Stretcher bearers carry a wounded soldier during the Battle of the Somme. France, September 1916. © IWM (Q 1332) More
German prisoners of war tend to a fallen comrade, Cambrai, France, 1917. © IWM (Q 31 82) More
A ten million mark note [paper currency] that was issued by the German national bank during the height of the inflation in 1923. US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Margaret Chelnick
Slide from a propaganda filmstrip titled Overcoming Versailles produced for Hitler Youth groups. This image of Hitler appears next to text which reads, translated from German: “We demand the repeal of the dictated peace of Versailles.” US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Stephen Glick More
How did German defeat in World War I and the subsequent Treaty of Versailles set the stage for the rise of Nazism?
World War I (1914–18) and the subsequent Treaty of Versailles had a tremendous impact on Germany.
Germany experienced loss of population and territory, economic instability, and a chaotic political situation with a shaky, new democratic government. These elements combined to create a tense and difficult situation in the early 1920s. The rise of extreme ideologies, the politicization of past grievances, and an unstable government made possible the rise of an extreme right-wing party known as the Nazi Party (National Socialist German Workers Party, or NSDAP).
When the Nazi government came to power in 1933, Germany was considered a modern, technologically advanced constitutional democracy. Part of the Nazi Party’s success rested on its ability to tap into Germans’ sentiments about their defeat in World War I and about the Treaty of Versailles. Many Germans did not understand how and why the war had been lost. To them, the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles were humiliating and infuriating. Promises to rearm, to reclaim German territory, and to gain world power status encouraged ultranationalist feelings and helped average voters to overlook the more radical aspects of Nazi ideology.
We now know that conditions such as these are factors associated with the risk of genocide and mass atrocity. Contemporary genocide prevention requires paying attention to possible risk factors, warning signs, and triggering events in all countries. How can our knowledge of the events in Germany help us respond to threats of genocide and mass atrocity in the world today?
- Germany lost 13 percent of its territory and 10 percent of its population.
- Perhaps the most humiliating portion of the treaty for defeated Germany was Article 231, commonly known as the “War Guilt Clause.” This clause forced the German nation to accept complete responsibility for initiating World War I. Germany was liable for all material damages.
- The treaty limited the German army to 100,000 men and forbade conscription. It greatly limited the German navy and prohibited a submarine fleet and air force.
- Nearly 10 million soldiers on all sides died as a result of hostilities. This figure far exceeded the military deaths in all the wars of the previous one hundred years combined. Although accurate casualty statistics are difficult to ascertain, an estimated 21 million men were wounded in combat.
- Postwar treaty reparations and hyperinflation of the German currency contributed to econmic turmoil in Germany.
Why did so many different German citizens dislike the Treaty of Versailles?
Many Germans (if not most) were angry about the Treaty of Versailles. The treaty blamed Germany for the outbreak of war in 1914 and imposed huge reparations payments on the German people. Many were also angered by the loss of German territory and restrictions imposed on Germany’s armed forces. Many Germans blamed the treaty for political deadlock and economic instability. In the aftermath of World War I, citizens became open to messages from more radical parties promoting national pride, the restoration of the country’s proper place in world affairs, and economic security.
Article—World War I: Treaties and Reparations
Timeline entry—Treaty of Versailles Presented to German Delegation
How much territory and population did Germany lose due to treaty provisions?
Germany lost 13 percent of its territory and 10 percent of its population. Hitler was determined to overturn the remaining military and territorial provisions of the treaty and include ethnic Germans in the Reich as a step toward the creation of a German empire in Europe.
Map—World War I: Aftermath
Article—Treaty of Versailles, 1919
What choices did German voters have in the 1920s?
In German elections, a variety of political parties vied for votes, including parties that supported the republic (Social Democrats and Catholic Center) and extremist parties (Communist and Nazi) that rejected it. Coalitions between political parties were established and changed throughout the pre-Nazi period, often adding to the perceived instability of the regime.
When and why did the Nazi Party gain support?
During the 1920s, the Nazi Party never received a significant portion of the vote. In their recruiting and campaigning, the Nazis downplayed their more extreme Nazi goals and offered simple solutions to Germany’s problems, exploiting people’s fears, frustrations, and hopes. In the early 1930s, the frequency of elections was dizzying. So was the number of parties and splinter groups vying for votes. Hitler proved to be a charismatic campaigner and used the latest technology to reach people. The Nazi Party gained broad support, including many in the middle class—intellectuals, civil servants, students, professionals, shopkeepers, and clerks ruined by the economic Depression. But the Nazis never received more than 38 percent of the vote in a free national election. No party was able to win a clear majority, and without political consensus, successive governments could not effectively govern the nation. The Nazis were invited into power by the ruling coalition just as Nazi electoral strength was declining.
Article—Rallying the Nation
Special Focus—World War I
The trauma of World War I (1914–18) profoundly shaped the attitudes and actions of both leaders and ordinary people during the Holocaust. Nearly 10 million soldiers died fighting “The Great War.” This figure far exceeded military deaths in all wars of the previous 100 years combined. By war’s end in November 1918, at least 7 million civilians were dead. An estimated 21 million soldiers were wounded in body and spirit. Millions of people were uprooted from their homes. Never before had the face of Europe been so fundamentally altered.
Film—The Path to Nazi Genocide
The Path to Nazi Genocide is a 38-minute film that examines the Nazis’ rise and consolidation of power in Germany. The film uses rare footage to explore Nazi ideology, propaganda, and persecution of Jews and other victims. It outlines the path to war and to the murder of millions of people. By providing a concise overview of the Holocaust and those involved, this resource provokes reflection and discussion about the role of ordinary people, institutions, and nations between 1918 and 1945.
Online Exhibition—Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race
From 1933 to 1945, Nazi Germany’s government led by Adolf Hitler promoted a nationalism that combined territorial expansion with claims of biological superiority—an “Aryan master race”—and virulent antisemitism. Driven by a racist ideology legitimized by German scientists, the Nazis attempted to eliminate all of Europe’s Jews. Six million were ultimately killed in the Holocaust. Many other people were victims of persecution and murder in the Nazi campaign to cleanse German society of individuals viewed as threats to the “health of the nation.” This online exhibition includes a section titled Science as Salvation: Weimar Eugenics, 1919–1933.