When Mussolini became dictator of Italy in the mid-1920s, Adolf Hitler was a little-known political leader whose early life had been marked by disappointment. Born in a small town in Austria in 1889, he dropped out of high school and failed as an artist. When World War I broke out, Hitler found a new beginning. He would fight to defend Germany and crush its opponents. He volunteered for the German army and was twice awarded the Iron Cross, a medal for bravery.
The Rise of the Nazis: At the end of the war, Hitler settled in Munich. In early 1920, he joined a tiny right-wing political group. This group shared his belief that Germany had to overturn the Treaty of Versailles and combat communism. The group later named itself the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, called Nazi for short. Its policies, supported by people in the middle and lower middle classes, formed the German brand of fascism known as Nazism. The party adopted the swastika, or hooked cross, as its symbol. The Nazis also set up a private militia called the storm troopers or Brownshirts.
Within a short time, Hitler’s success as an organizer and speaker led him to be chosen der Führer (duhr FYUR•uhr), or the leader, of the Nazi party. These skills also helped make the Nazis a growing political force. Inspired by Mussolini’s march on Rome, Hitler and the Nazis plotted to seize power in Munich in 1923. The attempt failed, and Hitler was arrested. He was tried for treason, but sympathetic judges sentenced him to only five years in prison. He served less than nine months.
While in jail, Hitler wrote Mein Kampf (My Struggle). This book set forth his beliefs and his goals for Germany. It became the blueprint, or plan of action, for the Nazis. Hitler asserted that the Germans, especially those who were blond and blue-eyed— whom he incorrectly called “Aryans”—were a “master race.” He declared that non- Aryan “races”—such as Jews, Slavs, and Gypsies—were inferior or subhuman. He called the Versailles Treaty an outrage and vowed to regain the lands taken from Germany. Hitler also declared that Germany was overcrowded and needed more lebensraum, or living space. He promised to get that space by conquering eastern Europe and Russia.
After leaving prison in 1924, Hitler revived the Nazi party. Most Germans ignored him and his angry message until the Depression ended the nation’s brief postwar recovery. When American loans stopped, the German economy collapsed. Factories ground to a halt and banks closed. Nearly six million people, about 30 percent of Ger- many’s workforce, were unemployed in 1932. Civil unrest broke out. Frightened and confused, Germans now turned to Hitler, hoping for security and firm leadership.
Hitler Becomes Chancellor: The Nazis had become the largest political party by 1932. Conservative leaders mistakenly believed they could control Hitler and use him for their purposes. In January 1933, they advised President Paul von Hindenburg to name Hitler chancellor. Only Hitler, they said, could stand up to the strong Communist party in Germany. Thus Hitler came to power legally. Soon after, General Erich Ludendorff, a former Hitler ally, wrote to Hindenburg:
Once in office, Hitler acted quickly to strengthen his position. He called for new elections, hoping to win a parliamentary majority. Six days before the election, a fire destroyed the Reichstag building where parliament met. The Nazis blamed the Communists. By stirring up fear of the Communists, the Nazis and their allies won a slim majority.
With majority control, Hitler demanded dictatorial, or absolute, power for four years. Only one deputy dared to speak against the result- ing Enabling Act. Hitler used his new power to turn Germany into a totalitarian state. He banned all other political parties and had oppo- nents arrested. Meanwhile, an elite, black-uniformed unit called the SS (Schutzstaffel, or protection squad) was created. It was loyal only to Hitler. In 1934, the SS arrested and murdered hundreds of Hitler’s enemies. This brutal action and the terror applied by the Gestapo, the Nazi secret police, shocked most Germans into total obedience.
The Nazis quickly took command of the economy. New laws banned strikes, dissolved independent labor unions, and gave the government authority over business and labor. Hitler put millions of Germans to work. They con- structed factories, built highways, manufactured weapons, and served in the military. As a result, unemployment dropped from about 6 to 1.5 million in 1936.
The Fuhrer Is Supreme: Hitler wanted more than just economic and political power— he wanted control over every aspect of German life. To shape public opinion and to win praise for his leadership, Hitler turned the press, radio, literature, painting, and film into propaganda tools. Books that did not conform to Nazi beliefs were burned in huge bonfires. Churches were forbidden to criticize the Nazis or the government. Schoolchildren had to join the Hitler Youth (for boys) or the League of German Girls. Hitler was greatly influenced by Social Darwinism He believed that a continuous struggle brought victory to the strong. He twisted the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche to support his use of brute force to maintain power and his glorification of war.
Hitler Makes War on the Jews: Hatred of Jews, or anti-Semitism, was a key part of Nazi ideology. Although Jews were less than one percent of the population, the Nazis used them as scapegoats for all Germany’s troubles since the war. This led to a wave of anti-Semitism across Germany. Beginning in 1933, the Nazis passed laws depriving Jews of most of their rights. Violence against Jews mounted. On the night of November 9, 1938, Nazi mobs attacked Jews in their homes and on the streets and destroyed thousands of Jewish-owned buildings.
This rampage, called Kristallnacht (Night of the Broken Glass), signaled the real start of the process of eliminating the Jews from German life.
Other Countries Fall to Dictators
While Fascists took power in Italy and Germany, the nations formed in eastern Europe after World War I also were falling to dictators. The parliamentary governments that had been set up in these countries rarely lasted. In Hungary in 1919, after a brief Communist regime, military forces and wealthy landowners joined to make Admiral Miklós Horthy the first European postwar dictator. In Poland, Marshal Joseph Pilsudski (pihl•SOOT•skee) seized power in 1926. In Yugoslavia, Albania, Bulgaria, and Romania, kings turned to strong-man rule. They suspended constitutions and silenced foes. In 1935, one democracy, Czechoslovakia, remained in eastern Europe.
Elsewhere in Europe, only in nations with strong democratic traditions—Britain, France, and the Scandinavian countries—did democracy survive. With no democratic experience and severe economic problems, many Europeans saw dictatorship as the only way to prevent instability. Although all of these dictatorships restricted civil rights, none asserted control with the brutality of the Russian Communists or the Nazis.
By the mid-1930s, the powerful nations of the world were split into two antagonistic camps—democratic and totalitarian. And to gain their ends, the Fascist dictator- ships had indicated a willingness to use military aggression.