With the death of German President Paul von Hindenburg, Chancellor Adolf Hitler becomes absolute dictator of Germany under the title of Fuhrer, or “Leader.” The German army took an oath of allegiance to its new commander-in-chief, and the last remnants of Germany’s democratic government were dismantled to make way for Hitler’s Third Reich. The Fuhrer assured his people that the Third Reich would last for a thousand years, but Nazi Germany collapsed just 11 years later.
Adolf Hitler was born in Braunau am Inn, Austria, in 1889. As a young man he aspired to be a painter, but he received little public recognition and lived in poverty in Vienna. Of German descent, he came to detest Austria as a “patchwork nation” of various ethnic groups, and in 1913 he moved to the German city of Munich in the state of Bavaria. After a year of drifting, he found direction as a German soldier in World War I, and was decorated for his bravery on the battlefield. He was in a military hospital in 1918, recovering from a mustard gas attack that left him temporarily blind, when Germany surrendered.
He was appalled by Germany’s defeat, which he blamed on “enemies within”–chiefly German communists and Jews–and was enraged by the punitive peace settlement forced on Germany by the victorious Allies. He remained in the German army after the war, and as an intelligence agent was ordered to report on subversive activities in Munich’s political parties. It was in this capacity that he joined the tiny German Workers’ Party, made up of embittered army veterans, as the group’s seventh member. Hitler was put in charge of the party’s propaganda, and in 1920 he assumed leadership of the organization, changing its name to Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (National Socialist German Workers’ party), which was abbreviated to Nazi.
The party’s socialist orientation was little more than a ploy to attract working-class support; in fact, Hitler was fiercely right-wing. But the economic views of the party were overshadowed by the Nazis’ fervent nationalism, which blamed Jews, communists, the Treaty of Versailles, and Germany’s ineffectual democratic government for the country’s devastated economy. In the early 1920s, the ranks of Hitler’s Bavarian-based Nazi party swelled with resentful Germans. A paramilitary organization, the Sturmabteilung (SA), was formed to protect the Nazis and intimidate their political opponents, and the party adopted the ancient symbol of the swastika as its emblem.
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In November 1923, after the German government resumed the payment of war reparations to Britain and France, the Nazis launched the “Beer Hall Putsch”—an attempt at seizing the German government by force. Hitler hoped that his nationalist revolution in Bavaria would spread to the dissatisfied German army, which in turn would bring down the government in Berlin. However, the uprising was immediately suppressed, and Hitler was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison for treason.
Imprisoned in Landsberg fortress, he spent his time there dictating his autobiography, Mein Kampf (My Struggle), a bitter and rambling narrative in which he sharpened his anti-Semitic and anti-Marxist beliefs and laid out his plans for Nazi conquest. In the work, published in a series of volumes, he developed his concept of the Fuhrer as an absolute dictator who would bring unity to German people and lead the “Aryan race” to world supremacy.
Political pressure from the Nazis forced the Bavarian government to commute Hitler’s sentence, and he was released after nine months. However, Hitler emerged to find his party disintegrated. An upturn in the economy further reduced popular support of the party, and for several years Hitler was forbidden to make speeches in Bavaria and elsewhere in Germany.
The onset of the Great Depression in 1929 brought a new opportunity for the Nazis to solidify their power. Hitler and his followers set about reorganizing the party as a fanatical mass movement, and won financial backing from business leaders, for whom the Nazis promised an end to labor agitation. In the 1930 election, the Nazis won six million votes, making the party the second largest in Germany. Two years later, Hitler challenged Paul von Hindenburg for the presidency, but the 84-year-old president defeated Hitler with the support of an anti-Nazi coalition.
Although the Nazis suffered a decline in votes during the November 1932 election, Hindenburg agreed to make Hitler chancellor in January 1933, hoping that Hitler could be brought to heel as a member of his cabinet. However, Hindenburg underestimated Hitler’s political audacity, and one of the new chancellor’s first acts was to exploit the burning of the Reichstag (parliament) building as a pretext for calling general elections. The police under Nazi Hermann Goering suppressed much of the party’s opposition before the election, and the Nazis won a bare majority. Shortly after, Hitler took on dictatorial power through the Enabling Acts.
Chancellor Hitler immediately set about arresting and executing political opponents, and even purged the Nazis’ own SA paramilitary organization in a successful effort to win support from the German army. With the death of President Hindenburg on August 2, 1934, Hitler united the chancellorship and presidency under the new title of Fuhrer. As the economy improved, popular support for Hitler’s regime became strong, and a cult of Fuhrer worship was propagated by Hitler’s capable propagandists.
German remilitarization and state-sanctioned anti-Semitism drew criticism from abroad, but the foreign powers failed to stem the rise of Nazi Germany. In 1938, Hitler implemented his plans for world domination with the annexation of Austria, and in 1939 Germany seized all of Czechoslovakia. Hitler’s invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, finally led to war with England and France. In the opening years of World War II, Hitler’s war machine won a series of stunning victories, conquering the great part of continental Europe. However, the tide turned in 1942 during Germany’s disastrous invasion of the USSR.
By early 1945, the British and Americans were closing in on Germany from the west, the Soviets from the east, and Hitler was holed up in a bunker under the chancellery in Berlin awaiting defeat. On April 30, with the Soviets less than a mile from his headquarters, Hitler died by suicide with Eva Braun, his mistress whom he married the night before.
Hitler left Germany devastated and at the mercy of the Allies, who divided the country and made it a major battlefield of Cold War conflict. His regime exterminated some six millions Jews and an estimated 250,000 Romani in the Holocaust, and an indeterminable number of Slavs, political dissidents, disabled persons, homosexuals, and others deemed unacceptable by the Nazi regime were systematically eliminated. The war Hitler unleashed upon Europe took even more lives—close to 20 million people killed in the USSR alone. Adolf Hitler is reviled as one of history’s greatest villains.