Rise to PowerThe Great Depression in Germany provided a political opportunity for Hitler. Germans were ambivalent to the parliamentary republic and increasingly open to extremist options. In 1932, Hitler ran against Paul von Hindenburg for the presidency. Hitler came in second in both rounds of the election, garnering more than 35 percent of the vote in the final election. The election established Hitler as a strong force in German politics. Hindenburg reluctantly agreed to appoint Hitler as chancellor in order to promote political balance.
Hitler used his position as chancellor to form a de facto legal dictatorship. The Reichtag Fire Decree, announced after a suspicious fire at the Reichtag, suspended basic rights and allowed detention without trial. Hitler also engineered the passage of the Enabling Act, which gave his cabinet full legislative powers for a period of four years and allowed deviations from the constitution.
Having achieved full control over the legislative and executive branches of government, Hitler and his political allies embarked on a systematic suppression of the remaining political opposition. By the end of June, the other parties had been intimidated into disbanding. On July 14, 1933, Hitler's Nazi Party was declared the only legal political party in Germany.
Military opposition was also punished. The demands of the SA for more political and military power led to the Night of the Long Knives, which took place from June 30 to July 2, 1934. Ernst Röhm and other SA leaders, along with a number of Hitler's political enemies, were rounded up and shot.
The day before Hindenburg’s death in August 1934, the cabinet had enacted a law abolishing the office of president and combining its powers with those of the chancellor. Hitler thus became head of state as well as head of government, and was formally named as leader and chancellor. As head of state, Hitler became supreme commander of the armed forces. He began to mobilize for war. Germany withdrew from the League of Nations, and Hitler announced a massive expansion of Germany’s armed forces.
The Nazi regime also included social reform measures. Hitler promoted anti-smoking campaigns across the country. These campaigns stemmed from Hitler’s self-imposed dietary restrictions, which included abstinence from alcohol and meat. At dinners, Hitler sometimes told graphic stories about the slaughter of animals in an effort to shame his fellow diners. He encouraged all Germans to keep their bodies pure of any intoxicating or unclean substance.
A main Nazi concept was the notion of racial hygiene. New laws banned marriage between non-Jewish and Jewish Germans, and deprived "non-Aryans" of the benefits of German citizenship. Hitler's early eugenic policies targeted children with physical and developmental disabilities, and later authorized a euthanasia program for disabled adults.
The Holocaust was also conducted under the auspices of racial hygiene. Between 1939 and 1945, Nazis and their collaborators were responsible for the deaths of 11 million to 14 million people, including about 6 million Jews, representing two-thirds of the Jewish population in Europe. Deaths took place in concentration and extermination camps and through mass executions. Other persecuted groups included Poles, communists, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses and trade unionists, among others. Hitler probably never visited the concentration camps and did not speak publicly about the killings.
World War IIIn 1938, Hitler, along with several other European leaders, signed the Munich Agreement. The treaty ceded the Sudetenland districts to Germany, reversing part of the Versailles Treaty. As a result of the summit, Hitler was named Time magazine's Man of the Year for 1938. This diplomatic win only whetted his appetite for a renewed German dominance. On September 1, Germany invaded Poland. In response, Britain and France declared war on Germany.
Hitler escalated his activities in 1940, invading Scandinavia as well as France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Belgium. Hitler ordered bombing raids on the United Kingdom, with the goal of invasion. Germany’s formal alliance with Japan and Italy, known collectively as the Axis powers, was signed to deter the United States from supporting and protecting the British.
On June 22, 1941, Hitler violated a non-aggression pact with Joseph Stalin, sending 3 million German troops into the Soviet Union. The invading force seized a huge area before the German advance was stopped outside Moscow in December 1941.
On December 7, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Hitler was now at war against a coalition that included the world's largest empire (Britain), the world's greatest financial power (the U.S.) and the world's largest army (the Soviet Union).
Facing these odds, Hitler's military judgment became increasingly erratic. Germany's military and economic position deteriorated along with Hitler's health. Germany and the Axis could not sustain Hitler’s aggressive and expansive war. In late 1942, German forces failed to seize the Suez Canal. The German army also suffered defeats at the Battle of Stalingrad and the Battle of Kursk.
On June 6, 1944, the Western Allied armies landed in northern France. As a result of these significant setbacks, many German officers concluded that defeat was inevitable and that Hitler's denial would result in the destruction of the country.
Death and LegacyBy early 1945, Hitler realized that Germany was going to lose the war. The Soviets had driven the German army back into Western Europe, and the Allies were advancing into Germany. On April 29, 1945, Hitler married his girlfriend, Eva Braun, in a small civil ceremony in his Berlin bunker. Around this time, Hitler was informed of the assassination of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. Afraid of falling into the hands of enemy troops, Hitler and Braun committed suicide the day after their wedding, on April 30, 1945. Their bodies were carried to the bombed-out garden behind the Reich Chancellery, where they were burned. Berlin fell on May 2, 1945.
Hitler’s political program had brought about a world war, leaving behind a devastated and impoverished Eastern and Central Europe, including Germany. His policies inflicted human suffering on an unprecedented scale and resulted in the death of an estimated 40 million people, including about 27 million in the Soviet Union. Hitler's defeat marked the end of a phase of European history dominated by Germany, and the defeat of fascism. A new ideological global conflict, the Cold War, emerged in the aftermath of World War II.