At the beginning of the 1930s, Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party exploited widespread and deep-seated discontent in Germany to attract popular and political support. There was resentment at the crippling territorial, military and economic terms of the Versailles Treaty, which Hitler blamed on treacherous politicians and promised to overturn. The democratic post-World War I Weimar Republic was marked by a weak coalition government and political crisis, in answer to which the Nazi party offered strong leadership and national rebirth. From 1929 onwards, the worldwide economic depression provoked hyperinflation, social unrest and mass unemployment, to which Hitler offered scapegoats such as the Jews.
Hitler pledged civil peace, radical economic policies, and the restoration of national pride and unity. Nazi rhetoric was virulently nationalist and anti-Semitic. The ‘subversive’ Jews were portrayed as responsible for all of Germany’s ills.
In the federal elections of 1930 (which followed the Wall Street Crash), the Nazi Party won 107 seats in the Reichstag (the German Parliament), becoming the second-largest party. The following year, it more than doubled its seats. In January 1933, President von Hindenburg appointed Hitler chancellor, believing that the Nazis could be controlled from within the cabinet. Hitler set about consolidating his power, destroying Weimar democracy and establishing a dictatorship. On 27 February, the Reichstag burned; Dutch communist Marianus van der Lubbe was found inside, arrested and charged with arson. With the Communist Party discredited and banned, the Nazis passed the Reichstag Fire Decree, which dramatically curtailed civil liberties.
In March 1933, the Nazis used intimidation and manipulation to pass the Enabling Act, which allowed them to pass laws which did not need to be voted on in the Reichstag. Over the next year, the Nazis eliminated all remaining political opposition, banning the Social Democrats, and forcing the other parties to disband. In July 1933, Germany was declared a one-party state. In the ‘Night of the Long Knives’ of June 1934, Hitler ordered the Gestapo and the SS to eliminate rivals within the Nazi Party. In 1935, the Nuremburg Laws marked the beginning of an institutionalised anti-Semitic persecution which would culminate in the barbarism of the ‘Final Solution’.
Hitler’s first moves to overturn the Versailles settlement began with the rearmament of Germany, and in 1936 he ordered the remilitarisation of the Rhineland. Hitler became bolder as he realised that Britain and France were unwilling and unable to challenge German expansionism. Between 1936 and 1939, he provided military aid to Franco’s fascist forces in the Spanish Civil War, despite having signed the ‘Non-Intervention Agreement’. In March 1938, German troops marched into Austria; the Anschluss was forbidden under Versailles. Anglo-French commitment to appeasement and ‘peace for our time’ meant that when Hitler provoked the ‘Sudeten Crisis’, demanding that the Sudetenland be ceded to Germany, Britain and France agreed to his demands at September 1938’s Munich conference. Germany’s territorial expansion eastwards was motivated by Hitler’s desire to unite German–speaking peoples, and also by the concept of Lebensraum: the idea of providing Aryan Germans with ‘living space’.
At the end of the year, anti-Jewish pogroms erupted across Germany and Austria. Kristallnacht – a state-orchestrated attack on Jewish property – resulted in the murder of 91 Jews. Twenty thousand more were arrested and transported to concentration camps. In March 1939, Germany seized the remainder of Czechoslovakia; in August Hitler signed the Nazi-Soviet Pact of non-aggression with the USSR. The next step would be the invasion of Poland and the coming of World War II.