Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany in 1933 following a series of electoral victories by the Nazi Party. He ruled absolutely until his death by suicide in April 1945. Upon achieving power, Hitler smashed the nation’s democratic institutions and transformed Germany into a war state intent on conquering Europe for the benefit of the so-called Aryan race. His invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, triggered the European phase of World War II. During the course of the war, Nazi military forces rounded up and executed 11 million victims they deemed inferior or undesirable—“life unworthy of life”—among them Jews, Slavs, homosexuals, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Hitler had supreme authority as führer (leader or guide), but could not have risen to power or committed such atrocities on his own. He had the active support of the powerful German officer class and of millions of everyday citizens who voted for the National Socialist German Workers’ (Nazi) Party and hailed him as a national savior in gigantic stadium rallies.
How were Hitler and the Nazis possible? How did such odious characters take and hold power in a country that was a world pacesetter in literature, art, architecture, and science, a nation that had a democratic government and a free press in the 1920s?
Hitler rose to power through the Nazi Party, an organization he forged after returning as a wounded veteran from the annihilating trench warfare of World War I. He and other patriotic Germans were outraged and humiliated by the harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles, which the Allies compelled the new German government, the Weimar Republic, to accept along with an obligation to pay $33 billion in war reparations. Germany also had to give up its prized overseas colonies and surrender valued parcels of home territory to France and Poland. The German army was radically downsized and the nation forbidden to have submarines or an air force. “We shall squeeze the German lemon until the pips squeak!” explained one British official.
Paying the crushing reparations destabilized the economy, producing ruinous, runaway inflation. By September 1923, four billion German marks had the equal value of one American dollar. Consumers needed a wheelbarrow to carry enough paper money to buy a loaf of bread.