Unable to make the reparations payments, the Wiemar Republic resorted to printing money which led to rapid hyperinflation. With too much money in the system, the value of the German Mark dropped like a sack of potatoes. Pretty soon Germans were using paper currency for fuel, wallpaper, making kites...
Don't Let the Name Fool You. Despite it's full name: National Socialist Workers Party had zip to do with real socialism. In fact, Hitler blamed both Jews and Communists for Germany's problems. 'Socialist' was added before Hitler took over and nobody wanted to bother with a name change.
In 1919, German citizens were up in arms over the harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles which they had been forced to sign. World War One was officially over but Germany's problems were just beginning. Over four years of fighting had reduced European cities to rubble, farms were little more than crater holes, 15 million people were dead, and the economy was a total wreck. With the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires gone, Germany was left holding the hot potato called the 'war guilt clause'. France had suffered the most and was out for revenge.
In the treaty Germany had no choice but to accept strict terms. The German monarchy was replaced with Germany’s first attempt at democracy known as the Wiemar Republic.The German Empire lost land to France and Poland. Its ability to raise an army was seriously limited and its navy and air force was completely dismantled. To make matters worse, while Great Britain and the United States were partying it up during the Roaring 20s, Germans were expected to repay the Allies for the war by the tune of 100 billion tonnes of gold (Equivalent to half of the total amount of gold ever mined).
The Germans were bitter, disillusioned and angry; but nobody was more angry and bitter than Adolph Hitler who heard the news from his hospital bed as he was recovering from a gas attack. Like many right-wing nationalists, Hitler immediately pointed the finger at the Jews, Communists, and Socialists for betraying the German people.
Hitler’s ideas were gaining support in the early 1920s mostly because inflation was out of control. Germany borrowed heavily to pay for the war and now it not only had to pay back its debts. To make their payments the government just printed more money but the end result was that inflation became totally out of control. The way inflation works is that money has value because it is scarce (you can't just go picking it off of a tree). But when the government prints more, everyone has more to spend which means that the prices of goods rise along with it which means that workers need more money. It's a vicious cycle.
The end result of all this inflation is that the German Mark became worthless and Germans raced to buy foreign currency. By 1923, things had gone too far. The price of bread skyrocketed to one billion marks a loaf! People would go shopping using wheelbarrows of cash. Some folks wallpapered their homes with worthless German marks because it was cheaper than buying wallpaper.
The Weimar government was just as quick as the Nazi's to blame their economic woes on the Jews-- many of whom were business owners and bankers. Reichsmarks were called "Jew Confetti". In this atmosphere of fear and hatred, Nazism began to take hold.
The Nazi Party
Adolph Hitler, a failed artist from Vienna and World War One military vet, began to build a name for himself in the German state of Bavaria. In Munich, he would spend hours making passionate speeches to drunk audiences in Beer Halls against what he called the “November Criminals” (the signers of the Versailles Treaty), against Jews, against Communists, and the need for German Lebensraum-living space. Although most people didn’t take Hitler all that seriously some did, and NAZI party membership began to grow.
Like other extreme nationalist movements, the Nazi’s believed in the racial purity theories popular in some circles of the day. These racial purists taught that through evolution, some humans became better than others. They used complex and sketchy science to prove their theories by measuring nose lengths and widths, forehead sizes, and skin color to determine where each racial group should be placed. This pseudo-science, known as Eugenics, had been around since the 1800s, and believed in extreme ideas such as sterilizing undesirable peoples.
At the top, (according to the Nazi’s at least) were the German people descended from a race of people known as the Aryans. Not much was known about these nomadic warriors back then (or even today) except that some of them ended up settling down in northern India and possibly had a big influence on the religion of Hinduism. So, in the biggest case of irony in the history of ironies–– the Nazi Party stole the Hindu symbol of peace and luck, turned it 45 degrees and made it the symbol of their party. Behind the Swastika banner Hitler would lead the world on a path to destruction like nothing before it.
Fascism in Action
Later that same year, a fire broke out in the Reichstag. A communist was arrested for the crime and Hitler used the fire as an excuse for the government to grant him unlimited emergency powers. Of course, if there was anyone who had reservations about granting Hitler’s request, the Brownshirts and SS were on hand to add a little persuasion. During the vote, the Reichstag chamber was literally surrounded by Nazi thugs as a reminder of what would happen if the vote didn't go their way. Not suprisingly, the “Law for removing the Distress of People and Reich” passed giving Hitler complete power to write all laws. Hitler also established the Secret Police known as the Gestapo to deal with “anti-government elements”.
Throughout 1933-1934, Hitler got rid of the opposition- even among his fellow Nazi’s. Dozens of government leaders were killed or forced to commit suicide.
On June 30, 85 of Hitler’s enemies were killed and hundreds more arrested. This day went down in the history books as the Night of the Long Knives. Hitler was now the unquestioned dictator of Germany.
Hitler's Power Grab
Hitler’s final power grab came in 1933 when he was named Chancellor of Germany. As Germany's head cheese, Hitler wasted no time in suspending civil liberties through an emergency act that gave the chancellor almost unlimited power. The Nazi Party became the only party in Germany and opponents and rivals were hunted down and executed by the SS. The Weimar Republic was dead and the German Third Reich was born.
Whoa! Hold on a minute! How could a democractic country just hand over power to a guy like Hitler? Well, the answer is pretty simple. The Weimar government wasn’t working at all. The Great Depression that had started in America wasted no time in spreading to Europe. In 1929, German unemployment was 660,000. In 1933, it was 10 times that! Whenever economic troubles arose, the Nazi’s were there to blame the government and promise a better future. Hitler made no secret of wanting to become dictator- but back in those days no one had yet seen a dictator like Hitler. The German people voted for the Nazi’s making them the second largest party in the Reichstag. However, the government leaders didn’t trust him and refused to make him Chancellor- that is until 1933 when they were desperate for a leader who could bring stability to a divided government. President Hindenburg thought he could keep Hitler under control... Hindenburg thought wrong.
The New Germany
In the style of a true Fascist, Hitler dreamt of transforming Germany into a Nazi utopia. The ideal German was tall, athletic, blond haired and blue eyed. Women were strongly discouraged from working outside the home-even nursing and teaching professions became off-limits. A women’s role in the new Nazi state was to raise lots of loyal German children who would join the Nazi party.
Hitler saw that the children were the future, and rewrote the rules for school. History taught about the greatest of the German people and that Jews, Gypsies, and Slavs were subhuman. Physical education was a big part of Nazi philosophy of physical fitness. People with handicaps were sterilized or even euthanized because they did not fit the Nazi ideal. Science classes reinforced the idea of German superiority by teaching the racial "science" of Eugenics along with Social Darwinism.
The Hitler Youth
Young boys joined the Hitler Youth around the age of twelve where they were taught the teachings of Der Fuhrer. Girls joined the League of German Girls. Hitler’s purpose for these youth groups was clear. “When an opponent declares ‘I will not come to your side’ I calmly say, Your children already belong to us…” By 1939, almost 9 million German children were a part of the Nazi machine. Of course, attendance was anything but optional.
Nazi officials made it a point to convert as many young people to their way of thinking as possible. Anti-Nazi teachers were sacked and the textbooks were replaced with ones that taught that Germans were part of a master race of humans destined to rule the world.
Schools, church groups, and clubs were the perfect training ground for the Nazi Youth. They were given brown shirts and spent their Saturday's singing Nazi songs and marching. Sounds boring? It probably was. But to many young Germans the chance to belong to a group that promised to restore pride to Germany was too much to resist.
Hitler Youth were given heavy doses of Nazi propaganda. Antisemitism (hatred of Jews) was a common theme. But the real appeal of the Hitler Youth were the team building activities. Sort of like a youth camp dedicated to hating people. Nazi Party leaders organized the activities and encouraged its members to rat out their family and friends who spoke out against the party. This of course gave tremendous power to children who didn't understand what they were getting themselves in to. And that was the whole point.
The Nazi’s took control of the media. Radio and television stations churned out propaganda that praised the Nazi’s defense of Germany against the Jews, the Russians, the Americans, and the French. Newspapers printed racist cartoons that showed Jews as vile human beings preying on innocent Germans. To get his message across Hitler made it easy for every German to afford a radio. The final act of Nazi mind control came with the book burnings. The works of Jewish, communist, and liberal authors were banned and publicly burned in huge bonfires. The works of Karl Marx, H.G. Wells, Albert Einstein, and Upton Sinclair were tossed into the flames by the thousands. For anyone caught with a copy of banned book, that was often enough for the entire family to be shipped off to a concentration camp.
Hyperinflation in the 1920's helped give support to radical political parties like the NAZI's
Hitler had one talent that bordered on genius––he could tell people what they wanted to hear. One fellow Nazi described hearing one of Hitler’s speeches:
“He sniffs the air. For a minute he gropes, feels his way, senses the atmosphere. Suddenly he bursts forth. His words go like an arrow to their target, touches each private wound on the raw…telling it what it most wants to hear.”
Hitler Youth membership peaked in 1939 with 8 million members.
A surprising twist–– and a testament to Hitler’s ability as an orator–– came at his trial when he was able to convince some of the judges that he had acted out of defense for the German nation. Hitler was given the minimum sentence in prison. There he served his time in the slammer writing his memoir known as Mein Kampf. The book (like his art) was not well written and rambled-a lot about racial purity, the injustices done to the Germans, and of course how Jews and Communists were to blame for it all. The book that would become the handbook of Nazism was barely given much attention. But then Hitler took power and copies were flying off the shelves––maybe because it was crime not to own a copy. It’s too bad that so few people read it, had they done so they would have seen what was coming. In one passage Hitler wrote:
“Instead of working to achieve power by [force] we shall have to hold our noses and enter the Reichstag (Germany’s legislative body) against Catholic and Marxist bodies. If out-voting them takes longer than out-shooting them, at least the result will be guaranteed by their own constitution."