CHAPTER SEVENTEEN: STALINISM, FASCISM, AND THE ORIGINS OF THE SECOND WORLD WAR
cult of personality
Russian Civil War.
New Economic Policy (NEP)
“Socialism in one country”
Five Year Plans
Fasci di Combattiemento
March on Rome
Paul von Hindenburg
National-Socialist German Workers’ Party
Beer Hall Putsch
Reichstag Fire Decree
Night of the Long Knives
Ruhe und Ordnung
Spanish Civil War
Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact
How did Stalin come to power and what were some of the characteristics of Stalinism in the Soviet Union?
How did Mussolini come to power and how did Fascism function in Italy?
How did Hitler and the Nazis come to power in Germany?
What policies did the Nazis pursue once in power?
Totalitarianism: Russia and Italy
Age of democracy?
In the aftermath of World War I, many observers believed that a new age of democratic government had dawned. Wilson had proclaimed that the war’s great aim was to “make the world safe for democracy,” and the democratic states of Western Europe had emerged victorious. All the new states of Central and Eastern Europe became democracies. Even in Germany, democracy reigned. However, during the 1920’s the democratic flame began to flicker, and in the 1930’s it threatened to die out almost completely. Instead of an age of democracy, the interwar years, to a large extent, became an era of dictatorship.
Age of disillusionment.
The immediate postwar atmosphere did not prove conducive to the survival of democracy in many countries. None of the new nations had any experience with this type of government, and many cleavages between social classes soon became reflected in multitudes of quarrelling political parties. The new governments were unable to provide solutions to the problems that confronted them- the leading one being severe economic problems. After a brief period of partial recovery in the late 1920’s, the Great Depression which started in the USA in 1929, soon plunged the Continent of Europe into economic crisis once again. Soon, disillusionment over the war and the peace settlement gripped the defeated powers of Germany, Austria, and Hungary, and even the victorious Italy.
With the increase in economic difficulties throughout Europe, there was growing dissatisfaction among many Europeans with their democratic governments, who did not seem able to do anything to help their situation. By 1938, almost all the hopeful fledgling democracies of Central and Eastern Europe had become dictatorships.
Emergence of totalitarianism.
In three countries- the Soviet Union, Italy and Germany, the dictatorial regimes became totalitarian. Totalitarianism is a form of authoritarian government. Authoritarian government had been around for centuries- for instance absolutism in France was a form of autocratic government. However, totalitarianism was a new development of the 20th century. It went much, much further in its attempts to control the individuals within the state than was the case with the older forms of authoritarianism.
The Totalitarian State.
First, we will look at some general characteristics of totalitarian states, then we will examine specific examples. The totalitarian government that developed in Russia was totalitarian from the political left and those of Italy and Germany were totalitarianism from the political right. However, if we focus just on socialist, conservative, or nationalist root motivations, we will miss important areas where the day-to-day functioning of these regimes overlap.
Characteristics of Totalitarianism.
In each of the totalitarian states we examine here (the Soviet Union, Italy, and Germany), the dictatorship was formed by a political party that viewed itself as an elite group and was totally devoted to the commands of a single leader. No other political parties were tolerated once the totalitarian leader’s party came to power. Also, in each case the party developed its own ideology, which was their plan to change the society politically, socially, and economically and lead the country towards a utopian future. This ideology was kept simple and was designed to appeal to the masses.
Cult of personality.
In each state, the leader became so central to the party and system that there soon developed a “cult of personality” that portrayed the leader as larger than life and the virtual embodiment of the nation.
Popular support through fear.
Although none of the three parties which developed totalitarian states originally had the backing of most of the people in the countries, after securing power each of them was able to gain a large measure of popular support. This support was based partially on fear. The people supported the party and the government because they were afraid of the consequences if they did not. The parties instilled fear into the population through their control of the army and especially of the secret police- which was used to root out their enemies.
Role of propaganda.
However, the parties in the totalitarian states were also able to create genuine enthusiasm in the people by promising them a better tomorrow and people began to support them because they believed in what they were saying. The parties quickly spread their message by gaining control over the means of mass communication: radio stations, newspapers. This was one of their first goals after seizing power. They used these outlets to spread their propaganda, communications (text, images, films, songs, etc.) which glorified the party, the leader and the nation- all of which contributed to the growth of popular support of the party. Often, the propaganda picked out an enemy in the state that must be destroyed for the nation to survive and prosper. For example, the Jews for Nazi Germany and capitalism for the Soviet Union.
Role of indoctrination.
The parties also came to establish control over the educational system so that they young people in the country would be indoctrinated with the ideology of the party- so that they would have future support. The indoctrination in the education system is not limited to totalitarian governments- even democracies such as ours do this- for instance the pledge of allegiance in schools, spreading the ideas of patriotism (or maybe nationalism), without questioning the actions of those in power.
Each totalitarian state also proclaimed the need for a centrally controlled and directed economy. However, only the Communist regime in the Soviet Union provided a totally state-dominated economy. In both Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, the dictatorships came to terms with the established capitalistic system, though subjecting it to a certain amount of governmental direction.
Popular disillusionment with the previous political systems and despair over the economic situation throughout Europe in the 1920’s and 1930’s helped ease the way for the acquisition of power by the totalitarian parties. All of them promised revolutionary change and, in varying degrees, made good on their pledges. Although they dealt harshly with political opponents, their projection of a glorious future convinced many citizens to overlook such measures. There was very little they could do to stop it in any case.
The Soviet Union.
Early Years of Communist Regime.
The first totalitarian regime was formed in Russia, following the Bolshevik Revolution of November 1917, which brought Lenin and the Communists to power. Although the Bolsheviks were only a small faction of the Russian population, they gained control of the government because of their superior organization and their brilliant leadership under Lenin.
Although Lenin was a good Marxist, one belief of Marx that he did not adhere to was the belief that the communist revolution would come in a highly industrialized country. Marx had figured on a place like Germany or Britain. Russia was not a highly industrialized country in 1917. But this did not deter Lenin. Rather than awaiting the growth of industrialization to produce an urban working class large enough and coherent enough to become conscious of its exploited status on its own, Lenin insisted that the Bolsheviks assume the mantle of a “vanguard party,” leading the people in their own revolution (since they needed it, and since they did not know it would be good for them).
Soon after the revolution, Lenin tried to establish a strong popular support for Bolshevik rule by holding elections for a constituent assembly, but the result was a great disappointment to Lenin and the Bolsheviks because they only controlled 25% of the seats in the assembly. Lenin solved the problem by dissolving the assembly after its first meeting and creating a Communist dictatorship- the “dictatorship of the proletariat” as Marx called it.
Lenin aimed at taking over the means of production and provide an equitable redistribution of wealth. His aim was to create a classless society in which all persons were equal, and no one would prosper at the expense of others. Even the Bolshevik leaders like Lenin supposedly drew the same salary as the industrial worker.
Russian Civil War.
However, the outbreak of the civil war in Russia in 1918 between the Reds and the Whites made the survival of the regime the first order of business. Of course, the Bolsheviks achieved eventual victory in the Civil War (1918-1921) thanks to Leon Trotsky’s organization of the Red Army and to War Communism. Trotsky used former Tsarist officers and noncommissioned officers with experience to train and direct the red army. War Communism was instigated to meet the dual needs of the state for providing weapons, equipment, and food to the army while also feeding the civilian population. War Communism entailed requisitioning grain livestock and other commodities from the peasants and the nationalization of industry, so that the state had total control over production, labor, and agriculture- with everything going into the war effort.
Following the end of the Civil War, Lenin realized that the country was in shambles due to both World War I and the Civil War. There was widespread devastation, rampant inflation, and shortages of all kinds. Due to crop failures and the shortages created by peasant resistance to the requisition policy in 1921 there was a great famine that took the lives of 3 million of the Russian people.
He knew that he needed to relax controls a bit to gain support from the peasants and the workers. For this reason, in 1921 he instituted the New Economic Policy (NEP) which eliminated the forced requisitioning of War Communism and enabled the peasants to sell their surplus crops on the open market. Lenin retained government control of all large-scale industry but allowed smaller corporations to revert to private ownership. The NEP created a mixed system that included elements of both private enterprise and government control.
Lenin viewed the NEP as a stopgap measure- not a long-term solution. As he said at the time, “It is sometimes necessary to take one step backward in order to take two steps forward.”
The structure of the government in the Soviet Union was very complex, but the real power always lay with the Communist Party, which the name of the Bolshevik party officially changed to in 1918. At the top of the hierarchy was the Party Congress which met in Moscow. The Congress chose the Central Committee of the part, which included three smaller bodies: The Politburo, the Secretariat, and the Organizational Bureau. The Politburo was the governing body of the country. They made the decisions and they were carried out throughout the country by the party hierarchy.
The state had from the start its secret police force called the Cheka (forerunner to the KGB). It was used to suppress discontent through terror and by deporting people to labor camps. Siberia was always the favored destination for the deportees. The Cheka hunted down and eliminated enemies of the party, a mission that it carried out with enthusiasm and efficiency.
Lenin and many of the Bolsheviks believed that the Communist Revolution in Russia was just the first step in a worldwide Communist Revolution. Lenin felt that the Communist Party in the Soviet Union needed to try and foster this worldwide revolution. He undertook to do this through the establishment of an organization known as the COMINTERN (“Communist International”), which meant to lead Communist revolution worldwide. The Comintern worked to organize small communist parties in the west.
Due to the exportation of communism to the world via the Comintern, there was a conservative backlash in Western Europe as well as the United States known as the Red Scare- people thought that there were communists behind every tree. In the US this would happen through the 1950’s and 1960’s.
Power struggle following Lenin’s death in 1924: Stalin versus Trotsky.
Lenin suffered a series of strokes beginning in May of 1922 and he died in January of 1924. Long before his death, it became apparent that a power struggle was developing among Communist leaders over who was to be Lenin’s successor. The two principle figures in this struggle were Trotsky and Josif Dzhugashvili, who had taken the name of Stalin, which was derived from the Russian word for Steel.
Stalin, unlike Lenin and most of the other Bolshevik leadership, was not a member of the upper class. Stalin was the son of a shoemaker in the Caucasus Mountains in the region of Georgia. He had entered a seminary as a youth, but soon turned to revolutionary socialism. Unlike Lenin and Trotsky, Stalin was not well known before the Russian Revolution, and really did not emerge as a major figure in the Bolshevik party until after the end of the Civil War. Lenin had never really trusted Stalin and he had turned against Stalin just prior to his death saying that Stalin was “too rude.”
But despite the feelings of Lenin, Stalin would emerge as the leader. He and Trotsky disagreed over the economic policies- Stalin wanted more state control. Stalin’s position as party secretary gave him the edge; he allied himself with different factions to oppose Trotsky. In 1927, Trotsky was expelled from the party for his opposition to Stalin and exiled in Siberia—in 1929 Trotsky was expelled from Russia and found refuge in Mexico, where he was killed 11 years later on the orders of Stalin. By 1927, Stalin was firmly in control in Russia.
Although Stalin had been a firm supporter of Lenin while he was alive, one thing that Stalin disagreed with Lenin and Trotsky about was their belief that the USSR should be involved in exporting the revolution to the rest of the world through the Comintern. Stalin felt that the Communists had enough to do in Russia and he favored a policy of “Socialism in one country” whereas Trotsky had advocated for “permanent revolution” (Trotsky). Stalin felt that once they had firmly established Communism in Russia, then they could work on exporting it to other countries- but that it was much too soon for this.
With Trotsky out of the way, Stalin felt strong enough to launch a massive program to transform Russia into a first-class industrial power as quickly as possible. He felt that the NEP, which had veered away from true Marxist theory, had not worked well. For example, industrial production in Russia did not reach pre-World War I levels until 1927- which was much slower industrial growth than Stalin wanted. In terms of agriculture, he felt that one segment of the peasantry, the Kulaks, who were a class of capitalist peasants who were in control of relatively large landholdings, had grown too powerful.
To increase industrial output and establish in the USSR a true socialist economy, Stalin instituted a series of Five Year Plans (beginning in 1928) to eliminate capitalism, end the NEP, and create a socialist economy through centrally-directed planning and execution (no pun intended; see below) of all forms of economic production.
The first step in this process was the collectivization of agriculture. He felt that peasants grouped into communes, which were large collective farms that the state would supervise, would be more productive than private ownership. Therefore, peasants were required to merge their landholdings into these collective farms, which were owned by the state. Peasants thereby became wage workers (the equivalent of factory workers) on land they no longer owned (again, akin to workers in a factory).
Many of the Kulaks resisted having to give over their lands to the government and they responded by burning crops and slaughtering livestock. Stalin responded with very ruthless measures and sent in the secret police as well as army units to either kill the Kulaks or deport them to Siberia. During this process of “dekulakization” between 5-6 million kulaks died.
The resistance of the Kulaks, coupled with a severe crop failure in 1932, resulted in a terrible famine in 1932-33. Although reliable statistics are not available, Stalin himself later admitted that 10 million people had died because of collectivization and the famine. This did not deter Stalin and by 1939, 95% of the farmland in the USSR had been collectivized.
The second part of the Five-Year Plan system involved rapid industrialization. All private ownership of industry was abolished, and all became controlled by the state. Stalin made sure that they concentrated on heavy industry- such as steel mills, power plants, chemical factories, large-scale machinery, and the military. This necessitated a move away from consumer good to commercial goods.
Great Purge (1936-1938).
Stalin was a very paranoid man and felt that he could trust almost no one. During the period from 1936 to 1938, he undertook what is known as the Great Purge and eliminated thousands of potential enemies within the party and army. Many of the leaders of the Bolshevik revolution were done away with by Stalin during this time. Basically, he eliminated anyone who could pose any sort of threat to him. In the end perhaps 800,000 members of the Soviet elite were exterminated in his purges, which also decimated the officer corps of the Red Army (which hurt the Soviet Union in WWII- because most of their most experienced officers were gone). The places of those he purged in the army and the party were filled with men that he trusted.
Surrounding Stalin was a great cult of personality that was a mixture of propaganda and censorship. The state news machinery feed the people the image of Stalin that they wanted them to see- as the embodiment of the Soviet State. For instance, Stalin had a withered arm, but this was never visible in any photos shown in the Soviet newspapers. Stalin was portrayed as larger than life and as the very embodiment of the Soviet Union. This was meant to increase loyalty in the government.
Despite his ruthlessness, Stalin was a very astute political operator and he was one of two major figures in Europe during the mid-1930’s who foresaw the future problems caused by the rise of Hitler and Nazi Germany- the other figure was Winston Churchill, who would become the British Prime Minister in 1940. Stalin stepped up the military armament productions as part of the Five-Year Plans to try and prepare for the troubles that were coming. For better or worse, the USSR was a socialist state by 1936 (a transitional stage in between capitalism and communism), thanks to Stalin. (Of course, the USSR never got past this transitional, “advanced state socialism” stage at any point in its seventy-four-year history.)
PAUSE for 60-second Quiz #1. How did Stalin come to power and what were some of the characteristics of Stalinism in the Soviet Union? Which statement is true?
Lenin named Stalin his chosen successor before he died, because Stalin was committed to continuing NEP.
Stalin wanted to achieve worldwide revolution, but Trotsky wanted to first achieve “socialism in one country.”
Stalin wanted to quickly industrialize the Soviet economy, so he called for collectivization of agriculture and Five-Year Plans for industrial production.
Kulaks were poor peasants who voluntarily gave up their small farms at the beginning of collectivization, in exchange for leadership positions in the new collective farms.
Soon after the victory of Communist totalitarianism in Russia, Fascism triumphed in Italy with startling speed. When the Fascist movement first began in Italy in 1919, it lacked both an efficient organization and a definite ideology. It did not even become a formal political party until 1921. Nevertheless, by October of 1922, Benito Mussolini, Fascist Leader, had become Premier of Italy and within a few years had created a dictatorship.
Conditions in Italy after World War I.
There were a multitude of problems that afflicted Italy in the years immediately following World War I that contributed to the rise of Fascism:
Dissatisfaction with the peace.
First, was a general sense of dissatisfaction in the aftermath of the war. Italy had suffered almost a half-million casualties with the number of wounded being twice that. Yet, Italy had gained very little from the conflict. Veterans were angry because they felt unappreciated for their service in the war and many of them found it difficult to obtain jobs. A lot of Italians blamed the government for not achieving more at the peace conference and for failing to solve the economic dilemma. Italians were particularly embittered over the failure of the other allies to give them the territory they had been promised on the opposite shore of the Adriatic.
Political and economic instability.
There was political and economic instability. As in much of Europe, food shortages, inflation, and unemployment hurt the nation trying to convert from wartime economy to peacetime. Due to Italy’s multiparty system, there was governmental paralysis in the Chamber of Deputies, which was the most dominant of the two houses of parliament. It was hard for any one party to gain a majority in the Chamber, so the Premier had traditionally resorted to corrupt practices to gain support in the Chamber for his cabinet’s policies. The government had gained the reputation as being the most corrupt in Europe.
Failure of the Post-War society.
The food shortages and unemployment coupled with the governmental paralysis led to chaos, the growth of a communist movement in Italy and even higher inflation. Italy had been dominated for centuries by many other countries in Europe such as France under Napoleon and later Austria. There was a desire among Italians for Italy to be a strong independent nation- to return to the glory of the Roman Empire.
Benito Mussolini (1883-1945), Il Duce.
It is against this chaotic background that Benito Mussolini and the Fascists come to power. He was known as Il Duce- Italian for, “The Leader.”
After an unsuccessful career as an elementary school teacher, he became a socialist. Thus, he started his political career on the far left. He edited Avanti, the official socialist party newspaper from 1912-1914. A few months after the outbreak of World War I, Mussolini advocated for Italian entry into World War I and as a result of this act he was expelled from the Socialist party- because they were opposed to the war.
Turn to the right.
After Italy came into the war, Mussolini entered the army and fought in the war and in the process turned to the political right. He was a showman who was interested in power and the adoration of the masses. He was a fanatical speaker.
Establishment of the Fasci di Combattiemento in 1919.
In the immediate aftermath of the war, many disgruntled veterans and Italian nationalists organized several fighting groups in the various parts of Italy. One of these bands was led by Mussolini, who gradually won the allegiance of the others and in 1919, Mussolini helped form the Fasci di Combattiemento or Fascist Party. This Fascist Party was the middle way between democracy and socialism and was initially very popular, given the failures of the democratic government and the fears surrounding communism.
The various fascist groups had little in the way of a common policy, except that they were all virulently nationalistic. They wanted to restore Italy to the former glory it had held during the Roman Empire when it had ruled the world. Therefore, the Fascists used symbols from the Roman Empire. The term fascism comes from the fasces, which was a symbol of authority during the Roman Empire and consisted of a bundle of sticks. The bundle of sticks was symbolic because the sticks were themselves weak, but they were strong when grouped together. The Fascists adopted the fasces as their official insignia.
Aside from their virulent nationalism, Fascism also developed into an anti-Socialist/anti-Communist movement and claimed to be the great opponent of the “Red Revolution.”
Mussolini combined all the movement’s fighting groups into a paramilitary force known as the Black Shirts, who aided the rise of the Fascists to power by attacking their enemies. The Black Shirts spent much of their time fighting in the streets Socialists and other groups opposed to the Fascists. One of their favorite techniques was forcing large doses of castor oil down the throats of those Socialists and others that they got their hands on.
Support of the rich.
Fascism was supported financially by industrialists and large landowners who feared the spread of Socialism and Communism to Italy and saw the Fascists as a force that could keep out the Communists. Fascism also had considerable support from the officer corps of the army and from the court of King Victor Emmanuel III- because there was a great fear that Socialists and Communists were gaining support in Italy. The Fascists again were a bulwark against socialism and communism.
Seizure of Power in October 1922.
Well, due to the encouragement from Italian industry and the army, Mussolini and the other fascist leaders decided to attempt to seize power by sending the Black Shirts to march on Rome in October of 1922. This (in)famous episode – the March on Rome – caused the current government to feel threatened enough to resign.
After the current government resigned, Victor Emmanuel offered Mussolini the office of prime minister. Technically, Mussolini had come to power through constitutional means, but his threat of force which was shown in the March on Rome had cleared the way for his appointment.
By 1924 he had transformed himself into virtual dictator with full authority to restore order. The Fascists used electoral fraud to fill the Chamber of Deputies with their members and in the end, there was a withdrawal of anti-Fascists from parliament.
Characteristics of Fascism.
Glorification of Mussolini as il Duce (The Cult of Personality).
First, just as in the Soviet Union with the cult of personality of Stalin- there was the glorification in Italy of Mussolini as Il Duce and a cult of personality surrounding him. Italian newspapers were constantly filled with pictures of Mussolini leaping hurdles on horseback, flying airplanes, driving race cars- doing all sorts of stuff that made him look tough, manly. Again, he was made out to be the embodiment of Italy. Mussolini personally instigated all this sort of propaganda- reputedly claiming that American razor blades were inadequate to the toughness of Il Duce’s beard.
Fascism was Nationalistic.
Secondly, Fascism was nationalistic. They wanted to restore Italy to the glory that it had held during the days of the Roman Empire. That is, Mussolini wanted to reestablish the Roman Empire, which had been gone for 500 – or 1400 – years (depending on whether we are thinking of the Roman Empire in the West or in the East).
Fascism was Militaristic.
Third, Fascism was militaristic. they took a lot of pride in their armed forces. Mussolini often appeared in military uniform and military-type salutes were instituted as the form of greeting for everyday Italians.
Fascism was Anti-Communist.
Fourth, it was anti-socialist and anti-communist. A lot of the initial appeal of Fascism came from the fact that many people were scared to death of Communism.
Fascism was anti-Democratic.
Fifthly, it was anti-democratic. By 1926 there was only one political party in Italy- the Fascist. Italy was a one-party dictatorship.
Fascism was Imperialistic.
Sixthly, it was imperialistic. Mussolini practiced an aggressive foreign policy which sought to restore the greatness of the Italian state. Mussolini wanted to physically reestablish the Roman Empire- not just figuratively.
To give Italy an overseas Empire, he invaded Ethiopia in 1935. This was ludicrous, because it did not give him anything but trouble, especially on the European scene. Mussolini was highly denounced for this imperialism because by this time imperialism was not in fashion anymore.
Mussolini entered the Rome-Berlin Axis in 1936, which was a diplomatic alliance with Hitler’s Germany. Mussolini saw himself as the senior member of the Rome-Berlin Axis, but this was an illusion, and he would soon be quelled.
As part of his aggressive foreign policy, Mussolini along with Hitler, sent aid to Francisco Franco and his forces fighting in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930’s (see below). Also, in 1939, Mussolini invaded Albania.
Fascism’s Economic Corporatism.
In terms of its economic policy, the Fascists in Italy practiced something called economic corporatism. This policy supposedly furthered understanding between industrialists and workers while eliminating the selfish individualism that characterized capitalistic economy.
The way this worked was that the workers and management were supposed to “cooperate” to deal with labor problems- overlooked by the government. However, the workers got the short end of the stick. Corporatism was a fraud that masked the cynical deal between Mussolini and the Italian industry in 1925. The arrangement granted the industrialists a privileged position in government in return for their support of the regime.
Fascism’s Forces of coercion.
Just like in Communist Russia, Fascist Italy coerced the population through censorship in the press, that was all controlled by the state, as well as using the secret police force.
Fascism’s Mass control through the Young Fascists.
Like Nazi Germany with its Hitler Youth, Mussolini had a youth movement called the Young Fascists. For every age group over four there were Fascists organizations in which the youth wore black shirts, marched and recited official slogans. This way, Mussolini was indoctrinating the children of the day to be good fascists in the future.
Although the Second World War began in 1939 (see the next chapter), Italy did not enter the war until 1940, siding with Germany of course, but Italy was not prepared for war.
PAUSE for 60-second Quiz Question #2. How did Mussolini come to power and how did Fascism function in Italy? Which statement is NOT true?
Mussolini and his Black shirts staged a coup d’état and the frightened king named Mussolini as the new prime minister.
Mussolini and his Fascist Party capitalized on fear of Communism spreading but also dissatisfaction with the Treaty of Versailles.
Mussolini forged a partnership with Stalin and sent aid to the Republican forces in Spain.
Mussolini forged a partnership with Hitler and sent aid to Franco in Spain.
Hitler’s rise to power.
The Weimar Republic: An illusion of success?
The initial chaos in Germany of 1918-1923 gave way to a relatively stable period of the middle 1920s, as Germany renegotiated reparations payments to a much more manageable level, convincing the French to withdraw from the Ruhr region in 1925. Yet this stability was fragile, since the political parties (besides the SPD) were constantly bickering with each other, making for an unstable parliament. Despite domestic displeasure, internationally, Germany’s government reassured the international community by signing treaties affirming its western borders and entering the League of Nations in 1925 and 1926.
Following the death of German President Friederich Ebert (SPD) in 1925, the election of the former general and war hero (and “silent dictator”) Paul von Hindenburg as president began a process of political power shifting away from the parliament towards the executive. Still, the period of about 1925 until 1929 is a moment of when we can see the possibilities for what might have been in Germany – peace, international cooperation, democracy instead of authoritarianism. Yet, when the Great Depression arrives, even the center-right political parties began shifting further to the right, making it progressively harder for the SPD to form governing coalitions.
Problems with the Constitution.
Born of chaos.
The Great Depression is only a (one of several) proximate causes for the end of democracy in Germany, with the economic suffering and political competition only increased. However, even before the depression, and aside from the problems with reparations and inflation we covered in the last chapter, the Weimar Republic had a fatal flaw built into its constitution.
Remember that the Weimar Republic in Germany was a democratic government born in the chaos that followed the First World War.
At that moment, the radical Spartacist (independent Socialist) movement had agitated for a Räterrepublic (republic of councils, based loosely on the USSR model). These more radical movements had been tempered by the more moderate (majority-) Social Democratic Party (SPD) who wanted a moderate republic and who was the best position to arbitrate the formation of a new government. The Kaiser had abdicated, the army was deserting, the war was basically lost, and the civilian parliamentarians that were left in Berlin decided to use this moment to achieve a democratic, constitutional government that they had never completely had before. (Remember, 1848 had failed!)
At the same time, Freikorps were marching around beating up leftists and trying to somehow overthrow the Weimar government and bring back a sort of authoritarian regime. So just as the SPD was the major moderating force on the left, so too was the center-right Catholic Center party a moderating force on the right. But what is important to note here is that the Weimar Republic continually faced the threat of insurrection or at least political crisis. There was only a tenuous degree of support in the political middle for the government, which is small.
Therefore, because it was sometimes hard for a government to get things done when people did not like it, there was a special clause written into the constitution -- Paragraph 48, which allowed President to intervene via martial law to preserve/restore law and order. What is important to note is that Paragraph 48 was used to rule by emergency Presidential decree for political reasons (in crises) instead of natural disasters.
Death of German Democracy.
OK so we now have these unruly and somewhat unhinged fascists in charge of Italy, but by the middle 1920s, things are going okay for most of Europe, including Germany. But the Great Depression ruined the consensus, breaking apart the tenuous support for the government in the Reichstag (the parliament). The Great Depression was kicked off by the crash of the US stock market in October 1929 (which dropped in total value from $87 Billion to $30 Billion), which left US banks in a credit crunch (meaning they were short of cash to pay their own creditors) so they called in the loans they had out (again, to raise cash) and stopped making new loans, which hurt the rest of the world, whose growth for the previous five years or so had been fueled by US investment.
Germany, like many other European nations, had a parliamentary political system. This means that they had more than two political parties, so it is always possible that no one party will win enough seats in an election to control the parliament and run the government. If no party gets 50% +1 seat, then they will try to form a coalition with another party, to get to a majority. For example, if Party A gets 44%, Party B gets 26%, and Party C gets 30%, Party A might partner with Party B to get to a combined 70% and be able to run the government. However, Party A and B would have to share power and compromise on legislation.
The indecisive German elections in 1930, immediately following the onset of the Great Depression, forced the creation of a grand coalition to run the government that itself produced little results and saw the SPD retreat from power, back into opposition, making it easier for other parties at the table who were more hostile to the Republic to engineer its failure. What was really at issue was a difference of opinion on how to respond to the economic challenges of the Depression. At this point, approximately 30% of the German workforce was unemployed, so it was critical to pass legislation responding to the crisis. The SPD wanted to keep unemployment and social insurance programs funded, despite reduced tax revenues, while conservatives wanted to reduce funding to balance the budget. The impasse caused the coalition to dissolve, prompting a call for new elections. Eventually, a minority government was formed under the Catholic Center Party’s Chancellor Heinrich Brüning, who ruled via emergency decree.
Hitler and the Nazis: A closer look.
Where were the Nazis? Well, the National-Socialist German Workers’ Party [NSDAP; Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei – Nazi] had been around since the early 1920s. Adolf Hitler himself had not created the party but joined it early after the war. Hitler was not actually German but was born in 1898 in Braunau, Austria. He was not a high-achiever – a high-school dropout who tried (unsuccessfully) to go to art school. He did not get in, so he became homeless and a failure.
When the First World War had broken out in 1914, Hitler was excited and volunteered in 1914 for Germany, not Austria. He was gassed and received the Iron Cross for valor. When the German Revolution in 1918 happened, Hitler was one of those people who was disappointed! He wanted to win the war, not surrender, and have peace. After the peace, Hitler’s life fell apart, so he returned to Munich, became a Propaganda Officer for the German Army, and agitated against the Versailles Treaty, spreading the “stab-in-the-back” legend.
Hitler as Weimar skeptic.
Hitler also spread his program of anti-Republic, anti-left, anti-Semitic ideology. And this is the time he got involved with this new Nazi Party. Hitler built up this hard-right political movement into a group of about 50,000 people in 1923 and then he tried to emulate Mussolini’s March on Rome by leading March on Berlin. We call this the Beer Hall Putsch (“coup d’état” in German). Hitler hoped to instigate a large enough riot that monarchists and traditional conservatives even will side with him and overturn the Weimar government.
But the revolt does not work, and Hitler was sent to jail. While Hitler was in prison, he wrote Mein Kampf, his political memoir, where he blamed Jews for Germany’s troubles but also spelled out his plan to get rid of them. He also articulated several other policy goals that he wanted to achieve (and which we will discuss below). Mein Kampf is significant for that but also because Hitler decided, while in jail, that ne needed to transition from extra-legal to legal strategy. Hitler was out of jail in less than a year and had set about establishing Nazi party chapters across Germany (like any other political party) and built up grassroots support through the legal electoral system.
Political instability of the late 1920s, early 1930s.
So, this gets us back to the story of Weimar political instability. The Nazi party saw an electoral surge in late 1920s with the Great Depression, after the economy tanked and voters lost confidence in the two centrist parties (Zentrum and SPD). Now extreme parties on the far right and far left fringes saw more growth and got more votes. Now, the Nazis only ever got about 2% of the national parliamentary vote in 1928 (the year before the depression), so they were a very small, minor player in German politics. However, in 1930 the Nazis get close to 20% of the votes. This is astonishing!
By 1932, the Nazis are even stronger, with Hitler winning 30.1% of the votes for president in 1932 (he lost to WWI hero, and “silent dictator,” Paul von Hindenburg). The Nazi Party itself won 37.2% of the seats in Parliament in the July 1932 elections. But that was the high point – in another election (there were many, as things were chaotic at this time) in November 1932, the Nazis only got 33.1% (so they were on the decline already). The key to remember here is this: the Nazi Party never won most of the vote in a free election.
Throughout this period of economic crisis, the German government (meaning the president, the chancellor, and the parliament) were having a hard time governing with the confidence of the people. Up until 1932 Hindenburg (who was then the Federal President but without much power over the parliament) supported Heinrich Brüning but then Hindenburg lost patience and turned to Franz von Pappen (another conservative), then Kurt von Schleicher (another conservative), but lost faith with them, too. Hindenburg was using his power as president to appoint a chancellor by presidential decree, since the parties in the parliament were too fractious to make peace with other and form a coalition to govern.
In January 1933, Hindenburg turned to give the government (again, via presidential decree) over to the leader of the largest plurality of seats in the Reichstag (so not the majority but simply the largest group, because they are all minorities), which happened to be Hitler and his NSDAP. President Hindenburg did not really want to appoint Hitler, but Hindenburg seemed to think the people would support Hitler if he were surrounded by less radical (and less rabid) conservatives in his cabinet. And the other conservatives also though they could control Hitler if they also had positions of influence in the government. So, on January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler (1898-1945) became Chancellor of Germany.
Pause for 60-second Quiz #3. How did Hitler and the Nazis come to power in Germany? Which statement is true?
The Weimar Republic had a clause in the constitution allowing the president to rule via emergency decree.
The Nazis were already winning electoral majorities in the parliament before the Great Depression.
The Nazis only gained electoral majorities in the parliament after the Great Depression.
Hitler and the Nazis gained power via a coup d’état in 1924.
Origins of the Second World War.
After Hitler’s and the Nazis’ rise to power, the plans that Hitler had laid out in Mein Kampf were put into action, not the least of which were his racist policies of expanding territory controlled by the German ethnic state while restricting which people could actually belong to that ethnic community. However, before we get to the war itself, it is worth taking a closer look at how the Nazi version of Fascism operated in Germany from 1933 to 1939.
Nazis in power: a closer look.
“Reichstag Fire Decree” of February 28, 1933.
It is important to remember that, in January 1933, Hitler was not yet a dictator. Instead, he was ruling Germany as its chancellor (the equivalent of a prime minister), but the Nazi Party governed as part of a coalition government with the traditional conservatives (see above). This is important because at this moment, Hitler still had limits on what he could do. On February 27, 1933 that changed, when the Reichstag building (where the German parliament met in Berlin) was set on fire. Although the building was heavily damaged, it was saved, and German police quickly caught the arsonist, who turned out to be a Dutch Communist named Marinus van der Lubbe who had started the fire. It is unclear whether van der Lubbe was guilty, but this crisis gave Hitler the pretext ne needed to declare a national emergency. Hitler asserted (falsely) that this fire was the result of a Communist plot to take over the German government, and in response he persuaded the German President (Hindenburg) to sign the “Decree for the Protection of the People and the State” (usually simply called the “Reichstag Fire Decree”) on February 28, 1933.
The Reichstag Fire Decree allowed Hitler to consolidate his power as chancellor and curtail the civil rights of his political opponents:
It allowed Hitler legal cover to arrest, intimidate, and beat up (even imprison) members of the SPD and KPD (Kommunistischepartei Deutschlands; “Communist Party of Germany”) parliamentary factions. That is, arresting sitting members of parliament who were opposed to the Nazis.
The decree reduced the number of opposition MPs in parliament, allowing the Nazi delegates to have more proportional votes on bills before the chamber. This meant it was suddenly easier for the Nazis (still a minority party, governing in coalition) to have the votes to pass laws they wanted.
The decree also made it harder for the SPD and KPD to elect new delegates to parliament in next round of elections, which also gave the Nazis more room to get more seats.
While this was a crucially important step in Germany’s slide from democracy to fascism, we should remember that it was a temporary measure and not the end of the story.
“Enabling Act” of March 23, 1933.
The Reichstag Fire Decree was followed less than a month later with the so-called “Enabling Act” of March 23, 1933. This law is the one that let Hitler rule as dictator:
Under this law, the Parliament no longer must approve new legislation.
Instead, new laws can simply be proposed before the Chancellor and the Cabinet and be voted on there fore approval. Proposed legislation approved in such a manner instantly came into effect. That is, there was no longer a functioning parliament of democratically elected legislators; only Hitler and his hand-picked ministers had such authority now, with nobody to stop them.
In practice, this meant that Hitler could, for instance, outlaw other political parties, put restrictions on certain groups’ civil rights, even negotiate international treaties, all by himself.
With no higher authority left to reign him in, Hitler was now a dictator.
The Nazis were a minority party (see above), so part of their strategy was to carry out a “national revolution” to transform all aspects of Germans’ lives and also secure the acceptance and loyalty of those who did not vote for the Nazis when they had the chance. To make this “revolution” successful, the Nazis put into effect a policy of Gleichschaltung. This word means, “coordination” in English but that meaning does not quite capture the whole meaning here.
By “coordination,” what the Nazis really did was to turn all civic organizations into Nazi Party subsidiaries. That is, all organizations or institutions, big or small (e.g. veterans’ associations, sports clubs, local crafting guilds, professional associations, anything you can think of that exists in the public sphere) now had to align its beliefs and teachings with those of the Nazi Party. At the same time, the Nazis secured an agreement with the Catholic Church to prevent the Pope’s interference in Germany, in exchange for the Nazis leaving the Catholic Church alone. (Many Protestants were already Nazi voters). While the idea of a private organization being forced against its will to lend support to the government’s policies, many organizations in German entered the Gleichschaltung voluntarily. Those that did not, or could be intimidated into doing so, were suppressed (or simply incorporated into another, already Nazified organization). The goal here was to limit peoples’ interactions and discussions with others in areas that were outside of state surveillance. Because of their success, the Gleichschaltung is usually considered a very important piece of explaining how the Nazi Party was able to hold onto power for so long, despite never winning most of the public electoral support.
The Röhm Purge.
Of course, the police and terror apparatus are also critical to explaining the Nazis hold on power. Before they had begun functioning as a political party, running candidates in elections, the Nazis had simply dished out violence against their enemies in the streets. The most important members of this street fighting phase were the SA (Sturmabteilung, “storm troopers”), who had operated as a private, political army.
Even after the Nazis had, under Hitler’s leadership, moved to a strategy primarily based on winning elections, the SA continued to beat up socialists and communists, and otherwise intimidate people into supporting Nazi Party programs. The leader of the SA in 1934 was Ernst Röhm, a senior party leader and one whom Hitler saw as a potential rival to power. On June 30, 1934, Hitler gave orders to execute Röhm and many around him, in a purge of leadership whom Hitler viewed as less trustworthy. This episode is usually rendered as the “Night of the Long Knives” in English, but it is a good example of the ever-present threat (and, often, use of violence by the Nazis to accomplish their goals).
Death of Hindenburg in August 1934.
Up to this point Hitler had been governing as chancellor, having been named to that post by the German President, Paul von Hindenburg, who was relying on his Paragraph 48 Emergency Powers to do so. In August of 1934, Hindenburg died, and Hitler simply named himself President (holding both the office of president and of prime minister at the same time. Now Hitler was both the head of the government and the commander-in-chief of Germany’s armed forces.
Nuremburg Laws, 1935.
The Holocaust is perhaps the event for which the Nazis are most (in)famous, and with good reason. In order to understand the Holocaust, however, we need to examine what the Nazis said and did before they started building concentration camps, so that we can understand how and why those camps (and other elements of the Holocaust) functioned as they did. The Nazi Party certainly espoused violently antisemitic ideology (as well as various other forms of racist thinking), but they also took concrete legal steps to begin the process that would end with the destruction of European Jews.
On September 15, 1935, the Reichstag passed the first of several laws governing German citizenship and notions of race. These laws were approved during the Nazi Party’s own national congress held in Nuremburg, so these are usually called the “Nuremburg Laws” or the “Nuremburg Race Laws.” These legal changes established a formal basis for subsequent discrimination and persecution of Germany’s Jews.
Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor (“Blood Protection Law”).
This law prohibited Jewish Germans from marrying (or even having sex with) non-Jewish Germans. The goal was creating a stark racial divide in German society, which is why Jewish Germans were also prevented, under this law, from hiring non-Jewish German housekeepers who were younger than forty-five years old. The Nazis used the word, “Aryan” to refer to non-Jewish Germans, who were believed (without evidence) to possess a “purer” or more “noble” set of racial traits, that needed to be “protected” from “contamination” by “less desirable” Germans. In an equally apparent move to limit which Germans should be allowed to participate in the (hardly legitimate, at this point) political process, this law also prevented Jews from displaying the new swastika flag in their homes.
Reich Citizenship Law.
This law pushed the idea of racial segregation further, from intermarriage and sexual relationships, to defining citizenship. The Reich Citizenship Law removed all political rights from Jewish citizens of Germany. While Jews still possessed a form of German citizenship, theirs was now clearly a second-class citizenship status. Because German citizenship was necessary for people to practice a wide array of professions, occupations, serve in the civil service, teach or study in universities, and so forth, the removal of Jews’ full citizenship rights meant many of them were also pushed out of their professions.
First Regulation to the Reich Citizenship Law, November 14, 1935.
These laws and others were meant to cleanly divide Jews away from the rest of German society. (It should be pointed out, however, that “Jewishness” was not the only category that the Nazis wanted to exclude from their notion of the “national community” [Volksgemeinschaft].” Thus, the Nazis needed to establish a clear, easily verifiable definition for “Jewishness,” which they did with this regulation. They established, based on genealogy, what it meant to be a “full Jew” ( three- or four Jewish grandparents), or what it meant to be of “mixed” (“Mischling”) racial status (one or two grandparents). Certain restrictions were enforced more heavily against “full” Jews than “mixed” Germans, although this could change with subsequent laws. Whether or not a person practiced the Jewish faith was immaterial – it only mattered who one’s parents and grandparents were. So, people who considered themselves secular or atheists, people who considered themselves patriotic Germans (maybe even World War I veterans), all could be stripped of their citizenship rights and placed into this lower tier.
Discrimination and persecution.
Again, the goal was to establish in law what the Nazis had been arguing – that Jews were an untrustworthy, shifty, biologically inferior, dangerous group of people who were out to harm Germany. They were simultaneously too weak or too inferior to hold German citizenship and serve the country and their communities, while simultaneously being so powerful and crafty that they must be identified and stopped before they undermined Germany and surrendered it to its international adversaries. The formal adoption of the Nuremburg Laws led to nationwide, organized boycotts of Jewish businesses and shops – again, an attempt to identify Jews as “others” or “outsiders,” who should not be allowed to coexist inside the nation.
This dynamic was taken to new heights with Kristallnacht on November 9, 1938. This was a nation-wide pogrom, where (non-Jewish) Germans attacked and burned Jewish homes, businesses, synagogues, and attacked and killed those Jews who resisted. This event was less about killing large numbers but much more about intimidating and stirring up public resentment towards the Jews.
Interestingly, this effort to whip up public consternation against Jews backfired, as instead many middle-class Germans expressed consternation at the event of Kristallnacht themselves. However, their criticism was not motivated out of their opposition to antisemitism, but rather their preference for “Ruhe und Ordnung” (“Law and Order”) – they did not like seeing lawlessness and destruction in their streets. Thus, if the regime could maintain peaceful streets and allow non-Jewish-owned businesses to prosper, most (non-Jewish) Germans would resign themselves to not caring very much about what happened to their Jewish neighbors. This element of passivity towards Jews, to some degree a product of the dehumanization or othering of Jews through law and social custom, allowed the regime to plan and carry out much more deadly types of persecution of Jews in the near future.
We should also think about Germany’s economic context to help us understand how the Nazis arrived in power and remained there. The Great Depression (see above) was the most important contingent factor that explains the Nazis’ rise. They were a minor party before the economy tanked in 1929 and it was only when the mainline parties appeared incapable of solving the crisis that approximately 1/3 of German voters (but not much more than that) turned to the Nazis.
Because of the economic desperation that was at the front of so many voters’ minds, the Nazis quickly set out to remove visible signs of the Depression’s impact, for example, creating large-scale government jobs programs to alleviate unemployment. Of course, this was a totalitarian regime and so compulsory labor was sometimes the reality for Germans who did not want to take jobs in manual labor. Such public works projects did help end the Depression, and the Nazis did make a big deal about solving the problems of unemployment, hunger, poverty, and so forth but we should make clear that only those Germans whom the Nazis considered full-blooded members of the Volk would benefit from such welfare programs. Minorities and anyone else whom the Nazis viewed as “enemies” would not see such improvements in their lives.
Another major sphere of economic activity that contributed to ending the Depression, of course, was rearmament (which was illegal under the Treaty of Versailles).
Rearmament was one issue among many that Hitler discussed in Mein Kampf, which he then set about implementing once he came to power. (He also talked about territorial enlargement for Germany, as well as unleashing punishment on the Jews for supposedly having caused Germany to have endured such a humiliating defeat.) An international conference had been convened at Geneva Switzerland in 1932 to investigate the possibility of general European disarmament. However, Hitler, once he came to power, set out to sabotage this conference by demanding the end of all restrictions on German armaments that had been created by the Versailles Treaty. When France refused to agree to this, Hitler withdrew Germany’s delegation from the conference in October 1933 and he also withdrew Germany from the League of Nations.
Up to this point, Hitler had been reluctant to engage in rearmament on a large scale because he feared French opposition, but when the France and Britain didn’t oppose Germany’s withdrawal from the disarmament conference and the League of Nations, Hitler became less cautious. Hitler secretly ordered a sharp increase in arms production during 1934 and 1935 and in early March of 1935, he announced publicly that Germany already had an air force. He then announced that he intended to reintroduce the draft and increase the German army to 550,000 men. As mentioned above, Hitler’s rearmament did contribute to jump starting the German economy in a major way. Germany had full employment by 1936, when only four years before it had seen the highest unemployment rate in the world.
Not only is the step (rearmament) important for our understanding of the Second World War because of the military implications (i.e. more soldiers to send into battle), it is important to note that, in making these announcements, Hitler was publicly renouncing the Treaty of Versailles, which had prohibited Germany from having an air force and limited its army to 100,000 men. Hitler was announcing his intentions to break the treaty and he did not seem to think that anyone would stop him.
Origins of World War II.
Assessment of Blame for the World Wars.
As we assessed in earlier chapters, the question of whom to blame for World War I is one where there is room for some debate, even if most historians writing since Fritz Fischer have agreed that Germany bore the brunt of the guilt. However, blame for World War II rests solely on Hitler. It is true that forceful action from other powers might have restrained him, and in this respect, Britain and France may share a measure of responsibility. Yet it is undeniable that Hitler was making calculated decisions to gamble, and ultimately gave the orders to invade Poland, bringing on the war.
European Reaction to German Rearmament.
In response to Hitler’s policy of German rearmament, representatives of Britain, France, and Italy met at the Italian Resort town of Stresa and formed the Stresa Front in June 1935, which was a pact to oppose further treaty violations. Shortly before this Stresa Front had been formed, in May 1935, France and the Soviet Union had agreed to a mutual assistance pact, too.
However, in June 1935, without consulting the other powers, Britain signed the Anglo-German Naval Pact. This agreed to allow Germany to build a navy one-third the size of Great Britain’s and allowed Germany to build an unlimited about of submarines. At the time, this seemed like a good deal to Britain, because it ensured their domination, if Hitler kept his word, which he did not. What did not happen was a forceful confrontation between the European powers charged with enforcing the Versailles Treaty and Hitler, such that Hitler was forced to abandon course.
The Stresa Front and the Ethiopian War.
Ultimately, the Stresa Front was very short lived and fell apart after Mussolini attacked Ethiopia in October 1935. This is perhaps unsurprising, because Britain and France supported the League of Nations sanctions against Italy in response to its attach on Ethiopia. However, despite the sanctions against Italy, the Italians defeated Ethiopia in May 1936.
Thus, main result of the Ethiopian War was this very break-up of the Stresa Front. After this point, France and Britain would have to face Germany without Italy.
Before this, Mussolini had been uninterested in an alliance with Hitler, but following his invasion of Italy, when Britain and France supported the League of Nation’s sanctions, Mussolini felt betrayed. He felt that Britain and France would look the other way in Ethiopia in return for his support against Germany. After this, Mussolini turned increasingly to Hitler for an alliance, because Hitler had refused to take part in the sanctions against Italy over Ethiopia. Mussolini and Hitler entered the Rome-Berlin Axis in November of 1936.
Closer Relations with Japan.
Almost immediately following the formation of the Rome-Berlin Axis between Italy and Germany, Hitler entered another alliance this one with Japan. This was known as the Anti-Comintern Pact- and it was aimed at Soviet Russia.
Both Germany and Japan were very opposed to Communism and disliked the Soviet Union. Therefore, in this pact, they promised to remain neutral if either of them became involved in a war with the Soviet Union. (That is, neither Germany nor Japan would give assistance to the USSR.) A year later, Italy also adhered to this pact and this was the beginning of the Axis Alliance in World War II of Germany, Italy, and Japan.
Remilitarization of the Rhineland.
So, while Europe was occupied with Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia, Hitler took this chance to undertake another of the goals he had set forth in Mein Kampf: the remilitarization of the Rhineland. Hitler felt that with their attention focused on Ethiopia that Britain and France would be less inclined to resist his sending troops into the Rhineland, which is just what he did on March 7th, 1936.
Hitler’s gamble paid off again, and none of the European powers acted to stop him. Italy could not, because it was involved with the war in Ethiopia (and Mussolini was slowly becoming an ally to Hitler, rather than an antagonist). Britain was just totally opposed to war, and the French government felt that it was unable to act without British support.
The remilitarization of the Rhineland was very decisive for Hitler’s future for two reasons. One, it showed Hitler that the Western Powers- Britain and France- were not going to act to enforce the Treaty of Versailles and that the Treaty was worthless. Two, it allowed Hitler to fortify his Western border, so that French troops just could not pour into the German industrial heartland, in the event of war with France. After this, it would be much, much harder for Britain and France to be able to stop Hitler’s aggressions. France and Britain, by failing to vigorously act in stopping Hitler from remilitarizing the Rhineland, missed their best opportunity of stopping him.
Spanish Civil War.
Four months after the remilitarization of the Rhineland, civil war erupted in Spain in July 1936. The Spanish monarchy had been overthrown in 1931 and a democratic republic formed. But the republic faced many of the same problems that the other democratic governments in Europe faced in the 1930’s and was not able of adequately respond to these problems. The civil war began with a revolt of Spanish troops in Morocco under General Francisco Franco.
Franco’s hopes for the conquest of Spain depended on his being able to get his troops across the Strait of Gibraltar from Morocco to Spain. Thus, he appealed to both Mussolini and Hitler for help. Hitler saw that it would be beneficial to have another dictatorship on the southern flank of France and he decided to support Franco. Hitler sent the so-called Condor Legion, which consisted mainly of pilots and planes, but he also sent some tanks and soldiers. For Hitler, the Spanish Civil War served as a testing ground for some of the new weapons he was building.
However, Hitler never gave Franco the full amount of support that he wanted. Hitler wanted to prolong the Spanish Civil War if possible, because it kept British and French attention focused on Spain and away from him and his rearming work in Germany.
While Hitler and Mussolini were supporting Franco, Stalin and the USSR sent troops to support the Republicans. Other nations saw groups of their citizens who were Communists (or just sympathetic to the Republic) travel to fight with the International Brigades. An independent – that is, not supported by the US government – brigade of American volunteers also went to assist the republic. (This was the “Abraham Lincoln Brigade.”) Officially, both the British and French governments sat on the sidelines. Franco eventually won the civil war in 1939 and remained dictator of Spain until 1975.
Hitler’s next move in carrying out his plans laid out in Mein Kampf came in early 1938 and this was the Anschluss- the union of Austria and Germany. Remember, Austria was a predominantly German country where many people had wanted to become a part of Germany after World War I. However, the Treaty of St. Germain, which ended the war with Austro-Hungary, had forbidden this union.
Hitler, by this time, was quite sure that the Western Powers were not going to act militarily to save the Versailles agreement, so he decided to act. In February of 1938, Hitler invited the Austrian Chancellor Schuschnigg to his mountaintop retreat at Berchtesgaden in the Bavarian Alps, which was known as the Eagle’s Nest. Hitler told the Chancellor that he wanted him to appoint some pro-Nazi ministers to his Cabinet. The Chancellor realized that this would be a prelude to a Nazi takeover of Austria.
When Schuschnigg failed to do this, Hitler encouraged the Austrian Nazi party to begin demonstrations calling for the Chancellor to be removed and a Nazi to be his replacement. Schuschnigg realized that the alternative would be a German invasion, so in March of 1938, he resigned. The new, pro-Nazi Chancellor (Arthur Seyss-Inquart) immediately requested that Germany send in troops to help restore law and order in Austria. German forces crossed the border on March 12, 1938 and Hitler annexed Austria into Germany the next day. Britain and France did nothing to protest. (This is what is happening near the end of the musical, The Sound of Music.)
Munich Crisis—September 1938.
After the Anschluss was completed, Hitler turned to his next goal, which had also been laid down in Mein Kampf – the reclamation of the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia. Remember, Czechoslovakia had been formed out of the rubble of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which collapsed at the end of World War I. The Big Four had given the mountainous Sudetenland and the 3 million Germans who lived there to Czechoslovakia.
Hitler, in keeping with Mein Kampf, believed that all Germans outside of Germany should be united with the German State. He already had annexed Austria. Now he wanted the Sudeten Germans, and soon he would make the same claim on those Germans in Poland.
France and the Soviet Union both had military alliances with the Czechoslovakian government and the Czechs themselves were willing to go to war- and their army was not unsubstantial. Despite, the French commitment to the Czechs, the French Prime Minister, Edouard Daladier was convinced that France could not go to war with Germany over Czechoslovakia without the support of Britain.
However, the British Government, under Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, did not want to go to war over Czechoslovakia. Chamberlain favored a policy of appeasement towards Hitler. In fact, Britain had been appeasing Germany since the early 1920’s because the British leaders sympathized with the Germans that the Treaty of Versailles had been far too punitive and harsh. However, Chamberlain took appeasement to a whole new level. He felt that Hitler had some legitimate concerns in wanting to bring the German peoples left outside of Germany by the Versailles agreement back into the country. He felt- wrongly- that if Hitler were given these territories he was wanting like Austria, the Sudetenland, and the areas in Poland, that he would be satisfied and would play nice. Chamberlain just did not think that these areas were vital to British interests and were not worth going to war over.
Negotiations between the Sudeten Germans and the Czechoslovakian government had taken place through the Spring and Summer of 1938, without result. In September of 1938, Chamberlain, Daladier, Mussolini, and Hitler met at Munich to discuss the problem of the Sudetenland. Neither Czechoslovakia nor the Soviet Union were invited to attend this conference. At the meeting, Chamberlain and Daladier accepted Hitler’s demands and approved Germany’s annexation of the Sudetenland. The Czechs had no choice but to accept this agreement.
Chamberlain returned to England and was highly praised for securing the peace of Europe. Both Chamberlain and Daladier believed that they had satisfied Hitler and that he would not continue to push for more land. At the London airport, Chamberlain spoke to reporters after stepping off the plane and as he held up the agreement signed by he, Daladier, Mussolini and Hitler, he made the infamous utterance that he had secured “peace in our time.” These words would come back to haunt Chamberlain when the war begin a little less than a year later. Hitler was not satisfied with the Sudetenland. Germany annexed the German regions of Czechoslovakia.
Chamberlain realized the futility of his appeasement policy in March of 1939, when Hitler dismembered the rest of Czechoslovakia and annexed the Czech part into Germany while giving the Slovaks their independence- although they were really a German protectorate. The destruction of Czechoslovakia was a mistake on the part of Hitler- the first serious mistake that he had made. By destroying this country and annexing part of it to Germany (a part which contained no Germans), Hitler revealed that his goal was not merely to absorb Germans left outside of Germany into the county- but that it was more than that. It caused a change of policy in the governments of France and Britain towards Germany.
In response to Hitler’s dismemberment, the British sped up their own rearmament and Chamberlain abandoned the appeasement policy- because he realized that Hitler’s appetite for conquest was insatiable. On March 30th, 1939, Britain extended a guarantee to Poland that, if Germany attacked them, they could count on British support. France also joined in this guarantee to Poland. This was a complete change of policy in Britain towards Hitler.
The British realized that Poland was the next logical move for Hitler, which is why they concluded the agreement with the Poles. In this assessment they were correct. Hitler wanted to annex Polish territories, and in May of 1939 he decided to attack Poland if the Poles did not concede. He thought the British and French would back down again- not wanting to go to war over Poland as they had not gone to war over Austria and Czechoslovakia, but he did not want to face the possibility of war on two fronts.
In the spring and summer of 1939, both the Western Powers of Britain and France as well as Germany began negotiating with Stalin for an alliance. However, the governments of Britain and France found it difficult to overcome their long-standing distrust of the Soviets, so Hitler was more successful in negotiating an agreement with Stalin- which came about in August of 1939- in the form of the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact. In this pact, both Germany and the Soviet Union vowed to remain neutral if either of them became involved in a war. The Nonaggression pact also had contained a secret clause that said that Germany and the Soviet Union would divide Poland amongst themselves in case of a war with Germany getting Western Poland and the Soviets getting the East.
Both Hitler and Stalin knew that this was only a temporary arrangement. Hitler’s most sought-after goal was the establishment of the Lebensraum – or “living space” for the German people in the East- in the Soviet Union. So, the Nonaggression Pact was only to buy time until he was ready to deal with Stalin. Hitler felt that Britain and France, without Russia, would not oppose him militarily if he went into Poland. Stalin also, knew that the pact would not hold up and used it to buy time to further Russia’s military preparations.
On September 1, 1939, after having his demands for the rectification of the Polish Corridor, which was the Polish area closest to Germany, refused, Hitler invaded Poland form the north, south, and west. On September 3, 1939, Britain and France fulfilled their treaty obligations with Poland by declaring war on Germany. The Second World War had begun.
Pause for 60-second Quiz #4. What policies did the Nazis pursue once in power? Which statement is NOT true?
The Nazis forced all organizations and clubs to “coordinate” with the Nazi Party.
The Nazis began secretly rearming the German military.
The Nazis initiated a wide-ranging social welfare program to alleviate the effects of the Great Depression, which delivered benefits to all Germans.
The Nazis stripped Jews of their citizenship and took other steps to politically, socially, and economically isolate them.
Key to 60-second quizzes:
c. Lenin did *not* name a successor. Trotsky favored worldwide revolution and Stalin "socialism in one country." Kulaks had their land seize from them.
c. Mussolini *was* a socialist early in his career but switched to fascism and did not look back, so he was opposed to Stalin and the USSR.
a. The Nazis never gained an electoral majority in a free election before 1933. The 1924 Beer Hall Putsch was a failure.
c. While the Nazis did put together public works programs and jobs programs which helped end the Great Depression, these benefits were only for members of the "Volksgemeinschaft," the ethnic national community. Jews and other groups seen as "enemies" of the Party were not eligible to take part.
Primary Source Exercise
After you have read the primary source listed above (as well as Chapter 17), answer the following questions, based on what you have learned so far:
What do you think is important to know about the authors of these texts? What can you learn from the words each one wrote on the page? What can you infer or piece together from the background information in the textbook chapter? Why is this important?
What are the authors’ goal in writing these texts? To whom did each address their work? What purpose did it serve? Can you point to one or more examples to support this analysis?
What, if any, hidden assumptions can you detect in the text? That is, can you find word choices, phrasing, innuendo, or other examples of the authors (explicit or implicit) bias with regard to the subject matter? Does this bias (or these assumptions) affect how you understand and react to the author’s words? Why or why not?