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Nazi Germany Key Debates

How did Nazi rule affect the German people? How effective was propaganda? Read our analysis of some of the important debates surrounding Nazi Germany, and gain a deeper understanding of them.

Why was Hitler able to dominate Germany by 1933?

To some extent, explanation of Hitler’s remarkable rise to power lies with the man himself. From as early as 1924, when he was on trial for treason, he was demonstrating his considerable oratory powers and his fanatical dedication to his beliefs by using the courtroom as an opportunity to criticise the Weimar Government and offer an alternative vision of Germany’s future. Hitler skilfully combined the use of violence and intimidation through the SA and SS with the veneer of political respectability, campaigning vigorously in elections and forging alliances with key politicians such as Schleicher. The Nazi propaganda machine, masterminded by Joseph Goebbels, was instrumental in creating the impression that the Nazis held huge power and political influence long before this was actually borne out at the polls and even defeats, such as the 1932 Presidential Election, served to raise Hitler’s profile. Yet, the Nazis were also reliant on the mistakes of key Weimar politicians; both Schleicher and von Papen tried to use Hitler as an ally in the struggles against one another, allowing him to outwit them both. Hindenburg certainly had his misgivings about Hitler’s ambitions but he too gave him political respectability by involving him in high level negotiations and most importantly by appointing him chancellor in 1933. Yet, ultimately the fate of the Weimar Republic was sealed by its increasing unpopularity and the economic context therefore played a key role in Hitler’s rise. The Great Depression brought crippling unemployment, rampant inflation and poverty for millions and Nazi policies became an increasingly attractive alternative to the existing government. German society seemed to be descending into lawlessness as the extreme left and right wing pitched battle on the streets but the Nazis managed to use this in their favour by offering to restore order, whilst simultaneously driving much of the violence themselves.

How effective was Nazi propaganda?

Hitler’s belief in the importance of propaganda was formed early; he devoted two chapters of Mein Kampf to its effectiveness and created the Propaganda Ministry under Joseph Goebbels in 1933. The Ministry was certainly active throughout the Third Reich, with tens of thousands of pieces being produced and total control of all media and entertainment outlets. The Nazis used a wide range of propaganda devices, including rallies, speeches, films and posters and understood the importance of simplicity; a few reoccurring themes dominated, promoting German freedom, nationalism and the superhuman qualities of the Fuhrer himself (the ‘Hitler myth’). On the surface, the success of this propaganda effort is evident; party membership increased rapidly throughout the 1930s and Hitler’s public appearances always drew large and adoring crowds, particularly at the annual Nuremburg rallies, where up to a million people were recorded. The lack of opposition to discrimination policies could also be interpreted as a sign of successful propaganda, since the German population were gradually drip-fed information to make them suspicious of Jews and others who did not conform to the Nazi ideal. However, it is impossible to be certain of whether the propaganda was actually believed or whether people conformed out of fear. The Gestapo was ever-present and membership of Hitler Youth and military service were both compulsory. The harsh punishments dealt out to opposition groups like the White Rose Movement suggest that the government feared resistance and certainly towards the end of the war, the German people questioned the truth of Goebbels’ message. The defeat at Stalingrad was a turning point here since the admittance of defeat revealed the deception in previous reporting. Desertion increased in the last months of the war and many privately questioned the Nazi leadership, even if few did this publically. However, resistance to the regime from within Germany never grew to a level that threatened Hitler’s hold on power.

How successful was Nazi economic policy?

Nazi economic policy was always designed to support Hitler’s other aims and thus had a dual focus; to maintain the support of the German population and to transform Germany into a global military and industrial superpower. Approaches to the economy lacked coherence and were often overhauled, such as when Hermann Goering replaced Hjalmar Schacht as Finance Minister in 1936. Although Schacht had achieved some success in creating full employment through mass construction projects like the autobahn and by removing women and military conscripts from the competition for jobs, the autarky programme had failed in its attempt to make Germany self-sufficient and a financial crisis resulted from the fall in the price of exports compared to imports. Goering’s Four Year Plan succeeded to some extent in mobilising the economy for war and this was reflected in the early military successes that saw the Nazi war machine defeat nine different nations within two years. However, the war effort was ultimately only sustained through the plunder of occupied territory and key industrial bases, with cities targeted to ensure that resources could be sent back to Germany. Goering’s policies were not sufficient to sustain a long war and this was only achieved through the efforts of Albert Speer (Minister of Armaments from 1942). By nationalising and tightly controlling heavy industry and relying on forced labour in concentration camps, he raised German military production by 80% in 1943 alone. Although it was unbalanced and neglecting consumer goods by the 1940s, the German economy had ultimately recovered from the depression of the early 1930s and ensured that the Nazis lost the war in 1945 owing to military defeat, not economic collapse.

How did Nazi rule affect the German people?

People’s experience of life under the Nazi regime was diverse and largely determined by whether an individual was deemed to be of pure ‘Aryan’ stock, whether they were identified as an opponent of the regime, or as ‘untermensch’ (subhuman) and therefore not worthy of protection by the state. The latter category included gypsies, homosexuals, and the mentally and physically infirm as well as Jews and they suffered terribly under Nazi rule. The extent of persecution escalated throughout the 1930s, from economic and educational discrimination to sterilisation, forced labour and ultimately, extermination. The Nazi state strictly controlled culture and removed freedom of speech so any potential political opposition was also eradicated, alongside many who fell foul of the Gestapo through nothing more than false accusation. To some extent, this explains people’s failure to protest about the prejudice that surrounded them, but some of their willingness to turn a blind eye must also be placed in the context of their own experience. Day-to-day life was often easier after 1933, with abundant employment and the restoration of national pride through rallies and a new political philosophy that centred on a unifying and charismatic leader. If women and young people were prepared to conform to the Nazi ideal of traditional gender roles, physical strength and national sacrifice, then they could enjoy idealised status in Hitler’s Germany. However, even those were deemed racially pure would be harshly punished for refusing to conform; even rebellious youth groups like the Edelweiss Pirates were disbanded and hanged.