Hitler became the chancellor of Germany in 1933. This helped the Nazis consolidate their control in Germany. They passed law which banned other political parties in the country. With Paul von Hindenburg’s death in 1934, Hitler became the president of Germany. By the end of 1934, Nazis now stood on the verge of being able to realize their plans. So, what were those plans?
The Nature of Nazi Totalitarianism
Let’s begin by examining the workings of the Nazi regime. The racial policies of the Nazis were driven by totalitarianism. It wasn’t simply a regime with a claim to the total person, a regime which wanted to efface the distinction between public and private life.
It was also a regime that had an ideology and believed that it had discovered the key to all human history—a key to the past, the present, and a guide for the future.
For the Nazis, it would become clear in the course of the 1930s that it was race that was the key to understanding human history. The Nazis would attempt to take a racial ideology and translate that into policy.
This is a transcript from the video series A History of Hitler’s Empire, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.
Propaganda and the Nazis
At the same time that this ideology is becoming increasingly clear, the system would also work, in terms of its ideological goals, with propaganda—hammering away in a positive sense about the regime. What’s it doing for Germany in addition to these larger ideological goals? It is constantly hammering away at good news about what the new regime has done.
There’s no such thing as bad news reported in the press, not in this sort of regime. And if the relentless positive propaganda is not enough, there’s always the system of terror that would be unleashed between 1933 and 1945.
The State Secret Police of the Nazis
The SS or the Gestapo—the state secret police—would be given authority to ferret out enemies of the state and of the party wherever they might exist, and to take extraordinary measures against them. The concentration camps in Germany were used for German political prisoners in the period before the Second World War.
The Gestapo got this down to a science, discovering that the best time to arrest people was in the middle of the night, between 2:00 and 3:00 in the morning, to be quite exact. You would go—people were more vulnerable then—and knock on the door. Then you would go in and take the person out. This served several purposes.
Learn more about the Nazis and the witch of Buchenwald.
The Terror of the Gestapo
It made the victim more vulnerable to take him down to the Gestapo headquarters for questioning, but also the neighbors didn’t really quite see it. They might hear it, out in the hallway, in the apartment building. People became more cautious, they didn’t speak to one another as much about this sort of thing.
The Gestapo also found that people were more than willing to inform on their neighbors. If you had a grudge against a neighbor whose dog barked all through the night, and you complained to the neighbor many times and they didn’t do anything, you might make an anonymous phone call to Gestapo headquarters in your town or village. That person would be dragged in for questioning about unsocial behavior. It wouldn’t be a dog barking; but something else.
The Nazis also discovered that there were brave people who were willing to throw their lives away to express their opposition to the regime. The Nazis also introduced something called sippenhaft, which meant that not only would they arrest you, but your spouse, your children, parents, and possibly other relatives and friends.
They knew that, although there were many brave people who were willing to give their lives away, there weren’t quite so many people who were willing to see their children or their husband or wife, or parents consigned to a concentration camp.
So, if you had opposition, if you had doubts, if you had questions, who did you get to talk to them about? You couldn’t write a letter to the editor. If you went with friends, people you’d known all your life, you’d sit down and suddenly discover that people are a little warier about saying things.
Learn more about the Nazi breakthrough in Germany.
Crumbling Social Life in Germany
You might tell a joke one day. There were lots of jokes in the Third Reich, flüsterte witze, they were called, whispered jokes. There was a joke about racial policy that said, “Yes, I’m an Aryan, I’m a blond like Hitler, I’m tall like Goebbels”—who was about 5’5”—“and slender like Goering”—who must have weighed about 275 pounds later on in his life.
You might tell this joke at the pub one night. Everyone would laugh, and then you might tell it at another pub two days later. And everybody would laugh. That night, there would be a knock on the door, and it would be the Gestapo.
There was a very famous quote by a German clergyman, who said,
At first they went after the Communists, and I was not a Communist, so I did nothing. Then they went after the Socialists, and I was a little uneasier, but I wasn’t a Socialist, and so I did nothing. Then they went after the church, and I was a churchman, but then it was too late.
In Germany, people were left with no fixed points of orientation. There was no reality in Germany; there was no National Socialist reality. If you were opposed to some aspect of the regime’s policy, and nobody else seemed to be—you couldn’t read about it anywhere, you couldn’t see it anywhere, you couldn’t talk to friends about it.
This was the affect of the totalitarian policies of the Nazis.
Common Questions about Nazis and the Consolidation of Power
The Gestapo was the state secret police of the Nazis.
The Nazis came down heavily on anyone who spoke against the regime. They introduced sippenhaft, which meant that not only would they arrest a person, but his or her family and friends as well.
The concentration camps in Germany were used for German political prisoners in the period before the war.