This is the start of a weekly series where every Thursday, I will examine a dictator from history. (Note: writing about these men does not condone, glorify, defend, or attempt to validate in any way the actions that they took, their ideologies, or their crimes against humanity.)
Adolf Hitler is foremost in the minds of many when it comes to evil, or to dictators. He is one of the Totalitarian Big Three (with Stalin and Mao), but stands alone even in that dread group by his goal to exterminate a variety of groups deemed inferior, Jews foremost among them, something neither Stalin nor Mao ever tried to do. Neither of the other two ever started a World War, also.
Adolf Hitler was born on April 20th, 1889, in Branau am Inn in Austria. An unspectacular child, he grew to become a Viennese Bohemian, living a penniless artist’s life. He was rejected from the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts in 1907 and again in 1908, and turned to Anti-Semitism, rapidly reading the press of the movement and learning the art of Populist, racist politics from Karl Lueger, the Anti-Semitic mayor of the city. Continuing in this state until the outbreak of the First World War, he enlisted as an Austrian citizen in the German army, and served with distinction in the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment. He was decorated twice for bravery. When the war ended in November 1918, he subscribed to the Stab-in-the-Back-Myth, which said that Germany had been betrayed by Jews, Communists, Pacifists, etc who had betrayed the brave military men and surrendered the country.
In the febrile atmosphere in the years directly following the war, with multiple revolutions from both Left and Right political movements taking place, Hitler wished to stay in the army and was assigned to monitor the German Workers’ Party. He became enamored with its ideas, and joined it when he was discharged from the army in 1920. He quickly rose to the top, and in 1923, after a few years of building the party, led the Munich Putsch of 1923. This attempt to seize control of the government failed totally, and he was sentenced to a lenient prison sentence by a sympathetic right-wing judge. While in prison, the ineffective other leaders of the Party allowed it to slide into disrepair. Hitler spent his time in prison dictating Mein Kampf, his rambling, nonsensical “autobiography”, and reflecting that he could only take power by constitutional means. Upon his release in 1924 after a Supreme Court pardon, he set about rebuilding the party into an effective electoral machine. The National Socialist, or Nazi Party was quite unsuccessful in the years before the Great Depression, as people with food on the table are less likely to turn to extremist parties. When the Depression came in 1929, however, the Nazis became popular. Eventually, they grew so large that they entered government in a coalition with the Nationalist Party, with Hitler as Chancellor in January 1933. On February 27th, 1933, the Reichstag burned down, and a Communist was implicated as the culprit (historians debate to this day if he was framed by the Nazis to provide justification for what followed); Hitler immediately issued a decree banning the Communist Party, one of the strongest in opposition to the Nazis.
This placed Hitler in a position of power. With the Communist gone, he could pass the Enabling Act, which gave him dictatorial, “temporary emergency” (of course) powers. This removed the last constitutional limits on his power; German democracy voted itself out of existence. With the state under Nazi control, the SPD, another large party was banned, and a campaign of terror began. The Geheime Staatspolizei, or Gestapo rounded up dissidents and sent them to camps or off-the-grid torture and detention centres. In 1934, the very last possible threat to Hitler was destroyed in the form of the SA, the enormous Nazi Paramilitary group, when Hitler had its leaders shot and its rank-and-file integrated with the army or the SS, his personal bodyguard which would one day become the elite of the armed forces. With this, the terror increased,as people came to believe that a Gestapo informant was on every street corner, and measures like the Night and Fog Decree enabled the state to make people disappear without trace. Culture was also brought under the Party, with all forms of art, education and recreation either integrated with the state or banned. Organisations like the Hitler Youth helped bring people closer to the Regime, while the terror cudgeled those who would not be taken in.
Preparations for war began almost immediately. The economy rapidly moved into deficit spending on arms, as all available production was geared towards weapons. Germany broke all of the restrictions on its armed forces stipulated in the Treaty of Versailles before 1939 with no consequence. In a series of steps before 1939, Hitler took various aggressive steps to little response from the West. Re-militarising the Rhineland and annexing Austria met with no real response, the useless reaction to Italy’s invasion of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) served merely to push it into Germany’s camp, and the attempt to take Czechoslovakia produced the Munich Agreement (or dictate) which awarded the area to Germany without even consulting the Czechs. However, when Hitler annexed the rest of Czechoslovakia, breaking his word from Munich, Britain and France pledged themselves to defend Poland, which they believed to be his next target. When the invasion came, as it did on September 1st, 1939, the two Western powers kept their word.
The war went well for Germany. In August of 1939, Germany and the USSR had signed a pact to divide Eastern Europe into spheres of influence, along with economic agreements. Poland was duly annihilated, followed by Denmark, Norway, and the Low Countries. France was forced to surrender when its Maginot Line Defence Plan collapsed completely, leaving Britain. In its Finest Hour, Britain stood alone against the Nazis. It was able to evacuate many of its men from France at Dunkirk, and Prime Minister Winston Churchill would countenance no surrender. Forced to call off its invasion of Britain by the actions of the RAF in the Battle of Britain, Germany turned East. After Italy bungled its invasions of Greece and British North Africa, Germany was called in, taking Greece and Crete but failing to defeat the British in Africa, where fighting would continue for the next few years. One of the most momentous decisions of the 20th century would follow.
On June 22nd, 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union, beginning the most destructive theatre of war in world history. It was in this operation and after that Hitler’s leadership began to hurt the Germany army. Over the next few years, he would make a series of strategic decisions ranging from the questionable to the absurd. However, these were merely matters of time; after the German army was turned back from Moscow by the Soviet counter-offensive of December 5th, Germany would probably not win. After Stalingrad, where an entire German army marched pointlessly to its doom because Hitler personally refused to allow it to retreat, it could not win. The Soviet Union quickly steam-rolled its way into Germany, exacting terrible losses from both sides. In cooperation with the Western Allies, who had fought their way from North Africa to Italy to Normandy to Western Germany, the Red Army closed in on Berlin, and Hitler shot himself in his bunker on April 30th, 1945. He had started a war that had claimed 50 million.
The other half of Hitler’s ghastly legacy is the “final solution”, the extermination of peoples deemed unworthy to live in an Aryan world. In 7 large extermination centres and thousands of other camps, Jews, Communists, Gypsies, Soviet prisoners, Homosexuals, habitual criminals, Jehovah’s Witnesses and others were worked to death, shot, and gassed. The Holocaust claimed in total some 11 million, and is perhaps the single darkest page in human history.
Adolf Hitler stands above even Mao and Stalin in the extent of his evil. Not only was his ideology based on racial hatred and extermination, but he actually put it into large-scale practice, and started the largest war in human history. No other single man has ordered so many atrocities, so many deaths, so much slaughter. No other man has brought so much death into the world. No other man is as deserving of his place in Hell.