Nazi Counter-Revolution: Germany (Part 2)


In 1919, Adolf Hitler joined a small right-wing group called the German Workers’ Party. He took over as its leader, and changed its name to the National Socialists (Nazis). The party developed a 25-Point Programme, which – after the failure of the Munich Putsch in 1924 – Hitler explained further in his book ‘Mein Kampf‘.

What National Socialism did not mean was nationalization and the redistribution of wealth. The word ‘socialism’ was included only to attract the support of the German workers, though it has to be admitted that Hitler did promise a better deal for workers. In fact it bore many similarities to Mussolini’s fascism. The movement’s general principles were:

  1. It was more than just one political party among many. It was a way of life dedicated to the rebirth of the nation. All classes in society must be united into a ‘national community’ (Volksgemeinschaft) to make Germany a great nation again and restore national pride. Since the Nazis had the only correct way to achieve this, it followed that all other parties, especially communists, must be eliminated.
  2. Great emphasis was laid on the ruthlessly efficient organization of all aspects of the lives of the masses under the central government, in order to achieve greatness, with violence and terror if necessary. The state was supreme; the interests of the individual always came second to the interests of the state, that is, a totalitarian state in which propaganda had a vital role to play.
  3. Since it was likely that greatness could only be achieved by war, the entire state must be organized on a military footing.
  4. The race theory was vitally important – mankind could be divided into two groups, Aryans and non-Aryans. The Aryans were the Germans, ideally tall, blond, blue eyed and handsome; they were the master race, destined to rule the world. All the rest, such as Slavs, coloured peoples and particularly Jews, were inferior. They were to be excluded from the ‘national community’, along with other groups who were considered unfit to belong, including gypsies and homosexuals. The Slavs were destined to become the slave race of the Germans.

All the various facets and details of the Nazi system sprang from these four basic concepts. There has been great debate among historians about whether National Socialism was a natural development of Gennan history, or whether it was a one-off, a distortion of normal development. Many British and American historians argued that it was a natural extension of earlier Prussian militarism and German traditions. Historian Shelley Baranowski goes along with this interpretation (in Nazi Empire, 2010 ). She points out that before the First World War Germany’s African colonies, including Tanganyika, Namibia, Cameroon and Togo, were difficult to control, and that Prussian military doctrine held that the complete destruction of all enemy forces must be the prime objective of any war. In the case of rebellious colonies, this became mixed in with racist elements, producing a genocidal mentality. In Tanganyika, following unrest and uprisings, almost half a million Africans were killed, some by deliberate starvation. An uprising in Namibia was dealt with in the same way. Similar trends were apparent during the First World War, after the defeat of the Russians. In March 1918 Germany gained control of former Russian territories containing a large proportion of Russia’s coal, iron-ore and oil resources. In the few months before Germany’s own surrender, German troops suppressed all nationalist movements in these territories with great brutality, treating the Slav inhabitants as second-class citizens. Baranowski suggests that Nazi brutality in eastern Europe doing the Second World War was a revival and continuation of the Germans’ pre-First-World-War attitudes, as was the creation of the concentration camps in 1933 for opponents of the Nazis. However, she does stop short of arguing that the Germans in general had developed a genocidal mentality that led directly to the Holocaust. As she puts it: ‘The deliberate scouring of a whole continent, and potentially the entire surface of the globe for Jews to be carried off to assembly-line extermination in gas chambers or killing pits had no precedent.’

Marxist historians believed that National Socialism and fascism in general were the final stage and culmination of western capitalism, which was bound to collapse because of its fatal flaws. British historian R. Butler, writing in 1942, believed that ‘National Socialism is the inevitable reappearance of Prussian militarism and terror, as seen during the 18th century.’ Sir Lewis Namier, a Polish Jew who settled in Britain and became an eminent historian, was understandably bitter:

Attempts to absolve the German people of responsibility are unconvincing. And as for Hitler and his Third Reich, these arose from the people, indeed from the lower depths of the people . … Friends of the Germans must ask themselves why individual Germans become useful, decent citizens, but in groups, both at home and abroad, are apt to develop tendencies that make them a menace to their fellow-men?

On the other hand, German historians like Gerhard Ritter and K. D. Bracher stressed the personal contribution of Hitler, arguing that Hitler was striving to break away from the past and introduce something completely new. National Socialism was therefore a grotesque departure from the normal and logical historical development. This is probably the majority view and it is one that found favour in Germany, since it meant that the German people, contrary to what Namier claimed, can be absolved from most of the blame.

Ian Kershaw recognizes that there are elements of both interpretations in Hitler’s career. He points out that the mentalities which conditioned the behaviour both of the elites and the masses, and which made Hitler’s rise possible, were products of strands of German political culture that were plainly recognizable in the twenty years or so before the First World War. … Most of the elements of political culture that fed into Nazism were peculiarly German.

However, Kershaw is also clear that Hitler was not the logical, inevitable product of long term trends in German culture and beliefs. Nor was he a mere accident in German history: ‘without the unique conditions in which he came to prominence, Hitler would have been nothing . … He exploited the conditions brilliantly.’

Other Nazi Ideologies:

  • Lebensraum – the need for ‘living space’ for the German nation to expand.
  • Führer – the idea that there should be a single leader with complete power rather than a democracy.
  • Social Darwinism – the idea that the Aryan race was superior and Jews were ‘subhuman’.


Hitler was an Austrian, the son of a customs official in Braunau-am-Inn on the German border. He had hoped to become an artist but failed to gain admittance to the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, and afterwards spent six down-and-out years living in Vienna dosshouses and developing his hatred of Jews. In Munich, Hitler had joined Anton Drexler’s tiny German Workers’ Party (1919), which he soon took over and transformed into the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP). Now, in January 1933, he was Chancellor of a coalition government of National Socialists and nationalists, but he was not yet satisfied with the amount of power he possessed: Nazis held only three out of eleven cabinet posts. He therefore insisted on a general election in the hope of winning an overall majority for the Nazis.

(a) The election of 5 March 1933

The election campaign was an extremely violent one. Since they were now in government, the Nazis were able to use all the apparatus of state, including the press and radio, to try and whip up a majority. They had a great advantage in that Hermann Goering, one of the leading Nazis, had been appointed minister of the interior for Prussia, the largest and most important German state. This meant that he controlled the police. He replaced senior police officers with reliable Nazis, and 50 000 auxiliary policemen were called up, most of them from the SA and the SS (Schutzstaffeln – Hitler’s second private army, formed originally to be his personal bodyguard). They had orders to avoid hostility towards the SA and SS but to show no mercy to communists and other ‘enemies of the state’. They were given permission to use firearms if necessary. Meetings of Nazis and nationalists were allowed to go ahead without interference, but communist and socialist political meetings were wrecked and speakers were beaten up, while police looked the other way. The nationalists went along with all this because they were determined to use the Nazis to destroy communism once and for all.

(b) The Reichstag fire

The climax of the election campaign came on the night of 27 February when the Reichstag was badly damaged by a fire, apparently started by a young Dutch anarchist called Marinus van der Lubbe, who was arrested, tried and executed for his pains. It has been suggested that the SA knew about van der Lubbe’s plans, but allowed him to go ahead and even started fires of their own elsewhere in the building with the intention of blaming it on the communists. There is no conclusive evidence of this, but what is certain is that the fire played right into Hitler’s hands: he was able to use the fire to stir up fear of communism and as a pretext for the banning of the party. Some four thousand communists were arrested and imprisoned.

However, in spite of all their efforts, the Nazis still failed to win an overall majority in the 5 March election. With almost 90 per cent of the electorate voting, the Nazis won 288 out of the 647 seats, 36 short of the magic figure – 324 – needed for an overall majority. The nationalists again won 52 seats. Hitler was still dependent on the support of Papen and Hugenberg (leader of the nationalists). This turned out to be the Nazis’ best performance in a ‘free’ election, and they never won an overall majority. It is worth remembering that even at the height of their electoral triumph the Nazis were supported by only 44 per cent of the voting electorate.

Events and results 1933-1934:

Event Result
Reichstag fire

The Reichstag building is set on fire. A Dutch Communist, van der Lubbe, was blamed in the burning building. (may be wrongly by Nazi propaganda). Hitler used the fire to his advantage in two ways:

  1. It gave him an opportunity to imprison many communist leaders, which stopped them campaigning during the election.
  2. It allowed the Nazis to say that the country was in danger from the communists during its election campaign.

Both these actions helped the Nazis to win more seats in the election.

When the courts convicted Dutch Communist van der Lubbe, but did not convict other Communist leaders, Hitler was furious and replaced the courts with the Nazi People’s Courts.

General election Only 44 per cent of the population vote for the Nazis, who win 288 seats in the Reichstag. Although it did not give the Nazis the majority that Hitler had hoped for in the Reichstag, it gave them enough seats – after Hitler had arrested all the communist deputies and the other parties had been intimidated by the SA – to get the Enabling Act passed, which is all Hitler needed to do.
Enabling Act Arguably the critical event – it gave Hitler absolute power to make his laws.
Local government Local government was reorganised – the country is carved up into 42 Gaus, which are run by a Gauleiter. These Gaus are separated into areas, localities and blocks of flats run by a Blockleiter. Hitler sets up the Gestapo. This put the Nazis in control of local government, and allowed the Gestapo to rule by terror.
Trade unions Trade unions are abolished and their leaders arrested. Abolishing the trade unions allowed Hitler to destroy a group that might have opposed him. It also gave Hitler the opportunity to set up the German Labour Front, which gave him control over German workers.
Concordat Hitler makes an agreement with the Pope who sees him as someone who can destroy communism. This agreement allows Hitler to take over political power in Germany as long as he leaves the Catholic Church alone. Hitler’s agreement with the Pope was a temporary truce.
Political parties Political parties are banned – only the Nazi party is allowed to exist. Banning political parties made Germany a one-party state and destroyed democracy in the country. After this action, Germans could no longer get rid of Hitler in an election.
People’s Courts People’s Courts – Hitler sets up the Nazi people’s courts where judges have to swear an oath of loyalty to the Nazis. These were set up to give Hitler greater control over the judgements made in courts. Hitler was furious because the courts did not sentence the communists to death for starting the Reichstag fire.
Night of the Long Knives Some SA leaders are demanding that the Nazi party carry out its socialist agenda, and that the SA take over the army. Hitler cannot afford to annoy the businessmen or the army, so the SS murders perhaps 400 of the SA members, including its leader Röhm, along with a number of Hitler’s other opponents. This destroyed all opposition within the Nazi Party. It gave power to the brutal SS. It also showed the rest of the world what a tyrant Hitler was.
Führer When Hindenburg dies, Hitler declares himself jointly president, chancellor and head of the army. This formally made Hitler the absolute ruler of Germany.


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