(World War II — 1933-1945)
Nazi Germany, officially known as the German Reich from 1933 until 1943, and the Greater German Reich from 1943 to 1945, was the German state between 1933 and 1945, when Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party controlled the country, transforming it into a dictatorship. Under Hitler’s rule, Germany quickly became a totalitarian state where nearly all aspects of life were controlled by the government. The Third Reich, meaning “Third Realm” or “Third Empire”, alluded to the Nazis’ conceit that Nazi Germany was the successor to the earlier Holy Roman Empire (800–1806) and German Empire (1871–1918). The Third Reich, which Hitler and the Nazis referred to as the Thousand Year Reich, ended in May 1945 after just 12 years, when the Allies defeated Germany, ending World War II in Europe.
On 30 January 1933, Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany, the head of government, by the president of the Weimar Republic, Paul von Hindenburg, the head of state. The Nazi Party then began to eliminate all political opposition and consolidate its power. Hindenburg died on 2 August 1934 and Hitler became dictator of Germany by merging the offices and powers of the chancellery and presidency. A national referendum held 19 August 1934 confirmed Hitler as sole Führer (leader) of Germany. All power was centralised in Hitler’s person and his word became the highest law. The government was not a coordinated, co-operating body, but a collection of factions struggling for power and Hitler’s favour. In the midst of the Great Depression, the Nazis restored economic stability and ended mass unemployment using heavy military spending and a mixed economy. Using deficit spending, the regime undertook a massive secret rearmament program, forming the Wehrmacht (armed forces), and constructed extensive public works projects, including the Autobahnen (motorways). The return to economic stability boosted the regime’s popularity.
Racism, Nazi eugenics, and especially antisemitism, were central ideological features of the regime. The Germanic peoples were considered by the Nazis to be the master race, the purest branch of the Aryan race. Discrimination and the persecution of Jews and Romani people began in earnest after the seizure of power. The first concentration camps were established in March 1933. Jews and others deemed undesirable were imprisoned, and liberals, socialists, and communists were murdered, imprisoned, or exiled. Christian churches and citizens that opposed Hitler’s rule were oppressed and many leaders imprisoned. Education focused on racial biology, population policy, and fitness for military service. Career and educational opportunities for women were curtailed. Recreation and tourism were organised via the Strength Through Joy program, and the 1936 Summer Olympics showcased Germany on the international stage. Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels made effective use of film, mass rallies, and Hitler’s hypnotic oratory to influence public opinion. The government controlled artistic expression, promoting specific art forms and banning or discouraging others.
From the latter half of the 1930s, Nazi Germany made increasingly aggressive territorial demands, threatening war if these were not met. The Saarland voted by plebiscite to rejoin Germany in 1935, and in 1936 Hitler sent troops into the Rhineland, which had been de-militarized after World War I. Germany seized Austria in the Anschluss of 1938, and demanded and received the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia in that same year. In March 1939, the Slovak state was proclaimed and became a client state of Germany, and the German Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia was established on the remainder of the occupied Czech Lands. Shortly after, Germany pressured Lithuania into ceding the Memel Territory. Germany signed a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union and invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, launching World War II in Europe. By early 1941, Germany and its European allies in the Axis powers controlled much of Europe. Extended offices of the Reichskommissariat took control of Nazi-conquered areas and a German administration was established in the remainder of Poland. Germany exploited the raw materials and labour of both its occupied territories and its allies.
Genocide, mass murder, and large-scale forced labour became hallmarks of the regime. Starting in 1939, hundreds of thousands of German citizens with mental or physical disabilities were murdered in hospitals and asylums. Einsatzgruppen paramilitary death squads accompanied the German armed forces inside the occupied territories and conducted the genocide of millions of Jews and other Holocaust victims. After 1941, millions of others were imprisoned, worked to death, or murdered in Nazi concentration camps and extermination camps. This genocide is known as the Holocaust.
While the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 was initially successful, the Soviet resurgence and entry of the United States into the war meant that the Wehrmacht lost the initiative on the Eastern Front in 1943 and by late 1944 had been pushed back to the pre-1939 border. Large-scale aerial bombing of Germany escalated in 1944 and the Axis powers were driven back in Eastern and Southern Europe. After the Allied invasion of France, Germany was conquered by the Soviet Union from the east and the other Allies from the west, and capitulated in May 1945. Hitler’s refusal to admit defeat led to massive destruction of German infrastructure and additional war-related deaths in the closing months of the war. The victorious Allies initiated a policy of denazification and put many of the surviving Nazi leadership on trial for war crimes at the Nuremberg trials.
The Holocaust and Final Solution
Around the time of the failed offensive against Moscow in December 1941, Hitler resolved that the Jews of Europe were to be exterminated immediately. While the murder of Jewish civilians had been ongoing in the occupied territories of Poland and the Soviet Union, plans for the total eradication of the Jewish population of Europe—eleven million people—were formalised at the Wannsee Conference on 20 January 1942. Some would be worked to death and the rest would be murdered in the implementation of the Final Solution to the Jewish Question. Initially the victims were murdered by Einsatzgruppen firing squads, then by stationary gas chambers or by gas vans, but these methods proved impractical for an operation of this scale. By 1942 extermination camps equipped with gas chambers were established at Auschwitz, Chełmno, Sobibor, Treblinka, and elsewhere. The total number of Jews murdered is estimated at 5.5 to six million, including over a million children.
The Allies received information about the murders from the Polish government-in-exile and Polish leadership in Warsaw, based mostly on intelligence from the Polish underground. German citizens had access to information about what was happening, as soldiers returning from the occupied territories reported on what they had seen and done. Historian Richard J. Evans states that most German citizens disapproved of the genocide.
Newspapers, like other media, were controlled by the state; the Reich Press Chamber shut down or bought newspapers and publishing houses. By 1939, over two-thirds of the newspapers and magazines were directly owned by the Propaganda Ministry. The Nazi Party daily newspaper, the Völkischer Beobachter (“Ethnic Observer”), was edited by Rosenberg, who also wrote The Myth of the Twentieth Century, a book of racial theories espousing Nordic superiority. Goebbels controlled the wire services and insisted that all newspapers in Germany only publish content favourable to the regime. Under Goebbels, the Propaganda Ministry issued two dozen directives every week on exactly what news should be published and what angles to use; the typical newspaper followed the directives closely, especially regarding what to omit. Newspaper readership plummeted, partly because of the decreased quality of the content and partly because of the surge in popularity of radio. Propaganda became less effective towards the end of the war, as people were able to obtain information outside of official channels.
Authors of books left the country in droves and some wrote material critical of the regime while in exile. Goebbels recommended that the remaining authors concentrate on books themed on Germanic myths and the concept of blood and soil. By the end of 1933, over a thousand books—most of them by Jewish authors or featuring Jewish characters—had been banned by the Nazi regime. Nazi book burnings took place; nineteen such events were held on the night of 10 May 1933. Tens of thousands of books from dozens of figures, including Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Helen Keller, Alfred Kerr, Marcel Proust, Erich Maria Remarque, Upton Sinclair, Jakob Wassermann, H. G. Wells, and Émile Zola were publicly burned. Pacifist works, and literature espousing liberal, democratic values were targeted for destruction, as well as any writings supporting the Weimar Republic or those written by Jewish authors.