The Rise of Nazi Germany: The SS State

Adolf Hitler

GERMANY. The Weimar Republic which emerged in Germany following the Great War was a courageous attempt to establish democracy in Germany, but it was doomed because of structural weaknesses and economic disorders. The economic disorders stemmed from the sanctions imposed by the Treaty of Versailles. Germany was required to pay reparations in billions of dollars in gold, and in various commodities, including annual deliveries of seven million tons of coal. When Germany defaulted on its obligations in 1923, French and Belgian troops occupied the Ruhr Valley, taking over transportation routes, jailing officials and forcing coal production with fixed bayonets. In response Germans practiced “passive resistance” in the form of sit-down strikes, which halted German production and created scarcity of necessary goods within Germany. The economic slowdown contributed to the hyperinflation later that year. In 1924 Germany’s international obligations totaled $132 billion gold marks, and the continuing chaotic inflation wrecked the German economy.

America’s interest in the German situation resulted from the fact that the Allies owed large sums of money to the United States from loans made during the war. It was clear that if Germany could not indemnify the Allies, they in turn would not be in a position to repay the United States. President Coolidge understood that dilemma, and his policies led to the Dawes Plan—the United States guaranteed that it would loan Germany money and help her reorganize her finances. In 1929 further problems arose, and President Hoover approved the Young Plan, which reduced German debts and set up an international bank for collection. But by the 1930s with the world depression affecting everyone, all debts were eventually defaulted or canceled.

The Weimar Constitution of 1919 allowed for the proliferation of small political parties, and during the chaotic 1920s in Germany, many small political emerged. One of them was created by Adolf Hitler. An Austrian by birth, Hitler had served with some distinction as an enlisted man during the Great War. Along with political cronies, many of the them also former soldiers, he formed the N.S.D.A.P. (Nationalsozialistiche Deutsche Arbeiterpartei—National Socialist German Workers Party—or “Nazi” Party). Concentrated in Bavaria and centered in Munich, the overzealous Nazis tested their power by attempting to take over the government of the state of Bavaria in the so-called “Beer Hall Putsch.” Hitler was arrested and convicted, and he served time in Landsberg prison, where he wrote Mein Kampf (“My Struggle”), his political manifesto. Hitler was released after less than a year, and the Nazi Party gradually gained strength in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

The growth of the Nazi party was facilitated by the creation of a political cadre known as the Sturmabteilung (Storm Troopers, or S.A., called the brownshirts from their uniforms.) The S.A., a paramilitary organization, was employed by the Nazis to whip up enthusiasm for Hitler and the N.S.D.A.P., and to intimidate and disrupt rival political groups. They conducted torchlight parades and rallies and grew in size, and eventually challenging the primacy of the German Army in military affairs. The S.A. was dominated by thuggish leaders who were not above using violence, and they occasionally clashed with police; nevertheless, they operated on the fringes of the law and avoided major confrontations with the authorities. Furthermore, portraying themselves as a working man’s party, the Nazis appealed to middle and working class Germans. By the early 1930s, the Sturmabteilung was a formidable political army.

Hitler successfully exploited the general discontent in Germany, which had arisen because of the above mentioned economic problems and festering resentment over the Versailles Treaty. In Mein Kampf he argued that in the hands of the right person, the treaty could be used as a propaganda weapon to fire up the German people in resentment against their former enemies. The resentment that had been exacerbated by the heavy-handed French occupation of 1923 played into Hitler’s hands. He exploited German discontent with great skill through the use of parades, speeches and other means of dispensing political propaganda. Sample of a Hitler Speech

Hitler Assumes Power, 1933. When the Nazis grew too strong to be ignored, having become the second largest party in Germany, Hitler was invited by German President Hindenburg to become Chancellor in a coalition government. He was sworn in on January 30, 1933. A few weeks later the Reichstag (Parliament) building was set on fire by an unknown arsonist. A Dutch Communist who had recently arrived in Germany was arrested near the scene of the fire, and the Nazi leadership immediately declared that the fire was a prelude to a communist coup d’état. Not a shred of evidence showed that the arson was planned by the Communist Party. Nevertheless, Hitler prevailed on President Hindenburg to invoke Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution in nazi imagesorder to get the legislative process suspended. (Article 48 allowed the President to take extreme measures in the case of a national emergency.) Meanwhile, Communists throughout Germany, including all the Communist members of the Reichstag, were arrested. With the Communists removed from the Reichstag and other moderate parties intimidated by the S. A., Hitler was able to have the Enabling Act of Article 48 invoked, which suspended civil liberties and gave him the right to rule by decree. Thus ended democracy under the Weimar Constitution.

Hitler quickly set about consolidating his power. When President Hindenburg died, Hitler combined the offices of president and chancellor, abandoned both and began calling himself “The Leader” (Der Führer.) Next he forced all German Army officers to swear an oath of personal allegiance to him. The Nazi takeover was swift and thorough: Freedom of the press ended—Nazi organs carried news and distributed propaganda. In the last free election in Germany in March 1933, the Nazis got 44 percent of the vote, a strong showing but not a majority.

Hitler then used the Schutzstaffel,the SS, a special body guard he created within the S.A., to eliminate his political enemies. The SS eventually grew to more than one million men and reached into every facet of German public life, through direct controls, infiltration, informants, and intimidation. High school and university professors were purged unless they followed the party line. History was rewritten, extolling the virtues of ancient Germans such as “Karl der Grosse” (Charles the Great, otherwise known as Charlemagne.) The Secret State Police (Gestapo) were a subunit of the SS that dominated all German police forces down to the local level. Germans became enamored with Hitler, but many were frightened of what Germany had become, a totalitarian state. Dissent was no longer tolerated; the SS became the guardian of Aryan purity, a state within a state.

Note: Avoid seeing the SS as a super-efficient, well-oiled machine. There was much incompetence, petty bickering, waste, foolishness and backbiting. Reinhard Heydrich, Gestapo chief, kept a dossier on the whole ménage. He was finally assassinated in Lidice, Czechoslovakia, by Czech commandos in 1942, and everyone in the town was executed in retaliation.

1934. “The Night of the Long Knives.” To purge the Nazi party of men whom Hitler saw as threatening to his leadership, he ordered the SS to go out and ruthlessly assassinate hundreds of party leaders during a single night, including S.A. leader Ernst Röhm, leaving a residue of those whose loyalty he could trust. Lists of people to be executed were drawn up by Hitler, assisted by SS chief Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Gestapo. This organized murder campaign operated with disregard for the law, for the simple reason that Himmler’s SS and its Gestapo had spread its tentacles into the entire German legal and law enforcement system. The Nazi party was rapidly becoming the law, designed with one purpose: to do Hitler’s will.

Hitler and the Army. Hitler’s purge of the S.A. was also designed to appease the generals, who saw the brownshirts as the threat to the primacy of the regular German army. After consolidating his power, Hitler began moving gradually to restore Germany’s military might. Using the SS to carry out various forms of coercion by blackmail or whatever means sufficed, Hitler tightened his control of the army by removing top generals who resisted his policies and replacing them with officers sympathetic to Nazi goals. Hitler used the Hitler Jugend—“Hitler Youth,” a kind of Nazi boy scout organization that was mandatory for teenaged youth—as a means of preparing German boys to enter military service. The German education system in schools and universities was saturated with Nazi philosophy, so that junior enlisted men and officers were also indoctrinated in Hitler’s goals.

Even though many top German officers disapproved of Hitler and his methods, the rapid expansion of the army and the need to develop contingency plans kept high-ranking staff officers busy so that they would not have time to be overly concerned about politics. As a result, the German officer corps that, since the time of Frederick the Great had adhered to the mission of protecting the German state from all enemies, internal or external, failed in its duty; it allowed Hitler to bend its will to Nazi ends. No other German institution had the power to stop Hitler. In a clever but dangerous move, Hitler ordered German officers to take a new oath. Instead of allegiance to the state, officers were now required to swear an oath of personal allegiance to Hitler himself. General Heinz Guderian, an architect of the new form of war that would become known as Blitzkrieg (“lightning war”), wrote in his diary that the taking of the new oath was a “dark day for the German Army.” It was also a dark day for Germany, and the rest of the world.

Rearmament. With the generals on board, Hitler renounced the restrictions of the Versailles Treaty and began the rearmament process. The German army, which had been limited to a strength of 100,000, was rapidly expanded, building on the existing cadre to create a much larger military force compatible with Hitler’s designs. In 1935 Hitler resumed the draft, raising the army to 500,000 for “defense.” The army was streamlined and condensed; every officer and NCO was ready to assume higher rank and responsibility as the ranks filled. Factories began turning out weapons and military vehicles, and the shipyards turned to rebuilding the German navy. Submarine production went into high gear, and the massive battleship Bismarck was launched in 1939.

1935. Nuremberg Laws. In September 1935 the Reichstag began passage of a series of laws that stripped Jewish people of their citizenship and basic human rights. From that time on, Jews would be unable to escape intensified persecution. Marriage between Jews and non-Jewish Germans was prohibited, as were extramarital relations between Jews and gentiles. Jews were not allowed to fly the German flag or to display Reich colors. Citizenship became limited to “only that subject of German or kindred blood who proves by his conduct that he is willing and suited loyally to serve the German people and the Reich.” A November 1935 law declared that “A Jew cannot be a Reich citizen. He is not entitled to the right to vote on political matters; he cannot hold public office.”

1936. Hitler took complete control of German foreign policy. His goals included the readjustment of eastern boundaries and the restoration of Germany to great power status. He repudiated the Locarno Treaty and ordered the army to reoccupy the Rhineland in violation of the Versailles Treaty. The general staff was reluctant to carry out the order, arguing that the army was not yet prepared for a confrontation with the French. Hitler ridiculed his officers to their faces, declaring them cowardly and announcing that the French and British would do nothing. He demanded that his officer corps take on his fearless demeanor. The Rhineland was reoccupied, and the French and British did nothing. The League of Nations denounced Hitler’s action but also took no action, thus emboldening Hitler to go further.

1937. Hitler’s Campaign Against the Jews. In 1937 Hitler continued his campaign of purging Germany of what he saw as the poisonous influence of the Jews. The SS, cooperating police forces now under the heel of the SS, and hired thugs carried out what became known as Kristallnacht—the “Night of Broken Glass.” Windows of Jewish businesses were smashed; Jews were dragged out of their homes and beaten, arrested, hauled away, and otherwise terrorized. Dozens of Jews were murdered, and thousands were arrested and taken to concentration camps. Additional thousands of Jews began to flee Germany. The world was beginning to see Nazism for what it really was.

The Spanish Civil War. When a leftist government took over Spain, the army under General Francisco Franco rebelled. Germany and Italy rallied to Franco’s cause, which they identified as having common goals with their fascist philosophies. The conflict became a testing ground for German and Italian soldiers, pilots, weapons, technology, and tactics. The United States, Great Britain, and France decided to stay out to “localize” the conflict, but Russia supported the central government. Franco’s forces were victorious in 1939. The Spanish Civil War clearly demonstrated that the United States preferred to maintain a neutral status in European affairs.

1938. In March 1938 Hitler completed the annexation (Anschluss) of Austria. He announced as one of his major goals the unification of all German-speaking peoples under a common flag. Following an intensive propaganda campaign in Austria, and with the support of Austrian officials sympathetic to the Nazi movement, the German army, moved into Austria. Once again the general staff protested, declaring that the army was not yet ready for such a large operation. Hitler ignored the generals’ protests as well as warnings that he would not be welcomed in Austria. Instead of being greeted with animosity, Hitler rode through the streets of Vienna in an open car, returning the Sieg Heil salute given along the way and waving to thousands of Austrians, who in return waved Nazi flags and cheered Hitler as he rode by triumphantly. In violation of the Versailles Treaty, Hitler unified Germany and Austria, but there were only verbal protests from the West.

1938 September:  Appeasement

2The next crisis in European affairs focused on Germany’s neighbor, Czechoslovakia. In the Czech Sudetenland lived 3.5 million German-speaking people, the Sudeten Germans. Hitler’s threats to take over the Sudetenland caused British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (left) to travel to Germany to meet with Hitler in an attempt to resolve the crisis, telling Hitler his proposals were not acceptable. When Hitler refused to back down, Italian Premier Benito Mussolini suggested that Hitler hold a four-power conference of Germany, Britain, France, and Italy in Munich. On September 29, 1938, Neville Chamberlain and Edouard Daladier capitulated to Hitler’s demand for the Sudetenland. In return, Hitler promised not to make any further territorial demands in Europe. It was a grievous error. Chamberlain returned to Great Britain claiming that the Munich Agreement meant “Peace for our Time,” but it was to be short lived. Within a few months Hitler swallowed the rest of Czechoslovakia, and at this point France and Great Britain decided that Hitler had gone too far, but the policy of appeasement had backfired.

The Failure of Appeasement: Why Did Hitler Succeed?

Hitler had a well-mapped out plan, which he had laid out in Mein Kampf as he built the Nazi Party. He was a captivatiing speaker who touched nerves in Germany rubbed raw by the humiliating defeat in World war I, made more painful by the harsh provisions of the Versailles Treaty. The economic crisis of the 1920s helped his cause, as did the political instability created by weaknesses in the Weimar Constitution and the absence of a democratic past in Germany. Hitler drew on tradition, evoking old notions of Germanic greatness—the Wagnerian themes of Volk, Blut, Einheit (People, Blood, Unity). Hitler’s program emphasized Prussian discipline and loyalty to state. The First Empire had been the Holy Roman Empire of German Nations, begun by Karl der Grosse. (Charles the Great, better known to us as Charlemagne. The Second Empire was declared by Bismarck at the conclusion of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71. Hitler’s was to be the Third Reich, the thousand-year empire.

The Nazis tapped into historic and pseudo-scientific prejudices against Jews, Slavs, and other “Minderwertigen” (“unworthies”). Anti-Semitism in Europe was neither new nor unpopular and had a long history. National Socialism created an alliance between German government and business; industry remained in private hands, but production was directed toward the needs of the state. Hitler's rearmament program, creation of the Autobahns, and other public works boosted the German economy. Nazi practices appealed to the masses through such things as government-mandated cheap vacations: “Kraft durch Freude,”—strength through joy. Hitler ordered auto makers to produce a cheap people’s car, the "People’s Car" or Volkswagen. The Nazis exploited middle-class fears of Communism and promised power to army conservatives who hated the Weimar Constitution.

hitler speechThe Nazis organized massive parades and ceremonies, with patriotic speeches; Hitler was a powerful, captivating speaker. In his speeches he praised his supporters and mocked his enemies, including President Franklin Roosevelt. He would begin his speech slowly, gradually building into a more animated tone, and finally with arm gestures and a shouting voice, he could bring the entire Reichstag to its feet clapping and cheering. When he traveled around the country, thousands of people would gather at railroad stations to waive as his train passed through. Cashing in on the humiliation felt by Germany following the Treaty of Versailles, he was seen too much of the German public as a savior of his nation.

For the 1936 Nuremberg rally on the site of the 1936 Olympic Games, organizers used a ring of searchlights around the stadium pointed straight up to create the illusion of an ice palace; the audience was estimated at 200,000. Hitler had luck. Things broke favorably in the political world, such as the timely (for Hitler) death of President Hindenburg. Von Blomberg, the minister of defense, was a Nazi sympathizer. Hitler skillfully manipulated many potential political enemies into supporters. The rest of the Western World, still in shock from the Great War, failed to stand up to Hitler's aggressive moves.

The impact of the term “appeasement” on American foreign-policy history has been significant. While there can be no doubt that giving in to the whims of of an ambitious dictator can simply whet his appetite for further aggression, zealous resistance to foreign threats has its own drawbacks. During various debates over U.S. actions under consideration in the post-World War II era, the record of Chamberlain's appeasement in Munich was held up as an example of policies to avoid. Much of the anti-Communist hysteria of the late 1940s and early 1950s can be blamed on this anti-appeasement mentality. In debates over the Vietnam War, the phrase "no more Munichs" could be heard. Even as late as the debate over the first Iraq war in 1991, judgments about Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein were portrayed with reference to Hitler in the 1930s. The lessons of history must be learned, but must also be applied with careful forethought.

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