On the 2nd August 1934, the 86 year old German Reichspräsident Paul von Hindenburg died of lung cancer and Adolf Hitler became both the Führer and Reich Chancellor of the German People. It effectively merged the offices of both the President and Chancellor into one role, and therefore completed what the Nazis referred to as Gleichschaltung (or “Co-ordination”) by establishing Hitler as both Germany’s head of state and head of government.
Interfering with the post of President was illegal under the terms of the 1933 Enabling Act, and although Hitler merging the two positions removed any political checks and balances of his personal domination of Germany, a plebiscite held 17 days later on the 19th August saw an enormous 90% of people approving of the change.
Hitler’s assumption of the role of Führer also allowed the Nazi Party to more actively pursue its promotion of the ideology of Führerprinzip. This stated that Hitler possessed absolute control over the German government. Supported by a propaganda machine that relentlessly pushed the slogan Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer – which translates as “One People, One Empire, One Leader” – the Führerprinzip also confirmed the Nazi Party’s complete control over every element of German society. This ranged from local government to factories and even to the management and control schools, although in terms of government it sometimes meant that officials were reluctant to make decisions without Hitler’s personal input or approval. It was also used by Nazi war criminals at the Nuremberg Trials to argue that they were not guilty since they were only following orders.
On the 26th July 1936, Adolf Hitler informed General Francisco Franco that Germany would support his Nationalist rebellion in Spain. Benito Mussolini, the leader of Italy, also agreed to intervene in the war on the Nationalist side after being encouraged to do so by Hitler. Although both countries later signed the Non-Intervention Agreement, they continued to send troops and equipment to support Franco’s forces.
The Spanish Civil War broke out on the 17th July, when an army uprising against the Spanish Second Republic that began in Morocco spread to the mainland. In the face of early rebel gains, the Republican government sought assistance from France and the USSR. Meanwhile the Nationalists turned to the right-wing governments of Germany and Italy.
Hitler in particular had a number of reasons for getting involved. As well as giving him the opportunity to take action against what he called “communist barbarism”, assisting Franco would win Germany an important ally and access to Spain’s natural resources. Militarily, German involvement also provided an opportunity to test the new equipment developed since the Nazi rearmament programme began in 1933.
Both Hitler and Mussolini were concerned about the risk of the Spanish Civil War escalating into a European-wide conflict, so at first their support for the Nationalists was small-scale and consisted mainly of transporting existing Spanish troops from Morocco to the mainland. However, as the war progessed their involvement grew. The German Condor Legion in particular began to take an active role in the aerial bombing of Republican areas, most notably the Basque town of Guernica, on the 26th April 1937.
On the 18th July 1925, the first volume of Adolf Hitler’s rambling racist manifesto Mein Kampf – which translates as My Struggle or My Battle – was first published. Dictated to his assistant Rudolf Hess whilst imprisoned in surprisingly luxurious conditions at Landsberg Prison, Mein Kampf laid out the blueprint for Hitler’s future plans for Germany, although when it was first published it gained little following outside the ranks of the Nationalist Socialist faithful.
In 1923, Hitler launched an attempted coup to seize power in Munich in Bavaria. Known as the Beer Hall Putsch, it ended in disaster for the Nazis when Hitler was arrested along with other Party leaders and charged with treason. Having been found guilty after a widely publicised 24-day trial, Hitler was sent to Landsberg as a nationally recognised figure.
Imprisonment gave Hitler time to reflect on the future direction of the Nazi Party and dictate Mein Kampf to Hess. It was in this book that Hitler clearly stated his anti-Semitic views, and attempted to justify his hatred. He also outlined his intentions for a future Germany including the destruction of the parliamentary system and the first reference to aggressive eastward expansion in order to gain Lebensraum “at the expense of Russia”.
Despite its initially poor reception, Mein Kampf became a popular book with hundreds of thousands of copies sold each year after Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933, even though he increasingly distanced himself from it. Winston Churchill believed that, if world leaders had read it, they could have anticipated the full scale of Nazi domestic and foreign policy.
The 30th June 1934 saw the Nazis carry out a purge of their own party, when Hitler ordered the SS to murder leading figures of the SA or Brownshirts along with critics of the Nazi regime such as former chancellor von Schleicher. The purges actually went on throughout the weekend of the 30th June – 2nd July, even though the popular name suggests they only lasted for one night.
By the middle of 1934 Hitler was consolidating his rule over Germany but the relative autonomy of the SA within the Nazi Party was a concern. As Germany became a one-party state, the SA’s usual political targets for street violence were removed meaning that in a number of cases these representatives of the ruling party would instead intimidate civilians.
Such actions undermined the sense of order that Hitler was trying to project, and threatened to destabilise the party itself. The SA’s leader, Ernst Röhm, was a particular concern as he sought a so-called “second-revolution” to redistribute wealth within Germany in order to fulfil the socialist part of the Nationalist Socialist party’s name. Furthermore, the Reichswehr – Germany’s official army – were unhappy at Röhm’s desire to place the Reichswehr under the command of the SA.
On the morning of the 30th June, the homes of Röhm and other people who threatened Hitler’s power were broken into. While some were executed on the spot, others such as Röhm himself were held in prison for a few hours first. Hitler justified the purge in a public speech, claiming that he acted as “the supreme judge of the German people.”
West Germany’s Federal Archives revealed that forensic tests proved the Hitler Diaries were forgeries.
In the final days of the Second World War, an aeroplane carrying some of Hitler’s closest staff members crashed near the German border with Czechoslovakia. Hitler’s personal valet, Sergeant Wilhelm Arndt, was killed and the personal effects he was carrying on behalf of the Fuhrer were lost. On hearing of the crash, Hitler allegedly exclaimed that, ‘In that plane were all my private archives that I had intended as a testament to posterity. It is a catastrophe!’ Journalist Robert Harris later described this possibility of lost documents belong to Hitler as providing ‘the perfect scenario for forgery’.
A series of diaries purporting to be the lost journals of Adolf Hitler were later forged by Konrad Kujau. Posing as a Stuttgart antiques dealer, he successfully struck a deal with journalist Gerd Heidemann who had convinced his bosses at the newspaper Stern to buy the diaries. They eventually handed over 9.9 million Deutsche marks for 62 volumes, and sold the serial rights to other publications.
Authenticity of the diaries was originally confirmed by historians including Hugh Trevor-Roper and Gerhard Weinberg, but they grew more sceptical as the April 1983 publication date approached. The newspaper subsequently submitted three volumes to the Bundesarchiv for forensic examination. Initial tests highlighted both textual inconsistencies and the presence of materials that didn’t exist until a decade after their alleged creation.
More volumes were submitted for further tests and, on 6 May, the government formally announced that they were forgeries. Kujau was later arrested and imprisoned while the journalist, Heidemann, was found to have skimmed money from Stern’s payments for which he too was sent to jail.
The Battle of Berlin ended after German General Helmuth Weidling surrendered to Soviet General Vasily Chuikov.
Determined to capture Berlin before the Western Allies, Stalin’s generals began their assault on the defensive line of the Oder and Neisse rivers on the morning of 16 April. 2 million German civilians and no more than 200,000 German soldiers were in and around Berlin when the USSR broke through the defences having suffered casualties in the tens of thousands.
Travelling at up to 30-40km a day, the first Red Army troops reached Berlin in time for Hitler’s 56th birthday on 20 April. Artillery began bombarding the city and didn’t cease until the surrender almost two weeks later. Meanwhile other Soviet units encircled the city leading to Hitler, who was based in the Führerbunker, angrily declaring that the war was lost. Nevertheless he appointed General Weidling to command the Berlin Defence Area with a force of 45,000 soldiers supported by police officers, members of the Hitler Youth, and the Volkssturm militia.
By 30 April Soviet troops had reached the Reichstag and, late that evening, successfully placed a flag on top that was removed the following morning by German defenders. The building was finally taken over on 2 May and a new flag was raised, of which an iconic photograph was taken. General Weidling and his staff surrendered the same morning having failed to negotiate a conditional surrender.
Following the surrender the Soviets sought to restore essential services and provide food to the German survivors. However, some troops who reached the city lacked the discipline of the first echelon and committed shocking crimes against Berliners including rape, pillage and murder.
The Spanish Civil War began in July 1936 after a military coup by Spanish forces in North Africa failed to secure complete control over the country. Their unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the government of the Second Spanish Republic left the country divided between the generally left-leaning and urban Republicans and the conservative Nationalist rebels.
Having unified the Nationalist forces in 1937, Franco secured assistance from Hitler in Germany and Mussolini in Italy who provided both military equipment and personnel. Meanwhile the USSR provided assistance to the Republicans, even though all three countries had previously signed a non-intervention agreement.
By the end of 1938 the Nationalists had split the Republican-controlled areas in two, allowing them to focus on capturing Catalonia while keeping Madrid under siege. The fall of Catalonia in February 1939 triggered the resignation of the President of the Republic and the decision by both Britain and France to recognise the Nationalist government.
With Republican forces fleeing across the border into France, a coup was launched against the Prime Minister Juan Negrín with the intention of negotiating a peace deal with the Nationalists. However, Franco refused to accept anything other than unconditional surrender. By 27 March the Nationalists were facing virtually no resistance as they marched into previously Republican-held territory. Madrid surrendered the next day, and Nationalist troops seized the remaining Republican areas by the end of the month. On 1 April, Franco went on the radio to proclaim victory.
On the 7th March 1936, the German Army under control of Adolf Hitler violated international agreements by remilitarising the Rhineland. Although Germany had retained political control over the area following the Treaty of Versailles, it had been banned from stationing armed forces there. France reacted with horror, but they didn’t take any action.
The Rhineland area of Germany, which lay on the border with France, had been banned under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles from containing armed forces within a 50km-wide strip. This had later been confirmed by Foreign Minister Gustav Stresemann in the Locarno Treaties of 1925. However, by 1936 Hitler had come to power and had begun to break the terms of Versailles by increasing the number of German weapons beyond the agreed limits and reintroducing conscription.
The Western powers had failed to respond to these moves with anything more than diplomatic grumbling, so Hitler felt emboldened to further test the limits of the Versailles settlement. After France and Russia signed the 1935 Franco-Soviet Pact, Hitler chose to send three battalions, or approximately 22,000 German troops, into the Rhineland on the morning of the Saturday 7th March in what he claimed was a defensive move against ‘encirclement’. His own generals were expecting retaliation from France, and Hitler had even ordered an immediate withdrawal if the French army made a move. But it didn’t – France refused to act without the support of Britain, which had been severely weakened by the impact of the Great Depression, distracted by the unfolding Abyssinia Crisis, and sympathised – to an extent – with the German desire to defend its own border.
On the 27th February 1933, the Reichstag building in Berlin was set on fire in an arson attack. Generally accepted to have been conducted by Dutch communist Marinus van der Lubbe, the fire provided the new Chancellor Adolf Hitler with an opportunity to consolidate Nazi control of the German government.
Hitler had been appointed Chancellor on the 30th January, but had demanded new elections for the Reichstag. These were scheduled to take place on the 5th March, and Hitler hoped to increase the Nazi’s share of the seats in order to pass the Enabling Act and take control of political decisions for himself.
Shortly after 9pm on the evening of the 27th February, Goebbels was informed that the Reichstag was on fire. Although the blaze was extinguished before midnight, the inside of the building was destroyed. Communists were declared responsible, and van der Lubbe was arrested.
The day after the fire, Hitler persuaded President Hindenburg to pass the emergency Decree of the Reich President for the Protection of People and State, which suspended many civil liberties and allowed the Nazis to arrest their opponents. Thousands of communists were rounded up by the SA, along with Social Democrats and liberals, and placed in so-called ‘protective custody’.
Van Der Lubbe was tried, convicted, and executed. Although there is debate over the exact circumstances of the fire, Sir Ian Kershaw says there is consensus among the vast majority of historians that he did set the fire. Whatever the circumstances, the situation was certainly exploited by the Nazis and was the first step in the creation of a single-party state.
The German Empire established its first air force, the Fliegertruppe, in 1910 which saw extensive action in the First World War. Following Germany’s defeat and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was banned from possessing an air force and the Fliegertruppe was dissolved.
Despite the ban, the German military established a secret flight school at Lipetsk in the Soviet Union that began training fighter pilots and ground crew from 1926. This meant that there were already up to 120 trained pilots by the time Hitler came to power in January 1933. Senior Nazi, and former First World War pilot Hermann Goering, was named Reich Commissioner of Aviation.
On 15 May 1933 the Reich Ministry of Aviation took control of all military flying operations. Although often considered by many to be the ‘birth’ of the Luftwaffe the development of military aircraft continued in secret. Having formally approved its position as a third military service alongside the army and navy on 26 February 1935, Hitler and Goering began to reveal the Luftwaffe.
Germany’s expansion of its air force was protested by both France and Britain, the latter of which had begun to strengthen the Royal Air Force in March. However, neither country nor the League of Nations attempted to sanction this blatant defiance of the Treaty of Versailles. Consequently the Luftwaffe continued to grow, and the following year the Condor Legion saw action for the first time as part of the Nationalist forces in the Spanish Civil War. As a result, up to 20,000 members of the Luftwaffe gained valuable combat experience.