Few would have thought that the Nazi Party, starting as a gang of unemployed soldiers in 1919, would become the legal government of Germany by 1933. In fourteen years, a once obscure corporal, Adolf Hitler , would become the Chancellor of Germany.

World War I ended in 1918 with a grisly total of 37 million casualties, including 9 million dead combatants. German propaganda had not prepared the nation for defeat, resulting in a sense of injured German national pride. Those military and political leaders who were responsible claimed that Germany had been "stabbed in the back" by its leftwing politicians, Communists, and Jews. When a new government, the Weimar Republic , tried to establish a democratic course, extreme political parties from both the right and the left struggled violently for control. The new regime could neither handle the depressed economy nor the rampant lawlessness and disorder.

This site explores the consequences of Germany's defeat in WWI.

The German population swallowed the bitter pill of defeat as the victorious Allies punished Germany severely. In the Treaty of Versailles , Germany was disarmed and forced to pay reparations to France and Britain for the huge costs of the war.

This site contains the complete Treaty of Versailles as well as maps and related material.

The German Workers' Party , the forerunner of the Nazi Party, espoused a right-wing ideology, like many similar groups of demobilized soldiers. Adolf Hitler joined this small political party in 1919 and rose to leadership through his emotional and captivating speeches. He encouraged national pride, militarism, and a commitment to the Volk and a racially "pure" Germany. Hitler condemned the Jews, exploiting antisemitic feelings that had prevailed in Europe for centuries. He changed the name of the party to the National Socialist German Workers' Party, called for short, the Nazi Party (or NSDAP). By the end of 1920, the Nazi Party had about 3,000 members. A year later Hitler became its official leader, or Führer.

Adolf Hitler's attempt at an armed overthrow of local authorities in Munich, known as the Beer Hall Putsch , failed miserably. The Nazi Party seemed doomed to fail and its leaders, including Hitler, were subsequently jailed and charged with high treason. However, Hitler used the courtroom at his public trial as a propaganda platform, ranting for hours against the Weimar government. By the end of the 24-day trial Hitler had actually gained support for his courage to act. The right-wing presiding judges sympathized with Hitler and sentenced him to only five years in prison, with eligibility for early parole. Hitler was released from prison after one year. Other Nazi leaders were given light sentences also.

This site details Hitler's Beer Hall Putsch.

While in prison, Hitler wrote volume one of Mein Kampf (My Struggle) , which was published in 1925. This work detailed Hitler's radical ideas of German nationalism, antisemitism, and anti-Bolshevism. Linked with Social Darwinism, the human struggle that said that might makes right, Hitler's book became the ideological base for the Nazi Party's racist beliefs and murderous practices.

This site discusses many of the ideas contained within Mein Kampf.

After Hitler was released from prison, he formally resurrected the Nazi Party. Hitler began rebuilding and reorganizing the Party, waiting for an opportune time to gain political power in Germany. The Conservative military hero Paul von Hindenburg was elected president in 1925, and Germany stabilized.

Hitler skillfully maneuvered through Nazi Party politics and emerged as the sole leader. The Führerprinzip, or leader principle, established Hitler as the one and only to whom Party members swore loyalty unto death. Final decision making rested with him, and his strategy was to develop a highly centralized and structured party that could compete in Germany's future elections. Hitler hoped to create a bureaucracy which he envisioned as "the germ of the future state."

The Nazi Party began building a mass movement. From 27,000 members in 1925, the Party grew to 108,000 in 1929. The SA was the paramilitary unit of the Party, a propaganda arm that became known for its strong arm tactics of street brawling and terror. The SS was established as an elite group with special duties within the SA, but it remained inconsequential until Heinrich Himmler became its leader in 1929. By the late twenties, the Nazi Party started other auxiliary groups. The Hitler Youth , the Student League and the Pupils' League were open to young Germans. The National Socialist Women's League allowed women to get involved. Different professional groups--teachers, lawyers and doctors--had their own auxiliary units.

From 1925 to 1927, the Nazi Party failed to make inroads in the cities and in May 1928, it did poorly in the Reichstag elections, winning only 2.6% of the total vote. The Party shifted its strategy to rural and small town areas and fueled antisemitism by calling for expropriation of Jewish agricultural property and by condemning large Jewish department stores. Party propaganda proved effective at winning over university students, veterans' organizations, and professional groups, although the Party became increasingly identified with young men of the lower middle classes.

The Great Depression began in 1929 and wrought worldwide economic, social, and psychological consequences. The Weimar democracy proved unable to cope with national despair as unemployment doubled from three million to six million, or one in three, by 1932. The existing "Great Coalition" government, a combination of left-wing and conservative parties, collapsed while arguing about the rising cost of unemployment benefits.

Reich president Paul von Hindenburg's advisers persuaded him to invoke the constitution's emergency presidential powers. These powers allowed the president to restore law and order in a crisis. Hindenburg created a new government, made up of a chancellor and cabinet ministers, to rule by emergency decrees instead of by laws passed by the Reichstag. So began the demise of the Weimar democracy.

Heinrich Brüning was the first chancellor under the new presidential system. He was unable to unify the government, and in September 1930, there were new elections. The Nazi Party won an important victory, capturing 18.3% of the vote to make it the second largest party in the Reichstag.

The Great Depression has a large impact on Germany.

This is a description of the Nazi Party's 1930 campaign for Reichstag seats.

Hindenburg's term as president was ending in the spring of 1932. At age 84, he was reluctant to run again, but knew that if he didn't, Hitler would win. Hindenburg won the election, but Hitler received 37% of the vote.

Germany's government remained on the brink of collapse. The SA brownshirts, about 400,000 strong, were a part of daily street violence. The economy was still in crisis. In the election of July 1932, the Nazi Party won 37% of the Reichstag seats, thanks to a massive propaganda campaign. For the next six months, the most powerful German leaders were embroiled in a series of desperate political maneuverings. Ultimately, these major players severely underestimated Hitler's political abilities.

A more complete account of the complexity of German politics in 1932 is available.

Interactive quiz on the rise of the Nazi Party.

Lesson plans, discussion questions, term paper topics, reproducible handouts, and other resources for teaching about the rise of the Nazi Party are available here.

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A Teacher's Guide to the Holocaust
Produced by the Florida Center for Instructional Technology,
College of Education, University of South Florida © 2005.

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