Nazi GermanyReturn to Primer Index
The Nazi state, often referred to as the Third Reich, emerged after the destruction of the democratic Weimar Republic by the National Socialist German Workers’ Party under the leadership of Adolf Hitler. This militaristic dictatorship was founded in 1920 on the principles of fascism- a far-right ideology coined in early 20th century Italy- and intertwined and implemented an ideology of Germans racial superiority into all phases of political and cultural life. The resulting society was one of indifference towards the treatment of Jews and other persecuted minorities, as well as a fear of persecution, leaving few willing to stand up to Nazi authority and violence.
Despite the Nazi Party not gaining significant votes in early years, and a failed Nazi coup in 1929 which saw him imprisoned, Adolf Hitler was appointed of Germany on January 30, 1933. Almost immediately Hitler began transforming the newly democratic state into a single-party dictatorship, finally achieving his goal in 1936 after an attempted arson of the Reichstag- the state building- allowed him to implement emergency legislation and begin persecution and torture of political opponents such as socialists and communists en mass in detention centers and concentration camps like Sachsenhausen.
Building on the historic roots of anti-Judaism and antisemitism, as well as photo-scientific theories of eugenics, Nazis regarded the Jews and Roma/Sinti as hostile, criminal, and parasitic, seeking to remove them from Germany as well as erase their contributions to German culture- often with violent action. Social and political persecution of Jews intensified from Hitler’s instatement in 1933 to the beginning of World War II in 1939. The Nuremberg Race Laws of 1935 created an official divide between the Jewish Germans by members of the Nazi Party became commonplace. State-sanctioned pogroms first erupted in November 1938 during Kristallnacht and continued with the eugenics-based T4 “euthanasia” pogrom starting in 1939 which saw the murder of thousands of German citizens with purported mental and physical disabilities- a group in which Jews and Roma/Sini were over-represented. Following the onslaught of World War II, treatment of Jews and other minority groups would only get worse as Nazi Germany made strides towards what they deemed the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question.”
Treaty of VersaillesRelated Lessons
After the devastation of World War I, the victorious Western powers (Great Britain, the United States, France, and Italy, known as the “Big Four”) imposed a series of treaties upon the defeated Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and Turkey).
Viewing Germany as the chief instigator of the conflict, the European Allied powers decided to impose harsh treaty terms upon the defeated Germany. The treaty was presented to the German delegation for signature on May 7, 1919, at the Palace of Versailles near Paris. The Treaty of Versailles held Germany responsible for starting the war and liable for massive material damages.
Germany lost 13 percent of its territory, including 10 percent of its population. The treaty called for demilitarization and occupation of the Rhineland, special status for the Saarland under French control, and referendums to determine the future of areas in northern Schleswig on the Danish-German frontier and parts of Upper Silesia on the border with Poland.
Perhaps the most humiliating portion of the treaty for defeated Germany was Article 231, commonly known as the “War Guilt Clause.” This clause forced the German nation to accept complete responsibility for starting World War I. As such, Germany was to be held liable for material damages.
Source: US Holocaust Memorial Museum
Weimar GermanyRelated Lessons
The Weimar Republic is the name given to the German government between the end of the imperial period (1918) and the beginning of Nazi Germany (1933).
World War I left Germany a shattered nation. Two million young men had been killed and a further 4.2 million had been wounded; in all, 19% of the male population suffered from malnutrition as a result of the Allied blockade, with starvation a serious and often fatal outcome. Workers went on strike in attempts to gain better working conditions; in 1917 alone, there were 562 separate strikes. In short, Germany was falling apart. The government, centered on an ineffective Emperor, dissolved into a military dictatorship incapable of reforming the system.
The Weimar Republic came to bear for many the humiliation of World War I and the blame for all its accompanying hardships. In many ways, it never shook the association, particularly from the clauses of the Versailles Treaty that reduced the once proud German military to practically nothing and placed all blame for the war on Germany.
A combination of political and economic dissatisfaction, some of it dating back to the founding of the Republic, helped create the conditions for Hitler’s rise to power. By drawing together the fringe nationalist parties into his Nazi Party, Hitler was able to gain a sufficient number of seats in the Reichstag to make him a political player. Eventually, conservatives, hoping to control him and capitalize on his popularity brought him into the government. However, Hitler used the weakness written into the Weimar Constitution to subvert it and assume dictatorial power.
The Weimar Republic ended with Hitler’s appointment as chancellor in 1933.
Source: US Holocaust Memorial Museum
World War IRelated Lessons
World War I marked the first great international conflict of the twentieth century. The assasination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian crown, and his wife, the Duchess Sophie, in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, sparked the hostilities. Fighting began in August 1914 and continued on multiple continents for the next four years.
The opposing sides in World War I are known as the Allies and the Central Powers. The Allies were: Britain, France, Serbia, Imperial Russia, and Japan. The Central Powers were: Germany, Austria-Hungary, later joined by the Ottoman Empire (Turkey) and Bulgaria.
World War I represented one of the most destructive wars in history. More than 8.5 million soldiers died as a result of the hostilities, a figure exceeding the military deaths in all the wars between European powers in the 19th century. Although accurate casualty statistics are difficult to ascertain, an estimated 21 million men were wounded in combat.
The enormous losses on all sides of the conflict resulted in part from the introduction of new weapons and military tactics, such as long-range artillery, tanks, poison gas, and aerial warfare. Military leaders also failed to adjust their tactics to the increasingly mechanized nature of warfare. A policy of attrition, particularly on the western front, cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of soldiers.
Mass atrocities and genocide are often perpetrated within the context of war. The Armenian genocide was closely linked to World War I in the Near East and the Russian Caucasus.
World War I offered the Young Turk dictatorship an opportunity to realize its nationalist aims. Retreating from positions in the Caucasus (today: Armenia and Georgia) and in Persia in February-March 1915, Ottoman authorities massacred populations viewed as potentially disloyal, leading some Armenians to take up arms in self-defense. When Russian troops invaded that April, some of these armed bands joined them. Reinforced in a suspicion that all Armenians were potential traitors, Ottoman commanders disarmed their own Armenian soldiers deployed on the eastern front and imprisoned them in forced-labor battalions.
Source: US Holocaust Memorial Museum
Adolf HitlerRelated Lessons
Adolf Hitler (1989-1945) was born on April 20, 1889, in the Upper Austrian border town Braunau am Inn. In 1898, the Hitler family moved to Linz, the capital of Upper Austria. Seeking a career in the visual arts, Hitler fought bitterly with his father, who wanted him to enter Habsburg civil service.
Hitler lived in Vienna between February 1908 and May 1913, when he left for Munich. There, he drifted and supported himself by painting watercolors and sketches until World War I gave new direction to his life. He joined the army. During the war, he was wounded twice (in 1916 and 1918) and was awarded several medals.
In October 1918, after he was partially blinded in a mustard gas attack near Ypres in Belgium, Hitler was sent to a military hospital in Pasewalk. News of the November 11, 1918, armistice reached him there as he was recuperating. Released from the hospital in November 1918, Hitler returned to Munich.
In 1919, he joined the Information Office of the Bavarian Military Administration. This office gathered intelligence on civilian political parties and provided anti-Communist “political education” for the troops. In August 1919, as a course instructor, Hitler made his first virulent antisemitic speeches. A month later, he first expressed an antisemitic, racist ideology on paper, advocating removal of Jews from Germany.
Hitler joined what would become the Nazi Party in October 1919. He helped devise the party political program in 1920. The program was based on racist antisemitism, expansionist nationalism, and anti-immigration hostility. By 1921, he was the absolute Führer (Leader) of the Nazi Party. Membership in the Nazi Party swelled in two years to 55,000, supported by more than 4,000 men in the paramilitary SA )”Storm Troopers”).
Source: US Holocaust Memorial Museum
The Rise of NazismRelated Lessons
Whilst Hitler was in prison following the Munich Putsch in 1923, Alfred Rosenberg took over as temporary leader of the Nazi Party. Rosenberg was an ineffective leader and the party became divided over key issues.
The failure of the Munich Putsch had shown Hitler that he would not be able to take power by force. Hitler therefore decided to change tactics and instead focus on winning support for his party democratically and being elected into power.
Following his release from prison on the 20 December 1924, Hitler convinced the Chancellor of Bavaria to remove the ban on the Nazi Party.
In February 1926, Hitler organised the Bamberg Conference. Hitler wanted to reunify the party, and set out a plan for the next few years. Whilst some small differences remained, Hitler was largely successful in reuniting the socialist and nationalist sides of the party. In the same year, Hitler restructured the Nazi Party to make it more efficient.
The Nazis also established new groups for different professions, from children, to doctors, to lawyers. These aimed to infiltrate already existing social structures, and help the party gain more members and supporters.
These political changes changed the Nazi Party from a paramilitary organisation focused on overthrowing the republic by force, to one focused on gaining power through elections and popular support.
Whilst the Nazis’ own actions, such as the party restructure and propaganda, certainly played a role in their rise to power, the economic and political failure to the Weimar Republic was also a key factor. The Depression associated economic failure and a decline in living standards with the Weimar democracy. When combined with the resulting political instability, it left people feeling disillusioned with the Weimar Republic’s democracy and looking for change.
This enhanced the attractiveness of the Nazis propaganda messages.
Source: The Holocaust Explained, The Wiener Holocaust Library
Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass,” was a wave of violent pogroms against Jews throughout Germany and Austria that took place on November 9-10, 1938. On the night of November 9th, the Gestapo (Nazi State Police) informed local police by telegram about the actions against Jews and their synagogues that would be taking place throughout Germany, instructing them not to interfere with what was happening. During these two nights, violent mobs freely attacked Jews on the streets and in their homes, places of work and houses of worship. Close to 100 Jews were murdered and many more seriously injured. More than 7,000 Jewish businesses and hundreds of synagogues were destroyed. Jewish cemeteries were desecrated, Jewish schools were vandalized and 30,000 Jews were arrested and sent to concentration camps.
Kristallnacht was orchestrated by the Nazis in retaliation for the assassination of a German embassy official in Paris by a 17-year old Jewish youth named Herschel Grynzspan. Interpreted by Hitler’s chief of propaganda as a direct attack on the Nazi regime, the incident was used as a justification for the events that occurred on Kristallnacht.
Kristallnacht marked a turning point from Hitler’s policy of forced emigration of Jews toward a systematic plan for their annihilation. In the months and years that followed, Jews would be forced from their homes, isolated in ghettos, and finally deported to labor and death camps.
Source: Anti-Defamation League
Nazi Racial PolicyRelated Lessons
Violence was a crucial tool of the Nazi government, but its leaders were also eager to show that they were acting within the framework of the law. As they worked to consolidate power and reshape Germany according to their racial ideals. Nazi leaders passed a number of new laws that redefined citizenship and laid the groundwork for a “racial state.”
On September 15, 1935, at a party rally in Nuremberg the Nazis announced two new laws that changed who could be a German citizen. The Reich Citizenship Law required that all citizens have German “blood.” As a result, Jews and others lost their rights to citizenship, which not only stripped them of the right to vote but also made them stateless. This meant that they could not get a valid passport for travel between countries or acquire a visa to leave Germany.
The two new laws announced at Nuremberg made sharp distinctions between the rights and privileges of Germans and Jews. They regarded Jews as members of neither a religious group nor an ethnic group (defined by their cultural heritage). Instead, they regarded Jews as members of a separate and inferior “race.” Since, according to Nazi logic, “race” was not altered by conversion, people who were born Jewish would always be Jews regardless of their religious beliefs or practices.
On November 14, 1935 the Nazi goverment officially defined who was a German and who was a Jew through an additional decree called the First Regulation to the Reich Citizenship Law. (Debates about how to classify Mischlinge went on for years and were never completely resolved.)
In time, the Nazis extended the Nuremberg Laws, as these laws institutionalizing Nazi racial theory came to be known to include marriages between “Aryans” and other “racially inferior” groups. Nazi officials interperted the wording to mean that relations between “those of German or related blood” and “Gypsies,” Afro-Germans, or their offspring were also forbidden. Some people within the Nazi government considered requiring “Aryans” to divorce their Jewish spouses, but they did not go through with this plan.
Source: Facing History and Ourselves
Following the Nazi seizure of power in 1933, Hitler established a Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda headed by Joseph Goebbels. The Ministry’s aim was to ensure that the Nazi message was successfully communicated through art, music, theater, films, books, radio, educational materials, and the press.
There were several audiences for Nazi propaganda. Germans were reminded of the struggle against foreign enemies and Jewish subversion. During periods preceding legislation or executive measures against Jews, propaganda campaigns created an atmosphere tolerant of violence against Jews, particularly in 1935 (before the Nuremberg Race Laws of September) and in 1938 (prior to the barrage of antisemitic economic legislation following Kristallnacht). Propaganda also encouraged passivity and acceptance of the impending measurers against Jews, as these appeared to depict the Nazi government as stepping in and “restoring order.”
The Nazi regime used propaganda effectively to mobilize the German population to support its wars of conquest until the very end of the regime. Nazi propaganda was likewise essential to motivating those who implemented the mass murder of European Jews and of other victims of the Nazi regime. It also served to secure the acquiescence of millions of others- as bystanders- to racially targeted persecution and mass murder.
Source: US Holocaust Memorial Museum
The First wave of legislation, from 1933 to 1934, focused largely on limiting the participation of Jews in German public life. The first major law to curtail the rights of Jewish citizens was the “Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service” of April 7, 1933, according to which Jewish and “politically unreliable” civil servants and employees were to be excluded from state service.
In April 1933, German law restricted the number of Jewish students at German schools and universities. In the same month, further legislation sharply curtailed “Jewish activity” in the medical and legal professions.
The Nuremberg Laws of 1935 heralded a new wave of antisemitic legislation that brought about immediate and concrete segregation: Jewish patients were no longer admitted to municipal hospitals in Düsseldorf, German court judges could not cite legal commentaries or opinions written by Jewish authors, Jewish officers were expelled from the army, and Jewish university students were not allowed to sit for doctoral exams.
In 1937 and 1938, the German government set out to impoverish Jews and remove them from the German economy by requiring them to register their property. The Nazi government had initiated the practice of “Aryanizing” Jewish businesses. “Aryanization” meant the dismissal of Jewish workers and managers of a company and/or the takeover of Jewish owned businesses by non-Jewish Germans who bought them at bargain prices fixed by the government or Nazi party officials.
Source: US Holocaust Memorial Museum
World War IIRelated Lessons
The Holocaust took place in the broader context of World War II. Still reeling from Germany’s defeat in World War I, Hitler’s government envisioned a vast, new empire of “living space” (Lebensraum) in eastern Europe. The realization of German dominance in Europe, its leaders calculated, would require war.
After securing the neutrality of the Soviet Union (through the August 1939 German-Soviet Pact of nonaggression), Germany started World War II by invading Poland on September 1, 1939. Britain and France responded by declaring war on Germany on September 3. Within a month, Poland was defeated by a combination of German and Soviet forces and was partitioned between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.
The relative lull in fighting which followed the defeat of Poland ended on April 9, 1940, when German forces invaded Norway and Denmark. On May 10, 1940, Germany began its assault on Western Europe by invading the Low Countries (Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg), which had taken neutral positions in the war, as well as France. On June 22, 1940, France signed an armistice with Germany, which provided for the German occupation of the northern half of the country and permitted the establishment of a collaborationist regime in the south with its seat in the city of Vichy.
On June 22, 1941, the Germans and their allies invaded the Soviet Union, in direct violation of the German-Soviet Pact. In June and July 1941, the Germans also occupied the Baltic states. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin then became a major warm Allied leader, in opposition to Nazi Germany and its Axis allies. On December 6, 1941, Soviet troops launched a significant counteroffensive that drove German forces permanently from the outskirts of Moscow. One day later, on December 7, 1941, Japan (one of the Axis powers) bombed Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The United States immediately declared war on Japan. On December 11, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States as the military conflict widened.
In May 1942, the British Royal Air Force carried out a raid on the German city of Cologne with a thousand bombers, for the first time bringing war home to Germany. For the next three years, Allied air forces systematically bombed industrial plants and cities all over the Reich, reducing much of urban Germany to rubble by 1945.
On the eastern front, during the summer of 1942, the Germans and their Axis allies renewed their offensive in the Soviet Union, aiming to capture Stalingrad on the Volga River, as well as the city of Baku and the Caucasian oil fields. The German offensive stalled on both fronts in the late summer of 1942. In November, Soviet troops launched a counteroffensive at Stalingrad and on February 2, 1943, the German Sixth Army surrendered to the Soviets. The Germans mounted one more offensive at Kursk in July 1943, the biggest tank battle in history, but Soviet troops blunted the attack and assumed a military predominance that they would not relinquish during the course of the war.
On June 6, 1944 (D-Day), as part of a massive military operation, over 150,000 Allied soldiers landed in France, which was liberated by the end of August. On September 11, 1944, the first US troops crossed into Germany, one month after Soviet troops had crossed the eastern border. In mid-December the Germans launched an unsuccessful counterattack in Belgium and northern France, known as the Battle of the Bulge. Allied air forces attacked Nazi industrial plants, such as the one at the Auschwitz camp (thhough the gas chambers were never targeted).
The Soviets began an offensive January 12, 1945, liberating western Poland and forcing Hungary (an Axis ally) to surrender. In mid-February 1945, the Allies bombed the German city of Dresden, killing approximately 35,000 civilians. American troops crossed the Rhine River on March 7, 1945. A final Soviet offensive on April 16, 1945, enabled Soviet forces to encircle the German capital, Berlin.
As Soviet troops fought their way towards the Reich Chancellory, Hitler committed suicide on April 30, 1945. On May 7, 1945, Germany surrendered unconditionally to the Western Allies at Reims and on May 9 to the Soviets in Berlin. In August, the war in the Pacific ended soon after the US dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing 120,000 civilians. Japan formally surrendered on September 2.
World War II resulted in an estimated 55 million deaths worldwide. It was the largest and most destructive conflict in history.
Source: US Holocaust Memorial Museum