The story of Nazi Germany has fascinated and appalled millions of people. The Nazis came to power in 1933, riding a wave of public dissatisfaction fuelled by political instability and economic suffering. Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party presented themselves as a revolutionary party with new energy but instead offered only ideas: authoritarianism, nationalism, military power and racial purity. Though they governed for barely a dozen years, the Nazi grip on Germany was powerful and profound. Within a couple of years, Hitler and his henchmen had transformed their country from a burgeoning liberal democracy into a one-party totalitarian state. The lives of millions of Germans were changed – some for the better but many for the worse. The rest of the world watched the evolution of Nazi Germany with a mixture of curiosity and concern. There was even some misguided admiration for Hitler and his party, who seemed to have rescued Germany from its post-World War I anarchy.
Nazi ideology permeated and shaped most aspects of German political life, work, society and culture. Germans were expected to place their trust in Adolf Hitler. Democratic government at all levels was swept away, replaced by Nazi Party departments, agencies and acolytes. Other political organisations were banned; even expressing a dissenting view became a crime. The Nazis rounded up their political opponents, forcing them into exile, detaining them in concentration camps or hauling them before the notorious ‘People’s Court’. Order and security were protected by powerful police and paramilitary organisations, like the Schutzstaffel (SS) and the Gestapo. Nazism also shaped and changed the lives of those who either supported them or were politically apathetic. The Nazis took control of Germany’s economic levers, allowing private companies and capital to continue but harnessing production for the benefit of the state. This had significant outcomes for German workers, who found themselves toiling longer hours with fewer protections. Unions were abolished and replaced with a Nazi-run labour front. Nazi values permeated German society. Workplaces, schools, homes, even families were infiltrated and inundated with Nazi rhetoric. Propaganda and press control were hallmarks of Nazi rule. So too were order and organisation – even though the Nazi state itself was a chaotic network of departments, agencies and competing interests.
Germans responded to Nazism in various ways – but it is undeniable that there was considerable support for Hitler and his party. Some welcomed the decisiveness of the regime, others its return to traditional values and social conservatism. Many admired the Nazis for their economic program, which seemed to deliver Germany from the Great Depression and restore the nation to near full employment. This admiration even extended abroad, where Hitler – for all his quirks and dark fascination with race – was hailed as a ‘miracle man’ in some quarters. But not all Germans were enamoured with Hitler and his movement. There was opposition to the Nazis in dispossessed political groups, workers’ unions, the ranks of the army, university students, even listless teenagers opposed to the Hitler Youth.
Germany’s descent into totalitarianism might have been understandable had it occurred in a land of barbarians or savages. But for all its troubles, early 20th century Germany was one of the world’s most civilised and technically advanced nations – as well as being an important seat of learning, intellectualism and culture. How could a nation with all the hallmarks of an advanced society fall into the hands of one of history’s most barbarous and genocidal regimes? How could an educated people tolerate, entertain and come to accept dangerous ideas – like myths about Aryan racial supremacy and Jewish conspiracies? Why did Germans submit their loyalty to a group which openly professed to have no regard for their individual rights? These questions will hopefully be addressed in this Alpha History section, which offers a detailed account of Nazism and its people, events, ideas and themes.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Brian Doone. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “Nazi Germany”, Alpha History, accessed [today's date], http://alphahistory.com/nazigermany/.