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Adolf Hitler’s Rise to Power, Impact, and Legacy

Introduction

Adolf Hitler is one of the most reviled figures in human history, and for a good reason. His leadership turned the nascent democracy of the German Weimar Republic into the worst dictatorship in human history and ignited the Second World War with disastrous results for the people of the world. Considering that, it is immensely important to understand how he came to power and which factors made his regime so inhumane. This paper will cover his rise to power, the main facets of his ideology, his policies leading to the Second World War, and the mark that he and Nazi Germany left upon the world.

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Rise to Power

In order to understand Hitler’s rise to power, one should have an idea of the situation in Germany after the First World War. The Versailles Treaty that codified the official condition of peace with Germany included numerous territorial concessions to the victorious powers or their satellite states – most notably, France, Britain, Belgium, and Poland (League of Nations 1919). As a result, the German public perceived the treaty as a great national humiliation and resented it. The ideas of restoring Germany to its former glory were popular among the population. In this environment, Hitler – himself a veteran of the First World War – decided to join the recently-founded German Worker’s Party, later transformed into Nazi Party, in 1919 (Longerich 2019).

The party’s platform was heavily based on German nationalism and anti-Semitism as opposed to socialism or the government of the Weimar Republic – Germany’s ruling regime at the time. In 1923, Hitler, having already risen to the status of the party leader, attempted a coup to bring the government down but was defeated, arrested, and jailed (Longerich 2019). However, this first failure did not discourage his pursuit of power.

Hitler has been released from jail after serving only a portion of his sentence and resumed his political effort – this time, trying to get to power constitutionally. It required making the Nazi Party a formidable political force on the domestic scene, which was his primary concern throughout the 1920s. His failed attempt to seize power in 1923 was, nevertheless, a great publicity boost because it made his name known all across Germany. Hitler capitalized on that by utilizing his skills as a speaker and propagandist. His political manifesto, Mein Kampf (literally meaning “My Struggle”), was extremely popular in Germany (British Embassy, 1937).

His speeches also had an immense impact on German audiences, combining nationalist and anti-Semitic rhetoric with intense emotionality (British Embassy, 1937). Some contemporary observers claimed that Hitler was neurotic and subject to fits, although these claims mainly came from anti-Nazi sources and should be taken with a grain of salt (Bernstoff 1937). What is certain is that Hitler and his party reached immense popularity throughout the 1920s and 1930s thanks to his intensely passionate political rhetoric.

In his efforts to expand the Nazi party and secure political power for it, Hitler was able to enlist the help of a number of allies who were instrumental in his rise to power. Ernst Röhm, a member of the Nazi Party from its early days, was instrumental in organizing the Sturmabteilung (SA) – the party’s paramilitary forces (Longerich 2019). His assistance allowed Hitler to engage in political violence before he obtained formal control of the police and the military m– after which he promptly disposed of Röhm in 1934. Joseph Goebbels, a skilled propagandist and capable organizer, worked with Hitler since 1925 and was crucial in expanding the Nazi Party beyond Bavaria (Longerich, 2019). Unlike Röhm, Goebbels did not try to challenge Hitler’s leadership and worked with and for him until the fall of Nazi Germany.

Yet Hitler’s most important allies, in a broader sense, were the representatives of the German industry and military elite. Understanding that business support was instrumental in the pursuit of power through constitutional means, Hitler’s party relied on “ongoing contacts between business and National Socialism” since the early 1930s (Longerich 2019, 234). He was also careful to secure at least the superficial support of the old Prussian landed and military elites. The Day of Potsdam in March 1933, when Hitler greeted President Hindenburg, the hero of the First World War, with a reverential bow, was one of his attempts to demonstrate unity with them (Longerich 2019).

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It was also a major reason why Hitler arrested and executed Röhm in 1934. The latter’s plans to reform the German army on the basis of the ideologically indoctrinated SA militia alarmed the old military elites, forcing Hitler to choose between the two (Longerich 2019). The choice in favor of the military sealed Röhm’s fate and ensured a functioning, if not necessarily cordial alliance between Hitler and the German military elite.

However, Germany’s descent toward dictatorship and a one-party state was not inevitable, and Hitler and the Nazis also had fervent opponents in their rise to power. There was no clarity about the political direction that Germany had to go in the 1920s, and the debate on this subject could sway either way. In very general terms, one may identify two political options other than Nazism that were available to Germany at the time. On the one hand, there was the possibility of turning Germany into a constitutional parliamentary republic similar to Western-style democracies.

With liberal German parties being generally weak, the main force that epitomized this approach was the German Center Party, which sought to ward off the left and right extremists of the time (Menke, 2019). On the extreme left, there were the communists, who were also a powerful force in their own right and even installed short-lived revolutionary regimes in Bavaria, Thuringia, and Saxony in the late 1910s and early 1920s (Longerich 2019). In order to secure power, Hitler had to prevail against both these opposing forces.

The Nazi leader did so by manipulating the public opinion on sensitive topics: national humiliation in the First World War and economy. Reparations and the loss of territories that have befallen Germany after the war were extremely unpopular. Moreover, the fact that at the time of the November revolution and the 1918 armistice, the war was still waged on French rather than German territory allowed to portray things as if Germany was not beaten on the battlefield by betrayed from within. Hitler seized on the opportunity to portray his presumably “unpatriotic” communist opponents as “November criminals,” steering the public opinion against them (Longerich 2019, 108).

As for the centrists, Hitler attacked them on the economic front. By 1931, hit by the Great Depression and other problems, Germany experienced one of the worst economic crises in its history yet (Straumann 2019 5-6). Hitler blamed the inherent deficiencies of the constitutional government’s weakness for the crisis, inciting the public opinion against the centrist as well. Thus, manipulating the topics of German national humiliation and economic troubles were the main argument Hitler used to win the debate about Germany’s future.

That is not to say that Hitler achieved power through purely constitutional means. He habitually used the party’s paramilitary forces against the opposing political forces, especially before and during the elections (Longerich 2019). With a combination of skilled political rhetoric and coercive measures, the Nazis became the numerically strongest party in Reichstag in 1930, but short of an absolute majority.

Unable to form a coalition government of other parties, President Hindenburg finally succumbed to the pressure to make Hitler the head of government. Soon after coming to power, Hitler passed emergency legislation allowing him to vigorously repress and eventually ban other parties (Beck and Jones 2019). He also eradicated opposition within his own party, including the purge of the SA, and, after Hindenburg’s death in 1934, assumed the role of the President as well (Beck and Jones 2019, 5-6). Thus, by 1945, Hitler was a dictator in full control of Germany.

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Political Platform and Ideology

The central staple of Hitler’s political platform was his particular version of German nationalism that argued for the inherent superiority of the German or “Aryan” race over all other people on Earth. The authoritative state proclaimed to care for the best interests of the German race and required total obedience in return. Nazi ideology and state control permeated every aspect of German society. Military leaders and religious figures were obligated to swear oaths of loyalty to the Nazi regime and Hitler personally (Longerich 2019, 336).

Education was saturated with political propaganda and ensured the political allegiance of students and faculty alike by weeding out the opponents of the regime (Detzen and Hoffmann 2020). In healthcare, “inferior” peoples were proclaimed unworthy of care, while those of “Aryan” descent were required to be healthy regardless of whether they wanted it or not (Bruns and Chelouche 592). This type of state that permeates every aspect of the society it governs came to be known as totalitarian.

Another essential facet of Hitler’s Nazi ideology was fervent anti-Semitism and anti-communism. He followed and largely influenced the then-popular idea that the German defeat in the First World War was due to the sabotage of the part of German Jewry. As early as 1921, he proclaimed that the Germans had to unite under the Nazi leadership or “come under the thumb of the Jews” (Hitler, 1921). In contrast to communists and socialists, who sought to improve the situation of the working class at the expense of the ruling capitalist class, Hitler (1933) proposed a national identity that surpassed the “differences of rank and class.” As mentioned above, this communal identity was based on the sense of inherent superiority of Germans over all other people and nations on the face of the globe.

The same conviction in the superiority of the German race led him to proclaim that Germany needed more territories and population to ensure its competitiveness in the long term. First and foremost, it required uniting all territories with at least some German population under a single Nazi state. Secondly, Germany had to take the necessary territories from the supposedly inferior neighbors to amass sufficient Lebensraum or living space.

The concept of living space was fairly common among the imperialist powers of the late 19th and the early 20th century, including Britain, France, Russia, and even Poland (Balogun 2018). However, Hitler took it to the extreme by aiming for the physical extermination of the races and peoples he deemed inferior – most notably Jews and Slavs. Thus, Hitler’s Nazi ideology was inherently aggressive and bound to put Germany into a confrontation with the rest of Europe – the only question was when.

Foreign Policy and the Second World War

Hitler’s dedication to uniting all German people within one totalitarian state led him to demand numerous border adjustments in Europe after securing his power over Germany. In early 1938, he annexed Austria in the event known as Anschluss (Longerich 2019, 551). Immediately after, he initiated diplomatic efforts to convince Britain and France to let him annex parts of Czechoslovakia with the German population. The Soviet Union, fearful of the possible conflict with overtly anti-communist Germany, proposed European powers to form a system of collective security for German containment (Carley 2010). However, France and Britain viewed the Soviet Union as an equal, if not greater, threat and decided to concede to German demands instead. The resulting Treaty of Munich allowed German forces to occupy parts of Czechoslovakia and effectively negate its potential threat in the event of a war (Hitler et al. 1938).

Some contemporary observers claimed – and, as time showed with good reason – that the policy of appeasement was a road to disaster (Law 1937). Even though Western powers thought they prevented open conflict, it was merely a delay.

Hitler understood perfectly well that his goal of providing Germany with sufficient living space all across Germany was bound to provoke war sooner or later. Correspondingly, since Hitler came to power, he worked vigorously to restore German military might. Throughout the 1930s, he reinvigorated the German military-industrial complex and gradually convinced foreign powers to lift restrictions on German rearmament imposed after the First World War (Longerich 2019).

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He also sought foreign allies and found one in Mussolini due to Fascist Italy’s ideological proximity and imperialist ambitions that provided them with a common agenda (Goeschel 2018). Another ally that Hitler proved able to enlist was Japan, and the Anti-Comintern Pact solidified cooperation between the two powers (Mushakoji and Ribbentrop 1936). Finally, mindful of the failed attempts to enlist Western cooperation in 1934-1938, the Soviet Union signed up a non-aggression pact with Germany containing clauses on dividing Poland and the Baltic states (Molotov and Ribbentrop 1939). From this point onward, the war was predetermined.

Hitler’s military leadership in the Second World War did not prove to be as successful as his political leadership in the rise to power. German armies scored quick victories against Poland and France in 1939-1940 and also effectively established control of the Balkans through satellite governments or direct military occupation (Fritz 2018). However, Britain persisted with its war effort and refused to surrender, which complicated the strategic situation.

In 1941, Hitler proceeded with the invasion of the Soviet Union despite the non-aggression pact he signed two years earlier (Molotov 1939). German forces made quick initial progress but were eventually pinned down with stiff Soviet resistance. After Japan’s attack against Pearl Harbor, Hitler made one of his greatest strategic blunders by declaring war on the United States as well (Fritz 2018). The Allies’ superiority in industry and manpower began to be felt – by 1943, Hitler suffered crippling defeats in Africa, Italy, and the Soviet Union (Fritz 2018). With the Allied landing in Normandy in 1944, the failure of German counterattacks, and the continuing Soviet offensives in the east, it was clear Germany lost the war, and Hitler committed suicide on April 30, 1945.

Legacy

The results of Hitler’s rule were nothing short of catastrophic for Germany. Having turned the nascent democracy into the worst dictatorship in human history, he steered the country to the Second World War, even more devastating than the first one. As a result of his policies, Germany was militarily occupied and, after that, separated into two states for almost half a century. His military leadership led to the country ending up in a war against most of the world – a conflict Germany could hardly win even under the most favorable circumstances (Fritz 2018). The human costs of the war in military casualties alone amounted to millions of German soldiers and millions more in other participants combined, predominantly the Soviets. With this in mind, it is impossible to argue that, for all his talk about reinvigorating Germany and leading it to a glorious future, Hitler was a catastrophe for his country, and his leadership had disastrous results for the entire world.

The most impactful legacy that Hitler has left upon the world was the Holocaust – the policy of consistent extermination of supposedly “inferior” peoples, most notably Jews. Throughout his twelve years in power, Hitler authorized the killing of up to 5.6 Jews as well as dozens of millions of people belonging to other ethnicities (Chatel and Ferree n.d.). As such, Hitler remains the political leader responsible for the greatest loss of human life in the shortest time span – and a vivid reminder of the dangers of racism and nationalism.

On the other hand, the severity of German atrocities ensured that the victorious powers in the Second World War put the struggle for human rights and international justice on an entirely new footing. Trials of Nazi politicians and war criminals instituted new principles in international law, such as the responsibility for heads of state, the crime of genocide, and the notion that national sovereignty should not serve as an excuse for crimes against humanity (Plesch 2017, 160). In a way, one may say that atrocities engineered and ordered by Hitler – including but not limited to Holocaust – served as a catalyst for devising and enacting a new, broader vision of universal human rights.

Conclusion

To summarize, Hitler left an immense impact on world history, almost entirely in negative terms. His rise to power in the embittered Germany suffering from recurring economic crises created arguably the worst dictatorship in human history. The ideology of German Nazism, which he created and promoted, stressed the inherent superiority of the German people over every other race and ethnicity. Combined with his aggressive foreign politics in pursuit of more territories, Hitler was the single person most responsible for the outbreak of the Second World War and the death of dozens of millions of people. His legacy, equally disastrous for Germany and the world as a whole, serves as a reminder of the extreme danger of nationalism, racism, and totalitarianism. At the same time, it was also a catalyst the united the world’s powers in their attempts to reshape international law so that the Holocaust could never repeat again.

References

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Beck, Hermann, and Larry E. Jones. 2019. The Nazi Seizure of Power in Historical and Historiographical Perspective.” In From Weimar to Hitler: Studies in the Dissolution of the Weimar Republic and the Establishment of the Third Reich, 1932-1934, 1-22. New York: Berghahn Books.

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Menke, Martin. “Ludwig Kaas and the End of the German Center Party.” In From Weimar to Hitler: Studies in the Dissolution of the Weimar Republic and the Establishment of the Third Reich, 1932-1934, 79-110. New York: Berghahn Books.

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Straumann Tobias. 2019. 1931: Debt, Crisis, and the Rise of Hitler. Oxford: Oxford UP.

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