On this day, the 27th of January each year, we remember the Holocaust and the people who suffered and died as a result. This was not just an event, this was a systematic process whereby millions of Jewish people were singled out, rounded up and sent to their deaths either by labour or execution. Although it wouldn’t be right to ignore all the other minorities and social groups who perished as well, “The Holocaust” does only refer to the Jewish murders. The word, Holocaust actually refers to destruction or slaughter on a mass scale. This is an interesting definition as the words “slaughter” and “destruction” both refer to human actions. This is vital to remember; that people, not monsters, did this. Sometimes this idea gets lost in calling people like Hitler ‘evil’. He wasn’t evil; he was a human being who committed evil acts.
But now to the main point of the article; to identify what factors meant that Hitler’s ideologies came to become a near reality. How did Hitler and the Nazis rise to power and how did they consolidate their power to be able to implement such a slaughter?
1) World War One and Its Aftermath
After Germany’s surprise surrender to end the war, many people back in Germany were left perplexed as they had heard many stories about how well Germany were doing and that a victory would not be far away. They felt that the politicians had “stabbed them in the back”. There were growing tensions as soldiers returned home having felt that their good work had gone to waste. On top of this, the Treaty Of Versailles had completely humiliated Germany. In the treaty Germany had to: reduce their great army to a size of 100,000 soldiers (not enough to defend themselves), disband their air force, reduce their navy to 15,000 sailors with 6 battleships and no submarines, lose 13% of their land mass containing 6 million people and pay £6.6 billion in reparations (as of 1921 in annual instalments) to cover the damage created ‘by them’ in the war. The most humiliating thing about the treaty, though, was article 231. This was the agreement that Germany accepted blame for starting the war. Of course we know this wasn’t the case as it started with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary. This led to the belief that politicians were weak and had betrayed the people. The USA, Britain and especially France had decided to isolate and put Germany onto its knees. Had we helped them get back onto their feet (like we did after WW2) then the rise of extremism would probably have been nullified. Thankfully we learnt from this.
2) Trying Times
Throughout history, it is common that in tough economic times people turn to extremism. Germany had to repay the reparations whilst suffering with food shortages and high unemployment. The German Revolution and Spartacist Uprisings identified this. The Nazis grew fairly quickly during the period leading up to and during 1923 when hyper-inflation was also a part of life at that time. The newly formed Weimar Republic was seen as weak and the Nazis thought they could be overthrown. The Munich Putsch, which was the Nazis attempt to gain power was a failure. Hitler was arrested along with other leading members. The crime Hitler had committed was treason. This was usually punishable by death or a life-sentence in prison. Instead, Hitler was allowed to state his case in depth in court – which was unusual in itself. He then proceeded to gain just a sentence of five years imprisonment but was released after just nine months. Hitler later commented that the trial and the failure of the putsch was, “the greatest good fortune” as the Nazis were given national coverage, Hitler wrote “Mein Kampf” and they were far from ready to lead the country. The leniency of the legal system allowed the Nazis to regroup and strengthen. Had the ring-leaders been properly punished, the Nazis could have been crushed as a party.
The next few years were prosperous in Germany and as a result the Nazis gained little support. However, in 1929 the Wall Street Crash led to a global economic depression. The USA recalled their loans and Germany were put into crisis. They had to repay money they simply did not have. This was the period that eventually saw Hitler become Chancellor and later, dictator.
3) Rhetoric in Language
Hitler was a very charismatic public speaker. Without going into any great analysis or depth in the content of his speeches, he would win people over with the simplistic promises he made, his charisma for nationalism and the way in which he spoke and used paralinguistics. He used the promise of “brot und arbeit” which translates to “bread and work” which made his audience empathetic towards him as this is what people most wanted, the basic human needs that Germany lacked. The Nazis rapidly grew in support because of this and became the biggest party in Germany by 1932.
This is the year Hitler attained some real influence in Germany. He was appointed as Chancellor in 1933. There was growing pressure on President Hindenburg, who detested Hitler, to appoint him as Chancellor as Hitler led Germany’s biggest party. Hindenburg resisted initially as he switched between von Papen and von Schleicher. All three men distrusted Hitler. However, von Papen persuades Hindenburg to appoint Hitler to keep him under close supervision. Von Papen’s real intention was to get von Schleicher out and gain the Vice-Chancellorship. This was successful. However, they both underestimated Hitler as they learned that he could not be controlled. The Reichstag (German parliament) fire soon followed. Although no-one really knows the truth, Hitler used this to bring in the Emergency Decree which allowed him ‘temporary’ power to ban public freedoms across Germany. He claimed the torching was a Communist uprising – again he used emotive subjects to persuade people. This meant he could round up communists and also ban the party, thus giving him the overall majority in parliament. This allowed him to put forward the “Enabling Act” which all parties foolishly voted for. Political parties voted themselves and democracy out of existence. Hitler was now in full control. When President Hindenburg died, Hitler combined the role of Chancellor and President to become the Fuhrer.
5) In Power
Now, Hitler could basically do anything. He gained the support of the army as he disbanded his own SA through the “Night of the Long Knives” to appease the feelings within the army. For the first time, the army swore an oath of allegiance to one man, Hitler, as opposed to their country. The Nuremburg Laws came in which stripped Jews of their citizenship and lost certain rights. This is just a brief summary of what happened whilst Hitler was in power. Indoctrination, Kristallnacht and further persecution and terror reigned over the Jews of Germany.
What is essential to remember is that subjects were rewritten in schools to indoctrinate children, neighbours were made to spy on suspicious neighbours, Germany became a police state and the Nazis were creating jobs and putting the pride back into Germany. The majority were happy with this. They were having a good time. And whilst the Nazis had much opposition, people were scared to speak out as they felt that they would not be backed up in any significant numbers.
The international community sat back and did nothing. They had to deal with their own economic crisis so they let Germany gain strength again under Hitler. Winston Churchill was one of the few who campaigned against Hitler and pleaded to prevent them from rearming as they were breaking the rules of the Treaty of Versailles. Of course, this escalated to World War Two whilst atrocities were being committed inside Germany and the countries occupied by them. You could say Britain was also at fault.
This list is by no means complete or explained at full length. The issues are long and complex. It goes to show that it wasn’t just the brilliance of Hitler’s charisma or the economic crisis or a racist mind-set in Germany that led to the Holocaust. It was governments, individual naivety and complacency and also fear that allowed this to happen. In hindsight, it’s easy to judge decisions of people and say, “I would never have done that”. But would you really have known any better than that at the time? The only way to prove it is by carefully thinking through your actions today. Be wary of campaigns based on nationalism or racism. Don’t take everything at face value. Look through the rhetoric and find the true intentions for what they really are.
Rest in peace to the victims who died between 1933 and 1945.