Any discussion of the Nazis must start with Adolf Hitler. It is impossible to overstate Hitler's importance to Nazism: his own private obsessions became state policy and were used as the justification for war and genocide. His unquestionable powers of public speaking and political maneuvering transformed the Nazis from a small fringe group to a major political party, and while he was largely ineffective as a practical decision-maker, he remained central to the image of strength, vitality, and power that the Nazis associated with their state. Hitler was also one of the three "greatest" murderers of the twentieth century, along with Josef Stalin of the Soviet Union and Mao Tse-Tung of China. His obsession with a racialized, murderous vision of German power translated directly into both the Holocaust of the European Jews and World War II itself.
Nothing about Hitler’s biography would seem to suggest his rise to power, however. Hitler was born in Austria in 1889, a citizen of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He dreamed of being an artist as a young man, but was rejected by the Academy of Fine Arts in the Austrian capital of Vienna – many of his works survive, depicting boring, uninspired, and moderately well-executed Austrian landscapes. Listless and lazy, but convinced from adolescence of his own greatness, Hitler invented the idea that the rejection was due not to his own lack of talent, but because of a shadowy conspiracy that sought to undermine his rise to prominence.
For several years before the outbreak of World War I, Hitler lived in Vienna in flophouses, cheap hotels for homeless men, and there he discovered right-wing politics and his own talents for oratory. Hitler spent his days drifting around Vienna, absorbing the rampant anti-Semitism of Austrian society and developing his own theories about Jews and other “foreign” influences. Likewise, he read popularized works derived from racist pseudo-scholarship that glorified a fabricated version of German history. It was in Vienna that he discovered his own talent for oratory, as well. The first groups he held enraptured by his improvised speeches about German greatness and the Jewish (and Slavic) peril were his fellow flophouse residents.
Hitler regarded the fact that Germany and Austria were separate countries as a terrible historical error. He hated the weak Austrian government and fled to Germany rather than serve his required military service in Austria. Much to his delight, World War I broke out when he was already in Germany; he enthusiastically volunteered for the German army and served at the western front, surviving both a poison gas attack and shrapnel from an exploded shell. Unlike most veterans of the war, Hitler experienced combat and service in the trenches as exhilarating and fulfilling, and he was completely without compassion - he would later shock his own generals during World War II by his callousness in spending German lives to achieve symbolic military objectives.
After the war, he was sent by the army to the southern German city of Munich, which was full of angry, disenchanted army veterans like himself. His assignment was to investigate a small right-wing group, the German Workers Party. His “investigation” immediately transformed into enthusiasm, finding like-minded conservatives who loathed the Weimar Republic and blamed socialism and something they called “international Jewry” for the defeat of Germany in the war. He swiftly rose in the ranks of the Nazis, becoming the Fuhrer ("Leader") of the party thanks to his outstanding command of oratory and his ability to browbeat would-be political opponents - he unceremoniously ejected the party’s founder in the process. Under Hitler’s leadership, the party was renamed the National Socialist German Workers Party (“Nazi” is derived from the German word for “national”), and it adopted the swastika, long a favorite of racist pseudo-historians looking for the ancient roots of the fabricated “Aryan” race, as its symbol.
What made Nazi ideology distinct from that of their Italian Fascist counterparts was its emphasis on biology. The Nazis believed that races were biological entities, that there was something inherent in the blood of each "race" that had a direct impact on its ability to create or destroy something as vague as “true culture.” According to Nazi ideology, only the so-called Aryan race, Germans especially but also including related white northern Europeans like the Danes, the Norwegians, and the English, had ever created culture or been responsible for scientific progress. Other races, including some non-European groups like the Persians and the Japanese, were considered “culture-preserving” races who could at least enjoy the benefits of true civilization. At the bottom end of this invented hierarchy were “culture-destroying” races, most importantly Jews but also including Slavs, like Russians and Poles. In the great scheme for the Nazi new world order, Jews would be somehow pushed aside entirely and the Slavs would be enslaved as manual labor for "Aryans."
Hitler himself invented this crude scheme of racial potential, codifying it in his autobiography Mein Kampf (see below). He was obsessed with the idea that the German race teetered on the brink of extinction, tricked into accepting un-German concepts like democracy or communism and foolishly interbreeding with lesser races. Behind all of this was, according to him, the Jews. Hitler claimed that the Jews were responsible for every disaster in German history; the loss of World War I was just the latest in a long string of catastrophes for which the Jews were responsible. The Jews had invented communism, capitalism, pacifism, liberalism, democracy...anything and everything that supposedly weakened Germany from Hitler’s perspective.
In 1921, under Hitler’s leadership, the Nazis organized a paramilitary wing called the Stormtroopers (SA in their German acronym). In 1923, inspired by the Italian Fascists' success in seizing power in Italy, Hitler led his fellow Nazis in an attempt to seize the regional government of the German region of Bavaria, of which Munich is the capital. This would-be revolution is remembered as the “Beer-Hall Putsch.” It failed, but Hitler used his ensuing trial as a national stage, as the proceedings were widely reported on by the German press. The court officials, who sympathized with his politics, gave him and his followers ludicrously short sentences in minimum security prisons, a sentence Hitler spent dictating his autobiography, Mein Kampf ("My Struggle"), to the Nazi party's secretary, Rudolf Hess.
When he was released in nine months (including time served and recognition of his good behavior), Hitler was a minor national celebrity on the right. The Nazis were still a fringe group, but they were now a fringe group people had heard of. Nazi Stormtroopers harassed leftist groups and engaged in brawls with communist militants. The party created youth organizations, workers’ and farmers’ wings, and women’s groups. They held rallies constantly, creating early versions of “interest groups” to gauge the issues that attracted the largest popular audience. Even so, they did not have mass support in the 1920s - they only won 2.6% of the national vote in 1928.
The Great Depression, however, threw the Weimar government and German society into such turmoil that extremists like the Nazis suddenly gained considerable mass appeal. Promising the complete repudiation of the Versailles Treaty, the build-up of the German military, an end to economic problems, and a restoration of German pride and power, the Nazis steadily grew in popularity: an electoral breakthrough in 1930 saw them win 18% of the seats in the Reichstag. In 1932 they won 37% of the national vote, the most they ever won in a free, legal election.
That being noted, the Nazis never came close to winning an actual majority in the Reichstag. They were essentially a strong, combative far-right minority party. Thanks to the advent of the Depression, more “ordinary Germans” than before were attracted to their message, but that message did not seem at the time to be greatly different than the messages of other right-wing parties. That said, the Nazis were masters of fine-tuning their messages for the electorate; most of their propaganda had to do with German pride, unity, and the need for social and economic order and prosperity, not the hatred of Jews or the need to launch attacks on other European nations. They offered themselves as a solution to the inefficiency of the Weimar Republic, not as a potential bloodbath.
In fact, 1932 represented both the high point and what could have been the beginning of the decline of the Nazis as a party. The presidential election that year saw Hitler lose to Hindenburg, who had served as president since 1925 despite his own contempt for democracy. The Nazis lost millions of votes in the subsequent Reichstag election, and Hitler even briefly considered suicide. Unfortunately, in January of 1933, Hindenburg was convinced by members of his cabinet led by a conservative Catholic politician, Franz von Papen, to use Hitler and the Nazis as tools to help dismantle the Weimar state and replace it with a more authoritarian political order. Thus, Hindenburg appointed Hitler chancellor, the second-most powerful political position in the state.
Hitler seized the opportunity to launch a full-scale takeover of the German government. The Reichstag building was set on fire by an unknown arsonist in February, and Hitler blamed the communists, pushing through an emergency measure (the “Reichstag Fire Decree”) that suspended civil rights. That allowed the state to destroy the German Communist Party, imprisoning 20,000 of its members in newly-built concentration camps. Through voter fraud and massive intimidation by the Nazi Stormtroopers, new elections saw the Nazis win 44% in the next elections. Soon, with the aid of other conservative parties, the Nazis pushed through the Enabling Act, which empowered Hitler and the presidential cabinet to pass laws by decree. In July, the Nazis outlawed all parties except themselves. By the summer of 1933, the Nazis controlled the state itself, with Hindenburg (impressed by Hitler’s decisiveness) willingly signing off on their measures.
The Nazi government that followed was a mess of overlapping bureaucracies with no clear areas of control, just influence. The Weimar constitution was never officially repudiated, but the letter of laws became far less important than their interpretation according to the “spirit” of Nazism. In lieu of a rational political order, there was a kind of governing principle that one Nazi party member described as “working towards the Fuhrer”: trying to determine the “spirit” of Nazism and abiding by it rather than following specific rules or laws. The only unshakable core principle was the personal supremacy of the Fuhrer, who was supposed to embody Nazism itself.
Nazism was not just a governing philosophy, however. Hitler was obsessed with winning over “ordinary Germans” to the party’s outlook, and to that end the state both bombarded the population with propaganda and sought to alleviate the dismal economic situation of the early 1930s. The Nazi state poured money into a debt-based recovery from the Depression (the economics of the recovery were totally unsustainable, but the Nazi leadership gambled that war would come before the inevitable economic collapse). Employment recovered somewhat as the state funded huge public works and, after he publicly broke with the terms of the Versailles Treaty in 1935, rearmament. Even though there were still food and consumable shortages, many Germans felt that things were better than they had been. The Nazis refused to continue war reparations and soon the rapidly-rebuilding military was staging enormous public rallies.
Ultimately, the Nazi party controlled Germany from 1933 until Germany surrendered to the Allies in World War II in 1945 - that period is remembered as that of the Third Reich, the Nazis’ own term for what Hitler promised would be a “1,000 years” of German dominance. During that time, the Nazis sponsored a full-scale attempt to recreate German culture and society to correspond with their vision of a racialized, warlike, and “purified” German nation. They claimed to have launched a “national revolution” in the name of unifying all Germans in one Volksgemeinschaft: people’s community.
The Nazis targeted almost every conceivable social group with a specific propaganda campaign and encouraged (or required) German citizens to join a specific Nazi league: workers were encouraged to work hard for the good of the state, women were encouraged to produce as many healthy children as possible (and to stay out of the workplace), boys were enrolled in a paramilitary scouting organization, the Hitler Youth, and girls in the League of German Girls, trained as future mothers and domestics. All vocations and genders were united in the glorification of the military and, of course, of the Fuhrer himself (“Heil Hitler” was the official greeting used by millions of German citizens, whether or not they ever joined the Nazi party itself). The purpose of the campaigns was to win the loyalty of the population to the regime and to Hitler personally, and nearly the entire population at least paid lip service to the new norms.
The dark side of both the propaganda and the legal framework of the Third Reich was the suspension of civil rights and the concomitant campaigns against the so-called “enemies” of the German people. The Nazis vilified Jews, as well as other groups like people with disabilities and the Romani (better known as “Gypsies,” although the term itself is something of an ethnic slur). Starting in 1933, the state began a campaign of involuntary sterilizations of disabled and mixed-race peoples. Jewish businesses were targeted for vandalism and Jewish people were attacked. In 1935 the Nazis passed the so-called “Nuremberg Laws” which outlawed Jews from working in various professions, stripped Jews of citizenship, and made sex between Jews and non-Jews a serious crime.
Even as Germans were encouraged to identify with the Nazi state, and joining the Nazi Party itself soon became an excellent way to advance one's career, the Nazis also held out the threat of imprisonment or death for those who dared defy them. The first concentration camp was opened within weeks of Hitler's appointment of chancellor in 1933, and a vast web of police forces soon monitored the German population. The most important organization in Nazi Germany was the SS (Schutzstaffel, meaning “protection squadron"), an enormous force of dedicated Nazis with almost unlimited police powers. The SS had the right to hold anyone indefinitely, without trial, in "protective custody" in a concentration camp, and the Nazi secret police, the Gestapo, were merely one part of the SS. This combination of "carrots" (e.g. propaganda, programs, incentives) and "sticks" (e.g. the SS, concentration camps) helps explain why there was no significant resistance to the Nazi regime from within Germany.