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  • Writer's pictureIlka Knüppel

The Rise of Adolf Hitler

This blog post is much longer than my typical posts, but it is very helpful if you need background on the Rise of Hitler in Germany history. This history was written by William J. Prunka, Esq.


To understand the rise of Adolf Hitler you must first understand the history of some of the major issues that plagued Germany between 1918 and 1933, which snowballed into a perfect storm thrusting the world into Hitler’s Germany. This section explores the Armistice of 1918, Treaty of Versailles, the major crises affecting the Weimar Republic, and the rise of Hitler to power.

Part 1 – Compiegne and Versailles – A discussion of the ceasefire that ended WWI, the Treaty of Versailles, and the impact on Germany economically and socially.

Part 2 – Occupation of the Rhineland – How the Allies’ occupation of the Rhineland stirred anti-Western sentiment among the German government and populace.

Part 3 – Weimar Republic – A brief history of the Weimar Republic and subsequent impactful German economic downturn.

Part 4 – Rise of Hitler and the Collapse of the Weimar Republic – Hitler’s early political triumphs, imprisonment, subsequent rise to power, and seizure of control as chancellor.

Part 5 – Hitler coalesces power – A discussion of Hitler’s reactions after seizing power, including elimination of political enemies, Kristallnacht, and the Night of the Long Knives.

Part I: Compiègne and Versailles

A perfect description of Hitler would be, as observed by Hannah Arendt, the “banality of evil.” Arendt was not referring specifically to Hitler, but the term fits. Hitler, as well, was a fan of symbolism. He viewed the Armistice of Compiègne and the Versailles Treaty of 1919 as Germany’s greatest insult. An insult he sought to, and ultimately was able to, rectify. He forced the French to sign their 1940 surrender in the same train car as was used in 1919. The above anecdote aside, the 1919 Treaty of Versailles had a profound impact on Germany, Europe, and the world.

The Armistice

The seeds of the Armistice were planted by the German retreat following their 1918 spring offensive. The Imperial armies were forced to retreat back to the Hindenburg Line, resulting in a loss of all territory from the above mentioned offensive. Such losses greatly concerned German command staff, as the Hindenburg line had been intended as a fall back defensive position designed to avoid a resumption of fighting at the Somme. The German retreat, coupled with a vicious Allied offensive, made General Ludendorff realize that the best he could hope for was to hold the Hindenburg Line and tire the Allies out. In other theaters of the war, Germany was further crippled militarily due to the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian armies and an armistice signed by the Bulgarians. The situation on the German home-front was also becoming dire. Due to an Allied shipping blockade, the citizens were becoming affected by food shortages.

Discussions regarding an Armistice began in earnest following a communique sent to Kaiser Wilhelm on September 28, 1918. The Kaiser was informed by German supreme command that there was no guarantee the military could continue to hold the Hindenburg line, and in fact, that an Allied breakthrough was imminent. Ludendorff requested the government seek an immediate ceasefire, and thus Prince Maximilian of Baden was appointed Chancellor for that purpose.

A telegram was sent to the United States in the beginning of October seeking peace negotiations, but President Wilson demanded German withdrawal from all occupied territory as a pre-condition for talks. By November 5, 1918, the Allies agreed to peace negotiations and for the first time expected reparation payments to be made by the Germans. While the sides were attempting to establish talks, a revolt occurred in Germany which led to the declaration of a republic and the abdication of the Kaiser on November 9.

The Armistice negotiations, designed to end hostilities between the German Provisional Government and the Allied Powers, were held in the private train car of French general Ferdinand Foch. The Allied demands included but were not limited to:

(1) German withdrawal from France, Luxembourg, Belgium, and Alsace-Lorraine;

(2) surrender of a vast amount of war materiel;

(3) evacuation of the Rhineland;

(4) reparations to the four occupied areas; and,

(5) the German Empire paying for the Allied occupation of vacated areas.

The most serious of the terms were the payments and the evacuation/occupation of the Rhineland.

In fact, very little was negotiated as the Germans were presented these terms and given 72 hours to decide. On November 10, the delegation was informed of the Kaiser’s abdication, and were subsequently instructed by the government to sign the Armistice without any further negotiation. Terms were reached at 5:00 a.m. on November 11, with hostilities officially ceasing at 11:00 a.m. Central European Time. Many of the terms of the armistice were met with opposition among the German Population, and Hitler would later use reparations and the occupation of the Rhineland to his advantage.


The Versailles Treaty of 1919 was signed in Versailles, France, on June 28, 1919. Interestingly, the signing date was exactly five years after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Again, it is important to highlight the conditions that the Germans found most onerous. The treaty adopted the Rhineland occupation that was a condition of the previously discussed Armistice. Unlike the Armistice, however, the treaty reduced the occupation of those lands to a period of fifteen years.

Even more controversial than the occupation was section 231. In brief, section 231 required the Germans to concede land, disarm, and pay reparations. The total cost of the reparations, by a 1921 estimate, was 132 billion gold marks. Section 231 was seen by the German people as a national humiliation, as it also forced them to assume responsibility for World War I. An entire book could be written on just this section of Versailles, but what is important to note for this volume is the German response. The German delegation departed Berlin on April 18, 1919. In all, there were 180 German delegates, led by Count Ulrich von Brockdorff-Rantzau. The delegates anticipated a negotiation, but were advised in early May that there would be none, and signing must be unconditional. On June 16, 1919, the Germans were given an ultimatum: the Allied delegation advised that if the Treaty was not signed within seven days, hostilities would resume. Many of the German delegates resigned their cabinet positions rather than sign what they determined to be too onerous a treaty. The government, after being informed that they did not have the capacity to continue a war, relented and signed the Treaty. Much of the public outcry surrounding the Treaty was related to the assumption of responsibility. According to German historian Wolfgang Mommsen, the citizens believed it was an insult to their feeling of national pride, and that the nation had signed away her honor.

The Occupation of the Rhineland

The Rhineland evacuation included a complete German withdrawal across the Rhine itself, as well as 30 kilometers of bridgeheads at the cities of Cologne, Mainz, and Koblenz. It is worth spending time on the occupation of the Rhineland, as it was a source of anger, embarrassment, and an injury to the national pride of many German citizens. It was also expertly used, through propaganda, as a reason to end the occupation militarily. In addition to the territory ceded, a 50 kilometer demilitarized zone east of the Rhine was also installed.

The occupiers included forces from the United States (until 1923), France, the United Kingdom, Belgium, and forces under the auspices of the League of Nations. It lasted from the signing of the Armistice in 1918 until the reoccupation by German forces on March 7, 1936. As noted, a large area of lands controlled by the former German Empire (as well as Prussia) were ceded first by the Armistice, and then continued as adopted in the Treaty of Versailles. The occupied territory encompassed a large portion of the former western German frontier bordering The Netherlands, the Kingdom of Belgium, France, and the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. This included the major city of Cologne, and at its widest point stretched roughly from Prum to Russelsheim. This is a distance of approximately 174 kilometers (~108 miles). The Allied powers sought the territory cessation with the aim of deterring future German incursions into France, as well as to guarantee the payment of the reparations ordered in the Treaty.

The Ruhr industrial area (also known as the Ruhr Pocket later in World War II) was subsequently occupied between 1923 and August of 1925. The occupation led to crippling economic conditions within the Republic. In addition to the general Rhineland occupation, the Ruhr being occupied sped the formation of and participation by right wing nationalist German political parties in civil disobedience and protests. This occupation by the French was one of the catalysts in the rise of Naziism.

Part II- The Weimar Republic

The former German Empire ceased to exist while World War I was still being fought. The Empire ended with the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II on November 9, 1918. The same day, Prince Maximillian of Baden also abdicated, turning control of a provisional government to Friederick Ebert. Turmoil almost immediately ensued, with factional disagreement as to what the type of government would be moving forward. For his part, Ebert wanted to retain a constitutional monarchy for the German Reich, but the Bavarians had already declared themselves to be a socialist republic. Meanwhile, the communists began an uprising. Ebert was ultimately undermined by a Social Democrat colleague, Phillip Schniedermann. Schneidermann declared the formation of a Constitutional Republic from the balcony of the Reichstag. One might think that this was a process of several weeks, but it all happened on November 9. Ebert and the Social Democrats subsequently aligned themselves with the army and assisted in negotiating the previously discussed Armistice.

Again, entire books could be (and have been) written on the Weimar Republic, but it is necessary to discuss the major issues it faced, as well as its downfall. The downfall of the Republic happened almost immediately. Uprisings, coming mainly from the political left, endangered a government focused on trying to negotiate peace and navigate the waters of national unity. Political pacts needed to be formed quickly, and they were. Ebert, as head of the Majority Social Democrat Party (MSDP), formed an alliance with Hugo Hasse of the Independent Social Democrat Party (USDP) to establish the provisional Council of the People’s Deputies. The Council consisted of a total of six members, three from each party. The Council, by decree, established many reforms which were then followed by the National Congress of Councils (Reichsrätekongress). The Congress resulted in Ebert’s party winning a majority, led to the establishment of elections for a national assembly, and began the task of writing a new constitution for a parliamentary form of government. Ebert meanwhile was also able to secure the loyalty of the army to defend the newly established government from action from the left.


To deal with the uprisings, and in an ironic example of foreshadowing, the Government enlisted the Freikorps. During the Weimar Republic’s existence, the Freikorps were their key paramilitary forces. Per research done by Bujerio, many Germans returning from the war felt disillusioned with civilian life and subsequently joined a Freikorps unit. While many of these Germans joined looking for structure and stability for life, others joined to fight Communists believing them to be responsible for Germany’s defeat in the war.

The Freikorps were enlisted to fight Communists and Bolshevik sympathizers across the German Republic and abroad. They fought in the Baltics, Silesia, Poland, and East Prussia, as well as within Germany. Ironic indeed was the use of the Freikorps to crush Communist rebellions and eradicate Communist sympathizers when one considers some of the “alumni” who became prominent in the late 1920s and into the Hitler era. Some of the most well known Freikorps members were Ernst Rohm, Heinrich Himmler, and Rudolf Hoss. Rohm would become the leader of the Sturmabteilung, SA, (Storm Detachment), Himmler the Schutzstaffel, SS, (Protection Squadron), and Hoss was infamously Kommandant at Auschwitz.

Crises of the Weimar Government

Post Versailles, the infant Weimar Republic can be said to have inherited a myriad of problems. From the economic burdens imposed by the Treaty, to political problems within the nation, and even widespread food shortages, the Republic was nearly doomed from the start. Economic problems prior to the ratification of Versailles resulted from several issues. First, during the war, the German Empire had lent exorbitant amounts of money to its allies. This included over 500 million DM to the Habsburg Empire and 800 million to the Ottoman Empire. Following the end of hostilities the German Republic faced an industrialization crisis, as most industries had been converted for war production. Further, Germany had been under a naval blockade from 1914 until the signing of the Versailles Treaty.

In its early years, the Republic was hampered by a 13% overall reduction in continental European territory as well as having been stripped of all the colonies it had held as an imperial state. As discussed briefly above, the German Republic was forced to pay reparations pursuant to Article 235 of the Versailles Treaty. Article 235 stipulated that:

In order to enable the Allied and Associated Powers to proceed at once to the restoration of their industrial and economic life, pending the full determination of their claims, Germany shall pay in such installments and in such manner (whether in gold, commodities, ships, securities or otherwise) as the Reparation Commission may fix, during 1919, 1920, and the first four months of 1921 , the equivalent of 20,000,000,000 gold marks. Out of this sum the expenses of the armies of occupation subsequent to the Armistice of November 11, 1918, shall first be met, and such supplies of food and raw materials as may be judged by the Governments of the Principal Allied and Associated Powers to be essential to enable Germany to meet her obligations for reparation may also, with the approval of the said Governments, be paid for out of the above sum. The balance shall be reckoned towards liquidation of the amounts due for reparation. Germany shall further deposit bonds as prescribed in paragraph 12 (c) of Annex II hereto.”

The appendix of the treaty established due dates and the methods by which the German Republic would make its payments. The large burdens incurred by the Weimar Republic led to devastating hyperinflation. Hyperinflation is “a term to describe rapid, excessive, and out of control price increases in an economy.” While inflation is often gradual, hyperinflation typically raises prices 50% or more per month. Inflation began after the Treaty of Versailles was ratified, with the exchange rate being 48 German paper marks to the U.S. dollar. In 1921, the Republic was able to make its first reparations payment on time, but this propelled a rapid devaluation of the DM, reaching 330 DM to the Dollar. Despite efforts by the international community including a reparations conference chaired by J.P. Morgan, the Republic reached the hyperinflation stage by December 1922. At that point the devaluation had skyrocketed, topping 7,400 DM per Dollar. The result was the Republic found itself unable to make payments.

The hyperinflation had a ripple effect nationwide. First, it exacerbated food shortages. At the end of 1922 a loaf of bread cost 165 DM, and toward the end of 1923, it cost 200 billion Marks. By November 1923, the rate was 4,210,500,000,000 DM (Four Trillion + DM) to the Dollar. The second problem caused by the cessation of the reparations payments was the occupation of the Ruhr by French and Belgian forces.

The occupation as decided by French Prime Minister Raymond Poincare, began on January 11, 1923. The aim of the French was to occupy the heart of the Republic’s industrial areas to ensure reparations would be paid. Poincare correctly believed allowing the Germans to disregard their Treaty obligations involving reparations would set a bad precedent. To the United Kingdom he argued that should there be no punishment for nonpayment, the Germans would then spurn the entirety of the Treaty. Thus, the French moved in after a series of defaults.

The Germans, however, viewed the occupation as yet another insult of Versailles. In addition to being forced to endure the occupation of the Rhineland, reparations, and assuming fault, German industry was now held captive by the French and Belgians. The Republic deemed the occupation the “Ruhrkampf”, or the ‘struggle against occupation’. The population of the Ruhr Valley engaged in protests and other forms of civil disobedience. Strikes were organized by the Committee of Defense of the Ruhr, causing a stall in coal shipments. Further efforts included rail strikes and a ban on shopkeepers in dealing with the French occupiers. Rioting also occurred with one example being the throwing of stones at French officers outside a restaurant in Essen. German government officials, to include Chancellor Cuno, would travel to the region to encourage resistance to the French occupation. The French responded to the actions of civil disobedience by the population through reprisals. Examples of reprisals and nefarious action by the French included troops bursting into shops to threaten workers, forcibly removing and whipping theater goers, and worse. The French attempted to, and were successful in, expelling a slew of German officials from the area. This led to violent clashes. In one example, twenty Germans were killed by the French as they tried to prevent an expulsion. The Germans were not blameless in this situation either. Clashes led to the death of French and Belgian troops and officials. Several events caused the resistance to come to a boiling point. In mid-February 1923, after German resistance forces cut power to the French command center in Essen, French troops staged a fixed bayonet charge to the main square and railroad station to clear out protestors.

The strikes and resistance did little to help the German cause. In fact, it led to further economic struggle, food shortages, and the collapse of Chancellor Cuno’s government. In its place, a new cabinet was formed under Chancellor Gustav Stressmann. Ultimately, despite the German economy being destroyed, and political factions turning against the Cuno government, the strikes were successful. The heavy handed approach of the French made the international community sympathetic to the German Republic and its people. The French were forced to accept a substantial reduction in reparation payments under the Dawes Plan. As published in the New York Times in 1924, the plan took several steps to aid Germany in its payment of reparations. The Dawes Plan established:

(1) The French and Belgians were required to withdraw from the Ruhr,

(2) payments would begin with a one million DM payment in 1924, followed by further payments on a sliding scale,

(3) a reorganization of the Reichsbank under Allied supervision,

(4) additional sourcing of reparation payments from taxes, and,

(5) a loan of approximately $200 million from a consortium of private United States bankers led by J.P. Morgan & Co.

Political Problems Within the Weimar Republic

As is often the case in many nations, political problems for the Weimar Republic went hand in hand with economic and social problems. Early in its existence the Republic was challenged from factions on both sides of the political spectrum. On the political left, the Workers Movement sought to usher in a Communist revolution, as had been the case in the new Soviet Union. Some factions on the right, bolstered by the belief in a conspiracy that Socialists and Jews cost Germany the war, wanted an authoritarian style of government. As we would see with the rise of Stalin in the Soviet Union, both Communist and Fascist governments are authoritarian.

The first major challenge to Weimar authority came from the formation of the People’s State of Bavaria. As with many historical events, this could be the subject of a book on its own. In short, the breakaway nation was founded on November 7, 1918, when USPD member Kurt Eisner declared himself president. Eisner’s government was defeated in self-administered Bavarian elections in 1919 and that was followed by several instances of factional violence. The violence included Eisner’s assassination, followed by retaliatory killings. Clashes led to the exile of the People’s State government under Johannes Hoffman, and the formation of Soviet-friendly governments under Ernst Toller and Eugen Levine. The Freikorps was ultimately used to quash what was then known as the Bavarian Soviet Republic. The forces which participated included future Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess.

The Freikorps were instrumental in the Kapp Putsch, which saw 12,000 members marching on Berlin with the goal of overthrowing the Weimar Republic and installing a right wing government. The Putsch, though initially successful, only lasted from March 13 through March 18 of 1920. In addition to what occurred in Berlin, an uprising began among workers in the Ruhr, but that was quashed by the Freikorps and the Reichswehr. The failure of the Kapp Putsch had a far greater effect on the Republic’s socialist parties. The two socialist parties were weakened by these events, which led directly to an inability to resist the future Nazi movement. The Kapp Putsch and subsequent socialist infighting emboldened right wing groups to take further action. Coupled with a rise in anti-semitism in Weimar Germany, the 1920s saw an increase in political violence from the right.

Viewed as a traitor by conservatives and the liberals of the German People’s Party for his role in the negotiation of Armistice terms, Matthias Erzberger was assassinated on August 26, 1921 in the Black Forest. The assassination was carried out by members of the Organisation Consul, an ultra-nationalist and antisemitic paramilitary group formed out of a disbanded Freikorps unit. Between 1920 and 1922, the Consul was responsible for over 350 murders, including that of Walther Rathenau. On June 24, 1922, Rathenau was attacked while being driven from his home to the Foreign Office in Berlin. The assassination was ordered by Hermann Erhardt, the head of the Consul. Rathenau was killed because of nationalist furor over his involvement in the negotiation of the 1922 Treaty of Rapallo. Officially, the treaty vitiated the territorial claims made by Germany and the Soviet Union against one another following the 1918 Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. What angered the nationalists was the aim of the treaty to normalize diplomatic and economic relations between the Republic and the Soviet Union, whom many on the right considered their sworn enemy. It was another concerning move by the Republic to the political right, who one year earlier had formally recognized the Soviet Union as the legitimate Russian government. In secret, the Treaty of Rapallo also provided a military agreement between the Republic and the Soviet regime. In exchange for sharing military technology with the Soviets, the Germans were able to use Soviet territory to train with heavy weapons. This was the first step by the Germans to evade the military restrictions of the Treaty of Versailles and the beginning of the long road back to world war.

Part III- The Rise of Hitler & The Collapse of the Weimar Republic

“No class or group or party in Germany could escape its share of responsibility for the abandonment of the democratic Republic and the advent of Adolf Hitler. The cardinal error of the Germans who opposed Nazism was their failure to unite against it.” - William L. Shirer

The establishment and implementation of Aktion T4 did not occur in a vacuum. We have from the beginning emphasized that background is needed to understand how Germany went from Empire to Nazi regime in 15 years. The important points of the Armistice of 1918, the Versailles Treaty, and the crises faced by the Weimar Republic have been highlighted. The effect on the German citizenry has also been discussed. So too must we discuss Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. Tracing his history back to birth and childhood is not necessary for the purposes of this book. Rather, we will discuss Hitler’s activities from 1919 forward, as well as those of the Nazi Party (also referred to herein as the National Socialist German Workers Party - Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei or NSDAP), and how their actions aided the collapse of the Weimar Republic.

Early Origins of the Nazi Party

As discussed in the previous section, following the failure of the Kapp Putsch, Germany saw a rise in right wing nationalist violence. Right wing and other nationalist parties became increasingly popular as the 1920s commenced. In 1918, one such group was formed in Bremen; called the ‘Freier Arbeiterausschuss für einen guten Frieden’ or ‘Free Workers’ Committee for a Good Peace’. Anton Drexler subsequently established a branch of this party in Munich. Drexler was an important figure in the formative days of the Nazis.

Drexler, a member of Germany’s working class, had been a member of the militant nationalist ‘Deutsche Vaterlandspartei’ or ‘Fatherland Party’. The Fatherland Party included nationalists, anti-semites, ultra conservatives, and those of the volkisch movement. The party leader was Kapp, of Kapp Putsch fame, the unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the Weimar Republic. Drexler was an Anti-Marxist, despised the Treaty of Versailles, believed in the theory of an Aryan “master race,” and espoused the anti-semitic position that capitalism around the world was the product of Jewish domination. He sought further to combine the already existing volkisch nationalist movement with economic socialism in order to stem the development of Communism within German borders. Nationalist ideas were also held by members of the Freikorps, many of whom would rise to become prominent Nazis. Drexler’s branch of the party gained many supporters. In conjunction with his prominent supporters, Drexler later combined his regional Free Workers’ Committee for a Good Peace with the ‘Politischer Arbeiterzirkel’ - Political Workers’ Circle. On January 5, 1919, the new party took form, calling itself the ‘Deutsche Arbeiterpartei’ or DAP - German Workers’ Party.

The DAP adopted a political platform it hoped would win the support of middle class Germans, calling for social welfare programs and assistance to those deemed proper Aryans. Like other nationalist groups of the time, the DAP considered itself part of the “fight against Bolshevism” and “international Jewry.” The party made no effort to try and hide the antisemitic nature of its platform, even going so far as to sell a tobacco product called “Anti Semit.” Although the party initially met in relative secrecy, the party still drew attention from the Weimar government. Several infamous historical figures were early members of the DAP. Among the early ranks of the Party included Ernst Rohm (also of the Freikorps and Reichswehr District Command VII), Dietrick Eckart, and Rudolf Hess. The government, fearing the party may become insurgent, seditious, or even seek to overthrow the Republic(despite having less than 60 members at this time) sought to insert a spy into their ranks.

The Reichswehr Picks the Wrong Man

Seven months after the founding of the DAP, the Reichswehr sought to investigate the Party through the use of an intelligence agent. Appointed to this position was a little known Gefreiter “Private” (whom the Allies would derogatorily later refer to as “the little Corporal”) named Adolf Hitler. Hitler attended his first DAP meeting at a brewery in Munich on September 12, 1919. Impressed with his oratory skills following a debate, Drexler highly encouraged Hitler to join the party. Still in his role as a party infiltrator, Hitler officially joined the party within a week of his initial meeting attendance. Hitler quickly became known among party members for his fiery speeches and overall public speaking skills. Early in 1920, he was named the DAP’s chief of propaganda.

In Hitler’s role as propaganda chief, the party platform devised by himself, Drexler, and others took shape. In a speech before more than 2,000 people, Hitler outlined the party manifesto which included concrete positions on both foreign and domestic policy. Within the realm of foreign policy, DAP sought to repudiate the Treaty of Versailles, pursue the creation of a Greater Germany through eastward land expansion (this included the initial mentions of ‘lebensraum’ - ‘room to live’), and bar Jews from obtaining German citizenship. With respect to domestic affairs, DAP sought a host of measures that included but were not limited to a right to work, seizure of war profits, seizure of land for national use, national profit sharing, and the barring of income that was not earned. The same day as this speech at the Hofbrauhaus in Munich, February 24, 1920, the party officially changed its name to the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei.

Under its new name, the Nazi Party devised new rules for acceptance into its membership ranks. Important for this book was the racial requirements the newly named party put into place. No German could join the Nazi Party unless they could prove they were of “pure Aryan descent.” Penalties up to and including death were handed down for violating these rules.

Hitler’s reputation as a fiery orator only increased during his first year of Nazi Party membership. Within the first twelve months of joining, he spoke in public no less than 31 times. In fact, by the end of 1920, the party ranks had swelled to nearly 2,000 members, many of whom attributed their reason for joining being the draw of Hitler’s speeches. Nearly all of his early speeches highlighted two of the biggest points of the Nazi Party platform, anti-semitism and deep disdain for the Treaty of Versailles. Akin to modern political stump speeches, this allowed the Nazi Party message to reach a large number of Bavarians through either in-person attendance or through word of mouth repetition. The Nazi Party was not without its internal strife, however.

In the summer of 1921, with Hitler away from Munich on Party business, a fissure emerged within the membership. Some members of the Party Executive Committee wanted to merge with the DSP. Upon his return from Berlin, Hitler was enraged and resigned his party membership. The committee, realizing that without the draw Hitler and his public speaking ability there would be no party, pleaded with him to rejoin. Hitler agreed, so long as one specific condition was met. If he were to rejoin the Party, it would be conditioned upon replacing founder Drexler as chairman. In a case of foreshadowing events that would occur less than twelve years later, the committee voted to dissolve itself, and give Hitler near absolute power over the Party. Hitler assumed this role, and the title of Führer, on July 29, 1921, which he would retain until his death in 1945. Further radicalizing the party, Hitler began to grow it into a revolutionary apparatus. The stated goal was now to overthrow the Weimar Republic, seen by Hitler as run by Socialists and the Jews.

With Hitler now unquestionably head of the Nazi Party, and with ever loftier goals, his public speaking engagements increased. Whether intended or not, fights now often broke out at the public beer hall meetings where Hitler spoke. There are many examples of such incidents, including in the United States as well. Elsbeth’s future husband, Henry Knuppel, would be arrested in connection with an American Nazi Party rally at the Presidential Arms Hotel located at 1320 G Street, NW in the mid 1930’s. Henry, who had been at another party at the hotel that evening with his cousin, Willy Windel, heard of the American Nazi Party one floor down, and they preceded to go down and bust in the room (they were rather inebriated by this point) with Henry yelling “Zur Hölle mit deinem Hitler!” (To Hell with your Hitler!). He told his daughter the next thing he knew he was on the floor surrounded by black boots kicking him. The police came and broke up the fight and arrested Henry and Willy. Henry always said he did not regret his actions.

Accounts of a September 1921 brawl indicate that at least sometimes violence was the goal. In this incident, the Nazis beat the man who was scheduled to speak, resulting in the arrests of Hitler and Deputy Herman Esser. Hitler’s sentence was light, with him being released from jail after one month. On November 4, 1921, violence erupted at the Hofbrauhaus in Munich during a Hitler event, the victory won by the SA. This event is notable, as it became increasingly clear Hitler would need more than loyalists in the political realm to achieve his goals.

The Sturmabteilung, the “Storm Detachment”, (also referred to as the “Brownshirts”) or simply, ‘SA’, grew first out of the DAP’s group of former Freikorps members known as the Saalschutz Abteilung, the “Hall Defense Detachment”. This group initially provided security for the Nazis at these beer hall speeches; the purported purpose of the group was to protect the Nazis from their rival Social Democrats and Communists. The first consequential leader of the SA was Hans Klintzsch. Klintzch was a former naval officer, a former member of the Organisation Consul, and had participated in the Kapp Putsch. He became responsible for developing militaristic order among the SA members. In 1922, and under the SA banner, the Jugendbund was formed. The Jugendbund was the SA youth section for young men aged 14-18 years old. The formation of the group was announced in the Nazi newspaper Volkische Beobachter on March 8, 1922, and it was the predecessor of the Hitler Youth. In 1923, approximately one year after Hermann Goering joined the Nazi Party, and at Hitler’s orders, Klintzsch ceded control of the SA to Goering. Hitler praised Goering’s handling of the SA, stating that Goering led the SA “properly,” turning it into a “division of 11,000 men.” As we will discuss later, the most notable SA Chief of Staff became former Freikorps member Ernst Rohm.

In May 1923, the Party Staff Guard was designated as Stoßtrupp-Hitler (Hitler Shock Troop). This group, the predecessor to the SS, was ordered to be of personal service to Hitler rather than the party at large. Its original leader was Julius Schreck, a senior Nazi official and Hitler loyalist. It was Schreck’s idea to utilize the Totenkopf (skull and crossbone) insignia that was previously used by elite German/Prussian forces. After the unit was disbanded following Hitler’s imprisonment, the Totenkopf would be resurrected by Himmler’s SS. Schreck, though later elevated to the rank of SS Standartenführer, would not survive to see the beginning of the war. He died in 1936 of meningitis. With loyalists surrounding him politically as well as in force, Hitler wanted to move quickly to seize power from the Weimar government.

November 1923

Before November 1923, the vast majority of Nazi influence was in Bavaria. Accordingly, in late October, Hitler planned to use Munich as the starting point of what he hoped would become a national revolution to put himself and his party into power. By this time, the ranks of the SA had swelled to over 15,000 men. The immediate cause of the move was what had occurred in Bavaria one month earlier. In September 1923, responding to an outbreak of political violence, the Bavarian Prime Minister Eugen von Knilling declared a state of emergency. The declaration was followed by the appointment of Gustav Ritter von Kahr as state commissioner, giving Kahr and associates von Schiesser and von Lossow total rule in Bavaria. In response, Hitler announced that he would be organizing mass meetings to begin at the end of the month. Kahr immediately banned the meetings. Hitler knew imminent action was necessary, lest he be seen as a weak leader. He sought the assistance of General Eric Ludendorff to try and win over the new Bavarian rulers in an effort to march on Berlin to topple the Weimar Republic. This outreach to Ludendorff was unsuccessful. Kahr and his associates had a separate plan to overthrow the government that did not include Hitler.

On November 8, 1923, Kahr and his associates were attending a political meeting and making public remarks at a beer hall known as the Burgerbraukeller. After 8 pm, and while Kahr was speaking, Hitler arrived flanked by Rohm, Goering, and others. Soon after, truckloads of over 600 SA men arrived and surrounded the Burgerbraukeller. Hitler then rose from his seat, moved through the large crowd, and fired a shot into the ceiling proclaiming that “The National Revolution has begun!” All inside the building were forbidden to leave. Ludendorff appeared wearing his full Imperial dress uniform. Ushering Kahr and the others into a side room, Hitler attempted to convince them (at gunpoint) to join his cause in overthrowing the Weimar government. Goering and others spoke to the crowd while Hitler was attempting to obtain collaboration from Kahr. Trying to assuage concerns in the crowd, Hitler proclaimed that he was not revolting against the police or the Reichswehr, but instead “against the Berlin Jew government and the November Criminals of 1918.” His speech worked the crowd into a frenzy of approval. Having been released by Ludendorff, Kahr and the others immediately began to organize resistance to what would come to be known as the Beer Hall Putsch.

On the morning of November 9, 1923, Hitler decided to organize a march toward the center of Munich. The SA ranks with him swelled to over 2,000 men. Prior to reaching the center of the city, the Nazis experienced resistance. First, they fought their way through a police roadblock on the Ludwig Bridge. Next, as they neared the Odeonsplatz, a heavy exchange of gunfire occurred. Several Nazis, including Goering, were wounded in the battle with police. In total, four police officials and 16 Nazis were killed. The Nazis fled in all directions and the Putsch was over. Ludendorff was arrested immediately and Hitler was captured two days later. As for von Kahr, who refused to collaborate with Hitler, he retired from public service three years after the Putsch. However, Hitler did not forget his perceived enemy. Von Kahr was abducted from Munich and murdered June 30, 1934, on The Night of the Long Knives. The Beer Hall Putsch was Hitler’s launching point to national and international notoriety. He became a household name with newspapers around the world discussing how the Bavarian government had been “overthrown by Hitlerites.” Following the arrest of Hitler, the government’s reaction was swift.

The Nazi party office was raided, and its newspaper banned. Hess was also arrested, while Goering and others were fortunate enough to evade capture by crossing into Austria. For his role in the Putsch, Hitler went on trial on February 26, 1924. At trial Hitler acted in his own defense, and it allowed him the opportunity to present himself as the unquestioned leader of a viable political party. Claiming sole responsibility for the November Putsch attempt, Hitler was able to turn a court of law into another propaganda arm for his beliefs. Interestingly, the Weimar government had replaced the jury system, converting the trier of fact into a panel of five: three lay judges and two professionals. Hitler successfully turned his trial for treason into a referendum on the Weimar Republic and perceived traitors. A Times of Israel article, reviewing U.S. historian David King’s recent book “The Trial of Adolf Hitler: The Beer Hall Putsch and the Rise of Nazi Germany,” discussed at length how the trial only served to make Hitler more popular. In his book, King writes that “When the trial opened in February 1924 in Munich, Hitler had a chance to redefine himself as this national hero.” King goes on to make an important point regarding the final day of the trial, writing:

“The [final] speech in the trial helped define Hitler from this buffoon to an international [figure],” says King. “It was Hitler’s biggest audience hitherto, his moment in the spotlight and arguably one of the most important talks of his career.” Hitler began his speech in the trial declaring that the Weimar Republic was founded on a ‘crime of high treason.’”

On April 1, 1924, the trial came to an end. Hitler was convicted, but as the New York Times reported, he was practically acquitted. Ludendorff was acquitted, in part because Hitler claimed responsibility for the entire coup attempt. Rohm was convicted, but immediately released on parole. Hitler and Hess were sentenced to imprisonment, Hitler receiving a five year sentence and Hess a sentence of eighteen months. Although he lost the trial, Hitler and the Nazis gained important victories in the areas of publicity, notoriety, and propaganda. While in prison, Hitler used his time to increase his reach and renown across Germany. He dictated Mein Kampf to Rudolf Hess. The book included an almost entire reproduction of his closing argument from the trial and its commonly known virulent antisemitism. What is less known about the book was the printed advocacy of lebensraum. Foreshadowing what would become Generalplan Ost, Hitler argued for expansion of the German state to the east into the fertile lands of Poland and the Soviet Baltic and Slavic states. Of his five year prison sentence, Hitler barely served nine months. He was released from incarceration on December 20, 1924. At the time, it was said Hitler had been “tamed” by prison, and neither he nor the Nazi party were no longer to be feared. In fact, the New York Times published a prediction that Hitler would simply retire to private life and return to Austria, the country of his birth. The prediction for Hitler’s future could not have been more wrong.

Political Progress

Though the Nazi Party and its publications were banned by the Weimar government following the Beer Hall Putsch, the Party began to move forward with a new goal of obtaining power legally. While Hitler was imprisoned, the party participated in both 1924 national elections under the new banner of the Nationalsozialistische Freiheitsbewegung, National Socialist Freedom Movement, or NSFM. (Also called the Nationalsozialistische Freiheitspartei, or NSFP) With the SA also banned, the NSFM recreated that group under the name Frontbann. The two entities operated the same way as the Nazi Party and the SA (down to the uniform) and in reality were thinly veiled replacements. The formation of the Frontbann replaced the divisions of the SA for the duration of the ban, one such division being led by future Chief of the Nazi Party Chancellery Martin Bormann.

The first election where the Nazis (as the NSFP) won Reichstag seats was in May 1924. Led by Ludendorff due to Hitler’s imprisonment, they won 32 seats and 6.6% of the vote. The party's influence waned late in the year, losing 18 of their Reichstag seats in the December 1924 race. On December 20, 1924, Hitler was pardoned by the Bavarian Supreme Court and released from prison. After Hitler’s release, the party was languishing having been reduced to a mere 3.3% of the vote in the December election. The first step in his climb back to relevance was convincing the Bavarian authorities to lift their ban on the party. This occurred on February 16, 1925. On February 26, 1925, the party was formally reestablished, and reverted back to the NSDAP moniker. The quest for power was a long way away, however, as Germany had stabilized economically and politically while Hitler was in prison. The Frontbann officially dissolved as the ban on the SA was also lifted. In this iteration of the party, however, and in an attempt to make the party appear more legal, Hitler kept the political wing and the SA separate. On November 9, 1925, the SS was officially founded, with Julius Schreck as its chief.

Through the remainder of the mid 1920s, the Party focused on expanding its support. Their support grew and was strongest in heavily Protestant areas such as East Prussia, and some working class areas like Thuringia. The first rally at Nuremberg occurred from August 19-21 of 1927. This event and subsequent massive rallies, showed the fervor for the Nazis among the lower and middle classes and served as an important recruitment tool. Recruits included a large number of those who suffered economically from the previously discussed Weimar hyperinflation, as well as those who greatly feared the rise of Communism. By 1929, the party membership had swelled to more than 130,000 members.

Despite growth in party membership and popularity throughout several German states, success at the ballot box remained elusive through the mid 20s. In the 1928 election, the Nazis won less than 3% of the vote, holding only 12 seats in government. The greatest political gain in the election of 1928 was by the Communist party. The same year, the Nazis ran Ludendorff as their candidate in the presidential election. The election was a disaster as Ludendorff came in last place to eventual winner Paul von Hindenburg. 1929 was a chaotic year for the Nazis: political battles with the Communists grew into violent confrontations. Clashes between the SA and the Communist paramilitary organization involved each group storming the other’s meetings and a Nazi march on the Communist stronghold Neukolln. Hitler and the Nazis ended 1929 by becoming household names in Germany through their opposition of the Young Plan.

The Young Plan was born out of a negotiation between the Weimar government and the Allies to finally settle the issue of the war reparations that crippled the economy. Per the plan, reparation payments would decrease by nearly 20% and be payable over a period of 58 years. The plan was heavily opposed by the Nazis, who were backed by media mogul Alfred Hugenberg. To adopt the plan, the Nazis argued, was to acknowledge that Germany was bound to the hated Versailles Treaty and its war guilt clause. Instead, the Nazis proposed a “Freedom Law” which would repudiate the war guilt clause, Allied occupation of what was German territory, reparations, and would make assisting in reparation payment a crime. The Nazi alternative was soundly defeated, but the argument gave Hitler credibility. Publication by Hugenberg exposed Hitler’s ideas to a national audience, leading to increased voter enthusiasm for the Nazis. The increase in national support for the Nazis showed immediate results in 1930.

The seeds of the Nazis' rise in popularity, however, began in 1924. Attracted to Hitler’s charisma and oratory, Joseph Goebbels joined the party around the time Hitler was released from prison. Goebbels became a brilliant propagandist, being appointed NSDAP propaganda minister by April of 1930. His position within the Party had already given him control of all Party publications such as the Volkischer Beobachter. Horst Wessel, who would in January 1930 become a Nazi cult hero, had joined the Party just over three years prior, in December 1926. Joining through the SA, Wessel would remark that Goebbels was a main reason for his membership and was later quoted as saying:

There was nothing [Goebbels] couldn't handle. The party comrades clung to him with great devotion. The SA would have let itself be cut to pieces for him. Goebbels – he was like Hitler himself. Goebbels – he was 'our' Goebbels.”

Goebbels, who created the atmosphere which attracted right wing youth to the Party, would soon lionize Wessel. On January 14, 1930, a dispute Wessel was having with Berlin KPD members came to a head, resulting in the Communists giving Goebbels and the Party an unintended gift. Albrecht Hohler, a Communist and KPD member, went to Wessel’s apartment that evening, while a group of more than ten KPD ‘toughs’ waited outside. When Wessel opened the door for Hohler, he was immediately shot in the face. Wessel lingered for weeks, finally succumbing to complications from his injuries on February 23, 1930. While Wessel was lingering in a Berlin hospital, Goebbels jumped at the chance to publish articles blaming the “degenerate Communist subhumans” for the attack. The attack turned into a propaganda coup for the Nazis. Wessel’s funeral was attended by several prominent Nazis, including Goering, and statesmen, including Prince August Wilhelm of Prussia. Wessel was eulogized by Goebbels. Following the burial, a force of 16,000 SA and SS members marched past the Berlin Communist Party Headquarters. Later, Goebbels would turn a song Wessel wrote into the Nazi anthem “Die Fahne hoch” or “Horst-Wessel-Lied” (the Horst Wessel song). Using Wessel’s murder to turn him into a martyr gave a boost to the Nazi party in public approval, with the result being that the Nazis had their best electoral showing to date.

In the 1930 German federal election, the Nazis rose to become the second most represented party in the Reichstag. They secured over 18% of the national vote, and a 95 seat increase. More importantly for Nazi goals, they performed very well nationally instead of just in a few regions. The timing of the election around the beginning of the Great Depression, and against the backdrop of Wessel’s murder, was another cloud in a perfect storm of historical events that would eventually sweep Hitler into dictatorial power. With legal recognition of the Nazis as a national political force, the SA began their first campaign against the Jews.

October 13, 1930 was the opening day of the new Reichstag session. Immediately, the Nazis made their presence felt. The SA marched through Berlin that day, throwing stones through the windows of many Jewish owned stores. Shouting “Down with the Jews!”, the SA hurled rocks through a well known cafe and one of Berlin’s largest department stores. The violence occurred as the 107 newly elected Nazi Party deputies arrived at the Reichstag in uniform, all wearing brown shirts with the swastika symbol on their arms. Per the reporting of the New York Times, one of the most common (and prescient remarks) heard throughout the day was that this was ‘only the beginning.’

The Republic Falls & Hitler Comes to Power

The end of the Weimar Republic began with the onset of the Great Depression. As we presented earlier in the book, the Republic seemed doomed to fail from the start. To be sure, any form of government would struggle if it is bookended by two severe economic crises. Prior to the Depression, the German hyperinflation crisis was stabilized through the measures of the Dawes Plan and the Young Plan. The 1929 Stock Market Crash caused an economic downturn throughout the world, and Germany was not spared. The crash triggered bank closures, such as Germany’s largest lender, the Austrian institution Creditanstalt. The economy had recovered on the strength of business loans from the international community, mainly the United States. After the crash, however, many U.S. banks eliminated lines of credit for German businesses. Without the credit to keep them in business, many companies went bankrupt and the unemployment rose to over four million (15.3% of the population). This was an increase of nearly three million workers from before the crash. The confluence of the Great Depression, the shooting of Wessel, and the resultant anti-Communist fervor helped skyrocket Nazi popularity.

In an attempt to stem the economic bleeding, Heinrich Bruning was appointed chancellor by Hindenburg in mid 1930. He would be one of four chancellors to serve prior to Hitler becoming chancellor in 1933; Bruning would serve the longest of the four, until 1932. As there was no official coalition in the Reichstag, Bruning operated independently, maintaining power through emergency powers delegated by Hindenburg. Bruning’s economic policies were sharply unpopular and were enacted by emergency decree rather than with approval of the Reichstag. As a result of Bruning’s attempts at reform, aid for the unemployed, sick, the retired, and other groups was significantly reduced. Seeking to further capitalize on the economic downturn, the Nazis developed a two-pronged approach. On one hand, Hitler traveled throughout Germany campaigning for the Nazi cause in the upcoming 1932 presidential and federal elections. While Hitler campaigned, the SA marched and violently disrupted political meetings and daily life.

Hitler ran as the Nazi Party’s candidate in the 1932 Presidential Election. He lost to Hindenburg in a runoff on April 10, 1932. Despite the loss, Hitler received over 13 million votes, and erased a large majority of the popular support Hindenburg received in the presidential election of 1925. Between April 1932 and the federal elections that would be scheduled for July 1932, Bruning lost Hindenburg’s support and was replaced as chancellor by Franz von Papen.

Von Papen was selected because Hindenburg believed he needed a coalition between the political center and Hitler. General Kurt von Schleicher agreed Von Papen was the man to accomplish that goal. Von Schleicher became Defense Minister and was highly influential, appointing each member of Papen’s cabinet. After discussions, the Nazis consented to Von Papen’s government provided certain conditions were met:

(1) a federal election would be scheduled,

(2) the Nazis would be given more access to radio and other forms of media, and

(3) and the national ban on the SA was to be lifted.

This was agreed, and while all three points were significant, the most significant was the federal election, which was scheduled for July.

The July 31, 1932 election was a significant turning point for the Nazis and for Germany. The result was a major gain for the Nazis in the Reichstag. The Nazis increased their representation by 123 seats for a total of 230, only 75 seats short of a majority. Von Papen’s minority government remained, but without support from Hitler. Hitler demanded he be made chancellor, but Hindenburg flatly refused such a move. When the Reichstag convened in September 1932, Von Papen, with help from von Schleicher and Hindenburg, sought to minimize the Nazi role in government by dissolving it and declaring another election. The move failed for two reasons. First, Goering simply ignored Von Papen’s attempted presentation of a decree from Hindenburg. Second, the Communists initiated a vote of no-confidence in Von Papen, which passed with an overwhelming majority.

In November 1932, yet another federal election was held. Despite the Nazis losing seats in the Reichstag, Von Papen was still unable to form a coalition government to continue his chancellorship. In response, Hindenburg removed Von Papen, and replaced him with von Schleicher. Von Papen was devastated, believing he had been betrayed by the man who brought him to power in the first place. Von Papen’s anger at this treachery led him to secretly meet with Hitler on January 4, 1933. At this meeting, the two devised a strategy by which they would topple von Schleicher and form a new coalition government with Hitler as chancellor.

After the meeting between Von Papen and Hitler, events transpired quickly. Five days later, on January 9, 1933, Von Papen met with Hindenburg and the two agreed to a Hitler led government. A series of meetings followed; first at the home of Joachim von Ribbentrop and then at the apartment of Goering. An agreement was reached between Hitler, Von Papen, and Hindenburg that Hitler would become Chancellor in a new government and Papen would serve as Vice-Chancellor. Faced with the inevitable, von Schliecher resigned on January 28, 1933, and Hitler was appointed Chancellor by Hindenburg on January 30. The same day, Hitler’s former ally, General von Ludendorff sent a telegram to Hindenburg which stated:

“I solemnly prophesy that this accursed man will cast our Reich into the abyss and bring our nation to inconceivable misery. Future generations will damn you in your grave for what you have done.”

From Chancellor to Dictator

With Hitler in the Chancellorship, and the Nazis continuing to be the largest party in the Reichstag, Goering was selected to continue in his role as Reichstag President. Goering was also named Minister of the Interior of Prussia. Hitler immediately began steps to seize power, with a goal toward Gleichschaltung, or totalitarian power; leftist political meetings were banned, the SA assaulted rival political groups, and Reichstag deputies were arrested.

One of Hitler’s first official acts was to request President von Hindenburg dissolve the Reichstag and request another national election be called. The election was scheduled for March 5, 1933. During the campaign, the SA violently attacked the offices of the Communist Party and the labor unions. As the latter half of February approached, the Social Democrats were also targeted; their meetings were disrupted and party members assaulted. The Zentrum, Catholic Center Party, was banned after criticizing Hitler’s government. Leading up to the election, newspapers and other publications of all parties except the Nazis were banned. Hitler knew a victory in the upcoming election could help him solidify total power over Germany. He also surmised that he could assume dictatorial powers through the passing of an Enabling Act. An Enabling Act allowed the Chancellor to rule by decree (i.e. without consent of the Reichstag) during times of emergency pursuant to Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution. To pass an enabling act, a two-thirds quorum, and two-thirds majority vote of the Reichstag was required. This would not be easy, as the Communists still held approximately 17% of Reichstag seats. Hitler pondered banning the Communist party following the March 5 vote to reduce the amount of people who would vote against passing an enabling act. In order to accomplish this, the Communists would have to become more unpopular.

The Nazis campaigned for the March elections by doing everything in their power to minimize Communist gains. The messages were simple: (1) an Enabling Act should be passed and, (2) the need for an Enabling Act was urgent because the nation was on the verge of a Communist Revolution which must be stopped. Then, on February 27, 1933, the Reichstag building caught fire.

The Reichstag Fire

On February 27, 1933, mere days before the election, four of the most influential Germans were dining at different locations within Berlin. Vice President Franz Von Papen dined with President Hindenburg at the Herrenklub, while Goebbels and his family ate with Hitler at the Goebbels’ home. The Herrenklub was an exclusive gentlemen’s club whose membership included landowners, industrialists, bankers, and other public figures. The club was located a very short distance from the Reichstag building. One of Hitler’s closest friends at the time was businessman Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstaengel, who became one of the first people to find out about the Reichstag fire. Hanfstaengel quickly phoned Goebbels, who would later write that he did not believe Hanfstaengel and thus declined to inform Hitler of what he perceived to be a ridiculous claim. At the club, Papen observed a “red glow” and heard many individuals shouting on the Voßstrasse outside. Papen and Hindenburg were then informed of the fire by a member of the wait staff and then observed flames at times obscured by smoke. Papen then went to the scene of the fire. Goebbels, meanwhile, did some investigating and was able to ascertain that the call from Hanfstaengel was legitimate. He and Hitler then also rushed to the Reichstag.

When Hitler and Goebbels arrived, Goering was waiting for them. According to Von Papen, Goering seemed excited that the building was aflame and was already proclaiming to the gathering crowd that the blaze was part of a Communist plot against the Nazi government.

This is the beginning of the Communist revolution! We must not wait a minute. We will show no mercy. Every Communist official must be shot where he is found. Every Communist deputy must this very night be strung up.”

The most widely accepted version of events is what follows here. On the night of February 27, a small group of SA storm troopers accessed the Reichstag through an underground passage that led from Georing’s office. Once there, accelerants were spread around the building, but at the same time a Dutch Communist named Marinus van der Lubbe was inside the building and set a fire. It was van der Lubbe’s fire(s) mixing with the SA’s accelerants which likely caused the large fire.

Evidence uncovered at the Nuremberg trials indicates that while van Der Lubbe was a convenient scapegoat, the idea of the fire was likely the brainchild of Goering and Goebbels. In fact, testimony at Nuremberg revealed that it was Goebbels who first thought of setting the fire, while Goering knew how it would be done and had pre-created a list of arrestees for a roundup following the event. Van Der Lubbe was found nearby, and immediately arrested. At the subsequent trial, Goering would advise the court that he wanted to execute the young Communist on the spot as an example. Also arrested for conspiring to set the Reichstag on fire were Ernst Torgler, a Bulgarian Communist paramilitary leader, Georgi Dimitroff, Blagoy Popov, and Vasil Tanev. At trial, Torgler, Dimitroff, Popov, and Tanev were all acquitted. Van der Lubbe was convicted and beheaded in Leipzig on January 10, 1934.

As Goering proclaimed the fire was the beginning of the Communist Revolt, Hitler realized he had his moment to seize total control of Germany; he was quoted as saying, “There will be no more mercy now; anyone who stands in our way will be butchered.”

The government struck quickly; the first order of business was to round up the Communists. Mere hours after the fire, the police arrested more than four thousand known or suspected Communists. Later at the direction of nationalist Ludwig Grauert, an emergency decree was drafted. An emergency cabinet meeting was held on the afternoon of February 28 and there the Reichstag Fire Decree was adopted. Paragraph one of the decree suspended many civil liberties in the Weimar Constitution:

“Articles 114, 115, 117, 118, 123, 124 and 153 of the Constitution of the German Reich are suspended until further notice. It is therefore permissible to restrict the rights of personal freedom, freedom of expression, including the freedom of the press, the freedom to organize and assemble, the privacy of postal, telegraphic and telephonic communications. Warrants for House searches, orders for confiscations as well as restrictions on property, are also permissible beyond the legal limits otherwise prescribed.”

Paragraph two of the decree gave power to the government to exert control over the federated German states if there was a danger to public order. According to Historian Richard Evans, the decree provided the legal pretext of what was to come in subsequent months.

The Reichstag Fire Decree was introduced to the public in conjunction with a barrage of Goebbels led propaganda, leading to a widespread increase in public desire for backlash against the Communists. This led, in turn, to widespread violence initiated by the SA and the arrest of over 10,000 Communist Party politicians. The Nazis also took over the governments in Prussia and the other German states. The decree further authorized the penalty of death for a number of new offenses which included “serious disturbances of the peace by armed persons.”

The result of the decree, under the backdrop of rapidly approaching federal elections, caused everyday German citizens to live in fear that the alternative to voting for the Nazis would be a Communist takeover of the nation. To add to this fear and anxiety, trucks filled with SA storm troopers consistently tore through German streets to effectuate the arrest of the Communist politicians mentioned above. Social Democrats and other liberals were not immune from the crackdown either, with over 4,000 being arrested in the days following the adoption of the Decree. The heavy handed tactics of the SA included breaking into private homes, detaining individuals without charge, then taking them to a SA facility where they were beaten and tortured. The fire, the decree, and massive Anti-Communist propaganda was the backdrop for the March 1933 election.

Germans went to the polls for federal elections on March 5, 1933. The six days preceding the elections were marked by widespread saturation of nationwide Nazi campaigning. The SA patrolled the streets, broadcasts of Hitler’s speeches were played in town and city squares, homes and offices were raided, the Communists and Social Democrats were accused of “preparing a bloodbath of honest citizens” and those two parties were forbidden from undertaking any political activity. The election was held on a Sunday and the Nazis organized motor pools to get citizens to the polls. Once again, the Nazis gained seats, increasing their total seats to 288. The Reichstag body consisted of a total of 648 seats, 324 of which are considered a majority. The Nazi’s formed a coalition with the Nationalists, the votes garnered over 51%, and a majority government was formed. The day after the election, March 6, 1933, the German Communist Party (or KPD) was officially banned. With total control over Germany becoming closer to reality, Hitler conducted his first cabinet meeting on March 15, 1933.

The first cabinet meeting of the new coalition government was, up to that date, Hitler’s most consequential day of his Chancellorship. At the meeting, he introduced the Enabling Act of 1933. As discussed, for an enabling act to be legal under the Weimar Constitution, a ⅔ quorum and a ⅔ majority vote of that quorum was necessary for passage. The first issue was the quorum, which was effectively reduced to 378 Reichstag members as a result of the banning of the KPD. Nevertheless, negotiations were required to ensure passage. The pivot point in the negotiations would be securing the support of the Zentrum Party, as the Social Democrats were expected to vote against the law. Negotiations began on March 20 and concluded March 22. To win support of the Zentrum, Hitler promised the following:

(1) the Act would not suppress the rights of the Catholic Church,

(2) the Federated States in the south of Germany would remain,

(3) the judiciary would remain independent, and,

(4) Zentrum members would be retained in the civil services.

The vote was scheduled for March 23, two days after the ceremonial opening of the Reichstag.

Due to the fire, the Reichstag was temporarily meeting at the Kroll Opera House in Berlin. The ceremonial opening of the Reichstag of the Third Reich was held on March 21, 1933, a date chosen by the party to coincide with Bismarck’s opening of the Reichstag of the Second Reich in 1871. It was a show. Generals, field marshals, admirals, and other old military members gathered in full dress uniform. President Hindenburg, at times moved to tears during the ceremony, also dressed in full uniform. Goebbels’ carefully orchestrated ceremony included Hindenburg and Hitler arriving together, walking down the center aisle of the Garrison Church, and stopping to give a salute to the Kaiser’s empty chair. The ceremony culminated with a choreographed show of humility toward the aged president:

“By a unique upheaval in the last few weeks our national honor has been restored, and, thanks to your understanding, Herr Generalfeldmarschall, the union between the symbols of the old greatness and the new strength has been celebrated. We pay you homage. A protective Providence places you over the new forces of our nation.”

On March 23, the legislators arrived and were greeted by crowds screaming “We want the Enabling Act!” The main hall of the opera house was decorated with swastikas, and teemed with armed SS and SA members. Hitler spoke in support of passage of the Act, promising violence if it was rejected. He promised that passage of the Act did not mean the Reischstag would be dissolved and the authority of President Hindenburg would remain intact. The Social Democrats, as expected, opposed passage of the act. In prescient comments, Otto Wels urged the government to follow the Social Democrats' allegiance to “the basic principles of humanity and justice.” However, The Enabling Act passed with an overwhelming 444-94 supermajority.

An English translation of the act follows here:

Law to Remedy the Distress of the People and the Reich

Article 1

In addition to the procedure prescribed by the constitution, laws of the Reich may also be enacted by the government of the Reich. This includes the laws referred to by Articles 85 Paragraph 2 and Article 87 of the constitution.

Article 2

Laws enacted by the government of the Reich may deviate from the constitution as long as they do not affect the institutions of the Reichstag and the Reichsrat. The rights of the President remain unaffected.

Article 3

Laws enacted by the Reich government shall be issued by the Chancellor and announced in the Reich Gazette. They shall take effect on the day following the announcement, unless they prescribe a different date. Articles 68 to 77 of the Constitution do not apply to laws enacted by the Reich government.

Article 4

Treaties of the Reich with foreign states, which relate to matters of Reich legislation, shall for the duration of the validity of these laws not require the consent of the legislative authorities. The Reich government shall enact the legislation necessary to implement these agreements.

Article 5

This law enters into force on the day of its proclamation. It expires on 1 April 1937; it expires furthermore if the present Reich government is replaced by another.

The Act was signed into law by President Hindenburg on March 24, 1933. Hitler now had the power to rule by decree, either having Hindenburg enact his decrees, or by going around him entirely. The Weimar Republic was over, and the Third Reich had begun.

Part IV- The Mop Up

With near total power of Germany in his grasp, Hitler moved to eliminate his remaining enemies. The first group targeted were the trade unions who were long time allies of the KPD and Social Democrats. The unions were strongly opposed to Hitler being appointed Chancellor in January 1933. The result of their opposition was violent repression at the hands of the SA and SS. Leipart and Leuschner, two prominent union leaders then attempted to compromise with Hitler, believing his promise to begin job creation programs. An agreement was reached with the Nazi government whereby all unions would combine themselves into a single organization. Goebbels also publicly declared that May 1, the union/Communist May Day holiday would be a public holiday in Germany for the very first time. A May Day holiday was an event for which the unions had lobbied for many years. On May Day, many unions marched throughout Berlin flying the Nazi Flag or decorated in the colors of the German Empire. Patriotic songs played, speeches were given, and in the evening Hitler gave a speech over the airwaves promising to end unemployment. On May 2nd, 1933, one day after the holiday, the SA and the SS stormed the offices of each labor union, their bank accounts were seized, and leaders arrested. The unions were then summarily abolished and strikes declared illegal.

With the labor/trade unions banned, the next target was the remaining opposition political parties. With the Communist KPD already banned, not to mention many of its members arrested and sent to concentration camps. (The first concentration camp, Dachau, was established on March 22, 1933 for political prisoners.) The Social Democrats and Zentrum were the final obstacle to one party rule. On May 10, 1933, the Social Democrat bank accounts, offices, and other property were seized by the government. This was done legally, via a court order obtained by Berlin’s General State Prosecutor, even though the allegation supporting the order was completely baseless. The Social Democrats would not wield any political power again in Germany until the demise of the Third Reich. High ranking party officials were either arrested, committed suicide, or fled Germany. The Party headquarters officially relocated to Czechoslovakia and the Nazi’s banned the party by June 21. Hitler then began to break his promises to the Zentrum. Its newspapers and other publications were banned and Goering continually allowed their civil employees to be threatened with loss of jobs. Himmler, then Bavarian police chief, upped the ante in late June by ordering the arrest and placement into “protective custody” of all deputies of the Bayerische Volkspartei, the Bavarian People’s Party, a party aligned with the Zentrum. Goebbels and Papen argued vociferously for the banning of the Zentrum, while the German Bishops pledged cooperation with the new government, despite maintaining official opposition to their platform. A concordat signed later in the summer with the Vatican also promised the clergy would not interfere in German political affairs. The Bavarian People's Party, a Roman Catholic party, was subjected as well to beatings and harassment from the SA, and it succumbed to pressure and broken promises on July 5, 1933. Nine days later, on July 14, 1933, the Law Against the Founding of New Parties was passed, establishing the Nazi Party as the only legal party in Germany, and declaring the formation of any new party as “high treason.” With external forces and political opponents culled, it was time to look internally.

Prelude to the Purge

By the end of 1933, the SA had grown to exceed three million stormtroopers who were increasingly violent toward political opponents and virtually uncontrollable. Ernst Rohm, the leader of the SA, was working to increase his power both politically and militarily. In February 1934 Rohm wrote a letter, delivered to the cabinet, which proposed incorporating the Reichswehr (the ‘Reichs’ Army’ which had been limited to 100,000 troops by provisions of the Versailles Treaty) into the SA to create a new “People's Army.” The reorganization proposed would house the SA, the Reichswehr, and the SS under a Rohm-led defense ministry. Not surprisingly, the career officers despised this idea and requested support from President Hindenburg. The Reichswehr general staff followed in the proud traditions of the former imperial German army. The army believed they should rearm, but according to Historian William L. Shirer, General von Brauchstich testified “rearmament was too serious and difficult a business to permit the participation of percolators, drunkards, and homosexuals.” Hitler now had a problem.

The only entity that posed any danger to Hitler’s power at this point was Hindenburg, who still had control of and the support of the Reichswehr. Knowing this, and with future goals in mind, Hitler did not want to offend the Reichswehr and risk losing any of their support of his government. Therefore, he did not support Rohm’s scheme to absorb the army. Instead, in a private February 1934 meeting with British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, he advised he was planning to reduce the SA’s manpower by up to two-thirds and would refuse to arm and train those remaining. Throughout 1934, the Reichswehr was secretly rearming in violation of the Versailles Treaty, but the secrecy was threatened by an open arming of the SA with heavy weaponry by Rohm, serving to further deepen the rivalry with the Army. Hitler’s failure to back Rohm’s plans, and Rohm learning of Hitler’s plan to reduce the size and influence of the SA, drove a wedge between the two friends. As 1934 moved into spring, another potential obstacle for Hitler grew. As spring blossomed, Hitler now had to deal with the SA growing out of control, needing support of the Reichswehr, and the advancing ill health of Hindenburg.

To maintain power, Hitler had to think several moves ahead. Knowing Hindenburg was in poor health, Hitler knew it would be essential for him to have the support of the Reichswehr in the event of the President’s death. According to Shirer, this was because the conservatives and the Reichswehr desired to restore the monarchy upon the death of Hindenburg. In early April, Hitler met with Army and Navy leaders where he proposed that he become president upon the death of Hindenburg. In this proposal, he was backed by Reichswehr chief General Blomberg, and Hitler offered to reduce the size and strength of the SA and assured all parties that the army and navy would be the only German military. If they sided with Hitler’s proposal, he promised General Werner Frieherr von Fritsch, Commander-in-Chief of the Reichswehr, and Admiral Erich Raeder, Großadmirial, a massive growth of the German armed forces. A subsequent meeting was held in May; General Fritsch consulted with his generals and all agreed unanimously to back Hitler as the President upon Hindenburg’s death. With a guarantee of all the power, it was time for the SA to go. Hitler no longer needed the Stormtroopers to beat and intimidate his political enemies into submission.

In addition to the SA becoming less necessary to him, Hitler was concerned the SA would continue to embarrass him. The SA would repeatedly drunkenly fight and brawl with people in the streets bringing unwanted international attention to the Nazi government. When Rohm learned of the agreement between Hitler and the Reichswehr, he angrily stated he would not take orders from the “ridiculous corporal.” As discussed previously, the SS had been placed under the control of chicken farmer Heinrich Himmler, who moved to reduce the SA’s power. Rohm was restless, feeling squeezed on all sides in a growing political rift within the party. Rohm and other SA leaders called for a “second revolution.” Hindenburg and those outside the party wanted the arrogance and violence of the SA curbed. Rohm’s goals directly conflicted with those of the Reichswehr and of Hitler, which led Goering, Goebbels, Himmler, and Hess to align themselves against Rohm and the SA. To prevent an increase in SA violence, and end their self-perceived independence, Himmler was appointed chief of the Prussian Gestapo in April.

The beginning of summer 1934 saw Berlin grow very tense under the weight of rumored plots against Hitler’s government, and what, if any, reprisals there may be. General von Schliecher found himself wading back into the political morass, trying to play a version of ‘Let’s Make a Deal’ to regain some power within the government. This proved to be a fatal error. The plan, which made it to Hitler’s desk, stipulated that von Schleicher would replace Papen as Vice-Chancellor, and would then make Rohm Defense Minister, allowing Rohm’s goal of merging the Reichswehr and SA to occur. These plans, including other “cabinet lists”, were brought to the attention of Hitler by Himmler and Goering knowing Hitler did not need much incentive to become paranoid. Goering and Himmler made it clear to Hitler that their goal was to purge the SA, as well as any remaining old political rivals.

In May 1934, von Schliecher and Bruning were warned their lives were in danger. Bruning decided to flee Germany. Von Schliecher, on the other hand, went to Bavaria, but made his second fatal error by returning to Berlin in late June. Earlier in June, Hitler met with Rohm, calling it a final effort to reach his closest friend and implore him to come to an understanding. Hitler would contend after the meeting that Rohm was determined to “eliminate me personally.”

The Purge

One positive outcome of the June 1934 meeting was Hitler and Rohm agreeing the SA would go on leave for the month of July. Rohm took leave as well, but before beginning his vacation, he made a defiant statement, directed at what he called the enemies of the SA; he stated the SA “is and remains the destiny of Germany.” Rohm also extended an invitation, which was accepted by Hitler, for a conference with the SA leadership at Bad Wiessee on June 30. In mid June, Hitler traveled to Italy to meet with Mussolini and returned on June 17. At the same time Von Papen was in Marburg where he would give his last public speech. The speech, given at the University of Marburg, was written by aide Edgar Jung (of whom the reader will hear again soon). Among other points, Von Papen advocated for the restoration of freedom of the press and an end to “Nazi terror.” One can imagine the speech was not well received by Goebbels, Hitler, and his close group of advisors that were meeting the same day. Von Papen’s defiance was uncanny, and despite Goebbels banning printing and prohibiting broadcast of the speech, foreign correspondents had been given copies of the speech in advance. Von Papen and Hitler were furious with one another, Von Papen for the attempted suppression of his speech, and Hitler at the defiance. On June 21, 1934, Hitler flew to see Hindenburg, but was met instead by Blomberg. The speech had been well received abroad and now Hindenburg and the military had a problem due to the tension between Hitler and Papen. At the meeting with Blomberg and Hitler in Neudeck (modern day Northern Poland), Hitler was offered an ultimatum: either he would quell the rising tension in Germany or Hindenburg would declare martial law and turn control of the nation to the Reichswehr.

Once back in Berlin, Himmler convinced Hitler that Rohm wanted to overthrow his government. This was the final nail in the coffin for Rohm, the SA, and Hitler’s old enemies. The wheels were put in motion when Hitler ordered Himmler to quash the plot in Bavaria and ordered Goering to do the same in Berlin. On June 25, 1934, General Fritsch ordered the Reichswehr to its highest state of alert, and on June 28, Rohm was “expelled from the German Officers League”. The following day, Blomberg, in a signed article printed in the Voelkeshcer Beobachter declared the army stood behind the Chancellor. Between late evening June 29, and very early morning on June 30, Hitler claimed he received urgent communiques (Shirer opines likely from Himmler and Goering) regarding an alleged muster by the SA planned for June 30 to coincide with a planned attack to occupy government buildings in Berlin. At 2:00 a.m. on June 30, Hitler and Goebbels departed from Bonn, headed for Munich.

As I believe it necessary to understand not only the development of the Nazi regime, but also its evil nature, we will describe what became to be known as “The Night of the Long Knives” in detail. Thanks to The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, and the New York Times, historically accurate accounts of June 30-July 2, 1934, still exist and enable us to do so.

Instead of planning a revolt, at 2:00 am in Bad Wiessee, many of the SA brass were fast asleep. Among them were Rohm, Edmund Heines (SA obergruppenführer of Silesia), and others. Rohm’s staff guard had been left in Munich due to the general leave. Hitler arrived in Munich two hours after his departure, and was with Goebbels, Otto Dietrich, and Viktor Lutze (SA leader of Hannover). Arriving, they met Emil Maurice and Christian Weber who had already arrested the leaders of the Munich SA. As dawn broke, Hitler’s party departed Munich headed for Bad Weissee’s Hanselbauer Hotel, where Rohm and his cronies slept. The first room entered was that of Heines, who was asleep with a male companion. Hitler immediately ordered Heines and his companion into the courtyard where they were summarily executed. Rohm was next as Hitler entered his room alone, placed Rohm under arrest, and ordered him held at Stadelheim Prison. Hitler further ordered that a pistol be left in Rohm’s cell, but defiant to the end, Rohm allegedly said Hitler should do it himself. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich gives the following account of Rohm’s violent end:

Thereupon, two SA officers...entered the cell and fired their revolvers at Rohm point blank. ‘Rohm wanted to say something,’ said this witness, ‘but the SS officer motioned for him to shut up. Then Rohm stood at attention--he was stripped to the waist--with his face full of contempt.’ And so he died, as violently as he lived.”

In Berlin, Goering and Himmler hatched their portion of the bloodletting. 150 SA men, including Karl Ernst (who had been on his honeymoon), were lined up against the wall at the SA cadet school and executed by firing squads. General Kurt von Schleicher also met his end in the morning of June 30. Around 10:30 a.m., a vehicle occupied by several men arrived at the General and former Chancellor’s home in Neubabelsberg. At the time, von Schleicher was on a telephone call. The party on the other end of the line heard violent knocking at the door. The other party next heard Schleicher say “Jawohl, ich bin General von Schleicher,” followed by two gunshots. The general was dead. Alarmed by the noise, von Schleicher’s wife, Elisabeth, flew down the stairs where she was promptly murdered as well. As described in the famed documentary The World at War, Goering took special delight in reporting to the foreign press the events of June 30, and the fate of von Schleicher. In an interview with Hugh Greene of the Daily Telegraph, the following was related:

"Goering gave a press conference at the propaganda ministry...And Goering had that press conference for the foreign press. Before that the telephones had been cut off to all foreign countries. Goering came striding in and said ‘Well, I know you boys always like to have a story’-he used the English word-’I’ve got a story for you alright’ and described how that previous night and early that morning he and Hitler had acted against dissident forces both of the right and of the left, that Rohm and been shot and a second revolution had been quashed. He also made a rather obscure reference to General von Schleicher, who had preceded Hitler as German Chancellor. Then he left the room. He came back again in a few seconds, and said ‘it’s been suggested that I didn’t make myself quite clear regarding General von Schliecher. General von Schleicher was shot dead while resisting arrest’”.

General Bredlow and Gregor Strasser were also executed on June 30. Von Papen survived the purge but not his chief aide, Bose. Edgar Jung was also killed, as was Von Papen confidante Erich Klausener, who was the leader of the Catholic Action Association. SA and political targets were not the only victims of the purge, but they were by far the majority.

One thing Hitler did not have was a short memory. This is evidenced by the finding of Gustav von Kahr’s body after the purge. Earlier, we discussed how Kahr helped suppress the Beer Hall Putsch. For this ‘crime’, he was hacked to death by pickaxes and left in a swamp in the proximity of Dachau. Shirer points out another tale of murder that must be mentioned here as well. The SS arrived at the home of Dr. Willi Schmid in the evening of June 30 while his wife was making dinner and he was playing the cello in the company of their three children. Without even a semblance of an explanation, Schmid was taken from his home, only to be returned several days later by the Gestapo: in a coffin. Shirer notes that it seems the SS was looking for Munich SA leader Willi Schmidt, and had arrested and murdered the wrong man. As it turns out, Schmidt, for whom they were searching, had already been arrested and executed by a separate SS detachment.

Interviewed for The World at War, Ewald von Kleist, later a German officer and recruit of von Stauffenberg for Operation Valkyrie, said this regarding the Night of the Long Knives: “it was a very, very important day, because it became obvious that this government, as a government, started to become a murderer.”

Following the purge, the army was ecstatic about finally having the troublesome thorn of the SA out of its way; Hindenburg was said to approve of treason being rooted out. On July 13, Hitler gave a speech to the Reichstag where he alleged Schleicher and Rohm were collaborating with France to overthrow him. Schleicher having been friends with the French ambassador to Germany at the time, lent credence to Hitlers attempt to justify the blood-soaked eradication. Keeping his promise to the generals, Hitler also announced in this speech that the army would continue to be the “sole bearer of arms.” On July 26, 1934, the SS was made independent of the SA. As August 1934 approached, the last remaining obstacle was nearing its end.

On August 1, 1934, having been informed that President Hindenburg was on his deathbed, Hitler’s cabinet enacted The Law Concerning the Highest State Office of the Reich which merged the offices of Chancellor and President. The law provided that upon the death of Hindenburg, Hitler would assume the title of Fuhrer and Reich Chancellor, thereby abolishing the need for a President. President Paul von Hindenburg, age 87, died on August 2, 1934, at his home in Neudeck in what is now modern day Poland. Hours later, it was announced via radio and print that pursuant to the law enacted August 1, Hitler was now head of state and commander of the armed forces.

On August 19, 1934, Germany went to the polls to vote on a referendum seeking approval of Hitler’s complete seizure of power. The August 1 law was seemingly illegal, but as Shirer so eloquently wrote, “that the law was illegal made little difference in a Germany where the former Austrian corporal had become the law itself.” Hitler won the vote with over 90% approval; over 38 million votes. To maintain his newfound dictatorship, and to exact loyalty from the armed forces who treated their oath as bound by blood, Hitler required all military personnel to take the following pledge:

“Ich schwöre bei Gott diesen heiligen Eid, daß ich dem Führer des Deutschen Reiches und Volkes Adolf Hitler, dem Oberbefehlshaber der Wehrmacht, unbedingten Gehorsam leisten und als tapferer Soldat bereit sein will, jederzeit für diesen Eid mein Leben einzusetzen.”

[Translation] “I swear by God this sacred oath, that I will render unconditional obedience to Adolf Hitler, the Führer of the German Reich and people, Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, and will be ready as a brave soldier to risk my life at any time for this oath.”

As stated in the New York Times on August 20, 1934, Hitler was now the world’s supreme autocrat, legally answerable to no one.


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