What Drove European Countries into the Hands of Dictators in the Early 20th Century?

History Hit Podcast with Frank McDonough

5 mins

07 Oct 2018

This article is an edited transcript of The Rise of the Far Right in Europe in the 1930s with Frank McDonough on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 23 November 2016. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.

A lot of people say that fascism was really a reaction to communism, that the ruling classes felt worried about the rise of communism. And, of course, communism succeeded in the Russian Revolution. So there was indeed a real fear of communism spreading, and the Nazis’ National Socialism and even fascism in Italy were both a reaction to communism. 

The fascists kind of dressed their movements up as vast nationalist popular movements that would appeal to the workers. Notice that in National Socialism there is the word “national”, which brings in patriotism, but also “socialism” as well. It wasn’t the socialism of communism, of equality – it was a different kind of socialism, like the socialism of the community of people being behind a particular leader. 

There was also a stress on the charismatic leader. Italy’s Benito Mussolini was the big charismatic leader of that period. And he came to power with the help of the ruling elites in Italy. And Adolf Hitler too came to power with the help of ruling elites, especially President Paul von Hindenburg. But he also had the tacit support in 1933 of the army and, once he got into power, of big business.

The impact of World War One

The First World War was really a cataclysmic event and it changed the world fundamentally. But in two different ways. In the democracies, for example in France and Britain and elsewhere, it led to a desire for peace, for disarmament, and for living in harmony with the rest of the world. That was exemplified by the League of Nations which was established so that a second world war wouldn’t break out. 

The first day of the Battle of the Somme holds an infamous record for the British army, being the bloodiest day in its history. But the battle wasn't just being fought in no-man's land. Beneath the ground a dreadful, silent war was taking place, as British and German engineers tunnelled and counter-tunnelled in a vicious war of explosives and hand-to-hand fighting. Watch Now

The League had a principle called “collective security”, under which all members would get together if anyone tried to breach the security of any nation But what people didn’t realise was that the nation states were too selfish to make it work.

So really, the League of Nations was all good on paper, but in the end it didn’t work and allowed invasions to go on – for example, Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in 1931.

When Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, however, he left both the League of Nations and the disarmament conference. So immediately, there was a bit of a crisis in the world system; you could say there was a power vacuum in the world.

The German depression and middle-class fear

We tend to forget the tremendous hunger that was present in 1930s Germany due to the depression – six million people were out of work. As one German woman who lived through that period said:

“What you’ve got to understand if you want to understand why Hitler came to power is the terrible situation that Germany was in at that time – the deep depression, the hunger, the fact that people were on the streets”.

Indeed, there was great violence on the streets, with the communists and the national socialists having pitched battles throughout Germany. 

Hitler is pictured at the window of the Reich Chancellery on the evening of 30 January 1933, following his inauguration as chancellor. Credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1972-026-11 / Sennecke, Robert / CC-BY-SA 3.0

The middle class moved towards national socialism in a big way from 1930, mainly because, although they were not actually losing their jobs and their business, they feared that they might. And what Hitler was promising was stability.

He was saying, “Look, I want to get rid of the communist threat. I’m going to banish the communist threat. We’re going to go back to joining together. I’m going make Germany great again” – that was his theme.

As well as, “What we’re going to do is all join together in a national community, and outside that national community are going to be communists”, because he thought the communists were a disruptive force, and he talked about annihilating them.

The first thing Hitler did when he came to power was to annihilate the left. He created the Gestapo, which arrested most of the members of the Communist Party and placed them in concentration camps. Over 70 per cent of the cases that the Gestapo dealt with involved communists.

So he did destroy communism in Germany. And he felt that that would lead to Germans feeling more secure, to society being more stable, and that he could then push on with creating his national community. And he started to build that. 

Professor Frank McDonough is an internationally renowned expert on the Third Reich. He was born in Liverpool, studied history at Balliol College, Oxford and gained a PhD from Lancaster University. Here he discusses the subject of his book 'The Gestapo: The Myth and Reality of Hitler's Secret Police'.Listen Now

He did carry out attacks on Jews in the early stages, including the boycott of Jewish goods. But the boycott didn’t prove popular internationally and so it was called off after a day.

Hitler meanwhile banned all political parties in 1933 and got rid of the trade unions. That same year he also introduced a law of sterilisation, which allowed for the compulsory sterilisation of citizens deemed to be suffering from any of a list of alleged genetic disorders.

But he also announced that he was going to build autobahns, that he was going to put Germans back into work. Now, as we know, the autobahns didn’t put millions of people back into work, but public works programmes did put lots of people back into work. So there was a kind of feel good factor in Nazi Germany. 

Hitler’s consolidation of power 

Of course, Hitler also used a referendum towards the end of that year to test whether his regime was popular. The first question on the referendum was, “Should Germany have left the League of Nations?”, and more than 90 per cent of the population said yes.

German President Paul von Hindenburg (right) is pictured with Hitler (left) on 21 March 1933. Credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-S38324 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

He also asked them, “Do you approve of the measures that the government has taken in 1933?” – measures that, let’s face it, were mostly very autocratic and had led to there only being one political party left in Germany – and, again, more than 90 per cent of the population voted yes. So that result gave him a big fillip towards the end of 1933. 

Hitler also used propaganda, establishing a ministry of propaganda under Joseph Goebbels and starting to  send out the messages of Nazism, which involved a lot of repetition. The Nazis said the same thing 100 times.

If you look back through Hitler’s speeches then you will see that they’re full of repetitive statements, such as, “We must join together, the community must be at one”, and, “The communists are the danger, the national danger”. 

So really, all of those measures were aimed at consolidating Hiter’s power. But to do that he also had to really work with the existing power brokers. For example, his coalition was originally made up of ministers from other parties and he actually kept those ministers on after doing way with other parties in 1933.

Franz von Papen, for example, remained the vice chancellor, and the finance minister remained the same too. Hitler also built a close relationship with President Hindenburg in 1933, as well as good relations with the army, and big business also swung over to him with money and support.