Loyalty can be your own downfall

National Socialism and World War II

Hans-Ulrich Thamer

To person

Born in 1943, is Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at the University of Münster. His main research interests are National Socialism and European Fascism.

Publications including: Seduction and violence. Germany 1933-1945, (The Germans and their Nation, Vol. 5), Berlin 1986; National Socialism, Stuttgart 2002.

"How was it possible?" This question has preoccupied historians, politicians and writers for decades and is the subject of controversial debates. Hans-Ulrich Thamer presents the various causes for the success of the National Socialists and explains why monocausal explanations fall short.

The crowd cheers the "Führer" on his drive to the Nuremberg town hall to open the 10th Nazi Party Congress in 1938. (& copy AP)

Causes of National Socialism

At the end of 1932, the liberal journalist and politician Gustav Stolper said he was able to predict the near end of National Socialism: "The year 1932 brought Hitler's good fortune and its end. On July 31st, his ascent had reached its climax, on August 13th the decline began, when the Reich President put the chair he did not offer him to sit in front of the door. Since then, Hitlerism has been in a collapse, the extent and speed of which is comparable to that of its own rise. Observers from almost all political camps shared this optimistic assessment at the time. Even if they turned out to be dramatic miscalculations a few weeks later, these considerations were not so absurd at first. Indeed, a few weeks before the transfer of power to its leader Adolf Hitler on January 30, 1933, the NSDAP found itself in one of the deepest crises in its short history.

Only six months later, the French ambassador in Berlin, André François-Ponçet, reported to his government in Paris about a speech given by Reich Chancellor Adolf Hitler on July 1, in which Hitler marked the successful conclusion of his "national revolution" and the transition to a new one Phase of National Socialist rule had announced: "In fact, at the time of his speech, Hitler could boast that he had destroyed, dispersed, dissolved, affiliated or absorbed everything that existed in Germany outside the National Socialist Party. One by one they had to Communists, the Jews, the socialists, the trade unions, the members of the "Stahlhelm", the German nationalists, the fighters from the front line of the "Kyffhäuserbund", the Catholics in Bavaria and in the Reich and the Protestant churches obey his law Hand. [...] A relentless censorship has completely tamed the press. [...] Hitler dominates d he individual German states by the governors whom he has placed at their head. The cities are from now on administered by mayors and councilors from among his supporters. The governments of the countries and the state parliaments are in the hands of his partisans. All public administrations have been cleaned up. The political parties have disappeared. [...] If you recall the situation as it existed on February 1st and the conditions under which Hitler became chancellor and the composition of the government he led and in which he was framed by men, who were given the task of directing and monitoring it, it will be agreed that the Fiihrer successfully carried out a lightning maneuver. The newspapers rightly write of the fact that in five months he has covered a distance for which (Italian) fascism took five years. [...] Adolf Hitler has won the game, and he won this game with little effort: he only had to blow - the building of German politics collapsed like a house of cards. "

What the French ambassador described here was the first phase of the National Socialist conquest of power, the speed and dynamism of which surprised and sometimes taken all contemporaries by surprise. Today, as then, the question arises as to how an established and differentiated system of political parties and social associations, of parliaments and administrations could collapse or give up itself in such a short time. The question also arises how the rapid and apparently unstoppable rise of a political agitator can be explained, who was a political and social nobody up to the age of 30 and who deeply shaped history in the remaining 26 years of his life. This period of time was marked by a German dictator who was able to count on the believing allegiance and willingness of the vast majority of Germans to agree almost to the end, who instigated genocide and a war and thus caused one of the greatest civilization ruptures of modern times. How could he, with his mass movement, bring a highly developed and modern industrial state with a great cultural tradition under his dictatorial power? How was it possible that the vast majority of Germans came to terms with this injustice regime? How could such criminal persecution and annihilation energies develop in such a society with its constitutional tradition and its technical-scientific efficiency, when the crime rate of this society was not higher than that in the other European countries?

Significance for the present

The question "How was Hitler possible?" has been one of the decisive questions of knowledge of our time from the time he developed his power to the present. Because behind the historical experience of the seizure of power by a radical fascist party and the dictatorial display of power of its "leader" there is always concern about the endangerment of the current democratic-humanitarian constitution through extremist propaganda and violence. The failure of the first German democracy in Weimar and the establishment of the National Socialist dictatorship have long since become the model case for the destruction of a democracy and the lure of a dictatorship in modern times in general. Because it is precisely the connection between fascination and violence, loyalty to the regime and the regime's policy of conquest and annihilation that is historically special about National Socialist rule and explains the horror that emanates from this historical experience. Knowledge of the mechanics of the seizure of power and the mode of action or consequences of the National Socialist dictatorship can therefore exemplarily explain the main features of totalitarian rule and illustrate the dangers to political freedom.

The causes and consequences of the National Socialist seizure of power have strained the collective memory of Germans and European neighbors who were victims of the policy of conquest and extermination, and shaped the political culture in post-war Germany. More than 50 years after the fall of the "Third Reich", the National Socialist past is still present and will remain so. Because the mass crimes committed by National Socialist Germany are too unique and unimaginable. Even if the facts have long been known, it will always be difficult to make the National Socialist policy of conquest and extermination comprehensible, to explain it with our linguistic and scientific means without playing it down.

Answers to the question of how all of this could happen can only be found if we explain the ideological-historical and mentality-related roots of National Socialism as well as the conditions for the increasing acceptance of its propaganda campaigns at the time, if we explain the critical escalation in politics, society and society Consider the economy of the Weimar Republic as a prerequisite for the rise of National Socialism to a mass movement and finally describe the gradual development of National Socialist rule.

It can be seen that Hitler's path to power was not a one-way street in German history, which necessarily led to his appointment as Chancellor on January 30, 1933 and to the other stages on the path to war and annihilation. Rather, there were nodes and turning points at which development could have been different, at which other decisions would also have been possible. Because National Socialism was neither a mere industrial accident nor did it come over the Germans with an irresistible force of nature. Many factors and constellations worked together, such as internal and external political structures and circumstances, people and their perception or their actions as well as misjudgments and coincidences. All of this made Hitler "possible" in the end and led to the fact that he was able to consolidate his dictatorship, that ideological concepts and empty words of propaganda were translated into political action; that, for example, anti-Semitic slogans and attitudes that had already been given for a long time and also elsewhere became the justification and guideline for the cruel policy of a millionfold genocide.

No simple explanations

Explanations for the mass effectiveness and the conquest of power by Hitler, for the way to the war and to Auschwitz were and are in large numbers. No epoch in German history has been researched as intensively as the Nazi era. Nevertheless, there are still unanswered questions and, above all, many and sometimes fierce scientific and historical-political controversies about Hitler and National Socialism. There is a reason for this in the many facets of National Socialist politics and propaganda itself, which hid its barbarism behind the lure of an apparent normality of civilization. Another reason is the singular historical appearance of National Socialism and its crimes, which in all attempts at a rational explanation always compels a moral evaluation, historical understanding and condemnation at the same time. But that is precisely what has to do with the viewer's political and cultural location.

In historical research, however, there is agreement that there are no simple explanations for the rise and fall of National Socialism, for the temptations and violence in the Führer state. Neither National Socialist ideology and propaganda alone can explain the mass effectiveness of National Socialism, because there was only proclaimed what could be heard elsewhere; nor can Hitler's supposed political genius or suggestive power, because even if this was constantly emphasized by the party propaganda, it first required corresponding expectations among the public in order to achieve a political effect. Even the terror of the Sturmabteilung (SA) cannot alone explain the rise of National Socialism. Neither are the political and social circumstances that are mentioned again and again: the Versailles Treaty (1919) and the Communist threat of revolution from Moscow, mass unemployment or the socio-economic interests of big industry and large landowners. None of these factors can be overlooked in a historical explanation, but on their own neither one nor the other is sufficient to explain the National Socialist rise to power or the policy of the Führer state. Rather, they interwoven with each other. In a two-pronged process of the decline or loss of power of democracy on the one hand and the political-social expansion of the National Socialist movement on the other hand, the political scope for action of first democratic, but then also conservative-authoritarian forces was increasingly restricted. This process was accelerated by political misjudgments, personal power struggles and intrigues.
Extract from:
Information on political education (Issue 251) - Causes of National Socialism