Hitler was an exceptional public speaker and developed his propaganda by feeding on conservatism, frustrated nationalism and social resentment, using new and age-old arguments.



Hitler speaking at the Nazi party rally in Nuremberg, 1935.

Hitler: Nazi Party Leader to Chancellor of Germany

The Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (DAP) [German Workers' Party] was founded in 1919 and reorganised in 1920 to become the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (NSDAP, abbr. Nazi) [National Socialist German Workers' Party]. Adolf Hitler became the head of the Party in 1921.

Before 1930 it was one of several radical right wing parties which, in spite of the failed Beer Hall Putsch in 1923, only won 2.6% of the votes in the 1928 Reichstag [German parliament] elections. Following the 1929 economic crisis the Party grew and won more votes in each election. Adolf Hitler profited from the failures of the Weimar Republic and exploited the nationalism spawned by the Versailles Treaty signed at the end of World War I (June 28, 1919). Hitler also benefited from internecine fighting among the German left and the low level of democratic consensus in Germany at the time.

Hitler was an exceptional public speaker and developed his propaganda by feeding on conservatism, frustrated nationalism and social resentment, using new and age-old arguments. At the federal elections in 1930 the Party obtained 18.37% of the votes, thus becoming the second party in Germany after the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD) [Social Democratic Party]. At the parliamentary elections in November 1932 the NSDAP lost ground for the first time, securing only 33.1% of the votes instead of the 37.3% share obtained in July 1932.

This share was nonetheless sufficient for Hitler to be appointed Chancellor on January 30, 1933. He became the head of a government with a Nationalist Conservative majority where the Nazis were in the minority compared to the Conservatives, who were determined to use the Nazis to liquidate the Weimar Republic in favour of a more traditional authoritarian regime. Yet in just a few months Hitler was able to take over full charge of the government.

The Reichstag fire on February 27, 1933 was used as a pretext to ban the Communist Party, whose leaders and 10,000 members were imprisoned.1 This enabled Hitler to obtain from Marshal von Hindenburg (who was still President of the Reich, the official name of the Republic) the promulgation of the “Decree for the Protection of People and State”.2 on February 28, 1933 — which put an end to the civil liberties guaranteed by the Weimar Republic — and to obtain emergency police powers in the Länder [states].

In this political atmosphere the Nazis won 44% of the votes in the elections on March 5, 1933, giving them 288 of the 640 seats in the Reichstag. The Zentrum [Centre] MPs joined the Nazis and the German Nationalists in voting for the Enabling Act on March 23, 1933 (promulgated on March 24) which gave full powers to Hitler for four years, renewable if need be. In the eyes of the Nazis, the united people must be led and controlled by a single, uncontested leader with full powers in a unified Reich, expressed in the slogan: “Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer” [One People, one Empire, one Leader].

[from 'Kristallnacht': the November 1938 Pogrom, Mémorial de la Shoah, 2008, p.7]

1. Saul Friedländer, Nazi Germany and the Jews: The years of persecution, 1933-1939, Harper Collins, 2008.

2. Also called Reichstagsbrandverordnung [Reichstag fire decree].


The Nazification of Germany

On July 14, 1933 all political parties apart from the NSDAP were banned by decree; it became the sole party. Unions were replaced by a new corporatist body controlled by the Nazis, the Deutsche Arbeiterfront [German Labour Front]. Joseph Goebbels was appointed Minister of Propaganda on March 11, 1933 and launched his skillful and intensive propaganda campaign. On May 10, 1933 students and librarians “cleansed” the city and university libraries of the literary works and other books penned by undesirables such as liberals, pacifists, socialists, and Jews.

The faculty, student organisations, the Stahlhelm [Steel Helmets], the SA and the Hitler Youth [Hitlerjugend] participated in the destruction, building huge bonfires with thousands of books by such authors as Voltaire, Karl Marx, Heinrich Heine, Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, Heinrich and Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Anna Seghers, Erich Kästner, and Kurt Tucholsky. Faced with such a direct threat, many writers and artists fled into exile.

Nazi celebration in honour of Adolf Hitler.The Reichskulturkamer [Reich Chamber of Culture] and its administration, set up in September 1933, controlled all cultural activity throughout the country. Press, radio and the cinema were strictly supervised and used for Nazi propaganda.

Starting in 1934 civil servants were forced to take an oath of loyalty to Hitler. Official speeches were given during carefully staged grandiose ceremonies that included music and parades.

Young people were the object of particular attention: under the aegis of the Nationalsozialistische Lehrerbund [National Socialist Teachers' League] school became a place of indoctrination. The popular leisure organisation for the population as a whole, Kraft durch Freude [Strength through joy] took charge of sports and other leisure activities. Youth movements, in particular the Hitler Youth, enrolled and mobilised young people and adolescents in their ranks.

Hitler kept only the most devoted members in his own camp: the militant SA (Sturmabteilung) [Storm Troopers] and their leader Ernst Röhm were eliminated during the “Night of the Long Knives” on June 29–30, 1934. The SS (Schutzstaffel) [Protection Squad] and their leader Heinrich Himmler were then granted full police powers. The SS took on more and more importance and penetrated every sector of public and private life using every means available, including terror, to put in place the model of the ideal man in keeping with the Nazi biological definition. Implementing the concept of “absolute security” they fought all forms of opposition to the regime and hunted down anyone who was a “potential enemy of the state.”

[from 'Kristallnacht': the November 1938 Pogrom, Mémorial de la Shoah, 2008, p.8]


The First Concentration Camps

Dachau concentration campThe first concentration camps opened in 1933: Dachau, set up as a model; Oranienburg, near Berlin; and the camps in Emsland near the Dutch border. The concentration camp system was organised by Theodor Eicke, who was highly trusted by Heinrich Himmler; he appointed Eicke to lead the Inspektion der Konzentrationslager [IKL; Inspectorate of Concentration Camps] based at Oranienburg-Sachsenhausen; also there was the SS-Wirtschafts-Verwaltungshauptamt [WVHA; SS Economics and Administrative Main Office] headed by Oswald Pohl.

The IKL controlled seven main camps where 21,000 persons were detained as of August, 1939: Dachau, Oranienburg-Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald (opened in 1937), Flossenburg (opened in 1938), Mauthausen (in Austria, opened in 1938), Ravensbrück women’s camp, and Stutthof (opened in 1939), as well as satellite camps [Kommandos]. The existence of these camps was in no way kept secret: here anti-Nazi militants, Jews and individuals considered to be asocial were detained as part of the “public health measures”. The law of October 14, 1933 provided for the indefinite detention of individuals without trial for as long as the police authorities felt it necessary.

Each camp was directed by an SS Colonel and a Commandant. The concentration camp universe was gradually created through regulations, abusive punishment, violence and very harsh living conditions, implemented by a hierarchy of underlings chosen among the common law prisoners. Starting in 1937 the population of the camps increased because of the toughening of the regime and, in the initial phase, to meet the need for labour required for SS projects. Then the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Roma [Gypsies] were targeted in arrest raids. The Anschluss [annexation of Austria] (March 12, 1938) and the occupation of the Sudetenland (October 10, 1938) led to the arrival of enormous numbers of political prisoners, while the Novemberpogrom was followed by the imprisonment of more than 20,000 Jews from the entire German territory including Austria. As soon as the Jews were imprisoned in the camps, mainly Dachau, Buchenwald, and Sachsenhausen, they were treated with particular brutality. A number of them were murdered or died of exhaustion.

[from 'Kristallnacht': the November 1938 Pogrom, Mémorial de la Shoah, 2008, p.11]