World War II and the Holocaust--Background

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Many historians define the causes of the Second World War, World War II as rooted in the events concluding World War I and particularly in the harsh terms of the Peace of Paris and its centerpiece, the Treaty of Versailles. Although Woodrow Wilson advocated for a fair and just peace, with the League of Nations at its centerpiece, Britain (David Lloyd George) and France (Georges Clemenceau) were determined both to blame and punish Germany, as seen in the "War Guilt Clause," and to impose harsh territorial and financial conditions on their defeated foe. Check your text for specific terms of the Treaty of Versailles.
Georges Clemenceau, the doughty Prime Minister and "Tiger" of France, maintained that his nation more than any other suffered at the hands of Germany during the Great War: "A quarter of French men between the ages of eighteen and thirty...died..., over 1.3 million (MacMillan 28). He demanded not only the restoration of Alsace and Lorraine, indemnity, and reparations, but French security--from Germany. As a young man, Clemenceau witnessed the defeat of the 2nd Empire and the loss of territories that had been French since 1559. Here (left) Clemenceau is flanked by Lloyd George and Wilson.

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Compare the maps--right and below--to see how the political geography of Europe changed from 1914, before the Great War, to after. Germany and Russia are smaller; new nations, the so-called successor states emerged in a pulverized and fragmented Europe. See below.

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The peacemakers transformed Europe geographically, punishing the Central Powers but especially Germany (or Austria-Hungary, depending on your point of view) and, of course, Russia/Soviet Union for its policies during the Bolshevik Revolution. Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland were created out of former Russian and German lands. Notice how Germany is bifurcated by the Polish Corridor. Poland, which did not exist in 1914, was a new and sizable nation-state, containing ethnic Germans in its western areas and ethnic Russians in its eastern areas.

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The hated "diktat" of Versailles snatched lands that, from the German perspective,
were historically German, though perhaps not from the French, Danish, Polish, Czech perspectives.

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Germans loathed the Treaty of Versailles and viewed its signing as a day of dishonor. The signs in the graphic read, "Day of Versailles" and "Day of Dishonor." Germans blamed their government (Weimar Republic) for agreeing to its humiliating terms. In addition, Germany experienced hard times in the 1920's with the exorbitant reparations payments and the collapse of the German monetary system. The Great Inflation, which destroyed the value of the Deutschmark and wiped out personal savings accounts, was devastating. Germans went to the market with wheelbarrows full of paper money to put their purchases in their pockets. Germans blamed the Weimar Government and looked to extremist solutions--Nazis on the "right" and communists on the "left."

Make Germany Pay, pt 1< >
Another illustrated discussion of the Treaty of Versailles
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For more on the rise of Hitler and Nazism, visit

Hitler and the National Socialist German Workers' Party (NSDAP/Nazis) took advantage of the political and economic chaos and gained 3000 members towards the end of 1920. During the financial crisis and Great Inflation, Hitler and his party felt strong enough to attempt a coup d'état (putsch) in 1923, which, however, failed. Veterans (who bought into the "stab in the back" story) flocked to Munich, Bavaria, to support Hitler, Ludendorf, Goering, and the others. The graphic (right) illustrates Hitler's growing popularity in the crisis years of the 1920s. The early 20s for Germany definitely did not "roar"!

Photo credit: USHMM Photo Archives

See left for the kind of propaganda that spread in Weimar Germany and the Austrian Republic in the crisis years year of the early 1920s. Notice the negative stereotype of the Jewish villain.

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The failed putsch landed Hitler in jail where he dictated the first volume of his seminal work, Mein Kampf (My Battle,) to Rudolf Hess. In this work, Hitler produced a "manic tract...[that]...conjured the fantastic web connecting 'international Jewry' and the 'Bolshevik conspiracy'... Kennedy 410). Hitler returned again and again to his theme of the twin evils facing European civilization: Jews and Communists, often conflating the two. The first edition of Mein Kampf was published in 1925. A scant 18 months after his incarceration, a general amnesty freed Hitler to resume his efforts to expand the Nazi Party.

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The Dawes and Young Plans helped to stabilize German finances. In the "good years" (1925-1928,) Germany participated in a series of international diplomatic meetings and joined the League of Nations. In 1925, as apparent prosperity and normalcy returned to Germany, Nazi party membership dwindled to 27,000--a blip on the political radar screen. In the prosperous "roaring 20s," the Nazis did not secure significant representation in the German Reichstag (parliament.) However, underlying the frenetic prosperity of the "Roaring '20s," disturbing elements emerged, not only in the growing attraction of both the Nazi Party and the Communist Party: Anti-Semitism lurked beneath the surface (and not always beneath the surface) of German society.
Weimar Germany's economy boomed, thanks to loans and investment from America's Dawes and Young Plans. Berlin played host to a vibrant and vivid night life--café society--captured in the play/film Cabaret. See (right image) German film star Marlene Dietrich at the height of Berlin's "Golden Twenties.

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You may skip over the digression below into Hitler's love life,
about Geli Raubal and Eva Braun
Proceed to Wall Street "crash"

Hitler fell in love with the young daughter (aged twenty to his late thirties) of his step sister, that is, his step-niece, Geli Raubal, Hitler's affair with the young Geli was tumultuous as apparently he tried to control her every action; her suicide in 1931 shook him to the core. His closest associates maintained that he never truly loved another woman. For a sketch of Geli, visit:

Even back in 1928, the vivacious and flirtatious (seventeen year old) Eva Braun had already caught his eye. Eva on the right.
Go: Eva Braun

Eva Braun became Hitler's constant companion, and he married shortly before the end of the War in 1945.


When the Wall Street "Crash" brought the collapse of the American stock market, it dragged European banks, markets, and economies down with it, notably a major Viennese bank deeply involved in international finance and credit. By the early 1930s, both the United States and Germany lay prostrate in the grip of the Great Depression. Unemployment figures in Weimar Germany reached 43%! Against the backdrop of the Depression, both Nazi and Communist Party membership grew, as did the "stab in the back" view of The Great War and the detested Treaty of Versailles that ended it. Membership in the NSDAP rose to 108,000. On election day September 14, 1930, the Nazis received 6,371,000 votes, over eighteen percent of the total, and were thus entitled to 107 seats in the German Reichstag. It was a stunning victory for Hitler.
Overnight, the Nazi party went from the smallest to the second largest party in Germany, numbering 800,000 members in 1932. The KPD was the Communist Party; note that the extremists (Nazi/Communist) had widespread popular support in the German electorate. The SPD or Social Democrats were moderate leftists. Suffice it to say, the Nazis won enough votes to make them the plurality party in the Reichstag!

image source--courtesy Philip Zelikov

Between July and November, 1932, communists (KPD) gained at the expense of Nazis, terrifying businessmen and moderates, who reached out to Hitler and the Nazis in January, 1933. With a solid plurality in the Reichstag, Hitler secured the appointment as Chancellor of the Weimar Republic. He did not seize power; he did not overthrow the government: he was not a majority choice, but he was a pluraltiy choice.

image source--courtesy Philip Zelikov

For a biographical sketch of Adolph Hitler's life, see:
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Hitler speaks < >

In 1939, Leni Riefenstahl made a propaganda film, Triumph of the Will,
in this clip she shows Hitlr speaking at a Hitler Youth Rally
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Meanwhile, Hitler surrounded himself with a cohort of sinister cronies, many of whom had been with him since the 1920s. Hermann Goering (left) held a variety of positions in the Nazi apparatus and government; a "flying ace" in the Great War, he sponsored the development of the Luftwaffe (Air Force,) headed the Ministry of the Interior in Prussia, ended up in charge of the feared and hated Gestapo. (Gestapo is an acronym for Geheime Staatspolizei--Secret State Police)
Dr. Josef Goebbels served as Hitler's Minister of Propaganda. An ideologue and loyal Nazi, he masterminded the Anti-Semitic media blitz that overwhelmed Nazi Germany. In the spring of 1945, Goebbels and his wife Magda killed their six children and then themselves as Soviet shells exploded outside the bunker. For more on Dr. Goebbels and propaganda, visit

Heinrich Himmler (shown here with Hitler) headed the dread SS or Schutzstaffel (Protection Squadron, formed in 1925 to act as Hitler's personal guards and body guards.) As you know from Night, the terrifying SS ran the concentration and death camps.
The Jewish On-Line Student Research Center reproduced, from Hitler's memoir and autobiography--Mein Kampf--his views on propaganda; they're quite illuminating. Links (below) will take you to Hitler's views on involuntary euthanasia, and other topics. The links also take you to specific incidents such as the massacre at Baba Yar, the activities of the Einsatzgruppen (mobile killing squads,) and many other topics.

The sites below takes you to Hitler's views on propaganda
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For Hitler, youth--the next generation--played a major role in his plans for the New Germany. Propaganda prescribed subjects studied in school.
For a summary from a German biology text for fifth grade girls in 1942,
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For more sites and discussions of the Hitler Youth, visit:


Like Mussolini who reached out to Italian youth with the Opera Nazionale Balilla, and the communists who organized the "Little Octobrists," Young Pioneers, and Communist Youth League (Komsomol,) the Nazis encouraged and then required German young people to join organizations such as Hitler Youth (Hitler Jugund) for boys or BDM--League for German Girls (Bund Deutscher Madel.) Membership in one or the other was a prerequisite for school enrollment/attendance (Ungerer 67). Legislation required young Germans to join one or the other organization. and and

The posters (above) come from a site that purports to be objective but is in fact historical revisionism regarding Hitler and the Holocaust, also known as Holocaust Denial; the site, the Institute for Historical Review, denies the Holocaust. Revisionists claim that the Holocaust never happened, that the notorious "showers" at Auschwitz (et al.) were used solely for de-lousing, that the many deaths (exaggerated) came from typhus epidemics. For someone who was alive during the Second World War, and whose father fought in it, I find these contentions both shocking and obscene. You might be interested in cruising around in this site to catch its drift. It contains vivid illustrations, reproductions of photographs as well as posters from the Nazi era. The links are interesting, if alarming. The IHR site has somewhat changed its tone in recent years; for two frightening holocaust denial articles, visit, < >
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 From the moment of his accession to power in 1933, Hitler set about consolidating Nazi authority and power. Nazi propaganda, spearheaded by Goebbels, reinforced his efforts. Propaganda was total--encompassing men, women children--against the internal and external enemies. As noted above, girls could not escape, if they wanted to go to school. "Indoctrination was daily and systematic. Jazz, modern art, and comic strips were considered degenerate and forbidden" (Ungerer 66, 64). To your left, the winter and summer BDM uniforms.

Dramatization of one family's experience under Nazi rule >
The Nazi women's magazine, Frauen Warte, illustrates the propaganda efforts directed at women. German women were instructed to join an organization, the Frauenschaft, and to produce babies for Hitler and the Reich.

Leon Kimel provides his father's memoir < >
Anthony Anderson of the University of Southern California, produced a site, with a variety of links pertaining to the wartime experiences of the Dutch. You will recall that Anne Frank and her family hid in Amsterdam.
If you're interested in the swastika, its origins, why the Nazis adopted it,
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Works Cited, Inc., New York, 2000.

Applebaum, Anne. "The Worst of Madness." The New York Review of Books: The New York Times.
Online available. < >

Anderson, Anthony. "A Forgotten Chapter: Holland Under the Third Reich" Los Angeles: University of Southern California, 1995.
Online Available.


Bytwerk, Randall. "German Propaganda." Grand Rapids: Calvin College. Online Available.

Fromkin, David. A Peace To End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the
Creation of the Modern Middle East
. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1989.

Hitler Historical Museum, 1996-2000. Online Available.

Kaelin, James Charles. EarthStation1.Online Available.

Kennedy, David. Freedom from Fear. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

MacMillan, Margaret. Paris 1919. New York: Random House, 2001.

Shirer, William. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1960.

"A Teacher's Guide to the Holocaust." Produced by the Florida Center for Instructional Technology, College of Education, University of South Florida © 1999.
Online Available.

Ungerer, Tomi. Tomi: A Childhood under the Nazis. Boulder, et al.: The Roberts Rinehart Publishing Group, 1998.