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Hitler's revolution: 1933-1934

Hitler moves swiftly to consolidate his hold on power. At his first cabinet meeting, on the day of his appointment as chancellor, he argues that new elections must be held if the coalition fails to command an immediate majority in the Reichstag. He overcomes the qualms of Papen and his colleagues by promising that whatever the result of the election, the present balance within the cabinet will be maintained (the three Nazi members are Hitler, Goering and Wilhelm Frick).

The election is fixed for 5 March 1933. The campaign is one of unprecedented violence. Gangs of Hitler's Brownshirts are unleashed on the streets to break up the meetings of opposition parties. The police are instructed not to intervene.

During the election campaign, on the night of February 27, the Reichstag building burns down. Many assume at the time that this was contrived by the Nazis, but it seems probable that it was an isolated act of arson by a mentally disturbed Dutchman, Marinus van der Lubbe. Whatever the precise origin of the fire, it provides Hitler with a heaven-sent opportunity. Proclaiming it as part of a Communist plot to seize control, he passes a decree suspending all rights of the individual and giving the government emergency powers.

In spite of these circumstances, the Nazis and their coalition allies fail by a narrow margin to win an overall majority within the Reichstag. Steps are immediately taken to remedy this.

On March 23, at the first session of the newly elected Reichstag (using a a Berlin opera house as a temporary home), the 81 Communist members and about 20 Social Democrats are conspicuous by their absence. They are either in hiding or are already in the hands of Hitler's police.

Even without their hostile votes, Hitler cannot immediately muster the two-thirds majority which he requires for the business scheduled for the day - an 'enabling act' which will give his government the power to pass decrees independently of the Reichstag and without any restriction by the president.

In the event, with gangs of threatening Brownshirts mustered outside the building, only the Social Democrats have the courage to oppose the Enabling Act. The most significant measure in Hitler's political career is passed by the comfortable margin of 441 to 94. With this constitutional step achieved, he is an elected dictator.

Subsequent decrees, passed with this new authority, tidy up Hitler's mechanism for controlling the nation. In May 1933 trades unions are brought under Nazi control. In July 1933 the Nazi party is declared to be the only legitimate political organization within Germany. In January 1934 the powers of Germany's proudly independent regions, the Länder, are transferred to the central government.

Meanwhile the apparatus of state is being rapidly equipped to cope with personal dissent. In March 1933 the Nazis establish their first concentration camp, organized by Heinrich Himmler at Dachau near Munich. The pattern is soon followed in other parts of the country. By that summer as many as 30,000 Germans are being held without trial in these punitive establishments.

The two main groups of victims are Communists and Jews, the twin targets of Hitler's long-standing obsession.

Hitler and the Jews: 1933-1938

Immediately after the Enabling Act is passed, the world is given clear warning that the anti-Semitism of Mein Kampf is not merely the raving of a theorist. It is a basis for action. The German government declares an open-ended boycott of all Jewish shops. The announcement receives wide international attention. On March 27 (just four days after the passing of the act) a mass rally is held in New York. A resolution is taken to boycott all German goods if Hitler's measure is put into effect.

Hitler compromises, revealing his sure touch in international diplomacy. He announces that the boycott will be limited to one day. On the designated day Brownshirts stand outside every Jewish establishment in Germany, warning people not to enter.

But the underlying policy remains unaltered. On April 7 a law is passed ordering the immediate 'retirement' of all civil servants 'not of Aryan descent'. This requires the dismissal of Jewish teachers in schools and universities as well as all those employed in government departments. Some of the German towns, in their enthusiasm, develop the policy beyond the immediate demands of the law. They ban performances by Jewish actors and musicians.

A 'non-Aryan' is defined as anyone with one or more Jewish grandparents. At first some exceptions are made, because of the insistence of the president, Hindenburg, that the law should not apply to Jews who had fought in the 1914-18 war or had lost a father or son in that conflict. But the law of April 7 is amended in 1935, after Hindeburg's death, and by the end of the following year there are no 'non-Aryans' in public employment.

Meanwhile, in 1935, even harsher measures are imposed, in the so-called Nuremberg Laws. At a Nazi rally in Nuremberg in September of that year it is announced that Jews are to be deprived of German citizenship, and that any sexual relationship between a Jew and a German citizen is henceforth illegal. The penalty, where the Jew in question is male, is to be death.

As yet there is no systematic and coordinated violence against Jews, but this changes drastically in November 1938. The pretext is the murder by a Jew of a diplomat in the German embassy in Paris. This occurs on November 7. Two days later a nation-wide pogrom is unleashed on the Jews of Germany and Austria (recently annexed by Hitler in the Anschluss). Organized bands of Nazis rampage through the towns, burning synagogues, smashing the windows of Jewish shops and looting their contents.

The smashed windows provide Germans with a name for this night of terror - Kristallnacht, the night of cut glass. Hitler personally orders the violence to continue throughout the night, telling Goebbels (who notes it in his diary) that 'the Jews should be made to feel the wrath of the people' and ordering 20,000 or 30,000 Jews to be arrested immediately. Approximately 20,000 are sent to the concentration camps during the next few days.

To pile on the agony, it is decreed that insurance money due on the damaged buildings is to be paid to the state. The Jews themselves are to bear the cost of repairs to their premises. And for good measure a fine of one billion marks is imposed on the German Jewish community.

Some 7500 Jewish shops are looted during Kristallnacht. At first sight it seems an anomaly - in view of Hitler's anti-Semitism - that so many Jewish firms are still trading in 1938. Yet it is entirely consistent with his cautious economic policy.

Hitler is invariably careful not to damage Germany's economy or upset those with influence in commerce and industry. In this conservative approach he is at odds with the more radical members of the Nazi party, who are eager to unleash the power of the Brownshirts to sweep away all that remains of the fusty old Germany of pre-war days. Hitler, by contrast, has a romantic notion of Germany's past. He dreams of reviving the nation's ancient greatness, in the form of a new Reich.

SA and SS: 1933-1934

Hitler and his colleagues are as one in seeing their Nazi movement as a revolution. The question is whether the revolution should end once power is achieved, or whether it should then evolve into a second revolution to create a radically new Germany.

The leading exponent of the second view is Ernst Roehm, the founder and commander of Hitler's thuggish support group, the SA (Sturmabteilung, or 'storm section'), commonly known as the Brownshirts. Roehm and his men have good reason to want a continuing revolution, because once Hitler is in power (in 1933) they are in danger of being sidelined. Uneducated and violent, in effect little more than gangsters, the Brownshirts could now be seen as a disreputable liability.

As such, they represent a major problem. By 1933 the SA consists of more than 2 million men. This is far larger than Germany's army. Roehm's solution is that the SA and the army should be merged under a single commander, with no prizes for guessing who he has in mind.

But the army, the most reactionary element in German life owing to Prussia's long military tradition, will entertain no thought of any cooperation with the upstart SA - except perhaps as a pool of useful young manpower when required. Moreover the army is directly answerable to the president (one of their own, being field marshal Hindenburg). And Hitler, as a condition of becoming chancellor, has promised Hindenburg that he will keep the army out of politics.

On his accession to power, Hitler proves adept at reassuring the army commanders that he has their interests at heart. He knows that he needs their support in the early years of his regime, and in 1934 he needs it for a very specific purpose. It becomes evident that the aged Hindenburg has only months or weeks to live. Hitler is determined to succeed him. He cannot be sure of doing so without the army's endorsement. The need to resolve the problem of Roehm and the SA becomes urgent.

In solving it, Hitler demonstrates his ruthlessness. After some painful deliberation, for Roehm is an old friend, he decides on a purge.

His agents in the purge are members of the SS (Schutzstaffel, or 'defence squadron'). Formed originally as a personal bodyguard for Hitler, and commanded since 1929 by Heinrich Himmler, the SS (whose members are known as the Blackshirts) is from 1931 a subsidiary part of the SA (the Brownshirts).

Hitler personally flies to confront Roehm, in the middle of the night of 29 June 1934, in the hotel bedroom near Munich where he is taking a cure. After being accused of attempting to stage a putsch (for which there is no evidence at all), Roehm is shot by SS men.

During the course of the same night (which becomes known as the Night of the Long Knives) some 150 SA commanders in Berlin are meeting the same fate, under the personal supervision of Goering and Himmler. Meanwhile some personal grudges are settled which have nothing to do with the SA.

The body of an old man, Gustav von Kahr, is found in a swamp near Munich. Long retired from political life, he has been hacked to death with a pickaxe. His offence is that he made a fool of Hitler, eleven years earlier, in the failed Munich putsch of 1923.

The international community is profoundly shocked when news of the night's slaughter echoes round the world. But Hitler brazens it out, maintaining that he has saved Germany from the dangers of a treacherous counter-revolution.

With the transfer of power from the SA to the SS, he has now a much more sophisticated means of suppressing future dissent. Under Himmler's command (which lasts until 1945) the SS expands to include the Gestapo (Geheime Staatspolizei, 'secret state police'), the Totenkopfverbände ('death's-head battalion', providing guards in the concentration camps) and the crack army units known as the Waffen SS (Weapons SS). The Night of the Long Knives refines the machinery of terror. All that is needed now is a final touch of legitimacy.

The Thousand-Year Reich: from1934

Hitler's last step in achieving total control of Germany is eased by his willing accomplices, the senior army commanders. Indifferent to the naked evidence of criminality in the government, they welcome the taming of the SA. And when Hindenburg dies, on August 2, they immediately agree that Hitler will now combine the roles of president, chancellor and supreme commander of the armed forces.

Moreover the allegiance of the army is now to be personal. On the very day of Hindenburg's death, each officer and man in the German army swears by God to 'render unconditional obedience to the Führer of the German Reich and People, Adolf Hitler' and to 'be ready, as a brave soldier, to stake my life at any time for this oath'.

On August 19 a plebiscite is put to the German people, asking whether Hitler shall now become head of state as Führer (leader) and Reich Chancellor. More than 38 million voters say yes (and more than 4 million have the courage to say no). At the party rally in Nuremberg in September Hitler declares that the Nazi revolution is now complete; and 'in the next thousand years there will be no other revolution in Germany'.

Thus begins the heady concept of the Third Reich, the Thousand-Year Reich, completing the trio of the First Reich (the Holy Roman Empire) and the Second Reich (achieved by Bismarck for the Hohenzollern dynasty). In the event it will be the shortest of the three, lasting eleven years rather than a thousand.

The economy and the nation: 1933-1938

There are three main planks to Hitler's economic and national policy: the reduction of unemployment, rearmament to make Germany strong again, and the restoration of the greater Germany diminished by the treaty of Versailles. Unspoken aspects of the third aim are the annexation of Austria and the eventual need to expand into Slav areas to the east in order to give the German people Lebensraum or 'living space' (both the phrase and the concept were probably suggested to Hitler by Rudolf Hess in their shared prison cell in 1923).

By a policy of massive investment in public works such as road building (the German autobahns, the world's first motorways, bring widespread international admiration), Hitler achieves rapid success with unemployment. The figure of 6 million unemployed when he takes power, in January 1933, is down to 2.6 million by December 1934.

The following month brings him a great success in the rich mining district of the Saar. This region has been part of Germany from 1815. But a hundred years later the treaty of Versailles places it under the control of the League of Nations - with the output of the mines going to France as part of Germany's reparations. At the same time the treaty stipulates that the inhabitants shall vote in 1935 whether to merge with Germany or France or stay with the League.

Anti-French feeling in the district would no doubt have provided the same result, but powerful Nazi propaganda ensures a 90% majority for merging with Germany when the plebiscite is held in January 1935. Hitler acquires a valuable industrial region.

Two months later, in March 1935, Hitler takes his first calculated international gamble. In blatant violation of the terms of the treaty of Versailles he announces that he is reintroducing conscription in order to build up a peacetime army and navy. The great European powers duly register their protests but take no action.

A year later Hitler chances another equally bold step. The treaty of Versailles has specified that the Allies can occupy until 1935 the Rhineland, the important strategic area in the west of Germany bordering France. The foreign divisions have been withdrawn early, in 1930, but the treaty also states that the region shall be permanently demilitarized. In March 1936 Hitler moves troops into the Rhineland. Again he hears only verbal objections.

The build-up of an army requires a build-up of armaments. In further violation of the treaty, Hitler launches a massive rearmament programme. German expenditure on arms rises from 2 billion Reichsmarks in 1933 to 16 billion in 1938. Unemployment, and the attendant public unrest, becomes a thing of the past. And foreign governments seem strangely willing to believe Hitler's protestations that his army and navy will be for defensive purposes only. Britain even signs a naval pact with Germany in 1935.

Even when Hitler first uses his army in a display of strength on foreign territory, he contrives to argue that his troops have been invited across the border, in March 1938, into neighbouring German-speaking Austria. And certainly there is cheering on the streets.

Germans abroad: 1938

From the start it has been part of Hitler's dream, expressed in Mein Kampf, that he will unite the German-speaking peoples of Europe in a recreation of the great Reich which once held them together. This first Reich, in the form of the Holy Roman Empire, was disbanded in 1806 when under threat from Napoleon. There was a chance to reconstitute it in 1871, with the creation of the second German Reich. But Bismarck, influenced by the long rivalry between Prussia and the Habsburgs, was determined to exclude Austria from his new Germany.

How satisfactory then if a new leader, born in Austria but rising to be head of state in Germany, should rectify Bismarck's failure of vision and bring Austria into the German fold.

By the time Hitler wins power, in 1933, there is already a sizable Nazi party in Austria. In July 1934 they overreach themselves in attempting a coup which has disastrous results. Although they seize the chancellery in Vienna and murder the chancellor, Engelbert Dollfuss, the putsch ends in their surrender and execution. Hitler, delighted at the first news of their action but not himself actively involved, finds himself compelled to disown them.

He shares their aim but must bide his time in achieving it. He begins a slow game of cat and mouse with Dollfuss's successor as chancellor, Kurt von Schuschnigg.

The first agreement between Hitler and Schuschnigg is ostensibly an attempt to bring relations between their two nations back to a state of normalcy two years after the failed Nazi putsch of 1934. In the Austro-German Agreement of July 1936 Hitler recognizes Austria's full sovereignty and both nations agree not to interfere in each other's internal affairs; but Austria does promise to maintain a foreign policy in keeping with her identity as 'a German state'.

Moreover, among other clauses about normalizing trade and border relations, there is an agreement by Schuschnigg to allow some Nazi sympathisers into his government. The Nazi party itself is still banned in Austria. But Hitler now has a toe in the door.

Two years later, leading a much stronger Germany, Hitler is in a very different mood. He effectively summons the Austrian chancellor to a meeting in his residence at Berchtesgaden on 12 February 1938. When Schuschnigg arrives, he is treated to a two-hour rant by Hitler about the perfidious behaviour of Austria.

It includes the open threat 'I can tell you here and now, Herr Schuschnigg, that I am absolutely determined to make an end of all this. The German Reich is one of the Great Powers, and nobody will raise his voice if it settles its border problems.' Schuschnigg is informed that unless he agrees to everything that Hitler demands, Germany will settle the matter by force.

Over the next few hours Schuschnigg is browbeaten into accepting an agreement which allows the Nazi party in Austria full freedom, together with a guaranteed role in developing economic and military collaboration between the two countries. Schuschnigg is then dismissed, to return home and put the agreement into effect.

But back in Vienna, after weeks of indecision, he gambles upon what seems his last practical chance. A central plank of Hitler's argument has been that a majority of Austrians want union with Germany. Schuschnigg now determines to put this to the test. On March 9 announces that a plebiscite will be held in four days' time, on Sunday March 13. The people will be asked to say whether they want an Austria which is free and independent.

Hitler is outraged at this act of defiance, but he also knows that he cannot allow the plebiscite to take place. On such occasions the people usually answer yes to whatever question is phrased for their own purposes by the politicians.

There is no immediate plan to invade Austria, for Hitler assumes that Schuschnigg will bend to his will. But arrangements are hurriedly put in place, and German tanks are ready to cross the border at the appointed time - dawn on Saturday March 12, the day before the plebiscite. Everything is in place for Hitler's long desired outcome, the Anschluss. It will be his first reunion with neighbouring Germans. But there are others to the north, in the Sudetenland, for whom he has similar intentions.

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