By all accounts, the Weimar Republic, as Germany was known from 1918 until the Nazi regime came into power, was not a country of peaceable living where great fortunes could be amassed.
Upon the cessation of fighting World War I in November 1918, the German people rose up to overthrow the monarchy in favour of a parliamentary republic.
Once it was established, life did not get easier for German (or Weimar) citizens: a lack of work, food, and goods, coupled with hyperinflation, led to grave social unrest.
Add to that the fact that the country had no real political direction or leadership.
Furthermore, distaste for the terms of the Treaty of Versailles fueled resentment for the military capitulation in 1918 and led to strong right-wing sentiment: the perfect stage setting for a fervent, ambitious, relatively unknown political entity – Adolf Hitler.
Yes, the stage was set, but it needed lighting.
The Great Depression provided megawatts of illumination: on the desperate plight of the poor, the cold and the hungry, on the seeming prosperity of foreigners at the expense of true Germans, and on the general lack of political direction and industry throughout the nation.
We now pull back the curtain to reveal the rise of the Third Reich, how it went from serving the people to serving an ideology; its horrors and its downfall.
Seeding the Third Reich
Hitler realised conditions were right for a coup but he correctly intuited that it should be fashioned with a velvet glove rather than an iron hammer.
This strategy was quite unlike his failed attempt at a takeover in 1924 that led to his imprisonment. More on that in a moment...
While nobody could ever accuse that autocratic leader of addressing the people in dulcet tones, he was an expert at appeasement by implementing badly-needed social and economic programmes which brought a time of productivity and relative social harmony to the country.
In a move that American president Roosevelt seemed to emulate in his New Deal, German economic stabilisation rolled out in three phases:
Public works: people were put to work rebuilding the country – hospitals, schools, and roads
Rearmament was the single greatest economic driver of the time
National Labour Service, a six-month indoctrination into Hitler’s ideology, required every young male to participate, after which they would be drafted for compulsory military service.
With these three programmes, Hitler had cleverly addressed every cause of civilian unrest, including nationalist pride and the anger over the Treaty of Versailles terms.
His aim was to make Germany an autarky – a nation completely reliant on its own resources and materials and no trade with other countries.
He did fail in that aim but, in others, he was wildly successful!
He was not completely trusted, though.
As the appointed leader of the German Workers’ Party, in 1923, he attempted a coup to seize power in the southern city of Munich. Known as the Beer Hall Putsch, it saw around 2,000 Nazis confront a police cordon surrounding city hall.
The ensuing battle left 16 Nazis dead and Hitler, himself, wounded. He fled to the countryside to avoid capture but was caught two days later and charged with treason.
That is why, for all of his fiery speeches and impassioned rhetoric, President von Hindenburg only reluctantly appointed him as chancellor of Germany – he felt someone should keep an eye on Hitler lest the upstart attempt another treasonous move.
That caution was in vain seeing as, shortly afterward, the Cabinet signed into law the Enabling Act, giving Herr Hitler the power to enact laws without the involvement of the Reichstag – the governing body.
Between that amendment to the Weimar constitution and the Reichstag Fire Decree, which transferred state powers to the Reich government – read: Herr Hitler, he gained complete and autonomous control of the country.
By 1933, Germany had become a dictatorship.
Discover also how the Russian Revolution put the Soviet Union in the hands of another autocratic leader...
Life in Nazi Germany
In spite of vague unease, the people were at first relatively content: after years of uncertainty, hardship, and strife, they finally had a measure of economic security: nearly every man had a job and there was sufficient, if not abundant food.
Granted, citizens had to trade some civil liberties for that level of security but that seemed a small price to pay for the prospect of daily bread.
Farmers especially benefited from Nazi policies. This demographic were ardent in their support of Nazi ideology and their loyalty was rewarded with a substantial increase in earnings and privilege.
Those who contributed to the rearmament efforts through any of three worker programmes could be rewarded with special privileges such as theatre tickets, low-cost holidays and further education.
However, workers in non-armament industries did not fare so well: their wages shrunk and work hours increased.
There were proportionately more industrial accidents in this sector and, should anyone complain about working conditions, they could be fired and blacklisted – stricken from employment eligibility registers.
Women’s employment came under special focus in Nazi propaganda, not because of their admirable performance on the production line but because Nazi leaders thought their efforts at supporting the Reich lay elsewhere...
Women in Nazi Germany
Women in Nazi Germany were expected to make their lives revolve around the 3Ks – kinder-küche-kirche, meaning children, kitchen and church.
From the start of the regime, female workers were persuaded to give up their jobs (to men), stay home and bear as many Aryan children as possible.
Race was an important criterion of the German Reich; indeed, women could even receive incentives to bear Aryan children of Schutzstaffel members – the infamous SS guards. The more, the better! Women with large broods could qualify for special distinction, such as the Mother’s Cross.
Women were not to glamourise themselves at all: no makeup or elaborate hairstyles and certainly no stylish clothing.
In contrast to the attractiveness of Hitler’s Eva Braun, the proclaimed ideal German woman should not keep slim: it was thought that slender women had more complications during birth – something to be avoided at all costs.
Likewise, no intellectual prowess was expected of any female other than to contribute to the education of her children – and, at that, only their social education, along party lines.
However, when more hands were needed – in the workforce and in the military, women were once again welcomed on the factory floor and in hospital wards (as nurses, not doctors).
All children were expected to attend school as soon as they were eligible, for their academic education as well grounding in ideological principles.
That education was reinforced when they joined the Hitler Youth groups.
How does Nazi Germany compare to American colonists' struggle for independence?
Growing Up in Hitler’s Germany
Children of true German blood were national treasures and generally treated well: lots of nutritious food and organised activities; indoctrination into fascist beliefs started young for the future of the Reich.
By comparison, children of other ethnicities suffered: poor living conditions, meager rations, and segregation, even in the early days of Nazism.
Racial purity took on a sinister double meaning.
Disabled children, whether Aryan or other ethnicity were the first targets of Hitler’s eugenics programme – after all, how can one boast a master race when some were defective?
Not too long after, he included disabled adults in that decree, calling their extermination programme Aktion T4.
But, as long as you were fit and Aryan, you had little to worry about, provided you ascribed to national socialism.
Adolescents were given little choice in their conscription into Hitler Youth groups; it was a join or your family suffers proposition.
By 1936, membership was compulsory and, three years later, fully 90% of all children aged 10 and older were wearing the uniform.
The tasks and activities varied between boys, who were trained to become a soldier and girls, who were taught only to be homemakers.
Even their school curriculum was changed to reflect the priorities of the Reich:
Biology courses reflected the inferiority of other races in support of eugenics
History included an in-depth study of the Führer's rise to power
Maths and chemistry were downgraded in importance
physical fitness sessions became a daily event
all teachers had to be Nazi party members
In short, everywhere kids turned, they were being force-fed National Socialist idealism.
With the entire German population trembling under authoritarian rule, it became time to purge the country of racial diversity and religions unsympathetic to the Nazi cause.
In one notable squabble with religious leaders, Hitler’s desire to ban the Old Testament because of its Jewish roots culminated in more than 800 Pastors of non-conforming churches to be sent to concentration camps.
Kristallnacht and those death camps are the most-recognised symbols of World War II.
We must never forget how, long before the Night of Broken Glass and the attempted genocide of a people, one person’s efforts at destruction – of an entire race, of progressive ideals, of free thought and civil liberty started long before those atrocities exploded onto public consciousness.
Not stealthily or through subterfuge but in full view of both lawmakers and citizens: that may well be the most disturbing aspect of Nazi Germany.
Now learn about more global events that changed the economic and political climate...