In this lesson, we explore the rise of Hitler’s Third Reich, its domination of German society in the 1930s, and the world war it began which eventually led to its downfall.

Rise and Fall of Hitler

At times, things occur in history that we would all just rather forget, especially when they occur in recent history. It’s far easier to understand a genocide occurring thousands of years ago – far harder when we have grandparents which remember it. Regardless of how nasty the subject might be, it is important for us to learn about the event so that we might prevent it from ever happening again. Such is certainly the case with the rise and fall of the mastermind of 20th century’s greatest genocide, Adolf Hitler.

Early Life

Born the third son of a third marriage to an aging Austrian customs official in 1889, Adolf Hitler did not enjoy a happy childhood. Adolf and his brothers were treated harshly by their father, a strict disciplinarian who likely beat his children and most certainly beat Adolf’s mother. In 1900, Hitler escaped his boyhood home, being sent to Linz to study to become a civil servant. Despite this choice by his father, Hitler resisted, hoping to become an artist.

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A few years after his father’s death, Hitler took all of his savings and inheritance and moved to Vienna in order to apply for art school. His failure, coupled with his mother’s death from cancer, threw Hitler’s life in disarray. Out of his strong sense of German patriotism (Hitler considered himself more German than Austrian), he enlisted in the German military in World War I (WWI).

Politics and Imprisonment

After Germany’s defeat in WWI, Hitler’s hatred for those responsible for the German defeat – a burden he increasingly placed on Jews and foreigners – manifested itself in a keen interest in German politics. In 1919 he joined the German Worker’s Party after attending a meeting, and he became an increasingly central figure within the small party’s leadership. By 1920, the party was holding mass meetings and under Hitler’s guidance, the party rebranded itself the National Socialist German Worker’s Party (Nazi, for short) in 1920 with a heavily nationalist, xenophobic, and anti-Semitic platform.

The party rapidly gained membership, partly as a result of Hitler’s natural gift for rousing oratory. As the Nazi Party rose in notoriety, the German economy floundered due to the terms imposed by the Allied powers after WWI. With Germany in disarray, Hitler saw his opportunity to seize power, and in 1923, organized a plot to overthrow the Weimar Republic. The Beer Hall Putsch, as it has become known, failed miserably and Hitler was tried for treason the following year and imprisoned. During his time in prison, Hitler wrote the part autobiography, part philosophical treatise Mein Kampf, which served as a partial manifesto for the Nazi Party after his release.

Rise of Nazism

Hitler resumed his political involvement and assumed leadership of the Nazi Party after his release from prison in December 1924, having served only nine months in prison. Though Hitler was banned by the Bavarian government from public speaking for two years, he spent this time reorganizing his party. Hitler’s new Nazi Party was not aimed at overthrowing the German government, but instead at gaining power by working within democratic rules. At the same time, Hitler organized his party officers and foot soldiers, the notorious SA ; SS, into something akin to a paramilitary force under his direction.

Hitler’s party grew membership slowly during the 1920s, and his party’s opportunity to gain real political clout came with another downturn in the German economy, this one caused by the Great Depression in 1929. Seizing their opportunity, the Nazi Party staged a massive campaign in the lead up to the 1930 elections and the German people responded with considerable support, making the Nazi Party the second largest party in the German Reichstag.

Through political maneuvers, Hitler got himself appointed Chancellor of the Reichstag by President Hindenburg only three years later. Utilizing his SA ; SS and the political clout the Nazi Party had gained in the Reichstag during the 1932 elections, Hitler and the Nazis began stripping the German government of its democracy, centralizing authority in the Chancellorship. By April 1933, Hitler was the virtual dictator of Germany.

1930s Germany

The 1930s saw Germany become increasingly enveloped by Hitler’s cult of personality and the incredibly nationalist, xenophobic, and anti-Semitic values of the Nazi Party. Hitler centralized power through reorganizing the SA ; SS and forming the Gestapo, murdering, exiling, or imprisoning many former devotees in the process. Jews came under increased pressure, as the Nazi Party sponsored boycotts of Jewish businesses, and events like the Night of Broken Glass in 1938 fostered increased violence against Jewish institutions and Jews themselves. In 1935, the Nuremberg Laws were instituted, which placed hundreds of restrictions on Jews and Jewish life in Germany.

At the same time, Hitler’s Germany began flouting international laws in the name of uniting all ethnic Germans under the German flag. In 1936, the German army marched into the Rhineland, where they were forbidden to be by the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, and in 1938 and 1939 annexed Austria and Czechoslovakia, respectively.

Internally, the Nazi Party whipped the German people into a nationalist fervor. All things German were prized, and the German people were encouraged to raise large families and live healthy lifestyles in order to be of service to the German state. The 1936 German Olympics were seen as an opportunity to showcase Germany and the superiority of the German people.

WWII, Holocaust, and Fall

German militarism and expansion in the 1930s caused international tensions to rise, and Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement (essentially, conceding territory and rights to Germany to avoid war) only emboldened Hitler and Germany. In 1939, Germany began World War II (WWII) when it invaded Poland, causing Great Britain and France to come to Poland’s aid. Hitler’s German forces quickly advanced through the Low Countries and France, taking Paris in June 1940.

While Germany spread its influence over Europe, within Germany and in the lands it conquered, Hitler began his systematic elimination of the Jewish race, the disabled, and any foreign nationality Hitler came across which he despised, in particular Russians and Poles. This plan he termed his ‘Final Solution,’ and he carried it out by shipping these people to camps where they were often worked to death and then murdered. As the war dragged on, these camps increasingly became extermination camps, where prisoners, especially Jewish ones, were executed soon after arrival. All told, by the end of the war, approximately 11 million were murdered in Hitler’s death camps, with as many as six million being Jews, though estimates vary wildly.

Several military blunders during WWII would prove the beginning of the end for Hitler and Nazi Germany. The invasion of Russia in the summer of 1941 would prove a costly mistake, as Germany expended vast amounts of resources for every inch of Russian soil it gained, eventually being turned back after the Battle of Stalingrad. In 1943, the Allies invaded Sicily and began conquering Italy, leading to the overthrow of Hitler’s closest ally, the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.

With the summer 1944 D-Day invasion of France, Hitler’s German forces were now fighting the Allies on four fronts: the East, the West, Italy, and in North Africa. This overextended German resources to the breaking point, and despite hard fighting on all fronts German forces slowly retreated. With the Allies closing in on Berlin in April 1945, Hitler and his longtime girlfriend, Eva Braun, committed suicide inside Hitler’s bunker. Within a week, in early May, Germany surrendered to the Allies and Hitler’s Germany had ended.

Lesson Summary

The rise and fall of Hitler’s Germany encapsulates one of the worst periods in the history of Germany and the world. His rise was facilitated by the economic problems within Germany and his great ability for oratory and whipping people into a frenzy. Hitler used German nationalism as a tool to attain his other ambitions: a vast German Empire, racial purity, and the extermination of an entire race. Though it was the Allied powers who eventually defeated Hitler and ended his quest for the Final Solution, Hitler’s military hubris certainly helped – without the over-extension of the German forces, Hitler may have murdered millions more in cold blood.

Learning Outcomes

Watch and study this video lesson so that you can:

  • Recall Hitler’s hard boyhood and early years until WWI
  • Retell Hitler’s influence from and on the Worker’s Party
  • Recognize Hitler’s early dislike for Jews and foreigners
  • Discuss Hitler’s rise through the new National Socialist German Worker’s Party (Nazis)
  • Detail his use of oratory to insight Nationalism for all things German
  • Describe Germany’s rise to military ownership of mainland Europe
  • Determine Hitler’s blunders in Russia which led to his eventual defeat