Hitler also claimed the presidency and consolidated his dictatorship.
The worldwide economic depression that followed the U.S. stock market crash of 1929, coupled with the inflation that afflicted much of Europe in the aftermath of World War I, had a catastrophic effect on the German economy. By June 1932, six million Germans were unemployed. Having lost their savings, much of the middle class descended into poverty. Nazi promises of higher pensions and job growth were music to German ears. The democratic Weimar government that had come to power after the war was associated with the economic downturn, which allowed the Nazis to score their first significant victory in parliamentary elections in 1932.
The Treaty of Versailles
Even years after it was signed in the wake of World War I, Germans continued to resent the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, which blamed Germany for the war and forced it to disarm, give up territory and pay enormous reparations. Many Germans felt their Weimar government had betrayed the country by accepting the harsh terms of the treaty. Leaders of the Weimar Republic were thus dubbed the "November criminals." Hitler vowed to rearm Germany and disavow the terms of the treaty, a promise that earned him much support.
Fear of Communism
Communist uprisings in Europe, including the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917 and establishment of a short-lived communist regime in Hungary in 1919, engendered a fear of communism in Germany. Because communism frowns on private ownership of property, German landowners and businessmen favored the vehemently anti-communist Nazis. Exploiting this perceived threat, the Nazis blamed communists for a fire that destroyed the German parliament building or Reichstag in February 1933. As chancellor, Hitler pressed for a state of emergency that suspended the freedoms of assembly, speech and the press. The resulting declaration also gave the government the right to jail opponents and removed all limitations on police investigations. Though stripped of their civil liberties, many Germans praised Hitler for thwarting a communist overthrow.
The Nazis used anti-Semitic propaganda, including media, popular culture and education curricula, to promote the idea of a supreme German race and justify discrimination and violence against Jews, who Hitler's regime considered less than human. Through propaganda, Hitler spread the notion that Jews were responsible for the country's defeat in World War I and its subsequent economic woes. As a result, Nazi persecution of Jews, which reached its darkest hour in Hitler's genocidal "Final Solution," went unchecked, as many German citizens not only tolerated the violence, but even considered it necessary for the well-being of the country.
- United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: World War I - Aftermath
- United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: Hitler Comes to Power
- United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: Nazi Rule
- United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: The Reichstag Fire
- BBC: Higher Bitesize History - Hitler's Rise to Power
- United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: Nazi Propaganda
- The Danish Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies: Anti-Semitism
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