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The Coming of World War II Previous Next
Digital History ID 3484


Adolf Hitler gained power in Germany by exploiting the psychological injuries inflicted on Germans by World War I. Tapping into an ugly strain of anti-Semitism in German culture, he blamed many of the nation's economic woes on German Jews, who only constituted one percent of Germany's population. In addition, he attacked the Treaty of Versailles. Purged of so-called Jewish traitors, cleared of the blame for causing the war, freed from onerous reparation payments, and rescued from emasculating disarmament, Germany would rise anew and reclaim her position as a world leader.

The Treaty of Versailles had saddled Germany with a reparations bill of $33 billion. Unable to make the interest payments, Germany's economy suffered a wave of inflation without precedent. Forty million marks were worth one cent. A newspaper cost 200 million marks. In 1924, Charles Dawes, a prominent American banker, worked out a proposal (the Dawes Plan) that reduced the reparations bill to $2 billion and provided Germany with an American loan. Nevertheless, even this burden was more than Germany could pay.

Hitler's drive for political power began in 1919 when he joined a small party, later known as the Nazis. This party demanded that all Jews be deprived of German citizenship, and that all German-speakers be united into a single country. A brilliant propagandist, organizer, and orator, Hitler gave the Nazi movement a potent symbol: the swastika; raised party membership to 15,000 by 1923; and formed a private army, the storm troopers, to attack his political opponents. In the fall of 1923, Hitler engineered a revolt, the Beer Hall Putsch, to overthrow Germany's five year old republic. The uprising was quickly suppressed; the Nazi party was ordered dissolved, and Hitler was imprisoned for nine months.

While in jail, Hitler wrote a book, Mein Kampf (My Struggle), which laid out his beliefs and vision for Germany. He called on Germans to repudiate the Versailles Treaty ending World War I; rearm; conquer countries with large German populations like Austria and Czechoslovakia; and seize lebensraum (living space) for Germans in Russia.

Following his release from prison, Hitler persuaded the German government to lift its ban on the Nazi party. In 1928, the Nazis polled just 810,000 votes in German elections; however, in 1930 after the Depression began, they polled 6 ½ million votes. Two years later, Hitler ran for president; he lost, but received 13 ½ million votes--37 percent of all votes cast. The Nazis had suddenly become the single largest party in the German parliament. In January 1933, Germany's president named Hitler chancellor. A year and a half later Hitler was Germany's dictator.

Within months of becoming chancellor, Hitler's government outlawed labor unions, imposed newspaper censorship, and decreed that the Nazis would constitute Germany's only political party. The regime established a secret police force, the Gestapo, to suppress all opposition and required all children, 10 years and older, to join youth organizations designed to inculcate Nazi beliefs. By 1935, Hitler had transformed Germany into a fascist state. The government exercised total control over all political, economic, and cultural activities.

Anti-Semitism was an integral part of Hitler's political program. The 1935 Nuremberg Laws forbade intermarriages, restricted property rights, and barred Jews from the civil service, the universities, and all professional and managerial occupations. On the night of November 9, 1939--a night now known as Kristallnacht (the night of the broken glass)--the Nazis imprisoned more than 20,000 Jews in concentration camps and destroyed more than 200 synagogues and 7,500 Jewish businesses.

During the 1930s, a series of threats to world peace arose. Japan attacked China; Italy attacked Ethiopia; and Nazi Germany rearmed, occupied the Rhineland, annexed Austria, and seized Czechoslovakia.

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