NAZISM AND WORLD WAR II
In the autumn of 1934, the new German führer, Adolf Hitler, addressed thousands of adoring Nazi Party members at the Sixth Party Congress held in Nuremberg. These annual convocations of the Nazi Party, which had been held in the Franconian city since 1926, provided the fascist dictator with a valuable propaganda opportunity.
For the 1934 Nuremberg rally, Hitler enlisted the services of a brilliant young ﬁ lmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl (1902–2003), to commemorate the event and to create a vision of Aryan power and unity. Using innova-tive shots of the carefully choreographed masses at the party rally, she created Triumph of the Will, one of the most striking, and dangerous, ﬁ lms in history.
The ﬁ lm records Hitler delivering a maniacal speech, raging at the mesmerized throng about the pride and the purity of the German people. Hitler believed Germany could only realize its glorious destiny once it became uniﬁ ed and puriﬁ ed itself of alien, non-Aryan elements. While Riefenstahl’s cameras capture the pride swelling in the breasts of the cheering crowds applauding their führer’s oration, the ﬁ lm obscured the Nazis’ true aims.
For Hitler, the German race could only be puriﬁ ed in the crucible of war and through the extermination of those he deemed “non-Aryan” or “weak,” including Jews, communists, and the mentally and physically handicapped. Accordingly, he believed that until Germany puriﬁ ed itself through conquest and extermination, it could not claim its rightful place atop the world order.
Riefenstahl’s ﬁ lm proved to be a smashing success, and along with almost 1 million Germans who took part in the festivities in Nuremburg, millions more were afforded an opportunity to hear the words of their führer in German theaters.
The Nazi Takeover
Adolf Hitler, having been imprisoned after his failed 1923 coup, was care-ful to use the machinery of democratic politics to subvert the Weimar democracy as the Nazis grew in power. After President von Hindenburg appointed Hitler chancellor, in late January 1933, Hitler immediately began to lay the groundwork for his dictatorship. He delivered a radio address to the German people, promising to save Germany from the scourge of communist revolution and foreign domination. He also demanded that President von Hindenburg dissolve the Reichstag and schedule a new election for March 5, 1933.
Shortly before the upcom-ing election, on the night of February 27, 1933, the Reichstag building burned, and the Nazis blamed the communists for the ﬁ re, warning that it signaled the start of a leftist revolution. Using this excuse, Hitler passed a series of emergency decrees that suspended a wide range of constitu-tional liberties. The Nazi chancellor also ordered the KPD’s ofﬁ ces to be raided and had communist leaders jailed: Ernst Thälmann, Hitler’s rival in the recent Reichstag election, was sent to a concentration camp.
With communist opposition crushed, in the March 1932 Reichstag elections, Weimar’s last democratic election, the Nazis and their nation-alist allies gained a slim majority, as the SPD’s share of the electorate dwindled to just 18 percent. Tragically, this prevented the left from hav-ing the votes necessary to preclude Hitler from enacting the Enabling Act on March 23, 1933. This legislation, which passed easily with the support of Germany’s other mainstream political parties, gave Hitler sweeping emergency powers, powers he used to dismantle the demo-cratic government.
The Enabling Act gave the cabinet, dominated by Hitler, legislative authority for four years, permitting the Nazis to control Germany without having to consult the Reichstag. Furthermore, their control of the police allowed the Nazi Brown Shirts, the Sturmabteilung (Assault Division), or SA, the party’s paramilitary force, to operate in Germany’s streets with impunity. Using these auxiliary police powers, the Nazis were free to arrest their political opponents and detain them in concentration camps.
Despite the brutality of the SA, Hitler gained widespread sup-port throughout the country through his passionate public speeches, exploiting the anxious populace’s fear of communism, mistrust of Jews, and anger over the Versailles settlement. Hitler’s crude and violent rhetoric attracted adherents from throughout German society. The Nazi platform appealed not only to violent thugs and Freikorps veterans but also to anxious middle-class Germans traumatized by the Great Depression, who were attracted to Hitler’s ardent nationalism and char-ismatic personality in a time of unsettling crisis and instability.
Students and intellectuals were enchanted by the Nazis’ aura of conﬁ dent moder-nity, embracing the party’s fascination with mass media, technological efﬁ ciency, and racial pseudoscience. For Germans disenchanted with the Weimar Republic, the carefully staged mass rallies put on by the Nazis presented an idealized image of German unity and national pride that provided a striking contrast with the divisive parliamentary poli-tics of the Weimar era.
Using the Enabling Act’s sweeping emergency powers, on July 14, 1933, the Nazi government outlawed the SPD, thereby stamping out the last vestiges of open dissent within Germany. Having crushed all opposi-tion from Germany’s socialists, Hitler had thousands of leftists arrested. Hitler did not stop at suppressing leftists, however.
Although he had relied upon a coalition of parties opposed to the Weimar government to come to power, once he controlled Germany he turned on his erst-while allies, eliminating right-wing challengers as well. By the summer of 1933, the Nazi Party was Germany’s sole legal political organization.
Likewise, Hitler outlawed all independent trade unions, as well as the country’s state governments, gradually bringing Germany under his con-trol. Also in 1933, Germany’s Jewish population began to feel the ﬁ rst effects of Hitler’s rabid anti-Semitism, as Jewish civil servants, jurists, and educators were removed from their posts by government decree. Finally, the Nazis took over the German media, banning all opposition newspapers and radio stations and placing the others under the control of the Party’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels (1897–1945).
The Nazi takeover was accompanied by a bloody purge of Hitler’s earliest and most ardent followers, the Brown Shirts of the SA, as he sought to rid the party of its most unruly and radical elements. On the “Night of the Long Knives”—June 30, 1934—Hitler’s personal body-guard, under the command of Heinrich Himmler (1900–45), assas-sinated hundreds of Nazi Party members, including Ernst Röhm, the head of the SA.
Having consolidated his control over Germany, Hitler used this brutal purge to establish total mastery over the ruling Nazi Party and to appease the German military and business community, uneasy with the Brown Shirts’ excesses and the Nazis’ revolutionary past. Once President Paul von Hindenburg died, on August 2, 1934, Hitler proclaimed himself führer, or leader, of Germany, a move subse-quently legitimized through a national plebiscite that overwhelmingly approved his new authority.