Nazi Germany, or the Third Reich, commonly refers to Germany in the years 1933–1945, when it was under the firm control of the totalitarian and fascist ideology of the Nazi Party, with the Führer Adolf Hitler as dictator.
The Third Reich is an Anglicization of the German expression Drittes Reich, and is used as a near-synonym for Nazi Germany, that refers to the government and its agencies rather than the land and its people. The term was first used in 1922, as the title of a book, by conservative writer Arthur Moeller van den Bruck. It was adopted by Nazi propaganda, which counted the Holy Roman Empire as the first Reich, the 1871–1918 German Empire the second, and its own regime as the third. This was done in order to suggest a return to alleged former German glory after the perceived failure of the 1919 Weimar Republic. The disorder and poverty caused in the wake of the Wall Street Crash allowed the Nazis to easily seize power, and take advantage of former foes who had no taste for more bloodshed.
The Third Reich was sometimes also referred to as the "Thousand Year Reich," as it was intended by its founder to stand for one thousand years — similar to the Holy Roman Empire. The Nazi Party attempted to combine traditional symbols of Germany with Nazi Party symbols in an effort to reinforce the perception of them as being one and the same. Thus the Nazi Party used the terms "Third Reich" and "Thousand Year Reich" to connect the allegedly glorious past to its supposedly glorious future. Initially Hitler's plans seemed to be well on their way to fruition. At its height, the Third Reich controlled the greater part of Europe. However, due to the defeat by the Allied powers in World War II, the Thousand Year Reich in fact lasted only 12 years (from 1933 through to 1945).
During their 12-year rule, the Nazis sent massive armies throughout almost all of continental Europe (with the exception of Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Sweden, Portugal and the land near the Ural Mountains). As part of this, the Nazis endorsed the idea of a Greater Germany with Berlin renamed Germania as its capital, and integration of all people of supposed pure Germanic origin. This policy manifested itself in the death of 11 million people of racial minority and other social outcasts, as well as tens of millions of others as a direct or indirect result of combat.
Chronology of events
Pre-War Politics 1933-1939
On January 30, 1933, Hitler was appointed chancellor by President Paul von Hindenburg after attempts by General Kurt von Schleicher to form a viable government failed and under heavy pressure from former Chancellor Franz von Papen. Even though the Nazi Party had gained the largest share of the popular vote in the two Reichstag general elections of 1932, they had no majority in parliament.
Consolidation of power
The new government installed dictatorship in a series of measures in quick succession (Gleichschaltung for details). On February 27, 1933 Hermann Göring orchestrated the Reichstag building fire, which was followed immediately with the Reichstag Fire Decree, which rescinded Habeas corpus, and other protective laws. The next Reichstag elections on March 5, 1933, yielded 43.9 % of the vote for the NSDAP giving them a slight plurality. The Reichstag drove the final nails in Weimar's coffin by passing the Enabling Act (Ermächtigungsgesetz) on March 23, 1933, which formally gave Hitler the power to govern by decree and in effect disbanded the remainders of the Weimar constitution altogether.
Further consolidation of power was achieved on January 30, 1934 with the Gesetz über den Neuaufbau des Reichs (act to rebuild the Reich). The act changed the highly decentralized federal Germany of the Weimar era into a centralized state. It disbanded state parliaments, transferred sovereign rights of the states to the Reich central government and put the state administrations under the control of the Reich administration. At the death of president Hindenburg on August 2, 1934, the Nazi controlled Reichstag merged the offices of Reichspräsident and Reichskanzler and reinstalled Hitler with the new title Führer und Reichskanzler.
Only the army remained independent from Nazi control, and the quasi-militant Nazi military organisation SA expected top positions in the new power structure. Wanting to preserve good relations with the army Hitler, on the night of June 30, 1934, initiated what is known as the Night of the Long Knives, which was a purge of the leadership ranks of the SA as well as other political enemies, carried out by another, more elitist, Nazi organisation, the SS. Shortly thereafter the army leaders swore their obedience to Hitler.
The institution of the Gestapo, police to act outside of any civil authority, highlighted the Nazi's intention to hold powerful means of directly controlling German society. Soon, mirroring Stalin's terror in the Soviet Union, an estimated army of about 100,000 spies and infiltrants operated throughout Germany, reporting to Nazi officials the activities of any critics or dissenters. Most ordinary Germans, happy with the improving economy and better standard of living remained obedient and quiet, but many political opponents, especially communists and socialists, were reported by omnipresent eavesdropping spies, and put in prison camps where they were severely mistreated, and many tortured and killed. Estimates of political victims range in dozens of thousands dead and disappeared in the first few years of Nazi rule.
- For political opposition during this period, see German resistance movement.
The Nazi regime was characterized by political control of every aspect of society in a quest for racial (Aryan, Nordic), social and cultural purity. Modern abstract art and avant-garde art was thrown out of museums, and put on special displays of "Degenerate art" where it was ridiculed. However, the crowds attending these displays of "decadent art" frequently eclipsed those attending officially sanctioned displays. In one notable example on March 31, 1937, huge crowds stood in line to view a special display of "degenerate art" in Munich while a concurrently running exhibition of 900 works personally approved by Adolf Hitler attracted a tiny, unenthusiastic gathering.
The Nazi Party pursued its aims through persecution of those considered impure, especially against targeted minority groups such as Jews, Gypsies, Jehovah's Witnesses, and homosexuals.
By the Nuremberg Laws passed in 1935, Jews were stripped of their German citizenship and denied government employment. Most Jews employed by Germans lost their jobs at this time, their jobs being taken by unemployed Germans. On November 9, 1938, the Nazi party incited a pogrom against Jewish businesses called the Kristallnacht ("Crystal Night" = Night of Broken Glass); the euphemism was used because the numerous broken windows made the streets look as if covered with crystal. By September 1939, more than 200,000 Jews had left Germany, with the Nazi government seizing any property they left behind.
The Nazis also undertook programs targeting "weak" or "unfit" members of their own population as well, such as the T-4 Euthanasia Program which killed off tens of thousands of disabled and sickly Germans in an effort to "maintain the purity of the German Master race" (German: Herrenvolk) as described by Nazi propagandists. The techniques of mass-killing developed in these efforts would later be used in the Holocaust. Under a law passed in 1933, the Nazi regime carried out the compulsory sterilization of over 400,000 individuals labeled as having hereditary defects, ranging from mental illness to alcoholism.
- See Racial policy of Nazi Germany (history of discrimination policies)
The economic management of the state was first given to respected banker Hjalmar Schacht. Under his guidance, a new economic policy to elevate the nation was drafted, limiting imports of consumer goods and focusing on producing exports. Massive loans and credits were issued by the Reichsbank to industries and the individuals who ran them.
The Germany economy was later transferred to the leadership of Hermann Göring when, on October 18, 1936, the German Reichstag announced the formation of a Four year plan to shift the German economy towards a war production base. The four year plan technically expired in 1940, but by this time Hermann Göring had built up a power base in the "Office of the Four Year Plan" which effectively controlled all German economic and production matters.
Under the leadership of Fritz Todt a massive public works project was started, rivaling the New Deal in both size and scope; its most notable achievement was the Autobahn. Once the war started, the massive organization that Todt founded was used in building bunkers, underground facilities and entrenchments all over Europe. Another part of the new German economy was massive rearmament with the goal being to expand the 100,000-strong German Army into a force of millions.
World War II
- See: Military history of Germany during World War II
In 1939 Germany's actions lead to the outbreak of World War II in Europe. Poland, France, Denmark, Norway, Belgium and the Netherlands were invaded. Initially, the United Kingdom could do little to come to the rescue of its European allies and Germany subjected Britain to heavy bombing during the Battle of Britain. After invading Greece and North Africa, Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. It declared war on the United States in December of 1941 after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.
The persecution of minorities continued both in Germany and the occupied areas, from 1941 Jews were required to wear a yellow star in public and most were transferred to Ghettos, where they remained isolated from the rest of the population. In January 1942, at the Wannsee conference under the supervision of Reinhard Heydrich, a plan for the "Final solution for the Jewish question" (German: "Endlösung der Judenfrage") in Europe was hatched. During this period around 6 million Jews and many others, including homosexuals, Slavs and political prisoners, were systematically killed and more than 10 million people were put in slavery. This genocide is referred to as the Holocaust in English, "Shoah" in Hebrew. (The Nazis used the euphemistic German term "Endlösung" — the "Final Solution".) Thousands were shipped daily to the Death factories, concentration camps, German: Konzentrationslager, KZ; originally detention centers, later mass-murder factories; designed for the killing of their inmates.
Parallel to the Holocaust the Nazis conducted a ruthless program of conquest, colonization and exploitation over the captured Soviet and Polish territory and its Slavic population called Generalplan Ost. It is estimated 20 million Soviet civilians, 3 million non-Jewish Poles, 7 million Red Army soldiers died under the Nazi maltreatment in what the Russians call The Great Patriotic War. The Nazi plan was to extend the German Lebensraum "living space" eastward, but their public pretext for launching war on Eastern Europe was "defense from Bolshevism".
After losing the Battle of Stalingrad in 1943 and the Battle of Normandy in 1944, the regime started to disintegrate quickly, losing ground to the Allied forces in the west and south and the Red Army in the east. By spring of 1945 the Allies had invaded German territory. On April 30, 1945 as Berlin was taken by Soviet forces, Hitler committed suicide. On May 4–8, 1945, the Germany armed forces surrendered unconditionally ending the war in Europe and with the creation of the Allied Control Council on June 5 1945, the four powers "assume supreme authority with respect to Germany".
The winning allies first split Germany into occupation zones, At the Potsdam conference German borders within the Soviet occupation zone were moved westward, most given to Poland while a half of East Prussia was annexed by Soviet Union. The German exodus from Eastern Europe, that was initiated by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, was after the war completed when virtually all Germans in Central Europe were evacuated to west of the Oder-Neisse line, with up to about 10 million ethnic Germans affected. The French, US and British zones later became the future West Germany, while the Soviet zone became the communist East Germany. West Germany recovered by the 1960s, but the East remained communist until 1990.
After the war, surviving Nazi leaders were put on trial by the Allied tribunal at Nuremberg for crimes against humanity. Although a minority were sentenced to execution, most were released by the mid-1950s on account of health and old age. Many continued to live well into the 1970s and '80s. In all non-fascist European countries there were established legal purges to punish the members of the former Nazi and Fascist parties. An uncontrolled punishment hit the Nazi children and the children fathered by German soldiers in occupied territories, including the so-called lebensborn children.
- See Nuremberg Trials
Organization of the Third Reich
The leaders of Nazi Germany created a large number of different organisations for the purpose of helping them in staying in power. They rearmed and strengthened the military, set up an extensive state security apparatus and created their own personal party army, the Waffen SS.
Through a bureaucratic staffing of most government positions with Nazi Party members, by 1935 the German federal government and the Nazi Party had become virtually one and the same. By 1938, through the policy of Gleichschaltung, local and state governments lost all legislative power and answered administratively to Nazi party leaders, known as Gauleiters.
The organization of the Nazi state, as of 1944, was as follows:
Head of State and Chief Executive
- Führer und Reichskanzler (Adolf Hitler)
Cabinet and Federal authorities
- Office of the Four Year Plan (Hermann Göring)
- Office of the Reich Master Forester (Hermann Göring)
- Office of the Inspector for Highways
- Office of the President of the Reich Bank
- Reich Youth Office
- Reich Treasury Office
- General Inspector of the Reich Capitol
- Office of the Councillor for the Capitol of the Movement (Munich, Bavaria)
— Armed Forces)
Reich Central Security Office (RSHA — Reichssicherheitshauptamt)
- Deutsche Reichsbahn (State Railway)
- Reichspost (State Postal Service)
- Deutsches Rotes Kreuz (German Red Cross)
- National Socialist German University Teachers League
- National Socialist German Students League
Prominent persons in Nazi Germany
For a listing of Hitlers cabinet see : Hitler's Cabinet, January 1933 - April 1945