The philosophical traditions of racism in Europe, the
economic catastrophes of the late 1920’s and 1930’s, and the
social attitudes following the end of World War I all led to the rise
of the Nazi regime.
Beginning in the 1880’s Social Darwinism–the belief that
certain races are better inclined to rule–became a commonly
accepted doctrine supporting imperialism by Europeans. Two
champions of this belief, Houston Chamberlain and Gobineau,
espoused the idea that the Aryan and northern European races were
better fit to rule, also called the theory of “Nordic Supremacy.”
Also in the 1880’s, Freidrich Nietzsche and other
philosophers began to argue against the power of the rational
human mind. The only hope for salvation of the human race from
their loss of creativity was for a few superior individuals
(supermen) to free themselves from the masses and in the process
advance the human race. Although his ideas were dismissed at the
time, the experience of World War I would bring his ideas to life.
Following the end of World War I, the “Age of Anxiety” began to
The world witnessed some of the most horrific fighting and mass death during World War I. Its end left many philosophers and writers with an acrid taste for humanity. The glorified view of human reason and rational thought that had prevailed previously was now replaced with a view of humans as irrational animal-like beings. The belief that certain races were less savage than others led to the increase in racist and anti-semitic writings during this era.
Coinciding with this change in philosophical thought was the economic crisis resulting from World War I. Germany and many other European countries had been left in shambles. Since Germany had lost the war, it was required by the Treaty of Versailles to pay reparations to the allies (especially France).
As a condition of the treaty, the Weimar Republic had to sign the War-Guilt Clause, admitting responsibility for World-War One. Not only did this demoralize the German people, but it also aroused suspicion of the Weimar Republic as a puppet government of France and its allies, committing treason against Germans. France also took control of the Ruhr valley and the Rhineland, a region containing many valuable mineral resources.
Although financial payment plans were developed by the United States (Dawes Act) to help the new Weimar Republic in Germany to get back on its feet, without the Ruhr Valley which produced 80% of Germany’s steel and coal, the economy could not regain life. The enormous inflation of the mark (at one point 4 trillion marks equaled one dollar) left the Germans in search of someone to lead them out of their misery. The crisis in the economy demoralized the middle-class, as their life savings were reduced to nothing. Now the most stable population in society, the businessmen and working class, were in financial ruin. Although the economy did improve between 1926 and 1929, the crash of the American economy in 1929 spiraled the Weimar Republic further into economic ruin.
During World War I, a young unaccomplished student who failed to enter the Arts Academy enlisted as a soldier in the German army. This man, Adolf Hitler, became distinguished as a dispatch runner and was given an Iron Cross. After the war, he was hired as a political agent to spy on subversive groups. Through this profession he became involved with the German Worker’s Party (NSDAP). While in Vienna he learned about politics from the anti-semitic mayor Karl Lueger.
After building a power base in Bavaria, Hitler attempted a coup in the style of Mussolini’s March on Rome. The Munich ‘Putsch’ in 1923 was put down by policemen, and Hitler was arrested. In his trial, the judges gave him the opportunity to use his oratory skills and give long winded speeches concerning his theories. He was sentenced to a short prison term, much less than would normally be given to someone who committed treason.
While in jail Hitler wrote Mein Kampf (My Struggle), which detailed the author’s belief in the conspiracies of Jewish business leaders to control and extort money from the German people. It also expressed his eugenical ideas on the superiority of the Aryan race. Following his release, he regained control of NSDAP and designed new logos (swastika), flags, and uniforms.
During the prosperous years of the Weimar Republic (1924-29), the Nazi party made little progress. Throughout this period, however, people from all walks of life were recruited into Nazi ideology using common prejudices against Jews. In May 1928, the Nazis won 800,000 votes (2.6%) in parliamentary elections. Although not a force yet, it was becoming stronger and stronger amongst educated and young people.
Following a 1929 alliance with Alfred Hugenberg, the leader of the German National People’s Party (DNVP), the Nazi party won 13.8% of the vote. The turning point in Nazi popularity, however, was the 1929 crash of the American stock market. The German economy broke to pieces and unemployment soared. The Nazis were able to recruit the votes of these individuals, earning 18.2% of the vote in 1930. It had now become the second largest party in the Reichstag after the Social Democrat Party (SDP).
Unlike other parties, the Nazis attracted support from all different trades and social classes. Workers, Catholics, business community, nationalists, and professional classes all became loyal supporters of the party. Hitler’s presence and assurance that he would lead Germany to another Renaissance seduced the people. In 1932, the party won 36% of the vote . President Hindenburg tried to make the Nazi party illegal, but failed when the army showed signs of supporting the NSDAP.
In July of 1932 new elections were called and the Nazis received 37% of the vote, becoming the largest party in the Reichstag. Fear of a rising communist party, led industrialists to ask the current President von Poppen to name Hitler Chancellor of Germany. As Hitler waited to be appointed to this office, his party lost votes in the Thuringia state election. When von Poppen failed to get a parliamentary majority, he suggested that the army rule.
President Hindenburg refused to institute martial law and named Kurt von Shleicher as Chancellor. When Shleicher appeased left-wing interests, industrialists became worried. Von Poppen then convinced Hindenburg to name Hitler as Chancellor, which was done on January 30, 1933. After Hitler achieved political dominance, the Nazis staged a fire of the Reichstag. Hitler blamed the burning on the communists and used the resulting political outrage to ask for governing power without the consent of parliament. Once this was accomplished, Hitler and the Nazi party had total control over the government of Germany, the first step toward the “Final Solution.”
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