Nazi Germany

After World War I, Germany fell into a depression as a result of the Treaty of Versailles. Germans turned to Adolf Hitler, who seemed to have a plan to restore their greatness. From there, the Nazi party grew and grew until it had total control of Germany. Nazi Germany then invaded and occupied surrounding countries. How did Nazi Germany even happen? What was Germany like during World War II? How did it all end? Let's explore Nazi Germany!

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Table of contents

    Weimar and Nazi Germany

    Let's briefly review Germany's government that existed before the Nazi takeover. Toward the end of World War II, the Weimar Government was put into place. It was this government that signed the Treaty of Versailles. Germany was forced to accept the conditions of the treaty, which placed the blame of WWI on Germany. According to the treaty, the Germans were the only ones to blame for the previous war.

    As the sole country to blame, this meant that Germany had to pay hefty war reparations. This ignored the fact that Germany was part of a European alliance known as the central powers. As the repayments crippled the economy, the German Mark plunged in value. This angered ordinary Germans, who felt the level of repayments and blame were both unfair.

    German Mark

    The German currency. During the Weimar Republic, the "Mark" was officially the "papiermark" and its value suffered during the postwar period of hyperinflation.

    The Rise of Nazi Germany

    In 1920, the National Socialist German Workers' Party, the Nazis, was created. Adolf Hitler, a young veteran of World War I, was made the leader of this organisation in 1921. Hitler used their anger at the Treaty of Versailles, saying it was because of the Jewish population who accepted it. He claimed that many of the Nazi members were war heroes who fought alongside him, though this was unsubstantiated. For men who had felt betrayed, it was a beguiling message.

    Soon, hyperinflation meant that Germany could not repay their debts. By 1923, the US dollar equalled 4 trillion marks. The crippled state of the economy continued to feed into Hitler's message.

    Nazi Germany Adolf Hitler portrait StudySmarter

    Fig. 1 - Photo of Adolf Hitler

    The fantastic orator, Adolf Hitler, won over crowds by appealing to a cross-section of German society and acting as a helmsman to steer his nation through choppy waters. After another economic disaster plagued the world in the early 1930s, Hitler's popularity grew. In 1932 the Nazi party became the dominant political force in the Reichstag (or German Parliament). After the death of President Hindenburg in 1934, Hitler manoeuvred himself into a position of total control.

    Nazi Germany 1933 - 1939 Timeline

    The timeline below shows some of the major events that occurred throughout the Nazi regime until the beginning of WWII. The following section will then address some of these events to give a better picture of how Hitler's regime operated at the time.

    DateEvent
    3 February 1933Hitler revealed Germany's new foreign policy "Lebensraum".
    27 February 1933Reichstag Fire.
    23 March 1933Enabling Act.
    26 April 1933The creation of the Gestapo and Nazis took over the local government.
    10 May 1933Burning of 25,000 "non-German" books.
    1933Concentration camps are established.
    14 July 1933Political parties were banned, excluding the Nazi Party.
    October 1933Nazi Germany left the League of Nations.
    30 June 1934The Night of the Long Knives.
    2 August 1934President Hindenburg died and Hitler named himself Führer.
    26 February 1935Creation of the Luftwaffe in direct opposition to the Treaty of Versailles.
    March 1935Conscription was enforced to strengthen the German army.
    15 September 1935Creation of the Nuremberg Laws.
    7 March 1936The German army remilitarised the Rhineland.
    August 1936Berlin Olympics.
    25 October 1936Axis Alliance between Germany and Italy.
    25 November 1936The alliance between Germany and Japan.
    December 1936Hitler Youth was mandatory for all boys.
    14 March 1938 Anschluss of Austria and German entry into Vienna.
    23 August 1939Hitler-Stalin Pact.
    1 September 1939Germany invaded Poland.
    3 September 1939Britain and France declared war on Germany.

    Nazi Germany Facts

    Germany became a dangerous place for people who were not part of Hitler's vision of "Volksgemeinschaft" once the Nazis rose to power. Volksgemeinschaft was the concept of a pure German community. It excluded Jewish people, homosexuals, and political rivals. Jewish people made up one per cent of the population of Germany. The Nuremberg Laws were passed in 1935.

    Jewish people, who were able to, fled from Germany. They had to leave sell their homes and businesses, then get exit permits. Another country had to provide them with a visa, but many countries refused to provide these. The rich were able to leave, but the poor couldn't afford to. Many elderly Jewish people were left behind because their health prevented them from traveling. Around 300,000 Jewish people left Germany during this period, though none of them could have predicted the Holocaust.

    Nuremberg Laws

    The Nuremberg Laws limited the rights of Jewish people. The "Law for Protection of German Blood and Honor" prevented Jewish people and other Germans from getting married or having children. The second half of the Nuremberg Laws further separated Jewish people from Germans by redefining citizenship. Jewish people were defined as subjects, not citizens. This stripped them of the rights that German citizens had.1

    Lebensraum Living Space

    Chancellor Hitler revealed Germany's new foreign policy plan, "Lebensraum" on 3 February 1933. Lebensraum translates to "living space" and it was the idea that Germany needed to expand so that the Germans could have enough space and resources to live.

    Hitler wanted to expand "Greater Germany" into the East, through the Soviet Union. This was his goal from the start of Nazi Germany to his death in 1945. Hitler claimed that he hated war and didn't want Germany to enter another one. He even signed a non-aggression agreement with Poland. In 1933, he withdrew Germany from the League of Nations.

    Did you know? Adolf Hitler signed many treaties during his time as Chancellor and as Führer. He didn't plan to keep these treaties or pacts and would dishonour them when it suited his goals.

    Anschluss

    In 1938, the Austrian Chancellor Kurt von Schuschnigg banned the Nazi political party. Hitler wanted to expand into Austria and used the fact that Austria had a German population to justify his actions. Hitler gave the Chancellor an ultimatum. When it wasn't reached four days later, he mobilised the German army and invaded Austria in March 1938. This event was known as the "Anschluss", which translates to "joining".

    While the invading Nazi army was met by cheering Germans, mobilisation wasn't as simple as it appeared. 17% of the German vehicles broke down on the way to Austria. They had to stop at local gas stations because the German government didn't have enough reserves, and needed tourist maps to find their way. Hitler wanted short and quick wars, not another World War. That, of course, didn't go the way that he had hoped.

    Nazi Germany and Appeasement

    Still sore from the wounds of World War I, Western European powers were eager to avoid another large-scale conflict at all costs. However, as the 1930s wore on and Germany began to break the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain pursued a policy of appeasement. After the German rearmament and occupation of the Rhineland and Austria, Chamberlain forged the Munich Agreement, conceding the German-speaking Sudatenland in 1938. The following year, Hitler ignored the agreement to invade Czechoslovakia and finally Poland in 1939. Only at this point did Britain and France enter the war.

    When Winston Churchill replaced Chamberlain as Prime Minister in 1940, he resolved that Germany would answer for her crimes and went on the offensive.

    Nazi Germany: 1939 - 1945 Timeline

    Britain and France believed Hitler when he said that Austria was the end of Germany's expansion. However, on 1 September 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland. The Germans used the blitzkrieg to ensure a quick victory in Poland. On 3 September 1939, Britain and France declared war on Germany. Hitler sent two-thirds of his army to France and the other third to Britain.

    Blitzkrieg

    Translates to "Lightning War" and was a strong military force meant to end a war rapidly.

    Germany saw many victories in the early days of the war. The Germans, French, and British sat behind their defences for the first two years of the war. Occasionally, they had skirmishes, but this was quite the contrast to the blitzkrieg in Poland. This period was called the "Phoney War" or the "sitzkrieg".

    DateEvent
    1939Blitzkrieg was successful in Poland.
    1939 "Phoney War" began.
    1940"Phoney War" ended with the German invasion of France.
    1940 - 1941Germany failed to defeat Britain.
    22 June 1941Operation Barbarossa: Germany invaded the Soviet Union.
    1942Germany began to mobilise for total war.
    1942Genocide against Jewish people, the Holocaust, reached its peak.
    1942 - 1943Germany fought Russia on the Russian Front.
    1941 - 1943Allies were victorious in North Africa and Italy.
    6 June 1944Normandy Invasion.
    1944 -1945The Soviet Union advanced from the East.
    30 April 1945Hitler committed suicide in his bunker.
    7 May 1945Germany surrendered.

    On 22 June 1941, Hitler turned on his ally, Joseph Stalin, by invading the Soviet Union. This event was called Operation Barbarossa.

    Nazi Germany Map

    At its height, the Nazis and their allies occupied countries from France all the way to the Soviet Union. For a visual understanding of this expansion, please look at the following map.

    The End of Nazi Germany

    In the early 1940s, the Allied forces saw some victories. In 1943, German forces lost to the Soviet Union at the Battle of Stalingrad. On 6 June 1944, Allied forces launched a sea invasion of Normandy. This invasion, also known as D-Day, was a combination of the land, sea, and air forces of all the Allied nations. By 1945, the Soviet Union had reached Germany's capital, Berlin.

    It had been evident for quite some time that Germany was going to lose the war. Rather than face the Soviet forces, Hitler and his wife ended their own lives on 30 April 1945. On 7 May 1945, Germany surrendered. A few months later, Germany's allies Japan surrendered after the US dropped the atomic bomb in August 1945. WWII officially ended on 2 September 1945.

    Liberation

    In 1944, Soviet Union soldiers pushed Nazi soldiers further back. When they reached Majdanek, in Poland, the Soviets found the first of many concentration camps. These were camps where Nazis sent Jewish people, political rivals, homosexuals, and other people who didn't fit into Volksgemeinschaft. It wasn't until the concentration camps were revealed that the world understood the horrors of Nazi Germany through the Holocaust.

    Opposition Groups in Nazi Germany

    There were a many opposition groups in Nazi Germany that tried to overthrow Hitler's regime. They came from different political and idelogical backgrounds. The main oppositions groups in Nazi Germany were:

    1. The White Rose - a non-violent student resistance group that emerged in 1942. It was led by Hans and Sophie Scholl, and it distributed leaflets calling for the overthrow of the Nazi regime and the end of the war. The group was eventually betrayed and its leaders were executed.

    2. The Kreisau Circle: This was a group of German intellectuals and military officers who sought to create a new, democratic Germany after the war. They were led by Helmuth James von Moltke, and they held secret meetings to discuss their plans. The group was eventually betrayed and its members were arrested and executed.

    3. The Red Orchestra: This was a group of communist and socialist resistance fighters who sought to overthrow the Nazi regime. They operated as a network of spies and saboteurs, and they were able to provide valuable intelligence to the Soviet Union.

    4. The July 20 Plot: This was a group of high-ranking German military officers who sought to assassinate Hitler and overthrow the Nazi regime. They were led by Claus von Stauffenberg, and they attempted to carry out their plan on July 20, 1944, but it failed and many of the conspirators were arrested and executed.

    Given their despotic tendencies to control Europe and beyond, the period of the Nazi party was not without resistance. Let's look at a couple of examples of Poland and France where the resistance groups created the biggest undeground networks.

    ExampleExplanation
    Opposition in PolandThe Armia Krajowa (Home Army) was the largest resistance organization in German-occupied Europe, with an estimated 400,000 - 600,000 members. It was created in 1942 and was responsible for intelligence, sabotage and armed resistance against the Nazis and their collaborators.
    French resistance in Vichy FranceThe Nazis occupied France for a large part of World War II. During this period, the French resistance of up to 500,000 people were involved, attempting to sabotage German control. 90,000 of these people are believed to have lost their lives.

    Nazi Germany French resistance poster StudySmarterFig. 3 - French resistance poster

    Nazi Germany: Dissolution

    After understanding the horrors committed during World War II, the Allied forces decided to create an international court to try the Nazis, known as the Nuremberg Trials. Many of the higher-ranked Nazis were dead, so who was left to try? The Nazi generals were tried for the crimes of the regime. Many of them were sentenced to death. The Allies enacted the policy of "denazification" in postwar Germany and the victims of the Holocaust were memorialised in museums and monuments across the world.

    Nazi Germany - Key takeaways

    • The Weimar Republic had to sign the Treaty of Versailles. The Nazis then used the "stabbed in the back myth" as a way to place the blame on Jewish people.
    • Hitler took power in 1933, and became Führer in 1934.
    • Hitler claimed to want to expand Germany for Lebensraum. Austria was annexed, and then Poland was invaded which started WWII.
    • Germany surrendered in May 1945 after Berlin was stormed by the Soviet Union.
    • Some Germans who didn't agree with the Nazi party helped Jewish people survive

    References

    1. Lisa Pine, Hitler's 'National Community': Society and Culture in Nazi Germany, 148.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Nazi Germany

    When did Nazi Germany start?  

    Nazi Germany began in 1933 when Hitler became Chancellor of Germany.  The following year, Hitler made himself Führer upon the death of President Hindenburg.

    What was life like in Nazi Germany?  

    Germans could only consume approved Nazi entertainment. This meant no Jazz music or foreign movies. At first, Jewish people were fired from government and educational system positions. This led to concentration camps.

    When did Nazis come to power in Germany?  

    The Nazi party began to claim power as Hitler rose to political power in the early 1930s. By 1933, he was the Chancellor of Germany. In 1934, Hitler made himself the Führer upon the death of President Hidenburg. 

    How big was Nazi Germany at its peak?  

    At its peak, Nazi Germany held occupation from France into the Soviet Union.

    What countries did Nazi Germany annex?  

    Before the start of World War II, Germany annexed Austria and Czechoslovakia. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Who became Chancellor of Germany in 19__?

    Heinrich Himmler was the Nazi Head of Propaganda.

    Which of the following was not a way that Nazis spread propaganda?

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