EVALUATE THE SUCCESS OF THE NAZI PARTY IN TRANSFORMING GERMANY INTO A TOTALITARIAN SOCIETY IN THE PERIOD 1933-1939.’
Germany under Nazi rule, through the years 1933-39 contained many ‘totalitarian’ aspects to its regime, but for it to be exclusively described as totalitarian would not be accurate. Critics of the concept of totalitarianism often argue that there is no clear distinction between totalitarian and authoritarian regimes but merely ones created to make it seem that these two concepts of power are in fact diverse. The Nazi Party lacked in organisation and unity which would be expected of a totalitarian state, this is not to say that Nazi Germany did not contain numerous aspects that would support the idea that in fact it was a totalitarian society. Italian Fascist philosopher Giovanni Gentile states that a totalitarian state is “nothing beyond the state; nothing against the state; nothing outside the state”. These aspects of a totalitarian society crushed the lives of many Germans, but was generally accepted and welcomed by much of the population, due to the unstable state of the former European superpower. Whilst the Nazi Party always aimed to make the nation one of a totalitarian society it was never completely able to capitalise on its plan, this was a direct result of the enemies the party had gained throughout its propel into power. However historian John Stuart Mill states that “as an ideal totalitarianism seeks to bring the state and its apparatus of control into many aspects of private life, such as the family and religion, seeking to mold people’s interests and cultural pursuits”, which is exactly what Hitler was successfully able to achieve through his Hitler’s youth programs as well as numerous incentives proposed to family units in Nazi Germany.
The National Socialist German Worker’s Party, led by the notorious Adolf Hitler, originated as a political party in 1920 and was soon to capture the nation of Germany with its extremist policies. Under the leadership of Hitler the Nazi Party was able to rule Germany by totalitarian means throughout the period in which they were elected into power. Hitler became the leader of this right wing political party in 1921 after being recognised as a persuasive and empowering speaker that would be able to influence the minds of the currently susceptible German people. He was the front man of the party and through his infamous speeches was able to gain attention from the media, government and citizens of Germany. After appointing Josef Goebbels as head of Propaganda, The Nazi Party was soon to be recognised and somewhat feared throughout the already unstable nation. Goebbels’s use of marches, and propaganda events, excited the citizens of Germany and was able to transcend a sense of pride through the nation eventually to become the Nazi Party’s most valuable tool in their attempts to create a totalitarian society. Unlike other political parties the Nazis offered those in Germany a scapegoat, a reason as to why Germany had lost its superpower title. The right-wing Party proclaimed hatred, amenably, of Communism, Jews, the Treaty of Versailles and were open about their policies to conquer the Weimar Constitution. Through the 1920’s many of their extremist policies were not well received by the German public, but as weaknesses of the Weimar Constitution appeared to unveil, the popularity of Hitler and his right-wing political party increased.
In the May 1928 elections the Nazi Party only managed to secure 12 seats in the Reichstag, 2.6% of the vote. They realised that a shift in their target audience was warranted and aimed to acquire votes from rural and small town areas. Goebbels’s Propaganda proved to be effective at winning over university students and the party became increasingly popular amongst young men of the lower middle class. The party’s efforts were to be recognised in the September 1930 elections, where they managed to receive 18.3% of the vote, making it the second largest party in the Reichstag. Prior to the March elections, Hitler, at the hands of President Hindenburg was announced Chancellor of Germany. January 1933 was to be a pivotal and soon to be detrimental decision made by the President.
Hitler and the Nazi Party first began to make its vast political impact on 27th February 1933, when Dutch Communist Marinus Van der Lubbe was convicted of burning down the Reichstag. This was an opportune time for the Nazis, as its major competition for political power in government was the Communist Party. Hitler took control of investigating the fire and became somewhat a national hero when he was successful in attaining a confession from Van Der Lubbe. An election was shortly called after, in March, whereby Hitler’s party received 44% of the vote making it the largest party and giving Hitler almost complete control in the Reichstag. This was the Nazi Party’s first step into attempting to turn Germany into a totalitarian state. Most historians would agree that the fire was a great catalyst for Adolf Hitler to issue more laws, which in turn helped him into power in the following elections. It is to be acknowledged that Hitler never seized control illegally but in fact was able to democratically gain control in the Reichstag and secure loyal and fanatic supporters throughout the nation. In 2001 four leading German historians; Hersch Fischler, Jurgen Schmaedeke, Alexander Bahar and Wilfred Kugel concluded that the Nazis were to blame for the destruction of the Reichstag, which continues to be a controversial topic in German history. Following the fire, in the March 1933 elections once the Nazi Party joined with the Nationalist Party they had the overall majority in the Reichstag. Days after the Nazi party gained power, Hitler introduced numerous ‘totalitarian’, extremist policies into the lives of German citizens. 18 days after the general election on 23 March 1933, The Reichstag voted to give Hitler the power to make his own laws without consulting the Reichstag. This law was named the ‘enabling act’, ultimately giving Hitler dictatorial legislative power and was the second major step through which Hitler obtained emergency powers using legal methods.
By April, Nazis had taken over local government and police, subsequently launching their plan to make Germany a Nazi nation by replacing anyone in professions related to education who were against the regime with pro-Nazi teachers and university professors, this later extended into doctors, lawyers and just about any profession that had any influence over the public under the ‘Nuremberg laws’. Hitler’s first mechanism of fear was introduced once the Nazi Party set up the Gestapo (secret police). By 1933 tens of thousands of Jews, Communists and political opposition had been sent to concentration camps for minor crimes. In May 1933, all trade unions were banned, their leaders put in prison and in its place Hitler implemented the German Labour Front, which ultimately stripped workers of their right to strike and reduced pay significantly. In July Hitler’s first step to creating a totalitarian society was introduced as all political parties were banned as a law against the formation of parties was declared, making the Nazi Party the only political party in Germany. This was further strengthened on 30 June 1934, which was later to be known as The Night of the Long Knives, which successfully removed any remaining political threats to the Nazi regime. This included the leader of the SA Ernst Röhm, who had control over the 1 million SA soldiers and been targeted by Goebbels and Himmler as a potential threat to Hitler’s new found position as Führer. By 1934 Hitler appeared to have complete control over Germany, however with such arbitrary power comes the fear that those around him were plotting against him, which directly led to the murder of Ernst Röhm. Ultimately this night, which left hundreds dead, led to the SA becoming a part of the German army and them swearing an oath of allegiance to Hitler, their Führer. The shocking part of this event is that many men who were killed in the rampage had no connection to the SA or Röhm but were still viciously attacked and convicted of treason, to this day many historians are still confused as to why Hitler believed Röhm was planning a revolution, where there was clearly no evidence to support this theory. Not only was the Night of Long Knives a turning point for the party but also it was a direct triumph and depiction of Hitler undoubtedly asserting his authority.
For Nazi Germany to be a state under Totalitarian control it required the unchallenged devotion from the youth of Germany. In order for Hitler to gain the support, particularly of the youth of Germany, he introduced a range of ‘Hitler Youth’ programs. The Hitler Youth existed from 1922-1945 and was a way for Hitler to indoctrinate the youth of Germany, convincing them of the Nazi Party policies, particularly the idea of anti-Semitism. For boys Hitler Youth programs were a way to escape their daily lives and have fun with others their own age. By 1933, with the rise of Hitler into power, most of the competing political and religious youth organisations in Germany were abolished. Hitler specifically targeted the youth of Germany and on numerous occasions stated, “He alone, who owns the youth, gains the future”, Hitler understood that if he trained the children of Germany he would have a prosperous future, with little competition from those against the regime. Hitler was open about his plan to capture the youth and responded to opposition with an assured nature; When an opponent declares, "I will not come over to your side," I calmly say, "Your child belongs to us already... What are you? You will pass on. Your descendants, however, now stand in the new camp. In a short time they will know nothing else but this new community." There is no question that Hitler was extremely smart to target the youth, by 1936 membership in the Hitler Youth increased to 5.4 million, prior to it becoming compulsory for all children to be members in 1939.
An argument against Nazi Germany being a Totalitarian Society is that there were numerous bodies that had no official state or party role, but were considered “independent power bases which derived their authority directly from Hitler”. These bodies included; the Reich Ministry, SA and later the SS. Historian Kershaw states that the power these non-parliamentary bodies had, undermined the authority of the Nazi Party and Hitler himself. This view is further supported by Historian Evans as he states that the Nazi party was faced with a range of competing institutions each one of these having their own leaders; Himmler, Goebbels who were also competing to gain respect from Hitler and potentially acquire more power. These bodies were able to help Hitler and his party maintain control throughout the years, but did contest the perception that Nazi Germany from the years 1933-39 was a Totalitarian Society.
The SS increasingly became Hitler’s method to maintain control within Germany, the role of this independent body changed dramatically throughout the 30s, but by 1939 had assumed control of Nazi racial policy across occupied Europe. The Gestapo particularly, created a hostile and fearful society, as they were designed to detect anyone who spoke out against the regime. It created a complete loss of trust with Germans, for in a police state someone could and would be arrested if considered to be an enemy of the state. The Gestapo were everywhere, and were trained in their specific field, they were informers and if were to discover someone speaking out against Hitler or his policies would send the SS to their house where they would be arrested immediately and sent directly to prison. The SS controlled the courts, which meant that a fair trial would not be awarded to the accused and those would be forced to sign a D11 form, which stated that they could be taken in “protective custody”. The SS and Gestapo were a key part of the terror apparatus that Hitler created in the society; they effectively inflicted fear into the daily lives of citizens, creating a community that felt compelled to obey their committed Führer.
The concept of totalitarianism proves to be a controversial issue and one that divides the opinions of historians. According to Giovanni Gentile a totalitarian state is one “nothing beyond the state; nothing against the state; nothing outside the state”, if we go by this definition and the idea that totalitarian only exists if there is no competition to the existing system, it is evident that Hitler’s Germany contained many aspects of a Totalitarian Society. These aspects include, the censorship of the media, removing any form of freedom of speech, which allowed the government to have significant influence over public opinion. It is unarguable that Hitler had authoritarian control, Nazi Germany was a one party state, had complete control over media, systematic police control and total control over the army, however differing perspectives state that it was not totalitarian because the Nazi Party did not have absolute control over Germany’s economy. Under a totalitarian state the government virtually has complete control over the daily lives of its citizens and to say that Hitler and the Nazi party did not succeed in this feature through the years 1933-39 would be deceptive.