TOTALITARIANISM AND THE RISE OF HITLER
*The 1920s and 1930s saw democracies and constitutional monarchies in much of Europe replaced with totalitarian governments.
*Totalitarian governments exert complete control over their nations, managing the economy, social life, and even private life, and crushing all opposition, usually violently.
*In Russia, the Communist Revolution had overthrown the old order. Although the tsars had not always been kind rulers, they had rarely tried to control life to the extent the Communists did.
*Lenin, who renamed Russia the USSR, died in 1924. He was followed by Stalin, who through guile, manipulation, and terror made himself the head of the Communist Party (and thus the USSR) shortly after Lenin’s death.
*Stalin created collective farms, taking land from farmers and making them, or more often city workers sent to the country, work it together, turning their produce over to the state. Farmers who resisted were killed or had their crops destroyed. With no benefit for working hard, many of these farms were not very successful, and untold millions died of starvation.
*Stalin had more luck industrialising the USSR, and poured great resources into building factories, mines, railroads, and other infrastructure.
*Stalin was also famous for his purges. Deeply paranoid, he imagined everyone was out to get him, and ultimately killed many of his best politicians, scientists, and, most importantly, generals during the 1930s. It is unknown how many of his people Stalin killed or had die from starvation while he was dictator of the USSR. Estimates range from 10 million to 40 million or more. Most are around 20 million, but we do not know.
*In Italy, many people felt that they had been left out of the Versailles Treaty, in which they did not get the territory they hoped to.
*Benito Mussolini was a veteran of the Great War and a persuasive speaker. He recruited followers, many of them street thugs, from among veterans, the unemployed (of whom there were many), and others dissatisfied with society. When they threatened to march against Rome itself, the government was so frightened that they got the King of Italy to appoint Mussolini Prime Minister.
*Mussolini called himself Il Duce, or ‘the Leader,’ and called his followers fascists. Extreme nationalism, racism, and militarism are the major underpinnings of fascism, so Mussolini told his followers that Italians were the greatest people on earth, and promised to rebuild the economy (which he mostly did) and the restore the glory that was Rome by building a new empire. As part of this he conquered the Empire of Ethiopia, and when Emperor Haile Selassie appealed to the League of Nations, he was ignored.
*One of Mussolini’s greatest admirers was a young Austrian German named Adolph Hitler. He had wanted to be a painter, but the Academy in Vienna would not take him. When the Great War began he dodged the draft in Austria, but soon went the Germany and volunteered. He was decorated for bravery in the War, but came home to a Germany that was deeply distressed.
*The Treaty of Versailles destroyed Germany. The country lost a great deal of territory, including the Polish Corridor and the Alsace-Lorraine. They had been forced to pay ruinous reparations, and, worse, sign the War Guilt Clause saying they deserved it all for causing the war. Germany was also limited to an army of 100,000 men and forbidden to have an air force.
*Germany was poor and humiliated, and its new government, the Weimar Republic, was weak. There were numerous political parties, so that no-one ever had a majority, and governments rarely lasted very long. Crushed by debt, the Weimar Republic made things worse by printing paper money by the tonne. They printed so much that the mark became worthless. Whereas a dollar would have bought three marks before the Great War, afterwards it could buy three trillion. Life savings were wiped out instantly.
*One of the numerous political parties in the Weimar Republic was the NSDAP. Hitler shortly took charge of these Nazis. He attempted to lead a rebellion in 1923 in Bavaria, but was imprisoned. While locked away, he wrote the best-selling Mein Kampf, or My Struggle.
*This book explained the Germans were the best of the Aryan Race, the best of the white conquerors of the world, and that they had a duty to purify their race and the world of subhumans, as well as of disloyal political groups. Hitler blamed Germany’s surrender in the Great War on a ‘stab in the back’ by liberal political groups, since Germany was not defeated militarily—the Western Front was still in France when the War ended. Hitler blamed these dangerous political parties, and all other social ills, however, on the race of Jews, whom he called parasites and poisoners of society.
*Throughout the 1920s, Hitler and the Nazis slowly became more powerful, until he frightened the rest of the political establishment. In 1933 he was appointed Chancellor of Germany, in the hope that he would fail at the job, look foolish, and lose his influence. Instead, he used his own gangs of street thugs, called the SA or storm troopers or Brownshirts to harass his political and racial enemies, especially at election times until the Nazis dominated the Reichstag in 1934.
*Shortly after the Nazis became the dominant political power, the Reichstag building was burned out in a fire. Although historians believe the Nazis probably started the fire themselves, they blamed it on a communist, and used their legal power to pass the Enabling Bill, giving Hitler dictatorial powers. Thus, the Nazis used the democratic process to destroy democracy.
*Hitler became very popular in Germany. He spent money building roads and other public works. The autobahn dates from this time, and Hitler conceived of the Volkswagen, the people’s car affordable by all workers. Unemployment fell to almost zero, whereas before it had been as high as 50%.
*In 1935 Hitler began to rebuild the army and to create and air force. This was illegal, but Britain and France let him get away with it, because they felt bad about how hard the Versailles Treaty had been on Germany. When the League of Nations complained, Germany walked out. Italy would leave shortly afterwards.
*Hitler used this army in Spain during the Spanish Civil War, helping the Spanish fascists, called Nationalists, seize power. Their leader, Francisco Franco, would remain in charge of Spain until his death in 1975.
*In 1936, Hitler and Mussolini signed an alliance. Mussolini said that in the future Berlin and Rome were the axis around which Europe would turn, thus giving the name Axis to their alliance. Japan would join them in 1940.
*Hitler began to suggest that Austrians, ethnic Germans, ought to join with Germany, and there was a certain amount of popular and political support for this in Austria. The prime minister refused, but Hitler marched into Austria anyway in 1938, where his armies were greeted by cheering crowds. Austria was made a part of Germany, and ceased to exist as a country. This was called the Anschluss, or unification. Britain and France did nothing.
*Later in 1938, Hitler suggested that the western part of Czechoslovakia ought to be part of Germany. The area called the Sudetenland had many ethnic Germans in it, as well as most of Czechoslovakia’s border defences, and Hitler wanted to add it to Germany. Hitler promised that this would be enough—if he could have the Sudentenland, he could have enough. The British and French leaders met with Hitler in Munich in September. There, Neville Chamberlain followed a policy of appeasement, letting Hitler have what he wanted. The Czechs had no say in the matter at all, and felt betrayed. Chamberlain, though, went home and promised his people that they would know ‘peace in our time.’
*Six months later, Hitler took over the rest of Czechoslovakia, keeping half for himself and giving the rest to other allies, such as Hungary.
*Shortly afterwards, Italy invaded Albania.
*After appeasing Hitler for so long, Britain and France said they would put up with no more, but, understandably, Hitler did not believe them. He began to mass troops along the Polish border, even though Britain and France promised to protect Poland. Hitler was not worried about them, but he was worried about the USSR.
*Hitler and Stalin hated each other ideologically. Although both ruled totalitarian states, they were otherwise different—the Nazis had free enterprise, and a racist, nationalist outlook, killing or enslaving those who were different, whereas the Communist government ran their economy, and had an internationalist worldview, assimilating everyone into the Red Menace. Both, however, were opportunists. On 23 August, 1939, Hitler and Stalin agree to share Poland and the states east of it.
*On 1 September, 1939, Hitler invaded Poland. 2 days later, Britain and France declared war.
*Hitler used blitzkrieg, or lightning war, in which dive-bombers shattered enemy defences and morale, then rapid-moving tanks, motorised infantry, and paratroops moved through the disrupted enemy lines. It was an excellent tactic as long as it could achieve victory in less than six weeks, after which it would bog down into a lengthy ground war. Fortunately for Hitler, Poland fell in less than a month, as Hitler and Stalin divided it up between themselves.
*From there, the rest of the world was next. After a period of preparation, during which he claimed he wanted peace, Hitler began to move again. On 9 April 1940 the Germans conquered Denmark and invaded Norway, which was betrayed by one of its own, Vidkun Quisling. On 10 May, the Nazis invaded the Low Countries. Luxembourg fell in a day, the Netherlands in five days, and Belgium in three weeks.
*Moving through the Ardennes Forest, the Germans got around the Maginot Line and broke through the hinge of the Allied lines and moved all the way to the English Channel, cutting the Allied forces in half. The Northern half, mostly British but with some French and Belgian troops, fled to the port of Dunkirk. There, between 26 May and 3 June, 338,000 soldiers were evacuate across the English Channel, not only by the Royal Navy, but by civilian boats as well.
*On 14 June, the Germans captured Paris. On 22 June the French officially surrendered. Northern France was occupied, and Southern France was ruled by collaborators from the new capital city of Vichy. Other Frenchmen did resist, the most famous of whom was their eventual leader, Charles De Gaulle.
*Britain stood alone, and only the
RAF in the Battle of Britain in August and September 1940 prevented the
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This page last updated 10 November, 2003.