Terror and Repression in Nazi Germany
One of the key proponents of Nazi ideology was a promise to birth a new Germany. This promise of national rebirth resonated strongly in the early 1930s, when the Weimar Republic was shaken to the core by economic and political crisis. At the centre of the Nazi vision stood the ‘national community’, depicted as the polar opposite to the conflict- ridden Weimar society. In a speech witnessed by the nation in January 1932, one year before his appointment as German chancellor, Adolf Hitler concluded that the resurrection of Germany depended on the creation of a ‘healthy, national, and strong’ community.
But Hitler made clear that not everyone would be allowed to join: those who endangered the ‘body of the people’ had to be ruthlessly excluded. This was no joke. Hitler and other Nazi leaders had talked for years about the need to ‘cleanse’ Germany of various ‘community aliens’ (Gemeinschaftsfremde). Only by removing from society all that was alien, sick, and dangerous, they claimed, could the uniform ‘national community’ emerge. Nazi leaders had no complete plan for the execution of their devastating vision.
But it was clear that they envisaged, from early on, a fierce campaign of repression, targeting three groups in particular: political opponents (predominately left), social outcasts, and ‘racial aliens’ (Jews). Well before they gained power, the Nazis believed that an extensive policy of exclusion was needed for national salvation: their dream of a brighter future for Germany was always a dream of terror and destruction for those unfortunate enough to stand in the way.
After Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933, he took every opportunity to turn Germany into a one-party dictatorship. He also strategized carefully to arrange the police power necessary to implement his long-term policies of racial purification and European conquest both inside and outside the legalities of the German constitution. On the night of February 27-28, 1933, a mentally disabled Dutch citizen set fire to the German parliament building, the Reichstag.
Hitler and his propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, presented the incident as the prelude to an armed Communist uprising and persuaded the then President Paul von Hindenburg to establish what became a permanent state of emergency. This decree, known as the Reichstag Fire Decree, suspended the provisions of the German constitution that protected basic individual rights, including freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and freedom of assembly.
The decree also allowed increased state and police intervention into private life, allowing officials to censor mail, listen in on phone conversations, and search private homes without a warrant or need to show reasonable cause. Essentially, the lives of all German citizens were controlled, and repression was vehemently practiced. Under the state of emergency established by the decree, the Nazi regime could seize and detain citizens without reason and without restrictions on the length of imprisonment.
Nazi policy against those on the borders of society involved various forms of discrimination. Social outcasts were excluded from an ever increasing number of benefits—from marriage loans to social housing—and those still on welfare had their benefits cut dramatically. Numerous cities established special ‘colonies’ where ‘anti-social’ and ‘degenerate’ families, were forced to live in a strictly controlled environment. On top of this, regional and national centers were set up to collect data on suspected individuals, such as abortionists and homosexuals.
This was not just about keeping an eye on them. It was also supposed to aid their detention, and inject even more terror into a country stricken with it. Hitler and the Nazi regime also resorted to simple and extra-legal terror to intimidate opponents (in a political sense). Nazi paramilitary formations, such as the Sturmabteilungen or SA, more commonly known as Storm Troopers and the Protection Squads (Schutzstaffel or SS), had been established during the 1920s to terrorize political opponents and to protect Nazi leaders.
After the Nazis came to power, many members of these units were recruited as auxiliary policemen and given license to beat or kill persons at any given time, who they deemed to be opponents. Gleichschaltung was a word made up by the Nazis to describe their plans to establish totalitarian control over German political, economic and social life. By 1934, almost 1 million Germans gathered around the nation to declare a personal oath of loyalty to Hitler. For those who were not so enthusiastic, the Nazi reign of terror began almost immediately.
Following their assumption of power, the Nazisswayed the state via propaganda, legal exclusion, intimidation, imprisonment and murder to eliminate any opposition to their revolution. After the Reichstag fire, socialists, communists and Democrats were taken to Dachau, one of the first Nazi concentration camps. The brutal reputation of Himmler’s secret police ensured that people who did not actively support the Nazis were too frightened to oppose them. While Gleichschaltung was used to describe the legal measures taken by Hitler and the Nazis from 1933 to 1934, this process continued until all aspects of German society were under Nazi control.
By 1937, the Nazis controlled Germans’ political, cultural and social lives to an unprecedented degree. “The period from 1933 to around 1937 was characterized by the systematic elimination of non-Nazi organizations that could potentially influence people, such as trade unions and political parties. The regime also challenged the influence of the churches, for example by instituting the Ministry of Ecclesiastical Affairs under Hanns Kerrl. Organizations that the administration could not eliminate, such as the schools, came under its direct control. ”