Hitler did not invent the hatred of Jews. He capitalised on antisemitic ideas that had been around for a long time.
Hitler was born in Austria in 1889. He developed his political ideas in Vienna, a city with a large Jewish community, where he lived from 1907 to 1913. In those days, Vienna had a mayor who was very anti-Jewish, and hatred of Jews was very common in the city.
During the First World War (1914-1918), Hitler was a soldier in the German army. At the end of the war he, and many other German soldiers like him, could not get over the defeat of the German Empire.
The German army command spread the myth that the army had not lost the war on the battlefield, but because they had been betrayed. By a ‘stab in the back’, as it was called at the time.
Hitler bought into the myth: Jews and communists had betrayed the country and brought a left-wing government to power that had wanted to throw in the towel.
By blaming the Jews for the defeat, Hitler created a stereotypical enemy. In the 1920s and early 1930s, the defeated country was still in a major economic crisis. According to the Nazis, expelling the Jews was the solution to the problems in Germany.
This political message and the promise to make Germany economically strong again won Hitler the elections in 1932. After he had come to power, the laws and measures against the Jews increased all the time. It ended in the Shoah, the Holocaust, the murder of six million European Jews.
Antisemitism played a major role in Adolf Hitler’s thinking and in the Nazi ideology. Read here what inspired Hitler’s hatred of Jews and what life events played a role in its development.
Hitler did not invent the hatred of Jews. Jews in Europe had been victims of discrimination and persecution since the Middle Ages, often for religious reasons. Christians saw the Jewish faith as an aberration that had to be quashed. Jews were sometimes forced to convert or they were not allowed to practise certain professions.
In the nineteenth century, religion played a less important role. It was replaced by theories about the differences between races and peoples. The idea that Jews belonged to a different people than the Germans, for instance, caught on. Even Jews who had converted to Christianity were still ‘different’ because of their bloodline.
The origin of Hitler’s hatred of Jews is not clear. In Mein Kampf, he described his development into an antisemite as the result of a long, personal struggle. Supposedly, his aversion to everything Jewish came to fruition when he was living and working as a painter in Vienna (1908-1913).
Most historians believe that Hitler came up with this explanation in hindsight. He would have used it to assure people who were not yet convinced of his ideas that they would eventually see the light.
One way or another, it is clear that Hitler came into contact with antisemitic ideas at an early age. To what extent he shared them at that point, is not certain.
If he was prejudiced against Jews while living in Vienna, his prejudice had not yet crystallised into a clear worldview. After all, one of the most loyal buyers of his paintings in Vienna was a Jew, Samuel Morgenstern.
There are countless imaginative explanations for the reasons for Hitler’s antisemitism. Hitler is said to be have been ashamed of his partly Jewish roots. Another explanation links his hatred of Jews to trauma caused by a poison gas attack in the First World War.
Yet other theories suggest that Hitler had contracted a venereal disease from a Jewish prostitute. There are, however, no facts to support these explanations.
What we do know is that two Austrian politicians greatly influenced Hitler’s thinking. The first, Georg Ritter von Schönerer (1842-1921), was a German nationalist. He believed that the German-speaking regions of Austria-Hungary should be added to the German empire. He also felt that Jews could never be fully-fledged German citizens.
From the second, the Viennese mayor Karl Lueger (1844-1910), Hitler learned how antisemitism and social reforms could be successful. In Mein Kampf, Hitler praised Lueger as ‘the greatest German mayor of all times’. When Hitler came to power in 1933, he put similar ideas into practice.
The First World War played a decisive role in Hitler’s life. It gave his life, which had been rather unsuccessful up until then, a new purpose. In 1914, he enlisted in the German army, which, together with the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was fighting France, England, and Russia. Although he saw little action, he did receive an award for courage shown.
When Germany surrendered in November 1918, Hitler was in a military hospital. His eyes had been hurt in a poison gas attack in Belgium. Confined to his sickbed, he heard the news of the German surrender, which plunged him into a deep crisis. He wrote that ‘everything began to go black again before my eyes.’ Stumbling, he groped his way back to the dormitory and dug his ‘burning head in blanket and pillow.
The German defeat was hard to swallow for many Germans, and for Hitler, too. In nationalist and right-wing conservative circles, the ‘stab-in-the-back legend’ became popular. According to this myth, Germany did not lose the war on the battlefield, but through betrayal at the home front. The Jews, Social Democrats, and Communists were held responsible.
The prejudices about the role of the Jews in the war were false. An investigation carried out by the German Government proved as much. Over one hundred thousand German and Austrian Jews had fought for their fatherland. Otto Frank, who had fought in the Battle of the Somme in 1916, was just one of them
After the First World War, Germany was in chaos. Once the German emperor had gone, rebellions erupted everywhere. Left-wing groups tried to seize power in many places. In Munich, for instance, a ‘People’s Republic’ of Bavaria was proclaimed during a brief revolution. It provoked a right-wing reaction, which in turn resulted in bloodshed. Hitler was very much impressed by these events.
At that point, he was still in the army, and that was where he discovered his oratory talents. Before long, the army had him give training courses, intended to warn soldiers of the communist danger and to stir up feelings of nationalism. In his new role, Hitler got to know the German Workers’ Party, the forerunner of the NSDAP. It was the start of his political career.
Against the backdrop of revolution and violence, Hitler’s antisemitism was becoming increasingly radical. It is noteworthy that he said he did not support uncontrolled ’emotional’ pogroms (outbursts of anti-Jewish violence). Instead, he argued for an ‘antisemitism of the mind’. It had to be legal and would ultimately lead to the ‘removal’ of the Jews.
As early as August 1920, Hitler compared the Jews to germs. He stated that diseases cannot be controlled unless you destroy their causes. The influence of the Jews would never disappear without removing its cause, the Jew, from our midst, he said. These radical ideas paved the way for the mass murder of the Jews in the 1940s.
Hitler blamed the Jews for everything that was wrong with the world. Germany was weak and in decline due to the ‘Jewish influence’. According to Hitler, the Jews were after world dominance. And they would not hesitate to use all possible means, including capitalism. In this way, Hitler took advantage of the existing prejudice that linked the Jews to monetary power and financial gain.
Hitler was not bothered by the apparent contradictions in his thinking. He held that communism was a Jewish conspiracy, too, as the larger part of the communist leaders were Jewish. Nevertheless, only a small proportion of the Jews were communists. This idea of ‘Jewish communism’ was to have awful repercussions in the war with the Soviet Union that started in 1941. The population and prisoners-of-war were treated brutally by the Germans.
Hitler viewed the world as an arena for the permanent struggle between peoples. He divided the world population into high and low races. The Germans belonged to the high peoples and the Jews to the low ones. He also had specific notions about other peoples. The Slavic people, for instance, were cast as inferior, predestined to be dominated.
Hitler felt that the German people could only be strong if they were ‘pure’. As a consequence, people with hereditary diseases were considered harmful. These included people with physical or mental disabilities, as well as alcoholics and ‘incorrigible’ criminals. Once the Nazis had come to power, these ideas led to the forced sterilisation and killing of human beings.
The ideas that Hitler developed in the 1920s remained more or less the same until his death in 1945. What did change is that in 1933, he was handed the power to start realising them. During the 1930s, he did everything he could to expel the Jews from German society. Once the war had started, the Nazis resorted to mass murder. Nearly six million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust.
In 1933, Hitler came to power and turned Germany into a dictatorship. How did the Nazi party come to power and how did Hitler manage to eliminate his opponents?
Germany became a republic in 1919. After losing the First World War, Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated. Many Germans were dissatisfied with the new situation. They longed for a return to the Empire. Many people also believed that the ruling social democrats were to blame for losing the war. Nevertheless, things started to look up from the mid-1920s onwards.
And then in 1930, the global economic crisis hit. Germany could no longer pay the war debts stipulated in the Versailles Peace Treaty. Millions of Germans lost their jobs. The country was in a political crisis as well. Cabinets were falling, and new elections were held all the time. It seemed impossible to form a majority government.
This was the backdrop to the rise of the German National Socialist Workers’ Party (NSDAP). When it was founded in 1920, it was only a small party. But Hitler used his oratory talent to attract more and more members. The party was characterised by extreme nationalism and antisemitism.
In November 1923, Hitler even led a coup attempt. It was a complete failure. Hitler ended up behind bars and the court banned the NSDAP. At the end of 1924, Hitler was released after serving a relatively short sentence. However, his political career was not over. In prison he had written Mein Kampf, setting out his plans for Germany.
From then on, the Nazis were to stick to the law and try to gain power by means of elections. They benefited from the economic crisis that began by the end of the 1920s. The Nazis used the crisis to condemn the government and the Versailles peace treaty. Their strategy was effective. In the 1928 elections, the NSDAP gained 0.8 million votes; in 1930, the number had increased to 6.4 million.
The fact that many Germans were attracted by the NSDAP was not only because of their party programme. The party radiated strength and vitality. Moreover, the Nazi leaders were young, quite unlike the greying politicians of the established parties. In addition, Hitler’s image as a strong leader appealed to people. He was all set to unite the population and put an end to political discord.
The Nazis focused on voters from all walks of life, rather than on just one group, such as the workers or Catholics. They also attracted many people who had never voted before. Still, in November 1932 the party seemed to be past its peak. The economy was recovering, and the NSDAP received 11% fewer votes than in the July elections earlier that same year.
The conservative parties did not manage to win enough votes. They pressured president Paul von Hindenburg to appoint Hitler chancellor. They hoped to form a majority cabinet with the NSDAP. The fact that they expected to use Hitler for their own agenda would turn out to be a fatal underestimation.
30 January 1933 was the day: Von Hindenburg gave in and appointed Hitler chancellor. ‘It is like a dream. The Wilhelmstraße is ours’, Joseph Goebbels, the future Minister of Propaganda, wrote in his diary. So, although Hitler was not elected by the German people, he still came to power in a legal way.
The National Socialists celebrated their victory with a torchlight procession through Berlin. From the balcony of the chancellery, Hitler looked on approvingly. In spite of the glory, he was still far from being all-powerful at that point. The new cabinet counted only two NSDAP members, but Hitler succeeded in getting them appointed to important positions.
Hermann Göring’s role in particular was very important. He was a minister without portfolio who got to control the police force of Prussia, the larger part of Germany. For the Nazis, this was reason to celebrate their ‘national revolution’, but many Germans were indifferent to the news. They had seen many governments come and go and did not expect the new government to last any time at all
Before long, Hitler claimed more power. The fire in the Reichstag, the parliament building, was a key moment in this development. On 27 February 1933, guards noticed the flames blazing through the roof. They overpowered the suspected arsonist, a Dutch communist named Marinus van der Lubbe. He was executed after a show trial in 1934. Evidence of any accomplices was never found.
The Nazi leadership was quick to arrive at the scene. An eyewitness said that upon seeing the fire, Göring called out: ‘This is the beginning of the Communist revolt, they will start their attack now! Not a moment must be lost!’ Before he could go on, Hitler shouted: ‘There will be no mercy now. Anyone who stands in our way will be cut down.’
The next morning, President Von Hindenburg promulgated the Reichstag Fire Decree. It formed the basis for the dictatorship. The civil rights of the German people were curtailed. Freedom of expression was no longer a matter of course and the police could arbitrarily search houses and arrest people. The political opponents of the Nazis were essentially outlawed.
In this atmosphere of intimidation, new elections were held on 5 March 1933. The streets were full of Nazi posters and flags. Nevertheless, the great victory hoped for by the Nazis did not materialise. With 43.9% of the votes, the NSDAP did not have a majority. The left-wing parties KPD and SPD together still got 30% of the votes.
Meanwhile, the arrests and intimidation were on the increase. The government banned the Communist Party. By 15 March, 10,000 communists had been arrested. In order to house all these political prisoners, the first concentration camps were opened. The circumstances in the camps were atrocious. People were ill-treated, tortured, and sometimes killed.
Jews and well-known Germans in particular had a rough time of it. SS guards at the Dachau camp, near Munich, for instance, took four Jewish prisoners outside the gates, where they shot them dead. The guards then claimed that the victims had tried to escape.
On 23 March 1933, the Reichstag met in Berlin. The main item on the agenda was a new law, the ‘Enabling Act’. It allowed Hitler to enact new laws without interference from the president or Reichstag for a period of four years. The building where the meeting took place was surrounded by members of the SA and the SS, paramilitary organisations of the NSDAP that had by now been promoted to auxiliary police forces.
In his speech, Hitler gave those present the choice between ‘war and peace’. It was a veiled threat to intimidate any dissenters. The process was by no means democratic. With 444 votes in favour and 94 against, the Reichstag adopted the Enabling Act. It was to form the basis of the Nazi dictatorship until 1945.
Now that Hitler had become so powerful, it was time for the Nazis to bring society in line with the Nazi ideal. The process was known as Gleichschaltung. Many politically-suspect and Jewish civil servants were dismissed. Trade unions were forcibly replaced by the Deutsche Arbeitsfront. This allowed the Nazis to prevent workers from organising any opposition.
All existing political parties were banned. From mid-July 1933 onwards, Germany was a single-party state. Cultural and scientific ‘cleansings’ were carried out as well.
According to the Nazis, everything ‘un-German’ had to disappear. Books written by Jewish, left-wing, or pacifist writers were burned.
While the Nazis took over, their destructive energy was mainly directed against their political opponents. The German Jews formed the exception. As a group, they did not oppose the ambitions of the Nazis. Nevertheless, they were the constant victims of violence, harassment, and oppression.
As early as 1 April 1933, the government took official action against the Jews. It announced a major boycott of Jewish products. It was the first step in a series of anti-Jewish measures that would end in the Holocaust.
After taking power, Hitler and the Nazis turned Germany into a dictatorship. Time and again, they used legal means to give their actions a semblance of legality. Step by step, Hitler managed to erode democracy until it was just a hollow facade. Things did not end there, though. During the twelve years that the Third Reich existed, Hitler continued to strengthen his hold on the country