How did Hitler happen?

Hitler was a dictator who started both the World War II war and the biggest genocide in history. However, he took his power legally. What did go wrong in the 1933 Germany?

How did Hitler happen?

Why do we need to analyze Hitler’s rise to power?

First, let’s make some things clear. No amount of contextual analysis can downplay Hitler’s evil legacy: the catastrophe of World War II, which he started, and the atrocities committed in the name of his ideology. When we try to understand why all of this happened, it pretty much comes down to probably the most hated man in history.

German troops advancing through a burned village in the USSR, 1941.

However, there is no doubt that Hitler and the Nazis were born out of problems faced by the German people after World War I ended. Adolf Hitler was the leader of the party that took 33% of the votes during the November 1932 parliament elections which allowed him to negotiate his way into the post of Chancellor and quickly transform the country into a dictatorship.  

What’s more, he didn’t even hide much: his plans and ideology were quite apparent from the start. So how could a non-democratic politician legally “hack” democracy? Does it mean that the system is weak? Course block

Democracies can be highly robust, but many things went wrong for the young German democracy in the 1930s. In the political chaos, ideas of revenge and bringing back “German pride” thrived, especially among war veterans, the poorer, and the younger. In addition, the Great Depression hit the economy hard, creating a demand for “a stronger hand.” 

However, it still didn’t guarantee Hitler the majority of votes. He cunningly used, manipulated, bribed, and bullied close-minded politicians while stacking up on people’s anger and fears. Using loopholes in the constitution, he took over unprecedented power. He then wielded this power to keep the opposition silent and dismantle the democratic procedures, which brought him there in the first place. 

Sadly, we all know how it ended, with more than seventy million dead only in WWII, as well as about six million Jewish people and millions of other victims in the Holocaust.

Notably, the story of Hitler’s rise to power started with revenge and bigotry. Perhaps, we ought to examine his path to power—as even mature democracies can sometimes learn from it to avoid bitter mistakes. 

What happened to Germany after World War I?

In late 1918, the situation on the frontline was dire for the German empire, but the Kaiser and the generals were still eager to fight. 

Kaiser Wilhelm II inspecting German soldiers in the field during World War I

However, with many dead and wounded and the economy in ruins (the pandemic of the Spanish Flu didn’t help either), people and soldiers had enough. So when the Navy command ordered the last stand battle against the vastly bigger UK fleets, the sailors in the port of Kiel revolted on October 29th. Quite soon, the revolution spread over the whole country. The Kaiser fled, and the military surrendered. 

And then, chaos ensued. The Allied countries (France, the US, and the UK) said they would sign a formal peace treaty when Germany established a new national government. Friedrich Ebert, the leader of the Social Democratic Party, was in a rush to find a compromise with other politicians to adopt a new constitution. Meanwhile, Anarchists and Communists declared they would not resort to political talk to give power to the rich again. 

The Social Democrats didn’t want to proclaim a Communist state the same way it happened in Russia a year before. So to quell the potential Communist uprising, Ebert turned to a nationalist paramilitary organization—Freikorps, granting them significant autonomy. When in January of 1919 the Communists organized a national strike (called the Spartacist uprising), Freikorps responded by shooting, killing, and beating the most prominent Communist leaders.

The divide and bitterness among the left (with Social democrats essentially allowing the conservatives to kill Communists) would carry on, making it easier for Hitler and the Nazis in the long run. In the post-war chaos, the sides were quite aggressive and unwilling to compromise. Course block

In the meantime, the diplomats of the victorious nations gathered at Versailles Palace near Paris, signing a peace treaty with Germany. This treaty put the whole responsibility and burden of post-war rebuilding on Germany and its allies. Thus, Germans had to relinquish part of their territories, reduce the army and fleet significantly, and pay massive reparations over the next 15 years. They had no way of opting out or protesting. 

Public demonstrations against the Treaty of Versailles in Berlin

After losing the war, Germany was believed to be humiliated: its economy was in ruins, the army, for the most part, disbanded, and people exhausted from the hostilities and the internal revolutionary struggles. To make things worse, several more attempts at both right-wing and left-wing uprisings would occur in 1919 and 1920. 

Nevertheless, the new democratic government managed to call general elections and pass a new constitution. And in these turbulent times, Germany became a representative parliamentary republic. 

Unfortunately, democracy didn’t have many fans. Political parties, both right and left, were inciting the people to get votes, while many people were blaming the new regime for all the bad things happening to the country. At the same time, people remembered the monarchy for pre-war “peace and prosperity.”   From late 1918 to 1933 (until Hitler came to power), this German state would be known as the Weimar republic—referring to the city of Weimar, where the constitutional assembly first took place. However, it was never called like that officially—people started using the name only afterward.

At these times, Adolf Hitler, a lower-rank war veteran from Austria and a holder of the Iron Cross, returned from the war to Munich, the capital of Bavaria, Germany’s largest federal state. Not having any formal education or meaningful career opportunities (his earlier attempts to become an artist were largely unsuccessful), he chose to remain in the military. His task in intelligence was to infiltrate the German Workers’ Party (DAP, Deutsche Arbeiterpartei)—a right-wing group spreading conspiracy theories.

Next up, we’ll discover: How did Hitler and the Nazi party gain so many votes in elections that allowed him to get an unprecedented power? What was the state of German society at the time that it believed Hitler and voted for him? Was it a defeat for democracy?

How did Hitler become popular?

Historians and political scientists still debate whether Hitler was an antisemite before the war or caught on to the conspiracy theories afterward. Whichever the case, the party he infiltrated at the behest of the military was impressed with his rhetorical skill, and he eventually rose to a leading position in 1923. 

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