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Nazi Germany Key Individuals
Discover more about some of the key individuals in Nazi Germany, from Hitler to Goering.
Adolf Hitler was the leader of the Nazi party from 1921 and Fuhrer of Germany from 1933 to 1945, holding complete dictatorial power over the state and the armed forces. Hitler was of Austrian descent and was influenced during his formative years by anti-Semitic and Social Darwinist ideas that would dominate his thinking throughout his adult life. After serving in the German Army in WW1, Hitler was outraged at the so-called ‘November Criminals’ who signed the Treaty of Versailles and interpreted Germany’s defeat in the war as evidence of Jewish treachery. His obsession with blood purity was then combined with a nationalistic desire to restore German pride and through skilled oratory, political manipulation and violent intimidation, he masterminded the destruction of the Weimar republic and the acquisition of political control by 1933. He then oversaw the re-militarisation of the country and the conduct of Germany during WW2.
Goebbels is most notorious as Reich Minister for Enlightenment and Propaganda, a position he held for the duration of the Nazi state. He had joined the party in 1922, attracted by its anti-Semitism and nationalism and anxious not to be dismissed as a bourgeoisie intellectual because his club foot had prevented him from serving in the military. Goebbels’ rhetorical power and hatred of those he perceived to be Germany’s enemies singled him out for propaganda activities early on and he was placed in charge of building up support for the Nazis in Berlin from 1926 to 1930. He was also elected to the Reichstag in 1928 and 1930. Whilst running the propaganda machine on which the Nazi state depended, Goebbels proved a master organiser who understood the importance of simple, symbolic messages that would penetrate mass consciousness through repetition. He was the man behind the burning of the books in 1933, the annual Nuremburg rallies and the cultivation of the Fuhrer myth. Although Hitler had to ensure his infidelities were concealed and although the German people began to question his role after the defeat at Stalingrad revealed the truth behind wartime propaganda, Hitler never lost his faith in his most loyal henchman. He was appointed General Plenipotentiary for Total War in 1944, giving him control of the home front and he remained with Hitler in the bunker in his final days, before committing suicide shortly after his leader.
Himmler had joined the Nazi party in 1923 and was obsessed with its message of racial purity and Aryan superiority. He was initially in charge of propaganda in Bavaria but in 1929, he formed the SS, or Blackshirts, an elite group of two hundred soldiers who were to act as Hitler’s bodyguards. Himmler served in the Reichstag from 1930-1933 and remained in charge of the SS during this time, expanding it to 52,000 by the time Hitler became chancellor. He was ruthless in proving his loyalty to the Fuhrer, organising the executions of key SA personnel with cold blooded efficiency during the Night of the Long Knives. Himmler believed the SS could become the new aristocracy in a racially pure nation German nation and to this end, he arranged ‘Lebensborns’, where SS men were encouraged to impregnate Aryan women. By 1936, Himmler controlled the entire police force and in 1943, his position was further elevated to Minister of the Interior. He played a significant role in the mass murder perpetrated by the Nazi state, from setting up the first concentration camp at Dachau in 1933 to being closely involved in the planning of the Final Solution and overseeing the operation of the concentration camp network. As the allies closed on Berlin in 1945, Himmler was stripped of all his responsibilities after it was discovered that he had attempted to negotiate with the enemy. He committed suicide following capture in May 1945.
The aristocratic Goering played many roles in the Third Reich and was designated as Hitler’s chosen successor. He had served in the German air force during World War One and was attracted to the NSDAP’s promise to restore national pride following the humiliation of defeat in 1918 and the subsequent peace treaty. Goering was a close associate of Hitler from the outset and he played a key role in the 1923 Munich Putsch, resulting in injury that caused him to spend four years abroad receiving medical treatment for both physical and psychological disorders. After his return to Germany, Goering was elected to the Reichstag in 1928 and his links to the elite and key industrialists proved useful in generating support for the Nazis during their rise to power. He also helped create the Gestapo and the system of concentration camps that enabled the Nazis to pursue their agenda of terror and discrimination. In 1936, Goering was made Plenipotentiary of the Four Year Plan, allowing him to take full control of the German economy through nationalisation. He focused on mobilising the economy for war and oversaw the exclusion of Jews from economic life. He also made a personal fortune through the mass industrial complex, the Herman Goering works, created in 1937. Goering’s command of the Luftwaffe during WW2 undermined his relationship with Hitler as he was blamed for defeats like the Battle of Britain and he was stripped of all his titles after proposing he take power once Hitler retreated to his bunker in 1945. Goering was captured by American troops and committed suicide on the morning of his scheduled execution in 1946.