Germany would play a critical role in driving events during the interwar period, and within Germany political volatility would cause drastic changes.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 15 The Third Reich Part 1 - The Austrian. While researching this series of episodes I began to wonder how many pages have been written about the events in Germany in 1933, the participants in those events, and their immediate consequences. Hundreds of thousands? Millions? I wonder where it would fall on a list of events based on the number of books written about them. Over the better part of the next 4 months, spanning roughly 16 episodes, I will add to that number. We will be discussing the creation and rise of the National Socialist party, through its failures of the early 1920s, to its resurgence in the latter half of that decade, then to its meteoric rise in the early 1930s. In 1933 it would then be able to place itself in control of Germany, first as part of a coalition of political leaders on the right, and then on its own. Our episodes will then continue through to the remilitarization of the Rhineland in 1936 with discussion of the changes that occurred in Germany during the intervening 3 years. The rise to power of Adolf Hitler and the political party that followed him is an event in history that is incredibly well documented, discussed by countless historians, and is popular enough to get large numbers of publications from outside academia. Many of those stories hit the same beats, in the same order, and most of them even end up using the same quotes. This provides a very well developed set of evidence for every event that occurred, however it can also make it a challenge to not fall into the trap of inevitability. There was in fact nothing inevitable about the rise of the National Socialist party, and to treat it as such is to fall into the propaganda of the party itself. Trying to convince everyone who would listen that they were an inevitable force of destiny was a key part of the mystique to the party, one that they would zealously foster both at the time and in later years. During the 13 years between 1920 and 1933 there were many opportunities for curtailing the growing support of the National Socialists, or any of the other radical parties in Germany at the time, but this was not done for a variety of reasons which will be one of the topics discussed during these episodes. Another focus of these episodes will, of course, be the leader of the National Socialist German Workers Party, Adolf Hitler. I should note that these episodes are not a biography of Hitler, and after some initial back story it will move away from biographical content. My hope is to make it clear that while Adolf Hitler would be the head of the National Socialist party after 1920, and leader of the German state after 1933, he did not cause or control all of the events during this period. Instead, the story of the Nazi party and its rise to power would be a story of Germany, of its history and society during the difficult period after the First World War. Hitler and the Nazis would amplify, concentrate, and take advantage of issues and public concerns within German society during those years, but they would rarely create them. They would never gain an outright majority at the ballot box before taking power, but in the fractured German political landscape they would still be the largest party. Then, when they would obtain power for the first time in 1933 they would be brought into a coalition government which planned to rule by Presidential decree just like several other governments before it. In many ways their rise to power was not greatly exceptional, but it is a complicated history, not made any easier by the fact that many groups had reasons to try and alter how events of this time period were perceived. The Nazi party wanted the events before 1933 to seem like a triumphant march to power, to cast the party as the vanguard of a new future. A majority of the credit would be placed on Adolf Hitler, but while he was an important individual in many key events, he was not the sole cause. Or as Ian Kershaw says in the introduction to his famous biography: “It would be convenient to look no further, for the cause of Germany’s and Europe’s calamity, than the person of Adolf Hitler himself, ruler of Germany from 1933 to 1945, whose philosophies of breathtaking inhumanity had been publicly advertised almost eight years before he became Reich Chancellor. But, for all Hitler’s prime moral responsibility for what took place under his authoritarian regime, a personalized explanation would be a gross short-circuiting of the truth.” I belief that pulling back from a full focus on Hitler himself is also important because otherwise it can be very easy to fall into the exact views expressed and supported by Nazi propaganda. They wanted everyone to believe that all of the good things that were happening and all of the promises of the future were because of the actions of Adolf Hitler, and that they were only possible because he was the leader of the party and the nation. Like many other men in history Hitler believed himself to be a Great Man, capable of changing the course of history, and getting as many people as possible to also believe in that fact was an important step to making it a reality. In later years there were also reasons for others in Germany to try and cast the events of the preceding years in a different light, to downplay their own actions and influence or to shift blame onto other groups. These are just some of the many reasons that the story of the creation of Nazi Germany is equal parties confusing, predictable, exceptional, and mundane. This episode, which will be by far the most focused on Adolf Hitler the individual, will begin with a discussion of Hitler’s early life and how he joined and then took control of the National Socialists party in the early 1920s. If you would like to see a more complete outline of what is ahead during this series I have posted one over on the website, you can find a link in the show notes. Also, if you have any questions, comments, thoughts, or concerns send them my way, if I end up with enough questions I may do a Q&A episode at the end of this series, you can find ways to communicate those questions to me in the show notes as well.
Adolf Hitler’s early life was in some ways complete unremarkable. He was not a fantastic student in his youth, and at the age of 16 he would leave school without earning a degree. He would then move to Vienna where he was able to live a reasonably comfortable life due to an orphan’s pension that he received from the state and some money that he received from his deceased father’s estate. During this period he would never have a large amount of money but he seems to have been able to live frugally and without great hardship, even if he would later say otherwise. In 1907 his mother would pass away and he would also be rejected by the Viennese Academy of the Arts. These two events were important, especially the rejection from the Academy because over the previous years he had been moving toward the life of an artist. After he was rejected from the Academy, at least partially due to a lack of apparent skill, he would lose any real guiding path he had with his life. From 1909 to 1913 he lived in a men’s home and made some money painting postcards of Vienna. Among those who interacted with Hitler during this period he was known as an individual with strongly held beliefs, be they political or personal. Even at this early period, a decade before he would become active in German politics, the basic outline of his later political thought were already present. He had a strong hatred of Marxism and Socialism, which during this period was best embodied by the Social Democratic movement in Vienna and many other cities. He would also already be a vehement anti-Semite. Anti-Semitism was not unknown in Austria at this time, and politicians like Georg Ritter von Schonerer were vocal and ardent anti-Semites. They blamed the Jews for many of the problems experienced by the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the world. Hitler would adopt many of these views, and he would support politicians that held them. Hitler would also begin to strongly support the idea of pan-Germanism. Pan-Germanism was the belief that the German people should all be united in one nation, Greater Germany, Grossdeuschtland. This concept was supported by many Germans within what was at this time the Austro-Hungarian Empire, with Austria having by far the most Germans of any area within the Empire. During his time in Vienna Hitler was a strong believer in these ideas, and he was very vocal in his political beliefs when given the opportunity to state them, but he was not actively involved in Viennese politics.
Hitler would leave Vienna, and Austria altogether in 1913. He would of course downplay the reason for his move later in life, because at the time he would choose to leave Austria to avoid the mandatory military service which he was required by law to do. All Austrian men were required to register for military service, which Hitler did not do when he was required to for the first time in 1909. For the next three years he would also fail to register, which he could have done at any time before he turned 24 in 1913. He of course was not just forgetful, and he was purposely dodging service because he was unwilling to participate in military service for the Austro-Hungarian empire. This would become a problem in 1913 when he moved from the category of people who were simply delaying their military service, which anyone could do for several years, and instead was placed in the category of people who were actively avoiding their military service. To try and escape this problem, Hitler would cross the border into Germany and move to the city of Munich. This did not permanently solve the problem though, and in January 1914 the police would arrive at his door in Munich to take him to the Austrian consulate. The initial plan was to send him to Linz where he would be either brought into the Austrian military or receive his criminal sentence. However, the Austrian consul chose instead to send him to Salzburg, which was much closer to the German border. In Salzburg he would be declared physically unfit to serve in the military. This was an incredibly lucky moment for Hitler, if he would have been forced into the Austrian military it is very likely that he would have been still servicing in that army when the First World War began, which could have set his life on a very different course. As I mentioned earlier Hitler tried to obfuscate this part of his life story in later years when he was in the public spotlight, he wanted to avoid being labelled as a shirker of military service, which could have been very problematic for his military career.
While he had gone to great lengths to avoid service in the Austro-Hungarian Army he would enter the Bavarian army willingly just three days after the start of the First World War. Hitler was not at the time a German citizen, but in the heady days of 1914 there was little thought given to determining the exact point of origin of any volunteers who wished to join the German army. His experiences during the war would be just as transformational as his rejection from the Academy. He would experience combat, and would be injured twice, the first of which would occur during the closing stages of the Battle of the Somme in October 1916. He would then go on to participate in the Battle of Arras and the Third Battle of Ypres. Then in October 1918 he would be hit by a British mustard gas attack near Ypres, and he would spend the rest of the war in hospital. After the gas attack he would experience temporary blindness, which was a very common condition suffered by those who were the target of gas, but his overall condition was not considered to be serious. Then on November 10th he was informed of the news of the armistice which would go into effect the next day. Like many German soldiers he could not believe that the war would be over, and that it would result not in victory but defeat. He would later describe his emotions upon hearing the news like this “I could stand it no longer. Everything went black again before my eyes; I tottered and groped my way back to the ward, threw myself on my bunk, and dug my burning head into my blanket and pillow … So it had all been in vain. In vain all the sacrifices and privations; … in vain the hours in which, with mortal fear clutching at our hearts, we nevertheless did our duty; in vain the death of two millions who died … Had they died for this? … Did all this happen only so that a gang of wretched criminals could lay hands on the Fatherland?” At this point he would again suffer from a bout of temporary blindness, which the doctors concluded could only have been caused by hysteria. Hitler was just one of many German soldiers that felt totally let down, even betrayed, but the decision made to sign an armistice with their enemies. These emotions would in fact be the root of the Stab in the Back Myth which would be an important part of post-war propaganda for many political groups in Germany. This was the idea that the German political leaders, which were by this point led by a coalition of Social Democrats and the Catholic Center party had betrayed the hard fighting Germany Army. These brave soldiers, as the myth went, were robbed of their great triumphant victory and the leaders in Berlin invalidated and disrespected over 4 years of sacrifice and sufferings. This was in fact a myth, and it was the German Army High Command, right to the top with Hindenburg and Ludendorff who had pushed and pressured the government into the armistice. However, all of the blame, at least from some sections of the German public would fall upon the leaders in Berlin. They had affixed their name to the surrender document, as they would to the treaty of Versailles some months later. The conversations that had occurred at Army High Command were classified, and none of the military leaders who participated in them wanted to associate their name to the decisions made. Instead Hitler rand many others would instead focus their anger, and their anti-Marxist beliefs, on the so called “November criminals” who were at the time in control of the German government in Berlin.
When Hitler returned from the war and arrived back in Munich he would be ushered into some political instruction courses. These courses were supported by German officers who hoped to ensure that any soldiers who might have socialists proclivities has them educated away. The lecturers ranged from conservative German politicians to more radical political theorists. During these courses Hitler would hear lectures that in many ways just reinforced his pre-existing beliefs that dated back to his days in Vienna. This included his belief in Pan-Germanism and blaming Jews for many of the issues facing German society. Hitler’s extreme anti-Semitism would have at earlier points put him as a political outcast. However, near the turn of the century a growth in anti-Semitic thought was seen as the German conservative party hoped that such policies would help it to gain more support, and specifically to steal support from the radical smaller parties on the political right. Over the next years, as Hitler became more and more active in German politics it is impossible to separate the rise of Hitler the Politician from the continuing presence of Hitler the anti-Semite. It would be the one viewpoint that would be remarkably unchanged over the course of the years after the First World War. Already in early 1920, before he had even really entered politics in any real way the main features of his beliefs on how Jewish individuals should be treated and what they should be blamed for were already formed. Here is Richard J. Evans in his book The Coming of the Third Reich “The Jews, he said in a speech delivered on 6 April 1920, were ‘to be exterminated’; on 7 August the same year he told his audience that they should not believe ‘that you can fight a disease without killing the cause, without annihilating the bacillus, and do not think that you can fight racial tuberculosis without taking care that the people are free of the cause of racial tuberculosis’.”
In September 1919 while in Munich Hitler would join the German Workers Party, which was at the time a very small group. It was led by Anton Drexler, a Munich locksmith, and the party would be based on a set of political beliefs which were mostly in line with Hitler’s views at the time. The platform of the party was a mix of anti-Semitism, anti-capitalism, and anti-Marxism with German nationalism also being a prominent part of all party beliefs. After joining the group Hitler would be put in charge of the party’s propaganda in early 1920, and it would be from this position that he rise to eventual leadership of the party would begin. At this point the way that smaller parties spread their message was to hold meetings, or rallies, and throughout the early months of 1920 the party would hold these rallies in venues as large as the Hofbrauhaus in Munich which had a capacity of up to 2000. It would be during this period that Hitler’s public speaking ability would really be developed and demonstrated in a public forum. In his seminal work Hitler: A Biography, Ian Kershaw would explain his speaking style like this: “Simplicity and repetition were two key ingredients in his speaking armoury. These revolved around the unvarying essential driving-points of his message: the nationalization of the masses, the reversal of the great ‘betrayal’ of 1918, the destruction of Germany’s internal enemies (above all the ‘removal’ of the Jews), and material and psychological rebuilding as the prerequisite for external struggle and the attainment of a position of world power.” During many of these speeches Hitler was not breaking new ideological ground, or surprising the audience with the content, however the effectiveness with which Hitler delivered the message was impressive. For a small party like the German Workers Party having a person who was so effective at speaking completely changed their position within the wider Munich political scene. The hardest task for any small party in Germany was to gain any kind of traction with the populace, but the German Workers Party was able to do this based almost entirely on the fact that their meetings were events, well conducted and well attended. In February 1920 Hitler would insist that the party change its name to the National Socialist German Workers Party, or NSDAP. The inclusion of National Socialist, or perhaps very specifically the word Socialist in the name of the party was done in the hopes that it would increase support for the party among the working class, and perhaps even expand the party’s base beyond the radical right wing politics of Munich. The renaming of the party was just the first step towards Hitler altering the party into his party, a task in which he would be great assisted by the fact that by 1921, to the public, Hitler was the face of the party. He was the one giving the speeches and conveying the party’s message, however at the time Hitler did not make any kind of push to become the leader of the party in any official capacity, but his influence on the party’s program and his influence of the party’s popularity would do nothing but increase.
In a speech delivered in February 1920 Hitler would unveil the official party platform of the, at the time, German Workers party in the form of the 25 points. These points had been a collaboration between Drexler and Hitler and they would from that point forward be the primary platform for first the party, even after it was renamed. The points themselves were a restatement of many of the same beliefs and messages that Hitler and others had restated in speeches time and time again and I think they can can be broken up into a few different categories. The first are statements about German nationalism, with the very first point stating that “We demand the union of all Germans to form the Greater Germany on the basis of the people’s right to self-determination enjoyed by the nations.” Others would speak to the racial beliefs of the National Socialist party, and their belief that the very fact that a person was German made them special, for example point 4 would say “None but members of the nation may be citizens of the state. None but those of German blood, whatever their creed may be. No Jew, therefore, may be a member of the nation.” Then there were a few that spoke to the geopolitical issues of the day that were very important to many Germans, for example the second point would call for the destruction of the agreements made at Versailles and afterwards. Most of the 25 points would concern what life should be like in Germany, the point 11 calling the abolition of unearned income, point 16 the creation of a strong and prosperous middle class, point 17 land reform, 15 old age pensions, 20 increased access to education. Finally, there are points which point to what the National Socialists believed was the correct form of government to make all of the other points a reality, with point 25 stating “For the execution of all of this we demand the formation of a strong central power in the Reich. Unlimited authority of the central parliament over the whole Reich and its organizations in general.” If you read through the points, and I encourage you to do so and to make it easier I have placed a link to a copy of them in the show notes, there may be a few things that stick out. The first is that they seem, at least relative to later Nazi policies, to be pretty reasonable. IN fact many of the points simply mimicked the positions of the plethora of other right win political parties in Germany at this time. The second is that they seem, perhaps, a bit socialist in nature. This is somewhat important because it ties into the idea, which is loudly trumpeted by some people, that the National Socialist party was in fact on the left end of the political spectrum instead of on the right. That is a topic that I am not going to dive into in this episode, but I will probably in the last episode of this series of episodes because to talk in depth about trying to politically categorize the National Socialists it is important that we first talk about the actions of the National Socialists, and not just their political platform. However, I will say that yes, there are certainly points within the 25 that would have aligned reasonably well with what, for example, the German Social Democrats would support in Germany during this time period. I do have to caution everyone very strongly not to leap to any conclusions due to this fact, because it is incredibly important to remember what the 25 points were. Regardless of what Hitler would later say about the points being unalterable, they were not all implemented when the National Socialists were later in control of Germany, and in fact after 1933 they would implement policies that would directly contradict some points. This is because the 25 points were first and foremost a propaganda instrument, they were designed to increase the support of the German Worker’s party at the time they were introduced. The goal of the points was to have something for a lot of people, something that Hitler and other party leaders could point to be able to claim that they had every German’s best interest at heart. To poorer Germans they could point to point 11 and its abolition of debt slavery, to the middle class point 16 and its support for strengthening that middle class, to centrist socialists point 14 and its demands for a distribution of trade profits, for anti-Semites there were many options, for German nationalists even more. This is why the ideas found within the 25 points were broad, and why they were vague, and why they would be so successful in their mission. A wide reaching policy platform allowed the National Socialists, a radical opposition party, to constantly rail against the German government on a variety of topics. It promised to fix all of the problems in society, without having to provide any actual details. From the beerhalls of Munich Hitler and others could simply fire away at Berlin, gaining followers and supporters in the process. All they had to do was continue to build, to wait, to plan, to grow, to use the Weimar government’s mistakes against it. To do something drastic would be to risk it all, and might result in the destruction of the party. To do something like launch a putsch in Munich in 1923 would be absurd, it would be a huge overplay of their hand, it would have been almost suicidal! I hope you will join me next episode, in which we will discuss the putsch launched in Munich in 1923 by the National Socialist German Workers Party.