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For the 72 Million

Prelude to War – Germany

Europe was in chaos after World War I. Tens of millions were dead. Large parts of France and Germany were completely destroyed, including France’s major source of coal and much of their farmland. This Total War that consumed so many lives and had also consumed the combatants’ thirst for war. For a time.

Strict censorship in Germany prevented any real public appreciation for the situation Germany was in at the end of the war. She had simply run out resources to continue the struggle. She still fielded an army, and they still had a will to fight. The civilian populace, who had not been told of the defeats or the stagnation on the Western Front, was stunned by the armistice.

As the armistice took hold, Communists formed councils – soviets – in the German Imperial Fleet. Disaffected, demoralized veterans of the army began to form right-wing paramilitary groups called Freikorps (free army). Over the next few years, Germany would plunge into instability as socialists, Communists, nationalists and imperialists all fought each other. This would lead to the death of Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Liebknecht during the Sparaticist Uprising of 1919. After that, both the Communists and the Nationalists would fight in the street on many occasions.

A decorated hero, cited by his Jewish Lieutenant for the Iron Cross, lay recovering in hospital from a gas attack at the time of the armistice. An unsuccessful artist, he resolved right then in November 1918 to restore Germany to her rightful glory, and avenge her honor. Or at least that’s what he claimed years later; in 1919, he was an operative for the secret police. Posing as just another disgruntled veteran at right-wing Freikorps meetings, he appeared to be just what he was. Hitler wandered into a meeting of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, known by its acronym, NASDAP. Hitler was enthralled. He saw an opportunity for himself with like-minded men. He quit the military and joined the NASDAP.

The formal end of the war was signed in Versailles, France in 1919. The Treaty of Versailles in 1919 was a punitive measure, assigning blame for the war to Germany and Austria-Hungary and imposing severe unlimited and ill-defined reparations. Great Britain and France owed large debts to the United States, and they intended Germany should pay. The conference redefined both the maps of Europe and of Africa. Most of the borders of the Middle East fought over in the Gulf War of 1991 were created in Versailles in 1919. Many who came to the conference, including Indochinese activist Ho Chi Minh, left without being heard. The Germans formed a democratic government in Weimar, south of Berlin and Goethe’s birthplace. Marked by economic and political upheaval throughout its short existence, it was also marked by artistic eminence like the Bauhaus design movement and lasting legacy in film led by directors such as F. W. Murnau.

Hitler, who realized his gift as an orator, moved to consolidate his power within the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (NASDAP). He defined the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, gave it leadership, and by 1921 was the sole leader. By 1923, the Nazis, as they were known, were the best-organized political party and had 55,000 members. The National Socialists were openly anti-Semitic, nationalist, and attracted members from all over Germany.

The system of reparations set up in Versailles had the consequence of runaway inflation. From 1922 the mark lost ground against the dollar. In November 1918 the mark was worth 25¢, and by 1922 it was down to 400 marks to the dollar. By the summer of 1923, 4,000 marks to the dollar was a crisis. By November 1923, the purchasing power of money was being halved almost hourly. Germans rushed to convert their savings, if they had any, to durable goods. The endurable image of wheelbarrows of money to buy a loaf of bread is comically accurate. It took 4 million marks to obtain a single United States dollar.

On November 8, 1923, Hitler, Hermann Goring and the Sturmarbeitelung (SA) surrounded the Bavarian leadership as they were speaking at a beer hall in Munich. Firing a pistol shot, Hitler ran to the podium and declared a revolution. Herding the Bavarian politicians into a back room, he tried to force them to step aside. When they refused, he announced their resignation anyway. Working with World War I hero General Erich Ludendorff, they held the leadership overnight and marched on Munich the next day. The Army did not join them, and sixteen Nazis and three policemen were killed. The Nazi martyred their dead, inscribing their names into every party member’s identification papers.

The Germans asked the French to end reparations. The French refused, but the Germans defaulted anyway. A plan to stop the runaway inflation did not allow for the end of reparations, but succeeded in stabilizing the German monetary system by devaluing the mark. A fixed sum was set in 1921. It worked well until the depression. The plan started a three-way payment system that was essentially a global pyramid scheme. The Americans lent money to Germany to rebuild, and Germany paid reparations to the British and French. The British and the French paid their war loans to the Americans. Two things prevented the system from working: the Versailles Treaty never defined how much, or for how long, the Germans would pay; and the possibility of the Americans running out of money was never taken into account.

So, in 1929, when the American economy collapsed, the German economy collapsed, and the British and French economy collapsed. The worldwide depression hit Germany as hard or harder then everywhere else. By 1932 the Nazis were making significant gains in the Reichstag, the Weimar Republic’s government. Street battles between Ernst Röhm’s SA and communists, socialists, and Social Democrats were frequent. Newspapers that criticized the Nazis were ransacked and their editors intimidated or murdered. Voter intimidation and election fraud were rife on all sides. Nevertheless, Hitler was not elected President. Paul von Hindenburg was reelected President of the Weimar Republic.

The Nazi Party was in danger of being eclipsed. Backroom negotiations benefited Hitler. In 1933, Adolf Hitler forced a compromise that would make him Chancellor of Germany. Hindenburg, tired of the street violence, thought that if he appointed Hitler Chancellor, that would be enough for the “Bohemian Corporal.” Within a year he was dead, and Hitler folded the powers of the Presidency into the Chancellery. Adolf Hitler was the Führer of Germany.

In 1932, German President Paul von Hindenburg was asleep in his home. His son woke him with the news that he had defeated Nazi Party leader Adolf Hitler and reelection to the Presidency. “It will still be true in an hour,” he said as he went back to sleep. Dismissive of the “Bohemian Corporal” as he called Hitler, Hindenburg hoped making Hitler Chancellor in January 1933 would appease and quiet him. A year later he was dead, and Hitler folded the powers of the Presidency into his own. He became Führer, or leader, of all of Germany. He proclaimed the Third Reich, following a history theory that German unity would be achieved in the Third Kingdom. After The Holy Roman Empire and Otto von Bismarck, Adolf Hitler proclaimed his rule would last a thousand years.

The Nazis had always used violence to intimidate their opponents, and once Hitler took office this did not change. In 1933 Buchenwald Concentration Camp was opened for political prisoners, and after Hitler became the supreme power thousands were sent there. At first Jews were not sent; the Nazis first focused on the intelligentsia and their political enemies.

In March 1933 the Reichstag was set afire in circumstances that remain mysterious. The Nazis blamed the Communists and history has blamed the Nazis. This last institution of the Weimar Republic was shut down, and Hitler used this as an excuse to condemn Communists and socialists to prison.

Hitler and the Nazis moved against those least likely to defend themselves. Disabled and mentally retarded Germans were sent away to special “hospitals” where they were forcibly sterilized and eventually killed.

Goebbels, his Minister of Propaganda, gave out radios to the populace and used the mass media to misinform German citizenry. All non-Nazi organizations were banned. Church youth groups, farmers’ unions, labor unions, all were made into affiliates of the Nazi Party. The Hitler Youth, organizations for children, practiced extreme anti-Semitism and a highly militaristic regimen. Gender segregated, the young girls were taught to express their Teutonic virtue in motherhood, and to give Greater Germany children. The boys played military games, learned map reading, glider training, and field maneuvers. Every organization, from miners to mothers, held Hitler in cult-like fascination. His memoir from prison after the failed Beer Hall Putsch of 1923, Mein Kampf (My Struggle), sold thousands of copies.

On April 1, 1933, the Nazis organized a boycott of Jewish businesses. The Sturmarbeitelung (SA — Storm Troopers) stood in front of Jewish businesses and intimidated anyone attempting to enter. The next week Jews were removed from civil service positions. With the year, “non-Aryans” — anyone with one Jewish parent or grandparent — were removed from practicing professions like law, banking, medicine, and journalism.

In 1934, the real moves towards the future of Germany began. Thousands of Nazis belonged to the SA. Essentially street thugs in brown shirts, the SA had carried Hitler into the Chancellery with their fists, intimidating or killing his enemies. Led by Ernst Röhm, the SA was powerful enough to displace Hitler if they so desired, and thus became a threat. Also, Hitler could never gain control of the Army until he eliminated the SA as a threat to the thoroughly Prussian Officer corps. On June 30, 1934, during the “Night of Long Knives,” Röhm and several other SA leaders were summoned to a villa outside Berlin, where they were arrested. Hermann Goering and Heinrich Himmler, envious of Röhm’s intimacy with Hitler, accused him of being a homosexual. He was taken to prison, where he was beaten and told to confess. When he would not, he was offered a pistol, when he did not commit suicide, the door was thrown open and he died in hail of gunfire. Hitler gained the support of the Army, who signed a pledge of allegiance to him. They were allowed to keep the traditional salute instead of the Nazi “Sieg Heil!”

Frustrated with the lack of economic progress under the Weimar Republic, the Junkers, or manufacturing conglomerates, secretly supported the Nazis, who advocated rearmament. Some bankers also supported the Nazis, thinking they would get the freedom to trade they could not get under Weimar law. This union of capitalism and Nazism was key to giving the Nazi Party the funding to gain seats in the Reichstag and eventually control all of Germany.

In 1935 the Reichstag rubber-stamped the Nuremberg Laws, which made Jews Staatsangehörige, foreign subjects under state control. Marriage was prohibited between Jews and Aryans; racial “science” was compulsory; so was membership in the Hitler Youth. 129,000 Jews fled Germany between 1933 and 1937. They had great difficulty finding a place to live. Most countries did not accept them willingly.

Charles Lindbergh and his wife Anne briefly considered living in Germany during his tour in 1937. She was shocked by the overt racism of the German public. Lindbergh, who admired the Nazis, was on a goodwill tour and was secretly there to analyze the Luftwaffe for the United States government. He appreciated the renewed spirit of Nazi Germany. The anti-Semitism of Berlin under the Nazis appalled Anne Morrow Lindbergh, house-hunting with their second child.

Hitler’s first step towards his goals outlined in Mein Kampf was the remilitarization of the Rhineland. As a consequence of the Versailles Treaty, the French had occupied the Rhineland since the end of World War I. A newly rearmed Wehrmacht moved into the Rhineland on March 6, 1936. The army had orders to retreat if the French showed any resistance whatsoever. However, many international leaders saw the reoccupation as a positive conclusion of the unfair terms of the end of the war. Little international criticism allowed Germany to stay. The French were worried, and intended to compel Britain to honor her pledge of support against aggressors. British Foreign Minister Anthony Eden, recommending that England not get involved, wrote of France: “The trouble is that we are in a bad position to browbeat her into what we think reasonableness, because, if she wishes to do so, she can always hold us to our Locarno obligations and call upon us to join with her in turning the German forces out of the Rhineland.” France never made the call. The first step to greater Germany had been achieved without any blood.

The Olympic Games of 1936 would become known as the Nazi Olympics. Hitler staged elaborate ceremonies, which included a parade of ethnic Germans from around the world. Hitler had hoped that German athletes would sweep the games, but was increasingly frustrated by black athletes from the United States. Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals at the games, was not received by Hitler, who avoided all the athletes the day Owens set a new long jump record. The games marked the high point of world acceptance for Nazi Germany. The Nazis portrayed Germany as a nation reborn, dealing with the depression better than the western democracies. Hitler enjoyed the public attention and the prestige of their location in Germany. Few people guessed it would be twelve years before the world would meet for Olympic games again.

Also in 1936, the Germans joined Hitler’s role model, Mussolini, in sending troops to fight in Spain for Spanish General Francisco Franco. Over 18,000 Germans fought on the ground and in the air, trying out the new weapons coming out of the Junkers industrial conglomerates.

Germany was well on the way to rearmament when Hitler looked to Austria as the next step in his plan. Anschluss, or reunification, was a dream of Hitler’s for years. He had spent much time in Vienna after the war, and was very familiar with their culture. Hitler began agitating for reunification in 1934 by fermenting civil war. When this tactic failed, Hitler begrudgingly recognized Austrian independence while secretly working to undermine the government. Austrian Chancellor Kurt von Schuschnigg met Hitler at Berchtesgarden on February 12, 1938. Hitler demanded that Nazis in Austrian prisons be released and Nazi officials appointed to key positions. Schuschnigg relented, and Hitler told him that the agreement meant peace for “five years.”

But Hitler kept demanding Anschluss. Schuschnigg decided on a national vote to let Austrians decide if they wanted to reunify with Germany. Hitler challenged the vote, demanded and got the resignation of the Austrian government and even before he got it German troops entered Vienna. Again, the Western powers did nothing, fearing an open confrontation with Germany would lead to war. Again, many felt that Germany was righting the wrongs of the Versailles Treaty.

Thousands of Austrian Jews fled the Nazi occupation. Sigmund Freud went to England, where he died in 1939. His family felt it was due to emotional and physical stress of his escape, which aggravated his cancer. Baron Louis Rothschild lost part of his fortune as he left, paying the Gestapo $12,000,000 to leave. The Jewish population of Vienna went from 250,000 to 135,000 by July 1939.

At home, the anti-Semitic fervor reached new heights. Jews were targeted on November 9, 1938 in what came to be known as Krystallnacht as the night of broken glass. After the murder of a German diplomat in Paris by an expatriate German Jew, the SS and SA followed precise orders and burned 200 synagogues and 7,500 Jewish business and warehouses. 200 Jews were killed. The Nazis paid insurance claims, and then confiscated the money. Soon the German Jews would be deported to the camps.

Hitler was growing more and more confident. He had bullied, cajoled, and bluffed his way into reclaiming territories lost in the Great War. Now his eyes fell on the ethnic Germans in the Sudatenland in Czechoslovakia. If he could separate the Sudatenland from Czechoslovakia, then he could claim the whole country. This time Hitler was looking at land that did not belong to ancestral Germans.

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