Nazism and the rise of Hitler
The Second World War started in September, 1939, and continued till for six years till September 1945. The Allies and the Axis powers were locked in a deadly combat that ended with the surrender of Germany and the death of Hitler. The Allies side was lead by the United States. Other important members in the Allies side were Great Britain, France, Poland, the Commonwealth nations under Britain, China and later joined by the Soviet Union. The Axis powers were Germany, Italy, and Japan.
The Germans and the Japanese had meted out extremely barbaric treatment to their enemies. The Jews came in for particular harsh treatment at the hand of Hitler. In Asia, the Japanese revelled in torturing and slaying their enemies, particularly the Chinese. Horrendous tales of torture and mass extermination of Jews by Hitler’s Nazi followers were routinely surfacing, but few in Germany raised their voice against it. Either they were numbed by Hitler’s mesmeric leadership to find fault with his persecution of the Jews, or were too afraid to vent their feelings for fear of reprisal by the Nazi hoodlums.
When the curtains came down finally on the war, and the guns fell silent, it was time to look back and introspect. Some did it out of moral compulsion; others did it out of fear of a revenge attack by the victorious Allied forces. Particularly for those Germans who had perpetrated the worst human rights abuses, the fear of being brought to book by Allied administrators appeared very real.
One such German was a doctor who lived with his wife and son in the vicinity of a forest. He knew the Allied would soon haunt him down and mercilessly punish him, and possibly his whole family. One day, he was discussing this imminent threat with his wife. He felt, he would either kill himself alone, or the whole family would commit mass suicide en masse. The twelve-year-old lying on his bed within the earshot heard this and was shocked. Next day, the whole family went to the nearby forest, sang and made merry. On returning home, the doctor shot himself in his head. The wife lost no time in burning out the clothes of her husband, apparently to hide the suicide act. For the young son, the gruesome killing of his father by his own hand was too devastating a scene to bear. He was shaken to the core. He feared that his mother would kill him too soon. So afraid was he that he stopped eating in his home for nine long years after that. This was in the Spring of 1945, and the boy’s name was Helmuth.
Helmuth must have realized later that his father had been a fanatic Nazi who idolized Hitler. As a true ‘patriot’, he must have committed atrocities of the worst kind against the hapless Jews. The moral revulsion and the fear of the Allies must have driven him to take his own life.
Hitler had one single goal. He had dreamed of making his fatherland the greatest and mightiest nation on earth. As the first step, he wanted to conquer the whole of Europe. Along the way, he perceived the Jews of Germany to be one of the main reasons for the misery and ignominy of his father land. So, he decided to annihilate that race. What seeded such a grotesque idea in his brain? Why did the Nazis follow him so blindly and perpetrated the worst genocide in human history? What was the motivation and the political motivation that triggered such a monstrous campaign of mass slaughter? It is essential to dissect this vulgar, jingoistic eruption of xenophobia.
After Hitler and his propaganda chief Goebbels committed suicide in the underground bunker to escape being taken to custody by the Allied commander, the War came to a formal end. Now came the time to retrospect and take remedial action. To bring to book the perpetrators of the many heinous crimes during the War, an International Court of Justice was constituted. It was to be based in Nuremberg in Germany. The Court was mandated to look into cases relating to War against Peace, War crimes and War against humanity.
Apart from starting a war, Hitler’s Germany stood accused of committing unthinkably cruel acts of punishment of specific ethnic groups. As the graphic details of the torture and mass murder of Jewish men, women and children emerged, the world seemed to be gripped with revulsion and horror. The situation cried for swift justice. The main actors of the genocide –the political leaders, the military officers and the remnants of the Nazi set-up had to be tried, and punished. With remarkable alacrity, the preparations for the trial got going. Some six million Jews, 200,000 Gypsies, one million Poles (citizens of Poland), and 70,000 Germans had been killed in the mad rush by the Nazi machinery to ‘cleanse’ the world of ‘unwanted’ people, and establish the supremacy of the German state. Even German citizens perceived to be physically and mentally unfit and those having different political views were sent to gallows. Nazi scientists and military men devised new methods to kill people ‘efficiently’ with the minimum hassles. Ruthlessness was aplenty: humanism had vanished from the German land. Killing centers like Auschwitz sprang up across Europe to cope with the flow of prisoners condemned to death.
After the trial, just about 11 top Nazi leaders were sentenced to death. Scores of other offenders were sent to jail for the rest of their lives. In hindsight, only a miniscule of the perpetrators could be called to account. The punishment, though symbolic, was tiny compared to the monumental genocidal crime committed by the Nazis.
.The question arises what made Hitler to launch such a strident and ultra-nationalistic military adventure? Did he have any compulsion to turn on his own Jewish and even German citizens with such savage anger?
Some historians ascribe Hitler’s urge for revenge to the ignominy heaped on Germany in the aftermath of the First World War. Perhaps, there is some truth in it.
Birth of the Weimer Republic –
The First World War (1914-18) had two feuding sides –Germany and the Austrian Empire in one side and England, France and Russia in the other. The latter group was known as the Allies. Germany entered the War as a mighty thriving nation.
Both sides had hoped for a quick victory over its enemy. However, such optimism was misplaced. Victory eluded the warring sides for a very long time. The war dragged on and on, causing untold misery through destruction of life and property in a massive scale.
In the early stages of the War, Germany virtually ran through the defences of France and Belgium giving them a false sense of invincibility. Germany’s victory march came to a grinding halt when America entered the War in 1917 to bolster the side of the Allies (England, France and Russia). The balance in the battlefield tilted decisively in favour of the Allies. By 1918, Germany and Austria were down on their knees, ready to give up with a plea for end of fighting.
Germany’s defeat caused great changes in the country’s political structure. The Emperor, who had ruled the country thus far and led it to the ruinous war, had to abdicate, and leave the scene for good. It fell on the shoulders of the parliamentary parties to pick up the pieces and create a structure to fill the political vacuum created by the Emperor’s exit. They convened the National Assembly. Its first meeting was held in Weimar. A democratic constitution was put in place. As per the terms of the Constitution, Germany became a federal structure. The Parliament, known as the Reichstag, had to have Deputies who had to be directly elected by the people. Every adult German including women had voting rights.
The Armistice Agreement & the Treaty of Versailles ..Faced with the prospects of imminent defeat, Germany asked for an immediate cessation all combat operations. The Americans, then leading the Allied side, agreed. Accordingly, an Armistice agreement was signed on November 11, 1918. On the same day guns fell silent on both sides. This Armistice Agreement later caused a lot of heartburn in Germany. The negotiator who signed the agreement on behalf of the Germans was later assassinated. This Agreement was followed by the Treaty of Versailles was the main peace treaty to formalize the end of World War I. It was signed on June 28, 1919.
The backlash .. Sadly for the new-born democratic government, the beginning was not quite good. Post-war negotiations with the victorious Allies had to be conducted and terms of peace finalized. Both sides met in Versailles to conclude a formal treaty. As a defeated nation, Germany had little bargaining power vis-a-vis the victorious Allies side. The latter imposed strict and virtually punitive conditions in the peace treaty. There were unworkable conditions relating to payment of compensation and surrender of land by Germany. The Allied negotiators rammed the humiliating conditions down the throats of German negotiators. The Deputies were coerced to give the peace treaty the vital parliamentary approval.
For the battle-scarred, impoverished and defeated Germany, the ignominy was simply intolerable. The people frowned on the Deputies for having ceded so much to the Allies in the Versailles negotiations. Soon, the initial good will of the new parliament vanished. People seethed in anger against the parliament, calling the Armistice negotiators as ‘November criminals’, a derogatory term later exploited by Hitler’s propaganda machine.
It is worth noting what Germany lost trying to comply with the Versailles Treaty.
- Germany lost most of its overseas colonies.
- With this went 10% of its population.
- Germany’s land mass got reduced by 15%.
- It lost 75% of its crucial iron ore reserves, and 26% of its coal deposits.
- These war-time reparations enriched France, Poland, Denmark, and Lithuania at a tremendous cost to Germany.
- Germany was demilitarized to pre-empt any future military adventure.
- The War-Guilt clause pinned the ‘sinner’ tag on Germany, making it the offender and destroyer of peace. The onus fell on Germany to make good all the war-time losses suffered by the Allies. In monetary terms, it worked out to a staggering 6 billion pound sterling.
- The Allied armies exercised their control on Rhineland – the region that was so resource-rich and important for German economy. This occupation continued for much of the 1920s.
Most Germans perceived the Versailles Treaty’s terms too suffocating to bear. They vented their anger on the nascent Weimar Republic.
The Effects of the War …
The WW2 drained Europe of its life and soul. By the time the War ended, the continent was in ruins, devoid of its life, vitality and soul. The Weimar Republic (Germany in its new Avatar) bore the brunt of the War’s aftershocks. It had a huge bill to pay to the Allies. There was no escape from the crippling reparation payments. Germany was down on its knees having to meet the dues. For the folly of the erstwhile Emperor, the new Republic had to pay through the nose. The financial load was back-breaking.
Germany’s internal politics was divided. Catholics, Socialists and Democrats stood by the new Republic, where as conservative nationalists had no patience with their young government. The wise peacemakers who had signed the Armistice were publicly derided as ‘November Criminals’. The chauvinistic mindset fueled by the exploitative terms of the Versailles Treaty shaped the political mindset in Germany. Indignation and an urge to avenge the humiliation at the hands of the Allies was rife among the common people.
The legacy of the First World War ..
The First World War had inflicted severe pain, suffering and frustration to the soldiers of both sides. They spent hours and days in the muddy trenches of the battlefields, suffered casualties, saw rats feeding on friends’ corpses, with no visible end their agony. The battle had drawn on for months and years remorselessly. While the soldiers endured such severe suffering, the society became increasingly militarized. Common folks saw wars as necessary for national pride. In the media, fighting for the country was glorified and laying one’s lives in war was considered a very honourable sacrifice. Such collective fascination for army fueled military adventurism. People seemed to prefer to be ruled by strong dictators. Democracy appeared to be a soft, slow and ineffective form of government. Clearly, love for iron-hand rule under a dictator grew with the fanatical glorification of the life in trenches. Europe was sliding, dangerously.
Political Radicalism and Economic Crises ..
Just when Weimer Republic was coming into existence, two separate political movements of momentous importance were gripping Germany and Russia. These movements were
- Sparticist League in Germany
- Bolshevik Revolution in Russia
Sparticist League .. Spartacist League is an American name that drew inspiration from the Spartacus League of Weimar Republic in Germany. The Spartacus League was a communist movement that came into existence in Germany during World War I. The League was named after Spartacus, the legendary leader campaigner who masterminded the largest slave rebellion of the Roman Republic. The idea of slavery is anathema to Marxists, who abhor this repressive practice for its shameful disregard for human dignity and freedom. Spartacus League (Sparticist League) was the brainchild of social activists like Karl Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg, Clara Zetkin, and a few others. In a nutshell, Sparticist League spearheaded Communist political philosophy in Germany.
Bolshevik Revolution .. Russia had reeled under the repressive Tsarist rule for centuries. Poverty, and general backwardness made the Russians lag behind their European counterparts. The entry of Russia in the First World War cost the country huge loss of money, men and material. People’s faith in the Tsar began to falter. They failed to appreciate why Russians had to make so much sacrifice simply because the Tsar wanted it. Shortage of food items made life miserable for the common people. Discontent and resentment against the ruler soared. Tsar no longer commanded reverence historically enjoyed by the dynasty. A violent political upheaval was in the offing.
Otherwise known as The October Revolution, or the Bolshevik Revolution, was a seizure of state power by a group of armed revolutionaries called Bolsheviks. It happened on October 25, 1917. It laid the foundation for communist rule in Russia under the leadership of Lenin.
We can see that the ideological moorings of the Spartacist League and the Bolshevik Revolution were almost identical.
The Bolshevik Revolution’s success in seizing power, and the coming into being of the Soviet Union had an electrifying on Europe, particularly in Germany. In matter of weeks, Russia, a symbol of weak governance and inequality became a role model for Germans looking for salvation from their wretched fate. Such shift towards authoritarianism disturbed many other Germans.
As a counter against this shift, Catholics, Democrats and Socialists met in Weimar to boost the authority of the sagging Weimar Republic. Their effort was successful at the beginning. Taking the help of war veterans, the Weimar Republic crushed the anti-government moves of the Spartacist League activists. These groups decided to dissolve the League, and formed the Communist Party of Germany.
The chasm between the Socialists and the Communists widened further. Although both groups to the ideas of Hitler, they could not join hands to form a common front against Hitler. Germany became a divided nation.
Economic crisis plunges Germany deeper in crisis … By 1923, Germany’s economy went into a downward spiral. Inflation sky-rocketed, and goods became scare. Life became unbearable for the ordinary people.
Germany had taken huge loans for fighting the war. Repayment of these loans fell due. To make matters worse, war reparations as per the Versailles Treaty had to be paid. All these payments had to be made in gold. Germany’s gold reserves began to be depleted sharply.
Germany defaulted in its payment. France, as the debtor, refused to grant any moratorium. Instead, it occupied Ruhr, the thriving coal mines hub of Germany. The beleaguered, cash-starved Germany protested, but it fell in deaf ears. In desperation, Germany began to print notes copiously with scant regard to the catastrophic consequences such step could cause. Inflation soared at astounding pace. The German currency fell almost every minute of the day, touching a few trillion marks for each U.S. dollar. With a worthless currency, Germany became a nation to be pitied, not treated with any respect. Germans walked with their head hung low.
Finally, America intervened through a rescue package called the Dawes Plan. The creditor nations were prevailed upon to stagger the repayments to give Germany a breathing space.
The Years of Depression follow……….
As America stepped in to inject some cash as short-term loans, the ailing German economy showed some signs of revival. This was between the years 1924-28. But, this little joy was short-lived. Wall Street Exchange crashed in 1929, triggering a panic sell-off of shares in America. This caused a severe turmoil, as the Stocks lost almost half of their worth. The U.S economy slipped into Depression.
German economy was battered by the unforeseen downturn in America. German industrial production plummeted by 40%. Unemployment soared. By 1932, six million jobs had been lost and the economy’s fall had begun to hit the average German very hard. Un employed men and women wandered in city streets soliciting work. Long queues were seen in front of Employment Exchanges.
Angst and fear gripped the middle and salaried class as their savings amounts’ net worth fell in tandem with the fall in the value of the national currency. To earn a living, desperate people started to resort to petty crimes.
The middle class, once the backbone of the German society, began to get progressively impoverished. They feared soon they would be forced to do manual works to earn a living, or will simply be un-employed. This process of gradual decline of economic and social status of large sections of the population is called ‘proletaranisation’. Most middle class people feared they would soon be sucked into this category.
The Weimer Constitution had inherent weaknesses that made it weak to fend off dictatorial tendencies. Because of this, the Weimer Republic became a weak barrier to stop dictators from taking over the government.
What were the flaws of the Weimer Constitution …..
- The Constitution stipulated that Deputies would be chosen through a process of proportional representation. In other words, a party’s share of Deputy seats would be directly proportional to its vote share in the election. Since there were a number of political parties in Germany at that time, no party could win a decisively larger number of votes. As a result, its share of Deputy seats could never cross the half-way mark. This made coalition forming a prerequisite for forming a government.
- The other infirmity was the Article 48 of the Constitution. It enabled the President to declare emergency, suspend civil rights and rule by decree.
Instability of government became the order of the day. Cabinets were formed and dissolved in quick succession. In just about two and half years, 20 cabinets were formed and dissolved. The provision of Article 48 was invoked quite frequently by the President. People lost confidence in the system and were greatly frustrated.
Hitler’s rise to power …
[To be continued]