Five things that seriously destabilized German society enabled Adolf Hitler to become the absolute dictator. First, Germany lost World War I even though no part of the country was ever invaded — 2.5 million Germans (4 percent of the population) died in the war, and the economic system was devastated. Second, the Versailles Peace Treaty, signed in June 1919, unfairly placed sole responsibility for the war on Germany, and imposed huge (economically unrealistic) reparation payments. Third, partly as a consequence of the exorbitant reparation payments, the German economy suffered hyperinflation during 1922-23. This demolished the value of the German mark and ruined part of the middle class.
Fourth, the world economic crisis that started in 1929 struck German society with exceptional force. By 1933, 6 million Germans — 40 percent of the working population — were unemployed and production stood at half its 1928 level. Fifth, as economic depression deepened, violence increasingly disrupted daily life in Germany. Much of the burgeoning violence consisted of attacks by the paramilitary branch of the Nazi Party (SA or Sturmabteilung) on Communists and Jews.
Elections also played an important part in the rise of Hitler. In 1919, Hitler joined a small jingoistic and virulently anti-Semitic party located in Munich. Due to his extraordinary oratorical ability and cunning use of violence, Hitler soon rose to a position of absolute power within the organization, renaming it the Nazi Party. He gave the party a hierarchical military structure. In November 1923, the Nazi Party tried, unsuccessfully, to seize power in Bavaria. After this fiasco, Hitler decided that legal means, supplemented by occasional violence, were the best road to power in Germany.
Over the next few years, Hitler fortified the Nazi Party and made it the most aggressive agent of German nationalism. In the election of May 1928, the Nazi Party received only 2.6 percent of the vote and gained only 12 seats (out of 608) in the German parliament or Reichstag. However, as the economic depression deepened and Nazi street violence increased, the political fortunes of the Nazi Party improved dramatically. In September 1930, the Nazi Party received 6.4 million votes, becoming the second largest party in Germany.
Meanwhile, the bitter antagonism between the gradualist Social Democratic Party and the insurrectionist Communist Party made a united front against the Nazis impossible. The German capitalist class had serious reservations about the Nazis, but they feared both Social Democratic reformist socialism and Communist revolutionary socialism. Hence big business increasingly supported Hitler as the best available firewall against dangerous leftism.
With homeless masses and chaotic violence roiling many urban areas, millions of Germans rejected ineffectual parliamentary democracy. By 1932, the Nazi Party had more than 800,000 members and was the largest political party in Germany. Hitler lost the March presidential election to the aged Paul von Hindenberg, former field marshal of the German army. However, nine months later (on Jan. 30, 1933), Hindenberg appointed Hitler chancellor. Shortly thereafter, the mysterious Reichstag fire allowed Hitler to suspend civil liberties and eliminate political opposition. Then the Reichstag, surrounded by Nazi paramilitary, passed an Enabling Act giving Hitler temporary dictatorial powers. When Hindenberg died in August 1934, these powers were made permanent. In a plebiscite held two weeks later, 90 percent of the voters sanctioned the total dictatorship of Adolf Hitler. The Nazi revolution was complete.
The good German people who voted for Hitler did not bargain for concentration camps, total warfare or the Holocaust. They voted, however, with full knowledge that the Nazi regime would be disastrous for Jews, socialists, homosexuals, disabled persons, gypsies and many other people. Voters also knew that the regime would be extremely oppressive to women, whom Nazi ideology relegated to the home and to male domination. The good Germans supported Hitler because they thought he could rectify the economy and rebuild the German empire. Their slogan might well have been "make Germany great again."
The Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center's "Peace Train" runs every Friday in the Colorado Daily.