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Third Reich

Deutsches Reich (1933–1943)
Großdeutsches Reich (1943–1945)
Nazi Germany 1944 Administration.png
Flag of Nazi Germany.png
Capital Berlin
Government National Socialist dictatorship
Language German (official)
President Paul von Hindenburg (1933–1934)
Adolf Hitler (1934–1945; Führer)
Karl Dönitz (1945)
Chancellor Adolf Hitler (1933–1945)
Karl Doenitz (1945)
Lutz von Krosigk (1945; leading minister)
Area 244,706 sq mi
Population 1939 69,320,000 (est)
Currency Reichsmark

The Third Reich (German: Deutsches Reich, "German Reich") was the dictatorship of Germany while under the control of the Nazi Party and its leader ("Führer"), Adolf Hitler. The state that lasted from 1933–1945, is commonly known as Nazi Germany. Quickly consolidating power after his appointment as chancellor by President Paul von Hindenburg, Hitler pulled the country out of the worldwide depression with various government spending programs and transformed it once again into a major European power; his lust for German territorial expansion at the expense of other countries, primarily Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine, beliefs in an Aryan "master race", and a hatred of those considered "sub-human" (primarily Jews, Russians, and other Slavs) led to the outbreak of World War II in 1939, which left Germany and much of Europe in ruins and millions of people dead.

In taking over Germany, Hitler believed that he was creating a third German empire, following the Holy Roman Empire (800–1806) – what he called the First Reich – and the Second Reich created by Otto von Bismarck, which lasted 1871–1918.


Adolf Hitler was still attached to the German Army in Bavaria after World War I, serving primarily as a gatherer of information on the various political parties which were created as a result of the country's loss in the war. After being assigned to document a small left-wing party in Munich known as the Deutsche Arbeiterpartei ("German Workers' Party" or DAP), he liked what he saw in it and became a member in September 1919; the following year, the party changed its name to the National-Sozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei ("National Socialist German Workers' Party" or NSDAP). In 1921 Hitler assumed leadership of the NSDAP.

Marxist revolution and counterrevolution

As leader of the NSDAP, Hitler reorganized the party and encouraged the assimilation of other radical groups. Gangs of unemployed demobilized soldiers were gathered under the command of a former army officer, Ernst Röhm, to form the Storm Troopers (Sturmabteilung or SA), Hitler's private army. With the collapse of the German Empire and rise of the Soviet Union, internecine leftist violence in the streets for control of the infant Weimar Republic was widespread and chaotic. The Nazis consolidated nationalist control of leftwing revolutionary groups, with groups loyal to the Moscow worldwide socialist revolution declared by Lenin and Trotsky controlling native groups loyal to a foreign power as their violent opposition. Ever since Karl Marx's writings from the mid 18th century, Germany, not Russia, had been the primary target of Marxist revolutionaries for violent revolution and regime change. Russia became a ripe target for Marxist revolution and opportunists for leftwing social experimentation in the chaotic closing days of the Great War precisely because of its lack of industrial economic development. Under Hitler's leadership, the NSDAP denounced the Weimar Republic and the "November criminals" who had signed the Treaty of Versailles.

Defendants during the Munich beer hall putsch trial, April 1924 (l-r: Pernet, Weber, Frick, Kiebel, Ludendorff, Hitler, Bruckner, Röhm, Wagner.).

The postwar economic slump won the party a following among unemployed ex-soldiers, the lower middle class, and small farmers; in 1923 membership totaled about 55,000. General Erich Ludendorff supported the former corporal in the Beer Hall Putsch of November 1923 in Munich, an attempt to overthrow the Bavarian government. The putsch failed, and Hitler received a light sentence of five years, of which he served less than one. Incarcerated in relative comfort, he wrote Mein Kampf (My Struggle), in which he set out his long-term political aims.

After the failure of the putsch, Hitler turned to "legal revolution" as the means to power and chose two parallel paths to take the Nazis to that goal. First, the NSDAP would employ propaganda to create a national mass party capable of coming to power through electoral successes. Second, the party would develop a bureaucratic structure and prepare itself to assume roles in government. Beginning in the mid-1920s, Nazi groups sprang up in other parts of Germany. In 1927 the NSDAP organized the first Nuremberg party congress, a mass political rally. By 1928 party membership exceeded 100,000; the Nazis, however, polled only 2.6 percent of the vote in the Reichstag elections in May.

A mere splinter party in 1928, the NSDAP became better known the following year when it formed an alliance with the DNVP to launch a plebiscite against the Young Plan on the issue of reparations. The DNVP's leader, Alfred Hugenberg, owner of a large newspaper chain, considered Hitler's spellbinding oratory a useful means of attracting votes. The DNVP-NSDAP union brought the NSDAP within the framework of a socially influential coalition. As a result, Hitler's party acquired respectability and access to wealthy contributors.

Had it not been for the economic collapse that began with the Wall Street stock market crash of October 1929, Hitler probably would not have come to power. The Great Depression hit Germany very hard because the German economy's well-being depended on short-term loans from the United States. Once these loans were recalled, Germany was devastated. Unemployment went from 8.5 percent in 1929 to 14 percent in 1930, to 21.9 percent in 1931, and, at its peak, to 29.9 percent in 1932. Compounding the effects of the Depression were the drastic economic measures taken by Center Party politician Heinrich Brüning, who served as chancellor from March 1930 until the end of May 1932. Brüning's budget cuts were designed to cause so much misery that the Allies would excuse Germany from making any further reparations payments. In this at least, Brüning succeeded. United States president Herbert Hoover declared a "reparations moratorium" in 1932. In the meantime, the Depression deepened, and social discontent intensified to the point that Germany seemed on the verge of civil war between nationalists and those under the influence and control of the Marxist worldwide revolution directed from Moscow.

In times of desperation, voters are ready for extreme solutions, and the NSDAP exploited the situation. Skilled Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels launched an intensive media campaign that ceaselessly expounded a few simple notions until even the dullest voter knew Hitler's basic program. The party's program was broad and general enough to appeal to many unemployed people, farmers, white-collar workers, members of the middle class who had been hurt by the Depression or had lost status since the end of World War I, and young people eager to dedicate themselves to nationalist ideals. If voters were not drawn to some aspects of the party platform, they might agree with others. Like other left-wing groups, the party blamed the Treaty of Versailles and reparations for the developing crisis. Nazi propaganda attacked the Weimar political system, the "November criminals," Marxists, internationalists, and Jews. Besides promising a solution to the economic crisis, the NSDAP offered the German people a sense of national pride and the promise of restored order.

Three elections – in September 1930, in July 1932, and in November 1932 – were held between the onset of the Depression and Hitler's appointment as chancellor in January 1933. The vote shares of the SPD and the Center Party fluctuated somewhat yet remained much as they had been in 1928, when the SPD held a large plurality of 153 seats in the Reichstag and the Center Party held sixty-one, third after the DNVP's seventy-three seats. The shares of the parties of the extreme left, the KPD and the NSDAP, respectively, increased dramatically in this period, KPD holdings almost doubling from fifty-four in 1928 to 100 in November 1932. The NSDAP's success was even greater. Beginning with twelve seats in 1928, the Nazis increased their delegation seats nearly tenfold, to 107 seats in 1930. They doubled their holdings to 230 in the summer of 1932. This made the NSDAP the largest party in the Reichstag, far surpassing the SPD with its 133 seats. The gains of the NSDAP came at the expense of parties on both the left- and right-wing.

Chancellor Brüning was unable to secure parliamentary majorities for his austerity policy, so he ruled by decree, a right given him by President Hindenburg. Head of the German Army during World War I, Hindenburg had been elected president in 1925. Ruling without parliament was a major step in moving away from parliamentary democracy and had the approval of many. Many historians see this development as part of a strategic plan formulated at the time by elements of the establishment to abolish the republic and replace it with an authoritarian regime.

By late May 1932, Hindenburg had found Brüning insufficiently pliable and named a more conservative politician, Franz von Papen, as his successor. After the mid-1932 elections that made the NSDAP Germany's largest party, Papen sought to harness Hitler by offering him the post of vice chancellor in a new cabinet. Hitler refused this offer, demanding the chancellorship instead.

General Kurt von Schleicher, a master intriguer and a leader of the campaign to abolish the republic, convinced Hindenburg to dismiss Papen. Schleicher formed a new government in December but lost Hindenburg's support within a month. On January 30, 1933, Papen again put together a cabinet, this time with Hitler as chancellor. Papen and other politicians and leaders thought they could tame Hitler by tying him down with the responsibilities of government; transferring to themselves his tremendous popularity with a large portion of the electorate. But they proved no match for his ruthlessness and his genius at knowing how - and when - to seize power. Within two months, Hitler had dictatorial control over Germany.

The Reichstag fire and aftermath

Reichstag Fire.jpg
See also: Reichstag fire

On February 27, 1933, the Reichstag in Berlin was destroyed in a fire that had plainly been deliberately set. Exactly who set the fire remains a question never fully resolved. Most contemporary observers both in and outside of Germany blamed and still blame the Nazis themselves, though Shirer admits in "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich" that "The whole truth about the Reichstag Fire will probably never be known." [1]

Hitler and his followers lost no time in blaming the arson on their far-Left rivals, the Communists. "This is the beginning of the Communist revolution," declared Goering as he watched fire consume the building. Hitler himself told then Gestapo Chief Diels that "The German Volk will have no sympathy with lenience. Every communist official will be shot where he is found. The communist deputies must be hanged this night. Everything connected with the communists is be settled – no more indulgence will be shown the social democrats or the Reichsbanner." [2]

A day later a "defensive measure against Communist acts of violence endangering the state" was passed:

"Restrictions on personal liberty, on the right of free expression of opinion, including freedom of the press; on the rights of assembly and association; and violations of the privacy of postal, telegraphic and telephonic communications; and warrants for house searchers, orders for confiscations as well as restrictions on property, are also permissible beyond the legal limits otherwise prescribed."[3]

Thus, the first taste of Nazi state terror was rendered "legal," as over the next week SA storm troopers took into "protective custody" several thousand Communist officials and many Social Democrats and liberals. These prisoners, often snatched from their homes and off the streets, were loaded onto trucks and carried off to SA barracks and hastily set up prisons where many of them were held, tortured and killed without the formality of a hearing or trial. The rationale for these drastic measures, Hitler's government insisted, was the dire threat posed by the Communist menace. The same day as the "defensive measure" was passed, the government declared that documents had been uncovered revealing a Communist plot (these documents were never actually produced):

"The burning of the Reichstag was to be the signal for a bloody insurrection and civil war…it was ascertained that today was to have seen throughout Germany terrorist acts against individual persons, against private property, and against the life and limb of the peaceful population, and also the beginning of general civil war."

Goering announced just a few days after the fire, "my measures will not be crippled by any judicial thinking…I don’t have to worry about justice! My mission is to destroy and exterminate, nothing more!" [4]

The Consolidation of Power

Enabling Act

From left to right: Adolf Hitler, Hermann Goering Joseph Goebbels, and Rudolf Hess. Photo taken around 1933–34.

The election of March 5, 1933 was the last held in Germany until after World War II. With opposition parties severely harassed, the NSDAP won 43.9 percent of the vote. Nonetheless, with the help of political allies, Hitler presented the Reichstag with the proposal for an Enabling Act that, if passed by a two-thirds majority, would allow him to govern without parliament for four years. On March 23, the proposal was passed with the support of the Center Party and others. All Communists and some Social Democrats were prevented from voting.

Hitler used the Enabling Act to implement Gleichschaltung (synchronization), that is, the policy of subordinating all institutions and organizations to Nazi party control. First, all other left-wing political parties were banned; then, in July 1933, Germany was declared a one-party state. The civil service and judiciary were purged of "non-Aryans" (Jews) and leftists who did not hold Nazi Party membership. Local and state governments were reorganized and staffed with Nazis. Trade unions were dissolved and replaced with Nazi organizations. Even the NSDAP was purged of its social-revolutionary wing, the SA. The enormous and unruly SA was brought under control by a massacre of its leadership which took place between June 30 and July 2, 1934 in what became known as the "Night of the Long Knives". Other opponents were also killed during this purge, among them Schleicher. After Hindenburg's death in early August 1934, Hitler combined the offices of the president and the chancellor. With the SA tamed, Hitler assured the army that he regarded it as Germany's military force, and the soldiers swore an oath of personal allegiance to Hitler, pledging unconditional obedience. Heinrich Himmler's guard detachment, the (Schutzstaffel) or SS replaced the SA as Hitler's private army.

Beginnings of Genocide

Boycott of Jewish businesses

Once the regime was established, terror was the principal means used to maintain its control of Germany. Police arrests, which had focused originally on Communists and rival Socialists, were extended to other groups, most particularly to Jews. This systematic use of terror was highly effective in silencing resistance. Some enemies of the regime fled abroad. However, all but a small minority of those opposed to Hitler resigned themselves to suppressing their opinions in public and hoping for the regime's eventual demise.

Like its secular institutions, Germany's churches were subjected to Nazi pressure. They resisted incorporation into the regime and retained a substantial degree of independence. This situation was tolerated by the regime, provided that the churches did not interfere with its efforts to control public life. When the churches were outraged by such Nazi practices as euthanasia and sterilization, they protested. The regime responded by more carefully concealing such medical procedures. Otherwise, with the exception of a few brave clergymen, the churches rarely spoke out against the regime. The regime's chief victims—Jews, Communists, Socialists, labor leaders, and writers—generally had not been close to the churches, and their persecution was witnessed in silence.

Joseph Goebbels, the minister of propaganda, contributed to the regime's consolidation with the establishment of the (Reichskulturkammer) Reich Cultural Chamber, which extended Gleichschaltung to the educational system, the radio, and the cultural institutions. However, an elaborate system of censorship was not considered necessary to control the press. Non-Nazi Party newspapers had already been suppressed. The editors of the remaining newspapers soon were able to figure out what was deemed suitable for public consumption. Goebbels also took an interest in Germany's substantial film industry, pressuring it to make pleasant, amusing films that would distract the German public in its leisure hours.

The regime soon achieved its desired consolidation. Many Germans supported it, some out of opportunism, some because they liked certain aspects of it such as full employment, which was quickly achieved. The regime also brought social order, something many Germans welcomed after fifteen years of political and economic chaos. Many were won over by Hitler's diplomatic successes, which began soon after he came to power and continued through the 1930s and which seemed to restore Germany to what they saw as its rightful place in the international community.

When Germany annexed Austria in March, 1938, the deliberate harassment and humiliation of individual Austrian Jews by Nazis was a public spectacle. "I was given a bucket of boiling water," wrote Morris Fleischman, a Jewish survivor of that era, "and I was told to clean the steps. I lay down on my stomach and began to clean the pavement. It turned out that the bucket was half-full of acid and this burned my hands." Martin Gilbert, author of "The Holocaust: A History of the Jews of Europe During the Second World War", observes that "Dozens of passersby also watched these scenes of humiliation, laughing and mocking as Jews, having been forced to put their sacred prayer bands on their arms, were then made to clean unflushed lavatory bowls…The Germans who carried out the atrocities had already become corrupted by their tasks; laughing when inflicting pain and drawing in passersby to laugh with them. Gradually entire populations became immune to feelings of outrage, and learned to shun compassion." [5]

In November 1938, a young Jewish man distraught over the deportation of his family, assassinated Ernst Vom Rath, a German diplomat in Paris. The result was November 9, 1938, a night that would afterwards be known as Kristalnacht, a reference to the amount of broken glass littering the streets afterward. Jewish homes in Germany were ransacked, Synagogues burned, Jews chased down and beaten to death. Critics have argued that had liberals written a 2nd Amendment into the Weimar Consititution, there would have been no Kristalnacht.[6] More than 30,000 Jews were sent to concentration camps. The German government responded by charging the Jewish community for the damage and a few days later, barring all Jewish children from German schools. Some 35,000 Jews were arrested.

Foreign Policy

Monetary-Coin Nazi.jpg

Once his regime was consolidated, Hitler took little interest in domestic policy, his sole concern being that Germany become sufficiently strong to realize his long-term geopolitical goal of creating a German empire that would dominate western Europe and extend deep into Russia. In a first step toward this goal, he made a "de facto" revision to the Treaty of Versailles by ceasing to heed its restrictions on German rearmament. Soon after becoming chancellor, Hitler ordered that rearmament, secretly underway since the early 1920s, be stepped up. Later in 1933, he withdrew Germany from the League of Nations to reduce possible foreign control over Germany. In 1935 he announced that Germany had begun rearmament, would greatly increase the size of its army, and had established an air force. Italy, France, and Britain protested these actions but did nothing further, and Hitler soon signed an agreement with Britain permitting Germany to maintain a navy one-third the size of the British fleet. In 1936 Hitler remilitarized the Rhineland, in violation of various treaties. There was no foreign opposition.

In 1936 Germany began closer relations with fascist Italy, a pariah state because of its invasion of Ethiopia the year before. The two antidemocratic states joined together to assist General Francisco Franco in overthrowing Spain's republican government during the Spanish Civil War (1936–39). In November 1936, Germany and Italy formed the Berlin-Rome Axis. That same year, Germany, Italy, and Japan signed the Anti-Comintern Pact, the three signatories pledging to defend each other against leftist rivals the Soviet Union and international Communism.

It was also in 1936 that Hitler informed the regime's top officials that Germany must be ready for war by 1940. In response, the Four-Year Plan was established. Developed under the direction of Hermann Goering, it set forth production quotas and market guidelines. Efforts to regiment the economy were not without conflict. Some of the economic elite desired that Germany be integrated into the world's economy. Others advocated autarchy, that is, firmly basing the German economy in Central Europe and securing its raw materials through barter agreements.

Nazi Germany in August 1939, just before the start of World War II

In the end, no clear decision on the management of the German economy was made. Large weapons contracts with industrial firms soon had the economy running at top speed, and full employment was reached by 1937. Wages did not increase much for ordinary workers, but job security after years of economic depression was much appreciated. The rearmament program was not placed on a sound financial footing, however. Taxes were not increased to pay for it because the regime feared that this would dissatisfy workers. Instead, the regime tapped the country's foreign reserves, which were largely exhausted by 1939. The regime also shunned a rigorous organization of rearmament because it feared the social tensions this might engender. The production of consumer goods was not curtailed either, again based on the belief that the morale of the population had to remain high if Germany were to become strong. In addition, because Hitler expected that the wars waged in pursuit of his foreign policy goals would be short, he judged great supplies of weapons to be unnecessary. Thus, when war began in September 1939 with the invasion of Poland, Germany had a broad and impressive range of weapons, but not much in the way of replacements. As in World War I, the regime expected that the defeated would pay for Germany's expansion.

Through 1937 Hitler's foreign policy had the approval of traditional conservatives. However, because many of them were skeptical about his long-range goals, Hitler replaced a number of high military officers and diplomats with more pliable subordinates. In March 1938, the German army was permitted to occupy Austria by that country's browbeaten political leadership. The annexation (Anschluss) of Austria was welcomed by most Austrians, who wished to become part of a greater Germany, something forbidden by the Treaty of Versailles. In September 1938, British prime minister Neville Chamberlain consented to Hitler's desire to take possession of the Sudetenland, an area in Czechoslovakia bordering Germany that was inhabited by about 3 million Germans. In March 1939, Germany occupied the Czech-populated western provinces of Bohemia and Moravia, and Slovakia was made a German puppet state.

Immediately after the German occupation of Bohemia and Moravia, Britain and France finally became convinced of Hitler's expansionist objectives and announced their intention to defend the sovereignty of Poland. Because Hitler had concluded that he could not hope for British neutrality in the coming war, he formed a formal military alliance with Italy known as the Pact of Steel. In August he signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact with the Soviet Union, creating a far-left alliance between the two powers and thus apparently freeing Germany from repeating the two-front war it had fought in World War I.

World War II

Nazi German expansion at its height in 1942.
Dark Green: Nazi Germany proper
Medium Green: Civilian-administered occupied territories
Light Green: Military-administered occupied territories
The European situation at the height of Nazi power around 1941-42.

On September 1, 1939, German troops invaded Poland. Britain and France declared war on Germany two days later. By the end of the month, Hitler's armies had overrun western Poland. Soviet armies occupied eastern Poland, and the two countries subsequently formally divided Poland between them. In April 1940, German forces conquered Denmark and Norway, and in May they struck at the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and France. French and British troops offered ineffective resistance against the lightning-like strikes, or blitzkrieg, of German tanks and airplanes. A large part of the French army surrendered, and some 300,000 British and French soldiers were trapped at Dunkirk on the coast of northern France. However, because Hitler, for a combination of political and military reasons, had halted the advance of his armored divisions, the British were able to rescue the men at Dunkirk. France, however, surrendered in June.

For Hitler, the war in the west was a sideshow, a prelude to the building of an empire in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Hitler had hoped that Britain would stay out of the war. In his vision of the near future, he foresaw the two countries sharing the world between them—Britain would keep its overseas empire, and Germany would construct a new one to its east. When approached with the suggestion of a separate peace, British prime minister Winston Churchill rejected the offer and rallied his people to fight on. The Third Reich experienced its first military defeat in the Battle of Britain, in which the Royal Air Force, during the summer and fall of 1940, prevented the German air force from gaining the air superiority necessary for an invasion of Britain. Consequently, Hitler postponed the invasion.

Hitler concluded by June 1941 that Britain's continuing resistance was not a serious impediment to his main geopolitical goal of creating an empire extending east from Germany deep into the Soviet Union. On June 22, 1941, negating their 1939 nonaggression pact, Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Eagerness to realize his long-held dream caused Hitler to gamble everything on a quick military campaign. He had anticipated victory within three months, but effective Soviet resistance and the early onset of winter stopped German advances. A counteroffensive, launched in early 1942, drove the Germans back from Moscow. In the summer of 1942, Hitler shifted the attack to the south of the Soviet Union and began a large offensive to secure the Caucasian oil fields. By September 1942, the Axis controlled an area extending from northern Norway to North Africa and from France to Stalingrad.

Japan's attack on the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, brought the United States into the war. In support of Germany's fellow Axis power, Hitler immediately declared war on the United States. But with the United States involvement, a coalition now existed that, with its vast human and material resources, was almost certain to defeat the Third Reich. To ensure that the alliance not break apart as had happened in 1918 when Russia signed a truce with Germany, the Allies swore to fight Germany until an unconditional surrender was secured. Another reason the Allies wanted the complete military defeat of Germany was that they wished to preclude any possibility of German politicians claiming that "a stab in the back" had caused Germany's undoing, as they had done after World War I.

The same day as the Pearl Harbor attack, Hitler signed the Nacht und Nebel (Night and Fog) decree targeting political activists and resistance "helpers" in the territories occupied by Nazi Germany, people who "disappeared into the night and fog," never to be seen or heard from again.

The military turning point of the war in Europe came with the Soviet victory at Stalingrad in the winter of 1942-43; some 300,000 of Germany's finest troops were either killed or captured. By May 1943, Allied armies had driven the Axis forces out of Africa and had landed in Italy. Also of great importance, by 1943 the United States and British navies had succeeded in substantially reducing the German submarine threat to shipping. This cleared the way for the movement of arms and troops to Britain in preparation for a cross-channel invasion of France.

Total Mobilization and Resistance

Once it became clear that the war would not be a short one, Germany's industry was reorganized for a total mobilization. Between February 1942 and July 1944, armaments production increased threefold despite intense Allied bombing raids. Much of the labor for this increase came from the employment of some 7 million foreigners, taken from their homelands and forced to work under terrible conditions. Also contributing to the Nazi war effort was the systematic requisitioning of raw materials and food from occupied territories. As a result, Germans remained fairly well fed for most of the war, in contrast to the hunger that endured during World War I.

Despite their comparative physical well-being until late in the war, it gradually became clear to many Germans that the regime's series of military triumphs had come to an end. Even the most intense, mendacious propaganda could not conceal that Germany's forces were being beaten back. Sharing this growing awareness that defeat was likely, a group of military officers decided to assassinate Hitler. Although elements of the military had long opposed him, no one had acted to this point. During 1943 and 1944, the conspirators, who included many high-ranking officers and numerous prominent civilians, worked out elaborate plans for seizing power after the dictator's death. On June 20, 1944, the conspirators ignited a bomb that would probably have killed Hitler except for a stroke of bad luck—the placement of the device behind the support leg of a heavy conference room table prior to detonation. The regime struck back and after months of reprisals had killed several thousand people, among them one field marshal and twenty-two generals. Several earlier attempts on Hitler's life had also failed. Because of these failures, it would be up to the Allies to remove Hitler and his regime from power.

The Holocaust

Nazi concentration camp
See also: Holocaust

As much of Europe Germany had been anti-Semitic for centuries, but in the years immediately preceding Third Reich it had in fact been considered a good place, even a refuge for Jews, who in Germany had been "emancipated," i.e., granted most of the same rights as gentile citizens, in the 19th century. The formation of the Weimar Republic in 1918 eliminated any remaining restrictions and German Jews could now act as complete citizens in German civic life.[7]

As Jewish artists, writers, politicians and civil servants became more visible, however, anti-Semitism became more virulent, and the Nazis were able to tap into the resentment that inevitably rises to the surface when members of a minority group begin to make strides in fields that had formerly been closed to them.

Anti-Semitism was one of the Third Reich's most faithfully executed policies. Hitler saw the Jews' existence as inimical to the well-being of the German race. In his youth in Vienna, he had come to believe in a social Darwinist, life-or-death struggle of the races, with that between the German race and the Jews being the most savage. Because of his adherence to these racist notions, he dreamed of creating a German empire completely free of Jews, believing that if the Jewish "bacillus" were permitted to remain within the Teutonic empire, the empire would become corrupted and fail.

The violence of Hitler's anti-Semitism can be measured in a disturbingly prescient quote from Mein Kampf:

"If at the beginning of the War and during the War twelve or fifteen thousand of these Hebrew corrupters of the people had been held under poison gas, as happened to hundreds of thousands of our very best German workers in the field, the sacrifice of millions at the front would not have been in vain." [8]

Upon taking power, the Nazis began immediately to rid Germany of its Jewish citizens. In the Aryan Paragraph of 1933, the regime decreed that Jews could not hold civil service positions. The Nuremberg Laws of 1935 deprived Jews of the right to citizenship and restricted relationships between "Aryans" (racially pure Germans) and Jews. After the Kristallnacht (Crystal Night) of November 9, 1938, an organized act of violence perpetrated by Nazis against Jews in all parts of Germany, the persecution of Jews entered a new phase. Random acts of violence, by then commonplace, were replaced by the systematic isolation of the Jewish population in Germany, which had numbered about 600,000 in the early 1930s.

Much of the groundwork for selling the mass murder of Jews to average Germans was laid by Julius Streicher, whose newspaper, Der Sturmer, offered a heady cocktail of simple-minded hatred, malice, and slander against Jews and anyone perceived as having sympathy for the Jews. While many educated Germans, even educated Nazis, considered Streicher a joke, the dehumanizing language he popularized helped to inure Germans to the increasingly draconian legal measures against the Jewish population. Streicher's rhetoric presumed that Jews were inherently and unalterably evil, and flatly rejected the concept of the Jew as a human being like other human beings. "His blood," Streicher wrote, "carries not honor and honesty, rather criminality, fraud, hypocrisy, lies, the lust for defilement, and the lust for murder…a race that has drives toward the unnatural and toward criminality cannot recognize natural moral laws." Heinrich Himmler, the man who oversaw the genocidal policies of the Third Reich, said of Streicher, "In times to come when the story of the reawakening of the German people is written, and when the next generation will be unable to understand how the German people could ever have been friendly with the Jews, it will be said that Julius Streicher and his weekly newspaper were responsible for a good part of the education about the enemy of mankind."

As Streicher whipped up Hitler's base of the uneducated and fearful, Hitler's propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels offered a steady diet of smooth vindictiveness for those Germans too well informed to accept at face value Streicher's wild tales of Jewish seduction and human sacrifice. Their stance was typically that any suffering the Jews endure at the hands of Germans was the responsibility of the Jews themselves, that the passage of laws restricting Jewish participation in public life was, in fact, an effort to protect Jews from the righteous indignation of an injured populace:

"One cannot make sense of this situation without understanding the significance of the racial or Jewish Question," Goebbels declared in his speech at the first Nuremberg rally following Hitler's takeover, "….The National Socialist government also cannot ignore it. Our laws suffer hard and often unjustified criticism abroad, above all from International Jewry itself. But one should not forget that dealing with the Jewish Question through legal means was the best approach. Or should the government have followed the principles of democracy and majority rule and let the people themselves solve the problem?" [9]

Six years later, Hitler declared: ".. if the international Jewish financiers in and outside Europe should succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war, then the result will not be the Bolshevizing of the earth, and thus the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe!" [10]

Following the Reichstag fire, Jews were frequently singled out for abuse along with the Communists and Social Democrats who were being rounded up. For the first three months that year, most of the abuse Jewish Germans faced was brutal but still of a relatively informal nature, cases of brownshirted rowdies vandalizing Jewish homes and attacking Jews on the street while the authorities looked away. This changed on April 1, 1933, with the Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses. Shop front windows were painted with the word "Jude" and SA men were stationed at the doors to warn people away, or to take note of those who defied the boycott and went in. From then on, Jews within the Reich faced a steady erosion of legal rights.

On April 7, all Jewish Civil servants were forcibly "retired." On April 11, Jews were legally deemed a separate class in Germany with a decree defining as a "non-Aryan" "anyone descended from non-Aryan, especially Jewish, parents or grandparents. One parent or grandparent classifies the descendant as non-Aryan...especially if one parent or grandparent was of the Jewish faith." By the end of that year, Jews were excluded from the Reich Chamber of culture, could not act as newspaper editors and could not own land. By the end of the following year, Jews could not participate in the German Labor Front or national health insurance, and could not get legal qualifications. By 1938, Jews could not serve in the military, could not teach Germans or work as accountants and dentists, and were denied tax deductions and child allowances. They could not marry "Aryans." They could not display the German flag.[11] Until 1941 there had been plans to "cleanse" Germany of Jews by gathering them together and expelling them from the Reich. One plan had as its goal the transfer of Germany's Jews to Madagascar. A contingent of Jews had even been moved to southern France in preparation. However, wartime conditions and the presence of millions of Jews in Poland, the Soviet Union, and other occupied areas in Eastern Europe gradually led to the adoption of another plan: the systematic extermination of all Jews who came under German control. Techniques that had been developed for the regime's euthanasia program came to be used against Jews. Discussions in January 1942 at the Wannsee Conference on the outskirts of Berlin led to the improved organization and coordination of the program of genocide.

Following that conference, the killing became organized. Jewish populations within the Reich were separated from the general population into horribly overcrowded ghettos, 365 of which were set up in Poland, the Soviet Union, the Baltic States, Czechoslovakia, Romania and Hungary. The most famous of these were the Lodz and Warsaw ghettos.[12] Those ghetto residents who did not die from malnutrition or disease were eventually "deported" to concentration and extermination camps. Extermination camps, which existed primarily for the execution of inmates, included Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, and Sobibór. The primary method of killing in these camps was through poison gas, though beatings, hangings, and lethal injection were also used. In addition, the Nazis used Einsatzgruppen, mobile killing squads operating in the Soviet Union who would typically round up Jews in Nazi-occupied areas, herd them into remote areas, and shoot them en masse. These were discontinued in 1942 in lieu of the death camps.[13]

It is currently estimated that roughly six million Jews died at the hands of the Third Reich, along with roughly 5 million victims that included homosexuals, Communists, Roma, Sinti, and political opponents of the regime. The methodical murder of Jews did not actually end until 1945, when the camps were liberated by Allied Troops.


In June 1944, American, British, and Canadian forces invaded France, driving the Germans back and liberating Paris by August. A German counteroffensive in the Ardennes began in late December 1944 was beaten back after heavy fighting in what became known as the "Battle of the Bulge". Soviet troops, meanwhile, advanced from the east. Western forces reached the Rhine River in March 1945; simultaneously, Soviet armies overran most of Czechoslovakia and pressed on toward Berlin. Although faced with certain defeat, Hitler insisted that every German city, every village, and "every square meter" be defended or left behind as "scorched earth." The Western Allies and the Soviet forces made their first contact, in Saxony, on April 27. Three days later, Hitler committed suicide in his Berlin bunker. Berlin fell to the Soviet forces on May 2; on May 7, the Third Reich surrendered unconditionally. It is estimated that about 55 million people died in the European theater during World War II. About eight million of these dead were German.

See also

External links


  1. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Book Two, "Triumph and Consolidation." William Shirer
  2. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Book Two, "Triumph and Consolidation." William Shirer
  3. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Book Two, "Triumph and Consolidation." William Shirer
  4. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Book Two, "Triumph and Consolidation." William Shirer
  5. The Holocaust: A History of the Jews of Europe During the Second World War, Martin Gilbert, Chapter 5, “Hunted Like Rats.”
  7. Yadvashem Website M
  8. Mein Kampf,
  9. Nuremberg Speech, Joseph Goebbels,
  10. Adolf Hitler, Reichstag Speech, January 30, 1939,
  11. History Place Holocaust Timeline