Adolf Hitler, the dictator of Germany, proponent of Nazism, and perpetrator of the Holocaust, was born on April 20, 1889, in the Austrian town of Braunau near the German border.
His father, Alois, was a customs official, and his mother, Klara, was a gentlewoman. Hitler did not finish his secondary education and moved to Vienna at the age of 18 to study art and architecture.
He was unsuccessful in getting admission and stayed in Vienna until 1913, doing menial jobs. Hitler developed a rabid nationalism and simultaneously showed deep anti-Semitism. He was influenced by anti-Jew writer Lanz von Liebenfels (1874–1954). The right-wing Austrian politician and mayor of Vienna Karl Lueger (1844–1910), along with Georg Ritter von Schönerer (1842–1921), an advocate of pan-Germanism, also
shaped Hitler’s violent hatred of the Jews.
He enlisted in the German army during World War I. Hitler returned to Munich in 1919 with five medals and the prestigious German Iron Cross (twice) for his bold service as dispatch runner. The war had rescued him from the frustration of civilian life and inculcated in his mind a strong like of discipline and authoritarianism. He had also developed a deep hatred of left-wing politics, and it was no coincidence that his anti-Semitism developed along with his political beliefs, as many of the advocates of socialism and communism were Jews.
The army employed Hitler as a political officer, and he freely gave vent to his feelings in the charged atmosphere following the humiliating Versailles Treaty of June 28, 1919. The treaty signed by the German politicians was a peace dictated by others, and German humiliation was complete. Hitler was to report the activities of the Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (DAP, German Workers’ Party), and he soon found that the party ideals of extreme nationalism and anti-Semitism were in line with his own beliefs. With his excellent skill of delivery, Hitler impressed the members and joined the DAP. Thus, the political career of Hitler began in September 1919. He was soon placed in charge of propaganda and recruited fellow soldiers from the army who had also been disillusioned with the Treaty of Versailles.
All the blame for Germany’s woes was put on the Jews, communists, and inefficient political leadership of the Weimar Republic. Hitler made the symbol of the party the swastika (symbolizing victory for the Aryan race) with a red background (symbolizing the social idea) and enclosed in a white circle (symbolizing the national idea). Hitler changed the name of the DAP to the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP, Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei), Nazi for short. As chairperson of the party, Hitler was addressed as the führer (leader).
The Weimar Republic received a severe blow in January 1923, when France and Belgium occupied the Ruhr industrial area and brought the German economy to a standstill. Hitler tried to exploit the situation with the Beer Hall Putsch of November in Bavaria, but the coup failed and the führer was imprisoned. During his period of incarceration, he wrote Mein Kampf (My struggle). The memoir-cum-doctrinal Nazi guide book spelled out an agenda for an expanded Germany inhabited by a pure Aryan race and excluding Jews and other unwanted people.
Hitler was biding his time and realized that he could attain power through the ballot box. The collapse of the New York Stock Market on October 23, 1929, and the consequent worldwide Great Depression affected the German economy. The unemployment figure rose from 1.30 million to nearly 4 million by the end of 1930. Hitler exploited the deteriorating economic situation. He had assured the top industrialists, by issuing a pamphlet entitled The Road to Resurgence, that the Nazi Party was not against the wealthy. His promise of suppression of trade unionism and building up of the army was music to the ears of big industrialists. His technique of propaganda and rabble-rousing speeches appealed to the workers. The political elite began to accept him because of his emphasis on legality. In the 1932 elections Hitler’s party was the strongest in Germany, with 40 percent of the votes. The Reich president, Paul von Hindenburg (1847–1934), was persuaded by conservative leaders and Nazi supporters to appoint Hitler chancellor in January 1933.
Nazi political opponents were subdued by mass demonstrations in favor of Hitler and terrorized by the brown-shirted SA, the Sturmabteilung (storm troopers), and the black-uniformed ss, the Schutzstaffel (security echelon). In March an act that granted dictatorial power to Hitler was passed. After four months all political parties were banned save the Nazi Party, and the common form of greeting became “Heil Hitler” with an outstretched right arm. A ministry of propaganda was instituted under Joseph Goebbels (1897–1945). On June 30, 1934, Hitler carried out a purge in the Nazi Party by murdering his opponents in the “night of the long knives.” With the death of Hindenburg in August, Hitler, with the title of führer, was the supreme leader of Germany. The legal system was virtually nonexistent, and the Geheime Staatspolizei (the Gestapo, the secret state police), formed by Hermann Göring (1893–1946), threw the anti-Nazis into concentration camps. A rearmament and public housing program were initiated.
The economy revived, and the unemployment figures went down. Germany became 83 percent self-sufficient in agriculture by fixing farm prices and wages, banning the sale of farms of less than 312 acres, and reclaiming uncultivated lands. Industrial recovery was achieved by the Four-Year Plans of 1933 and 1936. The ministry of economics distributed raw materials and regulated prices, imports, and exports. Hitler’s popularity soared, while Germany had been transformed into an authoritarian state.
Hitler struck against the Jews, which culminated in the Nazis’ sending them into gas chambers and concentration camps during World War II. The Nuremberg laws of September 1935 denied the Jews citizenship and the right to marry non-Jews. Hitler’s policies led to large-scale Jewish migration to different parts of the world. The November 1938 pogrom against the Jews resulted in massacre, looting of property, the forcing of Jews to wear yellow stars of David so that they could be identified, and resettlement in ghettos.
Hitler posed as a defender of peace and a crusader against Bolshevism. The leadership of Britain and France appeased Hitler because to them Joseph Stalin (1879–1953) was a greater menace. With consummate skill Hitler began to scrap the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles and to follow the policy of Lebensraum in an eastward direction. Hitler withdrew from the Geneva Disarmament Conference as well as from the League of Nations in October 1933. He denounced the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles and introduced conscription in March 1934.
The next year Germany began expanding its armed forces and its navy in flagrant violation of the military clauses of the Treaty of Versailles. In March 1936, Hitler occupied the demilitarized Rhineland. Italy and Japan, with the same agenda of ultranationalism, militarism, and aggressive foreign policy, became close allies of Germany. The three countries signed pacts for furthering their aims. The Rome-Berlin Axis was established between Benito Mussolini (1883–1945) and Hitler in October 1936, and the following month Germany signed the Anti-Comintern Pact with Japan, which Italy joined in 1937.
Both Hitler and Mussolini supported General Francisco Franco (1892–1975) in the Spanish civil war against the republicans. Continuing his policy of
lebensraum, Hitler turned his attention toward Austria, which was German in tradition and language. There had already been a putsch in 1934 for Anschluss (annexation). In March 1938 the Nazi army marched in and annexed Austria.
The republic of Czechoslovakia, with its minority population of 3.25 million Sudeten Germans, was next on the agenda. Great Britain and France followed a policy of appeasement toward Hitler. They thought wrongly that Hitler would remain satisfied, but it was not so. At the Munich Conference of September 29, 1938, Czechoslovakia was dismembered, and the Sudeten area was handed over to Germany. In March 1939, the country was occupied by Hitler.
Feverish diplomatic activity, signing of alliances, and mobilization of armed forces were undertaken by the European powers. Hitler in his ingenuity and deviousness began to realize his aim. He signed a military alliance, the “Pact of Steel,” with Mussolini in May 1939. Hitler’s diplomacy reached its apogee when he signed the nonaggression pact with Russia on August 23, 1939. He could then turn his attention toward Poland, notwithstanding the fact that Great Britain and Poland had signed a treaty of mutual assistance on August 25, 1939.
The free city of Danzig and the Polish Corridor, dividing eastern Prussia from Germany, were seen as an affront to the Germans. World War II began on April 1, 1939, after Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland. Two days afterward Great Britain and France declared war against Germany. Appeasement had been a failure.
For about two years, the juggernaut of Hitler’s Wehrmacht (armed forces) incorporated Poland, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Belgium. The fall of France on June 22, 1940, was another triumph for Hitler. Flushed with success, Hitler began to commit the blunder of attacking the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. Four days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 (December 8 in Japan), Hitler declared war on the United States.
The balance tilted in favor of the Allied powers, and the Axis of Germany, Italy, and Japan faced defeats. Hitler had lost battles in Russia and North Africa. He helped Mussolini set up a government after the Allied invasion of Sicily in 1943, but the Allied army reached Rome in June 1944. The Normandy invasion was launched on June 6. The Red Army of Russia was advancing from the east, and Hitler was ensconced in Berlin. Surrounded by the Soviet troops, Hitler committed suicide in the Führerbunker on April 30, 1945. On May 8 the German forces surrendered unconditionally at Rheims in France. The “thousand years Reich” had lasted for 12 years.
Patit Paban Mishra