On April 20, 1889, 68 years after the death of Napoleon, Adolf Hitler was born in Braunau am Inn, Austria. By 1945, the year in which he committed suicide, Hitler had led the genocide of 6 million Jews and millions of others, deliberately killed 9.3 million civilians and prisoners of war, and precipitated the deaths of 28.7 million soldiers and civilians through military action in the European theatre. How did the world allow one man to make all of this happen? Through elections in a democratic republic.

Throughout history, one thing every dictator has required in order to come into power is a disgruntled populace. In the case of 1920’s Germany, the disgruntlement was most directly rooted in the extremely harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I. The victors of that war were determined to smack Germany down hard for their role in creating the worst conflict the world had ever known at that time. This included the creation of the Weimar Republic with strict rules on how it would be governed, payment of $33B in war reparations (over $500B in today’s dollars), the surrender of colonies and territory, massive downsizing of the army, and elimination of submarines and any kind of Air Force. All of this led to humiliation and deep economic woes for the German people.

The next thing an aspiring dictator needs is a scapegoat, and Hitler along with many others singled out the Jews for that role. In his infamous Mein Kampf (“My Struggle”), Hitler wrote, “All great cultures of the past perished only because the originally creative race died out from blood poisoning.” This type of language has chillingly resurfaced in recent months. In the 1920’s, Hitler exploited a fear that Germans would be swamped by an influx of Jews and others that were blatantly characterized as subhuman. And unfortunately, for all his evil faults, Hitler was also a skilled and captivating orator, adept with the kind of mob mentality he could exploit in stadiums full of people. There was even a conspiracy to exploit: the notion that Germany didn’t really lose WWI on the battlefield, but rather at home through treasonous actions. (this was known as the “stab in the back” myth)

In the early 1920’s, under orders from similar thinking people, Hitler began to infiltrate and commandeer the recently formed German Workers’ Party, already full of disgruntled people, and eventually transformed it into the National Socialist German Workers’ Party – colloquially known not long after as the Nazi Party. Hitler also commandeered the swastika, a symbol which was thousands of years old, with a name that actually means “well-being” in Sanskrit. The ideology of the Nazi Party was quite simple: purification of the white race. It was anti-capitalist, anti-communist, and violently nationalist toward that end, viewing an authoritarian government as the only realistic means. At first, the Nazis attempted to seize power through a coup. Wanting to emulate Benito Mussolini’s March on Rome, Hitler led the storming of a public meeting in a beer hall in Munich (the “Beer Hall Putsch”) in 1923. They then marched to the Bavarian War Ministry, where they were defeated, but not before 16 Nazis and 4 police were killed in their failed coup. Hitler was imprisoned for a mere year (during which much of Mein Kampf was compiled), and although the Nazi Party was banned, he eventually convinced the powers that be to let them reform, promising to only use political due process from that point forward.

And that is precisely what Hitler did. The financial crisis precipitated by the Stock Market Crash of 1929 further challenged and angered the German people, and provided Hitler another opportunity to assign blame on his usual scapegoats. In September of 1930, the government began to reshape, and President Paul von Hindenburg invoked Article 48 of the Weimar constitution, giving emergency decrees to Chancellor Heinrich Bruning – hearkening all the way back to the emergency powers originally exploited by Julius Caesar. Meanwhile, Hitler continued to target his propaganda toward the woes of farmers, war veterans, and the middle class. Mein Kampf sold 228,000 copies between 1925 and 1932, and a million in 1933. The Nazi Party went from 6.5% of election votes in May 1924 to 43.9% (17 million) in March 1933. In the July 1932 election for the Reichstag, the German parliament, the Nazis became the largest party with 230 seats and 37.3% of the vote. This level of support also prevent any other party from obtaining control, leading to stalemates in leadership. Growing in power and adored by the masses, Hitler was appointed an administrator role in 1932, making him a German citizen. He ran for President in 1932 with the slogan “Hitler over Germany” – signifying both his political ambitions and his use of campaigning by aircraft – and came in 2nd with 35% of the vote. Letters were written to Hindenburg, urging him to appoint Hitler as the leader of a government independent from parliamentary parties – and eventually he reluctantly agreed. A new cabinet was sworn in January 1933, including ministers that would give Hitler control over the police. The speed of subsequent events is terrifying.

On February 28, 1933, the Reichstag was set on fire, with most historians agreeing a communist was responsible, of course that is precisely what Hitler seized upon as the reason. In response, he used Article 48 to initiate the Reichstag Fire Decree, suspending basic rights and allowing detention without trial, all in the name of emergency measures to protect public safety and order. On March 21 (now known as the Day of Potsdam), a new Reichstag was created. Hitler’s government then put forth the Enabling Act, giving his cabinet the power to enact laws without consent of the Reichstag for four years – including laws deviating from the constitution. To get the two-thirds majority needed to pass the Enabling Act, the Nazis used the Reichstag Fire Decree to arrest opponents and prevent them from voting. On March 23, the Enabling Act passed by a 444-94 vote, officially beginning the dictatorship of Adolf Hitler, who stated, “At the risk of appearing to talk nonsense I tell you that the National Socialist movement will go on for 1,000 years! … Don’t forget how people laughed at me 15 years ago when I declared that one day I would govern Germany. They laugh now, just as foolishly, when I declare that I shall remain in power!”

Stormtroopers occupied union offices around the country, and unions were dissolved in May. In July, the Nazi party was declared the only legal political party in Germany. From June 30 to July 2, 1934 – the Night of the Long Knives – the Nazis rounded up and executed opposing leaders. Many in Germany believed Hitler was simply restoring order. On August 1, 1934, the cabinet enacted the Law Concerning the Head of State of the German Reich, which said that upon the President’s death, the office would be abolished, and powers merged with those of the Chancellor. Hindenburg died the next day. Hitler was named Fuhrer and Reichskanzler (Leader and Chancellor of the Reich). He also became Commander in Chief, and quickly altered the oath of soldiers to affirm loyalty to Hitler by name.

The Reichstag renewed the Enabling Act twice, sham elections became normal, and disloyal generals were purged by 1938. Preparation for war had begun back in 1934, with creative financing including special bills, printing money, and seizing assets of enemies of state (including of course many Jews). Armed with absolute power and ample funds, Hitler began to storm the world beyond Germany. Unification with Austria was announced in 1938, and Czechoslovakia was overtaken in 1939. On September 1, 1939, Hitler invaded Poland, beginning World War II. By the middle of 1941, Hitler ruled the majority of Europe and had forces deployed to North Africa, the Balkans, and the Middle East.

Like Napoleon, Hitler used religion for his own purposes, privately thinking much of it absurd, while publicly twisting Christianity to support his aims. He even planned to eliminate Christianity eventually. In the nearer term, Hitler’s plan in Eastern Europe all along was to defeat those nations (including Russia) and then remove or kill all Jews and Slavs, through deportation to Siberia for use as slave labor or simply to be murdered. By 1942, unable to defeat Russia, he moved ahead with his genocide plans, which were organized and executed by Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich. Killing squads followed the German army through Poland, the Baltic, and the Soviet Union. Between 1939 and 1945, the Schutzstaffel (SS) were responsible for the deaths of at least 11 million non-combatants, including two thirds of the Jewish population of Europe. The Nazis were of course defeated in 1945, but at a staggering cost in human life.

Hitler and the Nazis viewed the blood of others as poison, and they used that imagery and propaganda to exploit a democratic system in order to achieve power. The real poison, of course, is the Nazi world view, which devastated the world less than a hundred years ago, and persists to this day, ready to strike and paralyze us all once more when the opportune moment arrives.

Image by P. Schreiner from Pixabay

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