Germany 1933: From democracy to dictatorship

In 1933, Hitler came to power and turned Germany into a dictatorship. How did the Nazi party come to power and how did Hitler manage to eliminate his opponents?

The weakness of the Weimar republic after WWI

Germany became a republic in 1919. After losing the First World War, Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated. Many Germans were dissatisfied with the new situation. They longed for a return to the Empire. Many people also believed that the ruling social democrats were to blame for losing the war. Nevertheless, things started to look up from the mid-1920s onwards.

And then in 1930, the global economic crisis hit. Germany could no longer pay the war debts stipulated in the Versailles Peace Treaty. Millions of Germans lost their jobs. The country was in a political crisis as well. Cabinets were falling, and new elections were held all the time. It seemed impossible to form a majority government.

The rise of the NSDAP

This was the backdrop to the rise of the German National Socialist Workers' Party (NSDAP). When it was founded in 1920, it was only a small party. But Hitler used his oratory talent to attract more and more members. The party was characterised by extreme nationalism and antisemitism.

In November 1923, Hitler even led a coup attempt. It was a complete failure. Hitler ended up behind bars and the court banned the NSDAP. At the end of 1924, Hitler was released after serving a relatively short sentence. However, his political career was not over. In prison he had written Mein Kampf, setting out his plans for Germany.

From then on, the Nazis were to stick to the law and try to gain power by means of elections. They benefited from the economic crisis that began by the end of the 1920s. The Nazis used the crisis to condemn the government and the Versailles peace treaty. Their strategy was effective. In the 1928 elections, the NSDAP gained 0.8 million votes; in 1930, the number had increased to 6.4 million.

The appeal of the Nazis

The fact that many Germans were attracted by the NSDAP was not only because of their party programme. The party radiated strength and vitality. Moreover, the Nazi leaders were young, quite unlike the greying politicians of the established parties. In addition, Hitler's image as a strong leader appealed to people. He was all set to unite the population and put an end to political discord.

The Nazis focused on voters from all walks of life, rather than on just one group, such as the workers or Catholics. They also attracted many people who had never voted before. Still, in November 1932 the party seemed to be past its peak. The economy was recovering, and the NSDAP received 11% fewer votes than in the July elections earlier that same year.

Hitler appointed Chancellor

The conservative parties did not manage to win enough votes. They pressured president Paul von Hindenburg to appoint Hitler chancellor. They hoped to form a majority cabinet with the NSDAP. The fact that they expected to use Hitler for their own agenda would turn out to be a fatal underestimation.

30 January 1933 was the day: Von Hindenburg gave in and appointed Hitler chancellor. ‘It is like a dream. The Wilhelmstraße is ours', Joseph Goebbels, the future Minister of Propaganda, wrote in his diary. So, although Hitler was not elected by the German people, he still came to power in a legal way.

National Socialist government: the Nazis share the power

The National Socialists celebrated their victory with a torchlight procession through Berlin. From the balcony of the chancellery, Hitler looked on approvingly. In spite of the glory, he was still far from being all-powerful at that point. The new cabinet counted only two NSDAP members, but Hitler succeeded in getting them appointed to important positions.

Hermann Göring’s role in particular was very important. He was a minister without portfolio who got to control the police force of Prussia, the larger part of Germany. For the Nazis, this was reason to celebrate their 'national revolution', but many Germans were indifferent to the news. They had seen many governments come and go and did not expect the new government to last any time at all.

Fire in the Reichstag: a first step towards the dictatorship

Before long, Hitler claimed more power. The fire in the Reichstag, the parliament building, was a key moment in this development. On 27 February 1933, guards noticed the flames blazing through the roof. They overpowered the suspected arsonist, a Dutch communist named Marinus van der Lubbe. He was executed after a show trial in 1934. Evidence of any accomplices was never found.

The Nazi leadership was quick to arrive at the scene. An eyewitness said that upon seeing the fire, Göring called out: ‘This is the beginning of the Communist revolt, they will start their attack now! Not a moment must be lost!' Before he could go on, Hitler shouted: 'There will be no mercy now. Anyone who stands in our way will be cut down.’

The next morning, President Von Hindenburg promulgated the Reichstag Fire Decree. It formed the basis for the dictatorship. The civil rights of the German people were curtailed. Freedom of expression was no longer a matter of course and the police could arbitrarily search houses and arrest people. The political opponents of the Nazis were essentially outlawed.

Oppression of all opponents

In this atmosphere of intimidation, new elections were held on 5 March 1933. The streets were full of Nazi posters and flags. Nevertheless, the great victory hoped for by the Nazis did not materialise. With 43.9% of the votes, the NSDAP did not have a majority. The left-wing parties KPD and SPD together still got 30% of the votes.

Meanwhile, the arrests and intimidation were on the increase. The government banned the Communist Party. By 15 March, 10,000 communists had been arrested. In order to house all these political prisoners, the first concentration camps were opened. The circumstances in the camps were atrocious. People were ill-treated, tortured, and sometimes killed.

Jews and well-known Germans in particular had a rough time of it. SS guards at the Dachau camp, near Munich, for instance, took four Jewish prisoners outside the gates, where they shot them dead. The guards then claimed that the victims had tried to escape.

Hitler gains more power

On 23 March 1933, the Reichstag met in Berlin. The main item on the agenda was a new law, the 'Enabling Act'. It allowed Hitler to enact new laws without interference from the president or Reichstag for a period of four years. The building where the meeting took place was surrounded by members of the SA and the SS, paramilitary organisations of the NSDAP that had by now been promoted to auxiliary police forces.

In his speech, Hitler gave those present the choice between 'war and peace'. It was a veiled threat to intimidate any dissenters. The process was by no means democratic. With 444 votes in favour and 94 against, the Reichstag adopted the Enabling Act. It was to form the basis of the Nazi dictatorship until 1945.

Gleichschaltung of society

Now that Hitler had become so powerful, it was time for the Nazis to bring society in line with the Nazi ideal. The process was known as Gleichschaltung. Many politically-suspect and Jewish civil servants were dismissed. Trade unions were forcibly replaced by the Deutsche Arbeitsfront. This allowed the Nazis to prevent workers from organising any opposition.

All existing political parties were banned. From mid-July 1933 onwards, Germany was a single-party state. Cultural and scientific ‘cleansings’ were carried out as well.

According to the Nazis, everything ‘un-German' had to disappear. Books written by Jewish, left-wing, or pacifist writers were burned.

Oppression of the Jews

While the Nazis took over, their destructive energy was mainly directed against their political opponents. The German Jews formed the exception. As a group, they did not oppose the ambitions of the Nazis. Nevertheless, they were the constant victims of violence, harassment, and oppression. As early as 1 April 1933, the government took official action against the Jews. It announced a major boycott of Jewish products. It was the first step in a series of anti-Jewish measures that would end in the Holocaust.

Hitler the autocrat

After taking power, Hitler and the Nazis turned Germany into a dictatorship. Time and again, they used legal means to give their actions a semblance of legality. Step by step, Hitler managed to erode democracy until it was just a hollow facade. Things did not end there, though. During the twelve years that the Third Reich existed, Hitler continued to strengthen his hold on the country.

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  1. Berlin street housing the administrative centre (the Chancellery, among others) of Germany.
  2. Quotes from Rudolf Diels, Lucifer Ante Portas. Zwischen Severing und Heydrich (1949), p. 142-144; see: