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National Socialism and World War II

Hans-Ulrich Thamer

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Born in 1943, is Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at the University of Münster. His main research interests are National Socialism and European Fascism.

Publications including: Seduction and violence. Germany 1933-1945, (The Germans and their Nation, Vol. 5), Berlin 1986; National Socialism, Stuttgart 2002.

In many European countries, as a result of the First World War, strengthened by the Italian model, fascist movements developed. The germination period of the NSDAP also fell into this phase. The crisis-ridden character of the young republic helped it to rise.

Adolf Hitler meeting with members of the NSDAP Reichstag (from left: Hermann Göring, Dr. Wilhelm Frick, Adolf Hitler, Gregor Strasser and Wilhelm Stöhr) in the Hotel Kaiserhof in Berlin. (& copy AP)


The rise and rule of National Socialism were in a national historical as well as a European context. At first, National Socialism was a product of German history. It was a consequence of the political and social tensions in the belated German nation-state of the Empire, which were then decisively exacerbated by the course and consequences of the First World War. These tensions became a legacy of the Weimar Republic and were one of the prerequisites for the rise of the anti-democratic, National Socialist mass movement and its alliance with the conservative power elites. Shaped by the empire, they did not want peace with the new parliamentary democracy.

The German Empire was the "scene of the classic modernization dilemma" (Hans-Ulrich Wehler): A rapid industrial-economic and societal development process was countered by strong social and political forces of persistence. Such contrasts existed elsewhere, but nowhere did they occur so massively and concentrated over a short period of half a century. The German nation-state, which was founded belatedly in comparison to other countries under monarchical and military auspices in 1871, was faced with several tasks and endurance tests. In addition to the expansion of a Reich administration, the main task was the establishment and continuation of a democratic-parliamentary constitutional order that had to establish the political participation of society and thus also its integration into the new nation state so that it would also become a state of citizens. As is well known, this parliamentarization failed, and with it political liberalism, the real vehicle of the constitutional movement. He was subject to multiple external pressures:
  • By the popular Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, who eliminated the Reichstag and parties through mass mobilization and the threat of a coup d'état;
  • through the labor movement, which became a mass movement and made the social question an instrument of its fundamental opposition, and
  • through the economic depression of the 1870s. This led to a system of protectionism and a policy of collecting large-scale agriculture and large-scale industry, which gave priority to a rigid policy of maintaining power over possible openings and social reforms.
At the turn of the century Germany had become the leading industrial power with considerable economic growth and a gradual improvement in the material situation of the industrial workers as well. But this upswing took place in the housing of the traditional Prussian-German authoritarian state, which was hardly capable of reform.

Even if the bourgeoisie had great influence on the communal political level, in the economy and culture, achieved successes and was able to enforce bourgeois norms and standards, the old groups continued to set the tone in the political and social sphere of rule: the court nobility and the landed nobility, who also did that The military dominated as well as a power-conscious bureaucracy; in addition, small groups of the wealthy and educated bourgeoisie, industrialists, bankers and professors, who increasingly approached the nobility's way of life. There was agreement in the defense of the workers 'claim to emancipation, whose political representation in the form of the social democratic workers' movement wanted to further develop democracy and the welfare state. There was agreement among the traditional elites and in the aforementioned groups of the bourgeoisie in blocking further parliamentarization and democratization in order not to give too much space to the social democrats and left-wing liberals.

Neither a stable liberal-democratic political culture nor democratic nationalism could develop in imperial Germany. Rather, remnants of older consciousness assert themselves here, culminating in a social ideal that the writer Thomas Mann once ironically characterized with the title "General Dr. von Staat". Even more, German nationalism took on aggressive, imperialist and militaristic traits, which were determined by a strategy of exclusion against the so-called "enemies of the Reich" and derived from the fear of encircling the central position in Europe the demand for a strong state in the midst of a world of supposed enemies. From the point of view of this nationalism, the "enemies of the Reich" initially only included Catholics, then above all Poles and Social Democrats and later, increasingly, German Jews as well.