The Nazi Party, as you most likely know, was an extremely far-right political party in Germany that was active from 1920 until 1945, when it was unceremoniously disbanded. Fronted by Adolf Hitler, the Party practised the ideology of Nazism, which is a form of fascism that incorporates scientific racism and antisemitism. So, not good.
The Nazi Party – which first went by the name “The German Workers’ Party” when it was founded by Anton Drexler in January 1919 – rose to power in 1933, following Adolf Hitler’s January appointment as Chancellor of Germany. This simultaneously brought an end to the Weimar Republic that had existed in Germany since the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. The weaknesses and numerous failings of the Weimar Republic were a pretty significant factor in the Nazis’ rise to power, as a huge number of German citizens had never forgiven it for accepting the harsh conditions of the Treaty of Versailles.
Once in power, the Nazis set about their ultimate goal; replacing democracy with a totalitarian state, with Hitler as supreme dictator. But what did they have against democracy, you ask? Simply put, the Nazis blamed it for many of Germany’s problems in the years following WWI. On top of this, they hated Communism and the wave it was riding across Europe at the time.
First up, Hitler set about rebuilding the German military, because of the restrictions imposed on it by the Treaty of Versailles. While Germany did have a standing military in 1933, it was restricted by the Treaty’s terms to just 100,000 soldiers, and wasn’t allowed to contain tanks, submarines or military aircraft. This was bad for Germany, as Hitler wanted to go to war in order to further Nazism and create Lebensraum for his people. Just so you know, Hitler planned on attacking the Soviet Union for this purpose, since the Nazis believed Lebensraum would be created through the conquest of territories to the east of Germany. An attack on the Soviet Union particularly fit in with Nazi political ideas as the Party was opposed to Communism, and the defeat of Russia would also have resulted in the destruction of Soviet Communism. Two birds, one stone and all that.
But back to the Party’s overall plans! In March 1935, Hitler announced that Germany had an Air Force and that it was his intention to create an army of 550,000 men by reintroducing conscription. From this point, there was no secret about German rearmament.
However, being Chancellor wasn’t enough to get the ball rolling; when Hitler first came to power, the Nazis had just three people (including himself) in Parliament, and the wide sweeping changes the soon-to-be Führer wanted to make needed more than that. And so he used the Decree for the Protection of the People and State in the aftermath of the devastating 1933 Reichstag Fire to suspend the rights of freedom of speech, assembly and of the press, before calling an election in March 1933, and coming out with 44 per cent of the vote. This gave Hitler the power to make laws for four years without consulting the Reichstag – so, not good.
With his monopoly almost in place, Hitler formed the Gestapo in April 1933, and went on to take over local government in the same month. By July of that year, all political parties in Germany were banned – except the Nazis – and the country withdrew from the League of Nations.
This was a pretty big deal at the time, as the country’s decision to join the League in 1926 had demonstrated the success of then-Chancellor Gustav Stresemann’s diplomacy. Almost one year after the country left the League, the only thing holding Hitler back from total domination ceased to be; President Hindenburg died, allowing Hitler to combine the posts of President and Chancellor, and install himself as the Führer.
From here, it was all downhill; Hitler declared that the only place for women was in the home, introduced conscription, made enrolment in Hitler Youth compulsory, and drafted the Nuremberg laws in 1935. This paved the way for the widespread persecution of minorities – and specifically Jewish people – as well as the introduction of death camps into already-packed concentration camps. Of course, a whole host of other heinous acts were also carried out by the Nazis, but they would take too long to explain here.
In terms of maintaining control in rural areas, the Nazis established local organisations such as the National Socialist Agarpolitisher Apparat (AA) which were used to extend the party’s influence, much of which was achieved by infiltrating existing organisations such as the Communist Party or KPD, whom many working Germans had pledged their support to. The branch organisations were led by Gauleiters, which is the German word for Nazi regional leaders and coordinators.
By contrast, in the early years the country’s rich industrialists tended to support the Nazis as they saw the Party as a way of preventing the Communists from achieving power. This was because the Communists would have taken German industry into state ownership. Recognising the threat Germany’s workers posed to the Nazis, the Party banned trade unions in May 1933, forcing workers to join the German Labour Front instead.
But now, back to business. Why were the Nazis so against minorities, you ask? According to Nazi ideology, the Aryan race was superior, and Jewish people were “sub-human”. Hitler was able to gather support for these ideas by claiming the Communists, Jews and the rest of the “undesirable” racial and social groups within Germany posed a threat to the nation. Pretty shocking stuff.
If you’re wondering how the German people – and the rest of the world – just sat around and watched on as the Nazis committed these atrocities, there’s a pretty good reason. The Nazi Party was able to indoctrinate the German public with the help of propaganda that included radio, mass rallies, newspapers, speeches by Hitler himself, and posters. On top of this, people were scared of the Gestapo and didn’t want to be sent to concentration camps.
The economy under the Nazis had also improved markedly since the Great Depression at the end of the 1920s, which meant many people had jobs and were willing to put up with some of the Nazis’ more unpopular policies. In fact, the effects of the Great Depression can be credited with helping Hitler to obtain supreme power by democratic means; in the depths of the depression, civilian morale was at a very low ebb with shortages of food, medicine and fuel.
These successes allowed the Party to gradually take charge of the entire country, and by the end of WWII, some six million Jewish people were killed by the regime. Up to 250,000 people with mental illnesses and disabilities were also murdered, while an estimated 220,000 travellers lost their lives. It’s believed around 2,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses were killed, with at least 70,000 criminals slaughtered, and possibly hundreds of thousands of queer people exterminated.
Of course, this was only the tip of the iceberg for Germany in the 20th century — the country went on to face a great deal more hardship in the aftermath of Hitler’s death and the war, from denazification, to dealing with the German Democratic Republic for decades.