The Rise of the Nazi Party
Employed in the Political Department of the District Army Command in Munich, a 30-year-old veteran of World War I was instructed to reply to Adolf Gemlich, a soldier who had wondered why Germany had lost the war. The reply, dated September 16, 1919, blamed Jews for Germany's defeat. It was written and signed by Adolf Hitler.
In this letter, his first explicitly anti-Jewish writing, Hitler drew a pair of crucial distinctions. He emphasized, first, that Jewish identity should be defined not by religion but by race. Second, Hitler separated emotional and rational antisemitism. Emotional antisemitism, he claimed, periodically erupts in violence, but it lacks the systematic qualities necessary to achieve antisemitism's "final objective," which ought to be "the removal of the Jews altogether."
On September 12, 1919, Hitler attended his first meeting of the German Workers' Party (DAP), a small, right-wing political group. Four days later, Hitler not only dispatched his message to Gemlich but also joined the DAP as the seventh member of its executive committee. By 1920 the German Workers' Party had become the National Socialist German Workers' Party (NSDAP). Now led by Hitler, who had quickly assumed dictatorial control, its members were known as Nazis (a contraction of National Socialists).
The Nazis' unsuccessful attempt to take over the German government in November 1923--known as the Munich (Beer Hall) Putsch--led to a prison sentence for Hitler in 1924. While in prison at Landsberg, Hitler wrote Mein Kampf (My Struggle), whose two volumes were published in 1925 and 1926. By 1945, this book had sold more than six million copies.
Inflaming racist antisemitism, Mein Kampf asserted that some races create civilization and others corrupt it. These races struggle for survival of the fittest. According to Hitler, the best and most desirable race was the Nordic-Aryan-German "master race." Jews were the worst enemy of all. Wherever he saw a threat to the "master" race's survival, Hitler found the Jews. The German people, he proclaimed, must eliminate this Jewish menace. Under his leadership, Mein Kampf affirmed, the Nazis would do so.
Benefiting from Hitler's power as a spellbinding speaker, the Nazis gained in popularity as Hitler promised a better life for the German people and renewed glory for Germany. According to Nazi ideology, that way of life would be based on nationalism that emphasized antisemitism and German racial "purity," ferocious anticommunism, a single-party dictatorship and a state-controlled economy, and, eventually, expansion of German territory. Although still a minority in 1932, the Nazis were the largest political party in Germany. Soon they gained control. Calling their state the Third Reich, Adolf Hitler and his Nazi followers ruled Germany from 1933 to 1945.
Photo: Joanne Schartow / United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Photo Archive