The Nazi Reich is rightfully looked upon by history as one of the worst crimes of the last few centuries; a brutal, totalitarian regime which kept its citizens living in fear and tortured millions just because they didn’t fit with their leader’s image of the ideal German.
But fascism doesn’t start with concentration camps and grandiose empire-building. The Nazis, like many other fascist movements, started out as a group of disgruntled guys looking to pick fights and find someone to blame.
From their small-scale beginnings at the start of the 1920's, the National Socialists went through a monumental rise in size and power in not such a long amount of time and no one in Germany saw them coming. This was largely down to the leadership of Adolf Hitler.
We may think that this is the past and that the horrors committed by the Nazis will never be repeated, but with far right movements on the rise once again across the globe, it would be a mistake to be as complacent as many were at the time. There are lots of things to be learned from studying just how Hitler became the Führer.
15 As A Spy, Hitler Was Sent To Infiltrate The Nazis’ Precursor
You may already know that Hitler had been a soldier during the First World War, and took part in the fighting on the Western Front. However, in fact, it was his continued service with the Reichswehr, the German army, which brought him into contact with the party he’d go on to lead.
Returning from the war, Hitler had no friends and no job prospects, so he opted to stay in the army. He was recruited by the political department of the Reichswehr, where his public speaking skills and extreme anti-Semitism caught the attention of a superior officer. He was made an intelligence agent and sent on a mission–to infiltrate the DAP (or German Workers’ Party), a small Munich-based far right movement that was causing the army concern.
Hitler went in disguise as a civilian to one of their meetings and spoke up against an audience member who criticized the speaker, leading to the party's leader Anton Drexler inviting him in to be a member. In hindsight, he may not have been the best choice for the mission.
14 He Ruthlessly Took Charge Of The Party
It didn’t take long for Hitler to make an impression on the DAP, or for him to become representative of the nationalist anti-Semitic views they espoused. Soon, his ability to command a crowd led to him being put in charge of many of the party’s meetings and their program of propaganda.
In fact, it was around this time that Hitler changed the party’s name to the National Socialist German Workers' Party (Nazis for short) and designed their new logo, the swastika against a red background. Unsurprisingly, he was discharged from the army when it became clear that he was no longer simply acting as a spy, but Hitler was happy to be able to devote himself full-time to the party.
And not long after this, he took over the leadership in a crafty coup. Disagreeing with members of its committee who wanted to merge with another party, he handed in his resignation. Realizing that losing their main public figure would doom the party, the committee tried to get him back, and his one condition was that he replace Drexler as chairman. Not long after, he was granted absolute powers over the party.
13 The Failed Military Coup
Though he may have been cunning when it came to taking control of the National Socialists, Hitler’s first major action as leader wasn’t quite the success he’d hoped. Inspired by Benito Mussolini’s March on Rome, he decided that the best way for the Nazis to take power was through a violent coup d’état.
With General Erich Ludendorff and 3000 SA (the Nazi’s military division) troops on his side, Hitler made his move on November 8, 1923. 600 of these Nazis stormed a beer hall in the center of Munich, where other right wing politicians were holding a meeting. At gunpoint, Hitler forced these leaders to agree to rebel against the government. Across the city, the SA took control of other important buildings, including the headquarters of the army and the local newspaper.
The next day, Hitler and his 3000 men marched into Munich, thinking they'd triumphed, but army reinforcements had been called in and fighting broke out. Not having expected the government to fight back, Hitler fled, and was arrested two days later.
12 He Ranted For Hours At His Own Trial
As a consequence of the Beer Hall Putsch, Hitler was put on trial for treason. And that should have been the end of it all as organizing such a violent revolution would put a man away for life, condemned by the country, right? Apparently not.
Many of the judges at the trial were actually sympathetic to the Nazis’ politics, and so Hitler only got a five-year sentence, of which he served about eight months, while several of his co-conspirators were let off entirely! Perhaps their bigger mistake was allowing him to speak at his own trial. His opening speech lasted three and a half hours and his closing one lasted two. The effect of this was to grant Hitler attention in the national and international press, spreading his politics to a wider audience than ever before.
In these speeches, Hitler tried to turn the tables, putting not himself, but the government on trial and outlining his dream for his small army to grow into an incredibly powerful one. He even said that it wouldn’t be this court who would eventually try him but the “Court of History” which has arguably turned out to be true, though not in Hitler’s favor.
11 Newspapers Reported That Jail ‘Tamed’ Hitler
Hitler spent his eight months in prison writing Mein Kampf, the autobiographical book which outlined his hateful ideology, and plotting his political strategies for the years to come. As armed revolution had failed him, he decided that the Nazi party would stick to legal methods of building power.
The establishment at the time thought they had defeated Hitler. One New York Times report observed that Hitler looked “a much sadder and wiser man” on the date of his release. It went on to say that his organization was “no longer to be feared” and that Hitler would probably “retire to private life.”
Both turned out to be very wrong predictions. As we now know, the threat of the National Socialists had not even really begun. When it comes to stopping fascists like Hitler, complacency is one of the biggest mistakes that can be made.
10 Nazi Campaigning Manipulated Anger At The Establishment
After his release from prison, Hitler concentrated on building up the National Socialists as a political force. The timing became right for him, though Germany had in fact prospered under the Weimar government through the 1920's. The depression of 1929 created much poverty and unemployment, and consequently, people had little faith in the democratic system.
It’s at times like this that citizens turn to the more extreme parties. Hitler shared people's anger towards the government, criticizing in particular their continued payment of reparations for damage done in the war. He also provided a handy scapegoat, saying that the Jews were in control of the nation and are to blame for its problems. Once people’s anger had been directed towards the government and the Jews, they could unite as a political force with a clear enemy.
Thanks to the Nazis’ overwhelming propaganda campaign, people fell under this sway, falling behind Hitler’s ideas of restoring Germany to its apparent former greatness, and by the start of the 1930's, the National Socialists were beginning to gain power in the parliament.
9 Terror On The Street During Elections
Though the National Socialists may have ostensibly restricted themselves to legal forms of politics after the failure of the Munich Putsch, this didn’t mean that their campaigning was free from violence. In fact, it's far from it.
During the late 1920's and early 1930's, violence often broke out on the streets of Germany over political rivalries, particularly between the Nazis and the KPD, the communist extremist party at the opposite end of the political spectrum.
One particularly violent episode came in 1929. After communists interrupted one of Hitler’s speeches in Nuremberg, SA thugs opened fire in return, killing two bystanders. The Nazis then went on to storm KPD meetings in retribution, even starting a gunfight between the two forces in the streets of Berlin. The fistfights that we see erupt at today’s political events can get nasty, but these guys went for full-on shooting the town up.
8 The Nazis Were Financed By Big Business
Since the beginnings of capitalism, there’s always been dubious connections between politicians and big businessmen. That was certainly the case when it came to the Nazis.
Frightened by the potential that communism would rise as a political force, many industrialists turned to the exact opposite of the communists (the far right) and so queued up to fund Hitler’s campaigns. They were also lured in by Hitler’s promise that he would suspend trade unions which is an odd promise, given that he’d told the working classes that he’d protect workers. Many historians have since commented that the businessmen who helped the rise of the Nazis were too short-sighted to see where the nation was heading.
The Nazis continued to have ties with many major German businesses during their time in power, including some names you may recognize today–Kodak, Hugo Boss, Siemens, and BMW are just some of the still-existing brands that had ties to the Nazis!
7 Foreign Sympathizers – Including British Royals
You might think that it was only the German people who fell under Hitler’s sway and the rest of the world could easily see that he wasn’t to be trusted, but that wasn’t entirely the case. The Nazis had many supporters across the world, even when they came into power, no less than some members of the British Royal family.
In 2012, a British tabloid unearthed an image of the current queen, Elizabeth II, as a six-year-old giving a Nazi salute. She may have only been a child, but what kind of family would encourage such behavior? It turns out her uncle, King Edward VIII, was a buddy of Hitler’s. In 1937, after his abdication, Edward visited Germany to hang out with the Führer in the Bavarian Alps. Even in 1970, after the true horrors of the Nazi regime had been revealed, the former King told a friend that "I never thought Hitler was such a bad chap."
6 Hitler Actually Lost The Presidential Election
Despite all the political gains the Nazis had made, however, Hitler was never actually elected to the highest office of Germany, that of the President. In 1932, he ran in a Presidential election. It was one of the most violent campaign periods yet, characterized by fighting in the streets and the beer halls.
Hitler’s main opponent was Paul von Hindenburg, an independent politician who was coming to the end of his first term as President. Hindenburg, who was 84 and in poor health, was uncertain about whether to re-run, but all the moderate parties convinced him to, believing him to be the only candidate who could stop the rising power of the Nazis.
Hindenburg’s popularity won out. He got 53% of the votes compared to Hitler’s 36.8%. Nevertheless, the Nazis made great gains that same year, winning 230 seats in the Reichstag (the German parliament), significantly more than the 12 they’d had just four years earlier.
5 Hitler Became Chancellor Through Seedy Deal
Though Hitler had failed to become President, the position from which a lot of political power was controlled–that of Chancellor–was still in his targets. After the 1932 elections saw the Nazis become the biggest party by far in the Reichstag, Hitler asked Hindenburg to make him Chancellor.
But Hindenburg refused, instead giving the role to Franz von Papen. Papen offered Hitler the position of Vice Chancellor, but he turned that down. Soon, Papen found himself unable to control the largely Nazi parliament, and lasted less than half a year in the role. Hindenburg still held out on giving in to Hitler, and made Kurt von Schleicher the next Chancellor. He, too, didn’t last.
In January 1933, Hindenburg finally made a deal with Hitler that appointed him as Chancellor, but with von Papen as Vice Chancellor and a majority conservative cabinet. With those precautions in place, Hindenburg thought, the excesses of the Nazis could be curtailed.
4 Other Parties Missed Their Chance To Stop The Nazis
The famous saying goes that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. This can certainly apply when it comes to the beginnings of Nazi Germany, as the other political movements in the country consistently failed to curtail the rise of Hitler. Indeed, even when he was made Chancellor, Hindenburg and von Papen still believed that Hitler could be ‘tamed’, a belief they soon came to regret.
But could the other parties have stopped Hitler if they’d known what was coming? There was no individual party strong enough to contest the surge in Nazi popularity, with two of the main parties of Weimar Germany, the People’s Party and the Democrats, fast losing support to the Nazis, and others stunted by ineffective leadership. Some historians have concluded that a stronger union between all these parties could have presented an opposition strong enough to prevent the fascist takeover...but that’s the benefit of hindsight.
3 Nazis May Have Burned Down Their Own Parliament
On February 27, 1933, the Reichstag building was engulfed in flames caused by an arson attack. Shortly afterwards, a young communist called Marinus van der Lubbe was arrested for the crime; he was found guilty and then, got executed.
But historians have since argued that it may have been the Nazis themselves who set the Reichstag alight. As recently as 2001, a new investigation uncovered Gestapo files implying that Nazi agents committed the crime and framed van der Lubbe. However, there’s still no certainty on what really happened.
Why would the Nazis do this? Well, shortly after the fire, Hitler booted the communists, previously one of his main rivals, out of the Reichstag. He went on to further curb civil liberties, using this crisis to push towards passing an Enabling Act which gave him emergency powers to act without the consent of parliament–one step closer to being a full-on dictator. He then went on to outlaw all non-Nazi parties. Times of violent crisis, it seems, can be of great benefit to fascist leaders.
2 The Night Of The Long Knives
Hitler may have held an unprecedented level of power by 1934, but he still had many enemies in the political system. These included establishment conservatives, anti-Nazis, and even the leaders of his own SA, who he was becoming distrustful of. And then, in one shocking and brutal move, he dealt with that problem.
In the early hours of June 30, soldiers of the SS, Hitler’s new paramilitary organization, and the Gestapo, the secret police, rounded up and executed all those figures Hitler saw as his opponents. This violent purge became known as the Night of the Long Knives, a German term meaning an act of vengeance.
This was far from the type of political maneuver that the likes of Hindenburg had expected from the ‘tamed’ Hitler, but the Nazi leader now had enough power to be able to get away with it. He claimed that those executed had been traitors to the nation, and that he’d made the decision to act in order to protect Germany’s security, a claim which way too many people bought into.
1 He Abolished The Role Of President So He Could Be Führer
After the Night of the Long Knives, only one thing stood between Hitler and total dictatorship–Hindenburg was still President. But Hitler knew that the old man was on his last legs, and so he didn’t need to act. Indeed, in August 1934, Hindenburg died of lung cancer.
Knowing that this had been coming for a while, Hitler had prepared a law to be passed after Hindenburg's death, which removed the office of the President. The reason he gave publicly was that Hindenburg had been such a popular president that he was “inseparably united” with the role and it would be unsuitable for anyone else to take over. Right? Wrong.
What this meant practically, of course, was that only eleven years after his first attempt to take power had failed dramatically, Adolf Hitler was now both Chancellor and President of Germany. Actually, under the new title he had devised, he was in fact Führer, which means ‘leader’. And then the atrocities of Nazi Germany could truly begin.