The Rise of Adolf Hitler

How could an Austrian-born, kind-hearted young child end up becoming one of the most ruthless and anti-Semitic German leaders that the world has ever seen?

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The rise of Adolf Hitler is one that is of great interest to historians the world over. How could an Austrian-born, kind-hearted young child end up becoming one of the most ruthless and anti-Semitic German leaders that the world has ever seen? Unlike most dictators who come to power through revolution, Adolf Hitler came to power by getting him and his party elected. However, it did take a few failed revolt attempts and some time in prison for Hitler to realize this new plan. Adolf Hitler’s rise to power was the result of several factors, most importantly however was Hitler’s standing in the National Socialist German Worker’s Party, the effects Germany was feeling as a result of the Treaty of Versailles and the views the German public held for the future of Germany.

First, Adolf Hitler got his start in politics after being assigned as an intelligence agent by the German Army to investigate the German Worker’s Party in Munich in 1919. He listened to a speech entitled, “How and by what means is capitalism to be eliminated?”[i] After this speech, another man stood up and began to talk about the German state of Bavaria breaking from Germany to form a new South German nation with Austria. An enraged Hitler stood up and spoke out against the man and his proposed idea for fifteen minutes without interruption. His oratory skills impressed German Worker’s Party leader Anton Drexler who went up to Hitler and gave him a pamphlet entitled “My Political Awakening” before leaving. Hitler was impressed that the party political beliefs similar to his own.[ii] Soon after, he was inducted into the party and attended an executive committee meeting.[iii] Hitler describes the party in Mein Kampf,  “aside from a few directives, there was nothing, no program, no leaflet, no printed matter at all, no membership cards, not even a miserable rubber stamp.”[iv] Even though he was dissatisfied with the condition of the party, Hitler liked the sentiment expressed by Drexler and saw an opportunity to turn the party into a movement. “This absurd little organization with its few members seemed to me to possess the one advantage that it had not frozen into an ‘organization,’ but left the individual opportunity for real personal activity. Here it was still possible to work, and the smaller the movement, the more readily it could be put into the proper form. Here, the content, the goal, and the road could still be determined.”[v] It is clear that Adolf Hitler took joining the German Worker’s Party seriously and that he felt that the party could turn into a much larger movement.

In early 1920, Adolf Hitler was appointed chief of propaganda for the party. In February 1920, Hitler added the words “National Socialist” to the party name making it the National Socialist German Worker’s Party (NSDAP). After being discharged from the German Army in March of 1920, Hitler began working for the party full-time. In this time, he began transforming the party with Drexler announcing the party’s twenty five point program and forming a security wing of the party under the guise of a gymnastics and sports division. This was originally named Ordnertruppen, but was later changed to Sturmabteilung or SA. The primary goal of such group was to keep order at Nazi meetings and suppress those that disrupted them.[vi] In time, Hitler began giving lectures at beer halls around Germany. This drew people to the party and began to spread his message. In June of 1921, a mutiny broke out in the NSDAP in Munich. Some members of its executive committee found Hitler overbearing and they wanted to merge with rival German Socialist Party.[vii] In July, Hitler resigned from the party. Members realized that if he was to do so then the party would end. Hitler announced that he would only rejoin if he was granted party chairmanship. The committee agreed that he could take over Drexler’s position as party chair. Hitler’s plan was a success. At a general membership meeting, he was granted absolute powers as party chairman.[viii] As party chairman, Hitler oversaw several meetings at beer halls which erupted into fights between SA members and opposition groups. One of the early notable beer hall melees was the Hofbrauhaus melee in Munich on November 4, 1921. Hitler spoke at the meeting and then a short time after, a fight broke out which ended with the SA defeating the opposition.[ix] The most famous beer hall event that Hitler was involved in was an attempted coup d’etat in November of 1923 know as the Beer Hall Putsch. Italy had just seen the rise of Benito Mussolini by way of a coup d’etat. This ultimately had to be on Hitler’s mind November of 1923 when he and the NSDAP led the Beer Hall Putsch. Their goal was to seize power in Munich and start off a national revolution. The confrontation between Nazis and the police left sixteen NSDAP members and four policemen dead.[x] Hitler was arrested two days later and charged with high treason. Hitler was tried and sentenced to five years in prison while his trial gained great public attention.[xi]

Adolf Hitler ended up only serving nine months of his five year sentence after being pardoned by the Bavarian Supreme Court in on December 20, 1924.[xii] The time in jail did not slow Adolf Hitler’s aspirations though. In fact, jail helped them because it gave him time to reevaluate his political strategy and write the first volume of his autobiography Mein Kampf. In the German Election of May 1924, the NSDAP gained seats in the Reichstag with 6.55% of the vote. However, in the December election, the party lost seats with only 3% voting for Hitler’s proxy party, the National Socialist Freedom Movement.[xiii] Hitler had finally realized that power was not to be attained by way of revolution outside the government but by legal means as established by the Weimar government. Hitler and his party would move to get elected democratically by running for office.

Moreover, Hitler and the National Socialist German Worker’s Party were able to gain popularity because their message railed against the Treaty of Versailles which made Germany solely responsible for World War One among many other restrictions. The Treaty of Versailles ordered that Germany completely disarm their entire military with the exception of “one hundred thousand men, including officers and establishments of depots.”[xiv] In addition the Treaty stated that “The Army shall be devoted exclusively to the maintenance of order within the territory and to the control of the frontiers.”[xv] This angered many Germans as the nation has always had a strong military throughout its history. Now, under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles they were to completely abandon having a robust military. In addition, Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles ordered Germany to accept responsibility for  damages caused by the war and in doing so, pay billions in reparations to the states affected. That was not all though. Germany was forced to give up some of its territory in Europe, forbidden from uniting with Austria and lost all of its overseas colonies. The worst part for Germany was that they were not allowed to negotiate any terms of the treaty and were forced to accept it. When the German delegation arrived in Versailles to negotiate the treaty, German Foreign Minister Ulrich Graf von Brockdorrf-Rantzau said of the treaty and the war guilt clause, “We know the full brunt of hate that confronts us here. You demand from us to confess we were the only guilty party of war; such a confession in my mouth would be a lie.”[xvi] In effect Germany was being humiliated on a global stage. The German public held strong nationalistic views and did not approve of the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. They felt that the terms were too harsh and began calling for revenge to reverse the effects of the treaty. This animosity toward the Treaty of Versailles was rampant throughout Germany and led many of Germans to join with political groups that stood against it. The NSDAP was one of those groups. This ultimately led to increased violence in the streets and several events such as the Kapp Putsch and the Munich Beer Hall Putsch which called for people to revolt against the government of the Weimar Republic.[xvii]

To make matters worse, the German government declared in 1922 that it could no longer pay the reparations. As a result, the French army invaded the Ruhr river valley industrial region in Germany. They took control of the factories, steel mills, mines and railways in an effort to take reparations by force. With the Treaty of Versailles leaving Germany without a military, the Weimar Government could do nothing to defend itself. The German people resisted the orders of the French which resulted in some Germans being shot and killed. Economic output in Germany grinded to a halt. Without the ability to raise the funds to pay the reparations, living conditions in Weimar Germany deteriorated. To pay for the reparations, Germany began printing money which caused massive hyperinflation. The German mark had been losing value since the enactment of the Treaty of Versailles and when France occupied the Ruhr River Valley, the German mark fell to almost nothing.[xviii] This paved the way for the Weimar government to undertake currency reform and to negotiate the Dawes Plan with the United States. In summation, the Dawes Plan enabled the United States to loan Germany money to rebuild their economy, to in turn pay war reparations over a longer period of time as the Allies then pay back their war debts to the United States. This entire plan made Germany entirely dependent upon United States loans which proved costly with Wall Street crash of 1929 and the start of the global depression. The Weimar Republic was hit very hard by the depression as American loans stopped. Unemployment soared across the country and many people turned to extremist political groups as it now appeared that the Weimar government could not pull Germany out of this economic downturn.[xix]

Throughout the 1920’s the NSDAP and other extremist parties were already on the rise. At times of economic hardship and public doubt of the Weimar government, the NSDAP and Communist (KPD) party received increased votes during elections. In the German election of May 1928, the NSDAP secured twelve seats in the Reichstag. This was just 2.63% of the overall vote.[xx] At this point, the SA increased their antagonism of the Rotfront by starting confrontations. In 1928, the NSDAP presidential nominee and old World War I hero, Erich Ludendorff was the only candidate to receive less than one million votes. Finally, with the German referendum of 1929, the Nazi party gained recognition. Many Germans did not like the proposed Young Plan, the plan to alleviate Germany’s financial woes and releasing of Allied held German securities. However, acceptance of this plan meant accepting the war guilt clause of the Treaty of Versailles. The NSDAP and other nationalist political organizations rallied against the plan.[xxi] Their proposed ‘Freedom Law,’ which was the counter to the Young Plan failed in the Reichstag yet garnered enough signatures to be called to a public referendum. It passed with 94.5% of the votes in support of the ‘Freedom Law’ yet it was not enacted because turnout was just 14.9% of registered voters; well below the 50% requirement.[xxii] Still, the NSDAP got significant exposure and the ‘Freedom Law’ getting enough signatures to be put up to a referendum surprised many observers.[xxiii] Adolf Hitler and the Nazis became a household name throughout Germany because newspapers gave them free publicity and working with other mainstream right-wing parties gave Hitler increased credibility.[xxiv] In the German federal election of 1930, the NSDAP gained 95 seats in the Reichstag and 18.25% of the vote.[xxv] This was a huge increase in support for the Nazi party as they now were the second largest party represented in the Reichstag. Despite Hitler losing to incumbent, Paul von Hindenburg in the Presidential election held in March and a runoff vote in April, the Hitler and the Nazi party still gained significant popularity. In the federal election of July 1932, the NSDAP continued to gain ground picking up an additional 123 seats to bring their total to 230 seats.[xxvi] They now were the largest party in the Reichstag. The Weimar Constitution made it difficult for the President and Chancellor to do anything without also having majority support in the Reichstag. The number of seats the Nazis held combined with those of other anti-democratic parties made it nearly impossible to get anything accomplished. The History Place states that the Nazis “had no intention of cooperating with the democratic government, knowing it was to their advantage to let things get worse in Germany, thus increasing the appeal of Hitler to an ever more miserable people.”[xxvii] This was true as the KDP after being stuck with the gains the Nazis made in the Reichstag became increasingly violent. It was in the German Federal election of November 1932 which finally paved the last road for Hitler to come to power. The Nazis lost seats but Chancellor Papen was not able to get a majority party in the Reichstag to be able to rule effectively. Papen resigned and on January 30, 1933, Hindenburg appointed Hitler as Chancellor of a coalition government between the NSDAP and the German National People’s Party (DNVP). Papen was to serve as Vice-Chancellor falsely believing that he could outmaneuver Hitler by dissolving Parliament.[xxviii] Three members of the coalition cabinet were members of the Nazi party: Hitler, Wilhelm Frick as Minister of the Interior and Hermann Goring as Minister Without Portfolio. After the Reichstag fire, the Nazis went about suspending civil liberties and eliminating political opposition. After  the March 1933 elections, no single party again held a clear majority. Hitler called on Reichstag members to vote for the Enabling Act which would grant the Chancellorship the power to act without parliamentary consent or constitutional limitations. Hitler was depending upon the votes of the Centre Party and Conservatives to get the Enabling Act to pass. In typical Hitler style of intimidation and negotiation, Hitler promised not the threaten the Reichstag, the President, the States or Churches if granted the emergency powers. Then with Nazi paramilitary members encircling the building, Hitler said, “It is for you, gentlemen of the Reichstag to decide between war and peace.” The Centre party ultimately joined with Conservatives and voted for the act with only the Social Democrats voting against it.[xxix]

In the coming months, Hitler began abolishing powers of the states and getting rid of non-Nazi political organizations. In addition, all non-Nazi parties were outlawed by midsummer of the same year and the Reichstag lost its democratic responsibilities. Hitler did not achieve full dictatorial power until the death of President Hindenburg in August of 1934.[xxx] While Adolf Hitler did not start off his political career with the goal of getting elected, he did find his way to power in that manner 14 years after receiving a copy of “My Political Awakening” from Anton Drexler. While the way he got into power was not the way he originally intended, Adolf Hitler had finally risen to power in Germany by circumstance surrounding the state of Germany and the public’s views toward the Treaty of Versailles and the future of Germany and his ascendancy within the new NSDAP. By the time Adolf Hitler was granted the Chancellorship, the writing was on the wall with how he would carry out his goals of reestablishing Germany as a world power set to play out throughout his dictatorial reign.[xxxi]

[i] Ian Kershaw, Hitler: A Biography (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2008), 75-88.

[ii] Kershaw, Hitler, 75

            [iii] Roderick Stackelberg, The Routledge Companion to Nazi Germany (New York: Routledge, 2007), 9.

[iv] Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf (New York: Houghton Mifflin, [1925] 1999), 224.

[v] Hitler, Mein Kampf, 224

[vi] John Toland, Adolf Hitler (New York: Doubleday & Company, 1976), 112.

[vii] Kershaw, Hitler, 100.

[viii] Kershaw, Hitler, 103.

[ix] Toland, Adolf Hitler, 94-98.

[x] Kershaw, Hitler, 131.

            [xi] William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1960), 75.

[xii] Kershaw, Hitler, 239.

            [xiii] Dieter Nohlen and Philip Stöver Elections in Europe: A data handbook (Germany: Nomos Publishing, 2010), 762.

[xiv] The Treaty of Versailles. Part V, Article 160(1). 1919.

[xv] The Treaty of Versailles. Part V, Article 160(1). 1919.

            [xvi] Treaty of Versailles meeting. Ulrich Graf von Brockdorrf-Rantzau to Clemenceau, Wilson and Lloyd George. Taken from http://www.marxist.com/treaty-of-versailles-to-end-all-peace.htm Accessed Nov 2013.

            [xvii] Ian Bickerton, The Illusion of Victory (Melbourne: Melbourne University Publishing, 2011), 132.

            [xviii] Mobile Reference, European History for Smartphones and Mobile Devices (Google eBook, 2007).

            [xix] University of Illinois, About the Great Depression (Webpage). http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/depression/ about.htm. Accessed Nov 2013.

            [xx] Martin Broszat, Hitler and the Collapse of Weimar Germany (Oxford: Berg Publishers, 1987), 9.

[xxi] A.J. Nicholls, Weimar and the Rise of Hitler (London: MacMillan Press Ltd, 2000),137.

[xxii] Nohlen & Stöver, Elections in Europe: A data handbook, 770.

[xxiii] Hans Mommsen, The Rise and Fall of Weimar Democracy (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996), 280.

[xxiv] Nicholls, Weimar and the Rise of Hitler, 138.

[xxv] Nohlen & Stöver, Elections in Europe: A data handbook, 790.

            [xxvi] Nohlen & Stöver, Elections in Europe: A data handbook, 762; The Holocaust Chronicle, Prologue: Roots of the Holocaust (Webpage: Publications International, Ltd. 2009). Accessed Nov 2013. http://www.holocaustchronicle.org/StaticPages/50.html

            [xxvii] The History Place, Germans Elect Nazis (Webpage: The History Place, 1996.) Accessed Nov 2013. http://www.historyplace.com/worldwar2/riseofhitler/elect.htm

[xxviii] Alan Bullock, Hitler: A Study in Tyranny (New York and London: Harper Perennial, [1962] 1991.), 132.

[xxix] Bullock, Hitler: A Study in Tyranny, 138-148.

[xxx] Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, 200-201.

[xxxi] Mommsen, The Rise and Fall of Weimar Democracy, 20-34.

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