Adolf Hitler (1889-1945), German political and military leader and one of the 20th century's most powerful dictators. Hitler converted Germany into a fully militarized society and launched World War II in 1939 (see Federal Republic of Germany). He made anti-Semitism a keystone of his propaganda and policies and built the Nazi Party (see National Socialism) into a mass movement. He hoped to conquer the entire world, and for a time dominated most of Europe and much of North Africa. He instituted sterilization and euthanasia measures to enforce his idea of racial purity among German people and caused the slaughter of millions of Jews, Sinti and Roma (Gypsies), Slavic peoples, and many others, all of whom he considered inferior.
Adolf Hitler was born in Braunau am Inn, Austria-Hungary, in 1889, the fourth child of Klara and Alois Hitler. Hitler’s father worked his way up in the Austrian customs service to a position of considerable status, and as a result Hitler had a comfortable childhood. Hitler began school in 1900, and his grades were above average. It was decided that he would attend Realschule, a secondary school that prepared students for further study and emphasized modern languages and technical subjects. However, Hitler and his father strongly differed about career plans. His father wanted him to enter the civil service; Hitler insisted on becoming an artist. As a result, Hitler did poorly in Realschule, having to repeat the first year and improving little thereafter.
During this time, Hitler began to form his political views: a strong sense of German nationalism, the beginnings of anti-Semitism, and a distaste for the ruling family and political structure of Austria-Hungary. Like many German-speaking citizens of Austria-Hungary, Hitler considered himself first and foremost a German.
The death of Hitler’s father in January 1903 changed the family. The survivors' income was adequate to support Hitler, his mother, and his sister, but the absence of a dominant father figure altered Hitler's position in the family. He spent much time playing and dreaming, did poorly in his studies, and left school entirely in 1905 after the equivalent of the ninth grade.
|A||Time in Vienna|
Hitler had hoped to become an artist but was rejected as unqualified by the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts in October 1907. His mother died in 1908, and Hitler pretended to continue his studies in Vienna in order to receive an orphan’s pension. In reality, he mostly wandered about the city admiring its public buildings and frequently attending operas, especially those of Richard Wagner, whom Hitler adored for his heroic portrayals of German mythology.
When he had exhausted his inherited funds, Hitler, unwilling to take a job, ended up in a homeless shelter. It was there that he was first exposed to extreme political ideas, particularly the racial concepts of Lanz von Liebenfels. Liebenfels published a periodical about the supposed superiority of Aryans, an ill-defined race which included Germans, and the inferiority of other races, especially Jews. At the same time Hitler acquired a hatred for socialism and came to equate it with the Jews.
Between 1910 and 1913 Hitler’s life improved when he began to paint and sell postcards and pictures for a living, copying famous paintings and drawing public buildings. He debated ideas with others in the hostel in which he lived, developing the beginnings of his public speaking style. Failure to register for the draft in Austria led him to flee for Munich, Germany, in 1913 to escape Austrian authorities. He was extradited to Austria but was found physically unfit to serve in the military. He then returned to Munich.
|B||World War I|
The outbreak of World War I in 1914 came as an opportunity for Hitler, as his money was running out. He volunteered for a Bavarian unit in the German army and served the whole war. Though repeatedly decorated for bravery, he was never promoted beyond the rank of corporal. In a war of very high casualties, this is difficult to explain. Perhaps officers considered him a loner who could carry messages and perform other dangerous duties but who was unsuited to command men.
Hitler saw trench warfare as a form of the struggle for survival among races, a struggle that he was coming to see as the essence of existence. At the same time, his anti-Semitic feelings were growing extreme. When Germany was defeated in 1918, Hitler was lying in a military hospital, temporarily blinded by mustard gas. He decided Jews had caused Germany’s defeat and that he would enter politics to save the country.
Hitler returned to Munich after the war. He was selected to be a political speaker by the local army headquarters, given special training, and provided with opportunities to practice his public speaking before returning prisoners of war. His speaking successes led to his selection as an observer of political groups in the Munich area. In this capacity, he investigated the German Workers' Party—one of the many nationalist, racist groups that developed in Munich in the postwar years.
|C||Beginnings of the Nazi Party|
The German Workers' Party, later renamed the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (abbreviated NSDAP or Nazi Party), became Hitler’s political focus. Here he found an outlet for his talents in political agitation and party organization. The party espoused essentially the same ideas Hitler had picked up in Vienna: violent racial nationalism and anti-Semitism. He also shared the Nazis’ opposition to the liberal democracy of the German Weimar Republic, which had been established after the war.
Though still in the army, Hitler quickly became the new spokesman for the party. His talent for public speaking and the use of the local army's resources to generate publicity drew large audiences to events sponsored by an organization that had only 100 to 200 members. When he presented the party's official program to a gathering on February 24, 1920, there were almost 2000 present.
Hitler was discharged from the army the following month, and he soon attained dominance in the Nazi party. He was the party’s most effective recruiter and, thanks to paid attendance at his speeches, its most successful fundraiser. When opposed within the party, he found ways to push out rivals and dissenters. Several times he did so by threatening to leave the party himself. Hitler obtained enough support to have himself chosen as Führer (absolute leader) of the party on July 29, 1921.
|III||RISE TO POWER|
Hitler appealed to a wide variety of people by combining an effective and carefully rehearsed speaking style with what looked like absolute sincerity and determination. He found a large audience for his program of national revival, racial pride in Germanic values, hatred for France and of Jews and other non-German races, and disdain for the Weimar Republic. Hitler asserted only a dictatorship could rescue Germany from the depths to which it had fallen. His views changed only minimally in subsequent years and attracted increasingly larger audiences.
At the end of World War I, the Allies (those countries who had fought against Germany) had demanded that Germany pay reparations—that is, payments for war damages. The government refused to pay all that was demanded by the Allies. When Germany failed to pay enough, France and Belgium occupied the coal mines in the Ruhr industrial area in west central Germany in January 1923.
In protest, the German government halted all reparation payments and called for passive resistance by all the workers in the Ruhr area. This resistance took the form of a general strike, with laborers throughout the Ruhr refusing to work. To pay the striking workers, and to make up for money lost due to the stoppage of coal production, the government printed huge amounts of new money. This vast increase in the money supply triggered runaway inflation, as the German currency rapidly lost value. People saw their savings become worthless, while the price of goods skyrocketed.
|B||The Beer Hall Putsch|
Faced with massive inflation and growing civic unrest, the German government abandoned passive resistance and attempted to work out a new agreement with the Allies. At this point, Hitler decided the time was right to start a revolution. His followers were becoming restless, and he feared that the opportunity to launch a coup might pass as the government worked out an agreement and ended inflation.
On November 8, 1923, Hitler and 600 armed members of the Sturmabteilungen (or SA, a Nazi paramilitary force) made their move. They marched on a Munich beer hall where Gustav von Kahr, head of the provincial Bavarian government, was addressing a public meeting. Hitler took von Kahr and his associates hostage and declared in von Kahr's name the formation of a new national government. Von Kahr was then released, and he immediately retracted the statement, outlawed the Nazi party, and ordered the Bavarian police to crush Hitler’s revolution.
Undaunted, Hitler and his men led a march to the center of Munich the following day. State police halted the march, shooting started, and 16 of Hitler's followers were killed. Lacking mass support, Hitler had no chance against the police and military power of the Bavarian government. The so-called Beer Hall putsch (revolt) had failed. Hitler fled but was soon arrested and tried. In court he practically took over the proceedings, denouncing both the Weimar Republic and the Bavarian government. Hitler was sentenced to five years in prison for treason, but was released after less than one year.
Even though the putsch failed, it proved useful to Hitler. He received a great deal of publicity and learned an important lesson about the way to destroy democracy. It was not to be destroyed by outside force, but by working within its system to build up popular support, always avoiding a confrontation with its police and military power.
While in prison, Hitler dictated the first volume of Mein Kampf (1925; My Struggle, 1939); after his release he continued with a second volume. This work contained many of his basic ideas. Hitler believed that history was the record of struggles among races. He held that the superior Aryan race, centered in Germany, would be the final victor and would rule the world. But to win this struggle, Germany would have to be ruled by a dictator and would have to be racially aware. Racial awareness would come through a process of mobilizing the masses with propaganda that appealed to their feelings, not their reason, and aroused their hatred for all other allegedly inferior races, especially Jews. No class or other distinctions in German society mattered.
Another of Hitler’s major ideas was the concept of Lebensraum (living space). He denounced as hopelessly stupid those German political parties and movements that wanted to reverse the 1919 Treaty of Versailles and reclaim what Germany had then lost. Instead, Hitler argued that Germany needed large amounts of territory in which to expand, a need that he would meet by conquering territory and expelling or killing the local populations. Such measures naturally required wars, but not for political or economic objectives. Hitler’s wars would be fought to win vast stretches of land on which German settlers would raise large families. Eventually more land would be needed, but the population would have grown sufficiently to provide the soldiers needed to replace the losses caused by war and to conquer more land. What would happen when the German settlers met on the other side of the globe was not explained.
|D||Reorganization of the Party|
During his time in jail, Hitler had turned over direction of the party to Alfred Rosenberg. Rosenberg edited the party's newspaper, the Völkischer Beobacter (Popular Observer), but had no administrative ability. As a result, Hitler easily resumed complete control of the party upon his release in December 1924. In the years from 1925 to 1930, Hitler built up a network of local party organizations over most of Germany, and reorganized the SA. At the same time he organized the black-shirted Schutzstaffel (defense corps), or SS, to protect him, supervise and control the party, and perform police tasks.
In this process of extending National Socialist power, Hitler was assisted by several men who had worked with him before 1923. Hermann Göring was a World War I fighter pilot who saw to the reorganization of the SA and was Hitler's closest confidante. Rudolf Hess, also a former pilot, became Hitler's secretary and played a major role in party organization. Joseph Goebbels was an aspiring author who came to worship Hitler and developed the Nazi propaganda techniques that swayed more Germans to join in that worship. Ernst Röhm was an army officer whose involvement increased army support and who built up the SA; he was killed on the Night of the Long Knives on Hitler’s orders in 1934 when Hitler felt that Röhm was becoming a threat to his plans. Heinrich Himmler, who had studied agriculture, began his work in the party in a secretarial capacity but moved into the SS, which he later headed. Max Amann had been Hitler’s immediate superior in World War I and was placed in charge of the party's newspaper and publishing firm, which he turned into profitable businesses.
In 1928 Hitler began his attempt to build the power of the party by democratic means. In the 1928 election the Nazi Party received just under 3 percent of the vote, but during the campaign it had gathered a strong base. In 1929 a new settlement of the war reparations question, the Young Plan, was adopted, opening up the possibility of an early end to the remaining foreign occupation of a portion of Germany. Such an event might stabilize the republic, and in fear of this, the republic’s opponents organized a national initiative against the plan. This initiative, which was financed by the German nationalist Alfred Hugenberg, provided Hitler with opportunities to speak throughout Germany. The initiative to stop the Young Plan failed, but Hitler had recruited new followers who not only believed his message but were also willing to finance the Nazi Party.
In late 1929 the first effects of the worldwide economic depression were felt in Germany. The last government of the Weimar Republic based on a majority in the Reichstag (the German parliament) was not able to cope with the crisis and fell in March 1930. President Paul von Hindenburg appointed a new government led by Heinrich Brüning as chancellor (prime minister). However, Brüning and the Reichstag could not agree on how to resolve the crisis. Hindenburg dissolved the legislature and operated the government by emergency decree, rather than through the normal legislative procedure. In new elections held that September, the Nazis scored a great electoral breakthrough, increasing their representation in the Reichstag from 12 to 107.
The victory of the Nazi Party, which had campaigned vigorously for the repudiation of all of Germany's financial obligations, caused foreign investors to withdraw their money from Germany, and the German banking system collapsed due to lack of capital. As economic conditions worsened, the appeal of the Nazis was far more effective than that of other parties: The Nazis were the one group that claimed to have all the answers. In a short time, the other political parties lost voters to the Nazis. Unemployment rose drastically, and in this time of great economic hardship many who had never voted before were drawn to the Nazi Party, which offered simplistic but appealing solutions to their problems and was not tied to one class or interest group. Consequently, they believed it could establish a government that would be more effective than the republic. In elections held in 1932, the Nazis received more votes than any other party, and Hitler demanded that President Hindenburg appoint him chancellor.
Though Hindenburg at first refused to appoint Hitler, a small group of men around the president urged him to do so. They felt that Hitler could be controlled and his popularity and talents could be used to further the interests of the government. As the year progressed, Brüning's successor Franz von Papen grew unpopular as his attempts to revive the economy failed. Hindenburg replaced him with the political leader of the army, Kurt von Schleicher. Von Papen took revenge on Schleicher by joining forces with Hitler and Alfred Hugenberg. They talked the elderly Hindenburg into making Hitler chancellor in a cabinet in which von Papen would be vice-chancellor and most other ministers would be non-Nazis. On January 30, 1933, Hitler was sworn in as chancellor of Germany. Those who disliked the republic had persuaded the president to turn over authority to its sworn enemy.
|IV||THE NAZI REGIME|
Immediately upon becoming chancellor, Hitler moved to consolidate his power. He persuaded Hindenburg to issue a decree suspending all civil liberties in Germany. A subservient legislature passed the Enabling Act, which permitted Hitler's government to make laws without legislative approval. The act effectively made the legislature powerless. Hitler then installed loyal Nazis in important posts in the bureaucracy, the judiciary, and the German provincial governments. He replaced all labor unions with the Nazi-controlled German Labor Front and banned all political parties except his own. The economy, the media, and all cultural activities were brought under Nazi authority. An individual's livelihood was made dependent on his or her political loyalty. Thousands of anti-Nazis were taken to concentration camps—the existence of which was widely publicized—and all signs of dissent were suppressed. A massive propaganda campaign celebrated the end of democracy in Germany, and huge, staged demonstrations gave the impression that everyone supported Hitler.
Existing social, economic, and professional organizations were quickly taken over by individuals either already in the party or who would quickly join it. For the most part, leaders of Germany’s Protestant and Catholic churches rallied to the new government. Schools taught Nazi ideology. Soon the spare time of the young was absorbed by the Nazi Party as well—boys were drawn into the Hitler Youth, and girls became members of the Nazi-led League of German Girls. The goal was to indoctrinate people into the party starting at a young age. By the summer of 1933, the Nazi Party was in complete control of the country.
|A||Hitler’s Racial Policies|
In 1933 Hitler initiated policies to rid the Aryan race of undesirable elements and eliminate other races that he considered inferior and dangerous to the Germans. First, the government approved marriage loans to the “right kind” of Germans—those whose ancestors and appearance measured up to the Nazi’s standard of Aryan purity. These loans were repaid as the newlyweds produced babies. To discourage the propagation of the “wrong kind” of people, a law required the compulsory sterilization of men and women deemed likely to have defective children, primarily those with physical or mental handicaps. By 1945 some 400,000 Germans had been sterilized.
The first discriminatory laws against Jews also came in 1933. These laws barred Jews from government employment and restricted their admission to universities. In subsequent years, the anti-Semitic laws became increasingly harsh, as Jews were deprived of citizenship, excluded from more and more jobs, forbidden to own cars, thrown out of public schools, and stripped of their property. These events culminated in Kristallnacht (the “Night of Broken Glass”), the night of November 9, 1938, when Nazi mobs killed dozens of Jews, smashed thousands of windows in Jewish neighborhoods, and set fire to almost all Jewish houses of worship throughout Germany. Following Kristallnacht, the Nazis sent more than 30,000 Jews to concentration camps. Hundreds of thousands of others fled the country.
|B||Rearmament of Germany|
Starting in 1933, Hitler began the process of German rearmament and militarization that would eventually lead to World War II. Hitler’s plans for conquest consisted of four distinct wars. The first war would be against Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic and Slovakia). He was certain that the Czechs would put up little resistance and Czech territory and resources could then be used to further his continuing plans for conquest. Hitler’s second war would be against Britain and France. He expected this to be the most difficult conflict, as these countries had defeated Germany during World War I. Hitler prepared for this war during the 1930s.
The third war would be against the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), where Hitler planned to seize huge portions of territory for German settlement. However, Hitler badly miscalculated when he assumed the conquest of the USSR would be simple. His assumption was based on his belief that the Soviets, many of whom were of Slavic descent, were an inferior race controlled by the Jews under the guise of socialism. As a result, Hitler made no military preparations for that war and counted on a quick victory to provide Germany with the resources, especially the oil, needed for the fourth war, which was to be waged against the United States. Hitler felt that actually fighting the Americans would be easy, but technical preparations for the conflict had to be made well in advance because the United States was far away and had a large navy.
These military preparations with their enormous construction projects accelerated the economic recovery in Germany that had begun in 1932. Soon Germany faced a labor shortage instead of unemployment. As rearmament shifted into high gear, Hitler found he was short of money to buy foreign materials. This fact, combined with a desire to rely on domestic resources, led Hitler to inaugurate the Four-Year Plan in 1936. The plan called for Germany to be self-sufficient and ready for war in four years. Once the production of weapons for war against France and Britain was under way, Hitler in 1937 ordered the design and production of weapons for war with the United States. These arms included bombers that could reach America and a fleet of superbattleships that Hitler planned to be the core of a dominant navy.
In response to Hitler’s call for German self-sufficiency, German steelmakers protested that the quality of domestic ores was too poor to use. When industry leaders refused to process the low-grade domestic ores, Hitler forced them to pay for a government-owned company that would. German industry was producing synthetic oil by 1933, and synthetic rubber and other substitutes followed. Hitler insisted that German workers be treated carefully and generously because he believed that domestic unrest caused by the hardships of war had brought about Germany’s defeat in World War I. During World War II, this policy required German armies to loot occupied territories, which resulted in the German people having the highest wartime rations in Europe.
Despite Hitler’s drive for German self-sufficiency he knew that Nazi forces alone could not overcome the major European powers—at least not at first—and he began to seek allies. Hitler had long hoped to win the support of Italy in any coming war. He admired Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, whose nationalistic and militaristic policies mirrored his own. This admiration was reciprocated, and in 1936, Hitler and Mussolini established the Rome-Berlin Axis. Hitler then turned to Japan as a possible ally against Britain and France. In 1940 the Rome-Berlin Axis was extended to include Japan and became the Rome-Berlin-Tokyo Axis.
|V||BUILDUP TO WAR|
One of Hitler’s primary goals had always been to unite all German-speaking people in Europe. To this end, Hitler strongly pursued Anschluss (union) between Germany and Austria. The latter country was the primarily German-speaking remnant of the old empire of Austria-Hungary, which had been dismembered after World War I. The union of Germany and Austria had been forbidden by the treaty that ended World War I, a restriction deeply resented in both countries. Hitler, himself an ethnic German of Austrian birth, had always expected to incorporate Austria into his German empire—an empire he named the Third Reich. Union with Austria would increase Germany’s population, strengthen its army, and open an avenue to southeastern Europe.
Efforts to accomplish Anschluss by external pressure and an internal coup failed in 1933 and 1934. These heavy-handed tactics considerably dampened Austrian enthusiasm for union with Germany. By 1937 Hitler was openly threatening the Austrian government and massing troops along the Austrian border. In March 1938 the Austrian chancellor resigned and was replaced by a member of the Austrian Nazi Party. On March 12, Hitler ordered his army to march into Austria. They met no resistance, and the following day in Vienna, Hitler proclaimed the official union of Austria and Germany.
In early May 1938 Hitler decided to begin the first of his wars, that against Czechoslovakia. Hitler planned to crush Czechoslovakia, use its sizeable ethnic German population to enlarge his army, and expel or kill its non-German inhabitants. To build support for this plan, the Nazis organized a massive propaganda campaign in Germany, which portrayed ethnic Germans in Czechoslovakia as victims of repression and discrimination at the hands of the Czechs. This campaign was unsuccessful—too many Germans remembered the horrors of the last war, and too few hated the Czechs. In addition to this lack of domestic support, there was unexpected foreign pressure against an invasion. Mussolini urged Hitler to negotiate, and Britain took a firm stand in support of Czechoslovakia.
Hitler called off the invasion in favor of negotiations, which ended in the Munich Pact. By the terms of this agreement, Czechoslovakia ceded to Germany portions of its land that were inhabited by ethnic Germans—primarily the area in western Czechoslovakia known as the Sudetenland. Hitler accepted this agreement against his better judgment; he really wanted a war that would destroy Czechoslovakia. For the rest of his life, he considered this his worst mistake, and he was determined never to be cheated of war again.
In the winter of 1938 and 1939 Hitler believed the time had come for war with France and Britain. Those countries hoped war could be avoided; the experience of World War I had convinced them that even a victorious war would not be worth the cost. As a result, leaders in London and Paris had worked hard to settle whatever international issues might arise and to escape war if at all possible. The idea that anyone might actually want war was inconceivable to them. The signs that Germany was looking for further expansion even after Munich, however, led the British and French governments to decide in early 1939 that if Germany took action against any other country and that country resisted, they would go to war. Germany’s breaking of the Munich Pact by occupying most of the rest of Czechoslovakia in March 1939 pushed the bulk of the British and French peoples behind this agreement.
Before attacking in the west, Hitler needed to secure two things: a quiet front on Germany's eastern border and allies against Britain and France. The first of these meant subordinating Hungary, Lithuania, and Poland to Germany. A change of government in Hungary favored Hitler’s aims. He then successfully intimidated Lithuania into submitting to the Germans and annexed the formerly-German region of Memel, which had been ceded to Lithuania after World War I. The Poles, however, were unwilling to surrender without a fight. Hitler decided to conquer Poland first and then turn to the west. As for securing allies, Italy was willing but Japan hesitant. Japan was interested only in an ally against the USSR, not against France and Britain. In a reversal of his former anti-Communist stance, Hitler turned to the USSR.
The Soviets had made offers of agreements in prior years, but Hitler had turned them away. Now, in Hitler’s eyes, the USSR could help destroy Poland and then provide Germany with supplies while Nazi forces defeated Britain and France. Then Hitler would crush the Soviets. Consequently, concessions made to Soviet leader Joseph Stalin made no difference to Hitler—they would all be taken back later. Hitler offered Stalin whatever he wanted to get an agreement signed. Inducements included a plan to split eastern Europe between the Germans and the Soviets, and a promise that the USSR need only remain neutral in case of a German conflict with another nation, instead of having to fight on the German side. The deal was signed on August 23, 1939. Germany's ambassadors to London, Paris, and the Polish capital of Warsaw were recalled from their posts. On Hitler’s orders, the invasion of Poland began on September 1, 1939. Almost immediately, Britain and France declared war on Germany. World War II had begun.
|VI||WORLD WAR II|
Polish resistance was no match for the German army, and the country quickly fell. Hitler had originally hoped to attack in the west in late 1939, but bad weather forced postponement. In the meantime the German navy urged an occupation of Denmark and Norway and war with the United States. Hitler agreed to the first, an operation conducted in April 1940, but preferred to postpone war with the United States until he could either complete construction of a navy large enough to fight the Americans or could acquire an ally who had one. In May and June of 1940, Hitler’s forces routed the armies of the Netherlands, Belgium, and France.
Although Hitler failed to subdue Britain, he felt that by driving all resistance off the European continent he had effectively won the war in the west. He immediately accelerated the preparations for war with the United States and decided to attack the USSR in the fall of 1940. The British refusal to surrender confirmed his decision to attack the USSR; advice from the military led him to delay the invasion until late spring of 1941. Hitler believed the United States would come to Britain’s aid, and a German invasion of the USSR would encourage Japan to attack the Americans before they had a chance to help the British. He also encouraged a Japanese attack by promising to join Japan in a war against the United States. Japan had the large navy Hitler felt he needed.
The invasion of the USSR was launched in spite of Stalin’s attempts to prevent it. Even though Hitler had been massing troops on the border with the USSR for several weeks prior to the invasion, Stalin insisted that Soviet forces should take no action that could provoke the Nazis. His policies proved futile, and the attack began on June 22, 1941. The Germans completely underestimated the USSR, however, especially the ability of its government to control and mobilize the country’s resources. The Soviet army halted and then defeated the Germans in 1941 and crushed subsequent German offensives in 1942 and 1943.
As his armies were rolling through Polish resistance, Hitler stepped up the elimination of peoples he saw as inferior to Germans. Shortly after their 1939 conquest of Poland, the Germans began killing thousands of Poles and driving thousands more out of their homes to make way for German settlers. The Nazis also herded Jewish Poles into city ghettoes, killing thousands of them and condemning the rest to starvation. Within Germany, Hitler ordered a program to systematically kill handicapped Germans, and over 200,000 were eventually murdered.
The German authorities planned to kill all Jews in the portions of the USSR they occupied and began the process in the summer of 1941. In late July 1941, Hitler decided to extend the systematic killing of Jews to all of German-occupied Europe. After the renewed German offensive in the USSR in October 1941 appeared to make great progress, he decided the time had come to go even further: All Jews on earth would be killed. However, the Nazis found that German police and soldiers who did the killing were often traumatized by the experience. To make the slaughter faster and less stressful, the Germans built specially designed death camps, primarily in occupied Poland, to which Jews and other prisoners from all over Europe were transported. These camps contained large gas chambers where hundreds of prisoners at a time could be quickly, easily, and impersonally murdered by poison gas.
In his public speeches, Hitler repeatedly referred to the killing of Europe's Jews but without detailing the process. Because the Allies halted Germany's forces, Hitler's global ambitions were not realized; however, of the approximately 18 million Jews in the world, one-third were killed in what came to be known as the Holocaust. The great majority of European Jews perished, a fact that Hitler boasted of in his last testament.
|B||The End of the War|
By the time of the Allied D-Day invasion of Normandy (Normandie), in northern France, in June 1944, the war was going very badly for Hitler. A series of losses to the Allies and failure to defeat the Soviets had left Hitler’s armies severely weakened. Hitler's Germany had also changed a great deal. British and American bombers were devastating its industries and cities. The Germans who had reservations about Hitler’s regime had begun to find some recruits. However, most of the population still supported the regime and especially Hitler; consequently, those opposed to him saw his assassination followed by a military takeover as the only way to topple the dictatorship. Several assassination attempts, beginning in March 1943, miscarried. A bomb was placed in Hitler’s headquarters at Rastenberg in East Prussia (modern Poland) on July 20, 1944, but did not kill him (see July Plot). The conspirators tried to launch their coup anyway, but with little support the effort failed. Hundreds involved in the coup attempt were executed, and Hitler maintained control of the country.
Underestimating the Americans, Hitler launched his last reserves west into the Ardennes country of Belgium and Luxembourg in the Battle of the Bulge (December 1944-January 1945). He felt that despite massive Allied gains, a hard blow would cause popular support for the war in America to collapse, and would lead to the disintegration of the coalition arrayed against him. All he accomplished, however, was to draw away troops needed in the east, allowing the Soviet army's winter offensive to roll all the way to the gates of Berlin. Hitler decided to remain in the city, hoping to inspire its defenders and anticipating a breakup of the Allies’ alliance. When neither of these hopes were realized, he appointed Karl Dönitz, the head of the navy and a devoted Nazi, as his successor. He then married his mistress Eva Braun and committed suicide in Berlin on April 30, 1945.
Hitler left Germany and much of Europe in ruins. Over 60 million people died worldwide in the war, and tens of millions more lost their health and homes. Certain that they did not want to fight the Germans a third time, the Allies insisted on an unconditional surrender. They occupied all of Germany and divided it into British, French, American, and Soviet zones. Even after the western zones were joined into the Federal Republic of Germany in 1949, the country remained divided until 1990.
The German people discovered for the first time the extent to which modern warfare could destroy a country. World War I had not been fought to any great extent on German soil. The events of the war also demonstrated to many Germans the problems of dictatorship. Increasing numbers were now prepared to try a different, democratic, path at home, as well as an attempt at reconciliation with their neighbors. Both projects would take time, but they were major departures in the history of Germany and of Europe.
The war also brought the Soviet Army into central Europe and provided the Soviet regime with legitimacy in the eyes of its own people, a new empire in east and southeast Europe, and superpower status in the world. The world role of the United States was also enhanced in spite of the American preference for remaining aloof. Outside of Europe, the war hastened the end of colonial empires and the emergence of the new Jewish state of Israel. It also brought about the creation of new international organizations like the United Nations (UN) that might prevent such wars in the future.
Ironically, these developments were the exact opposite of what Hitler had hoped for. His ambition to make Berlin the capital of the world was not realized, and the enormous buildings he started designing for it in the 1920s were never built. Hitler combined organizational and manipulative talents with great cunning. He was simultaneously obsessed with fantastic visions and blinded to reality by those very visions. However, many Germans shared at least a portion of those visions. This support made it possible for Hitler to utilize the resources of Europe's second largest population and most advanced economy to pursue his ends. The result was an outburst of destruction that consumed the lives of millions and transformed the world.