The Decline of Nazism

I think it’s fitting that I post the fourth installment of my series on Nazism on Yom HaShoah – the day of remembrance and mourning for those lost in Shoah (the Holocaust).

By the time war broke out, life for Germans in Germany had become relatively nice – at least in comparison to what it had been like in the years following the Treaty of Versailles. The war effort required work from all who were able. All Germans were promised a home, a car, and an annual vacation. Those deemed a threat to the Aryan race, however, suffered horrors that the rest of the world only heard whispers of for many years. In 1941, the wearing of a yellow Star of David with “Jude” embroidered on it became compulsory for all Jews in German-held territories. Ghettos were being emptied, the Jews inhabiting them sent to concentration camps. Those capable of working were led through gates topped with the now-infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“Work Makes You Free”) sign. They would live a miserable existence where they would have their heads shaved, their possessions stolen, an inmate number tattooed on their forearm, and starvation coupled with brutal manual labor.

The rest would be stripped and marched into what they were told would be a shower. Instead they were gassed to death. Still others would be forced to dig their own mass grave before being lined up and shot. The wholesale extermination of the Jews, along with Romani (Gypsies), homosexuals and other “undesirables”, was in full swing by 1942. An extremely anti-Jewish museum exhibit was displayed in Paris in 1941.

On the war front, Hitler had sent the Luftwaffe to bomb England in preparation for an invasion. He was intent on taking England. At the same time, Adolf Hitler had signed a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union, but he had no intention of keeping it. He hinted long before the pact was signed that he wanted to take the Soviet homeland, in part because he believed they were ruled by Jews (never mind the widespread pogroms in the Soviet Union). When Hungary, Slovakia, and Romania joined Hitler’s Tripartate Pact, he finally felt ready to mount a major assault on the frigid Soviet nation. He sent five and a half million troops, half a million heavy armored vehicles and three-quarter million horses.

Hitler had no intention of making Napoleon’s mistake – being defeated by the horrid Russian winter. He ordered his mass offensive to begin in May 1941 (it was pushed back a month when his greed for land led to Nazi invasions in Greece and Yugoslavia). While the Wehrmacht’s first strike was devastating to the Soviets, Nazi generals began fighting over which target was more important. The Nazis advanced 600 miles into Soviet territory and took over three million prisoners by November 1941. They were looking into Moscow when the infighting reached a fever pitch. German supply lines were nearly broken and winter was setting in – their troops were not prepared for the extreme cold. After the first major blizzard, on December 5, Soviet forces mounted a counterattack. German heavy equipment was useless in the sub-zero temperatures. The counterattack was devastating to the Germans.

Two days later, the Japanese bombed the US Navy at Pearl Harbor. President Franklin Roosevelt declared war on Japan as a result, and four days after the bombing Hitler declared war on the United States. He was still living in denial that Germany could win with her military stretched so thin; fighter planes that could have turned the tide against the Soviets had already been shot down over England. After the defeat at Moscow, fighting ground nearly to a halt. Hitler was able to re-supply his troops and send reinforcements.

While he was trying to hold up the offensive in Russia, he had given up on invading England. He had a new threat: the United States. His declaration of war was all America needed to finally join British forces in helping occupied Allied territories to beat back the Nazis.

Hitler began to get frustrated with how slow his victories were beginning to go, and after the Germans were defeated by the allies at El Alamein, Hitler took complete command over his armies. His astounding overconfidence in his own military “expertise” became the beginning of his downfall – as his decisions became more erratic and losses became more common, he started to panic. The Battle of Stalingrad in January 1943 became such a breathtaking loss that Hitler nearly lost his mind. He all but became a recluse. He still had absolute faith in his own genius, and he refused to give up despite searing losses continuing in Russia.

He began to realize the end was more than mere rumor when Allied forces invaded Sicily in July 1943. The Germans realized another crushing defeat at Kursk and went into perpetual retreat from the Eastern front. Then, intel reported a huge buildup of British and American forces in England and word that Allied forces were planning an invasion somewhere on the coast reached Hitler. Germans were still living in denial thanks to the press only reporting what Hitler’s propaganda minister, Josef Goebbels, allowed them to report. They had no idea that the Nazis were genuinely afraid for the first time.

The Nazis refused to give up. While average German citizens were busy supporting the war effort through recycling and working in industrial plants to produce U-boats, jet fighters, Panzers and small arms, Nazi commanders were still confident that they would win the day. They still refused to send women to work in the plants; their place was in the home, giving birth to and raising good Aryans. Citizens in occupied countries were forced to dig defensive Earthworks (massive trenches, concrete and steel barriers to stop troop carriers and tanks). The desire to exterminate the Jews saw Nazis continuing to work them to death deliberately, the need for laborers be damned.

The first bombing runs on Germany had begun in 1940, although they weren’t as effective as they would later become. The Allies realized that bombing just a factory or a base was little more than a minor setback – they needed to take out the workers, too, and in 1942 RAF and USAAF squadrons began carpet-bombing entire German cities. Kiel was bombed in May 1943. Hamburg was bombed in July 1943; 30,000 died in the bombing raid and subsequent firestorm. Every German city that hosted anything resembling a war supply factory or warehouse was bombed regularly. The raids first inspired action and organization, but within a year they had begun to falter under the psychological strain.

On the ground, the Americans, knowing full well the legend of General George S. Patton, sent him to Northern England as a distraction. They were gambling that Hitler would find out about Patton’s location and concentrate his forces away from Normandy, and the ruse worked. On June 6, 1944, after days of bombing from the air, landing forces poured ashore at Normandy while newly-formed parachute infantry regiments dropped troops behind Nazi lines in occupied France. The sheer numbers of American troops that survived the assault and the mass amounts of heavy armored equipment left German troops in awe, wondering what possessed Hitler to declare war on a nation that could muster this kind of response.

The Allies gained a crucial foothold in France. The German war effort was nearly irreversibly damaged. The Soviets were pushing back from the East, and Allied troops had begun to press in from the South, taking oil fields in Iran. A pall was cast over the Nazis.

The Rise of Nazism

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.

The Birth of Nazism

A couple of years ago, I began a series based on a very long college essay I was writing. I decided to start over…here is part one of five.

Young Adolf Hitler was an artist. Most people who don’t follow history closely don’t know this important fact about the man. When he was a teenager, his father insisted on sending him to a technical school so he could learn a trade skill that would make real money; Adolf, raised by a very strict authoritarian father (Alois) and an oversympathetic, doting mother (Klara), deliberately failed at school in his teen years in the hopes of forcing his father to enroll him in art school.

We all know now that his drive was fruitless. Adolf was Austrian and he grew up with friends who believed that Austria belonged to Germany. German nationalism was strong in the run-up to WWI. Only after his father’s passing did Adolf finish school and he only passed by the skin of his teeth – he still wanted to be an artist, and his mother supported his ambition. He ended up living as a bohemian in Vienna while he attempted to gain acceptance to the Art Institute of Vienna. Twice he was turned down because he didn’t have the “aptitude” for painting. By 1909 he’d been selling watercolor landscapes to tourists in Vienna for four years and was living in a homeless shelter. In 1913 the government finally turned over his father’s estate and Adolf moved to Munich.

Adolf’s Austrian citizenship was set aside when he volunteered to join the Bavarian army in August of 1914. He was made a messenger (a job that was extremely hazardous at the time) and was highly decorated – earning the Iron Cross, both second- and first-class, along with the black wound badge. He was wounded at least twice during his duties. When the Germans surrendered in 1918 and the Treaty of Versailles was signed, Adolf was enraged. During speeches later in his career he proclaimed that, as he lay in a hospital bed blinded by mustard gas, he knew that he would be the one to liberate Germany.

He knew that his career options were nonexistent, so he stayed in the army for the newly-formed Weimar Republic. In 1919, he was assigned to infiltrate the Deutsch Arbiterpartei – or the DAP, in English the German Worker’s Party. It was an anti-Weimar socialist organization formed to represent the working poor and push socialist ideals. During a meeting one evening, Adolf got into a row with a member who suggested the unthinkable: Bavaria separating from Germany, forming with Austria and creating an entirely new country. DAP founder Anton Drexler was so impressed with Adolf’s oratory skills that he immediately offered the young soldier membership in the party. Adolf left the army and joined in 1920.

He rapidly rose to a leadership position. His public speaking skills were so natural that he was described as “mesmerizing” and “hypnotic”. The year he joined, Adolf changed the name of the party to the Nationalsozialistische Deutsch Arbeiterpartei – the NSDAP, or the National Socialist German Worker’s Party. The very first syllable is pronounced “Nazi”.

And so, anti-communist socialism became an officially-recognized political party in Germany.

Adolf the artist designed the new NSDAP logo, a swastika – a symbol commonly used by many cultures prior – in a white circle superimposed on a red background. In just one year Adolf had brought a few thousand members into the ranks, but in 1921 a small but vocal group within the leadership attempted to oust him as the party leader. Adolf angrily resigned; the group knew that without him, they would disintegrate, so they offered him anything he wanted to remain. He insisted on being the Fuhrer, the only recognized leader of the NSDAP. His wish was granted. He also formed the Sturmabteilung, or SA – the NSDAP’s “stormtroopers”.

In 1922, reparations payments as ordered by the Treaty of Versailles helped cause the hyperinflation of the German Mark – German paper currency essentially became worthless, at around 8000 Marks on the US Dollar. This further angered the NSDAP, which now commanded a force of thousands of members alongside thousands of SA to do Adolf’s dirty work. Since the Weimar Republic couldn’t get France, Britain, and the US to accept paper Marks anymore, the French moved in and occupied the Ruhr to ensure that reparations were being paid in goods – specifically coal and industrial materials produced in German factories. It got worse when the workers in the mines and factories went on strike; the government printed more money to keep paying the workers.

Germany had descended into economic chaos. In 1922, while Germans were taking wheelbarrows full of worthless Marks to the food lines to buy basic items, Italian fascist Benito Mussolini etched his name into the history books with his March on Rome. Adolf Hitler, growing ever angrier at the state of his beloved country, was taken by Il Duce – so much so that he decided to emulate his actions. On November 9, 1923, Adolf ordered 600 SA to surround the Bürgerbräukeller, a beer hall in Munich. Weimar state commissioner Gustav von Kahr, who had refused to entertain the notion of including Adolf in any new government and laughed the man out of his office, was speaking to a crowd of about 3,000. He dramatically marched into the auditorium surrounded by 20 of his NSDAP associates, fired a round into the ceiling and proclaimed that the government of Bavaria had been taken over and nobody was allowed to leave.

The Beer Hall Putsch ended the next morning after a mass crowd of 2,000 couldn’t figure out exactly what to do and were scattered by a force of only 100 soldiers (incredible considering that most of the rioters were former soldiers themselves). Adolf was taken into custody two days later, and on April 1, 1924, a judge eternally sympathetic to the cause of the accused in his courtroom sentenced Adolf to a measly 5 years. He only served eight months. The Putsch may have been a technical failure, but it ended up being a massive propaganda victory for the NSDAP. Adolf’s prison guards showed him respect and even pledged loyalty to his cause. It was during his imprisonment that he dictated Mein Kampf to Rudolf Hess.

On December 20, 1924, Adolf walked free. He didn’t receive the hero’s welcome he expected; during his incarceration, the economy had greatly improved and politics had become far less violent since workers did not feel nearly as put upon. What’s more, the NSDAP had become a banned organization in Bavaria and Adolf himself was barred from public speaking. He refused to give up, though. In January 1925, he promised government officials that he would only seek political power through honest public elections. He was hoping to have the ban on the NSDAP lifted, although he still wasn’t allowed to speak. Instead, Mein Kampf was published, and in 1925 the first volume was published to wide praise from the general population. He and his associates moved to Northern Germany to re-found the NSDAP. Joined by a group of highly skilled community organizers, Adolf Hitler went to work slowly working his way into government – he had realized that a sudden takeover would never be tolerated.

Then came the Great Depression. In October 1929, the US economy crashed and sent the still-recovering German economy into a tailspin. Millions lost jobs. President Paul von Hindenburg began ruling through emergency decrees. Adolf and the NSDAP, long telling the people that the Treaty of Versailles had been grossly unfair, found their stride during this time: they promised to end the promises of Versailles and renew pride in Germany.

In 1930, NSDAP members – all previously unknown to the public – won 107 seats in the Reichstag. The rise of Nazism had officially begun.