Type of Government
The government of Nazi Germany, the Third Reich, was an absolute dictatorship, with supreme authority in the hands of the F¨uhrer (leader), Adolf Hitler (1889–1945). The laws passed by Hitler’s government superseded Germany’s constitution, largely nullifying it. Though a legislature, or Reichstag, remained, it simply rubber-stamped the decrees of Hitler and the National Socialist German Workers’ (Nazi) Party. Nazi Party members bowed to Hitler’s will in all things. Hitler’s government also rewrote judicial law to carry out its racial, political, and military agenda unconditionally.
Post–World War I Germany established the Weimar Republic in 1918, with a bicameral legislative parliament: The Reichsrat was the upper house of parliament and the Reichstag the lower. Though the Republic ratified the Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I, in June 1919, many Germans considered the treaty terms to be humiliating and punitive. The terms of the treaty included German disarmament, the elimination of most of Germany’s overseas territories, an official admission of responsibility for starting the war, and monetary reparations to be paid by Germany to Allied countries.
Germany’s economy was severely compromised by the war, and the treaty’s reparations requirement strained it even further, playing a significant role in the high unemployment, inflation, and bankruptcy rates that marked the 1920s. As the economy worsened and morale decreased, anger and unrest spread through Germany and opened the people to extremist messages that promised prosperity and the resurrection of national pride.
The Nazi Party began in 1919 as the German Workers’ Party in Munich. The energetic and persuasive Adolf Hitler joined the party in 1919 and became its leader by 1921. In August 1923 Hitler led a failed coup attempt—known as the Beer Hall Putsch—in the German state of Bavaria, for which he served a year in prison. During his prison term, Hitler wrote his book Mein Kampf (My Struggle), an outline of his beliefs and plans. After his release in 1925, Hitler devoted himself to reshaping and controlling the Nazi Party.
At this point Germany was deeply fragmented politically, with no fewer than eight different political parties splitting power in the Reichstag during the years of the Weimar Republic. Beginning with the Spartacus Revolt of 1919—led by the Marxist revolutionaries Rosa Luxemburg (1870–1919) and Karl Liebknecht (1871–1919), both of whom were killed in the violence—communism developed a strong footing in German politics. Like the Nazis, the German Communist Party (KPD), which was closely allied with the Communist Party in the new Soviet Russia, was violently opposed to the fledgling Weimar Republic and worked actively to destroy it. Although the two parties were bitter enemies and philosophically differed in nearly every respect, the Nazis and the Communists occasionally formed coalitions in the Reichstag to block the votes of the major parties.
Despite the chaotic nature of Weimar politics, the republic did thrive from 1923 to 1929. During that period Germany settled the issue of war reparations, attaining loans from the United States that greatly improved its economic condition, and agreed to the peaceful resolution of any outstanding border questions under the Locarno Pact of 1925. In September 1926 Germany was offered entrance to the League of Nations in recognition of the steps it had taken to overcome its image as the aggressor in World War I. The country even achieved greatness in the arts and sciences during the later Weimar period, with a thriving film industry, world-renowned avant-garde architecture, a lively cabaret scene, and numerous Nobel Prize winners.
In 1929, however, a stock market crash in the United States sparked a worldwide economic depression that left millions of Germans—33 percent of the labor force by 1932—unemployed and impoverished. American banks began calling in the loans they had issued to Germany in the early 1920s. The election of 1930 marked a turning point for the Nazis, as voters abandoned the existing democratic parties and looked to the Nazis and Communists to effect change. As the bankruptcy, suicide, and crime rates rose dramatically, both the Nazi Party and the Communist Party seized on the chaos, positioning themselves to take over when the Weimar Republic finally collapsed in early 1933.
With the two antidemocratic parties battling violently in the streets, the president, Paul von Hindenburg (1847–1934) unable to control his government, and Germans rapidly losing confidence in the concept of democracy and hoping for a strong leader to restore order, Hitler saw his chance to gain power, joining with Chancellor Franz von Papen (1879–1969) and right-wing members of the Reichstag to pressure Hindenburg to support him. Hindenburg was persuaded, against his better judgment, and on January 30, 1933, he appointed Hitler chancellor of Germany.
One of the first acts toward establishing the single-party Nazi government was Hindenburg’s issuance of the Reichstag Fire Decree in February 1933, which abolished the civil rights that had been granted to German citizens by the constitution of the Weimar Republic. Having been declared chancellor in late January, Hitler convinced Hindenburg to hold elections in early March, which he hoped would allow him to dissolve the parliament. On February 27 a suspicious fire broke out at the Reichstag building. It is not known if the Nazis had anything to do with the fire, but Hitler convinced the German people that Communists were responsible and that they intended to go on a campaign of terror throughout the country. In the resulting atmosphere of hysteria and paranoia, the Nazis were able to consolidate their power and persuade Hindenburg to declare martial law for the sake of public safety. The Communist Party was disbanded and its members imprisoned, eliminating the Nazis’ strongest political competition.
The election was held on March 15, 1933. While the Nazi Party did receive more votes than any other party, it won by a slim margin, leaving Hitler with a weak hold on his leadership. On March 23, Hindenburg signed the Enabling Act, which allowed the acting government—specifically Hitler—to rule by decree, passing legislation and changing the constitution without parliamentary support. The Enabling Act opened the door for Hitler and the Nazis to hold absolute power. When Hindenburg died in August 1934, Hitler took over as leader and established the Third Reich.
German government under the Nazis was a highly centralized and bureaucratized organization. To maintain his position as the supreme authority, Hitler depended upon a high degree of competition among the heads of his government ministries; intra- and interagency squabbling was commonplace, and establishing a personal relationship with the F¨uhrer often was the best way to maintain one’s position. Disappointing him could result in execution.
Passage of the Gesetz über den Neuaufbau des Reichs (Act to Rebuild the Reich) on January 30, 1934, centralized the Nazis’ government by eliminating the sovereign rights of the German states and placing them under the direct control of Hitler. While the legislative body (the Reichstag) remained in existence under the Nazis, its practical influence was virtually nonexistent because of Hitler’s rule by decree.
Nazi government agencies typically had overlapping duties, resulting in a confusing administrative web. Even the party’s paramilitary organizations, which were essential to keeping the Nazis in power, were numerous and redundant. The Sturmabteilung (SA; also known as Brownshirts or stormtroopers) competed with the Schutzstaffel (SS), which had under its administration the secret police called the Gestapo, which in turn fell under three different agencies: the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (RHSA), the Sicherheitsdienst (SD), and the Sicherheitspolizei (SIPO). An additional paramilitary group, the Hitler Youth, was composed of young Germans who were charged with recruiting others into party positions.
In 1933 and 1934 the Nazis eliminated the Weimar court system with its independent judges and replaced it with two courts: Sondergerichte (special court) and Volksgerichteshof (people’s court). In the beginning the Special Court handled political crimes and the People’s Court handled acts of treason. Each court had three judges, who were party members, and no jury. Eventually virtually any crime, major or minor (including the frequent charge of being an “antisocial parasite”), could be tried in either court, and punishment was almost always harsh, ranging from time in a concentration camp to execution. The Nazis also introduced a legal concept called Schutzhaft (protective custody) that allowed them to arrest and detain people without charges.
Political Parties and Factions
By the middle of 1933 the Nazi Party was the only legal political party operating in Germany. But even though other parties had been banned and the Nazis micromanaged nearly every aspect of German life, resistance and opposition groups did exist. The Communists and Social Democrats were the only organized opposition parties in the early years of the Nazis’ ascent. But throughout the Nazi years a loose collection of groups and individual dissidents actively resisted Hitler’s policies—occasionally plotting and even attempting to assassinate him. Leaders of the Social Democratic Party who had fled Germany and settled in Prague when the Nazis purged the Reichstag of its opposition maintained a covert membership within the German working classes, although they were never able to move beyond organizing an occasional labor strike. After Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, German communists who had settled in the USSR began a campaign of espionage and sabotage against the Nazis, working with communists still living in Germany.
A fairly significant resistance came from within the government itself, mostly among members of the Army and foreign intelligence office, which Hitler had never completed persuaded to support him. Because they had access to the international community, these individuals were able to create a network for gathering and disseminating information about the internal goings-on of the Nazi government. Members of the army, for example, were able to contact Britain and France to alert them of Hitler’s plans to invade Czechoslovakia in 1938. Although the Allied powers failed to act and a planned coup against Hitler never materialized, such pockets of resistance were significant considering the virulent nature of the Nazi dictatorship.
Another form of anti-Nazism took hold among the civilian population when Hitler’s “final solution” was revealed and Jews and other “undesirables” were rounded up for systematic extermination in concentration camps. The Catholic Church, which had not interfered with Hitler up to that point, loudly voiced its opposition to the plan to euthanize all mentally and physically impaired people, raising a storm of protest among Germans and leading Hitler to cancel the plan. A number of wealthy or otherwise influential Germans risked their lives—and some were captured and executed for treason—hiding Jews and either employing them or helping them reach safety in other countries.
The Nazis considered the cultural renaissance of the late Weimar years to be a period of hedonism and degeneracy, largely due to the presence of Jews in the arts and sciences. In response, they began an immediate crackdown. Artists judged to be degenerate were dismissed from teaching positions and forbidden from displaying their work. Music and films were censored. Scientific exploration was curtailed. Many creative thinkers fled the country, and what little artistic expression and scientific advancement was encouraged had to uphold the values of the Aryan race. This was the beginning of the Nazis’ official policy of anti-Semitism that ultimately led to the mass extermination of Jews.
In the meantime, Hitler had begun to secretly rearm Germany. In 1935 he formally announced rejection of the military restrictions in the Versailles Treaty and passed the Nuremberg Laws that deprived Jews of the rights of citizenship and civil rights. In defiance of the Versailles Treaty, German troops occupied the country’s Rhineland demilitarized zone in 1936. When European nations failed to retaliate against the treaty violation, Hitler was convinced that he could initiate more aggressive military action without consequences. At the same time, Hitler inaugurated a four-year plan for economic self-sufficiency. Although the resulting economic prosperity was due largely to militarization and not a genuine economic stimulation—low wages were legally mandated—it did inspire widespread German loyalty to the Nazi regime.
In 1937 Hitler announced to his closest associates his timetable for German domination. First, he would create a greater German Reich in the heart of Europe. Second, he would invade and occupy the rich agricultural lands of Poland and the Soviet Union and enslave their inferior populations. Third, allied with Japan and Italy, he would make Germany the strongest world power.
Hitler began to implement his plan in 1938. Without firing a shot, Nazi Germany annexed Austria and the German-speaking regions of Czechoslovakia. Instead of protesting, England and France tried to appease Hitler, hoping he would attack the Soviet Union rather than Western Europe. Instead, Hitler signed a nonaggression pact with the Soviets in August 1939, relieving him of worries about fighting a two-front war. Germany marched into Poland in September 1939. In response, Britain and France declared war, and World War II began. Germany invaded and occupied France with relative ease in May 1940. Hitler broke Germany’s pact with the Soviet Union and attacked that country in June 1941. The Russians staunchly resisted the well-armed and organized German forces.
Near the end of 1938, the Nazis’ virulent anti-Semitic agenda gave rise to the Kristallnacht (Crystal Night), the most violent open assault on Jews in German history. The Nazis sent almost 30,000 Jews to concentration camps and destroyed their synagogues, homes, and shops. The original plan for the Jews was to take their property, revoke their citizenship, and rid Germany of them by sending them elsewhere. But with the success of the German invasion of the Soviet Union, the plan evolved from removing Jews from Germany to exterminating all the Jews in Europe and the Soviet Union. Concentration camps began to use gas chambers for mass executions in September 1941. By the end of World War II, nearly six million Jews had died in the concentration camps, along with millions more Gypsies, homosexuals, political and religious opponents, and those Germans who did not measure up to the standards of the Aryan master race.
The United States entered the war in December 1941. At the same time, Russian troops stopped the Germans at the edge of Moscow and Leningrad. Hitler was undeterred. He dismissed any generals who disagreed with his war plans and began to direct military strategy personally. The defeat of German forces at Stalingrad in the winter of 1942–43 marked the turning point of the war. Hitler withdrew from contact with the German people and his health deteriorated.
On June 6, 1944, the Allies (primarily U.S., British, and Canadian forces) invaded Europe from the French beaches of Normandy and moved inland. At about the same time, the Soviets began a major push from the East. Convinced that the war was lost, on July 20, 1944, German military officers mounted a failed assassination attempt on Hitler. Hitler took revenge and had 5,000 Nazis killed, including many vital military leaders. Germany continued to lose territory to the Allies throughout 1944 and 1945 and saw its cities devastated by Allied bombing. In the spring of 1945 Germany collapsed, and Hitler, hiding in his mountain bunker, committed suicide on April 30. On May 8 the German high command surrendered unconditionally to the Allies, ending the Nazi regime.
The Third Reich lasted twelve years and three months. It was responsible for some fifty million deaths and additional millions of injuries, as well as immeasurable personal and collective suffering and economic, social, and moral devastation. The end of the war revealed the extent and nature of the Holocaust. The Reich’s vast and systematic genocide shocked the world and cast a large shadow over the Allied victory.
Two meetings among the major Allies (the U.S., Great Britain, France, and the USSR)—TheYalta Conference (February 1945) and the Potsdam Conference (August 1945)—decided the fate of postwar Germany. The conference agreements reversed all of Germany’s territorial annexations in Europe and shifted its eastern border westward. Germany lost about 25 percent of its 1937 territory, most of its agricultural land, and one large industrial center. France took control of its remaining coal deposits. Germany was required to make extensive war reparations but also later received aid for reconstruction under the U.S. Marshall Plan.
In November 1945 the Allies conducted the Nuremberg War Trials. Surviving Nazi leaders who had not escaped from Germany were tried for war atrocities and crimes against humanity. Some received death sentences, while others went to prison. Many of the latter group were released in the 1950s due to old age or poor health. Still others were put on trial in Israel after the establishment of that country as a Jewish state.
France, Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union occupied Germany until 1955. The Soviet zone, with the exception of parts of Berlin, became the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), while the other three occupation zones became the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany). The Allies outlawed the Nazi Party and its symbols throughout Germany and Austria. Allied dismantling of German industry ended in 1950. The severity of the occupation in West Germany also diminished when Germany came to be seen as any ally against communism. Despite the Nazi period, Germany experienced great economic and social success through the later twentieth and the early twenty-first centuries. In 1989 the East and West portions of Berlin were reunited when communism fell and the wall separating them was torn down.
Largely as a response to the Nazi persecution of the Jews, the United Nations decided in 1947 to partition Palestine into two independent states, one Arab and one Jewish. In 1948 Israel was declared an independent nation and a homeland for Jews.
Shirer, William L. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1960.
Vashem, Yad. Encyclopedia of the Holocaust. London: Routledge, 2000.
Wilt, Alan F. Nazi Germany. Arlington Heights, IL: Harlan Davison, 1994.