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Adolf Hitler, the dictator whose name conjures the horrors of the Holocaust, channeled his youthful frustrations into extreme German nationalism and growing anti-Semitism. Hitler instituted a profound social revolution in Germany, but it was highly exclusionary. Unleashed violence against Jews in November 1938 led to their resettlement in ghettos and, in 1942, to the Nazi’s “Final Solution,” a euphemism for the mass murder of all Jews.
Adolf Hitler is best known as the ultimate fascist dictator. After World War I he guided his National Socialist German Workers Party, popularly known as the Nazi Party, into prominence in Germany’s Weimar Republic and in 1933 imposed a oneparty dictatorship that steered Germany into World War II. Antidemocratic, antiforeign, anti-intellectual, anti-Bolshevik, and anti-Semitic, he was nevertheless charismatic, led an effective economic recovery, and, with help from propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels (1897–1945), developed powerful emotional and political control over most Germans by the late 1930s. Most historians consider Hitler to have been the key person who caused World War II and the Holocaust. In consequence, his very name is associated with evil.
Adolf Hitler was born in Braunau, a provincial Austrian town near Germany, to a minor customs official of uncertain parentage. The Hitler household was not happy, and Hitler was an undisciplined schoolboy who envisaged grand goals for himself as a loosely defined artist, perhaps as architect, set designer, or music critic, but his accomplishments fell far short of reality. Reduced to vagrancy, Hitler found relief from his frustrations in extreme German nationalism, rabble-rousing politics, and growing anti-Semitism. Only Europe’s call to arms in 1914 “saved” him. He joined a Bavarian regiment, preferring to render military service to Germany. Soldiering became his first real job.
Turning Failure to Success
A rarity among 1914 volunteers, Hitler survived four years of trench warfare, winning the German Iron Cross as a lowly corporal-runner (he was not considered officer material). This decoration allowed him to campaign freely in postwar German politics. The wounded veteran Hitler returned to Munich in 1919, working undercover to assess the myriad political movements that had emerged after Germany’s defeat amid revolutionary turmoil. Hitler casually entered politics by joining one of the obscure parties to which the army had assigned him for surveillance.
From its outset Germany’s Weimar Republic reeled under the harsh conditions imposed by the Versailles Treaty, especially its reparations clauses. Numerous extremist political parties arose, among them Hitler’s Bavarian movement, which in 1921 took the name National Socialist German Workers Party with Hitler as its spokesman. The party adapted its unwieldy name to everyday usage by shortening the word National to Nazi, and Hitler personally chose the swastika, a hooked cross that became the movement’s central icon. Yet, demagoguery won Hitler his central role. Prewar passions and prejudices that had existed in embryonic form within him came to the fore. An animated and indefatigable speaker (and reader), Hitler discovered at age thirty that he could rivet people’s attention, be it in a beer hall or in a salon. Recognizing the emotional power of the spoken word over the printed word, he pioneered in using new electronic media such as the microphone, radio, and film.
Hitler’s formula for political success was as potent as it was lacking in subtlety. The very name that he chose for his party was indicative. The National Socialist German Workers Party was ultranationalistic (“National . . . German”) but also spoke for “the little guy” (“Socialist . . . Workers”). Ergo, the Nazis were Germans first, but they came from the same bedrock class of little people whose unrecognized talents had made their nation great, that is, they were just like Hitler. He played masterfully on the public’s fears and resentments, which were numerous after Germany’s defeat. Hitler’s message was built on absolutes: those who oppose us are traitors; those who support us are patriots.
Armed with this self-assuring message, Hitler dominated his own party, whose unruly members were compelled to recognize his charisma. Outside events also helped him to build his political base. The Weimar Republic’s first blow came in 1923 when French and Belgian troops occupied the Ruhr industrial area of Germany. Industry came to a standstill, and rampant inflation impoverished the nation overnight. Opportunistically, Hitler struck at what he thought was the right moment, but his Beer Hall Putsch of 9 November 1923, ended in his arrest, trial, and a five-year jail sentence.
Phoenix-like, Hitler turned his trial into a political forum and gained national recognition. During his reduced sentence of one-year fortress arrest, he wrote his memoir-cum-political statement, Mein Kampf (My Struggle). In turgid prose Hitler envisaged a rejuvenated Germany that would expand into an empire comprised of pure Aryan Germans, one in which Jews, Slavs, and other unwanted peoples would be banished. Fortunately for him, few people outside his party took his statement seriously. Upon his release Hitler reasserted control over his unruly following and plotted future campaigns.
From Figurehead to Fuhrer
As long as the Weimar Republic experienced economic stability from 1924 to 1929, aided by private U.S. loans, it could pay off its reparations. Prosperity also deadened the appeal of political extremists, Nazis included. However, the stock market crash of October 1929 struck Germany’s export economy with particular severity. The nation’s conservative business and political leaders could not stem massive unemployment, and the Nazis and Communists successfully gridlocked government. The crisis deepened, and gradually moderate voters drifted rightward into the ranks of the Nazis. Finally, on 30 January 1933, the conservative leaders elevated Hitler to the chancellorship of a coalition government. They assumed that they could use him as a figurehead.
Hitler proved them wrong. Once in power he undermined democracy, deliberately fostering panic after an arsonist burned the Reichstag (Parliament) building. The Nazis herded thousands of Communists and other opponents into hastily erected concentration camps. In March 1933 Hitler forced passage of an enabling act that granted him dictatorial powers and emasculated the Weimar constitution. Weimar’s last election gave the Nazis only 43.9 percent of the vote, but that plurality enabled Hitler to wield complete power. Soon he suppressed all other political parties, absorbed the trade union movement, and instituted Gleichschaltung (leveling), the co-opting of all political, social, and professional associations into his party apparatus. Germans were compelled to greet each other daily with the words “Heil Hitler!” and an outstretched right arm. That greeting powerfully reinforced political conformity.
Shunning orthodox economic advice, Hitler began construction of expressways and public housing, programs that he had blocked while in opposition. Quietly he also initiated massive rearmament programs. Within months the economy improved, unemployment ebbed, and Hitler’s popularity soared. Renewed prosperity plus the use of terror even within his own party—as happened in June 1934 when he purged his Sturm Abteilung (Storm Troopers) in the so-called Night of the Long Knives—created a Hitler myth: Germany’s all-knowing Fuhrer (leader) was forging unity at home and rebuilding prestige abroad. Propaganda minister Goebbels powerfully reinforced Hitler’s image as an infallible Fuhrer.
Hitler instituted a profound social revolution in Germany, one that affected citizens’ daily lives and attitudes, but it was highly exclusionary. Only Germans could participate because in Hitler’s mind-set Jews and other foreigners were inferior to Aryans. By stages he isolated Germany’s Jewish citizens, first with business boycotts and purges of the civil service in 1933, then with his Nuremberg Laws of 1935, which denied Jews citizenship or the right to marry Aryans. Ominously, a vast pogrom (massacre) on 9 November 1938 unleashed violence against Jews and led to their resettlement in ghettos. Finally, in January 1942 at the secret Wannsee Conference, members of Hitler’s inner circle, including Reinhard Heydrich (1904–1942), leader of the paramilitary Schutzstaffel (Protective Echelon), settled upon their “Final Solution,” the Nazis’ euphemism for the mass murder of all Jews. Hitler never issued written orders, but his subordinates knew his wishes and hastened to carry them out.
Master of Deceit
From the outset Hitler knew that his policies would incite fear abroad. Anticipating this, he masqueraded as a defender of peace. In retrospect his actions showed him to be a master of deceit who played on Europe’s war weariness in order to win concessions. Between 1935 and 1939 he repeatedly caught other nations, especially Britain and France, off guard. Their leaders hoped to appease him with timely compromises. Hitler scrapped the Versailles Treaty, openly rearming in 1935, remilitarizing the Rhineland a year later, annexing Austria, then the Czech Sudetenland in 1938, and finally the rest of Czechoslovakia a few months later. Simultaneously, he outspent France and Britain on rearmaments six times over, transforming Germany into a military superpower by the time he invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, beginning World War II. Opportunistically, Hitler shared his Polish conquest with the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin (1879–1953), a diplomatic marriage of convenience that lasted scarcely twenty months.
Initially Hitler’s armies ran rampant, defeating all opponents and forcing Britain’s expeditionary forces back into their home islands. By June 1941, along with his Axis (Germany, Italy, Japan) partner, the Italian Premier Benito Mussolini (1883–1945), Hitler held sway from Norway to North Africa. However, at this time Hitler’s character flaws surfaced. His ultimate goal, lebensraum (living space), required that he conquer the vast eastern territories occupied by Slavic peoples in order to achieve his fantasy of a greater German Reich (empire) that would last a thousand years. He was also convinced that he alone could accomplish such a feat. Pessimistic about his own longevity, Hitler was determined to finalize his conquests within his lifetime.
In July 1940, after Germany’s victories in the West, Hitler ordered the preparation of Operation Barbarossa, his plan for conquering the Soviet Union. Accordingly, 3 million soldiers attacked eastward on 22 June 1941. At first his Wehrmacht (armed forces) attained easy victories over the surprised Soviets. However, enough defenders survived over the vast expanses and deteriorating weather conditions to halt the invaders before Moscow in December 1941. Soviet reserves launched fierce counterattacks that threw the astonished Germans back. Hitler’s hopes of rapid victory proved illusory. He had embroiled his country in a lengthy war of attrition. Amazingly, Hitler compounded his error by declaring war on the United States four days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, turning the conflict into a world war.
Total war revealed severe weaknesses in Hitler’s governmental structure. Ever since his youth Hitler had held social Darwinist notions of life as an eternal struggle. The title of his book, Mein Kampf, implied as much. These notions manifested themselves in the way that Hitler created agencies with overlapping authority in order to foster tension among competing officials. Ultimately all threads led back to him so that he could control his minions amid their institutional infighting. As a result, Germany’s administration and armed forces suffered from duplications of effort and muddled lines of authority. Hitler’s personality was unsuited to the administrative drudgery that might have blunted such chaos. In consequence, strategic decisions were delayed or never resolved. Scientists and technicians received contradictory orders for weapons development and other war-related activities (many of Germany’s best scientists were in exile). Industrialists never geared up properly for a long war; thus, production remained static until too late. Hitler’s disdain for women precluded their effective mobilization for the war effort. Occupied European nations discovered that their conquerors behaved like thugs and stole production, services, capital, artworks, and people in the form of forced labor. Genuine cooperation ceased, and the occupiers acquired only a fraction of the support they needed. Hitler’s hatred of “inferior” peoples such as Jews and Slavs turned the war in the East into a racial war; thus, the captive populations, many of whom despised Communism and its cruel master, Joseph Stalin, never coalesced as a labor pool for Germany.
Ultimately Hitler’s role as commander-in-chief defeated him. After the victories of 1939–1941 he convinced himself that he was military genius. In his youth his intuition had told him that he was a great artist. Now, in wartime, his intuition convinced him that he was a great captain on the order of King Alexander of Macedon, the Carthaginian general Hannibal, or the French emperor Napoleon. In reality he was an amateur. Hitler alone ordered the invasion of the Soviet Union without adequate intelligence. He bobbled his army groups in the opening campaign of 1941 while issuing his cruel Commissar Order for the indiscriminate killing of Soviet leaders (and by implication the entire Russian intelligentsia). Most fateful was his decision a year later to steer his soldiers into the Battle of Stalingrad, where an entire German army was annihilated. Neither Hitler, nor his once-adoring public, nor his armies recovered from that blow as the Allies (France, England, China, Russia, and the United States) closed in from east and west. For that eventuality, Hitler and his generals had no solution despite the smoke and mirrors that he and his propaganda minister threw up about exotic new “vengeance” weapons, an “impenetrable” Atlantic Wall, or the German people’s “fanatical” will to resist.
Too late small numbers of Germans concluded that Hitler was leading their nation over the abyss, and on 20 July 1944, they nearly assassinated him. Nevertheless, the attempt failed, and Hitler remained in control until, surrounded by Soviet forces in Berlin, he committed suicide on 30 April 1945. Even as his ultimate fate approached, he refused to accept blame or express remorse for any of his decisions. In February 1945 he had issued his notorious “Nero” order calling for the destruction of Germany’s basic infrastructure. Had his followers carried out his scorched earth policy, millions of Germans would have died from malnourishment, exposure, and disease. Fortunately, recipients of his order, such as his chief technocrat, Albert Speer (1899–1979), balked. The pity is that they had not disobeyed him sooner.
Before Hitler committed suicide, he prepared his last will and testament. Far from an apology, it was yet another mumbling diatribe against the Jews and an indictment of his own people for failing him in executing his hate-filled schemes. His will became part of the historical record and helps explain why the name “Hitler” is synonymous with “evil.”
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