- The precipitating circumstance that led to Adolf Hitler’s “seizure of power” in January 1933 was the inability of the Weimar Republic to solve the dire economic problems, highlighted by the chronic unemployment, resulting from the Great Depression of 1929. The Weimar Republic, established in the wake of Germany’s defeat in World War I, was forced to sign the Treaty of Versailles, which called for Germany to accept sole responsibility for causing the war (the “War Guilt” clause), the forfeiture of German territory in the east, the payment of war reparations, and limiting its army to 100,000 men. The treaty was unpopular in Germany, causing shame and resentment among the population. Because of the threat of communist revolution in Germany, the Social Democratic government of the Weimar Republic formed an alliance with the German military and ignored the right-wing groups and their private militias (Freikorps) that engaged the communists in ever-occurring battles.Among the right-wing groups was the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (Nazis), which by 1921 was led by Adolf Hitler. Hitler promoted the idea that Germany during the war was betrayed from within (“stab in the back”) by leftists and, specifically, the Jews. He identified Jews with Bolshevism and promised that should he come to power, he would do something about Germany’s small but influential Jewish population. In 1923, against the background of high inflation and the French occupation of the Ruhr, Hitler attempted a “putsch” against the state government of Munich with the objective of marching on Berlin to overthrow the Weimar Republic. In the aftermath of the failure of the beer-hall putsch, Hitler was arrested and brought to trial, where he was found guilty and sentenced to prison. Serving only months of his five-year sentence, he was released and decided that he would turn to politics rather than using armed force to attain power.Between 1925 and 1928, Germany recovered from its perilous economic situation, thanks to the initiative of the American Dawes Plan, and Hitler spent the years solidifying his leadership over his party. From 1925 to the 1930s, however, the German government evolved from a democracy to a de facto conservative-nationalist authoritarian state under the former war hero Paul von Hindenburg, who was elected president of the Weimar Republic following the death of Friedrich Ebert. Hindenburg was a conservative who opposed the liberal democratic nature of the Weimar Republic and wanted to find a way to turn Germany into an authoritarian state. When the worldwide depression occurred in 1929, the government, led by Hindenburg, found itself unable to find a solution to the economic crisis. As unemployment increased, both the communists and the Nazis increased their political representation in the Reichstag. The Nazis vowed to bring a bright new future for Germany in lieu of the seemingly incapable democratic government, and promised the restoration of civil order, the elimination of unemployment, the restoration of national pride (principally through the repudiation of the Treaty of Versailles), and racial cleansing by actively removing the influence of Jews in German life. The Nazis also promoted military rearmament, repudiated the reparation payments, and promised the restoration of territory lost after the war.Nazi propaganda continued to endorse the “stab in the back” canard whereby Hitler accused the Jews of Germany’s surrender to the Allies and the humiliating aftermath as exemplified in the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles. He referred to the Jews as the traitorous “November criminals,” whose goal was to subvert and poison the German blood. Increasingly after 1929, radical German nationalists were attracted to the revolutionary nature of the Nazis and joined them in confronting the communists as the German economy floundered. As unemployment intensified, the middle-class parties lost support as the German electorate polarized around the left and right wings, thus making majority government in a parliamentary system even more difficult.In the elections of 1928, when economic conditions had improved following the end of the hyperinflation of 1922–1923, the Nazis gained a meager 12 seats. In 1930, months after the stock market crash, they won an astonishing 107 seats, going from a splinter group that ranked ninth in the Reichstag to the second-largest parliamentary party. After the July elections of 1932, the Nazis were the largest party in the Reichstag with 230 seats. Hitler expected to be appointed chancellor by Hindenburg, but the president was reluctant to appoint him. After Hindenburg had gone through a number of chancellors who were not able to solve the country’s economic and political crisis, former chancellor Franz von Papen convinced Hindenburg to appoint Hitler chancellor, convincing the president that the more conservative politicians, like himself, would be able to moderate Hitler’s extremism. On 30 January 1933, Hindenburg appointed Hitler chancellor of Germany. Even though the Nazis had gained the largest share of the popular vote in the two Reichstag general elections of 1932, they did not hold a majority of the seats in the Reichstag. Consequently, the Nazis formed a coalition with former Chancellor Franz von Papen, leader of the Catholic Center Party, whose politics were dictated in part by his desire to combat communism and who believed he could restrain the excesses of the Nazis. On the night of 27 February 1933, the Reichstag building was set on fire and a Dutch communist, Marinus van der Lubbe, was found inside the building. He was arrested and charged with starting the blaze. The event had an immediate effect on thousands of anarchists, socialists, and communists throughout the Reich, many of whom were arrested and sent to the newly constructed Dachau concentration camp. The unnerved public worried that the fire had been a signal meant to initiate the communist revolution, and the Nazis found the event to be of immeasurable value in getting rid of potential political opponents. The event was quickly followed by the Enabling Act rescinding habeas corpus and other civil liberties. The Enabling Act was passed in March 1933 and, together with Article 48 of the Constitution of the Weimar Republic, which allowed the president, under certain circumstances, to take “emergency measures” (including the promulgation of legislative decrees) without the prior consent of the Reichstag, was immediately implemented by Hitler to establish a dictatorship-thus, ending the Weimar Republic and ushering in the Third Reich. During the next year, the Nazis ruthlessly eliminated all opposition. The Communist Party had already been banned before the passage of the Enabling Act, and the Social Democrats, despite efforts to appease Hitler, were banned in June 1933. The Catholic Center Party, at Papen’s urging, disbanded itself on 5 July 1933 after guarantees that protected Catholic education and youth groups. On 14 July 1933, Germany was officially declared a one-party state.Symbols of the Weimar Republic, including the black-red-gold flag (now the present-day flag of Germany), were abolished by the new regime, which adopted both new and old imperial symbolism to represent the dual nature of the imperial Nazi regime of 1933. The old imperial black-white-red tricolor, almost completely abandoned during the Weimar Republic, was restored as one of Germany’s two officially legal national flags. The other official national flag was the swastika flag of the Nazi Party. It became the sole national flag in 1935. The national anthem continued to be “Deutschland uber Alles” (also known as the “Deutschlandlied”) except that the Nazis customarily used just the first verse and appended to it the “Horst-WesselLied” accompanied by the so-called Hitler salute. When President Hindenburg died on 2 August 1934, Hitler declared the office of president vacant, combined the office of president and chancellor, and took on the title of “Fuhrer” or “leader.”With Hitler now firmly in charge, the National Socialist movement turned its attention to Germany’s Jews. By the early months of 1933, it had already taken its first step in the process of removing them from German society when it called for the boycott of Jewish businesses on 1 April 1933. This was followed by the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service on 7 April 1933, which barred anyone not of Aryan descent from public employment and established the principle of racial difference between Jews and Germans. Subsequently, numerous laws would be passed between 1933 and the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, including the Nuremberg Laws on 15 September 1935, and after Kristallnacht (9–10 November 1938) on 19 September 1939, German Jews were required to wear the yellow Star of David badge on their clothing, as just a few examples. The intention of these laws was to prod Jews to leave Germany and, short of that, remove them from all facets of German life. Once the decision to exterminate the Jews of Europe was decided in mid-summer 1941, it was only a matter of time before the Jews of Germany would be targeted for deportation. On 10 December 1942, the first group of German Jews was deported to Auschwitz, where, along with most of Europe’s millions of Jews, they perished in the Holocaust.Following the Allies’ defeat of Germany in April 1945, a series of military tribunals were convened from October 1945 to October 1946. The court’s legal designation was the International Military Tribunal (IMT) or better known as the Nuremberg Trials, which consisted of prosecutors from France, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States. The first of these trials tried 22 major Nazi war criminals who were accused of war crimes against humanity and peace. The Nazi leaders tried at Nuremberg were found guilty of crimes against humanity and having engaged in a criminal conspiracy by virtue of their membership in the Nazi Party. Of the 22 defendants, 12 were sentenced to death, 3 were sentenced to life imprisonment, and the rest to lesser sentences. Subsequent Nuremberg proceedings were enacted in a series of trials that continued from 1946 to 1948, and included physicians who performed medical experiments in the concentration camps (1946), the trial of I. G. Farben (1947), the Krupp case (1947), and the trial of the Einsatzgruppen (1947). In September 1951, Konrad Adenauer, the first chancellor of the German Federal Republic, addressed the Bundestag (Parliament) and acknowledged “unspeakable crimes that were perpetrated in the name of the German people that oblige us to make moral and material amends.” In 1952, Germany made monetary restitution to Israel, and the West German parliament subsequently enacted a law that compensated Holocaust survivors.In the decades following the end of the Second World War, a phenomena known as Holocaust denial made its appearance in much of the Western world and in the last few decades has spread to the Middle East. Claiming that the Holocaust did not happen or that the Nazi government did not have a policy of deliberately targeting Jews for extermination or that six million Jews were murdered, Holocaust deniers also insisted that the Nazis did not use gas chambers to kill Jews or any other targeted people. In short, they insist that the Holocaust was a hoax. In 1985, Germany’s parliament passed legislation making it a crime to deny the extermination of the Jews. In 1994, the law was tightened. Now, anyone who publicly endorses, denies, or plays down the genocide against the Jews faces a maximum penalty of five years in jail and no less than the imposition of a fine.
Historical dictionary of the Holocaust. Jack R. Fischel. 2014.
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