USM Open Source History Text: The World at War: World History 1914-1945

Hitler’s First Moves After his Machtergreifung (Nazism from 1933-1937)

Now that Hitler had political control of the state, he needed to assert himself and the Nazi Party in two ways. First, he needed to bring the institutions of the state—all those administrative departments—into line with the Nazi Party ideology. Second, he needed to make sure that he wasn’t blindsided by the military establishment. The tasks of remaking the government bureaucracy and the military in order to “bring everything into line” (the so-called Gleichschaltung) would take the next few years.

The process of transforming Germany into Nazi Germany was a massive one. Laws were made to reinforce Nazi ideology – like the famous Nuremburg Laws that severely limited the freedoms of German Jews and caused another wave of Jewish emigration. 
The transformation also came on an economic/social front. Unions were made illegal, industry was reoriented around military production or in some cases production that directly served Nazi goals, like the manufacturing of cheap radios so that everyone in Germany could listen to Nazi propaganda. Workers would have to content themselves with relatively low wages—but coming on the heels of the Great Crash, which saw at its height 40% German unemployment and a persistent depression in the rest of the Western world, steady work, even for low wages, seemed pretty good.

Education was reformed to reflect the Nazi worldview. Textbooks were re-written from a Nazi perspective. Jewish or communist teachers and professors were fired. Scientists, too, found their research heavily influenced. Those that would work within the parameters of Nazi science stayed and contributed to the movement and eventually to the war. Those that didn’t had to leave. A huge wave of academics and scientists fled Germany, many settling in the United States and helping to build the U.S. academic and scientific power. Before this, Germany was undisputedly the world leader in scientific and academic research.

Two other parts of the 1930s agenda need mentioning. 1) Already by 1932, the Nazis were building an enormous system of state terror. The main instruments of this coordinated attack on the German domestic population (at least those viewed as ethnically non-German like Jews or those hostile to the Nazi Party) were the concentration camps. The first concentration camp, Dachau, quickly swelled to hold thousands of people after the Reichstag Fire in early 1933. Camps and sub-stations cropped up throughout Germany, especially in the cities. Planned facilities of terror and intimidation went together with so-called “wild” camps and small sites used for holding and torture. At first, the concentration camp infrastructure was used primarily against political opponents. Only later would it provide part of the structure for the Nazis’ Final Solution to the Jewish Question—the Holocaust. 2) One of the most critical pieces of the Nazi state-building project was to get the average German on board with what was happening—to turn the Nazi movement into a nationwide movement with deep support. This meant a coordinated and sophisticated propaganda campaign and an unprecedentedly sophisticated use of mass media, as we see in Leni Riefenstahl’s film Triumph of the Will.

We have, therefore, a powerful push and pull. The Nazis pushed out all enemies, even going so far as to purge challengers to Hitler’s ultimate power from within the movement, most famously killing the leader of the SA and his subordinates in the Knight of Long Knives, or Röhm Putsch (Ernst Röhm was the leader of SA) in 1934. This marks the consolidation of the power to use violence within the Nazi movement in the organizations closest to Hitler himself: the elite SS and secret state police, the Gestapo. The SS—or Schutzstaffel—will develop into a party within the Nazi party, a state within the state, and will ultimately be the leading edge of the Nazi movement, tasked with carrying out the planning and execution of the Holocaust.

The pull—the positive elements that bound the German population to the Nazi regime—was a combination of things: economic growth, a feeling of stability returned, an appeal to German nationalistic pride, a tapping into a strong culture of German anti-Semitism, promises of prosperity for the ordinary person (the Nazis started to build mass sea-side resorts for people to vacation, began work on the system of national highways (the Autobahn), started to manufacture cheap cars so that everyone could afford them and so on. In truth, most of these projects were unrealized, though they were often discussed and created the impression that the Nazis were taking care of the people. Old political tensions and partisan fighting were gone (there were no parties or unions left to fight). And so was the humiliation of Versailles, as Hitler started to re-assert himself internationally. He voiced with pride the reemergence of Germany as a world power. And all the while, the German economy hummed from war production, just as the U.S. economy would in the years of massive military build-up after 1942.

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