Hitler’s ideas included inequality among races, nations, and individuals as part of an unchangeable natural order that exalted the “Aryan race” as the creative element of mankind. According to Hitler, the natural unit of mankind was the Volk (“the people”), of which the German people was the greatest. Moreover, he believed that the state existed to serve the Volk—a mission that to him the Weimar German Republic betrayed. All morality and truth were judged by this criterion: whether it was in accordance with the interest and preservation of the Volk. Parliamentary democratic government stood doubly condemned. It assumed the equality of individuals that for Hitler did not exist and supposed that what was in the interests of the Volk could be decided by parliamentary procedures. Instead, Hitler argued that the unity of the Volk would find its incarnation in the Führer, endowed with perfect authority. Below the Führer the party was drawn from the Volk and was in turn its safeguard.
The greatest enemy of Nazism was not, in Hitler’s view, liberal democracy in Germany, which was already on the verge of collapse. It was the rival Weltanschauung, Marxism (which for him embraced social democracy as well as communism), with its insistence on internationalism and economic conflict. Beyond Marxism he believed the greatest enemy of all to be the Jew, who was for Hitler the incarnation of evil. There is debate among historians as to when anti-Semitism became Hitler’s deepest and strongest conviction. As early as 1919 he wrote, “Rational anti-Semitism must lead to systematic legal opposition. Its final objective must be the removal of the Jews altogether.” In Mein Kampf, he described the Jew as the “destroyer of culture,” “a parasite within the nation,” and “a menace.”
During Hitler’s absence in prison, the Nazi Party languished as the result of internal dissension. After his release, Hitler faced difficulties that had not existed before 1923. Economic stability had been achieved by a currency reform and the Dawes Plan had scaled back Germany’s World War I reparations. The republic seemed to have become more respectable. Hitler was forbidden to make speeches, first in Bavaria, then in many other German states (these prohibitions remained in force until 1927–28). Nevertheless, the party grew slowly in numbers, and in 1926 Hitler successfully established his position within it against Gregor Strasser, whose followers were primarily in northern Germany.
The advent of the Depression in 1929, however, led to a new period of political instability. In 1930 Hitler made an alliance with the Nationalist Alfred Hugenberg in a campaign against the Young Plan, a second renegotiation of Germany’s war reparation payments. With the help of Hugenberg’s newspapers, Hitler was able for the first time to reach a nationwide audience. The alliance also enabled him to seek support from many of the magnates of business and industry who controlled political funds and were anxious to use them to establish a strong right-wing, antisocialist government. The subsidies Hitler received from the industrialists placed his party on a secure financial footing and enabled him to make effective his emotional appeal to the lower middle class and the unemployed, based on the proclamation of his faith that Germany would awaken from its sufferings to reassert its natural greatness. Hitler’s dealings with Hugenberg and the industrialists exemplify his skill in using those who sought to use him. But his most important achievement was the establishment of a truly national party (with its voters and followers drawn from different classes and religious groups), unique in Germany at the time.
Unremitting propaganda, set against the failure of the government to improve conditions during the Depression, produced a steadily mounting electoral strength for the Nazis. The party became the second largest in the country, rising from 2.6 percent of the vote in the national election of 1928 to more than 18 percent in September 1930. In 1932 Hitler opposed Hindenburg in the presidential election, capturing 36.8 percent of the votes on the second ballot. Finding himself in a strong position by virtue of his unprecedented mass following, he entered into a series of intrigues with conservatives such as Franz von Papen, Otto Meissner, and President Hindenburg’s son, Oskar. The fear of communism and the rejection of the Social Democrats bound them together. In spite of a decline in the Nazi Party’s votes in November 1932, Hitler insisted that the chancellorship was the only office he would accept. On January 30, 1933, Hindenburg offered him the chancellorship of Germany. His cabinet included few Nazis at that point.
Hitler’s personal life had grown more relaxed and stable with the added comfort that accompanied political success. After his release from prison, he often went to live on the Obersalzberg, near Berchtesgaden. His income at this time was derived from party funds and from writing for nationalist newspapers. He was largely indifferent to clothes and food but did not eat meat and gave up drinking beer (and all other alcohols). His rather irregular working schedule prevailed. He usually rose late, sometimes dawdled at his desk, and retired late at night.
Once in power, Hitler established an absolute dictatorship. He secured the president’s assent for new elections. The Reichstag fire, on the night of February 27, 1933 (apparently the work of a Dutch Communist, Marinus van der Lubbe), provided an excuse for a decree overriding all guarantees of freedom and for an intensified campaign of violence. In these conditions, when the elections were held (March 5), the Nazis polled 43.9 percent of the votes. On March 21 the Reichstag assembled in the Potsdam Garrison Church to demonstrate the unity of National Socialism with the old conservative Germany, represented by Hindenburg. Two days later the Enabling Bill, giving full powers to Hitler, was passed in the Reichstag by the combined votes of Nazi, Nationalist, and Centre party deputies (March 23, 1933). Less than three months later all non-Nazi parties, organizations, and labor unions ceased to exist. The disappearance of the Catholic Centre Party was followed by a German Concordat with the Vatican in July. (See )
Hitler had no desire to spark a radical revolution. Conservative “ideas” were still necessary if he was to succeed to the presidency and retain the support of the army; moreover, he did not intend to expropriate the leaders of industry, provided they served the interests of the Nazi state. Ernst Röhm, however, was a protagonist of the “continuing revolution”; he was also, as head of the SA, distrusted by the army. Hitler tried first to secure Röhm’s support for his policies by persuasion. Hermann Göring and Heinrich Himmler were eager to remove Röhm, but Hitler hesitated until the last moment. Finally, on June 29, 1934, he reached his decision. On the “Night of the Long Knives,” Röhm and his lieutenant Edmund Heines were executed without trial, along with Gregor Strasser, Kurt von Schleicher, and others. The army leaders, satisfied at seeing the SA broken up, approved Hitler’s actions. When Hindenburg died on August 2, the army leaders, together with Papen, assented to the merging of the chancellorship and the presidency—with which went the supreme command of the armed forces of the Reich. Now officers and men took an oath of allegiance to Hitler personally. Economic recovery and a fast reduction in unemployment (coincident with world recovery, but for which Hitler took credit) made the regime increasingly popular, and a combination of success and police terror brought the support of 90 percent of the voters in a plebiscite.
On December 7, the next day, the Japanese attacked U.S. forces at Pearl Harbor. Hitler’s alliance with Japan forced him to declare war on the United States. From this moment on his entire strategy changed.
Meanwhile, Himmler prepared the ground for a “new order” in Europe. From 1933 to 1939 and in some instances even during the first years of the war, Hitler’s purpose was to expel the Jews from the Greater German Reich. In 1941 this policy changed from expulsion to extermination. The concentration camps created under the Nazi regime were thereby expanded to include extermination camps, such as Auschwitz, and mobile extermination squads, the Einsatzgruppen. Although Catholics, Poles, homosexuals, Roma (Gypsies), and the handicapped were targeted for persecution, if not outright extermination, the Jews of Germany, Poland, and the Soviet Union were by far the most numerous among the victims; in German-occupied Europe some six million Jews were killed during the war. The sufferings of other peoples were only less when measured in their numbers killed.
At the end of 1942, defeat at El-Alamein and at Stalingrad and the American landing in French North Africa brought the turning point in the war, and Hitler’s character and way of life began to change. Directing operations from his headquarters in the east, he refused to visit bombed cities or to allow some withdrawals, and he became increasingly dependent on his physician, Theodor Morell, and on the large amounts and varieties of medicines he ingested. Yet Hitler had not lost the power to react vigorously in the face of misfortune. After the arrest of Mussolini in July 1943 and the Italian armistice, he not only directed the occupation of all important positions held by the Italian army but also ordered the rescue of Mussolini, with the intention that he should head a new fascist government. On the eastern front, however, there was less and less possibility of holding up the advance. Relations with his army commanders grew strained, the more so with the growing importance given to the SS (Schutzstaffel) divisions. Meanwhile, the general failure of the U-boat campaign and the bombing of Germany made chances of German victory very unlikely.
Desperate officers and anti-Nazi civilians became ready to remove Hitler and negotiate a peace. Several attempts on Hitler’s life were planned in 1943–44; the most nearly successful was made on July 20, 1944, when Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg exploded a bomb at a conference being held at Hitler’s headquarters in East Prussia. But Hitler escaped with superficial injuries, and, with few exceptions, those implicated in the plot were executed. The reduction of the army’s independence was now made complete; National Socialist political officers were appointed to all military headquarters.
Thereafter, Hitler was increasingly ill; but he did not relax or lose control, and he continued to exercise an almost hypnotic power over his close subordinates, none of whom wielded any independent authority. The Allied invasion of Normandy (June 6, 1944) marked the beginning of the end. Within a few months, eight European capitals (Rome, Paris, Brussels, Bucharest, Sofia, Athens, Belgrade, Helsinki) were liberated by the Allies or surrendered to them. In December 1944 Hitler moved his headquarters to the west to direct an offensive in the Ardennes aimed at splitting the American and the British armies. When this failed, his hopes for victory became ever more visionary, based on the use of new weapons (German rockets had been fired on London since June 1944) or on the breakup of the Allied Powers.
After January 1945 Hitler never left the Chancellery in Berlin or its bunker, abandoning a plan to lead a final resistance in the south as the Soviet forces closed in on Berlin. In a state of extreme nervous exhaustion, he at last accepted the inevitability of defeat and thereupon prepared to take his own life, leaving to its fate the country over which he had taken absolute command. Before this, two further acts remained. At midnight on April 28–29 he married Eva Braun. Immediately afterward he dictated his political testament, justifying his career and appointing Admiral Karl Dönitz as head of the state and Joseph Goebbels as chancellor.
On April 30 he said farewell to Goebbels and the few others remaining, then retired to his suite and shot himself. His wife took poison. In accordance with his instructions, their bodies were burned.
Hitler’s success was due to the susceptibility of postwar Germany to his unique talents as a national leader. His rise to power was not inevitable; yet there was no one who equalled his ability to exploit and shape events to his own ends. The power that he wielded was unprecedented, both in its scope and in the technical resources at its command. His ideas and purposes were accepted in whole or in part by millions of people, especially in Germany but also elsewhere. By the time he was defeated, he had destroyed most of what was left of old Europe, while the German people had to face what they would later call “Year Zero,” 1945.
At the turn of the 21st century more books had been written about Hitler since his death than about Napoleon during the half-century after the latter’s demise. Time and distance from the events of World War II have also affected the historical interpretation of Hitler.