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The History of Democracy: Hitler's First 100 Days

In this installment of "The History of Democracy," Tracy Ross and Dr. David Pizzo analyze the first one hundred days of Hitler's reign.

In the next installment of The History of Democracy, Tracy Ross and Murray State professor of history, Dr. David Pizzo, discuss Hitler's first one hundred days in power. From January to May of 1933, the German government transformed from a conservative-led Parliament to a violent totalitarian state. 

"Hitler is brought in as Chancellor on January 30, 1933," Pizzo begins. "This is after protracting negotiations with old-school conservatives like Hindenburg. Schleicher is dumped, Hitler is in. That very night, there is already a torchlight parade through Brandenburg gate. Political undesirables, basically the political left...are shoved against the wall and thrown into basements. Already throughout February, a bunch of what are generally called 'wildcat concentration camps' sprout up."

"I lived in Germany a long time, about five years, and there's almost not a place I lived where there wasn't very close nearby some truck repair yard or warehouse that was not converted into a place of torture in those first couple weeks. This is what he had promised they were going to do in terms of breaking the back of the political left. So the violence starts instantaneously against the political left, against trade unions, those all kind of overlapped."

The Nazis were not, Pizzo explains, an electorally unstoppable force at this moment in history. "They had actually lost votes in the last election back in November '32. They were the largest party in Germany, but it was only a large plurality. The only reason they were in charge was because mainstream conservatives ran a coalition with them. Most ministers in that government were conservatives, not national socialists. Ultimately, the sheer simultaneity and newness and rapidity and violence of what the national socialists do really destabilizes people and catches them off guard. The sheer weight of it tends to...make everything seem more legitimate."

"The real breakthrough," Pizzo continues, "comes in February 27, 1933 -- it's not even been a month. The Reichstag -- this would be like Congress in Washington, D.C. -- catches fire suspiciously. The Benjamin Carter Hett book about the Reichstag fire argues pretty convincingly that the narrative they were selling makes no sense."

"Allegedly, a communist -- he was not a communist, he was a Dutch anarchist...who probably had mental problems of some sort -- by himself brought what investigators said was an enormous quantity of accelerant, poured it all over everything, and lit it on fire, then stayed there while this was happening. Whether or not the Nazis did it, they absolutely benefitted from it. This is their -- and I say this with some caution -- their 9/11 moment. Now the government has been attacked. Nazis whip up extreme paranoia."

Following the Reichstag fire, the Reichstag Fire Decree is passed on February 28th. "Civil liberties and due process are dead that day," Pizzo says. "Göring, who is the second man in the Third Reich at that point, had already on the 22nd deputized the Brown Shirts as police. The police essentially almost overnight become a naitonal socialist force. The police were already very sympathetic to national socialism. They tended to be pretty conservative. They like law and order. A big part of this regime was edifying and holding up the police. They even create a holiday, a 'Day of the Police,' to advance this narrative of them as racial warriors protecting the homeland from racial and political undesirables."

"The Reichstag Fire Decree means that due process is over, and throughout March, police terror rushes up dramatically," he continues. "On the 22nd of March -- so, again, we're not even two months in -- Dachau is established. This is a real transition that's happened just a few weeks in from wildcat, beating-you-up-in-a-basement to a much more formal system that...grows into a sprawling monstrosity. By the end of the war, according to historians' latest estimates, [the monstrosity] was made up of 40,000 different facilities."

A day after the establishment of Dachau -- where 31,951 people would eventually be murdered by the state -- the German government creates the Enabling Act. "Hitler assembles the Reichstag in the Kroll Opera House. The KDP [German communist party] is not even present; a lot of them are in prison, and they're not in the room. The building and the room are surrounded by Brown Shirts. It's an incredibly coercive environment."

"Hitler essentially asks Parliament to commit suicide," Pizzo continues. "The only party that stands up during this moment to push back against him is the SPD [German social democratic party], who is still the second-largest party. They stand up and condemn them quite loudly. But every other party in Parliament, so much more than the 52% they controlled, votes to essentially suspend the constitution. There was a sunset clause on it, but that will not end up mattering."

On Hitler's 101st day of power, university students burst into their library and drug books out into the square, burning them in a giant heap. "This is not the regime doing this," Pizzo explains. "This is pure volunteerism and spontaneity on the party of twenty-year-olds...destroying the literature of Freud and Marx and all kinds of things. This really just gives you some sense...of how stunningly fast all this had occurred and how much, from a minority government that wasn't popular with most Germans back in late January, to this seemingly all-power, unstoppable tidal wave of not just regime violence and power, but popular volunteerism. It shows you how rapidly and profoundly things had transformed in those first hundred days."

Pizzo explains that Hitler's appeal to the youth of Germany was in part due to the overall age of the movement. "Hitler was in his mid- to late 40s during a lot of this and was the oldest one in the party. Overwhelmingly, they were in their late 20s and early 30s. Even visually, they struck a very different profile than the mainstream conservatives who were much older, or the SPD for that matter. They themselves were quite young."

"Their appeal to action and emotion and heart over head seemed to resonate with young people," he continues. "I think it was ultimately a question of how...corrupt and sclerotic Weimar seemed that the Nazis seemed so dynamic and youthful and exciting. I say all of that trying to hold back bile, but that's how it appeared to a lot of Germans."

"Of course, that's not the end of the story. More things happen thereafter. Probably most importantly, there's the Night of Long Knives the following summer where Hitler murders a bunch of his own closest friends. The SA is purged essentially because of a blood pact between the army and the SS to get them out of the way. His conservative allies or enemies are also murdered in those couple of days. One of the stunning things about that is the world was horrified about the Night of Long Knives, but most Germans think, 'oh man, Hitler's finally disciplining the crazies, thank goodness.' Even a lot of Jews respond that way."

What follows is the umstellung, or conversion, of "the before-time German who thought civically and in terms of the law to now thinking of as an Aryan and thinking in terms of blood and the collective 'we' joining part of this collective destiny. That's the thing that they're emphasizing ultimately," Pizzo explains.

"It's no longer you or I; it's we. That emphasis on 'we' and providing something bigger than yourself, that was very seductive to people then as now. I would argue in many ways, national socialism bonds the receptors in the human brain that seem to want things like religion. That's not me saying they're the same, but they both appeal to that notion of becoming part of something that's bigger than yourself," Pizzo concludes. 

To listen to previous "The History of Democracy" segments, click here

Tracy started working for WKMS in 1994 while attending Murray State University. After receiving his Bachelors and Masters degrees from MSU he was hired as Operations/Web/Sports Director in 2000. Tracy hosted All Things Considered from 2004-2012 and has served as host/producer of several music shows including Cafe Jazz, and Jazz Horizons. In 2001, Tracy revived Beyond The Edge, a legacy alternative music program that had been on hiatus for several years. Tracy was named Program Director in 2011 and created the midday music and conversation program Sounds Good in 2012 which he hosts Monday-Thursday. Tracy lives in Murray with his wife, son and daughter.
Melanie Davis-McAfee graduated from Murray State University in 2018 with a BA in Music Business. She has been working for WKMS as a Music and Operations Assistant since 2017. Melanie hosts the late-night alternative show Alien Lanes, Fridays at 11 pm with co-host Tim Peyton. She also produces Rick Nance's Kitchen Sink and Datebook and writes Sounds Good stories for the web.
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