Adolf Hitler: A Study in Tyranny
Pages 7 – 13
Adolf Hitler was a native of Austria and born on April 20, 1889 at Braunau-am-Inn; on the Bavarian border. His father, Alois, was illegitimate, and for a time bore his mother’s name Schicklegruber. By 1876 he had established his claim to the surname Hitler. Adolf never used any other name, but the name Schicklegruber was revived by political opponents in Vienna in the 1930s.
Formative Years 1889-1918
After his father’s retirement from the Hapsburg customs service, Adolf Hitler spent most of his childhood in the neighborhood of Linz, the capital of Upper Austria. Alois Hitler died in 1903, but left an adequate pension and savings to support his wife and children. Adolf received a secondary education and, although he had a poor record at school and failed to secure the usual certificate, he did not leave school until 1905 when he was 16.
He then spent two idle years in Linz, where he indulged in grandiose dreams of becoming an artist while not taking any steps to prepare for earning a living. His mother was overindulgent to her willful son and even after her death in 1908, he continued to draw a small allowance with which he maintained himself for a time.
His ambition was to become an art student but he failed twice to secure entry to the Academy of Fine Arts. He earned a precarious livelihood by painting postcards and advertisements and drifting from one municipal boardinghouse to another. During this period, he led a lonely and isolated life.
In these early years, Hitler showed traits that characterized his later life: inability to establish ordinary human relationships; intolerance and hatred both of the established bourgeois world and of non-German peoples, especially the Jews; a tendency to passionate, denunciatory outbursts; and a readiness to live in a world of fantasy to escape from his poverty and failure.
In 1913, Hitler moved to Munich. Temporarily recalled to Austria to be examined for military service, he was rejected as unfit, too weak to bear arms. When World War I broke out he volunteered for the German army and joined the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry “List” Regiment. He served throughout the war, was wounded in October 1916, and gassed two years later. He was still hospitalized when the war ended. Except when hospitalized, he was continuously in the front line as a headquarters runner; his bravery in action was rewarded with the Iron Cross, second class, in December 1914, and the Iron Cross, first class (a rare decoration for a corporal), in August 1918.
Hitler greeted the war with enthusiasm, as a great relief from the frustration and aimlessness of his civilian life. He found comradeship, discipline, and participation in conflict intensely satisfying; and was confirmed in his belief in authoritarianism, inequity, and the heroic virtues of war.
Years of Struggle 1919-1924
Discharged from the hospital in the atmosphere of confusion that followed the German defeat, Hitler determined to take up political work in order to destroy a peace settlement which he denounced as intolerable. He remained on the roster of his regiment until April 1920, and, as an army political agent, joined the tiny German Workers’ Party in Munich in September 1919. In 1920 he was put in charge of the party’s propaganda and left the army to devote his time to building up the party, newly renamed the National Socialistiche Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (of which Nazi was an abbreviation).
Conditions were ripe for the development of such a party. Resentment toward the victorious powers and economic chaos brought general discontent. This was sharpened in Bavaria, where Hitler lived throughout the 1920s, by traditional separatism and dislike of the republican, government in Berlin. In March 1920 a coup d’etat by the army established a strong right wing government.
Munich became the gathering place for dissatisfied exservicemen, political plotters against the republic, and members of the Freikorps. (The Freikorps was organized in 1918-1919 from units of the German army unwilling to return to civilian life.) Many of these individuals joined the Nazi party. Foremost among them was Ernest Robin, a member of the staff of the district army command. He had actually joined the German Worker’s party before Hitler, and was of great help in furthering Hitler’s schemes for developing it into an instrument of power. It was he who recruited the “strong arm” squads used by Hitler to protect party meetings, to attack Socialists and Communists, and to exploit violence for the impression of strength it gave.
In 1921 these were formally organized under Rohm into a private party army, the SA (Sturmabteilung). Rohm also was able to ensure the protection of the Bavarian government, which depended on the local army command for the maintenance of order and which tacitly accepted his breaches of law and his policy of intimidation.
Although conditions were favorable for the party’s growth, only Hitler was sufficiently astute to take full advantage of them. When he joined the party he found it small, ineffective, committed to a program of nationalists and socialist principles, but uncertain of its arms and divided in its leadership. He accepted its program, but regarded it only as a means to an end: political power. His propaganda methods and his personal arrogance caused friction with other party members, resolved when Hitler countered their attempts to curb his freedom by offering his resignation.
Aware that the future of the party depended on his power to organize publicity and to acquire funds, they were forced to give in. In July 1921 he became president of the party with unlimited power. From the first, Hitler set out to create a mass movement whose mystique and force would be sufficient to bind its members in loyalty to him. He engaged in unrelenting propaganda through the party newspaper, the Volkischer Brobachter.
Through a succession of meetings, rapidly growing from audiences of a handful to audiences of thousands, he exercised his magnetism and developed his unique talent for mass leadership. At the same time, he gathered around him several of the Nazi leaders who later became infamous: Alfred Rosenberg, Rudolf Hess, Hermann Goring, and Julius Streicher.
The climax in this rapid growth of the Nazi party in Bavaria came in an attempt to seize power in the November 1923 putsch. Hitler and General Eric Ludendorff took advantage of the prevailing lawlessness and opposition to the Weimar Republic to force leaders of the local government and the local Reichswehr commander to proclaim a national revolution. Hitler’s putsch, however, was defeated. When placed on trial for his attempted overthrow of the government, Hitler, although his part in the putsch had been far from glorious, characteristically took advantage of the immense publicity afforded to him.
He also drew a vital lesson from the putsch: that the movement must achieve power by legal means. He was sentenced to prison for five years, but served only nine months, and that in comfort at Landsberg Prison. He used that time to prepare the first volume of Mein Kampf.
Hitler’s ideas can be traced to other writings and radical political movements prevalent in Vienna while he lived there. He regarded inequality between races and individuals as part of an unchangeable natural order and exalted the “Aryan race as the sole creative element of mankind. The natural unit of mankind was the volk, of which the German was the greatest; and the state only existed to serve the volk: a mission that the Weimar Republic betrayed. All morality and truth was judged by this criterion: whether it was in accordance with the interest and preservation of the volk.
The unity of the volk found its incarnation in the Fuhrer, endowed with absolute authority. Below the Fuhrer came the party which was drawn from the best elements of’ the volk and was, in turn, its safeguard.
In Hitler’s view, the greatest enemy of Nazism was not liberal democracy which was already on the verge of collapse, but rather Marxism with its insistence on internationalism and class conflict. Behind Marxism, Hitler saw the greatest enemy of all, the Jew, who he saw as the very incarnation of evil, a mythical figure into which he projected all that he feared and hated. Hitler believed that the Germans were “racially superior” and that there was a struggle between them and the “inferior races.”
He saw Jews, Roma (Gypsies), and the handicapped as a serious biological threat to the purity of the German (Aryan) Race, what he called the “master race.” Hitler and the Nazis blamed the Jews for Germany’s defeat in World War I, for its economic problems, and for the spread of Communist parties throughout Europe.
Will to Power 1924
While Hitler was in prison, the Nazi party disintegrated through internal dissension. In the task of reconstruction after his release, Hitler faced difficulties that had not existed before 1923. Economic stability had been achieved by currency reform and the Dawes Plan which enabled the Weimar Republic to become more respectable.
Hitler was forbidden from making speeches until late 1927. Nevertheless, the party grew slowly in numbers, and in February 1926 Hitler successfully established his position against Gregor Strasser, who had built up a rival Nazi movement in north Germany.
The economic slump of 1929 opened a new period of both economic and political instability. Hitler made an alliance with the Nationalist Alfred Hugenberg in a campaign against the Young Plan. Through it, Hitler was able, for the first time, to reach a nationwide audience with the help of Hugenbergs’ Nationalist party organization and the newspapers it controlled. It also enabled him to position himself as a gifted agitator to the industrial/business magnets who controlled political funds. He was anxious to use them to establish a strong right wing, antiworking class government.
The subsidies Hitler received from big business placed his party on a secure financial footprecedented mass following he took part in a series of intrigues for the support of the aging president, in which the other principal participants were Franz Von Papuan, General Kurt von Schleicher, Otto Meissner, and Oskar Hindenburg. In spite of a decline in the party’s votes in November 1932, he held to the Chancellorship as the only office he would accept, and this by constitutional, not revolutionary methods. Throughout, he showed a unique ability to exploit conditions favorable to his success. Thus was created the Hitler myth.
He propagated it by every device of mass agitation and with an actor’s ability to become absorbed in the role which he created for himself. Yet, he remained a shrewd and calculating politician, aware of the weakness of his own position, perceiving more quickly than anyone else how a situation could best be turned to his own advantage. In January 1933, he reaped his reward when Hidenburg invited him to take the Chancellorship and he took office with the support of Papen and Hugenberg.
Hitler’s personal life grew more relaxed and stable with the added comfort that accompanied the party’s success. Alter his release from prison, he went to live on the Obersalzberg, near Berchtesgarden. His income at the time was derived in a haphazard manner from party funds and from writings in Nationalist newspapers. When he became Chancellor, he accepted the material comforts that followed, but remained independent of them.
He was indifferent to clothes and food, never smoking or drinking tea, coffee, or alcohol. He continued, even as Fuhrer, to rebel against routine or regular work, a characteristic which he ascribed to his artistic temperament.
When he went to live at Bercbtesgarden, his half sister, Angela Raubal, and her two daughter’s accompanied him. Hitler became devoted to one of them, but his possessive jealousy drove her to suicide in September 1931. For weeks Hitler was inconsolable.
In later years, Eva Braun, a shop assistant from Munich, became his mistress. Hitler rarely allowed her to come to Berlin or appear in public with him and would not consider marriage on the grounds that it would hamper his career. Eva was a warm hearted girl with no intellectual ability. Her great virtue in Hitler’s eyes was her unquestionable loyalty, and in recognition of this he made her his legal wife at the end of his life.
Revolution and The New Order
Once in power, Hitler proceeded to establish an absolute dictatorship. He secured the President’s assent for new elections on the grounds that a majority in the Reichstag could not, after all, be obtained. The Reichstag fire, on February 27, 1933, provided an excuse for a decree overriding all guarantees of freedom and the subsequent intensified campaign of violence. In these conditions, the Nazis polled 43.9% of the votes.
In March, the Reichstag assembled in the Potsdam Garrison church, a theatrical gathering designed by Hitler to show the unity of his own movement with the old conservative Germany, represented by Hidenburg. Two days later, an enabling bill giving full powers to Hitler was passed in the Reichstag by the combined votes of Nazi, Nationalist, and Centre party deputies.
Thus far successful, Hitler had no desire to carry a radical revolution too far. Conciliation was still necessary if he were to succeed to the presidency and retain the support of the army and industrialists. Ernst Rohm was the chief protagonist of the “continuing revolution.” He was, also, head of the SA, an organization that was greatly distrusted by the army. Hitler tried first to secure Rohm’s support for his policies by persuasion and by giving him a government office but failed to win him over. Goring and Hornet Hammer were eager to remove Rohm, but Hitler hesitated until the last moment. Finally, on June 29, 1934, he reached his decision and ordered the “Night of the Long Knives.” Rohm and his lieutenant, Edmund Heines, were executed without trial, together with Gregor Strasser, Schleicher, and a variety of others.
The army leaders, satisfied at seeing the SA broken up, approved Hitler’s actions. When Hidenburg died on August 2, they, together with Papen, assented to the merging of the Chancellorship and the Presidency. With this went the supreme command of the Reich’s armed forces, requiring that officers and men to take an oath of allegiance to Hitler personally. Economic recovery and reduction in unemployment made the regime more acceptable. A combination or tyranny and success brought the support of 90% of the voters in a plebiscite.
Once in power, Hitler devoted little attention to the organization and running of the domestic affairs of the Nazi state. Responsible for the broad lines of policy, as well as for the system of terror which upheld the state, he left detailed administration to his subordinates. Each of these exercised arbitrary power in his own sphere, but by deliberately creating offices and organizations with overlapping authority, Hitler prevented any one of these private empires from ever becoming sufficiently strong to challenge his own absolute authority.
Em Volk, Em Reich
Foreign policy claimed Hitler’s greater interest. His objectives were laid down in Mein Kampf and Hitler worked toward them with consummate skill. He had early on admired the pan-Germanism of the Austrian George von Schmerer. The reunion of the German people was his first ambition. Beyond that, the natural field of expansion lay eastward, in Poland, the Ukraine, and Russia. Such expansion would involve renewal of Germany’s historic conflict with the Slavic peoples, who would be subordinate in the new order to the Teutonic master race.
Hitler regarded Fascist Italy as a natural ally in this crusade against Bolshevism, provided their rivalry in central Europe could be overcome. Britain was a possible ally provided it abandoned its traditional policy of maintaining the balance of power in Europe and limited itself to its interests overseas. France alone in the west was the natural enemy of Germany, and must, therefore, be subdued to make expansion eastward possible.
Before such expansion took place, it was necessary to remove restrictions placed on Germany by the Versailles Treaty. Hitler used all the arts of propaganda to allay the suspicions of the other nations. He posed as the champion of Europe, standing against the scourge of Bolshevism. He insisted that he was a man of peace who wished only to remove the inequalities of Versailles.
Germany withdrew from the Geneva Disarmament Conference and from the League of Nations in October 1933, but Hitler hastened to sign a nonaggression treaty with Poland in January 1934. Every repudiation of Versailles was followed by an offer to negotiate a fresh agreement and insistence on the limited nature of Germany’s ambitions. Only once did he overreach himself: when the Austrian Nazis murdered Chancellor Dollfuss of Austria and attempted a coup d’etat in July 1934. The attempt failed, and as Mussolini moved troops to the frontier, Hitler disclaimed all responsibility and sacrificed those who had acted with his sanction.
In January 1934, a plebiscite in the Saarland returned that territory to Germany, and Hitler took the opportunity to renounce any further claims on France. In March, he announced the introduction of conscription, and despite opposition, he eventually negotiated a naval treaty in June 1935 with Britain. His greatest stroke came in March 1936, when he used the excuse of a pact between France and the Soviet Union to remilitarize the Rhineland. This was a decision Hitler made against the advice of his own general staff.
In October 1936, the Rome-Berlin axis was established. Shortly afterward came an Anti-Cominterm Pact with Japan. In November 1937, Hitler outlined his plans of future conquest to a secret meeting of his military leaders.
At that point, Hitler dispensed with the services of those who were not wholehearted in their acceptance of Nazi dynamism: Hjalmar Schacht, who declared Germany’s further rearmament a danger to its economy; Werner von Blomberg and Werner von Fritsch, representative of the caution of professional soldiers; and Konstantin von Neurath, Hidenburg’s appointment at the foreign office.
In February 1938, Hitler invited the Austrian chancellor, Kurt von Schuschnigg, to Bertesgarden and forced him to sign an agreement giving the Austrian Nazis a virtual free hand. When Schuschnigg attempted to repudiate the agreement and announced a plebiscite on the question of an Anchluss with Germany, Hitler immediately ordered the occupation of Austria by German troops. The enthusiastic response by which Hitler was received by the Austrians made him decide to annex that nation. He returned in triumph to Vienna, the scene of his youthful humiliations and hardships. No resistance was encountered from Britain and France. Hitler had taken special care to secure the support of Italy and proclaimed his undying gratitude to Mussolini.
Having given assurances that the Anchluss would not affect Germany’s relations with Czechoslovakia, Hitler proceeded at once with his plans against that country. Konrad Henlein, leader of the German minority in Czechoslovakia, was instructed to agitate for impossible demands for the Sudetenland Germans, thereby enabling Hitler to justify the annexation of Czechoslovakia.
The willingness of Britain and France to compel the Czechoslovakian government to cede the Sudentenland areas to Germany presented Hitler with the choice between substantial gains by peaceful agreement and even greater acquisitions by a spectacular war. Mussolini’s intervention caused Hitler to accept the Munich agreement on September 30, 1938. Hitler felt resentment immediately afterward for being cheated out of an impressive military conquest.
It was to be expected then, that Hitler would waste no time in provoking an occasion for occupying the whole of Czechoslovakia. This he did by fostering Slovak discontent. On March 16, 1939, he proclaimed the dissolution of the state whose existence he, as an Austrian, had always regarded as unnatural. Immediately afterward, the Lithuanian government was forced to cede Memel, on the northern frontier of East Prussia, to Germany.
March to Total War
Hitler was now ready to advance toward the ultimate objective of lebensraum in the east. Confronted by an uncompromising Poland, guaranteed by Britain and France, Hitler strengthened the alliance with Italy (Pact of Steel – May 1939) and negotiated a nonaggression pact with the Soviet Union. Signed on August 23, this opened the door for Hitler to attack Poland on September 1, 1939. While he disclaimed any quarrel with Britain, the Polish invasion was quickly followed by a British and French declaration of war.
Hitler pursued unwaveringly the objectives of his foreign policy as he had laid them down in Mein Kampf. He showed astonishing skill in judging the mood of the European democracies and exploiting their weakness. Up to this point every move had been successful; even his anxiety over British and French entry into the war was dispelled by the rapid success of the war with Poland. The result was to convince him more and more of his infallibility and to induce him to push ahead with his plans for conquest.
From the start, Hitler had assumed direction of the major strategy of the war. When the success of the campaign in Poland failed to lead to peace negotiations, Britain and France declared war, so Hitler began to plan for an offensive in the west.
Hitler occupied Denmark and Norway in April 1940. He then struck against France, invading through the Ardennes rather than through the Low Countries. Against his general’s advice, Hitler held back Guderian’s tanks, enabling the British to escape from Dunkirk. The campaign as a whole was a brilliant success and Hitler could claim the major credit for its overall planning. On June 10, Mussolini entered the war on the side of Germany, and at the end of June, Hitler avenged the Treaty of Versailles by signing an armistice with France at the site of the 1918 Armistice.
The next stop was the subjugation of Britain by aerial bombardment, followed by invasion. Yet, as the expected surrender of Britain failed to materialize, the invasion of the Soviet Union quickly came to dominate Hitler’s conception of the war’s grand strategy. The Soviet Union had occupied eastern Poland and Bessarabia as part of the nonaggression pact, yet Hitler sought to counter any further Soviet moves by forcing Hungary and Rumania into an alliance.
Meanwhile, Mussolini invaded Greece, and the lack of success of the Italian armies made it necessary for German forces to come to their aid in the Balkans and North Africa. Hitler’s plans were further disrupted by a coup d’etat in Yugoslavia in March 1941, overthrowing the government which had made an agreement with Germany. Regarding this as an insult to Germany and himself, Hitler immediately ordered his armies to subdue Yugoslavia.
The campaigns in the Mediterranean the ater, although successful, remained subordinate to the Russian offensive, with which Hitler was so preoccupied that he lost the opportunism and flexibility which he had shown in political affairs. Even when Admiral Rueder and Field Marshall Erwin Rommel urged Hitler to destroy the whole British middle eastern position by a final blow at the Suez, he refused to transfer forces from Operation Barbarossa.
When the attack against the USSR was launched on June 22, 1941, Hitler was so confident of success that he refused to provide winter clothing and equipment for his troops. The German army advanced swiftly into the Soviet Union but failed to destroy its Russian opponent.
Hitler became completely overbearing with his generals. He disagreed with them about the object of the main attack and he wasted time and strength by frequently reversing his own decisions and failing to concentrate on a single objective. In December 1941, an unexpected Russian counterattack made it clear that Hitler’s hopes of a single campaign would not be realized.
The next day came the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Hitler precipitously declared war on the United States, even though the pact with Japan was purely defensive and he had not been informed of the Japanese intentions. Misled by an essentially central European view of world politics, he apparently took little account of the force which a mobilized United States could bring to bear in Europe.
Hitler’s conduct throughout 1942 was marked by further errors of judgement. He paid insufficient attention to the Mediterranean and the Atlantic at a time when a relatively small additional effort in those theaters might have been decisive. In Russia, his continued unreadiness to concentrate on a single objective probably forfeited the opportunity to capture Stalingrad while it was still relatively undefended.
Meanwhile, he directed Himmler to prepare the ground for the “new order” in Europe. The concentration camps were expanded and added to them were extermination camps such as Auschwitz and mobile extermination squads. The Jews of Germany, Poland, and Russia were the most numerous victims: in German occupied Europe, more than 6,000,000 were killed by the end of the war.
This campaign of mass murder was the only solution, in Hitler’s view, to “the Jewish problem.” The sufferings of other races were only less when measured in numbers killed. Such barbarism was indiscriminate, even where, as in the Ukraine, Hitler might have encouraged nationalist feelings to his own advantage.
At the end of 1942, defeat at El Alaimein followed by Stalingrad in early 1943, brought the war’s turning point and a distinct change in Hitler’s character.
Hitherto the success which he had imagined had been largely realized, but to preserve the world of fantasy from defeat and failure he isolated himself more and more from reality. Directing operations from his headquarters in the east, he refused to visit bombed cities or to read reports of setbacks. Those close to him especially his secretary Martin Bormann, took care that only pleasing information reached him. Hitler also became increasingly dependent on his physician, Theodor Morell, and the injections which he supplied. Even so, he had not lost the power to react vigorously in face of misfortune.
After the arrest of Mussolini in July 1943 and the Italian armistice, he not only directed the occupation of all important positions held by the Italian army but he also ordered the kidnapping of Mussolini with the intention that he should head a new Fascist government. On the eastern front, however, the refusal to withdraw only led to greater losses without any possibility of stopping the Soviet advance.
Inevitably, relations with his army commanders grew more strained, especially with Hitler’s growing reliance on SS divisions which were directly responsible to him. Meanwhile the failure of the U-Boat campaign and the bombing of Germany made it more evident that defeat was on the horizon.
All these factors, coupled with the successful Allied invasion of France, drove into action the desperate few soldiers and civilians who were ready to remove Hitler and negotiate a peace. Several attempts were planned in 1943 and 1944. The closest to being successful was made on July 20, 1944, when Colonel Graf Claus von Stauffenberg exploded a bomb at a conference at Hitler’s headquarters in East Prussia. Hitler escaped with superficial injuries, and had executed, with few exceptions, all those implicated in the plot. The destruction of the army’s independence was now complete, and Nazi political officers were appointed to all military headquarters.
Thereafter, Hitler was increasingly ill and fatigued, but he did not relax or lose control over the Nazi party or the armed forces. Hitler continued to exercise an almost hypnotic power over his close subordinates, none of whom were able to wield any independent authority. In December 1944, he moved his headquarters to the west to direct an offensive in the Ardennes for which the last reserves of manpower were mobilized.
When it failed, his hopes for victory became even more visionary, based on the use of new weapons or the breakup of the grand alliance, especially after the death of Roosevelt. He ordered mass material destruction and condemned his armies to death by refusing to allow surrender.
Beginning in January 1945, Hitler never left the chancellory in Berlin or its bunker, abandoning a plan to lead a final resistance in the south as the Russians closed in on Berlin. In a state of extreme nervous exhaustion, prematurely senile if not insane, he at last accepted the inevitability. He then prepared to take his own life, leaving to its fate the country over which he had taken absolute command. Before this transpired, two further acts remained.
On April 29, 1945, he married Eva Braun. Immediately afterward he dictated his political testament, justifying his career and appointing Karl Donitz as head of state and Josef Goebbels as Chancellor.
On April 30, he said farewell to his few remaining followers, then retired to his suite and shot himself while Eva took poison. In accordance with his instructions their bodies were burned.
Hitler’s success must be attributed to the conditions of post World War I Germany and to his own unique talents as a political leader. His rise to power was not inevitable and any changes in circumstances might have relegated him to the obscurity and failure of his youth; yet there was no one who equaled his ability to exploit and shape events to his own ends.
The power which was wielded was unprecedented, both in its scope and in the technical resources at its command; but he made no permanent contribution, moral or material, to mankind. His originality and distinctiveness lay in his methods rather than his ideas and purpose. By the time he was defeated, he had broken down the whole structure of the world in which he lived, destroyed millions of people, and inaugurated a new era with even greater potentialities of power and destruction.
“Heil! Sieg Heil!” The chorus of those who believed that the day of deliverance had arrived rang out as they waited for the man they had all come to see. The seemingly unending stream of Schutzstaffel (SS) and Sturmabteilung (SA) troops carrying torches, marched down Wilhelmstrasse to the German Chancellery cheered on by thousands of supporters. In a scene meticulously planned by Berlin Gauleiter Goebbels, a sea of burning torches cast flickering light onto the red and gold Nazi banners as the tension and excitement grew. The man that they were all waiting for appeared on the balcony before them and the biggest outpouring of adulation in German history was unleashed. It was the 30th of January 1933; the night of Hitler’s appointment to German Chancellor. How is it that this seemingly innocuous Austrian who once dreamed of becoming an artist could rise to be one of the most feared, yet revered leaders in history and how was it that the Third Reich could become one of the most formidable regimes in European history?
‘Propaganda, propaganda, propaganda. All that matters is propaganda.’
Probably the most important factor is the use of propaganda by the Nazi Party and in particular, the creation of what historian Ian Kershaw describes as the ‘Hitler myth’. The Hitler myth was carefully constructed by Reich Minister for Propaganda Joseph Goebbels and it relied on the portrayal of Hitler and how he was perceived by the voting public. In order to be appealing to the most number of people, Hitler was portrayed in a number of different ways:
- Hitler was shown to be the symbol of the German nation and the national community (Volksgemeinschaft). He was Germany personified.
- Hitler was the representation of law, order and justice. A clear example of this is the Night of the Long Knives where Hitler purged his own Party which led to a spike in his popularity.
- Hitler was the defender of German rights and the German people. Hitler would rebuild Germany’s strength and regain her honour after the humiliation of the Treaty of Versailles.
- Lastly, Hitler was shown to be a military genius. This was demonstrated later during the Third Reich with Hitler’s Blitzkrieg tactics and the taking of France in just 4 weeks. An example of this type of military propaganda is shown in the propaganda poster on the left. This is a painting by Hubert Lanzinger called Der Bannerträger (The Standard Bearer) from around 1935 showing Hitler in full military armour with the Nazi swastika behind him suggesting that he is ready to fight for the rights of the German people.
‘It is the worship of a national hero who has saved his country’
There are two key reasons why the Hitler myth led to the success of Nazi propaganda.
- The allure of Hitler as a leader. The propaganda posters and speeches from the time all sung Hitler’s praises and stressed his suitability and natural talent as a leader for the German people. Hitler as a leader was shown to be the saviour of Germany and had a quasi-religious allure about him. You can see an example of this in the propaganda poster below. Hitler is seen to be leading his followers, which is reminiscent of Jesus leading his disciples. The beams of light behind him also have religious connotations.
- The Nazi Party were experts at being able to exploit the existing support base for a ‘heroic leader’. Germans were looking for one leader who would unite them and return them to their former glory as one of the great powers of Europe. By associating Hitler with military prowess, religious sentiment and as the unifier of the German people, the Nazi Party were merely playing upon the support base that already existed.
‘I did not come to Hitler by accident. I was searching for him.’
However it was not just the Hitler myth itself which helped in the overall success of Nazi propaganda. The societal conditions of the time also played a major role. The German people wanted revenge for the hated Treaty of Versailles and the Nazi Party offered this. Also the Dolchstoßegende (stab in the back legend) caused tension. The belief that Germany in fact did not lose WWI rather they were stabbed in the back by the so called ‘November criminals’ was perfect ammunition for the Nazis to offer a regaining of German pride, power and status. Lastly the failing Weimar Republic was the perfect environment for Hitler to increase his own popularity. He was seen as the lesser of two evils when compared to the utter chaos that was the Weimar Republic.
To sum up, the success of Nazi propaganda was based largely on the multiple portrayals of Hitler. Historian Ian Kershaw describes this as the Hitler myth. The Nazi Party’s alibility to portray Hitler in so many different ways meant that he was appealing to a larger number of voters. However it was not just the Hitler myth which contributed to the success of Nazi propaganda. Societal conditions of the time provided the perfect atmosphere for a heroic leader to take control and the heroic leader Germany ended up with was Hitler.
- Kershaw, Ian. The ‘Hitler Myth’: Image and Reality in the Third Reich. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989. – This is the fundamental book where Kershaw explains his theory of the Hitler Myth. This is a must-read for anyone wanting to learn more about the Hitler myth.
- Welch, David. Nazi Propaganda: The Power and Limitations. Kent: Croom Helm, 1983. – Welch’s book on Nazi propaganda goes a long way in explaining the use of propaganda by the Nazi Party. Along Kershaw’s book The ‘Hitler Myth’: Image and Reality in the Third Reich, this would be one of best books discussing Nazi Propaganda.
- Bessel, Richard. Life in the Third Reich. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987. – This is a great overview of life under the Third Reich and contains one chapter specifically dedicated to the use of Nazi propaganda.
- http://www.calvin.edu/academic/cas/gpa/ww2era.htm – This is a fantastic archive of Nazi propaganda. There are speeches, posters, newspaper articles and brochures which are divided into various themes e.g. Anti-Semitic propaganda, war propaganda etc. It is perfect for anyone wanting to further at some of the types of propaganda distributed by the Nazi Party.