By Catherine Ulrich Brakefield
Upon the closure of The War to End All Wars (World War I) came the Treaty of Versailles, signed on June 28, 1919. What followed was hyperinflation, but what proved deadlier than inflation was the German people’s political apathy.
This Treaty forced the nation to surrender somewhere around 10 percent of its territory and all overseas possessions. The Treaty demanded demilitarization and occupation of the Rhineland, brought Germany’s army and navy down to a minimum, and forbade it to maintain an air force. This Treaty included a covenant-making the League of Nations an international organization aimed at preserving this peace.
In this document, Germany accepted full responsibility for starting World War I. They paid huge amounts for Allied war losses. The nation’s reparations topped 132 billion gold Reichsmarks, the equivalent of $33 billion. This sum was so great that no one really expected Germany to be able to pay in full.
The German people were furious. Seeing this as diktat, meaning a dictated peace, and resented being the sole blame of the war.
However, some nations thought the Treaty was not harsh enough! The French military leader Ferdinand Foch refused to attend the signing ceremony. He felt the treaty was not harsh enough against Germany.
President Woodrow Wilson did not favor this Treaty; he thought it too harsh. English Economist John Maynard Keynes, who attended the conference, predicted the Treaty could cause a collapse in the European economy. The United States Congress refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles. They later wrote up a separate peace with Germany. Most importantly, the United States refused to join the League of Nations.
Germany was already in a financial crisis and deep in debt from trying to finance the war. So, Germany bought foreign currency to make the payments for their war loss debt.
They did manage to stabilize their currency early in 1922 at just about 320 marks per dollar. They held international reparation conferences; one was led by United States’ J.P Morgan. Nothing worked.
As the rest of the world saw an economic upswing stepping into the Roaring Twenties, Germany was experiencing an economic nightmare.
The years grew worse and as the Germans struggled to make ends meet, the German people felt they had been betrayed by their leaders who blindly led them into debt with the Treaty of Versailles.
Hyperinflation peaked at one trillion marks equaling one US dollar. The German currency was worthless. A wheelbarrow of money (a trillion-mark note) couldn’t even buy a loaf of bread and was often used as kindling.
So, what did the German government do? They printed more money.
In 1929 came the Great Depression, this threatened the Weimar Republic. The Germans had a bad taste in their mouths for their leaders, to whom they attributed all their woes.
Radical right-wing political forces like the National Socialist Workers’ Party, or as we know it, the Nazis, gained more support and spoke of reversing this Treaty aimed to humble the proud German race.
Hitler craftily built up his support. He ran against Paul von Hindenburg, a war hero, for president and received 36.8 percent of the vote.
Still, the German people, facing deplorable economic upheaval, never seemed to lose their sense of humor. They made dresses out of their marks, the children made kites and built toy houses. Men’s suits were adorned with their worthless coins, and their marks were often used for wallpaper!
With the government in upheaval as to how to fix the economic conditions, the next three chancellors failed to maintain control. In late January 1933 Hindenburg named the forty-three-year-old Hitler as chancellor. A stunning victory for the idealistic Hitler who had a much larger agenda in mind than just becoming chancellor.
The Nazis party never attained more than 37 percent of the vote. Even at the height of their popularity in 1932.
No one questioned the fire that occurred at Reichstag in February 1933—yet, Hitler was there to step up the violence against his opponents. Later it was concluded that Hitler and his Nazis had set the devastating Reichstag fire.
On March 23, the Enabling Act gave Hitler full power and celebrated the union of National Socialism. That July the government passed a law stating the Nazi Party would be the only political party in Germany. Every non-Nazi party ceased to exist—trade unions, teachers unions, all organizations ceased, including the boy scouts.
However, boys were strongly encouraged to join Hitler’s Youth. Boy scouts who refused were attacked by Hitler’s Youth, and were forced to go underground or leave the country. By 1939 over 90 percent of boys belonged to this club that was designed to indoctrinate kids into its ideology. By six years old, German boys had to join the Nazi Organization of Youth. Their strenuous physical training, sometimes away from families for weeks at a time, helped the Nazis remove them from the influence of their parents.
Now, with Germany in Hitler’s fists, he turned his attention toward Europe. However, Germany had a weak military and hostile neighbors like France and Poland. Hitler needed time to rebuild. In a speech aimed to gain him more time, he claimed Germany supported disarmament and above all—peace.
Hitler withdrew Germany from the League of Nations, and quietly began his military expansion. On June 29, 1934, in the infamous Night of the Long Knives, Hitler devised a scheme to have members of his own party who did not agree with everything he’d devised murdered.
When the eighty-six-year-old Hindenburg died on August 2, the military leaders agreed to combine the presidency and chancellorship into one position. Now Hitler commanded all the armed forces of the Reich.
Americans, too busy with their own woes, struggled to emerge from the Great Depression. While their youth were selling newspapers and apples on street corners to help feed their hungry families as I tell in Waltz with Destiny, Hitler was infiltrating the youth in schools with his propaganda all the while burning books, forcing newspapers out of business, using radio and movies for his indoctrination, and making teachers join their party.
Hitler’s Nuremberg Law deprived Jews of German citizenship and barred them from marrying or even having relationships with persons of German blood! The German people couldn’t understand what happened.
Hitler downplayed this, soothing the worries of the German people. However, the long arm of the Geheime Staatspolizei (GESTAPO) or Secret State Police continued to expand, mostly beneath the cover of night.
The apathy of the German people proved deadlier than hyperinflation. The Nazi party removed the influence of parents with the Nazi Organization of Youth, so they could infiltrate their youths’ minds with their propaganda during their children’s impressionable years.
Germany’s hyperinflation had dwindled many a household's savings to nothing. However, the people’s political apathy, though perhaps they hadn’t realized it yet, had stripped them of their freedoms and their most prized possessions—their children.
As Hitler prepared his youth for war, America’s youth were unaware their freedoms and way of life were about to change.
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Waltz with Destiny: From out of the pages of the Great Depression come the Big Band Era and the splendors of Detroit's ballrooms with Esther (McConnell) Meir in a story-book romance that swirls into a rendezvous with destiny when Eric Erhardt is swept up into Hitler's diabolical world. Eric wages his battle for survival as a rifleman in the 34th Infantry Division traveling up the boot of Italy.
https://www.history.com/topics/world-war-i/treaty-of-versailles-1 https://www.historydefined.net/german-hyperinflation/ https://www.history.com/news/how-the-hitler-youth-turned-a-generation-of-kids-into-nazis