The 1930s were turbulent times in Germany’s history. World War I had left the country in shambles and, as if that weren’t enough, the people of Germany had been humiliated and stripped of their pride and dignity by the Allies. Germany’s dream of becoming one of the strongest nations in the world no longer seemed to be a possibility and this caused resentment among the German people. It was clear that Germany needed some type of motivation to get itself back on its feet and this came in the form of a charismatic man, Adolf Hitler.
Hitler, a man who knew what he wanted and would do anything to get it, single-handedly transformed a weary Germany into a deadly fascist state.
In order to understand why exactly Hitler was able to make Germany a fascist state, we must study the effects that the end of World War I had on the country. Germany was left devastated and vulnerable at the end of the war.
The Treaty of Versailles had left the country without a military and with a large debt that it just couldn’t pay. Aside from that, it was forced to withdraw from its western territory where most of its coal and steel were located. This was a major implication for Germany because without these resources, it had no industrial growth (steel and coal are the forces behind industry), which meant that there was no money going into its economy. Without any economic development there was no way that Germany would be able to get out of debt. The Allies did not make any effort to help Germany during this time and left Germany to fend for itself (they seemed to be aware that this had been a mistake by the end World War II when they helped Japan out of its economic crisis; this is an example of history influencing future actions). The “humiliation imposed by the victors in the World War I, coupled with the hardship of the stagnant economy,” created bitterness and anger in Germany (Berlet 1). This is the reason that, when the Allies tried to establish a new government in Germany, the German people were less than eager to embrace it.
The French Revolution was a prime example that without a participant culture, there is no stability. Therefore, it is no surprise that the Weimar Republic failed so miserably in Germany. When it was introduced in 1918, it had the potential of molding Germany’s government into a modern institution. It consisted of regular elections (this would later be referred to as the Reichstag), a proportional representative electoral system, and checks and balances. It was almost flawless as a formula for creating a modern institution but it did not make Germany stable by any means. Herein lies another lesson that many countries have learned the hard way: a modern institution does not, in itself, guarantee that a country will become stable. In Germany’s case, there was no participant culture and, as a result, no trust in the government and no efficacy. Germans believed that people within their country were conspiring against them. They did not trust the government in the least and because of this suspicious attitude sought a scapegoat to blame for their suffering (the scapegoat, as we now know, would turn out to be the Jew).
Germany was slowly falling apart and could not handle another crisis. Unfortunately, the Depression of 1929 was inevitable. It was also unfortunate that Keynsionism had not yet been conceived for, if it had, Germany might not have dug itself into a bigger hole. Because of its impoverished state and its inability to pay its reparatory debts, Germany began to produce more and more money until inflation was so high that its money became almost worthless (had Keynsionism been developed Germany may not have gone into such a devastating depression). By 1933 the economy “stood on the brink of collapse, with an economy which should, realistically, have long since declared itself bankrupt” (Frei 163). Now Germans felt that the so called “democratic” system had brought them nothing but trouble and this paved the way for Hitler and his Nationalist Socialist Party (which would later be referred to as Hitler’s Nazi party, a party that was centered around ideological fascism) (Berlet 1).
There is no denying that Hitler took advantage of Germany’s instability. He appeared at a time when Germany needed someone to give it a solution to its problems. The first action he took was to assure the German people that they were not at fault for any of their dilemmas. According to Hitler, there was an internal enemy amongst them that had caused all of Germany’s powers and was to blame. Hitler identified Germans as good and superior while he marked the enemy as evil and inferior. This served to once again inflame the Germans so that their nationalism was now at a maximum and also made them more susceptible to Hitler’s charismatic personality and his ideas. Events were now changing; Germans could now focus their attention on an enemy they could actually attack (they didn’t trust the government but aside from not participating, there wasn’t much else they felt they could do).
Once Hitler had captivated the attention of the German people by giving them a common enemy, it was time for him to put his plan into action. With propaganda and promises of a brighter future, Hitler was appointed Reich Chancellor in 1933. It must be noted that Hitler won not so much because of his propaganda, he was just beginning that phase of his plan, but because the Germans were not interested in voting for any other political party that represented the government they mistrusted. That’s why they opted to vote for the National Socialist German Workers Party, which would later be known as the Nazi party (Frei 2). As soon as he was appointed, Hitler focused his attention on reinforcing the beliefs that Germans already had. A common misconception is that Hitler’s propaganda “implies nothing less that the art a persuasion, which serves only to change attitudes and ideas” (Welch 5). This is not so. He didn’t persuade the Germans that nationalism was a solution or that democracy was a sham. The Germans, as a result of the lack of efficacy and trust, had already formed these ideas. Hitler was only smart enough to see that there was a way to use these ideas to his advantage.
So what was behind Hitler’s fascist ideology? Hitler saw that the democratic Weimar, which ceased to exist after the Reichstat was burned down, had left the Germans in a state of bitter discontent and decided to use that to use this information to appeal to the German people. His political party opposed all that was represented by democracy (this is, essentially, everything that the French Revolutionaries upheld: liberty, equality, fraternity) (Berlet 1). Because of the problems the Germans had under democracy, Hitler’s party, fascist or not, was more favorable. Hitler was also able to establish a fascist state masking the dark side of fascism: he claimed to do everything in the name of the German nation (Berlet 1). Therefore, when he decided to suspend basic civil rights he did so claiming that it was for the good of the nation and when the Reich government was empowered the philosophy was that it was done so “in order to re-establish safety and order…to the states” (Frei 37). Even when he established concentration camps he did so while assuring the German people that it was “legally based on the decree ‘For the Protecion of the People and the State” (Frei 43). Had the Germans not been so wrapped up in the euphoria that resulted from nationalism, they might have reflected on what was happening and it would not have been so easy for fascism to seize the state. Most Germans never complained because the theory seemed nice: everything for the good of the country and anything to make Germany the great nation it was destined to become.
Hitler was also successful in having the German people trust him. There goes that word again, trust. While the working class trusted Hitler because of his “ostensible support for the [industry],” the elite trusted him because of the alliance they held with the Nazi party (Berlet 1). Hitler created an illusion of a modern institution (for a time it seemed stable because the economy rose slowly after Hitler came to power) but he also had the trust of the people, something the government under the Weimar Republic never had. That is one of the most important reasons that fascism was so successful.
While Weimar was a lesson that a modern institution is not enough to produce a stable nation, the Third Reich was a prime example that trust in government goes a long way. Once Hitler had gained Germany’s trust and loyalty he was able to accomplish what others could not. With this trust Hitler “had successfully disposed of all opposition and, moreover, had stabilized his rule in a way that…almost no one would have believed possible” (Frei 27). The rest was just propaganda. Although the ideologies behind fascism were murder, hatred, misery, and discord, “[Hitler] spoke of reconciliation, introspection, coming together and revival” (Frei 52). When Hitler spoke, he did so as if her was selling a new and improved product which, in a way, he was. As previously stated, Hitler wasn’t introducing ideas that Germans hadn’t already thought of. He was just making them more appealing to Germans. Before, Germans thought of fascist ideas but believed them to be too extreme to support. When Hitler talked of fascism (the one he had masked as crucial to empowering Germany), euthanasia no longer seemed wrong because it was necessary to rid the country of the enemy. Giving up basic God given rights was not a problem because it was all for the good of the country (sacrifice the individual’s rights for the nation). Many reason that Germans were a cold-blooded people who were fascist and cruel by nature. This is not so. Most Germans were seeing fascism through rose colored glasses (indeed this is the way Hitler wanted it) and justified the actions they were taking with nationalistic explanations. To the typical pro-Nazi German it was illogical to believe that what he/she was doing was wrong; after all, it was for the good of Germany so it had to be good, right? It was, indeed, a pleasant dream but when Germany was faced with yet another loss after World War II, it had to face the harsh reality that it had been its own enemy.
It is clear that fascism in Germany was a lesson in the complexity of the modernization theory. Germany was a reminder that you can have a good modern institution but without trust there’s no efficacy and without these factors the formula just does not work. Germany was left vulnerable and had to deal with its problems the best way it could. All that was needed was a charismatic man and good propaganda for Germany to become a fascist state. Germany as a fascist state taught us that the success of democracy in one country does not guarantee its success in another country. Not only were the Germans forced to look upon their past as consequences of their actions but so were the Allies. The events that led to Germany’s becoming a fascist state were hard lessons for the Allies and were remembered when Germany and Japan were defeated in World War II.
Berlet, Chip. “What is Fascism?” < http://remember.org/hist.root.what.html>.
Frei, Norbert. National Socialist Rule in Germany. Translated by Simon B. Steyne.
Massachusetts: Basil Blackwell Ltd., 1993.
Welch, David. The Third Reich: Politics and Propaganda. New York: Routledge, 1993.
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