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Hitler: The Rise to Power

This document was written by Stephen Tonge. I am most grateful to have his kind permission to include it on the web site.


Early Life

Adolf Hitler was born in Braunau am Inn in Austria in 1889. His father was a custom’s official who married three times. Hitler and his sister Paula were the only ones to survive from six children from his father’s third marriage. His family moved to Linz in 1898 where he attended secondary school. His father died in 1903. In 1907 he moved to Vienna where he applied to study at the Viennese Academy of Fine Arts. His application was rejected and the same year his mother, to whom he was particularly devoted, died of breast cancer.

It was in Vienna that Hitler came into contact with racist and anti-Semitic ideas. Vienna was home to a large Jewish and Slavic population and many in the city detested the mix of races in the city. Hitler was also impressed with the idea of Pan Germans who wanted all Germans to live in one state.

He made a living selling paintings and postcards. By 1909 he ran out of money and was forced to live in a Men’s home. In 1913 he received money from his father’s will and left Vienna and moved to Munich in Germany.

When World War One broke out Hitler joined the German army and acted as a messenger. He was a brave soldier; he gained promotion to corporal and was awarded the Iron Cross First Class, ironically on the recommendation of a Jewish officer.

The Formation of the National Socialists

Hitler was shocked by the German surrender. After the war he remained in the army and was involved in political instruction. He was ordered to spy on the small German Worker’s Party, one of the large number of political groups that had sprung up in post war Bavaria.

He attended the party meeting where he spoke and he joined the party and rapidly became the party’s star speaker. In 1920 the party was renamed the National Socialist German Worker’s Party (NSDAP) with Hitler as leader. Hostile commentators soon christened it the Nazi party.

The party also acquired a newspaper, the Volkischer Beobachter. The following year the uniformed Sturmabteilung or SA (Brownshirts) were set up under the command of Ernst Rohm. Two years later the Schutzstaffel (SS) was set up to act as Hitler’s bodyguard.

Hitler was strongly influenced by Fascism in Italy and copying Mussolini or the Duce, he took the title of Fuhrer. Rallies, flags and the right arm salute were also adopted. His speeches attacked Versailles, the November Criminals, Jews and Socialists.
His party promised to:

The Beer Hall Putsch

Admiring Mussolini’s March on Rome, Hitler was convinced that the best way to seize power was to march on Berlin. As Germany descended into economic chaos in 1923 the time seemed right. Many powerful figures in Bavaria including General Ludendorff agreed with him and he began a revolt in Munich in November, The proposed march was halted by the police and fourteen Nazis and four policemen were shot dead. The putsch ended in total failure.

Hitler was arrested and sentenced to five years in jail. He was treated with great leniency and only served nine months. While in prison where he wrote “Mein Kampf”, his autobiography. The book set out Hitler’s ideas about race, the Jews, living space and the Treaty of Versailles. It was very difficult to read and only began to sell well after 1930.

1924-28 The Lean Years

Hitler realised that another “March on Berlin” would fail and that violent revolution would not succeed. He also understood it was essential to win mass public support by the use of propaganda and public speeches.

Hitler reorganised the party and established his authority. He won a power struggle with the more socialist wing of the party in the North of Germany. The greeting Heil Hitler was made compulsory for party members.

However it remained very small in numbers. In 1927 it had 75,000 members (albeit very active ones) and in the 1928 election the National Socialists only gained 2.5% of the vote and 12 seats in the Reichstag.

The time of Struggle

In 1929, the right organised a referendum against the “Young Plan” which was a proposal to ease reparations payments). Although the referendum was defeated it brought Hitler to national prominence as he was on the organising committee. This
gained the Nazis increased respectability.

The same year the Wall Street Crash occurred and this event led to the “Great Depression.” The effects of this economic downturn were catastrophic on Germany and caused many Germans to view the Nazis as a valid alternative.

In 1930 the National Socialists made their first major electoral breakthrough when they won 107 seats in the September election. Unemployment rose to 3 million. The new Chancellor, Bruning, relied on Article 48 to get laws passed as normal parliamentary government began to collapse. His polices were deeply unpopular and made the economic situation worse. The following year regional elections confirmed the rising support of the Nazis.

The Largest Party in Germany

By 1932 unemployment had reached six million. The Nazis continued to grow and the SA (Brownshirts) numbered 400,000 men. Hitler stood for election as president but was defeated by Hindenburg.

Political violence intensified as the Nazis battled with their communist and socialist enemies. 155 people were killed in political clashes in the largest state, Prussia and the violence increased at election time. The Nazis however were careful not to attack the police while the communists saw the police as their enemy.

The government acted though and banned the Brownshirts in April although it had no effect on the political violence. In May, Von Papen replaced Bruning as Chancellor. He lifted the ban on the Brownshirts and called an election for July.

The Nazi campaign organised by Doctor Joseph Goebbels used propaganda, rallies, posters and marches while Hitler flew throughout Germany, speaking to as many as seven audiences in a day.

The election was a resounding victory for the National Socialists who became the largest party in the Reichstag. The National Socialists won 37.6% of the vote and 230 seats in the election. Hitler refused any offer of coalition unless he was appointed Chancellor.

In August a particularly brutal Nazi murder at Potempa in Upper Silesia overshadowed negotiations between President Hindenburg, von Papen and Hitler about possible Nazi participation in government. Hindenburg disliked Hitler whom he called the Bohemian Corporal. The murder reinforced this hostility and negotiations broke down.

The country descended into political chaos as the Nazis and Communists (77 seats) co-operated in making normal government impossible. For example the Nazis and Communists voted together to get a motion of no-confidence passed against the von Papen government. New elections were called.

In the November election the Nazi vote fell by 2 million and their number of seats to 196 as many middle class voters became disillusioned with the party and its actions since July. The party was also in serious financial difficulties. It was to be rescued by events!

Hitler appointed Chancellor

In December General von Schleicher replaced von Papen as Chancellor as it was clear that von Papen had little electoral support and had lost the support of the army. Von Schleicher’s policies worried President Hindenburg and his advisors especially his proposal for land reform that would affect estates in Eastern Germany. In January it was decided to get rid of von Schleicher and to try and bring the Nazis into government. Hitler and von Papen (who had great influence over President Hindenburg) agreed the terms of a coalition government and on the 30th Hitler was appointed Chancellor by Hindenburg.

Most of Hitler’s first Cabinet consisted of non-Nazis. Von Papen and his conservative allies thought that they could control Hitler; he said “We’ve engaged him for ourselves”. However the perceptive French ambassador noted “they believe themselves to be very ingenious, ridding themselves of the wolf by introducing him into the sheepfold.” Hitler as chancellor, William Frick as Minister of the Interior and Herman Goring as Minister without portfolio and Prussian Minister of the Interior were the three Nazi Ministers. Crucially they controlled the police in Germany and Prussia, the largest state.

The Establishment of a Totalitarian State

When Hitler was appointed chancellor he called fresh elections for March. The SA began to attack their political enemies especially the Communists and Social Democrats. Their papers were closed down their offices raided, their meetings attacked and their members beaten up.

In order to ensure that the military would not intervene, Hitler promised the army that he would tear up the military clauses of the Treaty of Versailles. Goring quickly brought the Prussian police under his control and in February enrolled the SA in the police as auxiliaries. The Nazis could now act as they pleased.

The Reichstag Fire

On 27 February a young Dutch communist Marinus van der Lubbe set fire to the Reichstag building. Hitler took advantage of this act and announced that it was a signal for a communist revolt. An emergency law “The Decree of the President for the Protection of People and State” was passed. It suspended basic human rights and allowed the government to take over the government of the Lander if there was a threat to public order. This law formed the basis of police power in Germany and helped to create a totalitarian state. Waves of arrests followed and over 10,000 communists were detained. As the prisons filled to bursting point cellars and disused warehouses were used and in March the first concentration camp was set up at Dachau.

The Enabling Act

The elections held in March saw the Nazis and their allies receive 52% of the vote and a majority in the Reichstag. Hitler announced that he would seek a further emergency law, the Enabling Act. This act needed the support of two-thirds of the Reichstag. SA mobs surrounded the Kroll Opera House where the parliament was meeting. The Centre party supported the bill and it was passed by 444 votes to 94. This law permitted the government to pass laws without seeking the approval of parliament or the President. It formed the legal basis of the Nazi dictatorship. It was renewed in 1937 and made permanent in 1943. The Nazis were now free to carry out their policy of Gleichschaltung or bringing all aspects of German political and social life under the control of the state.

The End of Opposition

The Nazi terror increased and beating and killings became more frequent. The Civil Service was purged of Jews and the Nazi’s political enemies. One by one the different political parties were banned or dissolved themselves. The Communists were banned on 7 March, the Social Democrats on 21 June. The Conservative (DVNP), Catholic (Centre) and Liberal parties dissolved themselves and on the 14th of July the NSDAP became the sole legal party in Germany. In May all Trade Unions were disbanded, their leaders arrested and their members forced to join the Nazi controlled German Labour Front. Goebbels noted in his diary “We are the masters of Germany”.

Who voted for the National Socialists?

Propaganda PosterComment in 1930 by Helmut Gerlach about rising Nazi support:

“If the sun shines once more on the German economy, Hitler’s voters will melt away like snow.”

Hitler realised that the psychological shock of the economic depression on the German people and the emotions this created: fear, resentment, despair, the longing for reassurance etc., were the most important issues a politician should address himself to.

The main groups who supported the National Socialists were

Websites about Nazi Germany:

Hitler and Germany

A website from the World War II database entitled Germany under the Nazis.
Learning about the character of Hitler through primary documents. A site from the National Archives in Britain.
A page from the same website about the Munich conference.
Learn about the rise of Hitler to power from this American website. Contains links to other aspects of Nazi Germany.
This website is designed for students and deals with nearly every aspect of life and politics in Nazi Germany.
At this site you can hear Hitler speak. There is a translation to help you understand the speech.
Visual examples of Nazi propaganda from this American website.
Exhibit about the 1936 Olympics from the US Holocaust Museum in Washington.
Another exhibit from the same website about Kristallnacht, the pogrom against the Jews of Germany in November 1938.


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Last modified 11 November, 2013

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