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1933: Hitler Comes to Power

Seventy-five years ago, Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany, and a 12-year reign of terror across Europe began. Could history repeat itself?

By Patricia Smith

On the evening of Jan. 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler, the newly appointed Chancellor of Germany, stood in a government building at an open window watching a torchlight parade of 25,000 Nazi troops march through the streets of Berlin. Thousands of Germans cheered as they marched by, and Hitler was giddy with delight. "No power on Earth will get me out of here alive," someone heard him say.

Earlier that day, the President of Germany, Paul von Hindenburg, had appointed Hitler Chancellor (similar to Prime Minister). Having won more than than 37 percent of the vote in the previous year's legislative elections, Hitler's Nazi party had enough power to effectively paralyze Germany's democratic government, which had been in place since 1919. Hindenburg hoped that by appointing Hitler, he could satisfy Nazi legislators and break the deadlock, while maintaining control of the government behind the scenes.

His miscalculation led to disaster for Germany, for Europe, and for the world.

How was Hitler, probably the most ruthless dictator of the 20th century, able to come to power in a democratic Germany 75 years ago? And could something like it happen again? To think about these questions, it helps to understand the circumstances in Germany at the time that helped Hitler and his Nazi party gain power.

Impact Of Versailles

By the early 1930s, Germany was in desperate shape. Its defeat in World War I and the harsh conditions imposed by the United States, Britain, and France in the 1919 Treaty of Versailles—including debilitating reparation payments to the victors—had left Germany humiliated and impoverished, with ruinous inflation eating away at its economy. The worldwide Depression that followed the 1929 U.S. stock market crash exacerbated the situation as banks failed, factories closed, and millions of people lost their jobs.

It all made for fertile ground for Hitler's radical nationalist ideology. The Nazis (short for National Socialists) promised to stop reparation payments, to give all Germans jobs and food, and to make them proud to be German again. And they blamed Jews for most of Germany's problems.

By 1930, when the Nazis won 18 percent of the vote, it was effectively impossible to govern Germany without Nazi support, according to Ian Kershaw, a history professor at Sheffield University in England. And that led to President Hindenburg's gamble to appoint Hitler Chancellor in January 1933.

Less than a month later, Hitler used the fire that destroyed the Reichstag, the parliament building in Berlin, as an excuse to declare a state of emergency and suspend democratic protections such as freedom of speech. (At the time, Hitler blamed the Communists, but many historians believe the Nazis set the fire themselves.) It marked, in effect, the death of German democracy and the beginning of Hitler's reign of terror.


Within months, the first concentration camp was opened in the Bavarian town of Dachau. The first prisoners were political opponents of the regime. But it wasn't long before other groups that the Nazis deemed undesirable were rounded up and sent away: in particular, Jews, homosexuals, and gypsies.

The SS—Hitler's elite paramilitary force—had long been terrorizing Germany's Jews, beating them up and vandalizing their businesses. The Nazis believed that Germans, part of what they called the Aryan race, were racially superior to Jews. In 1935, their racist beliefs became official German policy with the passage of the Nuremberg laws, which stripped German Jews of citizenship and laid the groundwork for the horrors to follow.

On Nov. 9, 1938, the Nazis orchestrated a nationwide wave of attacks on Jewish businesses, homes, and synagogues. Almost 100 Jews were killed, and thousands were arrested and sent to concentration camps. The night became known as Kristallnacht—the night of broken glass.

At the same time, Hitler was moving Germany steadily toward war. In 1935, he began rebuilding Germany's military, in violation of the Versailles treaty. In 1938, he annexed Austria and the Sudetenland, a region of western Czechoslovakia where many ethnic Germans lived, making both part of Germany.

Then, on Sept. 1, 1939, Germany launched a surprise attack on Poland and conquered it so quickly that the term blitzkrieg, or "lightning war," was coined. On September 3, after Germany ignored their demands to withdraw, Britain and France declared war. World War II had begun.

By 1942, a year after Germany began implementing the Final Solution—detailed plans for the systematic extermination of all of Europe's Jews—it had conquered much of Europe, from France to the outskirts of Stalingrad in the Soviet Union (see map below). As more Jews came under their control, the Germans herded them into crowded ghettos in preparation for mass deportations to concentration camps across Europe, where they died of disease, starvation, and overwork, or were systematically murdered in the gas chambers. Six million Jews—the vast majority of Europe's Jewish community—ultimately perished in the Holocaust.

By the time the war in Europe (and in the Pacific, the war against Japan) ended in 1945, 48 million people worldwide had died, and much of Europe was in ruins.

These distant events still echo today. Indeed, with the world now facing great tensions and instability, the question of whether such a monstrous dictator could again come to power and threaten the world seems more relevant than ever, says Kershaw, the historian.

Lessons For Today

Around the globe, skilled politicians have been able to manipulate populist, nationalist, or racist feelings to advance authoritarian rule, according to Kershaw. In the 1990s, for example, the President of Serbia, Slobodan Milosevic, used nationalist rhetoric reminiscent of the Nazis to launch a campaign of ethnic cleansing and war in the Balkan region of Europe.

In recent years, President Vladimir Putin has gradually moved Russia in an authoritarian direction, and President Hugo Chávez has done the same in Venezuela, though his attempt to be named President for life was defeated in a referendum last year. In Zimbabwe, a once prosperous African nation now in ruins, President Robert Mugabe has used brutal force to stifle opposition and stay in power for 28 years.

But, as Kershaw points out, there are international organizations today that didn't exist in 1933—such as the United Nations and the European Union—that would put up some roadblocks to the rise of a dictator bent on world conquest.

Nevertheless, it's clear the world needs to stay on guard. "We always have to be watchful of a politician who announces that his country's destiny is determined by expansion, whether it's a land grab or a political and economic domination," says historian Peter Black of the Holocaust Museum in Washington. "Clearly, Hitler's statements as a politician were plenty concerning if people had taken them seriously."

Today, a key question for democracies is how to balance the fight against threats like Islamic terrorism with democratic freedoms. And that, Black says, is the second lesson to take from Hitler's rise to power.

"A politician who's prepared to sacrifice basic rights for security, that's something for a citizen of any democratic society to be concerned about," he says. "Whether you're looking at the Soviet Union or Germany, the move toward authoritarian dictatorship doesn't necessarily make the country more secure, and the cost to the population is very, very high."