A totalitarian regime 

History has repeatedly demonstrated mankind’s ability to facilitate the promotion of violent ideologies or authoritarian individuals into positions of power. However, regardless of their success or longevity, few have gained the notoriety of the Nazi party, led by Adolf Hitler.

Seizing on the weakness and instability of the post-First World War Weimar Republic which from its very inception, had struggled to govern an unhappy Germany. It had been hampered by a series of unstable governments, straddled with hefty reparations for its role in starting the previous conflict, a population resentful of these terms and external pressures from the impact of the Great Depression.

The Swastika: Hijacked as a symbol of the Nazi party, now forever associated with the brutal, racist ideologies of Adolf Hitler and his supporters.

From this turmoil, the fledgling Nazi party emerged, its aggressive nationalist views and increasingly antisemitic stance appealing to a growing number of disillusioned Germans. Under Hitler’s ruthless leadership, they steadily grew in power, gaining votes at virtually every election until Hitler took the reins of the Chancellorship.

From this position of power, the cast was set as Hitler now found his path clear to steer Germany on the path he wanted, a path which would inevitably lead to conflict with other nations and the outbreak of the Second World War.

Fall of the Weimar Republic

From 1919 to 1933, Germany was known as the Weimar Republic. It was a republic with a semi-presidential government. Hyperinflation, political radicalism, strained connections with the Allies who won World War I, and a string of failed coalition attempts by split political parties were just a few of the issues the Weimar Republic had to deal with. 

After the war, the German economy suffered severe setbacks in part as a result of payments for reparations mandated by the Treaty of Versailles. To pay off the nation's war debt, the government minted money, but the ensuing hyperinflation resulted in skyrocketing consumer goods prices, financial upheaval, and food riots. French troops took German industrial regions along the Ruhr when the government stopped making restitution payments in January 1923, which resulted in significant civil unrest.

A bank panic during the Great Depression. A crowd outside of a bank at Berlin, Germany, during the financial crisis., 13 July 1931.

Rise of the Nazi's

The Nazi Party, also referred to as the National Socialist German Workers' Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei), was established in 1920. It was one of numerous far-right political parties then operating in Germany, and it was the renamed successor of the German Workers' Party (DAP), founded a year earlier.  

The platform of the Nazi Party called for the overthrow of the Weimar Republic, rejection of the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles, extreme antisemitism, and anti-Bolshevism. They promised racial cleansing through the active suppression of Jews, who would be deprived of their citizenship and civil rights, as well as a strong central government, expanded Lebensraum (or "living space") for Germanic peoples and the creation of a national community based on race.

Adolf Hitler reviews members of the SA from his car at Nurnberg in 1930.

Imperial War Museum

On October 24, 1929, the American stock market crashed, with disastrous consequences for Germany. Millions of people lost their jobs, and several significant institutions failed. Hitler and the Nazis got ready to use the crisis to advance their political agenda. They committed to boosting the economy and creating jobs.

Many supporters believed the Nazi Party could bring about order, put an end to instability, and enhance Germany's standing abroad. With 230 seats and 37.4% of the vote in the federal election of 1932, the party was the largest in the Reichstag.

A man steps out of a polling station, having cast his vote in the election that would officially bring the Nazis to power. Behind him, a man holds up a poster with Hitler's face. Berlin. 13th March 1932.


Hitler's ascent

From a corporal in the Imperial German army to failed artist to Chancellor of Germany. By any measurable standard, Hitler's rise to power was an impressive achievement, helped no end by the inherent instability and turmoil that existed in post-First World War German and the struggles of the Weimar Republic during the 1920's.

Hitler's German Workers' Party (DAP) membership card.

He joined the German Workers' Party (DAP), the forerunner of the Nazi Party, in 1919, and was chosen as its head in 1921. He attempted to overthrow the government in a failed coup in Munich in 1923 and received a five-year prison sentence. 

He penned the first book of Mein Kampf, (My Struggle) his autobiography and political manifesto, while incarcerated. Hitler garnered sympathy from the public after his early release in 1924 by criticising the Treaty of Versailles and advancing anti-communism, anti-Semitism, and pan-Germanism through charismatic oratory and Nazi propaganda. He regularly accused communism and global capitalism of being a Jewish plot.

Hitler started drawing regular audiences for his venomous remarks in beer halls.

As a demagogue, he mastered the use of populist themes, particularly the exploitation of scapegoats who were held responsible for his audience's financial difficulties.

Hitler exploited his charisma and awareness of the psychology of the audience to his advantage when speaking in front of an audience.

Hitler carefully cultivated his image as the Nazi Party leader as he came to see the propagandistic value of photographic publicity.

Heinrich Hoffmann, Hitler’s official photographer, created the images central to the growing "Führer cult." The photographs were designed to show a dynamic and forceful personality - a confident leader and one who can lead Germany back to greatness.

In 1927, Hoffmann snapped action shots - such as the ones below - of Hitler rehearsing his speech,

Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-10460 / Hoffmann, Heinrich / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Election successes

With virtually every election, the Nazis steadily grew in power.

Timeline: Nazi Path To Power (museeholocauste.ca)

Hitler becomes chancellor

In the two Reichstag general elections of 1932, the Nazis received the largest percentage of the popular vote, but they did not win a majority.

As a result, Hitler presided over a transient coalition administration with the German National People's Party. Then – due to pressure from politicians, business leaders, and manufacturers resulted in Hitler being chosen chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933, by Paul von Hindenburg, the Weimar Republic's president and head of state.

Adolf Hitler and German president Paul Von Hindenburg, shortly after Hindenburg asked Hitler to become Chancellor of Germany. in 1933.

Bundesarchiv Bild 183-S38324

Reichstag Fire

The Reichstag was set on fire on the evening of February 27, 1933. A Dutch communist named Marinus van der Lubbe was convicted of igniting the fire. According to Hitler, the arson signalled the beginning of a communist rebellion.

Most civil liberties were repealed by the Reichstag Fire Decree, which was put into effect on February 28, 1933.

This included the freedoms of assembly and the press. The edict also permitted police to hold suspects without charges for an unlimited period of time.

A propaganda campaign was undertaken in conjunction with the legislation to increase popular support for it. 4,000 members of the Communist Party of Germany were detained as part of the SA's violent statewide repression of communists.

Marinus van der Lubbe (1909-1934). Photograph taken by the German police shortly after his arrest, February 1933.

Fotocollectie (nationaalarchief.nl)

The day after the Reichstag fire, the 28 February 1933, Hindenburg signed a decree giving Hitler emergency powers. This photograph was taken the same day, showing the Reichstag still burning.

The Wiener Holocaust Library Collections.

The Enabling Act

The Enabling Act, a revision to the Weimar Constitution, was approved by the Reichstag on March 23, 1933, by a vote of 444 to 94. Hitler and his cabinet were able to adopt laws thanks to this modification without the approval of the president or the Reichstag, including policies that went against the constitution. 

The Nazis utilised threats and the restrictions of the Reichstag Fire Decree to prevent some Social Democratic lawmakers from attending because the bill needed a two-thirds majority to succeed, and the Communists were already prohibited.

Hitler's Reichstag speech promoting the Enabling Act was delivered at the Kroll Opera House, following the Reichstag fire.

German Federal Archives

A one-party state

The Social Democrats' assets were taken by the government on May 10; they were outlawed on June 22. The German National People's Party, one of its previous coalition partners, was invaded by the SA on June 21. On June 29, the party disintegrated.

The other major political parties did likewise. Germany officially became a one-party state on July 14, 1933, when a law was passed declaring the Nazi Party to be the only legitimate party in the country. All surviving political parties that had not previously been disbanded were outlawed, and the creation of new parties was likewise rendered unlawful.

A Nazi Rally during the 1930's.

Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images

Total control

The Nazis started the Gleichschaltung ("coordination") process, which brought all facets of life under party control, by using the provisions of the Reichstag Fire Decree and then the Enabling Act. To align the states with the goals of the federal government, individual states that were not governed by Nazi-led coalitions or elected Nazi governments were coerced into accepting the appointment of Reich Commissars.

These Commissars had the authority to select and dismiss members of state legislatures, municipal governments, and courts.

Map of the administrative division of the Greater German Reich in 1944. The Gau system of the Nazi Party effectively replaced the federal structure of the country.

Bennet Schulte - Cartographer

As a result, Germany de facto became a unitary state, with the Nazis' central authority in charge of all state governments. In January 1934, all state powers were transferred to the federal government, abolishing the state legislatures and the Reichsrat (federal upper chamber).

All civic organisations, including as farming cooperatives, volunteer groups, and sports teams, had their leaders replaced by Nazi sympathisers or party members; these organisations either joined with the Nazi Party or faced dissolution.

The next day, SA stormtroopers destroyed union buildings across the nation, forcing all unions to dissolve and arresting their leaders. All educators, professors, judges, magistrates, and government employees who were Jewish or whose loyalty to the party was questionable were fired as a result of the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service, which was passed in April. This meant that the churches were the only non-political institutions free from Nazi rule.

The promulgation of the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service in the Reichsgesetzblatt, the public law journal.

ÖNB-ALEX - German Reichsgesetzblatt Part I 1867-1945 (onb.ac.at)

Nameplate of Dr. Werner Liebenthal, Notary & Advocate. The plate was hung outside his office on Martin Luther Str, SchönebergBerlin. In 1933, following the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service the plate was painted black by the Nazis, who boycotted Jewish owned offices.


Night of the Long Knives

From June 30 to July 2, 1934, a massacre known as the Night of the Long Knives claimed up to 200 lives. The SA leadership persisted in exerting pressure for more clout in politics and the military. Hitler's answer was to remove the whole SA leadership using the Gestapo and Schutzstaffel (SS).

Ernst Röhm, the SA's chief of staff, and other SA officials were targeted by Hitler, who also targeted several of his political rivals, including Gregor Strasser and former chancellor Kurt von Schleicher, who were all arrested and killed.  

Hitler's former ally and head of the SA, Ernst Rohm, (sitting to Hitler's left), was one of the most notable victims of the Night of the Long Knives.

Night of the Long Knives | BBC History Revealed Magazine October 2019 (pocketmags.com)

Death of Hindenburg

On August 2, 1934, Hindenburg passed away, and Hitler seized complete control of Germany by combining the president and chancellery's roles and authority.

On August 19, 1934, a national vote confirmed Hitler as Germany's lone Führer. Hitler was now in charge of a totalitarian Germany. He assumed the role of Supreme Commander of the armed forces as head of state.

The revised loyalty oath required by the new law required service members to swear allegiance to Hitler personally rather than to the state or the position of supreme commander.

In a plebiscite on August 19, 90% of voters accepted the merging of the president and the chancellorship.

Paul von Hindenburg

Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-C06886 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

The cult of Hitler

Hitler's person became the centre of all power, and his word became the supreme law. The government was not a well-organized, cooperative entity, but rather a tangle of factions vying for influence and Hitler's approval.

The Nazis used massive military spending and a mixed economy to end widespread unemployment and restore economic stability during the Great Depression. 

The identity of Hitler himself eventually became a key component of Nazi control over the German people and was based on the Führerprinzip, the idea that the leader is always right.

This idea was spread by relentless Nazi propaganda and reinforced by Hitler's apparent success in solving Germany's economic problems, his bloodless victories in foreign affairs prior to World War II, and his quick military victories in Poland and France in the early stages of the war.

Hitler was idolised as a multifaceted genius who was unfailing and had heroic, almost superhuman attributes. It served as a vehicle to bring the German people together behind the personality, beliefs, and objectives of Hitler and served as protection against the Nazi movement breaking up into rival factions.

A stable economy

The administration built major public works projects, like as the Autobahn, and carried out a huge, covert rearmament programme, creating the Wehrmacht (armed forces), using deficit spending (motorways). The regime became more popular as the economy stabilised.

Beginning in 1934, public works initiatives were carried out using deficit expenditure, resulting in the creation of 1.7 million new jobs by the end of that year alone.  Average pay started to increase.

This German propaganda chart is titled: “The people is master of its economy.” The text states that in 1870, Germans produced 50% of cloth, but only 5% in 1913. In 1933, the figure was 5.5%, rising to 22.3% in 1937. “Freeing labor from the Jewish-capitalist yoke caused the increase.

Nazi Economic Propaganda (calvin.edu)


The black, red, and gold tricolour flag was one of the Weimar Republic's symbols that was banned and replaced by new symbolism under the Nazi government. The former imperial tricolour of black, white, and red was reinstated as one of Germany's two official flags; the Nazi Party's swastika became the only national flag in 1935.

The "Horst-Wessel-Lied" ("Horst Wessel Song"), the party anthem, was adopted as a second national anthem.

A little girl attaches a bunch of flowers to a flag with a swastika on it held by a member of a local branch of the Nazi Party. Germany. 1935.

FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images


Racism, Nazi eugenics, and particularly antisemitism were key tenets of the regime's ideology. The Nazis believed that the Germanic peoples were the master race and the Aryan race's most pure offshoot. After the Nazis came to power, discrimination against and persecution of Jews and Romanis started in earnest. In March 1933, the first detention camp was built at Dachau. Many more would follow – better known as concentration or death camps.

Numerous laws outlining Jews' rights and status went into effect starting in April 1933. The Nuremberg Laws of 1935, which deprive them of their fundamental rights, were the culmination of these policies. The Nazis would rob Jews of their riches, their ability to marry non-Jews, and their ability to work in a variety of occupations (such as law, medicine, or education). The Nazis eventually decided that Jews should not be allowed to remain in German society or among German citizens.

Nazis place a sign on the window of a Jewish-owned store encouraging Germans to not shop there.
As conditions, economically speaking in particular, grew dire in post-war Germany, many people (especially the Nazis) began to use Jews as a scapegoat. Berlin. April 1933.

Wikimedia Commons

Jews, liberals, socialists, communists, and other undesirables and political opponents were jailed, banished, or killed. Christians who disagreed with Hitler's regime were persecuted, and many of their leaders were put behind bars.

Education prioritised population management, racial biology, and readiness for military service. Women had fewer options for careers and higher education. The Strength Through Joy programme managed recreation and tourism, and the 1936 Summer Olympics put Germany on the world scene.

In order to sway public opinion, propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels used movies, large-scale gatherings, and Hitler's mesmerising oratory. The government regulated creative expression, encouraging some forms of expression while prohibiting or discouraging others.

A large model of the German eagle, carrying a laurel wreath and swastika, passes by Hitler after he opened a Nazi art exhibition in Munich. 12th July 1938.

Keystone/Getty Images


Hitler declared that rearmament must start as soon as possible, if covertly at first, because to do otherwise would be against the Versailles Treaty.

This occurred in February 1933. Hitler expressed his wish for world peace in a speech before the Reichstag on May 17, 1933, and he agreed to President Franklin D. Roosevelt's proposal for armed disarmament provided that the rest of Europe followed suit.

Hitler withdrew Germany from the League of Nations and the World Disarmament Conference in October when the other European nations rejected his offer, arguing that it was discriminatory for the League's disarmament provisions to apply only to Germany. 95% of participants in a referendum in November favoured Germany's exit.

1st SS Division Leibstandarte "Adolf Hitler" marching past their leader and namesakeTens of thousands of Nazi troops paraded before Hitler in 1938 in Nuremberg.


Hitler informed his military leaders in 1934 that a conflict in the east should start in 1942. At the end of World War I, the Saarland, which had been governed for 15 years by the League of Nations, decided to join Germany in January 1935. Hitler announced the establishment of an air force and the expansion of the Reichswehr to 550,000 soldiers in March 1935. With the Anglo-German Naval Agreement, which was signed on June 18, 1935, Britain consented to Germany creating a naval fleet.

Hitler used the Franco-Soviet Treaty of Mutual Assistance as a justification on March 7, 1936, to order the army to march 3,000 troops into the demilitarised zone in the Rhineland, in violation of the Versailles Treaty, after the Italian invasion of Ethiopia was met with only mild protests from the governments of Britain and France. The governments of Britain and France did not believe that attempting to implement the treaty was worth the danger of starting a war because the land was a part of Germany.

The Heinkel He 111, one of the technologically advanced aircraft that were designed and produced illegally in the 1930s as part of the clandestine German rearmament.

Third Reich Color Pictures: Heinkel He 111 in Color

The Nazis earned 98.9% of the vote in the one-party election on March 29. Hitler signed an Anti-Comintern Pact with Japan and a non-aggression agreement with Mussolini in 1936, which led to Mussolini referring to a "Rome-Berlin Axis" shortly thereafter.

Hitler provided military aid and support to General Francisco Franco's Nationalist forces in the Spanish Civil War, which broke out in July 1936. A variety of aircraft and their crews, as well as a tank unit, were all part of the German Condor Legion. In 1937, Guernica was completely devastated by Legion planes. After winning in 1939, the Nationalists became a loose ally of Nazi Germany.

Territorial demands

Nazi Germany began to make more and more aggressive territorial demands in the latter half of the 1930s, threatening war if these demands were not realised. In 1935, a plebiscite resulted in the Saarland voting to rejoin Germany, and in 1936, Hitler ordered soldiers into the Rhineland, which had been demilitarised following World War I.

In the Anschluss of 1938, Germany annexed Austria and also demanded and acquired the Sudetenland portion of Czechoslovakia. The German Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia was created on the remaining captured Czech Lands in March 1939, and the Slovak state was proclaimed and made a client state of Germany at the same time.

Austria after the Anschluss: The building in the background has the words 'Ein Volk, Ein Reich, EIn Fuhrer' (One People, One Country, One Leader).

17 Color Photographs of the Anschluss in 1938 ~ Vintage Everyday   LIFE Magazine

Germany soon after exerted pressure on Lithuania to give up the Memel Territory. On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland despite having signed a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union, sparking the start of the Second World War in Europe.

Further reading

The first volume in Evans' trilogy on Nazi Germany, this book meticulously details the conditions and events in Weimar Germany that paved the way for Hitler's rise to power, providing a comprehensive background to the demise of the Second Reich.



King, Gary; Rosen, Ori; Tanner, Martin; Wagner, Alexander F. (December 2008). "Ordinary Economic Voting Behavior in the Extraordinary Election of Adolf Hitler" (PDF). The Journal of Economic History. 68 (4): 951–996. doi:10.1017/S0022050708000788. – Replication data

Summarized by: "Who Voted for Hitler?". The Wilson Quarterly. Summer 2009.

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Bennet Schulte – Cartographer


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Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-10460 / Hoffmann, Heinrich / CC-BY-SA 3.0