This text comes from our book, Light to the Nations II: The Making of the Modern World.
Despite its name, the National Socialist Party was anything but socialist. Hitler despised socialism, especially Marxist socialism, because it rejected private property and claimed that all working men and races are equal. As he explained in Mein Kampf (“My Struggle”), a book he had written in prison, Hitler thought all mankind was divided into races (Völker), but not every race or Volk was equal. The supreme race was the Aryan or white, European race. The Aryan race, according to Hitler, was the most creative of races and thus had the right to conquer and rule all others. Of all races, the worst, said Hitler, was the Jewish race. He called it the “destroyer of culture,” “a parasite within the nation,” and “a menace.” Hitler did not hate Jews for religious reasons; indeed, though he had been baptized a Catholic, Hitler rejected the Christian faith because he thought it too Jewish. Hitler hated Jews because he thought they belonged to a degraded race and were the enemies of the German Volk.
For Hitler, nothing was greater or more sacred than the Volk. Actions were good or bad depending on whether they helped or hurt the Volk. Thus, even murder could be justified if the Volk benefited from it. Hitler rejected parliamentary government, for he thought it could never speak for the Volk. Hitler thought the Volk could only express itself through a Führer who held absolute power over everyone and everything in the state.
Hitler’s Nazi party appealed to many on the political right because it wanted to restore Germany to greatness—to form what Hitler called the Third Reich. The First Reich had been the Holy Roman Empire; the Second Reich, Bismarck’s empire. The Third Reich, said Hitler, would be like those other Reichs but far surpass them in greatness. It would last for a thousand years, he declared.
The Third Reich would also be supremely just, said Hitler. It would fight against the power of the rich capitalists and speculators. It would assure a decent living to workers and protection to small businessmen, farmers, and shopkeepers. This message of social justice appealed to workers and the lower middle class. Since Hitler knew what it was to struggle to make a living, they thought they had found in him a friend who could understand their troubles and distress.
By promises, propaganda, speeches—and by violence and terror—the Nazis spread their Führer’s ideas. Still, between 1924 and 1929, the party grew only slowly. The Social Democrats, the Center Party, and the Democrats still controlled the government. To most Germans, the Weimar Republic was doing a good enough job. Though humiliated, Germany was recovering. Most Germans, thus, did not think they needed radical solutions like those offered by the Nazis to solve their problems.
But then came the great financial crash of 1929. All over the world, stock markets collapsed, banks closed, industry ground to a halt. Millions of workers lost their jobs. Even prosperous countries with strong economies, like the United States of America, suffered greatly in what has been called the Great Depression. With a weak economy that depended in part on foreign loans to keep it going, Germany was hit very hard. When, in 1929, loans were no longer available, Germany’s economy collapsed.
Even before the Depression, Germany had had a large number of unemployed men. But in 1930, the number of unemployed nearly doubled, and by 1932, it almost doubled again. In their distress, millions of Germans turned to extremist parties on the right and the left. The Communist Party (controlled from Moscow) dramatically grew in numbers. On the right, nationalist parties spoke of Germany’s past glory and decried her humiliation by the Allies. German armies had not been defeated in the war, said the nationalists; it had been betrayed, “stabbed in the back,” by German socialists, international Jews, and Catholics.
Hitler’s Nazi party benefited greatly from Germany’s misfortunes. In the election of 1930, the party won 18 percent of the vote, a dramatic change from the 2.6 percent it had won in 1928. In 1932, Hitler ran for president against the 85-year old General Paul von Hindenburg, the war hero who had held the office of president since 1925. Hitler lost the race, but his National Socialist Party did so well that it was quickly becoming the largest party in the Reichstag.
With his Nazi Reichstag members behind him, Hitler demanded that Hindenburg make him chancellor; but the old general refused. Instead, he dissolved the Reichstag; but in the new elections, the Nazis won 230 seats—more than any other party had ever won in the history of the Weimar Republic. Once again, Hitler demanded the chancellorship, and again Hindenburg refused.
But in another election, held in November 1932, the Nazis lost 5 percent of the vote, while the Communists increased their number in the Reichstag. Fearing that socialists might take control of the government or that Communists would overthrow it, Hindenburg’s friends threw their support to Hitler. He, if anyone, could deal with the Communists, they thought. Several of Hindenburg’s allies, including his own son, tried to convince him that he had little to fear from Hitler.
Worn out by all the fights in the Reichstag, Hindenburg at last gave in. On January 30, 1933, he appointed Adolf Hitler chancellor of the German republic.
Music of a Jewish Refugee
Arnold Schoenberg wrote this piece, Drei Lieder (“Three Songs”), Opus 48, in 1933, the year he fled Berlin for Paris to escape Nazi violence. Schoenberg, a Austrian Jew, is known as the father of serialism in music.