What do you need to rule the world? Think about it. An army? Money and influence? A nuclear arsenal? Or maybe, you just need a broken and defeated population scared of the future, a strong speaking voice, and the ability to project yourself as the solution.
World War Treaty
Exactly five years after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Germany realized that fighting was no longer an option, and signed the Treaty of Versailles put forward by the Allied Powers on 11th November 1918, formally ending the First World War. But armistice contained certain conditions that left breeding grounds for resentment. Known as the ‘War Guilt Clause’, Article 231 of the Treaty demanded that Germany accepts the responsibility of war, pay reparations to the allied powers, give away some of its colonies, and disarm itself. The imperial government had crumbled during the war years. Fearing a communist revolution, dominant left and right parties came together to form the parliamentary Weimar Republic.
Right from the start, the Republic was immensely unpopular among the German masses, seen as its first and primary role was to enforce the Treaty’s harsh clauses. Struggling with a weak economy, the country reached a tipping point with the Great Depression, with complete financial collapse. Amid this chaos, many nationalists and veterans found the situation to be deeply humiliating, believing (wrongly) that Germany could have won the world war had politicians and peace-mongering protesters not interfered.
Adolf Hitler, an Austrian and a soldier decorated for his service to the German Army during the Great War, these views resonated so deeply that they became a fanatic obsession.
To avenge the humiliation and to restore the Fatherland to its former glory, he attempted a coup to seize power in Munich from the Weimar Republic in 1923. The coup failed, and Hitler was jailed for treason. But the sentence had an opposite effect. He became known to the public as a nationalist and wrote his book Mein Kampf (My Struggle) during the nine months of being jailed. Hitler now had a new tactic. Instead of revolutionary methods, he decided to change the workings of the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei – NSDAP or the Nazi Party. They attacked the peace treaty and the Weimar Republic, advocated pan-Germanism and anti-Semitism, and insisted that they alone could help the masses.
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Hitler’s oratory style and speeches became his prime weapon. Both regarding content and delivery style, the statements were riveting, hit the people right in their fears and resentments, and detached the enemy – allied countries, and the Jews. Widespread and deep-rooted anti-Semitism was combined with extensive discontent. Both capitalism and communism were denounced as international Jewish conspiracies to oppress Germany, and the Jews were accused of war-profiteering and treason.
Posters, radio broadcasts, marches and false stories and rumors were widely circulated, increasing the Nazi party’s membership and supporters, as well as Hitler’s popularity. His ability to draw masses along with his flair for violence allowed him to climb the party ranks. This entire process itself became mythicized, and the Nazis called this period of growing power as the Kampfzeit (the time of struggle).
The start of the 1930s brought along great political turmoil. Violence increased in the streets, votes were polarized, and no single party was able to capture the government. Even with majority votes, they found the opposition’s influence too powerful. Hitler lost the Presidential elections of 1932, but received a large number of votes, demonstrating his power. His political rival and then President, General von Hindenburg reluctantly made Hitler the chancellor, hoping to stabilize the political scenario. Many civic and business leaders hoped to use Hitler as a puppet, channeling his popularity for their own means.
This marked the end of the ‘rise’ and the beginning of the plateau.
Hitler Rise to Power
On 27th February 1933, the Reichstag Building, home of the German parliament, was set on fire. The Nazis used this to spread paranoia and fear, and Hitler declared Emergency, suspending fundamental rights. Within months, political competition disappeared, press censorship was imposed, anti-Jew laws were passed, and Hitler’s supporters and paramilitary forces controlled the streets. When President Hindenburg died in August 1934, the Presidential powers were merged with the position of the Chancellor.
Hitler became the Fuhrer, leader of the Germany.
What followed next is history so completely seeped in black it is impossible to read and not be tainted by it.
Dictatorship of Hitler
But it is not the after that we wish to talk about. It is the before. It may be surprising, even shocking, to realize that Hitler was a democratically elected leader. People, no, the majority, supported him, revered him, respected him. In his early days, few hated him. Why? Hitler was not just a ruthless and bigoted man; he was also a brilliant strategist and politician. His entire career was built up by exploiting the people’s fears, making them afraid, and hitting them right where it hurt – on their past humiliations and failures.
But while he pointed all this out, he also gave them a silver lining. Himself. For every political, social, economic and international problem he talked of, there was only one person capable of solving the problem; he himself. In essence, Hitler told a broken, humiliated population what to think. He gave them the problem, their causes, and the solutions. All the people had to do was put faith in them.
The problem was of course, that his assessment of the circumstances was grossly flawed, rising out of his own delusions, bigotry, obsession for power, and desire for revenge for humiliation. He swept up an entire country on the promises of glory and restoration but instead took them through some of the darkest periods of human history. Hitler’s rise is a powerful example of the fact that public mechanisms in which we put so much faith, such as Democracy, can fail too.
Never again, people say. Look around you! Even today, people across all spheres continue to play on fears and project themselves as the only solution. You and I can listen and nod heads, either we can question. The choice we make could decide the future.