Chapter 26 - Europe Between the Wars, 1919-1939

The Authoritarian and Totalitarian States

FOCUS QUESTIONS: Why did many European states experience a retreat from democracy in the interwar years? What are the characteristics of so-called totalitarian states, and to what degree were these characteristics present in Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and Stalinist Russia?


The apparent triumph of liberal democracy in 1919 proved extremely short-lived. By 1939, only two major states (Great Britain and France) and several minor ones (the Low Countries, the Scandinavian states, Switzerland, and Czechoslovakia) remained democratic. What had happened to Woodrow Wilson’s claim that World War I had been fought to make the world safe for democracy? Actually, World War I turned out to have had the opposite effect.

Hitler and Nazi Germany

In 1923, a small rightist party, known as the Nazis, led by an obscure Austrian rabble-rouser named Adolf Hitler (1889-1945), tried to seize power in southern Germany in conscious imitation of Mussolini’s march on Rome in 1922. Although the attempt failed, Hitler and the Nazis achieved sudden national prominence. Within ten years, they had taken over complete power.

WEIMAR GERMANY After Germany’s defeat in World War I, a German democratic state known as the Weimar (VY-mar) Republic had been established. Formed by a coalition of Social Democrats, the Catholic Center Party, and German Democrats, the fragmented republic had no outstanding political leader and proved to be unstable. In 1925, Paul von Hindenburg, the World War I military hero, was elected president. Hindenburg was a traditional military man, monarchist in sentiment, who at heart was not in favor of the republic. The young republic suffered politically from attempted uprisings and attacks from both the left and the right.

Another of the republic’s problems was its inability to change Germany’s basic governmental structure. The government never really controlled the army, which operated as a state within a state. Other institutions maintained their independence as well. Hostile judges, teachers, and bureaucrats remained in office and used their positions to undermine democracy from within. At the same time, important groups of landed aristocrats and leaders of powerful business cartels refused to accept the overthrow of the imperial regime and remained hostile to the republic.

The Weimar Republic also faced serious economic difficulties. The runaway inflation of 1922 and 1923 had serious social repercussions. Widows, orphans, the retired elderly, army officers, teachers, civil servants, and others who lived on fixed incomes all watched their monthly stipends become worthless and their lifetime savings disappear. Their economic losses increasingly pushed the middle class to the rightist parties that were hostile to the republic. To make matters worse, after a period of prosperity from 1924 to 1929, Germany faced the Great Depression. Unemployment increased to nearly 4.4 million by December 1930. The depression paved the way for social discontent, fear, and extremist parties. The political, economic, and social problems of the Weimar Republic provided an environment in which Hitler and the Nazis were able to rise to power.

THE EMERGENCE OF ADOLF HITLER Born in 1889, Adolf Hitler was the son of an Austrian customs official. He was a total failure in secondary school and eventually made his way to Vienna to become an artist. Though he was rejected by the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, Hitler stayed on in Vienna to live the bohemian lifestyle of an artist. In his autobiography, Mein Kampf (myn KAHMPF) (My Struggle), Hitler characterized his years in Vienna from 1908 to 1913 as an important formative period in his life: “In this period there took shape within me a world picture and a philosophy which became the granite foundation of all my acts. In addition to what I then created, I have had to learn little, and I have had to alter nothing.”

In Vienna, then, Hitler established the basic ideas of an ideology from which he never deviated for the rest of his life. At the core of Hitler’s ideas was racism, especially anti-Semitism (see the box on p. 811). His hatred of the Jews lasted to the very end of his life. Hitler also became an extreme German nationalist who learned from the mass politics of Vienna how political parties could effectively use propaganda and terror. Finally, in his Viennese years, Hitler also came to a firm belief in the need for struggle, which he saw as the “granite foundation of the world.”

In 1913, Hitler moved to Munich, still without purpose and with no real future in sight. World War I saved him: “Overpowered by stormy enthusiasm, I fell down on my knees and thanked Heaven from an overflowing heart for granting me the good fortune of being permitted to live at this time.” As a dispatch runner on the Western Front, Hitler distinguished himself by his brave acts. At the end of the war, finding again that his life had no purpose or meaning, he returned to Munich and decided to enter politics and found, at last, his true profession.

THE RISE OF THE NAZIS Hitler joined the obscure German Workers’ Party, one of a number of right-wing extreme nationalist parties in Munich. By the summer of 1921, Hitler had assumed total control of the party, which he renamed the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, or Nazi for short (from the first two syllables of its German name). His idea was that the party’s name would distinguish the Nazis from the socialist parties while gaining support from both working-class and nationalist circles. Hitler worked assiduously to develop the party into a mass political movement with flags, badges, uniforms, its own newspaper, and its own police force or militia known as the SA, the Sturmabteilung (SHTOORM-ap-ty-loonk), or Storm Troops. The SA was used to defend the party in meeting halls and to break up the meetings of other parties. Hitler’s oratorical skills were largely responsible for attracting an increasing number of followers. By 1923, the party had grown from its early hundreds into a membership of 55,000, plus another 15,000 in the SA.

When it appeared that the Weimar Republic was on the verge of collapse in the fall of 1923, the Nazis and other rightwing leaders in the south German state of Bavaria decided to march on Berlin to overthrow the Weimar government. When his fellow conspirators reneged, Hitler and the Nazis decided to act on their own by staging an armed uprising in Munich on November 8. The so-called Beer Hall Putsch was quickly crushed. Hitler was arrested, put on trial for treason, and sentenced to prison for five years, a lenient sentence indeed from sympathetic right-wing judges.

During his brief stay in prison, Hitler wrote Mein Kampf, an autobiographical account of his movement and its underlying ideology. Extreme German nationalism, virulent anti-Semitism, and vicious anticommunism are linked together by a social Darwinian theory of struggle that stresses the right of superior nations to Lebensraum (LAY-benz-rowm) (living space) through expansion and the right of superior individuals to secure authoritarian leadership over the masses. What is perhaps most remarkable about Mein Kampf is its elaboration of a series of ideas that directed Hitler’s actions once he took power. That others refused to take Hitler and his ideas seriously was one of his greatest advantages.

HITLER’S NEW TACTICS The Beer Hall Putsch proved to be a major turning point in Hitler’s career. Rather than discouraging him, his trial and imprisonment reinforced his faith in himself and in his mission. He now clearly understood the need for a change in tactics. If the Nazis could not overthrow the Weimar Republic by force, they would have to use constitutional means to gain power. This implied the formation of a mass political movement that would actively compete for votes with the other political parties.

After his release from prison, Hitler set about organizing the Nazi Party for the lawful takeover of power. His position on leadership in the party was quite clear. There was to be no discussion of ideas in the party, and the party was to follow the Führerprinzip (FYOOR-ur-prin-TSEEP), the leadership principle, which entailed nothing less than a single-minded party under one leader. As Hitler expressed it, “A good National Socialist is one who would let himself be killed for his Führer at any time. “

In the late 1920s, Hitler reorganized the Nazi Party on a regional basis and expanded it to all parts of Germany. By 1929, the Nazis had a national party organization. The party also grew from 27,000 members in 1925 to 178,000 by the end of 1929. Especially noticeable was the youthfulness of the regional, district, and branch leaders of the Nazi organization. Many were under thirty and were fiercely committed to Hitler because he gave them the kind of active politics they sought. Rather than democratic debate, they wanted brawls in beer halls, enthusiastic speeches, and comradeship in the building of a new Germany. One new young Nazi member expressed his excitement about the party:

For me this was the start of a completely new life. There was only one thing in the world for me and that was service in the movement. All my thoughts were centered on the movement. I could talk only politics. I was no longer aware of anything else. At the time I was a promising athlete; I was very keen on sport, and it was going to be my career. But I had to give this up too. My only interest was agitation and propaganda.

Such youthful enthusiasm gave Nazism the aura of a “young man’s movement” and a sense of dynamism that the other parties could not match.

By 1929, the Nazi Party had also made a significant shift in strategy. Between 1925 and 1927, Hitler and the Nazis had pursued an urban strategy geared toward winning workers from the socialists and Communists. But failure in the 1928 elections, when the Nazis gained only 2.6 percent of the vote and twelve seats in the Reichstag, convinced Hitler of the need for a change. By 1929, the party began to pursue middle-class and lower-middle-class votes in small towns and rural areas, especially in northern, central, and eastern Germany.

Germany’s economic difficulties paved the way for the Nazis’ rise to power. Unemployment rose dramatically, from 4.35 million in 1931 to 6 million by the winter of 1932. The economic and psychological impact of the Great Depression made the radical solutions offered by extremist parties appear more attractive. Already in the Reichstag elections of September 1930, the Nazis polled 18 percent of the vote and gained 107 seats, making the Nazi Party one of the largest in Germany.

By 1930, Chancellor Heinrich Bruning (HYN-rikh BROOning) (1885-1970) had been unable to form a working parliamentary majority in the Reichstag and relied on the use of emergency decrees by President Hindenburg to rule. In a real sense, then, parliamentary democracy was already dying in 1930, three years before Hitler destroyed it.

THE NAZI SEIZURE OF POWER Hitler’s quest for power from late 1930 to early 1933 depended on the political maneuvering around President Hindenburg. Nevertheless, the elections from 1930 through 1932 were indirectly responsible for the Nazis’ rise to power since they showed the importance of the Nazi Party. The party itself grew dramatically during this period, from 289,000 members in September 1930 to 800,000 by 1932. The SA also rose to 500,000 members.

The Nazis proved very effective in developing modern electioneering techniques. In their election campaigns, party members pitched their themes to the needs and fears of different social groups. But even as they were making blatant appeals to class interests, the Nazis were denouncing conflicts of interest and maintaining that they stood above classes and parties. Hitler, in particular, claimed to stand above all differences and promised to create a new Germany free of class differences and party infighting. His appeal to national pride, national honor, and traditional militarism struck chords of emotion in his listeners.

Elections, however, proved to have their limits. In the elections of July 1932, the Nazis won 230 seats, making them the largest party in the Reichstag. But four months later, in November, they declined to 196 seats. It became apparent to many Nazis that they would not gain power simply by the ballot box. Hitler saw clearly, however, that after 1930 the Reichstag was not all that important, since the government ruled by decree with the support of President Hindenburg. Increasingly, the right-wing elites of Germany – the industrial magnates, landed aristocrats, military establishment, and higher bureaucrats – came to see Hitler as the man who had the mass support to establish a right-wing, authoritarian regime that would save Germany and their privileged positions from a Communist takeover. These people almost certainly thought that they could control Hitler and, like many others, may well have underestimated his abilities. Under pressure from these elites, President Hindenburg agreed to allow Hitler to become chancellor (on January 30, 1933) and form a new government.

Within two months, Hitler had laid the foundations for the Nazis’ complete control over Germany. One of Hitler’s important cohorts, Hermann Göring (GUR-ing) (1893-1946), had been made minister of the interior and hence head of the police of the Prussian state, the largest of the federal states in Germany. He used his power to purge the police of non-Nazis and to establish an auxiliary police force composed of SA members. This action legitimized Nazi terror. On the day after a fire broke out in the Reichstag building (February 27), supposedly set by the Communists, Hitler was also able to convince President Hindenburg to issue a decree that gave the government emergency powers. It suspended all basic rights of citizens for the full duration of the emergency, thus enabling the Nazis to arrest and imprison anyone without redress.

The crowning step of Hitler’s “legal seizure” of power came after the Nazis had gained 288 Reichstag seats in the elections of March 5, 1933. Since they still did not possess an absolute majority, on March 23 the Nazis sought the passage of an Enabling Act, which would empower the government to dispense with constitutional forms for four years while it issued laws to deal with the country’s problems. Since the act was to be an amendment to the Weimar constitution, the Nazis needed and obtained a two-thirds vote to pass it. Only the Social Democrats had the courage to oppose Hitler. The Enabling Act provided the legal basis for Hitler’s subsequent acts. He no longer needed either the Reichstag or President Hindenburg. In effect, Hitler became a dictator appointed by the parliamentary body itself.

With their new source of power, the Nazis acted quickly to enforce Gleichschaltung (glykh-SHAHL-toonk), the coordination of all institutions under Nazi control. They purged the civil service of Jews and democratic elements, established concentration camps for opponents of the new regime, eliminated the autonomy of the federal states, dissolved the trade unions and replaced them with the gigantic Labor Front, and abolished all political parties except the Nazis. By the end of the summer of 1933, within seven months of being appointed chancellor, Hitler and the Nazis had established a powerful control over Germany.

Why had this seizure of power been so quick and easy? The Nazis were not only ruthless in their use of force but ready to take control. The depression and the Weimar Republic’s failure to resolve it had weakened what little faith the Germans had in their democratic state. But negative factors alone cannot explain the Nazi success. To many Germans, the Nazis offered a national awakening. “Germany awake,” one of the many Nazi slogans, had a powerful appeal to a people psychologically crushed by their defeat in World War 1. The Nazis presented a strong image of a dynamic new Germany that was above parties and above classes.

By the end of 1933, there were only two sources of potential danger to Hitler’s authority: the armed forces and the SA within his own party. The SA, under the leadership of Ernst Rölm (RURM), openly criticized Hitler and spoke of the need for a “second revolution” and the replacement of the regular army by the SA. Neither the army nor Hitler favored such a possibility. Hitler solved both problems simultaneously on June 30, 1934, by having Rölm and a number of other SA leaders killed in return for the army’s support in allowing Hitler to succeed Hindenburg when the president died. When Hindenburg died on August 2, 1934, the office of president was abolished, and Hitler became sole ruler of Germany. Public officials and soldiers were all required to take a personal oath of loyalty to Hitler as the “Führer of the German Reich and people.” The Third Reich had begun.

THE NAZI STATE (1933-1939) Having smashed the parliamentary state, Hitler now felt that the real task was at hand: to develop the “total state.” Hitler’s aims had not been simply power for power’s sake or a tyranny based on personal ambition. He had larger ideological goals. The development of an Aryan racial state that would dominate Europe and possibly the world for generations to come required a massive movement in which the German people would be actively involved, not passively cowed by force. Hitler stated:

We must develop organizations in which an individual’s entire life can take place. Then every activity and every need of every individual will be regulated by the collectivity represented by the party. There is no longer any arbitrary will, there are no longer any free realms in which the individual belongs to himself.... The time of personal happiness is over.

The Nazis pursued the creation of this unified state in a variety of ways. They employed mass demonstrations and spectacles to integrate the German nation into a collective fellowship and to mobilize it as an instrument for Hitler’s policies. These mass demonstrations, especially the Nuremberg party rallies that were held every September and the Harvest Festivals celebrated at the Buckeberg (BOOK-uh-bayrk) near Hamelin every fall, combined the symbolism of a religious service with the merriment of a popular amusement. They had great appeal and usually evoked mass enthusiasm and excitement (see the box on p. 814).

Some features of the state apparatus of Hitler’s total state seem contradictory. One usually thinks of Nazi Germany as having an all-powerful government that maintained absolute control and order. In truth, Nazi Germany was the scene of almost constant personal and institutional conflict, which resulted in administrative chaos. Incessant struggle characterized relationships within the party, within the state, and between party and state. By fostering rivalry within the party and between party and state, Hitler became the ultimate decision maker.

In the economic sphere, Hitler and the Nazis also established control, but industry was not nationalized, as the left wing of the Nazi Party wanted. Hitler felt that it was irrelevant who owned the means of production so long as the owners recognized their master. Although the regime pursued the use of public works projects and “pump-priming” grants to private construction firms to foster employment and end the depression, there is little doubt that rearmament did far more to solve the unemployment problem. Unemployment, which had stood at 6 million in 1932, dropped to 2.6 million in 1934 and less than 500,000 in 1937. The regime claimed full credit for solving Germany’s economic woes, and the improved economy was an important factor in convincing many Germans to accept the new regime, despite its excesses.

The German Labor Front under Robert Ley regulated the world of labor. The Labor Front was a state-run union. To control all laborers, it used the workbook. Every salaried worker had to have one in order to hold a job. Only by submitting to the policies of the Nazi-controlled Labor Front could a worker obtain and retain a workbook. The Labor Front also sponsored activities to keep the workers happy (see “Mass Leisure” later in this chapter).

For those who needed coercion, the Nazi state had its instruments of terror and repression. Especially important was the SS, the Schutzstaffen (SHOOTS-shtah-fuhn), or Protection Squads. Originally created as Hitler’s personal bodyguard, the SS, under the direction of Heinrich Himmler (1900-1945), came to control all of the regular and secret police forces. Himmler and the SS functioned on the basis of two principles: terror and ideology. Terror included the instruments of repression and murder: the secret police, criminal police, concentration camps, and later the execution squads and death camps for the extermination of the Jews (see Chapter 27). For Himmler, the SS was a crusading order whose primary goal was to further the Aryan master race. SS members, who constituted a carefully chosen elite, were thoroughly indoctrinated in racial ideology.

Other institutions, such as the Catholic and Protestant churches, primary and secondary schools, and universities, were also brought under the control of the Nazi state. Nazi professional organizations and leagues were formed for civil servants, teachers, women, farmers, doctors, and lawyers. Because the early indoctrination of the nation’s youth would lay the foundation for a strong state, special attention was given to youth organizations: the Hitler Jugend (YOO-gunt) (Hitler Youth) and its female counterpart, the Bund Deutscher Madel (BOONT DOIT-chuh MAY-dul) (German Girls Association). The oath required of Hitler Youth members demonstrates the dedication expected of youth in the Nazi state: “In the presence of this blood banner, which represents our Führer, I swear to devote all my energies and my strength to the savior of our country, Adolf Hitler. I am willing and ready to give up my life for him, so help me God.”

Women played a crucial role in the Aryan racial state as bearers of the children who would bring about the triumph of the Aryan race. To the Nazis, the differences between men and women were quite natural. Men were warriors and political leaders; women were destined to be wives and mothers. Motherhood was exalted in an annual ceremony on August 12, Hitler’s mother’s birthday, when Hitler awarded the German Mother’s Cross to a select group of German mothers. Those with four children received a bronze cross, those with six a silver cross, and those with eight or more a gold cross.

Nazi ideas determined employment opportunities for women. The Nazis hoped to drive women out of heavy industry or other jobs that might hinder them from bearing healthy children, as well as certain professions, including university teaching, medicine, and law, which were considered inappropriate for women, especially married women. The Nazis encouraged women to pursue professional occupations that had direct practical application, such as social work and nursing. In addition to restrictive legislation against females, the Nazi regime pursued its campaign against working women with such poster slogans as “Get hold of pots and pans and broom and you’ll sooner find a groom!” Nazi policy toward female workers remained inconsistent, however. Especially after the rearmament boom and increased conscription of males for military service resulted in a labor shortage, the government encouraged women to work, even in areas previously dominated by males.

The Nazi total state was intended to be an Aryan racial state. From its beginning, the Nazi Party reflected Hitler’s strong anti-Semitic beliefs. Once in power, the Nazis translated anti-Semitic ideas into anti-Semitic policies. Already on April 1, 1933, the new Nazi government initiated a two-day boycott of Jewish businesses. A series of laws soon followed that excluded “non-Aryans” (defined as anyone “descended from non-Aryans, especially Jewish parents or grandparents”) from the legal profession, civil service, judgeships, the medical profession, teaching positions, cultural and entertainment enterprises, and the press.

In September 1935, the Nazis announced new racial laws at the annual party rally in Nuremberg. These “Nuremberg laws” excluded German Jews from German citizenship and forbade marriages and extramarital relations between Jews and German citizens. The Nuremberg laws essentially separated Jews from the Germans politically, socially, and legally and were the natural extension of Hitler’s stress on the preservation of a pure Aryan race.

Another considerably more violent phase of anti-Jewish activity took place in 1938 and 1939; it was initiated on November 9-10, 1938, the infamous Kristallnacht (kri-STAHL nahkht), or "Night of Shattered Glass." The assassination of a third secretary in the German embassy in Paris by a young Polish Jew became the excuse for a Nazi-led destructive rampage against the Jews in which synagogues were burned, seven thousand Jewish businesses were destroyed, and at least one hundred Jews were killed. Moreover, 30,000 Jewish males were rounded up and sent to concentration camps. Kristallnacht also led to further drastic steps. Jews were barred from all public buildings and prohibited from owning, managing, or working in any retail store. Finally, under the direction of the SS, Jews were encouraged to “emigrate from Germany.” After the outbreak of World War II, the policy of emigration was replaced by a more gruesome one.


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