Although we often think of Hitler as the “fuhrer” of Nazi Germany who wielded absolute power, the Nazi Party and its racist ideology began to come to power not through dictatorship, but with democracy. It was only after the Nazi Party had become a substantial political force within the German parliament that Hitler was invited by Germany’s president, Paul von Hindenburg, to become chancellor.
How did this happen?
There are many different interpretations for how a party such as the Nazi Party was able to come to power and extend its influence so far that Hitler became unquestioned dictator. However, in the early going, the Nazi Party used populist strategies to appeal to some of the worst fears of the German people.
In the late 1920s, Germany had scarcely recovered from its war defeat in World War I. Nazi representatives and other politicians, such as Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels, began to frame the defeat as the work of “evil international Jewry.” They learned early on that they could rouse some of the people to loyalty and even violence by creating scapegoats.
The tools of the Nazi Party were not limited to democratic means, but they often prepared the way for victory at the ballot box by using racism and violence. For example, Nazi Party members were involved in beating and killing trade unionists long before Hitler swept into power, justifying this by saying that these people were “sabotaging” Germany.
At the time when Hitler swept into power in the early 1930s, he was also able to use opposition to the Treaty of Versailles as part of his platform. The Treaty commanded Germany to pay heavy reparations to its World War I enemies, and also forbid it from having a large military. Hitler painted himself as a hero of the people who would restore Germany’s true place in Europe.
The establishment of Nazi race laws and anti-Jewish violence did not happen right away. At first, Hitler had broad popular support. It was only after he became chancellor that he wielded the full force of law in order to dismantle law. Following the suspicious arson of the German Reichstag (parliament building) he quickly established himself as a dictator.
Step by step, the Nazi Party used law against democracy and freedom. Even today, people must be sensitive to all the ways totalitarianism can encroach on society, in order that the Holocaust can never be repeated.
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