Note: Richard J Evans was speaking on the HistoryExtra podcast, answering questions about Nazi Germany submitted by our readers and the top online search queries posed to the internet. A selection of his answers have been transcribed and edited for clarity, and are shared below…
Listen to the full conversation on the HistoryExtra podcast
Q: What were Hitler’s motivations? And is it true that he was a history buff?
A: Hitler wasn’t really a history buff. He didn’t care very much about history, because his vision was a racist one in which the essential character of races, such as the Germans or Aryans or the Jews or the Slavs, were essentially unchanging over time.
He drew his ideas from a variety of sources: from a version of Social Darwinism that saw society and international relations as a sort of struggle of races for the survival of the fittest; from Arthur de Gobineau, a French theorist who invented the pseudoscientific idea of race theory; from Russian émigrés from the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, who brought with them the idea that Bolshevism and communism were creations of the Jewish race; from a certain amount of what’s called ‘geopolitics’, which was invented by an American.
It was a synthesis of ideas that resulted in Hitler viewing the world in racial terms and seeing violence and struggle as the essence of life, in both Germany itself and internationally.
Hitler developed these ideas at the end of the First World War, which was a terrible, surprising defeat for the Germans. Most Germans thought, particularly after the Spring Offensive of 1918 and the victory over Russia in 1918, that they were going to win. But, the Allies had a superiority in tanks and American troops were flooding onto the western front, and Germany had to admit defeat. Then there was a very harsh peace settlement in which Germany lost territory, lost population, and had to pay reparations for the damage that German troops had caused in northern France and southern Belgium. There were limits on the number of men they could have in their armed forces, as well as the amount of equipment and weapons they could have.
This came as a terrible shock to Hitler, who had been an ordinary soldier on the western front and decorated for bravery. Like a number of other former soldiers and younger Germans, he decided that the reason for the defeat was that the government of the Kaiser – who was deposed in 1918 – was weak-willed. Hitler believed that the Weimar Republic, which succeeded the Kaiser’s Germany, was a Jewish creation, and democracy was something Jewish. These were all complete fantasies. But the effect of the First World War was decisive, including on Hitler’s antisemitism and his belief the Jews were to blame for everything bad that had happened.
Adolf Hitler (far right, seated) during the First World War, a conflict which had a decisive effect on his antisemitic beliefs. (Photo by Roger Viollet via Getty Images)
Q: Why were the Nazis able to cement their control over Germany in 1933?
A: It’s a twin-track approach. Firstly, Hitler was head of a coalition government [with the conservatives] in which there was quite a considerable overlap between what he wanted to do and what the conservatives wanted to do. In particular they both wanted to crush the Communist Party – which had 100 seats in the Reichstag and hoped to create a Stalinist version of Germany – and the Social Democrats, who were even larger. In November 1932, the Social Democrats and Communists together had more votes and seats than the Nazis, but they were also deadly enemies of each other and couldn’t get their act together to stop the Nazis. Hitler used legal or quasi-legal powers of the government, particularly the president’s power to rule by decree in a state of emergency.
The Reichstag Fire in February 1933 led to decrees which essentially abolished basic constitutional, democratic freedoms. (Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
A chance event came on the night of 27–8 February 1933, when Hitler still hadn’t cemented his power in Germany. The Reichstag (ie national parliament) building was burned down by a lone Dutch quasi-Communist called Marinus van der Lubbe. Hitler, along with Hermann Goering, Joseph Goebbels and other Nazi leaders, persuaded President Hindenburg that this was the beginning of a Communist coup d’etat, a violent revolution. You have to remember that only a few years before, the Communists had staged a successful violent revolution in Russia in 1917 (and made further attempts in Hungary and Munich), so it seemed quite plausible. I think they really believed it was a Communist attempted coup. The Nazis had Hindenburg declare an emergency and decrees were issued in his name, which essentially abolished basic constitutional, democratic freedoms.
The next stage came on 23 March, when the Reichstag convened in the Kroll Opera House, and was persuaded by Hitler – through a mixture of threats and inducements – to vote for an Enabling Law. This meant that the cabinet – Hitler and the ministers – had the power to issue legislation without reference to the President or to the Reichstag; it gave them dictatorial powers.
Salutes in the Reichstag upon the first anniversary of Hitler’s post as Chancellor, on January 30, 1934. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)
Together, the Reichstag Fire Decree and the Enabling Act were the foundation of the Nazi dictatorship. There were other decrees that were then issued: for example, reforming the civil service, throwing Jews out of the civil service and expelling all opponents of the Nazis in the civil service.
The second track was mass, brutal violence on the streets. Particularly after the Reichstag Fire Decree, Communists were arrested and thrown into prison or makeshift concentration camps opened by the Nazis. The brownshirts – uniformed thugs – were appointed auxiliary police by Goering in Prussia. There were mass arrests of Social Democrats. There were arrests and maltreatment of other people from more centrist or right-wing political parties like the Bavarian People’s Party or the Catholic Centre Party, as a warning that they had to toe the line. About 600 people at least were brutally murdered. Many were tortured. We don’t know quite how many, but between 100,000–200,000 people were put into concentration camps or ‘roughed up’ and released on condition of not engaging in politics.
There was brutal intimidation that went along with this pseudo-legal framework to establish the dictatorship. It’s this twin-track approach that enabled the Nazis to establish the dictatorship.
Sir Richard J Evans is Regius Professor Emeritus of history at Cambridge University. He is the author of numerous books, including In Defence of History (Granta, 1997), The Coming of the Third Reich (Allen Lane, 2003) and The Pursuit of Power: Europe, 1815–1914 (Allen Lane, 2016).