On this day in 1921, Adolf Hitler becomes the leader of the National Socialist German Workers’ (Nazi) Party. Under Hitler, the Nazi Party grew into a mass movement and ruled Germany as a totalitarian state from 1933 to 1945.
Hitler’s early years did not seem to predict his rise as a political leader. Born on April 20, 1889, in Braunau am Inn, Austria, he was a poor student and never graduated from high school. During World War I, he joined a Bavarian regiment of the German army and was considered a brave soldier; however, his commanders felt he lacked leadership potential and never promoted him beyond corporal.
Frustrated by Germany’s defeat in the war, which left the nation economically depressed and politically unstable, Hitler joined a fledgling organization called the German Workers’ Party in 1919. Founded earlier that same year by a small group of men including locksmith Anton Drexler and journalist Karl Harrer, the party promoted German pride and anti-Semitism, and expressed dissatisfaction with the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, the peace settlement that ended the war and required Germany to make numerous concessions and reparations. Hitler soon emerged as the party’s most charismatic public speaker and attracted new members with speeches blaming Jews and Marxists for Germany’s problems and espousing extreme nationalism and the concept of an Aryan “master race.” On July 29, 1921, Hitler assumed leadership of the organization, which by then had been renamed the Nationalist Socialist German Workers’ Party.
In 1923, Hitler and his followers staged the Beer Hall Putsch in Munich, a failed takeover of the government in Bavaria, a state in southern Germany. In the aftermath of this event, Hitler was convicted of treason and sentenced to five years in prison, but spent less than a year behind bars (during which time he dictated the first volume of “Mein Kampf,” or “My Struggle,” his political autobiography.) The publicity surrounding the Beer Hall Putsch and Hitler’s subsequent trial turned him into a national figure. After his release from jail, he set about rebuilding the Nazi Party and attempting to gain power through the democratic election process. In 1929, Germany entered a severe economic depression that left millions of people unemployed. The Nazis capitalized on this situation by criticizing the ruling government and began to win elections. In the July 1932 elections, they captured 230 out of 608 seats in the Reichstag, or German parliament. In January 1933, Hitler was appointed German chancellor and in March of that year his Nazi government assumed dictatorial powers. The Nazis soon came to control every aspect of German life and all other political parties were banned.
Following Germany’s defeat in World War II, during which some 6 million European Jews were murdered under Hitler’s state-sponsored extermination programs, the Nazi Party was outlawed and many of its top officials were convicted of war crimes. Hitler had committed suicide on April 30, 1945, shortly before Germany’s surrender.