Birth of the Weimar Republic
Germany was a powerful empire in the early years of the twentieth century. It fought the First World War (1914-1918) alongside the Austrian empire and against the Allies (England, France and Russia).
The Allies were strengthened by the US entry in 1917 and won the war in November 1918.
The defeat of the Imperial Germany paved the way for democratic republic in Germany. The parliamentary parties met at the National Assembly at Weimar and established a democratic constitution with a federal structure. Universal suffrage was allowed for electing the Deputies to the German Parliament (Reichstag).
Versailles Treaty: But after the First World War, Germany was forced to accept certain terms which hurt the pride of the German people. As per the peace treaty signed at Versailles, Germany lost its overseas colonies, a tenth of its population, 13% of its territories, 75% of its iron and 26% of its coal to France, Poland, Denmark and Lithuania. To weaken its power, the Allied Powers demilitarized Germany. The War Guilt Clause forced Germany to pay compensation amounting to £6 billion. The resource rich Rhineland was occupied by the Allied armies for much of the 1920s. Because of these developments, many Germans were not happy with the Weimar Republic.
The Effects of the War
Europe had turned into a continent of debtors from being a continent of creditors, after the war. The Weimar Republic was forced to pay for the sins of the old empire. The supporters of the Weimar Republic became easy targets of the attacks by the conservatives.
Glorification of Soldiers: After the First World War, the soldiers came to be placed above civilians all over Europe. Politicians and the media glorified the life of a soldier. Aggressive war propaganda and national honour became the theme of public debate. Democracy was a nascent idea which could not survive the war-ravaged Europe.
Political Radicalism and Economic Crises
This was the time when the Spartacist League revolution began to rise on the pattern of Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. There was a charged political atmosphere in Berlin and there were demands for Soviet style governance.
The socialists, democrats and the Catholics met in Weimar to give shape to the democratic republic. The uprising of the Spartacist was crushed with the help of war veteran organizations called Free Corps. The Spartacist later founded the Communist Party of Germany.
The economic crisis of 1923 further heightened the political radicalization in Germany. Germany had to pay war reparations in gold which led to depletion of gold reserve. When Germany refused to pay in 1923, the French occupied its leading industrial area Ruhr; to claim their coal.
Germany responded with passive resistance and printed paper currency recklessly. Increased circulation of currency led to hyperinflation in Germany. Price rise was phenomenal.
Finally, America decided to bail out Germany from this mess. America introduced the Dawes Plan. According to this plan, the terms of reparations were reworked to ease the financial burden on Germany.
The Years of Depression
Some stability could be seen between 1924 and 1928. But that stability was short-lived because the industrial recovery in Germany was dependent on short-term loans. A large portion of those loans came from the USA. This support was withdrawn after the infamous Wall Street crash.
The Wall Street Exchange crashed in 1929 and people sold their shares in a mad spree. This was the beginning of the Great Depression. The effects of this recession in the US economy were felt all over the world.
The German economy was the worst hit by Great Depression. By 1932, industrial production became 40% of what it was in 1929. Number of unemployed touched a high of 6 million. Unemployment also led to an increase in criminal activities.
Fragile Republic: The Weimar Republic was politically fragile as well. Its constitution had some inherent defects and hence the Weimar Republic was prone to be unstable and vulnerable to dictatorship. The provision of proportional representation meant that majority by a single party was impossible and coalition government was the norm. Article 48 gave the President the powers to impose emergency to suspend civil rights and to rule by decree. The average life span of a cabinet was just 239 days and emergency was declared many times. People were losing confidence in the republic.
Hitler’s Rise to Power
Hitler was born in 1889 in Austria and spent his youth in poverty. He served in the army during the First World War where he rose through the ranks. He was furious at various sanctions imposed on Germany through the Versailles Treaty. In 1919, he joined a small group called the German Workers’ Party. Subsequently, Hitler took over the organization and renamed it the Nationalist Socialist German Workers’ Party. This came to be known as the Nazi Party.
In 1923, Hitler made an unsuccessful bid to capture power at Berlin. He was arrested, tried for treason and later released. Till early 1930, the Nazis could not mobilize popular support. The Nazi Party got about 2.6% votes in 1928 but emerged as the largest party; with 37% votes; in 1932.
Oratory Skills of Hitler: Hitler was a powerful orator. He could sway the masses with his powerful words. He promised to build a strong nation and restore the dignity of German people. He promised all around development and employment to youth.
Hitler understood the significance of rituals and spectacle in mass mobilization. He used the Swastika symbol, red banners, pamphlets and ritualized rounds of applause to great effect during his massive rallies.
Hitler was projected as a messiah; who could free people from their distress. For people who were shattered by acute economic and political crises; Hitler provided a ray of hope.
The Destruction of Democracy
On 30 January 1933, Hitler was offered the Chancellorship by President Hindenburg. It was the highest position in the cabinet of ministers. After acquiring power, Hitler began to dismantle the structures of democratic rule.
A mysterious fire broke out in the German Parliament in February and it gave an excuse to Hitler to assume all the powers. A Fire Decree was announced on 28 February 1933. Under the Decree, various civic rights were suspended.
After that, Hitler turned on to his archenemies, the Communists. Most of the Communists were packed off to the newly established concentration camps.
The famous Enabling Act was passed on 3 March 1933. This Act gave all powers to Hitler and established dictatorship in Germany. All political parties and trade unions were banned; leaving the monopoly to the Nazi Party. The state acquired complete control over the economy, media, army and judiciary.
Special surveillance and security forces were created to control and order the society. The regular police in green uniform and the SA or the Storm Troopers were the existing police forces. Additional police forces were also raised; viz., the Gestapo (secret state police), the SS (the protection squad), criminal police and the Security Service (SD).
These police forces enjoyed extra-constitutional powers. People could be detained in Gestapo torture chambers, rounded up and sent to concentration camps, deported at will or arrested without any legal procedures.
The responsibility of economic recovery was given to the economist Hjalmar Schacht. He initiated a state-funded work-creation programme to ensure full production and full employment. The famous Autobahn and Volkswagen were the results of this period. The economy was on the road to prosperity.
Hitler got quick successes in foreign policy as well. In 1933, he pulled out of the League of Nations. He reoccupied the Rhineland in 1936 and integrated Austria and Germany in 1938. After that, he went on to wrest German-speaking Sudentenland from Czechoslovakia and usurped the entire country. England gave unspoken support to Hitler in these endeavours.
Expansion Spree: Hitler was convinced that expansion of territory was a surefire way to acquire resources and more resources would help tide the economic crisis. Germany invaded Poland in September 1939 and this event started a war with France and England. A Tripartite Pact was signed between Germany, Italy and Japan in 1940. This fact strengthened Hitler’s claim to international power. In a large part of Europe, puppet regimes (which were supportive of Nazi Germany) were installed. By the end of 1940, Hitler was at the zenith of his power.
Soviet Hegemony over Eastern Europe: Now Hitler moved to achieve his long-term aim, i.e. of conquering the Eastern Europe. Hitler attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941 which proved to be a historic blunder. With this step, the western front of Germany was exposed to British aerial bombing and the eastern front was exposed to the powerful Soviet armies. The German Army was handed a crushing defeat by the Soviet Army and the Soviet forces finally reached the heart of Berlin. This established the Soviet hegemony over the entire Eastern Europe for half a century thereafter.
US involvement in War: The USA did not want to face all the economic problems which were caused by the First World War. Hence, the USA was unwilling to get involved in the Second World War. But Japan’s advances in the east, its support to Hitler and bombing at the US base at Pearl Harbor, forced the US to enter the Second World War. The US dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima in Japan and the war ended in May 1945 with Hitler’s defeat.
The Nazi Worldview
The Nazi ideology did not believe in equality among people but only in a racial hierarchy. According to this, the Nordic German Aryans were at the top and the Jews were at the bottom. All other coloured people were placed in between. Hitler interpreted the ideas of Darwin and Spencer to suit his own views. While Darwin and Spencer proposed the idea of Natural Selection and Survival of the Fittest, Hitler wanted human intervention to ensure the elimination of other races. According to him, such races were not fit for survival and should be eliminated to make place for the purest race; the Nordic German Aryans.
Hitler’s ideology was also related to the geopolitical concept of Lebensraum, or living space. He believed in acquiring new territories to spread the race of the Nordic German Aryans.
Establishment of the Racial State
The Nazis quickly began to implement their dream of creating an exclusive racial community of pure Germans. They did this by physically eliminating all those who were seen as ‘undesirable’ in the extended empire. The pure and healthy Nordic Aryans were seen as the only ‘desirable’ race. Many Germans who were considered ‘undesirable’ were killed under the Euthanasia Programme. Even the mentally or physically unfit were killed under this programme.
The Jews, the Russians and the Poles; all of them were widely persecuted. After the German occupation of Poland and parts of Russia, the captured civilians were forced to work as slave labour. Most of them died because of hard work and starvation.
Stereotyping the Jews: There had been a long tradition of Christian hostility towards the Jews. They had been stereotyped as killers of Christ and usurpers. Until medieval times, the Jews were barred from owning land. Trade and money-lending was their only means for survival. Periodic organized violence and expulsion from land were often used for persecuting the Jews.
The Nazis wanted a complete elimination of the Jews. From 1933 to 1938, the Jews were compelled to leave the country through different means of terror and segregation. In the next phase (1939-1945), there was an aim of concentrating them in certain areas and eventually killing them in gas chambers.
The Racial Utopia
After German occupation, Poland was divided up and much of north-western Poland was annexed to Germany. Poles were forced to leave their homes and properties behind. They were to be occupied by ethnic Germans brought in from occupied Europe.
The Poles were sent to the other part which was called the General Government. Members of the Polish intelligentsia were killed so the Polish could be kept intellectually and spiritually servile. Some of the largest ghettos and gas chambers were also present in the General Government. Thus, it also served as the killing field for the Jews.
Youth in the Nazi Germany
Hitler felt that by teaching the Nazi ideology to children, a strong Nazi society could be established. All schools were ‘cleansed’ and ‘purified’ to propagate the Nazi ideals. The teachers who were Jews or seen as ‘politically unreliable’ were dismissed. German and Jew children were segregated and the ‘undesirable children’; Jews, physically handicapped and Gypsies; were thrown out of school. Finally in the 1940s, they were taken to the gas chambers.
School textbooks were re-written so that the ‘Good German’ children could be brainwashed through a prolonged period of ideological training. Racial science was introduced in the curriculum to justify the Nazi ideas of race.
Children were taught to be loyal and submissive, hate Jews and worship Hitler. The sport of Boxing was promoted to instill mental strength among students.
Youth organisations were given the responsibility of educating the German youth in the spirit of National Socialism. Ten year olds had to enter Jungvolk. At 14 years of age, all boys had to join the Nazi youth organization; Hitler Youth. After a long and rigorous training in the Nazi ideology, they had to join the Labour Service; usually at the age of 18. After that, they had to serve in the armed forces and enter one of the Nazi organizations.
The Nazi Cult of Motherhood
The boys were taught to be aggressive, masculine and steel hearted. The girls were told that they had to become good mothers and rear pure-blooded Aryan children. The girls had to maintain the purity of the race and hence had to distance themselves from the ‘undesirables’.
Women who bore racially undesirable children were punished. On the other hand, women who bore racially desirable children were awarded. They were given special treatment in hospitals and also got concessions in shops, theatres and railways. Honor Crosses were awarded to encourage women to produce more children. A bronze cross was given for four children, silver cross for six and golden cross for eight or more. The ‘Aryan’ woman who deviated from the prescribed code of conduct was publicly condemned and severely punished.
The Art of Propaganda
The Nazi regime used the language and media with great effect. They coined various deceiving terms to be used for ‘killing’ or ‘murder’. Photographs, films, radio, posters, catchy slogans, etc. were used to propagate the Nazi ideology. Those opposed to the Nazis and the Jews were stereotyped through various campaigns.
Many people began to see the world through Nazi perspective. There was widespread hatred against the Jews. People believed that Nazism would bring prosperity and improve general well-being.
But many others organized active resistance to Nazism, braving police repression and death. But a large majority of the German population was composed of passive onlookers. They were too scared to act, to differ, to protest.
Knowledge about the Holocaust
Information about Nazi atrocities had trickled out of Germany during the last years of the regime. But it was only after the end of the war that the world came to realize the horrors suffered by the Jews and other ‘undesirables’. Many Jews wrote their memories in diaries and notebooks, and created archives.
When the Nazi leadership could see that they were fighting a losing battle, they distributed petrol to its functionaries to destroy all incriminating evidences