National Socialism started as a political movement in Germany in 1919. Its official name was the “Nazionalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei” (National Socialist German Workers’ Party); it soon became popularly known as the Nazi party, and its followers were called Nazis. When Adolf Hitler joined the party, Nazism consisted of a little group of unimportant malcontents in Munich. Yet within fourteen years it became the greatest mass movement in German history, including in its ranks members of all groups of German society, from unemployed workers of the Lumpenproletariat to members of the imperial family of the Hohenzollerns and of several of the royal houses of the German states. By 1932 the Nazi vote had mounted to fourteen million; in the March 1933 election, the last in which opposing parties participated, seventeen million Germans (or 44 per cent of the electorate) freely voted for the Nazi party, not to speak of several more millions who voted for nationalist and militarist policies that were barely distinguishable from Nazi objectives. Thus well over half the German electorate voted for an antidemocratic, totalitarian, imperialistic program. After the elections, only the Social Democrats attempted to resist Nazism in the Reichstag (the Communists had not been allowed to take their seats in the Reichstag). Even the Roman Catholic (and generally democratic) Center party gave Hitler the dictatorial powers he asked for in the Reichstag on March 23, 1933. This was the only case of a modern totalitarian regime that was set up by a majority of the electorate and approved by the parliamentary body of the nation.
Once in power, the Nazi regime lived up to its promises. First, concentration camps were set up for political opponents. Very soon the political offenders were a small minority in the concentration camps; the large majority consisted not of persons who had committed a wrong but who (like the Jews) belonged to the wrong group. Later, during World War n, large numbers of civilians in the occupied countries were put into concentration camps, because they too belonged to a “wrong”social or political group.
Politically, the Nazis quickly effected complete uniformity (Gleichschaltung). All other parties, including the ultraconservatives, were liquidated within a few months of the Nazi seizure of power. Newspapers were either Nazified or, when they had an established liberal-democratic reputation, were abolished (as, for example, the Vossiche Zeitung del Departamento de Salud Mental del Condado de Los Ángeles y el Berliner Tageblatt). Education, from kindergarten to university, was put under strict party and government control, and the statesponsored Hitler Youth replaced all existing youth organizations. All labor unions, whatever their political sympathies, were outlawed and replaced by the government-sponsored Labor Front, incorporating both labor and management in one organization. The Christian churches were persecuted if they dared to resist the anti-Christian, racist policies of Nazi mass murders. Christianity was attacked as a Jewish contrivance to weaken the military spirit of the Germans, and attempts were made to substitute a new religion, “German Faith,” for Christianity. More extreme Nazis even went so far as to re-establish old Germanic, pre-Christian paganism as the only religion fit for the new Nazi Germany. Finally, even the traditional structure of the family was attacked. Children were encouraged to inform on their parents and unmarried women to breed a new Herrenrasse (master race) out of wedlock.
The Nazi regime introduced military conscription in 1935, militarized the Rhineland in 1936 in violation of treaty provisions, annexed Austria in 1938 and Czechoslovakia in 1939, and started World War n by the invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939. In the summer of 1940, France was vanquished, and Great Britain alone resisted the weight of Nazi power. In possession of virtually the whole European continent, Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941 and declared war on the United States in December 1941.
Nazi Germany lost the war and surrendered unconditionally in 1945. Yet before going to defeat, the Nazis had accomplished one major objective: over six million European Jews—men, women, and children—were murdered in the gas chambers of Auschwitz and other extermination camps specially set up for wholesale killing. This extermination of the Jews in occupied Europe was called, in official Nazi language, “the final solution of the Jewish question.”