The worldwide depression had a lot of impacts but none more important than the rise of extreme dictatorships around the world. We see this in Russia with the rise of Stalin, Italy with Mussolini, and Japan with its intense military government. But for today, let’s focus on Germany.
Adolf Hitler fought in World War I after getting rejected from art school. Man, if I had a time machine… Just let the guy do his stupid paintings! He experienced the devastation and shame of their World War I loss in the trenches and it was then that he also realized the had a gift for public speaking and persuasion.
When he returned from the war, he joined a new young party called the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, or Nazi Party for short. They had risen out of the conservative, far-right paramilitary groups that fought against new communist movements in Germany after the war. Their goal was to draw workers away from communism and toward their new nationalist movement.
A quick note about the name: the Nazi Party believed in national socialism. This is not related to Karl Marx or communism. In fact, the communists were the original enemy of the Nazi Party. National socialism was the idea that Germany had been weakened by the introduction of new social groups in its country. Ethnic minorities had weakened and destabilized German society. So, for Germany to be great again, they would need to focus on intense nationalism and eradicating undesirable elements of society.
Adolf Hitler did not found the Nazi Party but he rose to become its leader very early on. In 1923, he led 2,000 Nazis in a march into the center of Munich to try to overthrow the new democratic government that they blamed for the horrible Treaty of Versailles and Germany’s weakness. They clashed with police and 16 Nazis and four police officers were killed. This failed Beer Hall Putsch caused Hitler to be thrown in prison for treason.
While in prison, Hitler was quite comfortable. He was still allowed to meet with other Nazi leaders and he wrote Mein Kampf. This book outlined his ideas about national socialism and his hatred for ethnic minorities, especially the Jews. He only spent 9 months in prison but when he was released, the German economy was improving. To most of German society, the Nazi Party was a tiny, fringe, conservative movement that would never be heard from again.
It wasn’t until 1929, when the U.S. economy collapsed (and with it, Germany’s stability), that the Nazi Party became an influential party. Even at its height, it was a minority political party. But it became powerful enough that the mainstream moderate political parties had to acknowledge it and allow it seats at the table.
This is one of the problems with government that allows tons of political parties. Yes, it helps give a voice to smaller groups which can be good. But it also allows for small, fringe movements to gain legitimacy. In the U.S., our two-party system does make it really difficult for small groups to be heard. But, it also makes it harder for extremism to rise on either side of the spectrum.
So, spurred by the German people’s frustration with the terrible economic conditions and the national shame from the Treaty of Versailles, the Nazis gained over half the seats in the German parliament. But still, the German President Hindenburg had to decide to make Hitler Chancellor. Why did it do it?
Whenever a society is experiencing economic devastation, it is more common for extreme groups to rise on either side. While the Nazis were rising on the far right, the Communists were rising on the far left. The majority of Germans were stuck in the middle. But the far right seemed less scary than the Communists, who were advocating a complete overthrow of their capitalist society. So the moderates made a deal with the Nazis and Hitler was named Chancellor of Germany in 1933.
Hitler was a political mastermind. He knew that if he went from complete democracy to total dictatorship in one step the German people would reject it. He learned that after his failed revolt in 1923. So from this point on, he would slowly increase his own power and ban his political opponents. The first people sent to Dachau, the first concentration camp, were members of the Communist Party. He justified this by blaming the burning of the Reichstag, the German Parliament building on a Communist arsonist. But even without this event, most moderates were OK with kicking out the Communists who were seen as spies for the Soviet enemy to the east.
But Hitler didn’t stop with the communists. He slowly outlawed all other political parties and created a totalitarian state – where the Nazi Party ruled every aspect of society. Hitler appealed to the masses in Germany with his powerful speeches and his promises to bring Germany back to greatness. He talked often about the shameful Treaty of Versailles and he repeatedly violated it throughout the 1930s.
After becoming Chancellor he used Germany’s industry to rebuild the military. This made the military happy and brought them over to his side. He also made corporations and industrial powers by freeing them from the post-WWI restrictions. And around Europe, they allowed this to happen because a lot of them realized that the Treaty of Versailles had been too harsh to begin with.
The two main causes of World War II are Hitler’s aggression and Europe’s appeasement. For Hitler’s part, he slowly expanded outside of Germany’s borders. But he started with areas that could somewhat logically be seen as rightfully German. First, he reoccupied the Rhineland, the industrial region that had been taken over by France in the 1920s. But this was within German borders, so no one thought too much about it.
Then in 1938 he annexed Austria, another German-speaking nation to the south. You know about this because you’ve seen The Sound of Music. And if you haven’t seen The Sound of Music then I would like for you to stop listening to my podcast immediately and not come back until you have. It’s important to note that not all Austrians were like Captain von Trapp. There were parades welcoming Hitler to Vienna. Remember – Austria had experienced the same defeat and shame during WWI.
But a turning point happened in 1938 when Hitler annexed the Sudetenland. This is a region in Czechoslovakia that was mostly inhabited by German-speaking people. At this point, the European powers decided that they needed to meet with Hitler to make sure that he wasn’t going to expand beyond linguistically German parts of Europe.
Britain and France met with Hitler in Munich and hammered out a deal. Known as the Munich Pact, this agreement stated that Britain and France would allow Hitler to keep the land he had already annexed, but only if he promised he would stop there. By the way, no one from the Sudetenland was represented at this meeting, obviously. So Hitler was like, “Of course! Of course! I promise this is my last annexation. You have my word.”
British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returned home waving the agreement in the air and triumphantly stated that “peace has been established for our time.” Yeah that’s going to come back to haunt him. He might as well have hung a “Mission Accomplished” banner behind him while he was at it.
Back in Germany, Hitler was negotiating a secret agreement with his enemy, Stalin. Both men hated each other partly because of their differing ideologies. Fascism worships the state above the individual. It is basically extreme nationalism and loyalty to the government above concern for individual citizens. Fascists typically support capitalism and believe that extreme social hierarchy leads to a controlled and successful society. Communists, on the other hand, believe the exact opposite. They believe that the state should exist to serve the people and part of that is redistributing wealth so that everyone is relatively equal. Now, of course, in practice this doesn’t happen. Ironically, communist governments end up looking very similar to fascist ones. They are both totalitarian states where their party rules everything. So Stalin’s Russia in reality looks a lot like Hitler’s Germany.
The other reason why they are enemies is because they both have ambitions to conquer eastern Europe. So Hitler meets with Stalin and they sign the Non-Aggression Pact. Basically, this says that if Hitler were to, I don’t know, invade Poland, Stalin shouldn’t see it as an act of aggression. They agree to split up eastern Europe and keep the peace so that both can focus on being brutal dictators without worrying about war with each other.
By the way, Poland has always been seen as an important buffer state to check the power of Germany and Russia. Britain and France have always made it clear that Poland should be considered sacred territory that should not be taken over. But, Hitler doesn’t believe that Europe will actually do anything even if he does invade Poland.
Why not? That brings us to the second major cause of WWII: appeasement. The other major world powers were willing to ignore the rise of Hitler in favor of focusing on their own problems during the 1930s. Britain and France felt bad about the harsh Treaty of Versailles and didn’t want to get embroiled in another world war. The U.S. was busy “New Deal-ing” and rebuilding its economy. And Stalin’s Russia was purging its enemies and solidifying his power. So every time Hitler took a step, the rest of the world gave in in an effort to avoid another world war. It’s like “If You Give A Mouse A Cookie” but instead it’s, “If you give Hitler the Sudetenland, he’s gonna want a Poland.”
So, ignoring the Munich Pact (obviously, he’s Hitler), Germany invades Poland on September 1, 1939. Britain and France are outraged and embarrassed that Hitler cared so little about their warnings and this is the official beginning of World War II.