Here is Part II of my five-part series on Nazism and how it still poses a danger.
When the NSDAP became the second-largest party in German politics in 1930, Reichswehr officers were banned from membership in the party. In September 1930, months after massive NSDAP wins, two Reichswehr officers were arrested and tried for being members of the party (which they did not deny). Adolf Hitler made a highly-publicized appearance as a defense witness at the trial. He promised that the NSDAP – the Nazis – were not an extremist organization and that they only sought to enter politics through legal means. He calmly expressed a desire to respect the laws of Germany. By now, Mein Kampf had been released in full and had become wildly popular among the working poor.
President Paul von Hindenburg had appointed Heinrich Brüning as the chancellor. The pair had begun to form a plan for staving off the economic depression that had upended German recovery – ruling by emergency decree, they had decided to enact a series of massive spending cuts that were extremely unpopular with poor and middle-class voters (and, unwittingly, set the stage for what was to come). Despite their unpopularity, the austerity measures were put into place, cutting wages for government workers (including laborers), welfare benefits for the unemployed, and raising taxes on those who made more. To say that Brüning was unpopular is a spectacular understatement – he was generally hated.
The growing dissent among the people made it all but impossible for Hindenburg to combat groups such as the Nazis and the various German communist parties.
Hitler, however, was not a citizen of Germany yet and couldn’t run for public office. An associate came up with a solution to this; on February 25, 1932, the Nazi interior minister of Brunswick appointed Hitler to the Reichsrat (the German version of the House of Representatives – the Reichstag was essentially the German version of our Senate). Shortly thereafter, he unsuccessfully ran against Hindenburg in the presidential election. The defeat was by no means a resounding one; not only did he win a sizable portion of the vote, Hitler also established himself as a force to be reckoned with in German politics. During the election, he promised peace while at the same time promising to end the ongoing humiliation that was the Treaty of Versailles.
The German government was still in disarray, though, and a group of highly-powered and wealthy Nazi party members, along with certain well-known businessmen who had given money to Hindenburg, wrote a letter begging him to appoint Hitler as chancellor. While many other wealthy German citizens and politicians mocked Hitler (calling him “the Bohemian Corporal” behind his back, referencing his lack of an education and his military service being his only real claim to fame) and admonished Hindenburg not to give the man any power, Hindenburg reluctantly agreed to appoint him as the chancellor in the hopes that the position would stop him from running in the next election.
Hitler was no simpleton, education lacking or not. He knew that the arrangement was meant to be temporary and he had no intention of giving it up; he insisted on Nazi members Wilhelm Frick and Hermann Göring being appointed with him to positions that gave them command of most of the police throughout the country. Hitler then convinced Hindenburg to dissolve the Reichstag and hold elections – the plan was cut short when, on February 27, 1933, the Reichstag burned to the ground. I agree with Nazi historian William Schirer that Nazi party members set the fire so they could use it as a rallying cry (I would suggest his book “Rise and Fall of the Third Reich”).
The day after the fire, Hitler used his power to suspend all basic rights and allow indefinite detention without just cause or a trial. He immediately ordered the roundup of all known and suspected communist party members and the Nazis gained nearly half of the seats in the new Reichstag – not enough for a majority. It required that he be somewhat diplomatic, but he still managed to ban several members of another party. Then, on March 23, 1933, a vote was held on the so-called “Enabling Acts”. The acts would give the Nazis what amounted to absolute power for four years, even giving him the ability to alter the German constitution without a vote. Hitler needed a two-thirds approval for the acts to pass, so he made a promise he had no intention of keeping – he promised members of the Center Party that president Hindenburg would still have his veto power. He continued to promise peace both to his opposition and to the people.
With crowds outside the Kroll Opera House screaming warnings that what was going on was a major threat to Germany, Hitler was set up as the Fuhrer.
Immediately, Hitler began to dispose of any who either opposed him or gave him reason to believe they would eventually oppose him. All non-Nazi political parties were banned. Trade unions, which he had expressed such love and respect for in Mein Kampf as essential to protecting German workers, were disbanded and a centralized Nazi group set up in their place (the German Labor Front). By July 14, 1933, the Nazis had complete control. SA leaders, sensing danger in Hitler’s control, attracted too much attention and after just one year in power Hitler had them rounded up and shot. He still promised peace.
Then, Hitler had the Reichstag pass a law that would combine the office of the chancellor and the president upon the death of Hindenburg. The law was a violation of the Enabling Acts, which barred Hitler from making any changes to the office of the president (it was one of the few things he wasn’t allowed to do), but that didn’t matter with the Nazis in control. Coincidentally (or not), Paul von Hindenburg died on August 25, 1934. There was now no legal means by which he could be removed from power.
With the SA now morphed into the SS (Schtuzstaffel, or Protection Squadron), Hitler could silence all opposition. He made his intention to re-militarize Germany known by ordering military leaders to have the Wehrmacht ready for war by 1938. When two high-ranking officers immediately objected, the SS invented evidence of prostitution and homosexual acts to have them removed. Shortly after Hindenburg’s death, Hitler appointed an economic minister whom he ordered to prepare the economy for war as well.
In need of money, Hitler ordered all enemies of the state to be arrested and their assets transferred to the Nazis. He ordered construction to begin on a mass scale, intent on showcasing the greatness of Germany. Unemployment dropped drastically as rearmament and major construction projects began in the lead-up to war. He continued to make promises that while he was going to end the de-militarization of buffer zones set up by the Treaty of Versailles – particularly the Rhineland – that his intentions were completely peaceful.
While he promised peace in public, behind closed doors he was planning Anschluss (making Austria part of Germany again) and ending the restrictions on the German military and arms imposed in Versailles. In March 1935, after yanking Germany from the League of Nations, Hitler announced the Wehrmacht would expand to 600,000 troops. He also announced the founding of the Luftwaffe and the expansion of the navy. One year later, in March 1936, German troops moved into the Rhineland. Britain and France did nothing but protest. Still, Hitler promised peace.
The rise of Nazism was complete.