In the troubled years between the wars, nondemocratic authoritarian governments emerged not only in Italy and Germany but also in Spain, in Portugal, in the successor states to the Habsburg Empire (except Czechoslovakia), and in the other states of eastern and southeastern Europe.
Between The World Wars
Soon after the passage of the enabling law, Hitler struck the first of his many blows against the Jews. In a country of approximately 60 million people, practicing Jews were less than 1 percent of the population.
The Jews had become leading members of the professions and the arts and had made outstanding contributions to German culture. Since most Jews were patriotic Germans, many of them would probably have become Nazis if they had been permitted to. Instead, anti-Semitic doctrines required their ruthless elimination.
Racism now became part of state policy. The businesses and professions of the Jews were boycotted, and Jews were forbidden to hold office. In the “Nuremberg laws” of September 15, 1935, a Jew was defined as any person with one Jewish grandparent; all such persons were deprived of the rights of German citizenship. Intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews was forbidden as “racial pollution.” Jews might not fly the national flag, write or publish, exhibit paintings or give concerts, act on stage or screen, teach in any educational institution, work in a bank or a hospital, enter any of the government’s labor or professional bodies, or sell books or antiques. They were not eligible for unemployment insurance or charity. Many towns and villages refused to permit Jews to live inside their precincts.
In November 1938 a Jewish boy of seventeen, driven to desperation by the persecution of his parents, shot and killed a secretary of the German embassy in Paris. Two days later organized German mobs looted and pillaged Jewish shops all over Germany, burned and dynamited synagogues, and invaded Jewish homes to batter the occupants and steal their possessions.
Known as the Kristallnacht, this event made it quite clear even to foreign observers that Germany was officially pursuing anti-Semitism. The state then compelled the Jews to restore the damaged properties and pay a fine. Jews were forced to take special names, to wear yellow Stars of David, and to belong to a Reich “Union of Jews.” Measures designed to drive the Jews into ghettos were but the prelude to their physical extermination in gas ovens during World War II.
Enthusiasm for “racial purity” led to the study of eugenics, to the promotion of widespread athleticism and the cult of physical health, and to the elevation of Hitler into a virtual messiah. Blond, blue-eyed, ideal “Nordic types” were urged to mate with each other early and to have many children. By the time the average woman was twenty-four years old she was expected to be a mother. To keep the race pure, sterilization was introduced, supposedly to prevent inherited disease. Medical experimentation of horrifying cruelty and of no scientific value was practiced during the war on human beings of “inferior” races—Jews, Poles and other Slays, and gypsies. These practices were the direct outcome of Nazi “eugenic” legislation.
In foreign affairs, German racism justified the conquest of all territory inhabited by Germans. In addition, the doctrine of Lebensraum (“living space” for the expanding “Nordic race”) justified the incorporation of nonGerman areas. Hitler declared that what the Germans needed they were entitled to take, since they were a superior people.
Some German intellectuals had looked back with longing upon the Holy Roman Empire of the Middle Ages, the first Reich. Now that the war had ended the second Reich of William II, they hoped to create a third one, incorporating the old territories, no matter who now lived in them. This is the meaning of Hitler’s use of the term “Third Reich” to describe the Nazi state, which he proclaimed would last a thousand years.
A “scientific” basis for the Lebensraum theory was supplied by the teachers of “geopolitics,” chief among whom was Karl Haushofer (1869-1946), who declared that Britain and France were decadent; that small powers must disappear; that Germany must expand ruthlessly, occupying the “heartland” of Eurasia, and dominate the world. Another school of thought argued that Germany’s future lay in an alliance with the Soviet Union, in which its inexhaustible work force would be joined with Germany’s industrial output and military techniques.
Hitler revamped the German judicial system, abandoning traditional legal principles and substituting “folk” justice, which, Hitler said, totally subordinated the individual to the people (yolk). People’s courts, to which Hitler appointed the judges, were established (May 1934) to try all cases of treason, a crime that was now logically extended to include many lesser offenses against “the people.” Concentration camps were established for enemies of the state, who could be executed without appeal. The Gestapo (Geheime Staatspolizei, Secret State Police), formally established in April 1933 in Prussia, was extended to all of Germany in 1934, with a free hand in opening private correspondence, tapping wires, and spying on citizens.
All economic life was brought under the regime. In agriculture, the Nazis aimed at self-sufficiency and at control of the peasantry. The Junkers were protected, and no effort was made to divide their vast estates. In 1933 a special law protected smaller farms against forced sale and attachment for debt, an act that won the small farmer to Hitler. But the government determined the production required of farms, and fixed farm prices, wages, and fees for distributing farms products. Unused land was put under cultivation, and citizens had to grow vegetables in greenhouses in preparation for war.
In industry, Hitler proclaimed a four-year plan in 1933 and a second one in 1936. The first was aimed chiefly at economic recovery. Labor camps for men and women helped decrease unemployment, as did rearmament and public works. The second plan was designed to prepare for war. Output of raw materials was increased, and the materials were distributed first to armament and other war industries; labor was allocated in a similar way; prices and foreign exchange were controlled. The state also built strategic highways (Autobahnen), the first modern expressways, for the rapid movement of goods and troops.
The Nazis abolished all labor unions in 1933 and employers’ associations in 1934. To replace them, a Labor Front was established to include all wage earners, salaried persons, professionals, and employers. Strikes and lockouts were forbidden. Workers were assured of jobs as long as they accepted the system. The Labor Front was also a spy organization, constantly on the alert for anti-Nazis in the factories; it could reduce their pay, fire them, or put them in jail.
As the second four-year plan went into effect, the workers became less mobile. They had work books detailing their past training and positions, and they could not get a new job unless the state decided it was more suitable. All graduates of secondary schools had to register with employment authorities, and men and women of working age could be conscripted for labor.
Just before the outbreak of war, all agricultural and mining workers and certain industrial workers were frozen in their jobs. Meanwhile, the big cartel became the all-pervasive feature of German industrial organization—a system of profitable monopoly under state control. The minister of economics authorized controlled plant expansion, imports and exports, fixed prices and established costs, and allocated raw materials.
These processes of Gleichschaltung (coordination) were applied throughout German life, including education and the arts. Goring is said to have remarked, “When I hear anyone talk of culture, I reach for my revolver.” Hitler’s own artistic views were extremely simple: He denounced most modern art as non-Aryan. The school curriculum, especially history, had to be taught in accord with the Nazi doctrine of “blood and soil.” Nazi racial doctrine, the great achievements of Germany’s illustrious past, the military spirit, and physical fitness were the cornerstones of the new education.
The Christian churches, both Protestant and Catholic, were a problem for the Nazis. Extremists among Hitler’s followers favored a return to a mystical paganism and the old German gods celebrated by Wagner’s operas. Hitler himself, born a Catholic, had once declared that Germany was his only god. Yet power politics required him to come to terms with the churches, which still commanded the allegiance of most Germans. In the hope of avoiding state domination, the Lutheran ministry in 1933 organized a national synod, which the Nazis almost immediately took over by appointing their own bishop. The efforts of extremist Nazis to purge the Bible and to abandon the crucifix led to discontent.
In July 1933 Hitler and the Vatican reached a concordat guaranteeing freedom of worship and permitting religious instruction in the schools. Catholics were to be allowed to form youth groups and to appoint professors of theology. But the Nazis did not live up to these terms.
On the other hand, the Catholic church found much to oppose in the teachings to which Catholic children were exposed in the Hitler youth groups; in 1937 a papal encyclical attacked National Socialism. Still, Catholics supported Hitler’s territorial ambitions, and the church took an ambiguous position on his treatment of the Jews. In general, Hitler carefully avoided a direct clash with the churches, and they remained silent.
Now Hitler could act as he chose, unimpeded by the laws. He instituted a ministry of propaganda under Josef Goebbels (1897-1945). He stripped the state governments of their powers and appointed governors from Berlin who could override the state legislatures. When Hindenburg died in August 1934, Hitler became president as well as chancellor, but he preferred to use the title Der Fiihrer. This new move was approved by a plebiscite in which Hitler obtained 88 percent of the votes.
Political parties that opposed Hitler were forced to dissolve. The government banned Communists and Socialists (May 1933); the Nationalists dissolved themselves (June 1933); the government put an end to the Catholic parties (July 1933) and all monarchist groups (February 1934). The Stahlhelm was incorporated into the Nazi party. In July 1933 the Nazis were declared to be the only legal political party in Germany.
The appeal of the Nazis to the German people lay partly in their denunciation of the “disorderly” parliamentary system; a strong man who got things done struck a responsive chord in the public. In the elections of November 1933, there were no opposition candidates, 92 percent of the electorate voting Nazi, and there were only two non-Nazi deputies in a chamber of 661. As in fascist Italy and communist Russia, youth groups fed the party, which soon had a powerful regional organization all over Germany and among Germans abroad.
Within the Nazi party itself, however, a difficult situation was created by those who had believed Hitler’s more radical pronouncements on social and economic questions. Many of these Nazis were concentrated in the SA, whose members, most of them from the lower classes, were also distressed by how Hitler had treated their organization. The SA had made possible his rise to power, but it was now an embarrassment to Hitler, no longer quite respectable, and certainly not in favor, as were the SS and especially the army.
On June 30, 1934, Hitler ordered and personally participated in a “blood purge.” Ernst Riihm (1887— 1934), founder and leader of the SA, was shot, and so were as many as a thousand others, including the head of Catholic Action, and Schleicher and his wife. Hitler justified the murders, and house arrest for Papen, by declaring that the SA was planning a putsch and that the opposition and all who offended public morality (for Riihm was a homosexual) must be crushed. After June 1934 there was no effective opposition to Hitler left.
Hitler’s first weeks in power were devoted to transforming his chancellorship into a dictatorship. He dissolved the Reichstag and called for new elections.
During the campaign, opponents of the Nazis were intimidated by violence and threats and were denied radio time and free use of the press. On the night of February 27, a fire mysteriously broke out in the Reichstag building. When he heard the news, Hitler exclaimed, “Now I have them,” for he knew that the fire could be blamed on the communists.
By the next morning, four thousand Communist party members were arrested, and by noon Hitler had persuaded Hindenburg to suspend the basic rights of the citizenry during the emergency. Arrest, indefinite detention, and terror were now embraced by the state. Germany was, in effect, a dictatorship.
Nonetheless, in the election of March 5 the Nazis won only 44 percent of the votes, which gave them 288 seats in the Reichstag. Using the SA as a constant threat, Hitler bullied the Reichstag. Except for 94 Social Democrats (the Communists were denied their seats), all members voted for an Enabling Act on March 23, suspending the Weimar constitution.
But the economic depression had begun to knock the foundations out from under prosperity and moderation. An economic depression is a sharp and deep decline in trade and general prosperity.
In the worldwide depression of 1873 to 1896, prices had fallen, agricultural distress had intensified—made worse in Europe by bad harvests followed by wet summers and by competition from Argentine and Australian meat and Canadian and American grain—and banks had collapsed, especially in Austria and France.
While scholars do not agree on the long-range causes of the depression, it was apparent to all that the new “world slump” of 1929-1934, while short, was extremely intense and was particularly destructive of middle-class confidence in the United States, Germany, and Austria.
The depression had, in fact, already begun before the Wall Street stock market crash in October 1929, for agriculture had declined as overproduction and poor distribution brought prices down and as speculation on the stock market had led to general financial recklessness. American banks now withdrew their funds from Europe. The Austrian Kredit-Anstalt, the largest commercial bank in Austria, was made bankrupt in 1931 when the French, themselves in dire economic need, withdrew short-term credit. In Germany a shortage of capital and foreign credits quickly curtailed industrial production, leading to a decline in exports and a reduced need for transportation (especially shipping), which triggered further widespread unemployment.
The need for economic planning seemed evident, and since totalitarian movements of both left and right generally already had a commitment to such long-range planning, those most hurt by what quickly became known as the Great Depression turned increasingly toward these movements and away from a free-market economy.
For capitalists, the Bolshevik solution was not acceptable; for nationalists, convinced that the depression had been caused by unsound economic practices in another country, one solution was tariffs. Since fascist movements advocated economic nationalism and centralized state planning for the economy, they quickly gained new adherents. In Germany unemployment insurance cushioned the first shock for the workers; the lower middle classes, painfully recovering from the period of inflation, had no such barrier between them and destitution.
Their desperation helped Hitler, whose fortunes during the years of fulfillment had fallen low. Meanwhile, however, Hitler was preparing the instruments of force, especially by creating the Schutzstaffel (Defense Force, or SS), an elite, black-shirted guard of honor under the direction of Heinrich Himmler (1900-1945). The SS membership requirements emphasized “racial purity,” and its members would become the nucleus for the Gestapo, or “secret police.”
The government fell in 1930 over a disagreement on unemployment insurance benefits. Hindenburg appointed as chancellor Heinrich Bruning (1885-1970), a member of the Catholic Center party, and instructed him to shape an emergency cabinet not restricted by party allegiance. President Hindenburg, now eighty-two, had fallen under the influence of General Kurt von Schleicher (18821934), an ambitious and clever political soldier who had schemed his way into the president’s favor. Hindenburg wanted to rule by decree, as the constitution authorized him to do in an emergency. By failing to pass Bruning’s economic program, the Reichstag gave Hindenburg the opportunity he wanted.
A presidential decree proclaimed the new budget. When the Reichstag protested, Hindenburg dissolved it and called new elections for September 1930. Nazis and Communists fought in the streets and both gained greatly at the expense of the moderates. The Nazis’ Reichstag representation rose from 12 to 107 and the Communists’ from 54 to 77. Bruning had to carry on against the wishes of the electorate; supported only by Hindenburg, he, too, now turned authoritarian.
Political matters were now fueled almost exclusively by the deepening economic crisis. To avoid a new government in which Nazis would participate, the Social Democrats decided to support Bruning. When the Reichstag met, Nazis and Communists created disorder on the floor but voted together against government measures. These measures passed only because the Social Democrats voted for them.
In 1931 Bruning tried to arrange an Austro-German customs union to coordinate the tariff policies of the two countries and help them fight the depression without affecting their political sovereignty. Whether such an arrangement between two countries that were both suffering from unemployment would actually have succeeded cannot be surmised; the impulse for Germany and Austria to unite politically might not have proved overpowering. In any case, the project raised in the minds of the Allies, especially the French, the specter of a “greater Germany,” and the scheme was vetoed by the World Court.
Nazis, Nationalists, the veterans’ organization of the Steel Helmets (Stahlhelm), the Junkers’ Agrarian League, industrialists, and representatives of the former princely houses now formed a coalition against Bruning. This coalition had great financial resources, mass support, and private armies in the SA, the Stahlhelm, and other semi-military organizations. Because the left was split, nothing stood between this new right-wing coalition and political victory except Hindenburg, who controlled the army. Early in 1932 Hitler was invited to address a meeting of coal and steel magnates, whose financial support he won. Though some of Hitler’s followers were now impatient for a new putsch, he curbed them, believing that the Nazis could come to power legally.
In the presidential elections of March 1932, Hitler ran as the candidate of the Nazis, and Hindenburg as the candidate of the Center, Social Democrats, and other moderate parties. Hitler polled 11,338,571 votes, and Hindenburg polled 18,661,736, four tenths of a percent short of the required majority. In the runoff election, the Nationalists backed Hitler, whose total rose to 13,400,000, as against Hindenburg’s 19,360,000. The eighty-four-year-old marshal reelected as the candidate of the moderates was, however, no longer a moderate himself, but the tool of the Junkers and the military.
Responding to pressure from the state governments, Bruning and Hindenburg tried to ban the SA and SS, while Schleicher orchestrated protests against such a ban. Feeling he had been ill advised, Hindenburg told his chancellor he would not sign any further emergency decrees, and Bruning resigned. Schleicher persuaded Hindenburg to appoint Franz von Papen (1879-1969), a rich Catholic nobleman and a member of the extreme right wing of the Center, and he installed a cabinet composed of other noblemen.
The Center, however, disavowed Papen, who had the support of no political party or group. The Nazis temporarily tolerated him because he agreed to lift the ban on the SA and SS. But in foreign policy, Papen succeeded where Bruning had failed, for the Allies scrapped the Young Plan and required Germany to pay only 3 billion gold marks into a fund earmarked for general European reconstruction.
On July 31, 1932, new elections for the Reichstag took place, called by Papen on the assumption that the Nazis had passed their peak, that their vote would decrease, and that they would then cooperate in the government. However, on July 20 Papen had dismissed the government of Prussia, where there had been over five hundred confrontations between storm troopers and those they saw as their enemies, on the grounds that it could not maintain public order. This played into the hands of the Nazis, who won 230 seats to become the biggest single party in the Reichstag; the Communists gained also, chiefly at the expense of the Social Democrats. The Democrats and the People’s party almost disappeared.
Papen had failed. He now wanted to take some Nazis into the government, but the Nazis demanded the chancellorship, which Hindenburg was determined not to hand over to Hitler. Papen decided to dissolve the Reichstag and call new elections. By repeating this process, he hoped to wear down Hitler’s strength each time, until he brought Hitler to support him and accept a subordinate place. Papen also put pressure on the industrialists who had been supporting Hitler, and Nazi funds began to dry up, leaving Hitler seriously embarrassed. The election of November 6, 1932, bore out Papen’s expectations. The Nazis fell off from 230 seats to 196; and although the Communists gained substantially, Papen, too, won some support.
Thus emboldened, Papen designed a constitutional change that would have moved the Weimar Republic even closer to the policies of the corporative state: power was to be returned to the hands of the propertied elite. Schleicher persuaded Hindenburg that the plan was naive and tried desperately to form a new majorirv. Failing, he stepped down, leaving the way clear for Hider as the only person with a program and public support. Hitler demanded the chancellorship for himself.
Papen consented, provided Hitler undertook to govern in strict accord with parliamentary procedure. Papen was to be vice-chancellor, and still thought he could dominate the government, since only three of its eleven ministers would be Nazis. He therefore persuaded Hindenburg to accept Hitler as chancellor. But Papen underestimated Hitler. Though Hitler swore to Hindenburg that he would maintain the constitution, he did not keep his oath. The Weimar Republic was doomed from the moment Hitler became chancellor on January 30, 1933.
Communist disorders and the Nazi beer hall putsch marked the last phase of the inflation period. Shortly before Hitler’s move, Stresemann had given extraordinary financial powers to two tough-minded centrists, Hans Luther (1879-1962), minister of finance, and Hjalmar Schacht (1877-1970), banker and fiscal expert.
All printing of the old currency was stopped. A new bank was opened to issue new marks, which were assigned the value of the prewar mark. The new currency was backed not by gold but by an imaginary “mortgage” on all Germany’s agricultural and industrial wealth. One trillion of the inflated marks equaled one of the new. Simultaneously, rigorous economies were put into effect in every branch of the government, and taxes were increased.
The public protested loudly, but the measures remained in force until they had the intended effect. The cure for inflation produced serious hardships, too. Prices fell, and over-expanded businesses collapsed. Unemployment rose sharply, wages stayed low, and workers labored long hours.
During 1924 the Allies at last helped end the crisis in Germany by formulating the Dawes Plan, named for Charles G. Dawes (1865-1951), an American financier and vice-president under Calvin Coolidge (1872-1933). The plan recommended the evacuation of the Ruhr by the French, the establishment of a special bank to receive reparations payments, a gradual increase in annual payments for the first five years, and an international loan to finance the German deliveries in the first year.
The Nationalists attacked these proposals as a scheme to enslave Germany to foreign masters, and in the Reichstag elections of May 1924 they scored impressive gains, as did the Nazis and the Communists, while moderate parties suffered. But a coalition managed to win acceptance of the Dawes Plan in August by promising the Nationalists seats in the cabinet. When new elections were held in December, the Nazis and Communists sustained losses and the Social Democrats and moderates gained.
Early in 1925 a Center—People’s party—Nationalist coalition took office. Though Germany had moved appreciably to the right, foreign policy remained in the conciliatory hands of Stresemann, who was foreign minister through all governments between November 1923 and his death in October 1929.
During these less-troubled years, economic recovery proceeded steadily, until in 1929 German industrial output exceeded that of 1913. First-rate German equipment, coupled with superb technical skill and systematic adoption of American methods of mass production, created a highly efficient industrial machine. This “rationalization” of industry increased production, but led to over-borrowing and some unemployment.
Vertical trusts— which brought together in one great corporation all the parts of an industrial process from coaland iron-mining to the output of the finished product—and cartels—associations of independent enterprises that controlled sales and prices for their own benefit—became characteristic of the German system. Emphasis was always on heavy industry, which meant that a big armaments program might assure continued prosperity. Throughout, reparations were paid faithfully, with no damage to the German economy.
In 1925, after President Ebert died, a presidential election was held in which three candidates competed. The Catholic Center, the Democrats, and the Social Democrats all supported the Center candidate. The Nationalists, People’s party, and other right-wing groups supported Field Marshal von Hindenburg, then seventy-seven years old. The Communists ran their own candidate and thus contributed to the election of Hindenburg, who won by a small plurality.
Until 1930 Hindenburg acted fully in accord with the constitution, to the distress of most of the nationalist groups. Though domestic issues of this period aroused great heat, they were settled by democratic process. In the elections of 1928 the Social Democrats were returned to power; prosperity had encouraged moderation and growing support for the republic.
In foreign affairs, this period saw a gradual increase in German participation in the system of collective security. In 1925 Germany signed the Locarno treaties, which took the French armies out of the Rhineland in return for a neutral zone and a frontier guaranteed by Britain and Italy, and set up machinery to arbitrate disputes between Germany and its neighbors. These treaties did not, however, guarantee Germany’s frontiers with Poland and Czechoslovakia. In 1926 Germany was admitted to the League of Nations. In 1928 Germany accepted the Kellogg-Briand Pact, which outlawed aggressive war.
In 1929 a new reparations plan named after another American, Owen D. Young (1874-1962), chairman of the committee that drew it up, substantially reduced the total originally demanded by the Allies. The Young Plan also established lower rates of payments than those under the Dawes Plan and allowed the Germans a greater role in their collection. In June 1930 the Rhineland was evacuated by the Allies, four years ahead of the date set by the Treaty of Versailles.