Your Book Review: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich
Finalist #12 in the Book Review Contest
[This is one of the finalists in the 2023 book review contest, written by an ACX reader who will remain anonymous until after voting is done. I’ll be posting about one of these a week for several months. When you’ve read them all, I’ll ask you to vote for a favorite, so remember which ones you liked]
What does it take to be literally Hitler?
So there you are, sitting on your bed, scrolling the internet, and you see it: your least favorite politician has done something that is unmistakably, unambiguously, undeniably JUST LIKE HITLER. But as you're composing an exposé for your social media platform of choice, you have a moment of pause. You remember Godwin’s law and the fact you live in a culture afflicted with Nazi apophenia. You start to question whether the incontrovertible Hitleriness of the action in question is so incontrovertible after all. But how do you decide when an invocation of the 20th Century’s most famous villain is an unhelpful exaggeration and when is it a prescient warning?
I read William L. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich because I wanted to be able to answer this question. You could consider this book review as the spiritual sibling to Scott’s dictator book club. Scott writes in his review of The New Sultan:
[A]s a libertarian, I spend a lot of time worrying about the risk that my country might backslide into illiberal repression. To develop a better threat model, I wanted to see how this process has gone in other countries, what the key mistakes were, and whether their stories give any hints about how to prevent it from happening here.
Hitler’s skyrocketing rise to power is great data for building our threat models. But Mike Godwin is right: it’s easy to see Hitler everywhere. And if we say “Watch out: this is exactly how Hitler came to power!” once a week, eventually no one will even bother turning their head to look.
My hope is that this review of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich can help us identify what it looks like when Hitler is actually about to come to power, so that we can save that most urgent alarm bell—the one marked with the swastika and the Charlie Chaplin mustache—for this one situation only and avoid a boy-who-cried-wolf-scenario. Consider this an exercise in fine-tuning our threat models so that we can tell the difference between bad and this-is-stage-one-in-Hilter’s-rise-to-power bad.
Let’s get started.
Our guide to Hitler is William L. Shirer. Shirer was an American journalist stationed in Berlin in the years leading up to World War II. He had the opportunity to observe first-hand the Nazi consolidation of power in Germany. In preparation for writing The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, he supplemented his first-hand experience with an in-depth review of the German confidential papers captured by the Allies at the end of the War. He even corresponded with retired Nazi generals. He gives us a nice combination of eyewitness insight and research.
Shirer has his failings too. Even at the time of release, his book received criticism for not including the most up-to-date historical scholarship on the Third Reich, and naturally it doesn’t benefit from all the research done since its publication in 19591. Shirer is also quite ready to let his personal prejudices show through the text, especially his prejudice against Germans. He’ll go on about the supposed gullibility and servility of the German people on practically every other page, and then complain in the afterword about being unfairly characterized as anti-German.
Nevertheless, Shirer’s book is a great resource for us. When a dictatorship is actually being hatched, we don’t have the historian’s point of view. We have to make do with the view from the ground. As an eyewitness-turned-historian, Shirer has insight into the places where the historical and ground-level views come into contact. This makes him a good starting point for us as we try to train our threat models.
I’d divide Shirer’s book into four main sections2. The first traces the ascension of Hitler and the Nazi Party in Germany; the second follows Nazi Germany’s gradual rise to European dominance; the third concerns the beginning of the war and the early Nazi victories; and the fourth considers how things began to unravel for Hitler until he and his regime were finally obliterated. This review will focus exclusively on the first part of the book3.
Adolf Hitler was born in 1889 in the town of Braunau am Inn in Austria on the German border to Alois and Klara Hitler4. The family came from peasant ancestry, but had settled into a bourgeois existence through the civil service: Alois was a customs official.
Young Adolf matured quickly, beginning his angsty, rebellious phase before he was even a teenager. Alois wanted his son to follow him into the civil service. Adolf refused. As he wrote later in Mein Kampf:
I did not want to become a civil servant, no, and again no. All attempts on my father’s part to inspire me with love or pleasure in this profession by stories from his own life accomplished the exact opposite. I…grew sick to my stomach at the thought of sitting in an office, deprived of my liberty; ceasing to be master of my own time and being compelled to force the content of my whole life into paper forms that had to be filled out….
One day it became clear to me that I would become a painter, an artist…My father was struck speechless.
He doubted my sanity, or perhaps he thought he had heard wrong or misunderstood me. But when he was clear on the subject, and particularly after he felt the seriousness of my intention, he opposed it with all the determination of his nature….
“Artist! No! Never as long as I live!”... My father would never depart from his “Never!” And I intensified my “Nevertheless!”5
Adolf thought he could gain leverage in this struggle against his father by intentionally failing at school6. This was easy to do: Adolf hated school. Even as late as 1942, we have records of him complaining about his old high-school teachers7.
His ingenious fail-at-school plan did not free him from his father’s insistence that he follow the path of the bureaucrat, but something else did. In 1903, Alois died of a lung hemorrhage. Klara felt obligated to continue her son’s education, but with Alois out of the picture, Adolf neglected his studies more than ever. Twenty years later, one of Adolf’s former teachers described him during this period of his life:
Hitler was certainly gifted, although only for particular subjects, but he lacked self-control and, to say the least, he was considered argumentative, autocratic, self-opinionated and bad-tempered, and unable to submit to school discipline. Nor was he industrious; otherwise he would have achieved much better results, gifted as he was.
Hitler quit school for good in 1905, and got drunk for the first and only time in his life to celebrate. He never graduated from high-school.
For the next few years, Hitler lived with his mother, enjoying his newfound freedom. He became an enthusiastic reader, discovered the music of Wagner, and had long arguments with his friends about everything wrong with the world. He later called these the happiest years of his life.
They ended when Klara Hitler died of breast cancer in 1908.
Saddened by the loss of his mother and obliged now to pay his own way through life, Hitler decided to move to Vienna to seek his fortune.
In Vienna, Hitler was a small-town boy looking for his big break. He had made visits to the capital before his move, including twice to take the entrance exam for the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. He meant to enter the Academy’s School of Painting, but his test drawings for the 1907 entrance exam were deemed unsatisfactory. When he tested again in 1908, his drawings were so bad he was excluded from consideration. Crushed, Hitler went to the rector of the academy for an explanation. He was told that his test drawings showed he lacked aptitude for painting, but he was encouraged to apply to the Academy’s School of Architecture. The meeting convinced Hitler that architecture would be a better fit for him, and, during his years in Vienna, he seemed to be always on the brink of applying to the School of Architecture. He never went through with it. Perhaps he considered it out of reach; his failure to graduate from high school would have severely hurt his chances.
Hitler eked out his Vienna existence by working odd jobs: a snow-shoveler, a railway porter, even a handyman. He also painted the equivalent of the little stock photos that come with picture-frames. Sometimes he earned some extra cash from drawing advertising posters. He seldom had enough to eat.
But he had plenty to read. It was during this period of Hitler’s life that he completed his self-education and developed his Nazi ideology. He knew already that the Germans were the master race, but it was in Vienna that Hitler delved into anti-Semitic literature. Per his own description:
For me this was the greatest spiritual upheaval I have ever had to go through. I had ceased to be a weak-kneed cosmopolitan and become an anti-Semite8.
Hitler was developing more than just his abhorrent racial ideology during his time in Vienna. Although still apparently intending to be some kind of artist, he was already perfecting his political playbook by observing the successes and failures of the Austrian political parties. He invented theories about what let the dominant parties win and what made the lesser parties lose. He even put into practice his ideas about the importance of oratory:
Though refraining from actual participation in Austrian party politics, young Hitler already was beginning to practice his oratory on the audiences which he found in Vienna’s flophouses, soup kitchens and on its street corners. It was to develop into a talent (as this author, who later was to listen to scores of his most important speeches can testify) more formidable than any other in Germany between the wars, and it was to contribute in large measure to his astounding success.
In 1913, Hitler moved to Munich in Germany, probably to avoid having to serve in the Austrian army alongside his Jewish and Slavic fellow-citizens. When the Great War broke out, he requested permission to serve in a German regiment. His request was granted and, in 1914, Hitler went to war.
Hitler received two decorations for bravery during the War. His fellow soldiers noticed that he had a monomaniacal devotion to the German cause, never complaining about conditions, asking leave, or chasing women. He would sometimes out-of-the-blue give his fellow soldiers impassioned speeches about Germany’s destiny. “We all cursed him and found him intolerable,” said one member of his company.
In 1918 he fell victim to a British gas attack and was temporarily blinded. It was during his convalescence that he heard of the armistice which ended the war. He felt that Germany and her soldiery had been betrayed. Per his own account, it was at this moment that he decided to leave behind his other aspirations and go into politics.
With this determination, he returned to Munich. “The prospects for a political career in Germany for this thirty-two-year-old Austrian without friends or funds, without a job, with no trade or profession or any previous record of regular employment, with no experience whatsoever in politics, were less than promising,” writes Shirer. But Hitler found an advantage in Germany's postwar political chaos. Everyone was starting a political party, trying to be the next big thing. And out of everyone, Hitler would succeed.
It was his penchant for impromptu speeches that won Hitler his first break. After one of his rants had come to the attention of some officers in the army, he was “posted to a Munich regiment as an educational officer, a Bildungsoffizier, whose main task was to combat dangerous ideas—pacifism, socialism, democracy; such was the Army’s conception of its role in the democratic Republic it had sworn to serve.” In this capacity Hitler was tasked with investigating a small group called the German Workers’ Party (initialed as DAP in German). Here, Hitler found like-minded nationalists who pressured him to join their fledgling movement and boost their numbers. Although initially skeptical of “this absurd little organization,” he ultimately decided that the smallness of this party would give him the opportunity to take a large role. He became the seventh member of the committee of the German Workers’ Party.
Hitler set to work pushing the DAP to organize larger events and to advertise. He became the political equivalent of the unscrupulous preacher—giving rousing sermons and raking in the collections. The little DAP’s numbers and coffers grew.
In 1920, the DAP added two words to its name and became the National Socialist German Workers' Party or, as its enemies would call it derogatorily, the Nazi Party. At the same time, Hitler quit his army job to focus on growing the movement. Drawing on his artistic experience, he designed an emblem for the party to rally around: the now-familiar black swastika in a white circle on a red field.
Hitler worked so hard to grow the party that he nearly became the party. Concerned by his burgeoning influence, the other members of the Party’s committee decided to take Hitler down a peg. They investigated whether they could ally with other parties to dilute Hitler’s absolute control. On discovering these plans, Hitler threatened to resign from the Party. This would have been disastrous for the Nazis: Hitler’s electrifying speeches brought in most of the Party’s funds. The committee refused to accept Hitler’s resignation. Sensing his bargaining power, Hitler turned the tables on the committee—if they wanted to keep him, they would need to formally acknowledge him as dictator of the Nazi Party.
The committee wasn’t willing to go this far. They drew up a formal indictment of Hitler, which they packaged as a pamphlet and distributed to members of the party. The document accused him of “a lust for power and personal ambition” and of “bringing disunion and schism into our ranks.” It insinuated that he intended to “further the interests of the Jews and their friends.” “Make no mistake,” it cautioned readers, “Hitler is a demagogue.”
Hitler did what any self-respecting public figure would do: he filed a libel suit.
By adding the pressure of this legal challenge to his already considerable leverage over the Party, Hitler was able not only to have the pamphlet retracted but also to force the dissolution of the committee and his own appointment as the leader of the Party. At last, the Nazi Party was entirely within Hitler’s control.
During these early days, the Nazi Party enjoyed three advantages. First was its troop of enforcers who threw out hecklers at meetings and who broke up the meetings of other small parties. At first, these were an informal collection of Hitler’s old military contacts, but over time they were organized into the infamous brownshirted SA. The Party’s second advantage was the donations brought in by Hitler’s speeches and other fundraising efforts. Political movements run on money, and convincing wealthy families to support the Nazi cause became one of Hitler’s specialties. Third was the Voelkischer Beobachter, the Nazi daily newspaper, which spread the Nazi ideology to the masses.
Hitler was a long way from assembling a nationally viable movement, but the Nazis gained significant political cachet within the German state of Bavaria.
But though Hitler was not a force in national politics, national politics was still very much a force in Hitler’s life. In 1923, after years of defaulting on post-WWI reparations, the German national government in Berlin had decided to resume these payments under international pressure. This decision sparked outrage from nationalist groups that opposed Germany’s reparations burden on principle (and from communist groups that liked to stir up trouble). The Berlin government, fearing a revolt, declared a state of emergency, gave the army dictatorial powers, and set to work suppressing far-right and far-left parties.
In Bavaria, where the local government was sympathetic to the nationalist parties, including the Nazis, this response went over poorly. Bavaria declared its own state of emergency and named former Bavarian premier Gustav von Kahr as state commissioner with dictatorial powers. Kahr’s governance was backed by the local commander of the military, General Otto von Lossow, and by the head of Bavaria's police, Colonel Hans von Seisser. Kahr, Lossow, and Seisser ignored the orders of the Berlin government, operating as if Bavaria were an independent territory.
Berlin worried that this Bavarian triumvirate would attempt to revolt or secede. They warned that any such action would be met with a strong military response. Although Kahr, Lossow, and Seisser had no plans to submit to the Berlin government, they weren’t eager to test this threat.
For Hitler, their inaction was insufferable. He had determined that the present period of unrest was the perfect opportunity to overthrow the Weimar Republic. He tried to persuade the Kahr, Lossow, and Seisser to march on Berlin, but to no avail. And so Hitler embarked on an audacious plan to force the Bavarian triumvirs to back his revolution.
Kahr was making a public appearance at the Buergerbräukeller (a large beer hall), when Hitler came in wielding a revolver. He fired it once into the air to get everyone’s attention and went up to the stage, where he informed the attendees that his SA troopers had taken over the building and that no one was permitted to leave. Then he took Kahr, Lossow, and Seisser into an adjoining room and tried, by means of waving his pistol and speechifying, to convince them to join in a revolt against the Berlin government. They refused. Undeterred, Hitler went back into the main hall and announced the triumvirs had agreed to back him.
Hitler’s collaborators had meanwhile brought German war hero General Erich Ludendorff to the beer hall, without telling him why. Ludendorff was nonplussed when he realized the idea was for Hitler, whom he considered an upstart, to become the leader of Germany. But he disliked the Weimar regime enough that he decided to help anyway. He was able to persuade Kahr, Lossow, and Seisser to join Hitler on the stage and express their support for the revolt.
Thinking that things were going well, Hitler left the Buergerbräukeller to look in on the preparations for the march on Berlin, leaving Ludendorff in charge of the beer hall. Ludendorff allowed Kahr, Lossow, and Seisser freedom to leave the building, which had a profound effect on their loyalty to the revolution: as soon as they were out of Nazi custody, they scattered. Kahr even put up placards around Munich denouncing the coup and outlawing the Nazi Party.
Hitler’s march on Berlin depended entirely on the army and police coming over to his side, but now he had lost Lossow and Seisser and had offended the soldiery by having held Lossow at gunpoint (something which was advertised on Kahr’s placards). Together with Ludendorff, he tried to keep the revolution going anyway, but after a brief exchange of fire with the police the conspirators were overwhelmed and most of them captured. This ended what became known as the Beer Hall Putsch.
Hitler, alongside others, was put on trial for treason. Ironically, his trial went much better for him than his revolution had:
Although Ludendorff was easily the most famous of the ten prisoners in the dock, Hitler at once grabbed the limelight for himself. From beginning to end he dominated the courtroom. Franz Guertner, the Bavarian Minister of Justice and an old friend and protector of the Nazi leader, had seen to it that the judiciary would be complacent and lenient. Hitler was allowed to interrupt as often as he pleased, cross-examine witnesses at will and speak on his own behalf at any time and at any length—his opening statement consumed four hours, but it was only the first of many long harangues.
In these harangues, Hitler defended his actions and gave his vision for Germany’s future. It was this performance that gave Hitler his first national prominence. He was found guilty of treason and sentenced to five years in prison (despite a legal requirement that treason carry a life sentence). He served nine months of his sentence before being released on parole, and he used his time behind bars to refine his political vision and began writing Mein Kampf. All in all, it was a small price to pay for his new national salience.
Hitler also used his time in prison to evaluate where the Beer Hall Putsch had gone wrong. As a result of these reflections, he made two resolutions for how he would operate going forward. First, he committed to taking power exclusively through constitutional means. As he confided to a collaborator during his time in prison:
When I resume active work it will be necessary to pursue a new policy. Instead of working to achieve power by armed coup, we shall have to hold our noses and enter the Reichstag against the Catholic and Marxist deputies. If outvoting them takes longer than outshooting them, at least the result will be guaranteed by their own constitution. Any lawful process is slow…Sooner or later we shall have a majority—and after that, Germany.
Hitler’s second resolution was to lay more groundwork prior to making a big play. Thinking back on the Putsch years later, he said:
But fate meant well with us. It did not permit an action to succeed which, if it had succeeded, would in the end have inevitably crashed as a result of the movement's inner immaturity in those days and its deficient organizational and intellectual foundation…We recognized that it is not enough to overthrow the old State, but that the new State must previously have been built up and be ready to one’s hand.
After being released from prison, Hitler set out to achieve these goals. By promising to behave himself, he was able to convince the Bavarian government to stop suppressing the Voelkischer Beobachter, which immediately resumed publication. Soon after, Hitler organized a meeting of the Party where he delivered one of his customary speeches. He got carried away and ranted about how in this ideological struggle either the Nazis or their enemies would have to die.
He was banned from speaking in public.
So he concentrated his efforts on building up and organizing the Party. Year after year he attracted more and more members to the small organization. And these new members were better organized than ever: Germany, Austria, Danzig, and parts of Czechoslovakia were divided into districts, each under the supervision of a gauleiter. Each of these districts was subdivided into “circles,” which were themselves subdivided into “local groups.” In urban areas, these local groups were further subdivided into streets and blocks. At the top of the Party, Hitler created a sort of Nazi shadow cabinet, with departments of agriculture, justice, national economy, race and culture, interior and labor, and foreign affairs. This was also when Hitler started Party organizations such as the Hitler Youth. True to his decision, he built up a new state in preparation for the overthrow of the old.
Hitler bided his time. After two years, the bans preventing him from speaking in public were lifted. The Nazi Party continued to grow, slowly and surely. Then, in 1929, came the Great Depression.
This was a tremendous opportunity for Hitler to expand his share of the electorate. As he wrote in a column at the time: “Never in my life have I been so well disposed and inwardly contented as in these days. For hard reality has opened the eyes of millions of Germans to the unprecedented swindles, lies and betrayals of the Marxist deceivers of the people.”
The Depression also benefited Hitler by the response it prompted in Berlin. The President at the time was Paul von Hindenburg, aging war hero and someday namesake of the famous zeppelin. Hindenburg stood above politics in the popular imagination, though he had sympathies for the right. The Chancellor of Germany was Heinrich Bruening of the Center Party.
Bruening, like many world leaders at the time, was trying to combat the Depression. He had drawn up a financial plan intended to rescue Germany from economic crisis, but he could not get the Reichstag to pass it. The German legislature was deadlocked right when Bruening believed expedient action was vital.
If you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. In late Weimar Germany they had a big red button that said “DISSOLVE THE REICHSTAG AND CALL FOR NEW ELECTIONS,” and everything looked like a Reichstag-dissolution. Hoping to get a majority willing to approve his financial plan Bruening asked Hindenburg to push the big red button. The new elections were to be held in the fall of 1930.
Hitler worked hard to get the most out of these elections:
The hard-pressed people were demanding a way out of their sorry predicament. The millions of unemployed wanted jobs. The shopkeepers wanted help. Some four million youths who had come of voting age since the last election wanted some prospect of a future that would at least give them a living. To all the millions of discontented Hilter in a whirlwind campaign offer what seemed to them, in their misery, some measure of hope. He would make Germany strong again, refuse to pay reparations, repudiate the Versailles Treaty, stamp out corruption, bring the money barons to heel (especially if they were Jews) and see to it that every German had a job and bread. To hopeless, hungry men seeking not only relief but new faith and new gods, the appeal was not without effect.
Two years prior, at the previous elections, the Nazis had polled 810,000 votes, entitling them to 12 seats and the distinction of being the Reichstag’s smallest party. Now, in 1930, the Nazis brought in nearly six and a half million votes, instantly becoming the second largest party in the Reichstag.
But Hitler was not complacent. He had learned from his Vienna days that a mass movement must also have the support of existing institutions, and he had in mind for his movement the army and the corporations. The Nazis targeted propaganda specifically at the army, issuing special army editions of the Voelkischer Beobachter, and making appeals to the officers. At the same time, Hitler was having secret meetings with business leaders, where he assured them that industry and business would flourish under his leadership. He persuaded many of them, and many more, deducing from the Nazi electoral miracle that his success was inevitable, rushed to show their support while it would still be meaningful. Business interests began bankrolling the Nazi political machine.
With his sudden electoral success, Hitler had become such a powerful force in German politics that the question in the minds of his opponents was how to prevent his coming to power. President von Hindenburg was now eighty-five years old and ready to retire from politics, but the worry was that if he didn’t run for reelection, the presidency would inevitably fall to Hitler. Chancellor Bruening wanted the legislature to extend Hindenburg’s term. This would keep Hitler out of the presidency without requiring the aging Hindenburg to campaign for reelection. Unfortunately, thanks to the electoral miracle, the Nazi’s had enough parliamentary seats that this plan required their support, and Hitler, not keen to put obstacles in his own path, refused to cooperate. Bruening next devised an elaborate scheme to reinstitute Germany’s Hohenzollern monarchy before Hitler had the opportunity to be elected, but was unable to get adequate support for this plan either. In the end, Hindenburg was persuaded to run for another term. Hitler decided to try to beat him.
There was one problem: Hitler had been born in Austria. This meant he wasn’t a German citizen and wasn’t eligible to become president. This obstacle did not stop him from launching a campaign, and he quickly found a workaround. He had the Minister of the Interior for the province of Brunswick (a Nazi) name him an attaché to Brunswick’s Berlin legation. This position automatically conferred on Hitler Brunswick citizenship, and Brunswick citizenship came with German citizenship. In 1932, for the first time ever, Hitler was eligible to lead Germany.
Hindenburg won the election, but fell just barely short of winning an absolute majority at 49.6% of the votes. (Hitler won 30.1%.) Due to the nature of the German parliamentary system, this necessitated a runoff election. Hindenburg handily won this election too: he won 53% of the votes to Hitler’s 36.8%. In many ways it was an impressive showing for Hitler—his party had proven it was stronger than ever—but Hindenburg remained Germany’s president.
This electoral defeat was followed by another blow to the Nazi cause. The Prussian police found evidence that, independently of Hitler, the SA was making plans for a coup if Hitler lost the election. In response to these reports, Chancellor Bruening suppressed the SA.
But even without either the presidency or their stormtroopers, the Nazis were still a powerful force in German politics. The power they wielded did not escape the notice of General Kurt von Schleicher, one of Hindenburg’s advisors. Believing that by helping the Nazis he could be gain influence with them and thus extend his own power, Schleicher set to work persuading Hindenburg that a coalition government between the Nazis and the more conservative nationalists would let the nationalists benefit from the Nazis’ ability to turn out votes while still retaining enough power to keep them in check.
Schleicher was helped in this by the fact that Bruening had fallen out of favor with Hindenburg. This was due in part to Bruening’s inability to secure either the Nazis’ cooperation or their defeat (Hindenburg was annoyed that he had needed to take on another term) and in part to other political differences. Schleicher exploited these tensions until Hindenburg finally asked Bruening to resign.
In his place, Schleicher offered Franz von Papen. Papen was a sort of dilettante gentleman-politician with no movement behind him: his own Center Party ousted him for accepting the chancellorship at the expense of the party’s leader, Bruening. In exchange for Hitler’s support of Papen’s government, Schleicher promised that the SA would be permitted to operate and that (what else?) the Reichstag would be dissolved and new elections called. Chancellor Papen dutifully fulfilled these promises.
The results of these July 1932 elections was another gain for the Nazis. They won nearly fourteen million votes, giving them nearly twice as many Reichstag seats as the next largest party, though still no absolute majority.
On the strength of this, Hitler went to Schleicher and Hindenburg, demanding the chancellorship and a new Nazi-dominated cabinet. Hindenburg was skeptical. He noted that Hitler had not won an absolute majority, that Hitler seemed unable to control the violent fringes of his party. (There had been an eruption of Nazi violence as soon as the SA had started up again.) If Hitler would agree to share power and form a coalition, he could use that coalition government as an opportunity to prove himself—to Hidenburg and to the people of Germany. But if he insisted on absolute power, he was overplaying his hand.
Hitler, who’d always hated compromise, refused anything less than total control of the government.
This left the Reichstag without a majority party or a coalition. Hindenburg did what anyone would have done: he dissolved the Reichstag and called for new elections, this time scheduled for November of 1932.
These elections did not go well for Hitler. Hindenburg had publicized Hitler’s demand for total power and this, combined with a few high-profile instances of cooperation between the Nazis and the Communist Party (both benefited from civil unrest), had weakened the appeal of Hitler’s party among business interests. The donations had stopped coming, and the party coffers were running low. The Nazis lost two million votes and 34 Reichstag seats.
Chancellor Papen reached out to Hilter, hoping that this defeat would encourage Hitler to do some coalition-building, but Hitler was still unwilling to compromise. This meant, once again, that there was no majority party and or coalition. Hindenburg decided to reach out to Hilter himself.
Hindenburg offered Hilter two options: he could be vice-chancellor in a new-and-improved Papen government that would rule by emergency decree, circumventing the legislature and the need for a majority, or he could assemble a coalition for a majority in the Reichstag and have the chancellorship himself. Hitler was unwilling to choose the former option and unable to take the latter. Hindenburg, for his part, refused to let Hitler head a government ruling by emergency decree ”because such a cabinet is bound to develop into a party dictatorship.”
General von Schleicher now made his move. He believed that, as Chancellor, he could form a successful coalition with the Nazis, or at least that he could detach enough of them from Hitler to form a majority in the Reichstag. He proposed this to Hindenburg, who refused the plan and tasked Papen with forming a new government. But Schleicher brought pressure from the army. Hindenburg reluctantly gave in and appointed Schleicher as Chancellor.
Schleicher reached out to the man who had done more than anyone besides Hitler to build up the Nazi Party: Gregor Strasser. While Hitler’s influence was strongest in Bavaria, Strasser had connections in Northern Germany, and had done vital work for the Party by bringing these people into the fold. Despite this service, he was regularly at loggerheads with Hitler, both because the Führer recognized that Strasser alone had the combination of independence and influence necessary to take over the party and because Strasser strongly believed in the socialism of National Socialism and was frequently embarrassing Hitler by extending olive branches to the socialists and communists. With Party funds drying up and Hitler refusing to compromise to gain power, Strasser was more frustrated with his Führer than ever. Taking all of this into consideration, Schleicher was confident that he could peel Strasser and his more socialist contingent of the party away from Hitler and build a coalition government with their votes. He offered Strasser the vice-chancellorship.
But Strasser apparently had no interest in taking over the Party. Instead, he pressed Hitler to cooperate with Schleicher’s government. Hitler refused. Finally, the two had a climactic falling-out. Hitler accused Strasser of trying to stab him in the back; Strasser accused Hitler of dooming the movement with his stubbornness. After this explosive conference, Strasser wrote a letter to Hitler announcing his resignation from the Party.
This resignation could have been a disaster for Hitler. If Stasser had immediately separated his network of contacts around Germany from the Nazi Party, he could have joined Schleicher’s government and Hitler’s party would have been finished. Hitler, well aware of this, remarked to his fellow Nazis, “If the party once falls to pieces I’ll put an end to it all in three minutes with a pistol shot.” Out of self-preservation, Hitler determined to patch things up with Strasser.
He could not find him. Far from trying to take over the Party, Gregor Strasser had left for a much-needed vacation in Italy.
Hitler took full advantage of Strasser’s Italian holiday. While Strasser was gone, Hitler seized control of Strasser’s political networks, replacing the leaders most loyal to Strasser and forcing the rest to give him special oaths of loyalty. The Nazi Party held together.
All of this was unfortunate for General von Schleicher, who had been counting on Strasser’s help to make good on his promise to Hindenburg to win Nazi support for the new government.
Having failed in his appeals to the right, Schleicher turned to the left. He rebranded as a champion of the working man and sent out feelers to the labor unions. The unions regarded these feelers with suspicion: they declined to support Schleicher’s government. Finally, Schleicher came to Hindenburg and informed him that forming a majority in the Reichstag was impossible. He asked for Hindenburg’s support for what he openly admitted would be a military dictatorship. Hindenburg reminded Schleicher that he had only become Chancellor to prevent the need for such measures, and refused for once to dissolve the Reichstag. Shortly afterwards, he asked for Schleicher’s resignation.
Working with ousted-chancellor Papen, Hitler formed a plan for a new government. Hilter would be Chancellor. Papen would only be Vice-Chancellor, but Hindenburg promised to receive Hitler only in Papen’s presence—ostensibly making Papen more of a co-Chancellor. Of the eleven cabinet positions, three would be given to the Nazis, the other eight to more traditional conservatives. Hindenburg, Papen, and the conservative forces more broadly thought that this government would work to their advantage:
In the former Austrian vagabond the conservative classes thought they had found a man who, while remaining their prisoner, would help them attain their goals. The destruction of the Republic was only the first step. What they wanted was an authoritarian Germany which at home would put an end to democratic “nonsense” and the power of the trade unions and in foreign affairs undo the verdict of 1918, tear off the shackles of Versailles, rebuild a great Army and with its military power restore the country to its place in the sun. These were Hitler’s aims too. And though he brought what the conservatives had lacked, a mass following, the Right was sure he would remain in their pocket—was he not outnumbered eight to three in the Reich cabinet? Such a commanding position also would allow the conservatives, or so they thought, to achieve their ends without the barbarism of unadulterated Nazism.
It wouldn’t work out that way.
The Hitler-Papen government was supposed to have a Reichstag majority, but the Nazis and the Nationalists were slightly shy of that majority and needed the cooperation of the Center Party. Hitler intentionally sabotaged the talks with the Center Party in the hopes that the lack of a majority would mean dissolution of the Reichstag and a call for new elections. Unsurprisingly, this was exactly what happened. The new elections were scheduled for March 1933.
This time the Nazis had every advantage. Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propagandist, wrote in his diary, “Now it will be easy to carry on the fight, for we can call on all the resources of the State. Radio and press are at our disposal. We shall stage a masterpiece of propaganda. And this time, naturally, there is no lack of money.”
This newfound money was due in part to Hitler’s success in bringing business interests back on board. The industrialists were always sensitive to which way the political wind was blowing, and the fact that Hitler was Chancellor probably impressed them. But Hitler also renewed his secret meetings with them, promising them once again that his government would be absolutely committed to private enterprise.
The Nazis had an additional advantage in that they’d gotten control of the police in Prussia, the largest German state, as part of the deal which had brought them into the coalition government. They were able to replace vast swaths of existing officers with SA and SS men, and they ordered the police to use firearms against communists, but not on any account to interfere with Nazi riots or demonstrations. The Communist and Social Democrat Parties were suppressed outright, and the Center Party was under constant threat from the brownshirts.
The Nazis had also the infamous Reichstag Fire. Shirer firmly believes that the Nazis themselves set the fire as a false flag operation, though debate on the subject continues to this day. In the immediate aftermath, however, the Fire was attributed to the communists. The event gave the Nazis two benefits. First, it persuaded President von Hindenburg to issue the Reichstag Fire Decree, which authorized the Hitler government to exercise significant authoritarian power. The Decree read in part:
Restrictions on personal liberty, on the right of free expression of opinion, including freedom of the press; on the rights of assembly and association; and violations of the privacy of postal, telegraphic and telephonic communications; and warrants for house searchers, orders for confiscations as well as restrictions on property, are also permissible beyond the legal limits otherwise prescribed.
It also allowed the national government to override the authority of the German states as necessary.
Empowered by this order, the Nazis doubled down on the tactics they’d already begun to use in Prussia. The publications and campaign rallies of the Left and Center parties were broken up, their leaders were arrested, and only the Nazis and their Nationalist allies were allowed to campaign.
In addition to this, the public really believed there was an actual communist threat. The violation of the Reichstag building and Hindenburg’s subsequent decree suggested something serious. The Nazi-Nationalist government seemed to many to be the only force that could save Germany from imminent communist revolution.
But in spite of all these advantages, the Nazis did not gain as many votes as they’d hoped. In the March 1933 election, they took 44 percent of the votes—not enough for the absolute majority they would have needed to rule without the help of the Nationalists, nor enough for the two-thirds majority they would have needed to radically alter Germany’s constitution, as they meant to do. The beleaguered and persecuted parties of the left and center had held their own.
Still, between the Nazis’ 44 percent and the Nationalists’ 8 percent, they finally had enough for the coalition government to have a majority in the Reichstag. For once, there was no parliamentary impasse and no dissolving the Reichstag and calling for new elections.
For Hitler, of course, the chancellorship was not enough. He wanted to wield the legislative power himself, without having to work through the parliament, and he wanted his power to be absolutely unchecked by the German constitution.
To achieve all this, Hitler concocted a piece of legislation known as the Law for Removing the Distress of People and Reich. The law delegated all legislative power to the Chancellor and his cabinet for four years and permitted laws made by the Chancellor to violate the German constitution—exactly what Hitler wanted.
This law was proposed in a Germany still rife with worry over the communist threat represented by the Reichstag fire. The right-leaning parties were prepared to go for it—the Nationalists thought that this would benefit them since they would trade their measly 8 percent presence in the Reichstag for their 8-3 majority in the cabinet. Even the Center party agreed to support the measure9. The Social Democrats and the Communists both opposed the measure, but with all the Communists and a number of the Social Democrats having been arrested in preparation for the vote (courtesy of the Reichstag Fire Decree), the remaining representatives did not have enough votes to prevent Hitler’s coalition from obtaining a two-thirds majority. The act passed. Hitler had become dictator of Germany.
If we want to use Hitler’s story to learn how to stop a slide into authoritarianism, the first thing we have to do is disentangle in our minds Hitler’s Nazi ideology from the elements that let Hitler take over. Swastika-loving internet trolls, however offensive, are not about to usher in a reign of terror. The telltale marks of a threat to liberalism have a lot more to do with organization and resources than they do with beliefs. It’s also worth remembering that different illiberal regimes have come to power in different ways—that’s why it’s worth looking at many different dictator stories so we have a sense of the possibilities. But what we’re considering here is how an authoritarian movement would come to power using Hitler’s playbook specifically. With this in mind, I think Hitler’s story shows us five main characteristics that make a movement dangerous.
1. They’re open about their illiberalism.
Hitler wasn’t the Emperor from Star Wars—he didn’t pretend to be a nice democracy-loving guy until he had all the power in his hands. Hitler was the guy who went to a discussion club and yelled at everyone else for not being anti-Semitic enough. He wasn’t blowing a dog whistle—more like a fanfare trumpet.
The most dangerous threats to liberalism freely admit that they are enemies of liberal democracy.
Hitler certainly wasn’t shy about his anti-liberal intentions. In his public trial following the Beer Hall Putsch, he explicitly claimed that he was destined to be dictator of Germany10. Behind closed doors his message was no different: in a secret meeting with industrialists in 1933, Hitler told them, “Private enterprise cannot be maintained in an age of democracy; it is conceivable only if the people have a sound idea of authority and personality.” Even in Mein Kampf, published in 1925 well before Hilter’s rise to power, he laid out exactly the sort of authoritarian control he sought:
There must be no majority decisions, but only responsible persons…Surely every man will have advisers by his side, but the decision will be made by one man…only he alone may possess the authority and the right to command…It will not be possible to dispense with Parliament. But their councilors will then actually give counsel…In no chamber does a vote ever take place. They are working institutions and not voting machines. This principle—absolute responsibility unconditionally combined with absolute authority—will gradually breed an elite of leaders such as today, in this era of irresponsible parliamentarianism, is utterly inconceivable11.
Notice that Hitler isn’t merely supporting bad policies which would impinge on our rights. We tend to think the worst of our political enemies: all our opponents support bad policies that would impinge on our rights. But Hitler bypasses the question of whether we have a right to this or a right to that, because he rejects the entire framework wherein those discussions take place. He is rejecting liberalism in its totality; not just taking one position you might consider illiberal.
His transparency on this point makes practical sense. The purpose of creating a mass movement, like Hitler did, is to get a segment of the population that’s actually on your side. If you build your coalition pretending to love liberalism and then unveil the plot twist that you’re totally against it, you’re going to damage your base of support. Even if you have the power you need already, this can undermine the stability of your regime. Hitler wanted his supporters to be true believers, so he told them what he truly wanted them to believe.
This isn’t to say that Hitler never lied. He led a party with socialist branding and no socialist intentions, after all. But for all his dishonesty, Hitler wasn’t sneaking his way into the halls of powers. He came openly, stating what he intended to do. His followers wanted him to do it. If you’re looking for the genuine Hitlerian article, it’s going to involve undisguised opposition to liberalism.
2. They use terror to gain political power.
The use of terror goes hand in hand with this undisguised opposition to liberalism. Someone who actually or apparently supports liberalism can’t condone tactics that go outside of liberal norms. But an enemy of liberal democracy like Hitler can.
Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf about two kinds of terror which a successful mass movement should know how to deploy. First comes spiritual terror, which involves unleashing “a veritable barrage of lies and slanders against whatever adversary seems most dangerous, until the nerves of the attacked persons break down.” For Hitler, “[t]his is a tactic based on precise calculation of all human weakness, and its result will lead to success with almost mathematical certainty.” Second is physical terror, which has its own psychological advantages: “For while in the ranks of their supporters the victory achieved [by means of physical terror] seems a triumph of the justice of their own cause, the defeated adversary in most cases despairs of the success of any further resistance.”
Spiritual terror is outside of liberal norms in its intended effects. It is designed to silence the voices of others with vicious personal attacks: a sort of weaponization of social pressure.
Physical terror is outside of liberal norms in terms of the action itself. The power of a Hilter figure grows proportionally to how much physical terror he can get away with. In this, Hitler was helped by the Weimar Republic’s law-enforcement and judiciary systems, which were on the net lenient with him and his SA troops. He was also helped by the communists, who by having their own violent demonstrations, made the overall picture look less like “Hitler is instigating violence” and more like “our political order is collapsing into violence.”
(This, by the way, is why it is so dangerous for well-meaning people who support not-Hitlerian causes to use Hitlerian tactics. I’m going to give some specific examples, so apologize in advance for offending everyone’s political sensibilities. But even if you’re sympathetic to Trumpism, you should still be horrified by the January 6th incident, because it pushes our politics towards the use of physical terror. Likewise, if you’re on the left, you should be suspicious of the Black Lives Matter protests for the same reason. This doesn’t mean that Trump is Hitler or that BLM is the SA. But it does mean that, if you actually want to stop Hitler II, you have to be willing to call out your own side when they set precedents that a future Hitler could use to his advantage.)
But terror by itself is not enough to give a movement its Hitlerian bona fides. The terror has to be wielded strategically to advance the movement’s political aims. Hitler’s people rioted in the streets, it’s true, but, as Hitler liked to remind his fellow Nazis, the SA was fundamentally a political organization not a military one. Nazi violence wasn’t an alternative to Nazi politics; it was part of it. The SA certainly committed acts of wanton violence at times, but at its best (or at its worst?) it focused on breaking the morale of other parties and buoying the morale of the Nazis. Hitler saw that the best way to attain power was through the existing political system and, after learning his lesson during the Beer Hall Putsch, he resisted the temptation to use violence to bypass the political process. He used violence to enhance his political approach.
Contrast to this the communists of Weimar Germany. The communists also participated in violent street clashes, but far from leveraging these demonstrations into a political advantage, they provoked a backlash against themselves, which culminated in the Reichstag Fire Decree and the Law for Removing the Distress of People and Reich12. Communist violence was intended to sap the stability of the Republic, and it accomplished this. But Nazi violence was more sophisticated: it sapped the stability of the Republic while simultaneously strengthening the regime meant to replace it. Germans who mistakenly thought the communists were the real threat ultimately played into Hitler’s hand. The people fighting in the streets might be Hitler, but they might also be a red herring. It is the two-pronged attack of terror on the one hand and political victories on the other that is a distinctive feature of the Hitlerian approach.
3. They build a second state.
If terror is one of the pillars supporting a Hitlerian movement's political goals, organization is the other. As Hitler learned from the Beer Hall Putsch, “it is not enough to overthrow the old State…the new State must previously have been built up and be ready to one’s hand.”
Most establishment political movements have strong organization, but many revolutionary movements like the Nazi Party don’t. They think—like Beer Hall Putsch era Nazis did—that details like this will work themselves out after they come to power. But the need for organization is actually much greater for a revolutionary movement than for an establishment movement. An establishment movement is only looking to perpetuate some version of the status quo, after all; all the existing institutions work in their favor. A revolutionary movement, on the other hand, has to energetically repurpose establishment institutions. Without a strong internal structure, this is impossible.
(If you ever wondered why Donald Trump was less revolutionary (for good or for ill) than many people expected him to be, this is why. He didn’t have an organized movement ready to take the tiller of state and strike out in a bold new direction, and so he wound up doing a lot of things in surprisingly business-as-usual ways. To radically overthrow institutions from within, you need to do better.)
By the time he became a serious force in national German politics, Hitler had built a loyal and organized force of supporters ready to step in and transform the German government into what he wanted it to be. Any Hitler II worth worrying about will have the same advantage.
4. They thrive in times of crisis.
In ho-hum times, people don’t want to risk extremism, but when they feel that things are falling apart, they’re vulnerable to the appeal of a Hilter. Weimar Germany was one crisis after another. From the beginning, it faced a legitimacy crisis. There was also the impossible debt burden placed on the country by the victors of the Great War. These crises led to the extremist environment which enabled a young Hitler to peddle his ideology, and build a Bavarian discussion club into the largest party in the nation. Then came the Depression, instrumental in convincing the middle class especially that they had nothing to lose by choosing Hilter. Shortly thereafter, the Reichstag fire rallied the nation behind the Nazi party.
Notice here that it doesn’t matter whether there’s “objectively” a crisis—Hitler seized total power to prevent a largely fictitious communist revolution. As long as Things Can’t Go On, it’s a good time for Hitlers.
5. They have money.
As unsexy as it is, Nazis need money too. From his early days in Bavaria to the moment he ended German democracy, one of Hitler’s greatest advantages was good fundraising. In his case, much of the money came from business interests who cared more about profits than about democracy. Rumor is that corporations still care more about profits than about democracy. If you see their money flowing to a political movement that meets traits 1-4, you should be worried.
These are the things I’ve learned from reading The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Some people say that whoever triggers Godwin’s law automatically loses the argument. But I hope that by relying on the lessons of Hitler’s story, we’ll be able to invoke the dreadful name of Hitler responsibly.
And I hope that, if you ever see your legislature dissolved and new elections called three times within two years, you’ll remember that you’re entirely within your rights to say, “This reminds me of Hitler!”
I should note that I lack the expertise to correct Shirer where subsequent research might have corrected his claims, so I will be following his account.
He divided it into six, but mine are better.
There’s another good book review to be had here about how Hitler succeeded so well in the field of international relations, but we don’t have space to get into that here.
You have to feel sorry for Braunau am Inn, which seems like a lovely town and which, to this day, is still known primarily for being the birthplace of Hitler.
All quotes from Mein Kampf or other historical documents are as quoted in Shirer’s book.
So he says looking back. It is also possible that he used this as a post hoc excuse for his not-quite-exemplary scholastic record.
He did have one favorite teacher: Dr. Leopold Poetsch. Poetsch taught the one-day dictator history and, while they were at it, German nationalism. Hitler would later acknowledge his ideological debt to this teacher in Mein Kampf, but he still received only a middling grade in Poetsch’s class.
There are, Shirer notes, reasons to think that Hitler exaggerates this conversion experience and that he had already developed his anti-Semitic views prior to moving to Vienna.
Shirer’s book is not clear as to why the Center Party got onboard. Wikipedia writes that “Hitler negotiated with the Centre Party's chairman, Ludwig Kaas, a Catholic priest, finalizing an agreement by 22 March. Kaas agreed to support the Act in exchange for assurances of the Centre Party’s continued existence, the protection of Catholics' civil and religious liberties, religious schools and the retention of civil servants affiliated with the Centre Party. It has also been suggested that some members of the SPD were intimidated by the presence of the Nazi Sturmabteilung (SA) throughout the proceedings.”
Early in his career, Hitler had an uncanny knack for making predictions.
The italics are Hitler’s.
Weimar Germany’s communists were complacent with regards to their political strategy because they believed that the arch of history bent inevitably toward communism and that they only needed to help it along by creating instability