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Germany and the Camp System

Factors in Hitler's Rise to Power, 1918-1933 | by Dr. Doris Bergen

German Envoys

German envoys arrive at Versailles for peace treaty ceremony, 1919

World War I left Germany in a complicated and difficult situation that produced conditions Adolf Hitler could exploit, but Germany's defeat in 1918 did not lead directly to Hitler.

Germany's Misinformation Campaign

The military leadership—specifically Field Marshals Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff—convinced the German civilian government to sue for peace in the fall of 1918.

An interpretive essay re-examines conventional wisdom with regard to historical causality and the context in which Hitler and the Nazis rose to power.

German forces were overextended and exhausted, and they could not fight on against the French, British, their colonies and dominions, and especially their American allies, which had fresh troops and almost unlimited resources. Even before the peace took effect, however, Hindenburg, Ludendorff, and other high-ranking German officers began to spread the lie that their armies had been undefeated in the field but had been stabbed in the back by cowards and revolutionaries at home.

Hitler and other opponents of Germany's postwar democracy used this lie to discredit the people they considered their enemies (e.g., communists, Jews, liberals, and social democrats), although with the exception of some hardline communists, these people had loyally supported the war effort.

For many other Germans, the stab-in-the-back idea seemed to make sense. German leaders had never admitted how badly the war was going in the west. They had concentrated on German triumphs over Russia in the east and promised total victory. So the idea that Germany had been betrayed by cunning enemies became an easy way to explain failures for which no one among the German elite would accept responsibility.

Treaty of Versailles

Another reason put forth for the rise of Nazism is the "humiliating" peace settlement imposed on the Germans by the Treaty of Versailles. This common assumption is somewhat misleading. It is true that the Germans had no input in the Treaty they were handed in 1919, but rarely do defeated nations get to determine their own terms of peace.

Germany lost about ten percent of its European territories, but many of these lands were likewise fairly recent acquisitions.

Many of Germany's losses under the Treaty of Versailles were more severe symbolically than they were in practice. For example, Germany lost all of its overseas colonies, but its overseas empire was relatively new and had never been large or profitable. Germany lost about ten percent of its European territories—to Poland, France, Czechoslovakia, and other neighboring countries—but many of these lands were likewise fairly recent acquisitions (e.g., Silesia was gained in the eighteenth-century partitions of Poland and Alsace and Lorraine came with the defeat of France in 1870). Although Germans would protest that Article 231 of the Versailles Treaty—the so-called War Guilt Clause—blamed them for all the destruction in the war, the same clause appeared in treaties with Turkey, Austria, and Hungary. It was meant to establish a legal basis of reparation payments, not to make a moral claim about guilt.

Reparations

In hindsight, many people suggest that Germany was ripe for Nazism because of the economic damage that resulted from having to pay reparations. In fact, the Allies did not even determine the sum to be paid for several years and subsequently revised it downward several times. Even then, the Germans regularly failed to make payments. By the time Hitler formally suspended payments in the 1930s, very little money had actually changed hands. Thus, we can conclude that reparation payments did not wreck the German economy, but they did provide a popular grievance around which German nationalists could focus the German people's antagonisms toward their European neighbors.

Encirclement

Another concern German nationalists spread after 1918 was the concept of encirclement—the idea that enemies surrounded Germany. In fact, after 1918, Germany's neighbors were either smaller, weaker, poorer, or less stable than Germany itself.

The European powers had suffered terrible losses during World War I, both in terms of wealth and human life. Even the official victors, France and Britain, had to contend with rationing, labor unrest, and sick and wounded soldiers long after hostilities ended. France and Belgium had the additional burden of rebuilding their countries, where much of the fighting in the west had occurred. Very little actual fighting happened in Germany, so German cities, roads, factories, and farms were intact.

In fact, after 1918, Germany's neighbors were either smaller, weaker, poorer, or less stable than Germany itself.

Before the war, Germany had shared borders in the east and southeast with Russia and Austria-Hungary, both large, powerful empires. Both had collapsed under the strains of war. Russia was torn apart by revolutions in 1917, the communist takeover, and the subsequent civil war. Austria-Hungary was divided into a number of smaller countries, among them Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia. Both Russia and Austria-Hungary had also been the sites of widespread destruction, as rival armies crisscrossed their lands.

Germany: Again a Leader in Europe

German diplomats were able to take advantage of the situation—and of general war-weariness—to restore their country to a leadership position within Europe. By the mid-1920s, a series of treaties had normalized Germany's relations with France, the Soviet Union, and others, and Germany had been admitted to the League of Nations. A war of aggression was not necessary to make Germany a European power once again.

The constitution was not perfect, but it would have been workable with the support of the population.

The end of the World War I witnessed a political revolution in Germany, as the old Kaiser's Empire was replaced by a constitutional democracy, the Weimar Republic, named for the German city where its representatives initially met. By 1919, a liberal, progressive constitution gave German women the vote and established a system of checks and balances, with a president, chancellor, multiple political parties, and a parliament, known as the Reichstag.

The constitution was not perfect, but it would have been workable with the support of the population, in particular key leaders in the bureaucracy, judiciary, universities, schools, churches, and the press. But this did not happen. Bureaucrats loyal to the old German system remained in their jobs, as did judges, policemen, and others who failed to protect the new republic. Instead of teaching people to respect the new republic, professors, teachers, and pastors stirred up resentments against it and encouraged nostalgia for old times. Their leniency toward its enemies on the right undermined its viability. For example, in 1923, when Hitler was sentenced for trying to overthrow the legal government of Bavaria, he spent less than a year in prison—just enough time to finish his book, Mein Kampf (My Struggle).

Economic Hardships Throughout Europe

Most accounts of Nazi Germany blame Germany's economic problems for the rise of Hitler. This assumption is an oversimplification. All European countries had postwar economic problems, but they were more serious in countries that were poorer than Germany (e.g., Russia and Poland), or where more fighting occurred (e.g.: France, Belgium, and Russia). Even in England postwar rationing of bread lasted longer than it did in Germany.

Economic hardship played a role in polarizing German society and radicalizing German politics, but it alone is not sufficient to explain the victory of Nazism, a Second World War, or the Holocaust.

The mass inflation of 1923—often depicted with images of people pushing wheelbarrows of bills in German cities—created hardships for Germans on fixed incomes and for individuals and institutions that had loaned out money. But there were winners as well, especially speculators and people who owed large sums, and the German government allowed the inflation to persist longer than it might have, because it provided a way to avoid making reparation payments. Once the hyperinflation was stopped—within a year—its most serious legacy was a sense of vulnerability among many Germans that made them willing to listen to demagogues who promised stability.

When the stock market crashed in 1929, it unleashed a depression whose effects were felt not only in Germany but all over the world, especially in industrialized countries. Economic hardship, in other words, played a role in polarizing German society and radicalizing German politics, but it alone is not sufficient to explain the victory of Nazism, a Second World War, or the Holocaust.

Hitler Achieves Power

Hitler became chancellor of Germany in 1933 through legal means. He was not elected by a majority—no more than 40 percent of German voters ever cast ballots for the National Socialist Party. Instead, he was appointed by a coalition of German nationalists, conservatives, industrialists, and military men who thought they could control him and use him for their own purposes. They were mistaken. He used his new position to promote his own plans for German expansion and so-called racial purification.

Dr. Doris Bergen is Associate Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame where she studies twentieth-century German and Central European history, the Holocaust, and European women's history. She is the author of War and Genocide: A Concise History of the Holocaust and Twisted Cross: The German Christian Movement in the Third Reich. Dr. Bergen serves on the Academic Advisory Board of the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.