This essay will focus on what were the causes of the rise of fascism in Germany and how big a role Adolf Hitler played in proceedings. I will address various theories concerned with how fascism became such a massive problem in Germany in post-World War One Europe whilst also assessing whether the movement would have been as prevalent without the assistance of Adolf Hitler.
Could fascism have succeeded without him?
The term ‘fascism’ has long since been synonymous with Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler. The dark, horrendous events of World War Two seeped out across Europe and are now an infamous part of the history books. Fascism is defined as being related to hierarchy: a belief that a certain group of people are better or ‘higher up’ than other groups of people. Fascism is linked to nationalism: the idea that your nation is superior to other nations. In the case of fascism in Germany, Hilter and his Nazi party bred the idea that the Aryan race (people with blonde hair and blue eyes) were the definitive superior race. There were a number of factors which led to the rise of fascism in Germany; not least of which was the promotion of the Nazi regime by the charismatic leader of the party, Adolf Hitler. Fascism first appeared in 1919 as a disorganised series of political parties. After the official groupings on the National Fascist Party (PNF) in 1921 and the National Socialist Worker Party (NSDAP) in 1925, the movement really gain a foothold and a following. (De Grand, p 10) In the course of this essay, I will discuss the two main theories behind how and why fascism grew so rapidly in Germany: the structuralist view which suggests that Nazism simply continued on the traditional German history; and the intentionalist view which implies that Hitler was the driving force behind fascist German politics.
Two things happened as a result of the end of World War One which enhanced the German’s view of their being treated unfairly by the allied forces. The first was that they had accepted the end of the war through an armistice rather than take the war into Germany itself (so as to quickly stop the loss of lives), meaning that it was perceived that Germans had not lost the war, but rather ended it on enemy territory; making them appear to have won. Secondly was that the winning enemy allied forces did not take a victory march through the German capital city, Berlin, as they wished to avoid an “international humiliation” for Germany, and as such, it was seen as the Germans having been victorious as there appeared to be no other evidence to the contrary. (Neiberg, p 89-90) These two things increased the German public’s opinion that the Treaty of Versailles was disrespectful to their nation. The view that the Nazis were simply in the ‘right place at the right time’ is a commonplace one. Arguably, it has some standing too as the general bad feeling and attitude amongst the German people was rife following World War One and the above events only compounded this. As a German person and a former soldier, Hitler would have felt this acutely and indeed, following the German surrender in the war, it is said that Hitler fell into a deep depression as a result. (Spartacus Educational) Intentionalist theory states that Hitler was not just a pawn within German politics, but the driving force. Hitler came from working class backgrounds and with his military history and nationalist passion, he was the ideal candidate to drive forward the rise of fascism in Germany, and according to intentionalist theory, he did. Two historians, Rich and Fest felt this was the case and argued that in 1933, when Hitler became the Chancellor of the Nazi party, he did not win the presidential election against Paul Von Hindenburg as the latter had been persuaded to run as he was the only man who could keep Hitler out of the top position. However, Hitler succeeded Hindenburg and this shows his determination to rise to power, suggesting that Hitler had a plan or even an intention, all along.
A structuralist view of the events leading up to the rise of fascism in Germany was that the Nazi party were echoing the earlier aims of the German elite in the lead up to the first World War: expansion. Indeed, the early development of the Nazi party seemed to echo the development of the fascist movement: “The first and part of the second period until 1928 roughly paralleled the fascist development’s movement from March 1919 until the PNF congress of Autumn 1921.” (de Grand, p 11) This idea that the Nazi party (headed by Hitler) were simply following traditions was an idea which lulled many into ignoring the outrageous behaviour which followed during World War Two.
With structuralism’s emphasis on culture being understood by structure, Nazism and fascism can be explained by their desire to place class and cultural structure on their people and indeed, the people of the countries whom they later invaded. Hitler’s particular focus on his hatred of the Jews (and their labelling as being sub-human) and his belief that the Aryan race was superior, suggest that he took a structuralist view (although it was prior to the theory’s birth) to society. This would have seen the rise in fascism increase dramatically as at its most basic, fascism is the belief that one type of person is better than another type and the structuring of society around this.
Adolf Hitler was an extremely charismatic man who was liked by a lot of people. Even his time in prison for his participation in the Beer Hall Putsch, led to him making friends: “[He] had won over everyone at Landsberg Prison. When he left, the warden and the staff were in tears; they didn’t want him to do.” (Haugen, p 54) He would often arrive late to speeches in order to create a sense of tension and expectation and once he had delivered his speech, the crowds would be in raptures and willing to do anything which he said. (Spartacus Educational) Nationalist parties exist in almost every country but tend to have a very small demographic of followers but in 1930s Germany, the German public were beginning to feel suppressed and angry with the treatment of their country as a result of the Treaty of Versailles. Their nationalist spirit soon grew and with it, their demand for greater power. Hitler was a man who believed firmly in ideas of ‘superiority’ and quickly gained a massive following with the momentum of a runaway train. His ability to give engaging and exhilarating speeches, coupled with his firm belief in the same ideas as the German public, meant that he was able to gain power relatively easily. Arguably, the movement of fascism was already well underway in Germany by Hitler became their figurehead and poster boy, allowing the growth of fascism to happen exponentially faster than before: he gave the German masses a direction. However, the powers that be persuaded Paul Von Hindenburg to run against Hitler as they knew he would win, suggesting that the government were not keen to see Hitler in office. Hitler battled on and eventually made it to power suggesting that his intentions were clear all along: both arguments make very sound judgements but ultimately, I think it was a number of socio-economic factors involving the dampened German pride after World War One, Hitler’s passion and drive and the fact that German tradition dictated a greedy desire to expand and grow stronger and wealthier.
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5. De Grand, A. J. (1995). Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany: the ‘fascist’ style of rule. London: Routledge.
6. Haugen, B. (2006). Adolf Hitler: Dictator of Nazi Germany. Minneapolis, MN: Compass Point Books.
7. Spartacus Educational. (2011). Adolf Hitler. Retrieved from http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/GERhitler.htm