Unit 2 Nazi Germany 1933-1939

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The Reichstag Fire

  • Hitler moved almost immediately to gain an overall majority in the Reichstag, calling fresh elections for 5 March 1933. The burning of the Reichstag building on 27 February gave him the opportunity to weaken the Communists’ election campaign. Because a Dutch communist – Marinus van der Lubbe – was captured at the scene, the Nazis blamed the Communists for the blaze. However there remained the suspicion that the Nazis were involved.
  • Hitler used the fire to exploit Hindenburg’s fear of a communist takeover, persuading him to approve the decree For the Protection of People and State. This gave the government the power to suspend many civil rights. It violently disrupted the election campaigns of opposition parties and intimidated voters.
  • Despite their advantages, the Nazis failed to win an overall majority in the Reichstag, winning 288 seats. However, with the support of the Nationalist Party, the Nazis could now count on just over 50 per cent of the votes in the Reichstag. This left Hitler in a stronger position within the coalition and the cabinet.
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Enabling Act

  • Hitler moved to amend the Constitution to allow the government to introduce laws without the Reichstag’s approval for four years. This required the support of two-thirds of the Reichstag. Hitler therefore ensured that most opponents were not there to vote against the measure. 
  • With the Communist deputies already in jail, Hitler just needed the support of the Centre Party to achieve the two-thirds needed. This was achieved by a promise to protect the rights of the Catholic Church. When it came to the vote, only the Social Democrats opposed the measure.
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Within months, Hitler had eliminated most of the remaining political opposition in Germany as the government implemented a process known as Gleichschaltung (co-ordination of all aspects of life to fit in with Nazi ideals).

  • In April 1933 Jews and political opponents were removed from jobs in the civil service and legal profession. Key positions within Germany’s state governments were taken over by Nazis.
  • In May 1933 all trade unions were outlawed and replaced by a Nazi union, the DAF (German Labour Front).
  • In July 1933 Germany became a one-party state. However, by this stage there were few other parties to get rid of. The Social Democrats had already been banned, whilst the Centre Party had dissolved itself.
  • In January 1934 Hitler introduced the Law for the Reconstruction of the State. This abolished all of Germany’s state governments apart from Prussia’s, which was to be run by Herman Göring, a leading Nazi.
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Divisions within

Hitler’s position was still under threat; however, now the danger came from the SA, commanded for the last two years by Ernst Röhm. Under his leadership, the organisation had expanded to over two million members (some historians put it as high as 4.5 million).

Röhm believed that Hitler’s take-over would be followed by a second revolution in which the power of Germany’s economic old guard and the army would be shattered and the SA would become Germany’s new army. Röhm now wanted this second revolution to start. Röhm’s plans worried the army, which made clear its displeasure to Hitler. This concerned

Hitler for two reasons:

  • He feared the army. It was the only group that could challenge his power and authority.
  • He needed the army. Many of its leaders supported his foreign policy aims.

Hitler acted on the night of 30 June 1934, an event that became known as the ‘Night of the Long Knives’. Anyone he suspected of threatening his control of the party was eliminated. Key SA leaders, including Röhm, were executed. So too were a number of old political opponents, including General von Schleicher and Gustav von Kahr. In total, nearly 200 people were killed.

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  • With the SA threat gone, the only remaining obstacle was Hindenburg. He died on 2 August 1934. A day earlier, a new law was passed combining the posts of Chancellor and
  • President and giving all powers to Hitler, who would become Führer and Reich Chancellor. The army now demonstrated their gratitude to Hitler for the eradication of the SA threat by swearing an oath of personal loyalty to the Führer. From this point on, their fate was inextricably linked to his.

Hitler In Control- The Nazis sought the creation of a volksgemeinschaft (people’s community). Here, people would know their primary loyalty was to the state and to the Führer. Achieving this meant that all key institutions would come under Nazi control.

  • Reichsleiter – leading Nazis
  • Gauleiter – provincial leaders
  • Kreisleiter – regional leaders
  • Zellenleiter – cell leaders
  • Blockleiter – local leaders.
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One of the easiest ways of ensuring conformity was by winning the people over to the regime. This was the job of Dr Joseph Göbbels, Minister for Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda. One of the most spectacular propaganda methods the Nazis used were the annual Nuremberg rallies. Light, sound and costume were used to create a mesmeric atmosphere. Other smaller-scale rallies were held throughout the year. Control of the media was also a key aim. This was achieved in a variety of ways:

  • Most newspapers were bought up by Eher Verlag, the Nazi publishers.
  • Journalists had to be approved by the Nazis.
  • The Editors’ Law held editors responsible for the content of their newspapers.
  • Newspapers that printed stories the regime disapproved of were shut down.
  • Newspaper editors went to a daily Propaganda Ministry briefing to be told what to print.
  • All radio stations were brought under Nazi control.
  • People were encouraged to buy cheap radios made by the Reich Radio Company. These could only pick up Nazi broadcasts. By 1939, 70 per cent of households owned one.
  • Loudspeakers were erected in public places.
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The Propaganda Ministry also controlled censorship.

  • To this end, it censored cinema,theatre, music and literature, to ensure that they conformed to Nazi ideas. In May 1933, 20,000 books were symbolically burned in Berlin.
  • It is difficult to decide the extent to which ordinary Germans believed Nazi ideas. It is probably safe to say that Nazi propaganda helped reinforce existing beliefs but was lesssuccessful in trying to get people to accept new ideas.
  • Censorship ensured that the quality of much of Germany’s culture was damaged. Only in the area of cinema was high-quality work produced, particularly by Leni Riefenstahl.
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For the Nazis, a woman’s role was neatly encapsulated by the 3 Ks – Kinder, Kirche und Küche – Children, Church and Cooking. A number of strategies were implemented to achieve this:

  • Some women – particularly those married or in the professions – were forced from the workplace.
  • By giving every newly married couple a loan of 1000 marks, 25 per cent of which was written off for every child born, the Law for the Encouragement of Marriage of June 1933 encouraged women to marry and have large families.
  • Women who had large families were awarded the Mother’s Cross. They also received additional welfare benefits and were liable for lower rates of tax.
  • Contraception and abortion were made more difficult to obtain.
  • Divorce to end childless marriages was made easier.
  • Unmarried mothers were encouraged to live in homes (Lebensborn) where racially pure SS men could impregnate them.
  • These policies had mixed results. Although the birth rate had increased by 1939, it remained lower than it was during the ‘Golden Twenties’. A large number of women kept their jobs because of labour shortages, although the numbers of professional women did go down.
  • The numbers of women in jobs actually went up in the later 1930s as the drive for rearmament and autarky took off.
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The Nazis saw indoctrination of the youth as the key to their future control of the country.To this end they set about influencing children inside and outside school.

Inside School The Nazis:

  • dismissed Jewish teachers and those regarded as unreliable
  • encouraged teachers to join the NSLB (National Socialist Teachers’ League). By 1939, 97 per cent of teachers were members
  • Nazified the curriculum to reflect the importance of subjects such as History, Biology, Geography and PE
  • prepared boys for life in the military and girls for their role as mothers
  • established special schools (Napolas and Adolf Hitler Schools) to teach Germany’s future leaders. Boys identified as high fliers went to Ordensburgen (Castles of Order).
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Free Time- The Hitler Youth Movement was established to control the activities of young people outside the classroom. Led by Baldur von Schirach, membership became compulsory for certain ages in 1936 and others in 1939. There were a number of different sections to the movement, which again stressed the particular role of boys and girls in the future of Germany:

Age Boys’ Organisations Girls’ Organisations

6–10 Pimpfen (Cubs)

10–14- (Boys) Deutsches Jungvolk (Girls) Jung Mädel

14–18 Hitler Jugend (Hitler Youth) Bund Deutscher Mädel (League of German girls)

18–21 (Girls) Glaube und Schönheit

The Nazis’ youth policies had mixed results. Evidence suggests that the quality and breadth of education suffered badly. Nor were all young people enamoured with the Hitler Youth. A significant minority avoided joining the Nazi youth movements and instead established rival groups. The two most notable were the Edelweiss Pirates and the Swing Youth.

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In July 1933 an agreement (concordat) was signed with the Catholic Church. The Church agreed not to involve itself in politics in return for being allowed to retain control over its schools and youth groups. Initially this arrangement worked well, but by 1936 most of the terms were being flaunted. In 1937 Pope Pius XI responded by condemning the Nazi regime, whilst German Church leaders such as Bishop Clemens von Galen of Münster spoke out strongly against Nazi policies in areas such as euthanasia of the mentally ill.


The Lutheran Church was divided in its attitude to Nazism. Pro-Nazi Lutherans were known as the German Christians. They were led by Ludwig Müller, who became the first Reich Bishop in July 1933. In 1934 those Lutherans who disagreed with Nazism set up the Confessional Church. One of their leaders was Pastor Martin Niemöller who was arrested by the Nazis in 1937 and sent to Dachau Concentration Camp. The Nazis also set up their own Church, the German Faith Movement. This was based more upon pagan beliefs than Christian values, and attracted few members. Overall, the Nazis were unsuccessful in their aim of destroying religion; however they were able to reduce the influence of the Churches. 

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Anti Semitism

Once in power, Hitler wasted no time in putting his anti-Semitism into operation.

April 1933- Boycott of Jewish shops.

April 1933- Jews banned from government jobs.

October 1933- Jews banned from media jobs.

September 1935- Nuremberg Laws. There were two main elements:

• Jews deprived of many political and economic rights.

• Illegal for Jews and Aryans to marry or engage in sexual relations outside


1935- Jews banned from joining the army.

1936- Persecution of the Jews eased off during the 1936 Olympic Games, which were held in Berlin.

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Anti Semitism

1937-Jewish businesses confiscated.

1938-Jews had to carry identity cards and have their passports stamped with a Jshaped symbol. Jews forced to use new names: Israel for men, Sarah for women.

November 1938-The murder of a Nazi diplomat by a Jew in Paris on 7 November was the catalyst for a massive outbreak of anti-Jewish persecution. It became known as Kristallnacht. More than 400 synagogues and 7,500 shops were destroyed. Ninety-one Jews were killed and, over the following months, 20,000 were sent to concentration camps. The Nazis also fined the Jews one billion marks for the damage caused on Kristallnacht. They also had to clean up the streets.

November 1938- Remaining Jewish businesses confiscated or closed down.

1939- Jews encouraged to emigrate from Germany.

1939- Hitler spoke of future annihilation of Jews.

As with many European countries, anti-Semitism was common in Germany before 1933. A combination of support (especially resulting from propaganda), education, ignorance and fear ensured that persecution of the Jews was able to go ahead.

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The Police State

‘Protective Custody’- Just in case anyone remained unpersuaded by Nazism, the security and justice systems also came under state control. The decree For the Protection of People and State allowed for opponents to be arrested and placed in ‘protective custody’ in concentration camps, the first of which was established at Dachau in March 1933. While most early inmates tended to be political prisoners, before long, other groups suffered internment, including:

  • criminals/The ‘work shy’/gypsies/ homosexuals/the ‘anti-social’/Jews.

Between 1933 and 1939, over 200,000 Germans were convicted and imprisoned for political crimes. In the same period, over 160,000 Germans were placed in ‘protective custody’.

Security Forces- Following the Night of the Long Knives Heinrich Himmler’s SS became the Party’s main police force. In conjunction with the Gestapo and SD, the SS eliminated all opposition within Germany. Historians argue that the SS became so powerful that it became a ‘state within a state’. The Gestapo (the secret state police and a branch of the SS) arrested ‘enemies of the state’. Also led by Himmler, much of the information it worked on came from ordinary Germans denouncing others. The SD was the intelligence arm of the SS; headed by Himmler’s protégé Reinhard Heydrich, it monitored the security of the Reich.

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  • The judicial system also came under state control. The aim was to ensure that the legal system did not protect those that the state wanted to punish.
  • Special People’s Courts were established to judge those accused of crimes against the state. Overall, the police state was very successful.
  • Although individuals might have grumbled about aspects of the Nazi state, there was no real organised opposition to the regime until World War II.
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Nazi Economic Policy (I); Unions and Unemployment

Destroying the Unions- Hitler was afraid that unions could interfere with his plans and so, in May 1933, they were banned and strikes were declared illegal. Unions were replaced by the German Labour Front (DAF – Deutsche Arbeitsfront) led by Dr Robert Ley. Within two years, all workers were members. While the DAF was meant to represent the workers in discussions with the employees, it tended to side with employers, and workers found their freedom restricted and their working hours increased. On a positive note, wages improved, and prices and rents were strictly controlled by the state.

Free Time- The Nazis were also keen to ensure that their workers were happy outside the workplace. Therefore, Strength Through Joy (KDF – Kraft Durch Freude) was established in November 1933 to improve workers’ free time. Again led by Dr Ley, the KDF provided cheap holidays and organised a broad range of sporting activities. Workers were also given the chance to pay into a savings scheme to own a car, the Volkswagen (people’s car). However, no cars had been distributed when the war started in 1939.

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Nazi Economic Policy (I); Unions and Unemployment

Unemployment- One of the most important tasks facing Hitler was the need to reduce unemployment. By the end of 1939, only 300,000 Germans were officially listed as unemployed. This was achieved in a number of ways:

1. The scale of existing public work schemes was increased with the establishment of the National Labour Service (RAD – Reichsarbeitsdienst). The RAD built schools, hospitals and motorways. Those involved lived in camps and wore military-style uniforms. While no wages were paid, workers got free meals and pocket money. The RAD became compulsory in 1935.

2. Many people – especially professional women and Jews – were forced from the workplace and their jobs were then given to those who were unemployed. Neither of these groups was then counted as unemployed.

3. The introduction of conscription in 1935 had a significant impact on unemployment levels.

4. As Germany prepared for war, thousands of jobs were created in the armament and associated industries. Likewise, the drive for autarky (economic self-sufficiency) resulted in the creation of new industries focused on creating synthetic replacements for raw materials.

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Nazi Economic Policy (II); Stability and Autarky

New Plan- In May 1933, respected economist Dr Hjalmar Schacht became President of the Reichsbank. Within a year, he had been appointed Minister of Economics. Schacht’s 1934 New Plan oversaw the revitalisation of the German economy by

  • drastically reducing welfare spending
  • imposing limits on imports
  • implementing a series of trade agreements with countries to ensure that Germany was supplied with vital raw materials in return for German industrial goods
  • introducing targeted government spending on key industries.
  • Under Schacht’s guidance, the German economy recovered; however, this was not enough to ensure his survival. By 1936 Hitler was pressurising him to increase spending on rearmament. Since Schacht was reluctant to do this, he was increasingly ignored and a year later he had resigned from the government.

Four Year Plan Despite his total lack of economic expertise, Herman Göring was the man Hitler appointed to prepare the economy for war. In 1936 he introduced the Four Year Plan. New factories were constructed. Import levels were reduced. Higher targets were set for the production of essential materials such as oil, rubber and steel. Industries were encouraged to develop ersatz – synthetic substitutes for raw materials. However, by 1939 Germany was still importing over 30 per cent of its raw materials.

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