World War One and World War Two were wars in direct correlation with each other. Although separated by more than three decades actions taken at the close of WWI directly affected the beginning of WWII. Germany, one of the initial aggressors in WWI, was severely punished at the conclusion of WWI. Through numerous diplomatic policies and the Versailles treaty Germany was severely restricted in trade and economic practices. Between that and other things such as a horrible flu epidemic, unparalleled unemployment rate and international stock market collapses Germany quickly spiraled into an economic and social downfall. Between the crippling economic situation and the severely limited productions capability Germany faced incredible problems in even the most basic functions of a nation. Germany was in a dire situation, but in 1924 Adolf Hitler was released from jail for a failed coup attempt. Upon his release he quickly rose to power utilizing remarkable political savvy.
In an astonishingly small amount of time Hitler rose from an individual in jail to one of the most powerful and influential people in the world.
Adolf Hitler's rise to power began when he was hired by the Weimar Republic to spy on radical left wing activities. The Weimar Republic wanted to crush leftist and communist movements so they send Hitler to spy on the newly formed German Workers' Party. But Hitler does not just spy on this newly created group. Although their objectives are things Hitler does not agree with he quickly begins to mold the group into his own image. He basically turns it around completely; it began as a left wing group with interests in workers rights, insurance, health care and similar ideas, but it quickly became a nationalistic group of ex-military individuals. In 1920 Hitler renames the party the National Socialist Workers Party, or simply abbreviated as the Nazi's. This ultra nationalist group wanted the repudiation of Versailles and talks about "race and space" and "Germany for the Germans". One of Hitler's main goals was the reclamation of German territories that were lost post-WWI, and another is the eventual removal and elimination of the Jewish populace.
Soon after the adoption and inception of the Nazi party Hitler realized his first chance to take control. Munich at this point in 1924 is a hotbed of right wing activity, Hitler's belief is that he will march right in, take control of the city, and the rest will fall like dominos. Ground zero of his attack was the Beer Hall at the center of town and begins a dramatic call to arms. Unfortunately for him he's too late, the beer hall is relatively unpopulated, its populace tired and probably drunk. Although he does convince some people to rise up and act out a shootout occurs and 16 of his top members are killed and he is arrested. It is while spending the next several months in prison that he formulates his new plan and he rights the epic and rather repetitive "Mein Kampf" or, "My Struggle".
Mein Kampf outlines Hitler's true beliefs and vision for Germany. He speaks continuously of racial purification for the purpose of German strength. He discusses lebensraum which is translated as "German Living Space". He is also wholly dedicated to the destruction of Communism. Hitler sees that the pure and virile German blood has been watered down and diseased by the Jews, whom he compares to parasites. These Jews have been continuously leaching from the Germanic people and the glorious Aryan race and it is time for their elimination. It's after his failed coup attempt and his jail time that he fully realizes that it is not through conflict that he will gain power, but it is through political savvy. His group organizes politically and begin running for office, and although not widely accepted, the Nazis are there.
The Nazis appeal to the people's emotions in a manner that no one else did. Nationalism is a tremendous factor in his speeches, he constantly speaks of the reunification of Germany, the rearmament of Germany, the destruction of Versailles, and he promises to keep people safe from the ever spreading and evil Communism. The ever charismatic and ambitious Hitler created an impressive and relatively unprecedented government campaign program. A mere four years after his failed attempt at control Hitler gains huge political momentum. The 1928 elections proved a pivotal moment for both the Weimar and the Nazis for a number of reasons. Because of this election politics became polarized between the Nazis and the Weimar (Coffin, 971). Agreements between the right and the left became virtually impossible and between 1930 and 1933 Germany effectively had no government. This is now when Hitler's rise to power is taken up a notch. At this point two ministers are essentially running the country, Kurt Schleichter and Franz von Pappen, they are very authoritarian and very Prussian. They can tell that a revolution is quickly going to occur if they don't do something, so they attempt to put a good face on the Republic and appoint a famous WWI war hero president. Every six months a vote was attempted until July, 1932 the Nazis won 37 percent of the vote. Although not a majority, they were declared to be large enough to have plurality (Coffin, 971). In 1933 Hitler is appointed chancellor by President Hindenburg, who hoped to create a conservative coalition by bringing the Nazis in with slightly less radical parties. This was a crucial mistake; it is believed by the President, Schleichter and Von Pappen that Hitler was under their control, they soon found out that they couldn't have been further from the truth.
At this point Hitler begins consolidating his governmental power, as chancellor he has the chance to bring in a lot of his previous cronies into his cabinet. Many leaders are now in Hitler's inner circle, and those who aren't are quickly being pressured out. Hitler, through a diplomatic article of German Parliament (Article 48) declares him self dictator. Conveniently for Hitler the only person who can stand in his way, Hindenburg, dies. By the fall of 1933, Germany became a one-party nation. Paradoxically this is when Hitler's power is seriously challenged for the first time. At this point in time Hitler doesn't really have the support of the army, he has his one branch of the army which are former members of his storm troopers from the beginning of his rise to power. This group believes that the army should become an extension of the S.A, and that they should control the army. The army however, has no interest in this scenario and basically tells Hitler in so many words that they're the only ones who could challenge and overthrow him. Hitler makes a decision which ends in extreme bloodshed and the murder of many of his most instrumental advisors. But he realizes that they must be sacrificed for the greater good. In June of 1934 Hitler orders the slaughter of more than 1000 of his oldest associates, this order is put through not to the army, but his personal body guards, the S.S. This atrocity was known as the Night of the Long Knives and immediately after it the S.S grew exponentially larger.
Heinrich Himmler is the leader of the S.S and he is a devout racist and he wants to form a dedicated and pure Aryan soldier group. Members of this new military wing must be able to trace their lineage back until 1750 and it must be purely Germanic. Himmler also creates another group under the division of the S.S, the Waffen S.S or the combat S.S. They're the elite, owned and operated by Hitler, entirely separate from the army; they had their own divisions, their own tanks and equipment, and the infamous skull insignia. Himmler also created the Gestapo, or the secret police, also created are separate divisions of the S.S that run and operate the death camps and divisions that operate on the front whose pure goal is the elimination of the Jews.
WWII begins in 1939 with the invasion of Poland, utilizing Blitzkrieg tactics the Germans sweep quickly through Poland and many northern countries. By 1942 Hitler has spread as far North as Finland, throughout Europe and France, and as far South as North Africa. No one really anticipated this type of global domination and it is now realized by Hitler that he can now finally deal with the Jews. Hitler had set up the German bureaucracy with many overlapping sections and no clear promotion system. What this did was provide many internal conflicts between leaders, and it insured that only the most ruthless and remarkably evil leaders would rise through the ranks. In a meeting called the Wansee Conference the uppermost members of Nazi rule, therefore the most ruthless, met to discuss the situation of the Jewish people. Here the "Final Solution" was realized and created. The Final Solution essentially is the complete elimination and extermination of the Jewish people from Germany and its occupied territories. Before the final solution was created Jewish people were sequestered into miserable sections of occupied cities, there they would live in horrid, squalid ghettos with a terrible range of diseases. After the Final Solution was realized it was easy to ship off these Jews to the death camps that were primarily in Poland.
Since the beginning of the war the Nazis had seen it as a racial war. Hitler assumed that the slaughter of Jews, Gypsies and Slavs was not only necessary but natural. He believed in evolution of the species and he thought the Jews as a less evolved and therefore inferior race of people. Thus began a brutal campaign against the Jews in all of Nazi occupied Europe, but primarily in Germany. The elimination of European Jewry stood at the center of Nazi Rassenkampf, or racial struggle (Coffin, 1005) and it is believed that the Nazis had no real plan to eliminate the Jews until the incredible success of the war. On the heels of the Russian invasion, and under the commissar order issued by Reinhard Heydrich, death squads were ordered to shoot party officials and civilians who resisted the invasion force. But this quickly turned to the round up and murder of thousands of Jews. By September 1941 this group claimed the lives of 85000 persons, the majority of them Jews. By April of 1942 this number exploded to 500,000, and this was before the invention and realization of the gas chambers. In 1943 the death squads had killed an estimated 2.2 million Jews. The war had become geared toward complete ethnic cleansing.
The Final Solution realized the startling efficiency of death camps and millions of people, including Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, mentally unfit and prisoners of war were sent to death camps. Auschwitz, a death camp in Poland, killed over one million people between the spring of 1942 and the fall of 1944 (Coffin, 1008). But it wasn't just the elite and inhuman S.S that was committing these atrocities. The regular army soon took part, mindlessly murdering Jews on the front in a systematic elimination of the Jewish people. How many people were aware of Holocaust? Essentially extermination of this scale couldn't be carried out without the attention of thousands of individuals. Between individuals working at death camps to the conductors that drove the train to them to the police who rounded up Jews to the officials in cities where they were deported from to the engineers who designed the gas chambers. The people who suspected the worst were helpless and terrified, and many others just attempted to ignore the obvious. Although the Nazis took it to a level of extremity above anyone else many other nations believed that the Jews had become a problem, individuals from countries throughout the world believed that the Jews presented enough a problem and that it had to be solved. It had as much to do with Christian charged anti-Semitism than it did with the ideals held by the Nazis.
Even other governments did little or nothing to stop the spread. The French Vichy regime stood by and let the Nazis stroll into France, and they even took their own initiative in marking and identifying the Jews. The Nazis made an incredible effort to transport Jews from every front of their empire at the height of a two front war. The logistics and man hours that were taken away from the war effort and applied to the extermination of an entire race were astronomical. The Holocaust claimed the lives of an estimated 4.1 and 5.7 million Jews. In many Baltic States, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and Poland as much as 80 percent of long established Jewish communities were annihilated (Coffin, 1013). There were so many other options for so many people to excuse themselves from the atrocities. Why did people follow the route of others, and why were people so eager to please the Furher and his minions. They held Hitler in esteem similar to a father figure, and did everything possible to please him.
What is clear is that how the men stood in front of their commanders and officers mattered more in their eyes then to the face of humanity. They would do anything to impress their leaders including ignoring the fact that they were committing crimes against a higher authority. The incredible division between "us" and "them" the good and the evil, the pure and the impure was the standard of this new war. It was said that in order to shoot and exterminate the Jews that you should base your courage on the fact that your enemy is now killing German women and children. People had to ignore the fact that what they were doing was beyond wrong, especially in an attempt to impress and wow their commanders and comrades. It was realized after several decades past that even the people who ceased to murder the Jews stopped so out of pure revulsion than an ethical or political standing. Because of Hitler's organization of German military and Political command competition between factions was encouraged and expressed. People felt that in order to climb the ranks they would have to commit horrible atrocities against man, but this was worth it to be held in esteem by your leaders. It was peer pressure in extreme, in an attempt to fit in and impress people would do whatever it takes, including the systematic destruction of 12 million people. Through Hitler's brilliant strategy he created the means and the motives for individuals to do whatever it took to belong.
Individual accounts of murder are horrifying and unbelievable; the thought of shooting 1200 Jews at the bottom of a pit is beyond appalling. Some people were physically unable to do the required murder and they were excused and given menial tasks such as guarding the forests around detention camps. Clearly these people were never promoted nor made it very far, it was the ruthless and evil that progressed in Hitler's army and the reward of peer recognition and promotion was reason enough for many. Throughout WWII millions of people were murdered, including only slightly less than 6 million Jewish people. Also killed were 27 million Russian people, and tens of thousands of others. WWII was total war on an entirely new level, accounts of total human casualties is well into 50 million people, a death toll higher than any other conflict in history. The appalling and atrocious acts committed by the Germans will never be fully forgotten and their ramifications are still felt today.
- Brophy, James M, Epstein Steven; Perspectives from The Past, Volume 2,
W.W Norton & Company, Inc, NY, NY 1998
- Coffin, Judith G, Stacy, Robert C; Western Civilization, Volume 2
W.W Norton & Company, Inc, NY, NY 2002