German dictator Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) (born Adolf Schicklgruber) was the leader of the Nazi party and Führer of the Third Reich of Germany from 1934 to 1945. He and his National Socialist movement were one of several nationalistic and racist mass movements that arose from the political and economic problems that followed World War I. Hitler and his followers were responsible
for many of the events that led to World War II, most of which shaped the latter 20th century. His promotion of racial supremacist doctrines and anti-Semitism culminated in the Holocaust, the systematic murder of more than 6 million Jewish civilians. Consequently, Hitler left a tragic and indelible mark on recent human history.
With the outbreak of war in 1914, Hitler volunteered for action in the German army. He fought on Germany’s Western front for 4 years. Injured and gassed, Hitler won the highly respected Iron Cross. After the German defeat, he became convinced that his country was not defeated on the battlefield but was stabbed in the back by traitors, Jews, and Marxists who sabotaged Germany with the Treaty of Versailles, by which the victorious Allied powers inflicted humiliation and ruinous reparation payments on a defeated nation.
After the war, Hitler attended a German Workers’ Party meeting, joined, and became one of the party’s best speakers. The party was one of many political groups formed after Germany’s defeat that called for national unity and promoted anti-Semitism. These militant and nationalistic parties were similar to those fascist parties in Italy and Spain that were radical, anti-liberal, antiMarxist, and authoritarian. When Hitler became leader of the party in 1921, it was renamed the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (the official name of the Nazi party).
Runaway inflation and the French occupation of the Ruhr Valley contributed to the growth of the Nazi party in Germany. Hitler hoped to end the Ruhr occupation by staging the “Beer Hall” Putsch of November 8-9, 1923, to march against the government in Berlin. The attempt failed and Hitler was tried for treason and sentenced to prison. During his imprisonment, he dictated Mein Kampf (1925), an autobiographical account of his life and political philosophy in which he described Germany’s need to re-arm, become self-sufficient, suppress Marxism, and rid itself of the Jewish minority.
The conditions of the Great Depression were especially severe in Germany during the postwar period of the Weimar Republic; widespread poverty and public demoralization aided the growth of the Nazi party to the point that, in January 1933, President Hindenburg called Hitler to be chancellor of a coalition government. Hitler consolidated his power by persuading the government to suspend the constitution and to grant him emergency powers. At the death of President Hindenburg in August 1934, Hitler merged the offices of Chancellor and President to become the single leader of both the Nazi party and the Third Reich. Consequently, Germany became a one- party state as other political parties were banned and the unions were destroyed.
Hitler began massive rearmament and a building program to ready Germany for war. This stimulated the German economy, making him a popular leader. He included a propaganda campaign promoting German nationalism, stressing themes from the 19th century that focused on military losses to the French and called for a return to the glories of the Prussian state.
His power secured in Germany, Hitler took advantage of the appeasement policies of the French and English governments. Germany walked out of the Geneva Disarmament Conference and withdrew from the League of Nations. Hitler militarized the Rhineland in 1936, contrary to the disarmament clauses of the Treaty of Versailles. Next, Austria was annexed to Germany in the 1938 Anschluss, followed by the annexation of the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia with the 1938 Munich Agreement. These annexations led Hitler to be named Time magazine’s Man of the Year.
On September 1, 1939, Hitler’s armies invaded Poland. Alarmed at Germany’s full occupation of Czechoslovakia, a violation of the Munich Agreement, France and Great Britain honored their agreement to keep Poland independent and declared war against Germany. By 1940, Hitler had gained control of Norway and Denmark. Next, he focused on France, Holland, and Belgium. Only Great Britain, in the Battle of Britain, repelled German advances.
Hitler invaded Russia on June 22, 1941. The Soviets held the Germans at Stalingrad in 1943. After the United States declared war on Germany and the Allied efforts intensified, the German army lost momentum and the tide of war began to turn against Germany. Hitler gradually withdrew from public view and ignored advice from his military generals. He also intensified his execution of Jewish people in conquered territories; Jewish ghettos and villages were emptied and survivors sent to concentration camps for extermination. But a series of Allied victories continued to drive back the German armies, and an invasion of Germany became inevitable. As Soviet troops converged on Berlin, Hitler escaped to an underground bunker and committed suicide on April 30, 1945. Germany surrendered in May.
Hitler’s dream of a greater Germany existed a little over 12 years and caused the death of approximately 50 million people globally. It took a coalition of world powers to defeat the German military in a war that lasted nearly 6 years. To prevent future conflicts, the Allies formed the United Nations, whose first act was to ratify the creation of the new Jewish state of Israel, in response to the Holocaust.
The legacy of Hitler’s actions continued for nearly half a century as a weakened Europe became a battlefront in the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States. Germany itself was divided in half; though defeated, both sides of Germany were coveted by the superpowers for military support. To some degree it was the political instability in postwar nations that allowed anticolonial movements in Asia and Africa to form independent states, and the resistance to these movements led in turn to conflicts such as the Vietnam War. Former German territories in central Europe, liberated by the Soviets at the end of the war, had Communist regimes installed. The Soviet occupation plus the memory of the failed Munich Agreement made political appeasement unattractive as a foreign policy; it helped to establish the policy of communist containment by the United States that lasted until the reunification of Germany in 1990 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.
See also Judaism; Marx, Karl; Stalin, Joseph
Bullock, A. (1964). Hitler: A study in tyranny (Rev. ed.). New York: Harper & Row.
Fest, J. C. (2002). Hitler (R. Winston & C. Winston, Trans.). New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Hitler, A. (1943). Mein Kampf (R. Manheim, Trans.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Shirer, W. L. (1990). Rise and fall of the third Reich.
New York: Simon & Schuster/Touchstone.
Toland, J. (1991). Adolf Hitler: The definitive biography.
New York: Anchor.