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Hitler is widely regarded as the most disreputable world leader of all time and the crimes committed by his regime are still viewed as the most atrocious in modern history. His rule was marked by the killing of millions of Jews and a dictatorial rule that saw Germany turned into a police state.
However, Hitler was also a charismatic ruler who was able to inspire the people with his ideas and restore German’s prosperity after the Second World War. His influence was so great that the Nazi party was popularly known as the “Hitler movement”. This Nazi ruler made use of the constitution to take power and hence demonstrated that he could make use of popular public consent.
Considering this contradictory phases of Hitler’s regime, it would be useful to research on the nature of Hitler’s rule in order to gain a deeper understanding of the form of leadership that Hitler employed. This paper will analyse the extent to which Hitler ruled Germany with popular consent in order to demonstrate that while Hitler was primarily an authoritarian ruler, he led the country with a lot of popular consent from the masses.
Hitler’s Rise to Power
The Nazi Party was formed in 1919 as a Right Wing group that promised to restore the country’s prestige following the humiliating defeat in World War I and the subsequent imposition of the Treaty of Versailles on Germany. Hitler joined the party in its first years and rose to the rank of chief propagandist for the party. His brilliant oratory skills and leadership abilities led to his being made Chairman of the party.
Hitler and his Nazi party gained formal power following the 1928 election where the party won 12 seats. This modest achievement indicated that the party had a significant following in the country and people were willing to follow Hitler’s leadership (Orlow 1982). The Reichstag elections of July 1932 were very favourable for the Nazi Party, which acquired 37% of the votes making it the majority party in the German parliament.
Hitler was made the Chancellor of the Weimar Republic in January 1933. Hitler’s absolute hold on power was achieved in 1934 when he consolidated the office of the president and that of the chancellor in the person of “the Fuhrer and Reich Chancellor Adolf Hitler”.
Rule by Popular Public Consent
Once Hitler and the Nazi party had seized all power, they implemented policies that turned the country into a dictatorship. Even so, Hitler still engaged in some form of rule through popular consent. Once Hitler was appointed Chancellor in 1933, some positive changes became evident in Germany. Many people acquired steady jobs and security was restored.
These factors made people hope for a better future under Hitler. Gellately (2002) observes that in the early years, Hitler was keen not to make any illegal moves that might turn the people against him. Instead, all illegal moves were presented as necessary measures to protect the German population from a communist revolution.
Orlow (1982) documents that the middle and upper middle class Germans were the main supporters of Hitler’s actions since they believed that he could prevent a feared communist takeover of Germany and restore Germany’s glory.
The masses were willing to live under the Nazi dictatorship in exchange prosperity, security, and good governance. Gellately (2002) suggests that Hitler did not have to use terror to force the majority into line since most Germans had already become emotionally invested in the Nazi dictatorship, which promised to bring them prosperity and protect them from crime and a communist takeover of the country.
As early as 1935, Hitler was already formulating policies that were popular with the masses. Corner (2009) documents that Hitler’s announcement that general military service was being reintroduced in contravention of the prohibitions of the Versailles Treaty was met with euphoria by the masses.
The masses were in support of Hitler’s major rearmament activity that saw the army expanding to a larger size that the Treaty of Versailles allowed. This demonstrates that Hitler was able to garner large portions of popular approval for his policies and the ideas behind them.
Unlike other European dictators such as Stalin and Mussolini who set out to break large segments of the population to their will, Hitler hoped to achieve an authoritarian rule that had popular backing. The Nazi regime was therefore deeply concerned about popular opinion and how the masses reacted to government action.
Hitler did not just want the people to adjust themselves to the new system of government but rather to be enthusiastic supporters of it. This notion is best articulated by Gellately (2002) who reveals that the Nazis wanted the public to believe that what Hitler did was in the best interest of the Germans.
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The Fuhrer myth, which presented Hitler as a heroic figure defending popular justice and restoring order in Germany, was integral to his hold on power. Viereck (2004) declares that believe in the Fuhrer myth by the German masses was so important that without it even the combination of army, concentration camps, and a lying press could not have succeeded in keeping Hitler in power.
This myth effectively dissociated Hitler from the party and the government and he was seen as a symbol of the ideal Germany. This myth resulted in an enthusiastic popular consent that was critical in Hitler’s maintenance of power in Germany.
The Fuhrer myth enabled the masses to excuse Hitler if things went wrong because the public could place the blame on the officials under Hitler’s command since they were the individuals who actually executed the orders.
Majority of the German population supported the crackdown on people who were labelled political criminals by the Nazi. The concentration camps where such elements were sent were widely publicized and many Germans were generally in favour of them. The general population believed that such camps were necessary to maintain the security of the country and ensure that social unrest did not occur.
Gellately (2002) elaborates that the citizens were “pleased that the police put away people commonly regarded as criminals and the dregs of society” (p.212). Hitler’s crackdown on criminals and political opponents was therefore done with public consent. Noakes (1980) reveals that there was massive participation by many professionals in Nazi policies such as doctors, nurses, and lawyers.
These individuals were not fanatics and they participated in Nazi policies on their own volition. This demonstrates that Hitler’s policies were embraced by many Germans who contributed to the implementations of these policies.
The coercive practices and repression carried out by Hitler’s regime happened with the support of the masses. Hitler’s rule was marked by widespread persecution and confinement of people who were marked out as enemies of the state. These “enemies” were mostly individuals on the margins of the society and the public perceived them as a threat.
Gellately (2002) illustrates that these targets of discrimination were not chosen out of the mere prejudices and dislikes of Hitler. On the contrary, the definition of “enemy” was a reflection of the wish of the people. Their persecution and discrimination by the Nazi regime therefore won many supporters for Hitler.
Even when citizens expressed disagreement with certain policies of the Nazi regime, they often demonstrated greater consent in other areas and therefore led to an overall support for Hitler’s policies. Bankie (1992) states that while many Germans were disgruntled by the increased surveillance, they celebrated the security that intense police action brought to their streets.
Ordinary citizens aided the Gestapo in its work by spying on their friends. Noakes (1980) documents that the Gestapo did not have sufficient manpower to spy on all Germans and 80% of denunciations were made by fellow citizens.
This increased the surveillance ability of the Gestapo and over 50% of German’s Communist party members were incarcerated by the Gestapo. Gestapo files reveal that the enforcement of Hitler’s racial policies was only possible by the help of ordinary citizens who voluntarily denounced their fellow citizens.
Hitler took up policies that increased the popularity of his regime with many groups. In the mid-1930s, he embarked on a privatization effort that saw the transfer of public ownership of companies to the private sector.
Noakes (1980) states that this move was popular with the masses and it enhanced government support therefore strengthening Nazi rule. The business community was impressed by the privatization efforts and they supported Hitler. Privatization had a positive impact on the nation’s economy and this endeared Hitler to the masses.
Use of Propaganda
Hitler’s mass appeal was by the large a creation of the Nazi propaganda machine. The Nazi was able to make popular comments and tell the masses what they wanted to hear. Associating with the German press and film tycoon, Alfred Hugenberg gave Hitler and his party unrestricted access to the media. Hitler was therefore able to spread his propaganda with great success and manipulate the media to achieve his ends.
The Nazi propaganda system was run by Joseph Goebbels who created the Fuhrer myth and spread Nazi ideology to Germans. Control of the press helped the Nazi to exert influence over public opinion and this was very important since Hitler endeavoured to rule under popular support.
The Nazi propaganda machine exaggerated on the successes of Germany’s foreign policy and the economic achievements gained under Hitler’s rule. People were therefore able to convince themselves of Hitler’s advantages and saw the positive sides of the new dictatorship that he created (Gellately 2002).
Propaganda was used to elicit the support of the public for the expanding missions of the Gestapo, using concentration camps, and discriminating against the Jewish population. The concentration camps were presented in the media as boot camps where political criminals and other anti-social elements would be rehabilitated through work therapy.
The media fabricated stories of how effective and radical preventive approaches were being used to ensure that criminals would not reoffend. Hitler used propaganda to demonise the Jews and this led to the development of the popular opinion that removing the Jews from Germany was the appropriate action (Bankie 1992).
Such misleading information led to the support and approval of policies that the public might have been opposed to if they had not been misled by propaganda.
Rule through Coercion
Hitler’s rule resulted in the loss of individual rights and freedoms by the German population. Individuals lost their freedom of speech and expression and criticism of Hitler and the Nazi state was forbidden. It is rumoured that the Gestapo kept files on every adult and regular reports on the person were made through information obtained from ordinary citizens who acted as informants.
Those who were found guilty of criticizing the regime were interrogated and sometimes tortured. If found guilty, the individual was sent to a concentration camp or even executed (Orlow 1982). Such an environment ensured that Hitler could rule without the consent of the people and no one could speak up for fear of repercussions.
The vocal detractors of Hitler were confronted with violence and this decreased opposition to Hitler. Specifically, the Nazi SS paramilitary wiped out all non-Nazi organizations and political parties in small waves of terror. The Nazi was left as the only active party in Germany many people followed its policies since there was no alternative.
Hitler’s regime politicized all aspects of public life and this helped it to gain greater control of the public. Most behaviour of individuals in public was scrutinized and the citizens could get into trouble for insignificant things such as listing to jazz music (Bankie 1992).
Such tight control of society by Hitler was not done with the consent of the masses and people only obliged since they feared punishment. People were always reminded of the penalties for opposition to Hitler and this led to coerced conformity. Using the Gestapo, Hitler had effectively turned Germany into a surveillance state and people were aware that they were under close observation by the government.
The Schutzstaffel (SS), which began as a subunit of the storm troopers (SA), grew to be the most influential military apparatus of the Nazis.
This paramilitary organization was unofficially referred to as “Hitler’s black-shirted personal bodyguards” and it was made up of individuals who were fanatically loyal to Hitler (Orlow 1982). The unquestioning allegiance to Hitler meant that the SS would do anything to ensure that Hitler’s rule was unopposed. This group therefore dealt severely with all parties that were opposed to Hitler’s rule.
This paper set out to argue that while Hitler’s rule was dictatorial in nature and made use of violence and intimidation, this Nazi leader mostly engaged in rule through popular public consent. The many atrocities attributed to the Nazi regime were done with the support of many Germans. It has articulated that Hitler made use of terror and popular consent to rule the Germans.
Hitler was able to gain the backing of most people even as he turned the country from a democracy into a dictatorship. Hitler’s popularity with the masses was unquestionable and many people supported his foreign policy and action against political criminals and anti-socials. The people continued to support him even as he established the Gestapo and made concentration camps.
The terror tactics employed by Hitler’s regime targeted specific groups and most Germans were left unharmed. The paper has shown that while Hitler employed repressive measures and propaganda, his rule was mostly by popular consent. All blame must therefore not be laid on Hitler and his top officials for the atrocities committed under the Nazi regime.
Bankie, D 1992, The Germans and the Final Solution: Public Opinion under Nazism, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Corner, P 2009, Popular Opinion in Totalitarian Regimes: Fascism, Nazism, Communism, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Gellately, R 2002, Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Noakes, Jeremy. “Government, party, and people in Nazi Germany”. University of Exeter Press, 1980.
Orlow, D 1982, ‘The Historiography of the Decline of Bruning and the Rise of the Nazis: Comment and Review Article’, Hamburger Beitrage zur Sozial- und Zeitgeschichte, vol. 16 no.1, pp. 748-792.
Viereck, P 2004, Metapolitics: From Wagner and the German Romantics to Hitler, Transaction Publishers, London.