Did Sturmabteilung (SA) commit serious crimes before 1933?

Did Sturmabteilung (SA) commit serious crimes before 1933?

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Wikipedia says:

Their primary purposes were providing protection for Nazi rallies and assemblies, disrupting the meetings of opposing parties, fighting against the paramilitary units of the opposing parties, especially the Red Front Fighters League (Rotfrontkämpferbund) of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD), and intimidating Slavic and Romani citizens, unionists, and Jews…

My question is: according to historians, did SA commit serious crimes like grievous bodily harm or murder of political opponents during the period of Nazi rise to power? (Can you put it into the context of "fighting against the paramilitary units of the opposing parties"?)

Yes, of course.

The SA was used to terrorize political opponents; they originated from right-wing paramilitary groups that were abundant in Germany after the first world war. (The peace treaty limited the German army to a certain number (100000 soldiers); the German imperial army in the first world war was much larger and many units resented both the peace treaty and the new republic and simply refused to give up their arms.)

At first, the SA was used to protect Nazi-party events. (You are right, most political parties in Germany at the time had similar organizations for this purpose, the social democrats for instance had the Reichsbanner, the communists had the RFB etc.).

By 1923, as mentioned by @Tom Au the SA was used much more aggressively, however, forming the backbone of Hitlers first attempt to seize power. From the late 1920s, as the SA grew, there were more and more incidents of them openly terrorizing political opponents and thereby unlawfully influencing the political process; consider this murder of a German labor union activist as an example (unfortunately only in the German and Italian wikipedia).

Note that the SA was illegal during parts of the 1920s and the early 1930s - the German authorities realized, of course, that they were a threat. However, as substantial parts of the German burocracy, and substantian parts of the political and economic elites supported the right wing (and from a certain point on specifically Hitler), this did not last long. They played an important part in Hitler's consolidation of power in 1933. Many of them were briefly given official status as auxiliary police force; having already influenced the voting process in the elections in February 1933 (having been ordered to "monitor" them), they then prevented the seating of elected left-wing MPs in parliament.

The Sturmabteilung (SA) played a key role in Hitler's 1923 Beer Hall Putsch in Munich, which was an illegal act of treason.

Hitler was sentenced to five years in prison for his role, but served only nine months.

After the "Putsch," the SA engaged in "street fights" with toughs from the left wing parties. Their activities grew more extensive after 1929 as Hitler surged in the polls from 1930-33. Finally, they got the upper hand on opponents such as Communists. As they and Hitler grew more powerful in a mutually reinforcing cycle, they turned to "targets" (not merely "opponents") such as Jews.

They also threatened certain members of the Establishment, especially the military, which is why Hitler had to quash them in the Night of the Long Knives in 1934, even though they (mostly) did his will.

"street thugs"… a weird offshoot of the freikorps but far more serious and ably led. There was never not going to be a World War 2 after the "blood purge" which incorporated the SA into German Army (which was divided into the traditional Heer and then "new and improved" Wehrmacht with a "Waffen SS" special security detail dedicated to the defense of the Fuhrer personally.)

By 1940 Adolf Hitler personally was in charge of three entire Armies… and he used them.

The SA was borderline a threat when Ernst Rohm was called out of retirement to get the SA "under control." They quickly grew to ten times the size of the regular German Army and had their eye on replacing Hitler himself.

This did not happen with cataclysmic consequences for the Continent of Europe… in particular Eastern Europe.

Difference Between the Gestapo, SS, and SA

Hitler's rise to power and his rule in Nazi Germany has been attributed to the aid and support of several people, with three organizations playing a vital role - the SS, the SA, and the Gestapo. While they may seem very similar, they actually differed in the roles they played. Read on for the difference between the three ruthless organizations.

Hitler’s rise to power and his rule in Nazi Germany has been attributed to the aid and support of several people, with three organizations playing a vital role – the SS, the SA, and the Gestapo. While they may seem very similar, they actually differed in the roles they played. Read on for the difference between the three ruthless organizations.

It is quite likely that you have come across the terms SS, SA, and Gestapo frequently when studying or reading world history, especially the history of Germany and other parts of Europe from the 1920s to the 1940s. Though all largely contributed to Hitler’s rise to power and his abuse of that power, the three organizations differed slightly in their functions. The Schutzstaffel, Sturmabteilung, and Geheime Staatspolizei played different and yet equally vital roles in Nazi Germany.

To understand the political system at the time in Germany, it can be helpful to learn about the differences between the functioning of the three organizations by identifying every individual organization properly. In this Historyplex write-up, we have distinguished the three organizations based on their formation, objectives, and responsibilities, to name a few factors.

What It Was

► The SA, or the Sturmabteilung, were formed in Munich, Germany, in 1921 by Adolf Hitler himself. Also known as the Storm Troopers or the Brownshirts (they were called the Brownshirts because of their brown uniforms), it was the original paramilitary wing of the Nazi Party, whose violent tactics played a huge role in Hitler’s rise to power in Germany. Before establishing the SA as a paramilitary wing, it was known as a ‘sports division’ in the party to avoid suspicion.

► The members of the SA were largely former soldiers, ruffians, and men of violent natures, whose job was to originally protect the Nazi rallies, fight people from the leftist parties, and physically assault political opponents. However, these tactics were quite useful for the rise of the Nazi movement.

Rise to Power

► In 1931, the SA was handed over to Ernst Röhm, who headed it till his murder in 1934. Röhm wanted the SA to be run like the German Army, and he went about creating a structural hierarchy in the organization, a general staff, a training college, and placed Hitler himself at the very top of the hierarchy he had created. After the Supreme Leader (Hitler), came senior groups, lower groups, regiments, battalions, and troops, to name a few parts of the structure of the SA.

► Under the leadership of Röhm, the number of employees in the SA increased dramatically. By 1932, the SA employed about 400,000 people and by the time Hitler had come to power in 1933, it consisted of over 10,00,000 people.

► With its dramatic rise to power, the SA began to slowly assume themselves to be somewhat of a replacement to the German Army. Röhm harbored the same intentions. He hoped to merge the SA with the Army under his own leadership and continued to urge for a second Nazi revolution, one that was ‘socialist’ in nature.

► Röhm’s leadership and not-so-secret desire of merging with the Army made many senior Nazi officials feel threatened. Heinrich Himmler and Hermann Göring along with some Army officials began plotting Röhm’s downfall. Together, they began convincing Hitler of Röhm being a threat to the Nazi regime, his hunger for more power, and his supposed plans to overthrow Hitler.

Night of Long Knives and the Downfall of Sturmabteilung

► Röhm had been one of the earliest supporters of Hitler and was a personal friend to him too. Hitler initially refused to believe the claims against Röhm, even though his officials provided him with created evidence. However, Hitler too began to realize the risks associated with Röhm and his leadership, and was more concerned about his senior officials being wary of Röhm. He had to count on his senior officials’ support for his rule, and he gave the go-ahead for the plan to put Röhm out of the picture once and for all.

► The infamous Night of Long Knives, in June 1934, saw the murder of Röhm and several important SA members. Hitler, accompanied by the SS and the Gestapo, arrested and murdered important SA leaders who may or may not have been in connection with Röhm in any way. Röhm himself was arrested, put into prison and given a chance to commit suicide. (Hitler felt he deserved the chance to kill himself rather than have someone else kill him.) When Röhm refused to commit suicide, he was shot by two SS officers. Many others were beaten and tortured to death.

► The killed SA members were further demeaned by making their homosexuality public. The Nazi Party was well aware of homosexual preferences of Röhm and some other SA members. However, this fact was cashed upon to invite empathy from the public as well as to add shock value.

► Post the Night of Long Knives, the SA had downsized in its power and value. However, it was an important part of the brutal attacks against Jews in Germany. As the years progressed, the SA began to be overshadowed by the SS and the Gestapo. It was mainly used in riots, demonstrations, and the ransacking and destroying of Jewish homes and synagogues.

► In 1939, the SA was largely used as a training center for the Army when the war started. Additionally, many of its members were handed over to the armed forces. The SA was formally declared not to be a criminal organization by the International Tribunal, and had officially ceased to exist in 1945.

What It Was

► The SS, or the Schutzstaffel, was created in 1925 originally to serve as Hitler’s personal bodyguards. Meaning Protective Echelon in German, the SS was made up of fervently anti-Semite Germans who possessed deep racial hatred. Gradually, with time, the SS became one of the most-feared organizations in Germany.

► Hitler wanted an organization not similar but somewhat linked to the SA that would personally guard Hitler and other important Nazi officials. In 1929, Heinrich Himmler was appointed as the head of the SS. At that time, the SS consisted of approximately 300 members. Under his leadership, the SS grew to a sizable organization of over 2,50,000 members.

► To join the SS, prospective members had to prove that none of them had any sort of Jewish roots in the ancestry traced back to over one hundred years. These men were then given training in racial hatred and were taught to become cold-hearted, violent, sadistic, and to not feel anything at human loss. They were taught that the SS was not only an elite group in the Nazi regime, but also in all of humanity.

► Before 1929, the SS wore uniforms similar to the SA. The only thing distinguishing them was the black hat with a skull and bones on it. Later on, the SS had its own special uniforms that distinguished it from other organizations such as the SA and the Gestapo. The SS initially had an all-black uniform specially designed for its men, which was replaced by uniforms in camouflaging colors during the war.

What it Did

► The SS has been held responsible for some of the most horrific crimes ever committed in the history of the world. The ‘Jewish Question’ needed to be solved, and it was the SS who took up the job. The Schutzstaffel has also been held responsible for planning, coordinating, and implementing the ‘Final Solution’, in which countless Jews and people of other seemingly undesirable ethnic groups were murdered. Their victims also included the unemployed, the disabled, homosexuals, religious leaders, and political opponents.

► According to the trials that were held after Germany’s defeat in the war, the SS was responsible for a majority of the crimes committed in Nazi Germany. It was also largely responsible for planning and carrying out the Holocaust. The SS also identified and arrested Jews in the German-occupied territories. It ransacked homes, tortured people, deported them to concentration camps, and also killed them for no apparent reason.

► The leader of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, along with a few other senior Nazi officials carefully plotted and planned the murder of the leader of the SA. Post the successful execution of both the leader as well as several of his followers, the SS was granted independent entity by Hitler as a reward for their services and loyalty to the Nazi Party, and more importantly, to Hitler.

► The SS was given the complete authority of all the concentration camps in Germany as well as the occupied regions after 1934. The SS was also known as the parent organization of the Secret State Police, the Gestapo, and was responsible for organizing mobile killing units that went on a murder rampage in the occupied territories.

The Downfall of the SS

► The SS remained in existence until the end of the war. It was officially declared to be a criminal organization and banned in Germany by the International Tribunal in 1945, and some of its surviving officials were arrested, tried, and executed for inhuman war crimes.

► Many of the SS officials had predicted defeat as the war came to a possible end, and escaped to South America with or without their families to avoid arrest, trial, and an almost guaranteed execution by the Allies. These officials were helped and supported by a mysterious organization called the ODESSA, which helped provide them identification, passports, and visas to South American countries.

What It Was

► The Nazi Party felt the need for a secret police organization, and hence, the Geheime Staatspolizei was born in 1933. An organization that would become one of the most-feared ones in Nazi Germany was created so as to strengthen Nazi rule by weeding out anyone who could be perceived as a threat to the Party.

► The Gestapo was somewhat of a division of the SS, making SS the parent organization. The Gestapo was officially declared to be answerable only and only to Hitler, and could not be reviewed by the judiciary in any way. The Gestapo had its own system of arrests, judiciary, and execution.

► At the beginning of the war, the Gestapo employed about 40,000 men. As the war progressed, however, the number of people working for the Gestapo increased to approximately 150,000 men. Many of the men employed by the Gestapo were former criminals and extremists who were ideal for committing the atrocities the Nazi regime had planned.

What it Did

► When the war started, the Gestapo basically had to identify and arrest any suspicious person and send him/her to a concentration camp, or kill him/her on the spot. The people who came under the ‘suspicious’ category were political opponents, Jews, the Gypsies, people from other ethnic minorities, the disabled, the unemployed, and the homosexuals. No reason was ever given for their arrest or execution―just the fact that they seemed suspicious was enough.

► The Gestapo aided and supported the mobile killing units, and even provided its men for the same. These units traveled to villages in the German-occupied regions and shot down civilians, men, women, and children included, and buried them in mass graves. The killing units wiped out entire villages as a result.

► The Gestapo was responsible for keeping a close watch on Hitler’s personal safety, as well as ensuring the safety of the most important Nazi officials. It successfully thwarted Operation Valkyrie, wherein an attempt to assassinate Hitler was made by some senior Nazi officials themselves.

► The Gestapo had terrible methods of interrogating people who they deemed to be anti-Nazi or suspicious in any way. They nearly drowned suspects in ice-cold water, gave them electric shocks, hung them by their wrists, or beat them savagely. Anyone suspected of even having made an anti-Nazi joke would be subjected to such treatment, or worse.

The Downfall of the Gestapo

► Just like its parent organization, the Schutzstaffel, the Gestapo was officially declared a criminal organization and banned in 1945. However, very few arrests were made. Those who were arrested were tried, and sent to prison or were executed, depending on their role in the Gestapo.

► The long-time head of the Gestapo, Heinrich Müller, was never found. Some historians feel he was killed in the final days of the war, while others believe he escaped to South America and lived the rest of his life unidentified.

Though the Gestapo, the SS, and the SA were all created to serve Hitler and his Nazi regime, they differed somewhat in their functioning and the way they were controlled. We hope the above sections have made the identification of all three organizations clearer. To summarize the information above, we have provided the following short table.

Gestapo The SS The SA
Complete Name of Organization
Geheime Staatspolizei Schutzstaffel Sturmabteilung
Year of Formation
1933 1925 1921
Reason of Formation
Secret State Police Originally, Hitler’s personal bodyguards Original paramilitary wing
First Notable Leader
Hermann Göring Heinrich Himmler Ernst Röhm
Arresting anyone who is a threat to the Nazi regime, Jews, other colored people Complete authority of concentration camps Defend Nazi rallies, disrupt political opponents
Nature of Members
Policemen, ex-criminals, not necessarily Nazis Strictly anti-Jewish, with a pure Aryan ancestry Ruffians, bullies, thugs
Status after WWII
Banned, declared as ‘criminal’ Banned, declared as ‘criminal’ Banned

History has indeed told us terrifying tales of the Holocaust and World War II, which claimed countless innocent lives. Without the help, support, and co-operation of these organizations, perhaps Hitler wouldn’t have been able to spread the terror he did, for whatever reasons. To ensure that history does NOT repeat itself, it is vital that we realize that humanity is above all, and not any one race or ethnic group.

Did Sturmabteilung (SA) commit serious crimes before 1933? - History

Following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody, activists around the country have called for &ldquodefunding the police.&rdquo

As a member of Adolf Hitler&rsquos cabinet and, later, Prussian interior minister, Hermann Göring worked to incorporate Nazi paramilitary forces into police departments. He did not call for defunding or eliminating the police &mdash in fact, he created the Gestapo.

Today&rsquos calls to &ldquodefund the police&rdquo can mean anything from divesting from police departments to abolishing the police altogether. Activists say such actions would help limit violence against black Americans.

Conservative Facebook and Instagram accounts are criticizing calls to defund the police by comparing them to Nazi Germany.

A June 14 post from an Instagram account called Republican Army claims that, after Adolf Hitler appointed Hermann Göring as interior minister in 1933, Göring worked to "defund and eliminate the police departments so that they would not interfere with his Brown Shirts."

"The Brown Shirt’s (sic) mission was to riot, burn, beat up and kill citizens in an effort to sway the elections to ensure their National Socialist agenda," reads text in the image, which includes a photo of men in uniform blocking the entrance to a building. "Now today’s American socialist leaders want to defund and eliminate the police? Is history repeating itself?"

The post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook, which owns Instagram.) It has thousands of likes, and several similar posts have been shared by other Instagram and Facebook users — including at least one candidate running for Senate.

(Screenshot from Instagram)

Since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody in late May, demonstrators around the country have protested against police brutality and discrimination against black Americans. Some activists have called to "defund the police."

Did Hitler — who oversaw the murder of millions of Jews and other marginalized groups during the Holocaust — call for a similar action? We opened our history books to investigate.

The Instagram post is inaccurate. While the Nazis reorganized German police forces, it had nothing to do with elections — and they did not defund or eliminate police departments. The photo in the post shows Nazis blocking Jews from entering the University of Vienna in 1938.

"There was literally no movement ever to defund or eliminate police departments in Nazi Germany," said Waitman Beorn, a senior lecturer in history at Northumbria University, in a Twitter thread about the post. "The terminology of ‘defunding the police’ has no analogy there."

First, let’s review some facts about Göring, Hitler’s rise to power and the "Brownshirts."

Göring was a high-ranking Nazi official and one of Hitler’s closest allies. He is credited with helping to create the Nazi police state in Germany.

Göring joined the National Socialist German Workers’ (Nazi) Party in 1922. Hitler, who had assumed control of the party one year prior, gave Göring command of the Brownshirts or "Storm Troopers," officially known as the Sturmabteilung (SA). The paramilitary organization was outfitted in brown uniforms and tasked with protecting party meetings, intimidating voters and assaulting political opponents.

In 1932, after the Nazis won 230 seats in the Reichstag, Göring was elected president of the German legislative body. But Paul von Hindenburg, president of the Weimar Republic, was reluctant to appoint Hitler as chancellor.

That changed in January 1933, when — after a series of negotiations — Hitler was appointed head of state.

After Hitler became chancellor, he appointed Göring to his cabinet and, later, interior minister of Prussia — not of the entire country, as the Instagram post implies. And instead of eliminating police forces, he created a new one.

Göring used his position to Nazify the Prussian police and establish the Gestapo. The political police force was tasked with eliminating opposition to the party and later worked in tandem with the Schutzstaffel (SS) to deport Jews to concentration camps.

"This had ZERO to do with elections. There were no more free elections after 1933," Beorn said in his Twitter thread.


Immigration to the United States was controlled by Congress, which in 1924 had passed the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act. The act set “national origins” quota s w hich privileged immigrants from northern and western Europe, who were believed to be able to assimilate more easily into the United States. After 1929, the act capped overall quota immigration at 153, 879 people per year, and allocated 25,957 slots per year, the second highest quota of any country, to immigrants born in Germany.

At the beginning of the Great Depression in 1930, President Herbert Hoover issued instructions banning immigrants “likely to become a public charge,” meaning those who might not be able to financially support themselves. Immigration fell dramatically as a result of this “LPC” clause being strictly enforced. In 1933, only 8,220 quota immigrants arrived in the United States, a ninety-five percent decrease in immigration compared to the years prior to Hoover’s instruction . Although President Roosevelt liberalized Hoover’s instruction shortly after taking office, 83,013 prospective German immigrants were on the waiting list to enter the United States in June 1934. Most of them did not have the financial resources necessary to prove they would not become a “public charge,” but wanted to remain on the list in anticipation of the US economy recovering and the restrictions being lifted.

In 1933, Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, whose department housed the Immigration and Naturalization Service, drafted orders to rescind Hoover’s instruction and give preference to people seeking to escape racial or religious persecution. The Labor Department also planned to allow Americans to place bonds demonstrating financial support for relatives seeking to immigrate, which would have exempted applicants from being rejected under the “LPC” clause. The State Department opposed Perkins’s efforts, however, citing the facts that unemployment was still high, that consular officers were sympathetic to Jews, and that the quotas were still unfilled. President Roosevelt did not intervene in the conflict, and none of Perkins’s proposals succeeded. Though 29,456 German-born immigrants entered the United States between 1933-1937, this number represents about 23% of the number of immigrants who could have legally arrived within the existing German quota.

The Fall of the Weimar Republic

Party System

The main characteristic of the German party system at that time was its fragmentation, particularly its fragmentation into four major groups.

Baripeda, Creative Commons

The above graph is a representation of the different parties with two axes:

  • Vertical: conception of the political order of the different parties involved: do they support a democratic or authoritarian order?
  • Horizontal: conception of the relationship with the economy. Are they capitalists or socialists?

The percentages refer to the percentage of votes obtained by each of these parties in the national parliamentary elections of May 1928.

The first block is the conservative (left bottom) political formation which has its social base in the agrarian (junkers) and Protestant branch of the population in northern and eastern Germany as well as in the extreme east of the former Prussia with premodern authoritarian values.

The Liberal Group is made up of urban and agrarian Protestants from the rural world. It is divided into two currents: the liberal left-wing (DDP) and right-wing liberals (closer to an authoritarian conception of the political order)

The centre party, which federates the middle-class agrarian Catholic populations and industrial centres in the west and south of the country (Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg, North-Westphalia).

Social democracy mainly includes the workers of the secularized working class, which is strong in the large industrial urban centres.

Over time, this fragmentation became more pronounced with the splitting of the communists from 1919 onwards, with the nascent Nazi party and the social-democratic divergences. The Catholic camp will also be fragmented by an autonomous Bavarian branch (Bayerische Volkspartei), as well as divisions among the liberals and conservatives.

It should be recalled that the formation of this partisan structure takes place in the period 1870-1890, which reflects multiple and ancient social cleavages such as the cleavage between those who want a marked order between a state religion and secular tendencies. But also urban-rural divides (city – country) as well as regional divides such as Bavaria, which wants to have a party that has its own interests at the national level.

With the rapid industrialisation of Germany from the 1870s onwards, this cleavage was also the result of those who wanted to introduce more extensive social legislation to protect the worker.

These multiple social cleavages will structure this party system in such a way that the old cleavages cannot be pacified, creating multiple political forces until the end of the First World War.

The consequences are that it does not clearly emerge two political blocs opposed to each other.

However, two government coalitions will emerge during the period of the Weimar Republic with the Central Party. On the one hand, we have the democratic coalition (SD, left-wing liberals, Zentrum und bayerischeVolkspartei) on the other hand, the bourgeois coalition with the centre, the two liberal parties (left and right) and the conservatives. This lasted from 1919 to 1933.

The second coalition mainly agreed on economic issues, but disagreed on the political organisation as left-wing liberals were encouraged by democratic values while right-wing liberals were encouraged by more authoritarian and conservative values.

In this situation, government coherence and stability were difficult to achieve. These two coalitions reigned respectively for 5 and 2 years on the whole of 14 years as long as the experience of the Weimar Republic lasted. During the other seven years, no coalition could be established, only with minority cabinet ministers in charge of government.

Between 1919 and 1933, there were 20 successive government coalitions, many of which were set up to resolve specific and important issues in a short-term perspective to resolve and respond to immediate crises.

This fragmentation generated political instability and, above all, weakened the political legitimacy of the “Weimar coalition”. It mainly supported the Weimar Republic’s project and will therefore be sanctioned for its failure through a protest vote.

To conclude, Lepsius can be quoted in the article From Fragmented Party Democracy to Government by Emergency Decree and National Socialist Takeover: Germany [1] published in 1978 summarizing this explanation, which states that “the crisis of the democratic regime was closely associated with the nature of the party system, its fragmentation”.

Electoral System

The electoral system is proportional in the Weimar Republic. It ensures and aims for a representation that is directly proportional to the number of seats obtained by a party, i. e. the number of seats obtained in Parliament.

The purpose of this system is to represent and have a parliament that truly reflects society as a whole by favouring small parties and minorities.

In any proportional electoral system, the question arises of how many votes are required for a party to obtain a minimum representation in parliament. This is a question that every proportional electoral system must define: what is the minimum threshold for the right to parliamentary representation?

It was on this point that the Weimar Republic’s proportional electoral system differed from the rest, as it had a relatively low threshold of representation. It tends to be “pure” because a small number of votes allows for seats in parliament.

The consequence of a “pure” proportional electoral system is that small parties are virtually guaranteed seats in parliament. This will lead to a reproduction of social cleavages within the legislature and thus to political fragmentation in parliament. Thus, there will be a political breakdown and greater difficulty in finding stable and lasting agreements among the forces involved.

This table shows the electoral result by party. On the one hand, we see the percentage of votes obtained in comparison with the previous election, as well as the equivalent of the number of votes obtained. 800 representatives out of the 481 available or 16% are elected on party lists with 4.5% or less of the total votes cast. If we take the elected representatives who obtained less than 5% of the vote, we get 21% of all parliamentarians, which is very high. These small parties are obviously not the ones that will negotiate the coalitions, on the contrary they will make it difficult to create party coalitions.

In conclusion, many researchers believe that the proportional election system explains the dysfunction of parliamentary democracy in the Weimar Republic. Reforms were considered in the post-war period to avoid further political erosion. After 1945, the German regime remained a parliamentary system, but important reforms were made on the functioning and mechanism of proportional representation, since the minimum 5% representation threshold rule was introduced in order to have parliamentary representation at national level.

Thus, with this system, 100 seats would have been redistributed to the strongest parties, and would perhaps have prevented Hitler’s accession to power. It is not that the proportional system was the primary cause of the Weimar Republic’s downfall, but the proportional electoral system merely replicated national fragmentation in the parliamentary arena, creating difficulties in negotiating stable coalitions.

Constitutional Framework

Another institutionalist explanation of the constitutional framework.

As early as 1930, power was shifted from the legislative sphere to the executive sphere. This refers to the transfer of a parliamentary-type regime to a presidential-type regime.

Above all, we must be interested in the prerogatives that the Weimar Republic’s constitution granted to the President.

The constitution provided for a parliamentary system. The Chancellor was elected by the Parliamentary Assembly and responsible to that assembly. This is a notable difference from the German Empire since the chancellor was accountable to the president. It provided for three special rights for the president:

  • possibility of dissolving parliament
  • appointment of the chancellor unless the parliament objects by voting a motion of no confidence to show that it disapproves
  • and government by ordinances and emergency decrees with the approval of the chancellor.

Overall, it turns out that these special rights allowed the president to govern without consulting parliament.

In March 1930, Heinrich Brüning was elected chancellor. It was set up by President Hindenburg without consultation with parliament and therefore declared unparliamentary and constitutional, a decision based solely on the power of the President.

The use of emergency decrees intensified and became the common way of government until 1933. It replaced the formal legislation that emptied parliament of its substance and the constitution.

Baripedia, Creative Commons

We note that the number of laws is falling sharply, while presidential decrees are also rising sharply with a noticeable drop in parliamentary sessions.

Presidential power has been the main instrument of political authority since 1930. The government comes directly from the president. That satisfied the Conservatives who wanted a government that was only accountable to the president and that transcended basic democratic principles. First, the government of Von Papen and then Von Schleicher gave a lot of room to military interests.

Hitler’s arrival in power follows the presidential nomination logic. However, it will not convince parliament. Two days after his appointment, Hindenburg dissolves the assembly.

Moving from a parliamentary system to a presidential system that transfers power to the hands of one man will determine the course of events over these years. Order-in-council governance as a provost within the original constitutional framework of the Weimar Republic was a component of the decomposition of democracy.

Partisan Strategies and Politics

We will concentrate on the left-wing parties, namely the Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party:

  • Communist: between 1924 and 1928, he entered a phase of radicalization during which internal structures were purged moreover, there was a strengthening of the ideology advocating a vision of social democracy as an enemy and a competitor in order to mobilize and touch the working class. This radicalisation will create a strong internal coherence and strong integrative capacity. This will make it possible to win, in part, the workers’ protest vote following the economic crisis of 1929. Its popular support increased during this period.
  • Social-democracy: it will be loyal to the original Weimar Republic project with difficulties in opening up to new voters who do not make amends to court voters, especially those of the working class. From 1928 onwards, it strengthened its links with the trade unions in order to bring the working class closer together while countering the communist threat.

In retrospect, it can be said that these strategies of reinforcement and retreat were serious strategic errors, perhaps rational in the short term as for the communists in order to achieve small electoral victories, but this implied that we were going to fall under a socialist regime. The contributions of forces made it utopian with a much greater probability of overthrow on the right.

The left was the great loser of the advent of the Third Reich. Thus, their short-term strategy would have been preferable if it had only focused on openness.

We can ask ourselves why social democracy is falling apart and why it cannot strengthen the pro-democratic social base of the Weimar Republic?

We will discuss the ideological dimension of the Social Democratic Party, whose ideology prevented it from opening up to peasantry in particular.

In The Social Democratic Moment: Ideas and Politics in the Making of inter-war Europe publié en 1998 [2] , Berman proposes a study focusing on the German and Swedish cases. She argues that the social democratic parties face very similar problems:

  • What is the relationship between social democracy and bourgeois democracy?
  • under what conditions should alliances with parties beyond the social tradition be envisaged?
  • should we define ourselves as a party of workers with a clearly defined social base (workers, salaried workers, etc.) or should we open up and become a party of the people that would recruit voters from all walks of life?
  • What are the specific economic policy responses to be given in the crises of the capitalist system?

According to Berman, the ideology of these parties as well as the traditional heritage that forms the identity of the parties will show that they are not similar, thus explaining the different trajectories of German and Swedish social democracy. It explains the inability of social democracy in Germany to democratize the country, on the contrary in the Swedish case it will democratize the political system. In Sweden in particular, the post-World War II period was marked by a hegemony of social democracy.

She adds that these characteristics crystallize in structures already before the First World War that we can distinguish:

  • Orthodox and inflexible vision of Marxism: according to this vision socialism is the result of ineluctable economic laws the more the forces of production will develop and the more conflicts will intensify until they lead to communism. There is economic determinism at work. However, it neglects socialism as the result of individual or class action it denies the role of actors in the historical framework.
  • Rejection of reformism: Although German social democracy practiced reformism, it never knew it as the goal of profound social transformation. It contributed to reforming social legislation, but this did not lead to individual liberation of workers. Swedish social democracy will adhere to social reformism.
  • The acute conception of class struggle: in Germany, social democracy remains committed to the idea that the proletarian group is a simple reactionary mass. Thus, this posture makes coalition building with other “nonsocial groups” such as peasantry difficult, if not impossible. In Sweden, where social democracy was accustomed to a softer vision of class struggle, it forged an alliance with the peasants.

Example 1: Already before the First World War, social democracy was unable to formulate a programme of agrarian reforms because of its adherence to a rigid vision of class struggle. It was not possible for her to alter the short course of events towards the end of the Weimar Republic when the political insatiability increased, she was not able to form coalitions with the peasants..

Example 2: In the 1930s and 1933s, social democracy failed to develop a reformist program like the Keynesian reforms proposed in 1932. Social democracy is divided internally, i.e. whether or not to support this project, which originated in the trade unions in January 1932. This programme aimed to create 1 million jobs through the financing of public buildings by countering the vicious cycle. Faced with the proposals of trade unions, social democracy is not convinced that this is the way forward by promoting this type of policy.

The identity of social democracy, its ideology and vision as thought, limited the democratization of the political system in the inter-war period and contributed to the emergence of fertile ground for an autocratic power.

Political Culture

Alexis de Tocqueville is the forerunner of civil society theory and the role of associative life in the functioning and dysfunctions of democracy.

De Tocqueville is a French politician who went to the United States to report on American penitentiaries.

In his book On Democracy in America, published in 1850, he says:

Americans of all ages, all conditions, all spirits, unceasingly unite. Not only do they have trade and industry associations in which everyone participates, but they also have a thousand other species: religious, moral, serious, futile, futile, very general and very particular, immense and small. There is nothing, in my opinion, that deserves more attention than the intellectual and moral associations of America.

On Democracy in America, Vol. II, Book 2, ch. V

In order for people to remain civilized or become civilized, it is necessary that among them the art of association develops and perfects itself in the same relationship as the equality of conditions increases.

On Democracy in America, Vol. II, Book 2, ch. V

The idea is that an abundant civil society is a virtue, especially vibrant associationism would be a condition and an indicator of the proper functioning of democracy. In other words, there is mutual reinforcement between democratic associations and a strong civil society.

This thesis contradicts that of Arendt (1906 – 1975). For her, the failure of democracy and the rise of totalitarianism are mainly due to the disintegration of intermediary associations in European countries between the two world wars. Moreover, it stresses the role of very intense technical progress and mass society, which leads to alienation and uprooting of individuals. The social fabric is undergoing transformation, which will provide a breeding ground for recruitment for extremist parties. Thus, the Weimar Republic is an archetype of the mass society where an anomie resides linked to industrial and technical progress civil society is absent, inert.

Berman shows in Civil Society and the Collapse of the Weimar Republic, World Politics publié in 1997 [3] :

More voluntary associations attracted more members and did so in a more active fashion than ever before.Just as retailers, bakers, and commercial employees had organized into economic interest groups, so also did gymnasts, folklorists, singers and churchgoers gather into clubs, rally new members, schedule meetings, and plan a full assortment of conferences and tournaments.

Berman argues that a vigorous civil society has contributed to approaching the democratic experience rather than strengthening it as Tocqueville advocated. High associationism has contributed to weakening the democratic experience.

In the absence of a national government and political institutions receptive to society’s grievances, associationism has led to a fragmentation of social cohesion.

In the inter-war period, the Germans entered all sorts of clubs to express their frustration with political failures. It is a way of turning your back on the political world by joining civil society organisations.

Moreover, it must be stressed that the Nazis will benefit from high associationism. A high associative life allows for the learning of skills such as leadership in civil society. On the other hand, the associations will serve as a recruitment base for the Nazis they will practise a policy of infiltration of the associations and then purge them in order to take control and turn them into Nazi sympathizers.

During the interwar period, farmers participated in various associations. They initially tended to vote for the Liberals and the Conservatives. In the 1920s, they withdrew from politics and no longer had a representative. This is done by taking over peasant associations such as the Reichslandbund with 6.5 million members. They will conquer position by position starting with the lowest hierarchy. As early as 1931, the Nazis managed to place one of their own among the leaders in 1932, the Reichslandbund officially supported the Nazi Party.

In these terms, civil society associations facilitated Hitler’s accession to power.

Hannah Arendt’s theory can be dismissed on the contrary, a weaker civil society might not have facilitated the capture of associations by Nazi supporters. Berman’s arguments advocate a strengthening of political institutions, in their absence, this contributes to weakening the existing political system.

Strong associationism is something that is transmitted in the family sphere within a certain democratic and political culture that induces a certain participation and interest in politics.

External and Internal Economic Factors

The impact of the crisis of the early 1930s on the breakdown of the democratic and political order cannot be underestimated. The outbreak of the global economic crisis is the 1929 crash. It is admitted that without this shock, the political system would not have known the crisis it had experienced and the rise of Nazism.

Baripedia, Creative Commons

The above graph shows the unemployment rate curve and the vote in favour of the Nazis. We don’t see a causal relationship, but a correlation that comes from an association.

Baripedia, Creative Commons

After the United States, Germany was the second most affected by the crisis. The above picture reinforces this statement: the most dramatic decline is in Germany and the United States.

Baripedia, Creative Commons

About 6 million people were unemployed, i.e. more than 40% of the population between 1932 and 1933.

In the 1930s and 1932s, Brüning pursued a policy of austerity that proved counterproductive. In terms of fiscal policy, it will impose drastic cuts in public spending, particularly unemployment benefits, by means of emergency decrees, bypassing parliament. It will also force wages down because it was in favour of wage deflation. From the point of view of monetary policy, it will conduct a restrictive policy out of fear of inflation instead of facilitating credit to stimulate the economy.

Austerity is driving Germany into depression, which is a great lesson, because austerity applied in spite of an economic and financial crisis can only lead to depression. This plan was counter-productive and failed to stop unemployment.

In the current situation, a parallel has been made, many researchers believe that it is enlightening in more than one way. Paul Krugman (Nobel Prize for Economics 2008) was critical of the fiscal consolidation measures implemented from 2010 onwards. It is in favour of stimulating the economy, which will ultimately reduce deficits and debt.

Antisemitic Culture

Antisemitism is also an argument of political culture.

Goldhagen in Hitler’s Willing Executioners [4] argues that the existence of an anti-Semitic, eliminationist sentiment was widespread before the war. This anti-Semitic thesis is said to have motivated the executioners during their execution.

It is a book of political culture, for it leads us to think about what education brings to the ways of seeing the world.

The executioners believed that it was “right” to exterminate the Jews, because a large majority of Germans believed that Jews were harmful and should be removed from the social body. The executioners did not have to face up to scruples, for morality said that it was “just” to exterminate the Jews. The role of the Nazis would have been to encourage that sentiment.

Whether during the Empire or before, no actor has attempted to counter the dominant anti-Semitism. All parties have a role in the stigmatization of Jews, but only social democracy agreed to recruit Jewish leaders.

The link with the fall of the Weimar Republic lies in the Nazi seizure of power. By January 1933, the Nazis had already made anti-Semitism a theme in their speeches.

These cultural patterns develop over many decades. This model was based on three ideas:

  • Jews were different from Germans
  • the Jews were opposing the Germans point by point
  • These differences were not benign, the Jews were “evil”, they were called “evil forces”.

The idea that Jews were linked to the setbacks of Germany eventually prevailed. This view prevailed throughout Germany.

Individual Responsibilities

Structural factors may have been necessary, but they are not sufficient either. They can help explain why the Third Reich was a possibility, but not entirely its conception as a reality.

Hitler’s appointment was made by individuals at the top of the German state of the time. In January 1933, the warlike and authoritarian intentions were known. The Mein Kampf manifesto already advocated authoritarian solutions to the problems of German society, whose inevitable outcome was war. The Nazis were already showing contempt for the law and its exacerbation, but also dictatorial insistence and anti-Semitism.

It should first be noted that there is a collective responsibility in ignorance of the nature of Nazism. They would have been expected to pay more attention to the nature of Nazism and its leaders. Historical evidence suggests that these figures did not commission expert reports to fully understand the nature of the Nazi phenomenon.

  • Von Hindenbug: he has the supreme responsibility, for it was his prerogative to appoint a chancellor in January 1933. Contrary to the public image of a strong and wise statesman, he was weak during the 1933 episode. Having first inducted Von Schleicher he dismissed it because of an aversion sharpened by the machination set up by Von Papen against Von Schleicher. He sent off a false rumour that a military putsch was imminent and convincing Hindenburg against the person of Von Schleicher. Hindenburg thus created a crisis for which he had no solution. He relied on the advice of von Papen, who retired in favor of Hitler. He did not trust his mistrust of Hitler and gave in to Von Papen and his son Oskar Hindenburg, so those around him influenced Hitler’s choice as chancellor. Between January 1933 and June 1934, Hindenburg’s actions tended to legitimize rather than oppose Nazi tyranny.
  • Von Papen: his behaviour was strongly dictated by his desire for revenge on Von Schleicher and his desire to return to power. He was reckless about the Nazi danger, he never joined him, but he supported him as vice-chancellor then ambassador to Austria and then to Turkey.
  • Von Schleicher: as a soldier, he was looking for the rearmament of the military and hoped to enlist the sympathizers SA (Sturmabteilung”Assault Section”), i. e. the Nazi sympathizers in the military apparatus. His historic responsibility lies in having, in the 1920s, brought Von Papen out of the shadows. His personal conflict with Von Papen facilitated Hitler’s arrival in power. From December 1932 to January 1933, as chancellor, he showed mercy to the Nazis. His influence on President von Hindenburg was weak or non-existent.

Three individuals have less responsibility:

  • Oskar Von Hindenburg :he finally convinced his father to favor Hitler.
  • Meissner : he shared a lesser responsibility, he was the private secretary of Hindenburg. He was opportunistic and by political calculation feeling the end of Schleicher moved his loyalty to the up-and-coming strong man that was Hitler.
  • Hünenberg : he was the leader of the Conservative Party between 1928 and 1933. He became Minister of Agriculture and Economy in January 1933. He can be described as an opportunist and self-interested because his political career was marked by frustration and failure.

Politicians’ judgments and decisions can make a major difference. High political and moral responsibilities rest on a small number of individuals who concentrate power in modern states. This type of argument is an argument that advocates a reading of the history of societies through the role of great politicians history is written through the prism of great politicians and their decisions.

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German archives

Most documents about the Nazi regime are available through the German Federal archives its Berlin branch hosts the largest number of files by far, including the files of the former Berlin Document Center (BDC). Military files are stored in Freiburg and records of trials are housed in Ludwigsburg. It turned out that Wegener joined the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP) on 1 May 1933. Surprisingly, Wegener had become a member of the ‘Sturmabteilung’ (SA), the brownshirts of the early Nazi movement, as early as in September 1932, eight months before the Hitler regime seized power.

Wegener rose within the ranks of the SA and became a lieutenant colonel in the medical corps in 1938 [ 6 ]. From military files in Freiburg, we learned that Wegener had arrived in Lodz in 1939 to serve primarily as a military pathologist. Later, he became attached to the ‘Gesundheitsamt’, the health office of the local civil municipal authority [ 7 ]. We obtained the 1943 payroll documents showing that Wegener was indeed listed under the heading of ‘Prosektorium’ (autopsy facility). From the payroll lists, we also set out to find contemporaries of Wegener by searching for staff with uncommon surnames who might still be alive and whom we might have a better chance of locating. We identified an Eleonore Dietze, who had been Wegener's secretary from 1941 to 1943. We traced a number of Eleonore Dietzes through the German telephone registry and found Friedrich Wegener's former secretary in a nursing home in Zeitz, Germany. Unfortunately, due to her dementia, Mrs Dietze was unable to recall any events from the Lodz period.

We found no evidence that Dr Wegener stood trial after 1945, nor evidence that he had been imprisoned or banned from the medical profession. We managed to obtain Wegener's de-nazification file from the state archives in Schleswig-Holstein in which witnesses paid testimony to Wegener's conduct during the Nazi regime. It is difficult, though, to come to any conclusion, since many of these testimonies were less than complete and truthful.


Theodor Eicke was born on 17 October 1892, in Hampont (renamed Hudingen in 1915) near Château-Salins, then in the German Reichsland (province) of Elsass-Lothringen, the youngest of 11 children of a lower middle-class family. His father was a station master described as a German patriot. Eicke was an underachiever in school, dropping out at the age of 17 before graduation. Instead he joined the Bavarian Army (23rd Bavarian Infantry Regiment at Landau) as a volunteer, and then was transferred to the Bavarian 3rd Infantry Regiment in 1913. [2] Upon the start of First World War in 1914, Eicke participated in the Lorraine campaign, fighting at both the First Battle of Ypres in 1914 and the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915, and was with the 2nd Bavarian Foot Artillery Regiment at the Battle of Verdun in 1916. Eicke served as a clerk, an assistant paymaster, and a front-line infantryman, and for his bravery during the war was awarded the Iron Cross Second Class. [2] Despite being decorated, Eicke spent most of the conflict behind the lines as a regimental paymaster. [3]

Late in 1914, Eicke's commander had approved his request to temporarily return home on leave to marry Bertha Schwebel of Ilmenau on 26 December 1914, with whom he had two children: a daughter, Irma, on 5 April 1916 and a son, Hermann, on 4 May 1920. [4]

Following the end of the First World War, Eicke remained as an army paymaster now in service of the Reichswehr of the Weimar Republic, until resigning from the position in 1919. [5] Eicke began studying at a technical school in Ilmenau, but was forced to drop out shortly due to a lack of funds. From 1920, Eicke pursued a career as a police officer working for two different departments, initially worked as an informant and later as a regular policeman. [6] Eicke's police career was ended in 1923 due to his open hatred for the Weimar Republic and his repeated participation in violent political demonstrations. [5] He found work in 1923 at IG Farben in Ludwigshafen and remained there as a "security officer" until 1932. [7]

Nazi activism, early SS membership, and exile Edit

Eicke's views on the Weimar Republic mirrored those of the Nazi Party, which he joined as member number 114,901 on 1 December 1928, and also joined the Sturmabteilung (SA), the Nazi Party's paramilitary street organization led by Ernst Röhm. [8] Eicke left the SA by August 1930 to join the Schutzstaffel (SS) as member number 2,921, where he quickly rose in rank after recruiting new members and building up the SS organization in the Bavarian Palatinate. In 1931, Eicke was promoted to the rank of SS-Standartenführer (equivalent to colonel) by Heinrich Himmler, the Reichsführer of the SS. [5]

In early 1932, his political activities caught the attention of his employer IG Farben, who subsequently terminated his employment. At the same time, he was caught preparing bomb attacks on political enemies in Bavaria for which he received a two-year prison sentence in July 1932. [5] However, due to protection received from the Bavarian Minister of Justice Franz Gürtner, a Nazi sympathizer who would later serve as minister of justice under Adolf Hitler, Eicke was able to avoid his sentence and flee to Italy on orders from Heinrich Himmler. [9] Italy at the time was already a fascist state under the rule of Benito Mussolini, and Eicke was entrusted by Himmler with running a "terrorist training camp for Austrian Nazis" at Lake Garda, and once even had the privilege of "showing Italian dictator Benito Mussolini around." [10]

Return to Germany Edit

In March 1933, less than three months after Hitler's rise to power, Eicke returned to Germany. Upon his return, Eicke had political quarrels with Gauleiter Joseph Bürckel, who had him arrested and detained for several months in a mental asylum in Würzburg. [8] During his stay at the mental hospital, Eicke was stripped of his rank and SS membership by Himmler for having broken his word of honor. [11] Also during the same month, Himmler set up the first official concentration camp at Dachau, about which Hitler had stated that he did not want it to be just another prison or detention camp. [12] In June 1933, after the mental asylum's director informed Himmler that Eicke was not "mentally unbalanced," Himmler arranged his release, paid his family 200 Reich marks as a gift, reinstated him into the SS, and promoted him to SS-Oberführer (equivalent to senior colonel). [13] On 26 June 1933, Himmler appointed Eicke commandant of the Dachau concentration camp after complaints and criminal proceedings were brought against the camp's first commandant, SS-Sturmbannführer Hilmar Wäckerle, following the murder of several detainees under the "guise of punishment". [14] Eicke requested a permanent unit and Himmler granted the request, forming the SS-Wachverbände (Guard Unit). [15]

Development of concentration camp system Edit

Eicke was promoted on 30 January 1934 to SS-Brigadeführer (equivalent to Generalmajor in the German Army and a brigadier general, in the US Army), and began to extensively reorganize the Dachau camp from its original configuration under Wäckerle. Eicke fired half of the 120 guards who had been billeted at Dachau when he arrived, and devised a system that was used as a model for future camps throughout Germany. [16] He established new guarding provisions, which included rigid discipline, total obedience to orders, and tightening disciplinary and punishment regulations for detainees. [17] Uniforms were issued for prisoners and guards alike, and it was Eicke who introduced the infamous blue and white striped pyjamas that came to symbolize the Nazi concentration camps across Europe. [18] The uniforms for the guards at the camps had a special "death's head" insignia on their collars. While Eicke's reforms ended the haphazard brutality that had characterized the original camps, the new regulations were very far from humane: heavy-handed discipline, including death in some cases, was instituted for even trivial offenses. [19] Eicke was known for his brutality, detested weakness, and instructed his men that any SS man with a soft heart should ". retire at once to a monastery". [8] [20] Historian Nikolaus Wachsmann asserts that while it was Himmler who established the "general direction for the later SS camp system," it was Eicke who "became its powerful motor." [21] Eicke's anti-semitism, anti-bolshevism, as well as his insistence on unconditional obedience towards him, the SS, and Hitler, made a positive impression on Himmler. [20] By May 1934, Eicke had already styled himself as the "inspector of concentration camps" for Nazi Germany. [22]

Night of the Long Knives Edit

In early 1934, Hitler and other Nazi leaders became concerned that Ernst Röhm, the SA Chief of Staff, was planning a coup d'état. [23] On 21 June, Hitler decided that Röhm and the SA leadership had to be eliminated, and on 30 June began a national purge of the SA leadership and other enemies of the state in an event that became known as the Night of the Long Knives. Eicke, along with hand-chosen members of the SS and Gestapo, assisted Sepp Dietrich's Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler in the arrest and imprisonment of SA commanders, before they were subsequently shot. [24] After Röhm was arrested, Hitler gave him the choice to commit suicide or be shot. Eicke entered the cell and placed a revolver on Röhm's prison-cell table and informed him that he had "ten minutes to make good on Hitler's offer." [25] When Röhm refused to kill himself, he was shot dead by Eicke and his adjutant, Michael Lippert, on 1 July 1934. [26] Eicke proclaimed that he was proud for having shot Röhm, and shortly after the affair on 4 July 1934, Himmler officially named Eicke chief of the Inspektion der Konzentrationslager (Concentration Camps Inspectorate or CCI). [27] [28] Himmler also promoted Eicke to the rank of SS-Gruppenführer in command of the SS-Wachverbände. As a result of the Night of the Long Knives, the SA was extensively weakened, and the remaining SA-run camps were taken over by the SS. [29] [30] Further, in 1935, Dachau became the training center for the concentration camps service. [8]

Camp inspector Edit

In his role as the Concentration Camps Inspector, Eicke began a mass reorganisation of the camps in 1935. On 29 March 1936, the concentration camp guards and administration units were officially designated as the SS-Totenkopfverbände (SS-TV), and the introduction of forced labour made the camps one of the SS's most powerful tools. [31] This earned him the enmity of Reinhard Heydrich, who had already unsuccessfully attempted to take control of the Dachau concentration camp in his position as chief of the Sicherheitsdienst (SD), but Eicke prevailed due to his support from Heinrich Himmler. [32] In April 1936, Eicke was named commander of the SS-Totenkopfverbände (Death's Head Troops) and the number of men under his command increased from 2,876 to 3,222 the unit was also provided official funding through the Reich's budget office, and he was allowed to recruit future troops from the Hitler Youth based on regional needs. [33] Ideological training intensified under Eicke's command, and military training for new recruits working the camps was intensified. [34] The numerous smaller camps in the system were dismantled and were replaced with new larger camps. Dachau concentration camp remained, then Sachsenhausen concentration camp opened in summer 1936, Buchenwald in summer 1937 and Ravensbrück (near Lichtenburg concentration camp) in May 1939. Following the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria, new camps were set up there, such as Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp, opened in 1938. [8] Sometime in August 1938, Eicke’s entire supporting staff was moved to Oranienburg (near Sachsenhausen) where the Inspektion office would remain until 1945. [35] Nonetheless, Eicke's role as the person designated to inspect concentration camps placed him within the framework of Heydrich’s SD secret state police whereas his command of the Death’s Head units, made him accountable to the Reich Main Security Office (RSHA) of the SS. [35] All regulations for SS-run camps, both for guards and prisoners, followed the model established by Eicke at the Dachau camp. [16]

At the beginning of World War II in 1939, the success of the Totenkopf's sister formations, the SS-Infanterie-Regiment (mot) Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler and the three Standarten of the SS-Verfügungstruppe (SS-VT) led to the creation of three additional Waffen-SS divisions by October 1939. [36] [37] Eicke was given command of a new division, the SS Division Totenkopf, which was formed from concentration camp guards of the 1st (Oberbayern), 2nd (Brandenburg) and 3rd (Thüringen) Standarten (regiments) of the SS-Totenkopfverbände, and soldiers from the SS Heimwehr Danzig. [38] After Eicke was assigned to combat duty, his deputy Richard Glücks was appointed the new CCI chief by Himmler. [39] By 1940, the CCI came under the administrative control of the Verwaltung und Wirtschaftshauptamt Hauptamt (VuWHA Administration and Business office) which was set up under Oswald Pohl. In 1942, the CCI became Amt D (Office D) of the consolidated SS-Wirtschafts-Verwaltungshauptamt (SS Economic and Administrative Department WVHA) also under Pohl. [40] Therefore, the entire concentration camp system was placed under the authority of the WVHA with the Inspector of Concentration Camps now a subordinate to the Chief of the WVHA. [41] Pohl assured Eicke that the command structure he had introduced would not fall to the jurisdiction of the Gestapo or SD. The CCI and later Amt D were subordinate to the SD and Gestapo only in regards to who was admitted to the camps and who was released, and what happened inside the camps was under the command of Amt D. [42]

The SS Division Totenkopf, also known as the Totenkopf Division, went on to become one of the most effective German formations on the Eastern Front, fighting during invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, as well as the summer offensive in 1942, the capture of Kharkov, in the Demyansk Pocket, during the Vistula–Oder Offensive, and the Battle of Budapest in 1945. [43] During the course of the war, Eicke and his division became known for their effectiveness but also brutality and war crimes, including the murder of 97 British POWs in Le Paradis, France, in 1940, while serving on the Western Front. [44] [45] The division was also known for the frequent murder of captured Soviet soldiers and the widespread pillaging of Soviet villages. [46]

Eicke was killed on 26 February 1943, during the opening stages of the Third Battle of Kharkov, when his Fieseler Fi 156 Storch reconnaissance aircraft was shot down by flak of the Red Army between the villages of Artil'ne and Mykolaivka, 105 kilometers (65 mi) south of Kharkov near Lozova. [47] Eicke was portrayed in the Axis press as a hero, and soon after his death one of the Totenkopf's infantry regiments received the cuff title "Theodor Eicke". Eicke was first buried at a German military cemetery near the village of Oddykhne (Оддихне) in the Kharkiv Oblast, Ukraine. [48] When the Germans were forced to retreat as the Red Army counter-attacked, Himmler had Eicke's body moved to a cemetery in Hegewald south of Zhitomir in Ukraine. [49] Eicke's body remained in Ukraine, where it was likely bulldozed by Soviet forces as it was customary for them to destroy German graves. [50]


After being appointed Chancellor of Germany on 30 January 1933, Hitler asked President von Hindenburg to dissolve the Reichstag. A general election was scheduled for 5 March 1933. A secret meeting was held between Hitler and 20 to 25 industrialists at the official residence of Hermann Göring in the Reichstag Presidential Palace, aimed at financing the election campaign of the Nazi Party. [6] [7]

The burning of the Reichstag, depicted by the Nazis as the beginning of a communist revolution, resulted in the presidential Reichstag Fire Decree, which among other things suspended freedom of press and habeas corpus rights just five days before the election. Hitler used the decree to have the Communist Party's offices raided and its representatives arrested, effectively eliminating them as a political force.

Although they received five million more votes than in the previous election, the Nazis failed to gain an absolute majority in parliament, and depended on the 8% of seats won by their coalition partner, the German National People's Party, to reach 52% in total.

To free himself from this dependency, Hitler had the cabinet, in its first post-election meeting on 15 March, draw up plans for an Enabling Act which would give the cabinet legislative power for four years. The Nazis devised the Enabling Act to gain complete political power without the need of the support of a majority in the Reichstag and without the need to bargain with their coalition partners. The Nazi regime was unique compared to its contemporaries most famously Joseph Stalin because Hitler did not seek to draft a completely new constitution whereas Stalin did so. Technically the Weimar Constitution of 1919 remained in effect even after the Enabling Act. It lost force when Berlin fell to the Soviet Union in 1945 and Germany surrendered.

Preparations and negotiations Edit

The Enabling Act allowed the National Ministry (essentially the cabinet) to enact legislation, including laws deviating from or altering the constitution, without the consent of the Reichstag. Because this law allowed for departures from the constitution, it was itself considered a constitutional amendment. Thus, its passage required the support of two-thirds of those deputies who were present and voting. A quorum of two-thirds of the entire Reichstag was required to be present in order to call up the bill.

The Social Democrats (SPD) and the Communists (KPD) were expected to vote against the Act. The government had already arrested all Communist and some Social Democrat deputies under the Reichstag Fire Decree. The Nazis expected the parties representing the middle class, the Junkers and business interests to vote for the measure, as they had grown weary of the instability of the Weimar Republic and would not dare to resist.

Hitler believed that with the Centre Party members' votes, he would get the necessary two-thirds majority. Hitler negotiated with the Centre Party's chairman, Ludwig Kaas, a Catholic priest, finalising an agreement by 22 March. Kaas agreed to support the Act in exchange for assurances of the Centre Party's continued existence, the protection of Catholics' civil and religious liberties, religious schools and the retention of civil servants affiliated with the Centre Party. It has also been suggested that some members of the SPD were intimidated by the presence of the Nazi Sturmabteilung (SA) throughout the proceedings. [8]

Some historians, such as Klaus Scholder, have maintained that Hitler also promised to negotiate a Reichskonkordat with the Holy See, a treaty that formalised the position of the Catholic Church in Germany on a national level. Kaas was a close associate of Cardinal Pacelli, then Vatican Secretary of State (and later Pope Pius XII). Pacelli had been pursuing a German concordat as a key policy for some years, but the instability of Weimar governments as well as the enmity of some parties to such a treaty had blocked the project. [9] The day after the Enabling Act vote, Kaas went to Rome in order to, in his own words, "investigate the possibilities for a comprehensive understanding between church and state". [10] However, so far no evidence for a link between the Enabling Act and the Reichskonkordat signed on 20 July 1933 has surfaced.

As with most of the laws passed in the process of Gleichschaltung, the Enabling Act is quite short, especially considering its implications. The full text, in German [11] and English, follows:

Gesetz zur Behebung der Not von Volk und Reich Law to Remedy the Distress of the People and the Reich
Der Reichstag hat das folgende Gesetz beschlossen, das mit Zustimmung des Reichsrats hiermit verkündet wird, nachdem festgestellt ist, daß die Erfordernisse verfassungsändernder Gesetzgebung erfüllt sind: The Reichstag has enacted the following law, which is hereby proclaimed with the assent of the Reichsrat, it having been established that the requirements for a constitutional amendment have been fulfilled:
Artikel 1 Article 1
Reichsgesetze können außer in dem in der Reichsverfassung vorgesehenen Verfahren auch durch die Reichsregierung beschlossen werden. Dies gilt auch für die in den Artikeln 85 Abs. 2 und 87 der Reichsverfassung bezeichneten Gesetze. In addition to the procedure prescribed by the constitution, laws of the Reich may also be enacted by the government [12] of the Reich. This includes the laws referred to by Articles 85 Paragraph 2 and Article 87 of the constitution. [13]
Artikel 2 Article 2
Die von der Reichsregierung beschlossenen Reichsgesetze können von der Reichsverfassung abweichen, soweit sie nicht die Einrichtung des Reichstags und des Reichsrats als solche zum Gegenstand haben. Die Rechte des Reichspräsidenten bleiben unberührt. Laws enacted by the government of the Reich may deviate from the constitution as long as they do not affect the institutions of the Reichstag and the Reichsrat. The rights of the President remain unaffected.
Artikel 3 Article 3
Die von der Reichsregierung beschlossenen Reichsgesetze werden vom Reichskanzler ausgefertigt und im Reichsgesetzblatt verkündet. Sie treten, soweit sie nichts anderes bestimmen, mit dem auf die Verkündung folgenden Tage in Kraft. Die Artikel 68 bis 77 der Reichsverfassung finden auf die von der Reichsregierung beschlossenen Gesetze keine Anwendung. Laws enacted by the Reich government shall be issued by the Chancellor and announced in the Reich Gazette. They shall take effect on the day following the announcement, unless they prescribe a different date. Articles 68 to 77 of the Constitution do not apply to laws enacted by the Reich government. [14]
Artikel 4 Article 4
Verträge des Reiches mit fremden Staaten, die sich auf Gegenstände der Reichsgesetzgebung beziehen, bedürfen für die Dauer der Geltung dieser Gesetze nicht der Zustimmung der an der Gesetzgebung beteiligten Körperschaften. Die Reichsregierung erläßt die zur Durchführung dieser Verträge erforderlichen Vorschriften. Treaties of the Reich with foreign states, which relate to matters of Reich legislation, shall for the duration of the validity of these laws not require the consent of the legislative authorities. The Reich government shall enact the legislation necessary to implement these agreements.
Artikel 5 Article 5
Dieses Gesetz tritt mit dem Tage seiner Verkündung in Kraft. Es tritt mit dem 1. April 1937 außer Kraft es tritt ferner außer Kraft, wenn die gegenwärtige Reichsregierung durch eine andere abgelöst wird. This law enters into force on the day of its proclamation. It expires on 1 April 1937 it expires furthermore if the present Reich government is replaced by another.

Articles 1 and 4 gave the government the right to draw up the budget and approve treaties without input from the Reichstag.

Debate within the Centre Party continued until the day of the vote, 23 March 1933, with Kaas advocating voting in favour of the act, referring to an upcoming written guarantee from Hitler, while former Chancellor Heinrich Brüning called for a rejection of the Act. The majority sided with Kaas, and Brüning agreed to maintain party discipline by voting for the Act. [15]

The Reichstag, led by its President, Hermann Göring, changed its rules of procedure to make it easier to pass the bill. Under the Weimar Constitution, a quorum of two-thirds of the entire Reichstag membership was required to be present in order to bring up a constitutional amendment bill. In this case, 432 of the Reichstag's 647 deputies would have normally been required for a quorum. However, Göring reduced the quorum to 378 by not counting the 81 KPD deputies. Despite the virulent rhetoric directed against the Communists, the Nazis did not formally ban the KPD right away. Not only did they fear a violent uprising, but they hoped the KPD's presence on the ballot would siphon off votes from the SPD. However, it was an open secret that the KPD deputies would never be allowed to take their seats they were thrown in jail as quickly as the police could track them down. Courts began taking the line that since the Communists were responsible for the fire, KPD membership was an act of treason. Thus, for all intents and purposes, the KPD was banned as of 6 March, the day after the election. [16]

Göring also declared that any deputy who was "absent without excuse" was to be considered as present, in order to overcome obstructions. Leaving nothing to chance, the Nazis used the provisions of the Reichstag Fire Decree to detain several SPD deputies. A few others saw the writing on the wall and fled into exile.

Later that day, the Reichstag assembled under intimidating circumstances, with SA men swarming inside and outside the chamber. [15] Hitler's speech, which emphasised the importance of Christianity in German culture, [17] was aimed particularly at appeasing the Centre Party's sensibilities and incorporated Kaas' requested guarantees almost verbatim. Kaas gave a speech, voicing the Centre's support for the bill amid "concerns put aside", while Brüning notably remained silent.

Only SPD chairman Otto Wels spoke against the Act, declaring that the proposed bill could not "destroy ideas which are eternal and indestructible." Kaas had still not received the written constitutional guarantees he had negotiated, but with the assurance it was being "typed up", voting began. Kaas never received the letter. [15] [ page needed ]

At this stage, the majority of deputies already supported the bill, and any deputies who might have been reluctant to vote in favour were intimidated by the SA troops surrounding the meeting. In the end, all parties except the SPD voted in favour of the Enabling Act. With the KPD banned and 26 SPD deputies arrested or in hiding, the final tally was 444 in favour of the Enabling Act against 94 (all Social Democrats) opposed. The Reichstag had adopted the Enabling Act with the support of 83% of the deputies. The session took place under such intimidating conditions that even if all SPD deputies had been present, it would have still passed with 78.7% support. The same day in the evening, the Reichsrat also gave its approval, unanimously and without prior discussion. [18] The Act was then signed into law by President Hindenburg.

Party Deputies For Against Absent
NSDAP 288 288
SPD 120 94 26
KPD 81 81
Centre 73 72 1
DNVP 52 52
BVP 19 19
DStP 5 5
CSVD 4 4
DVP 2 1 1
DBP 2 2
Landbund 1 1
Total 647 444 94 109

Under the Act, the government had acquired the authority to pass laws without either parliamentary consent or control. These laws could (with certain exceptions) even deviate from the Constitution. The Act effectively eliminated the Reichstag as active player in German politics. While its existence was protected by the Enabling Act, for all intents and purposes it reduced the Reichstag to a mere stage for Hitler's speeches. It only met sporadically until the end of World War II, held no debates and enacted only a few laws. Within three months of the passage of the Enabling Act, all parties except the Nazi Party were banned or pressured into dissolving themselves, followed on 14 July by a law that made the Nazi Party the only legally permitted party in the country. With this, Hitler had fulfilled what he had promised in earlier campaign speeches: "I set for myself one aim . to sweep these thirty parties out of Germany!" [19]

During the negotiations between the government and the political parties, it was agreed that the government should inform the Reichstag parties of legislative measures passed under the Enabling Act. For this purpose, a working committee was set up, co-chaired by Hitler and Centre Party chairman Kaas. However, this committee met only three times without any major impact, and rapidly became a dead letter even before all other parties were banned.

Though the Act had formally given legislative powers to the government as a whole, these powers were for all intents and purposes exercised by Hitler himself. After its passage, there were no longer serious deliberations in Cabinet meetings. Its meetings became more and more infrequent after 1934, and it never met in full after 1938.

Due to the great care that Hitler took to give his dictatorship an appearance of legality, the Enabling Act was renewed twice, in 1937 and 1941. However, its renewal was practically assured since all other parties were banned. Voters were presented with a single list of Nazis and Nazi-approved "guest" candidates under far-from-secret conditions. In 1942, the Reichstag passed a law giving Hitler power of life and death over every citizen, effectively extending the provisions of the Enabling Act for the duration of the war. [20]

Ironically, at least two, and possibly three, of the penultimate measures Hitler took to consolidate his power in 1934 violated the Enabling Act. In February 1934, the Reichsrat, representing the states, was abolished even though Article 2 of the Enabling Act specifically protected the existence of both the Reichstag and the Reichsrat. It can be argued that the Enabling Act had been breached two weeks earlier by the Law for the Reconstruction of the Reich, which transferred the states' powers to the Reich and effectively left the Reichsrat impotent. Article 2 stated that laws passed under the Enabling Act could not affect the institutions of either chamber.

In August, Hindenburg died, and Hitler seized the president's powers for himself in accordance with a law passed the previous day, an action confirmed via a referendum later that month. Article 2 stated that the president's powers were to remain "undisturbed" (or "unaffected", depending on the translation), which has long been interpreted to mean that it forbade Hitler from tampering with the presidency. A 1932 amendment to the constitution made the president of the High Court of Justice, not the chancellor, first in the line of succession to the presidency—and even then on an interim basis pending new elections. [15] However, the Enabling Act provided no remedy for any violations of Article 2, and these actions were never challenged in court.

In his book, The Coming of the Third Reich, British historian Richard J. Evans argued that the Enabling Act was legally invalid. He contended that Göring had no right to arbitrarily reduce the quorum required to bring the bill up for a vote. While the Enabling Act only required the support of two-thirds of those present and voting, two-thirds of the entire Reichstag's membership had to be present in order for the legislature to consider a constitutional amendment. According to Evans, while Göring was not required to count the KPD deputies in order to get the Enabling Act passed, he was required to "recognize their existence" by counting them for purposes of the quorum needed to call it up, making his refusal to do so "an illegal act". (Even if the Communists had been present and voting, the session's atmosphere was so intimidating that the Act would have still passed with, at the very least, 68.7% support.) He also argued that the act's passage in the Reichsrat was tainted by the overthrow of the state governments under the Reichstag Fire Decree as Evans put it, the states were no longer "properly constituted or represented", making the Enabling Act's passage in the Reichsrat "irregular". [16]

In the Federal Republic of Germany Edit

Article 9 of the German Constitution, enacted in 1949, allows for social groups to be labeled verfassungsfeindlich ("hostile to the constitution") and to be proscribed by the federal government. Political parties can be labeled enemies to the constitution only by the Bundesverfassungsgericht (Federal Constitutional Court), according to Art. 21 II. The idea behind the concept is the notion that even a majority rule of the people cannot be allowed to install a totalitarian or autocratic regime such as with the Enabling Act of 1933, thereby violating the principles of the German constitution.

The 2003 film Hitler: The Rise of Evil contains a scene portraying the passage of the Enabling Act. The portrayal in this film is inaccurate, with the provisions of the Reichstag Fire Decree (which in practice, as the name states, was a decree issued by President Hindenburg weeks before the Enabling Act) merged into the Act. Non-Nazi members of the Reichstag, including Vice-Chancellor von Papen, are shown objecting. In reality the Act met little resistance, with only the centre-left Social Democratic Party voting against passage.

This film also shows Hermann Göring, speaker of the house, beginning to sing the "Deutschlandlied". Nazi representatives then stand and immediately join in with Göring, all other party members join in too, with everyone performing the Hitler salute. In reality, this never happened.

Kurt Waldheim, Former U.N. Chief, Is Dead at 88

Kurt Waldheim, the former United Nations secretary general and president of Austria whose hidden ties to Nazi organizations and war crimes were exposed late in his career, died yesterday at his home in Vienna. He was 88.

His death was announced by his wife, Elisabeth, and the office of the Austrian president, Heinz Fischer. The cause was heart failure, the state broadcaster ORF reported.

It was never proved that Mr. Waldheim himself committed atrocities during World War II. But he was a lieutenant in army intelligence attached to German military units that executed thousands of Yugoslav partisans and civilians and deported thousands of Greek Jews to death camps between 1942 and 1944.

Mr. Waldheim concealed his wartime service in the Balkans, saying his military career ended in 1942, after he was wounded on the Russian front.

But more than four decades later, his assertions were contradicted by witnesses, photographs, medals and commendations given to Mr. Waldheim, and by his own signature on documents linked to massacres and deportations.

“Kurt Waldheim did not, in fact, order, incite or personally commit what is commonly called a war crime,” wrote Prof. Robert Edwin Herzstein of the University of South Carolina, a historian whose archival research was crucial in uncovering Mr. Waldheim’s Nazi past.

“But this non-guilt must not be confused with innocence. The fact that Waldheim played a significant role in military units that unquestionably committed war crimes makes him at the very least morally complicit in those crimes.”

By early 1948, the United Nations War Crimes Commission listed him as a suspected war criminal subject to trial. Yet no government pressed to bring Mr. Waldheim to account or even to disclose his history.

A former Yugoslav intelligence official, Anton Kolendic, said he informed his Soviet counterparts “in late 1947 or 1948” that his government was seeking Mr. Waldheim on suspicion of involvement in war crimes. But the Russians did nothing.

And according to a bipartisan letter from Congress sent to President Bill Clinton, the Central Intelligence Agency was aware of Mr. Waldheim’s wartime history years before he stood for election as secretary general but chose to conceal it.

Mr. Waldheim, who had reached the pinnacle of the Austrian Foreign Ministry, went on to serve two terms, from 1972 to 1982.

In Race for President, the Secret Comes Out

It was not until he ran for president of Austria in 1986 that his wartime past became widely known. During his campaign, political opponents, investigative journalists, historians and the World Jewish Congress uncovered archival evidence of Mr. Waldheim’s involvement with the Nazi movement as a student and his wartime role in the Balkans.

But the revelations were met by a nationalist, anti-Semitic backlash in Austria that aided Mr. Waldheim’s election. Many Austrians apparently viewed Mr. Waldheim’s life as a parable of their own. They identified with his attempts to deny complicity with the Nazis and to view himself as a citizen of a nation occupied by German invaders and forced into their military service.

He became a soldier in Hitler’s army, Mr. Waldheim insisted, “just as hundreds of thousands of other Austrians did their duty.”

Kurt Waldheim was born on Dec. 21, 1918, in St. Andrä-Wördern, a village near Vienna. His father, Walter, the son of an impoverished blacksmith, became the local school superintendent and married a daughter of the mayor.

Thanks to his parents’ middle-class standing, Kurt and his brother and sister endured few economic deprivations during the 1920s, when Austria was a “defeated, ruined, truncated remnant of the former Austro-Hungarian Hapsburg Empire,” Mr. Waldheim wrote in his 1985 memoir, “In the Eye of the Storm.”

In March 1938, Adolf Hitler ordered his army into Austria and annexed the country. Because of his anti-Nazi sympathies, Walter Waldheim was twice arrested by the Gestapo and lost his job. “Our family was under constant surveillance,” Kurt Waldheim wrote. “We lived in daily apprehension.”

Mr. Waldheim asserted that he had never belonged to a Nazi-affiliated group. But in fact, at 19, he joined the National Socialist German Students League, a Nazi youth organization. Then, in November 1938, he enrolled in the Sturmabteilung, or SA, the paramilitary Nazi organization of storm troopers known as the Brownshirts.

Told in 1986 that documents proved he had joined these Nazi groups, Mr. Waldheim dismissed their significance, arguing that they were meant to protect him and his family. He said in his memoir that he had enlisted in the German Army to ward off suspicion of his anti-Nazi opinions.

“A civilian whose politics and activities were under scrutiny was better off as a soldier,” Mr. Waldheim wrote. “In the army, there was much less harassment of those known to disapprove of Nazism, and I had no further trouble.”

In the war, Mr. Waldheim was assigned to the Russian front as a first lieutenant. He suffered a severe ankle wound from a grenade fragment in December 1941 and was sent back to Austria to recover. By his account, his wound ended his military service in 1942, allowing him to complete his law studies.

In fact, as soon as his ankle recovered sufficiently, he was returned to active service, as an intelligence officer in the Balkans. He was assigned to the 714th Infantry Division under the command of the notorious Gen. Friedrich Stahl, who led the Germans and their Croatian allies in an operation that slaughtered more than 60,000 suspected Yugoslav Partisans and their family members at Kozara, in western Bosnia, in 1942.

Lieutenant Waldheim had a significant enough role in the operation to have his name inscribed on a divisional roll of honor. The Croatians awarded him the Silver Medal of the Crown of King Zvonimir “for courage in the battle against rebels in West Bosnia.”

When his wartime service in the Balkans was disclosed in 1986, Mr. Waldheim insisted at first that he had never been near Kozara. When documents proved the contrary, he played down any involvement in the massacre and told The Associated Press that the Zvonimir medal was handed out “like chocolates” to all German officers.

Other documents showed that Mr. Waldheim had served as a staff officer with a large military unit that executed thousands of Partisans and noncombatants in Montenegro and eastern Macedonia, and killed Allied commandos who had been taken prisoner. Its commander, Gen. Alexander Löhr, was an Austrian who was put to death in Yugoslavia in 1947 for war crimes.

Mr. Waldheim was also stationed in Greece, just outside Salonika, where more than 60,000 Jews were shipped off to Auschwitz. Only 10,000 survived.

“I never heard or learned anything of this while I was there,” Mr. Waldheim said in 1986 in an interview with The New York Times. But according to Professor Herzstein, the historian, Mr. Waldheim prepared numerous reports on the deportations for his superiors, including General Löhr.

“It is hard to believe,” Mr. Herzstein wrote in “Waldheim: The Missing Years,” a 1988 book on his investigations, that “this ambitious young staff officer, whose success had been based in large part on his ability to keep abreast of what was going on, could have failed to notice that most of the Jewish community of Salonika — nearly a third of the city’s population — had been shipped off to Auschwitz.”

He added, “As that officer, Kurt Waldheim served as an efficient and effective cog in the machinery of genocide.”

On leave between his Balkan assignments, Mr. Waldheim managed to marry Elisabeth Ritschel and complete his law degree thesis at the University of Vienna in 1944. His wife, also a law student, was an ardent Nazi who before the war had renounced her Roman Catholic faith and joined the League of German Maidens, the young women’s equivalent of the Hitler Youth. She applied for Nazi Party membership as soon as she was old enough, and was accepted in 1941.

The Waldheims had two daughters, Liselotte and Christa, and a son, Gerhard, who became an active defender of his father when revelations of his Nazi past surfaced in 1986. They, along with their mother, survive Mr. Waldheim.

With the end of World War II, the Allies designated Austria as a nation invaded by the Nazis rather than Germany’s willing partner. The country’s new status helped assuage the fears of thousands of Austrian combatants like Mr. Waldheim. Moreover, Austria remained neutral in the growing cold war between East and West.

A Political Career Begins in a Postwar Calm

In December 1945, Mr. Waldheim became a personal assistant to Karl Gruber, who was soon appointed foreign minister. Mr. Waldheim worked closely with Mr. Gruber on a bitter border dispute with Yugoslavia, by then a Communist country under the leadership of Tito, the Partisans’ wartime commander.

Mr. Waldheim was almost undone by his role in the dispute. In September 1947, the Yugoslav Interior Ministry discovered that he had been an intelligence officer in a German Army unit involved in atrocities against the Partisans. The next year, the Yugoslavs had Mr. Waldheim’s name added to the United Nations War Crimes Commission list of suspected war criminals, a procedure that often led to extradition and trial.

But cold war events apparently conspired to save Mr. Waldheim. Yugoslavia broke with the Soviet Union, declared its neutrality and, as part of its realignment, agreed to drop its claims on Austrian territory. It also appeared to have no further interest in extraditing Mr. Waldheim or even exposing his past.

Both the Americans and the Russians were aware of Mr. Waldheim’s wartime record. Mr. Kolendic, the former Yugoslav intelligence official, told The New York Times in 1986 that he had handed over to a senior Soviet intelligence officer a list of “about 25 or 27” Austrians sought for war crimes, including Mr. Waldheim.

It is unclear why American intelligence officials decided not to expose Mr. Waldheim’s wartime record early in his diplomatic career. But the C.I.A.’s failure to do so aroused Congressional resentment.

“We now know that our government had in its possession information and documents on Kurt Waldheim,” a bipartisan group of 59 legislators wrote to President Clinton. “There is no more onerous example of the harm these hidden files can cause than the fact that Kurt Waldheim was elected secretary general of the United Nations while the Central Intelligence Agency concealed his wartime past.”

By 1951, Mr. Waldheim was chief of the personnel division of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Foreign Minister Gruber lost his post in 1954, but Mr. Waldheim was already cultivating another mentor and rising star in the Austrian government — Bruno Kreisky, a socialist and a Jew who had survived the war by fleeing to Sweden.

In 1955, Mr. Waldheim was named Austria’s first representative to the United Nations. In 1968, Mr. Waldheim became foreign minister under Chancellor Josef Klaus. Soon he traveled to Belgrade, where Tito bestowed upon him the Order of the Grand Cross of the Yugoslav Flag, citing his efforts to improve relations between the two countries.

Mr. Waldheim was now in the singular position of having been decorated by both the Fascist wartime authorities and the postwar Communist government in Yugoslavia.

Three years later, when U Thant stepped down as secretary general, the United States, France, Britain and the Soviet Union backed Mr. Waldheim for the post. He became secretary general in 1972 and won another five-year term in 1977.

Mr. Waldheim was criticized as being ineffective and too willing to yield to pressure. Western countries complained that he had failed to press Vietnam to abandon its military occupation of Cambodia.

The United States and Israel said he was not being evenhanded in the Middle East. He endorsed Palestinian statehood without mentioning Israel’s right to exist, and when an Israeli commando unit staged its daring rescue of hostages at Entebbe airport in Uganda in 1976, Mr. Waldheim called the action “a serious violation of the national sovereignty of a United Nations member state.”

Mr. Waldheim retired from the United Nations after it became clear that he did not have enough support for his bid for a third term. He returned to Austria and retired from the Foreign Ministry in 1984.

If Mr. Waldheim had stayed away from public office at this point, his Nazi past would probably never have been revealed. But in 1985 he sought the largely ceremonial post of president of Austria, running as the candidate of the right-wing People’s Party.

Rival socialist politicians began to circulate stories about Mr. Waldheim’s past, and archival material made its way into a leading magazine, Profil. Its interest aroused, the World Jewish Congress asked Professor Herzstein, the scholar of Nazi history, to comb the National Archives in Washington for evidence of Mr. Waldheim’s possible involvement in war crimes.

On March 4, 1986, a Times reporter, John Tagliabue, wrote an article from Vienna detailing documentary evidence about Mr. Waldheim’s wartime service in the Balkans and his prewar Nazi associations. And on March 25, the World Jewish Congress announced Mr. Herzstein’s findings at a news conference in New York.

The revelations set off a fierce debate in Austria. Socialists tried to convince voters that a Waldheim victory would stain Austria’s reputation abroad. But conservatives convinced much of the electorate that the accusations against Mr. Waldheim were an intolerable interference by foreigners in Austrian internal affairs. Campaign posters reflected the backlash, asserting under images of Waldheim, “Now More Than Ever.” Hate mail threatened violence against Austrian Jews if Mr. Waldheim lost.

On June 8, 1986, in a two-round election, Mr. Waldheim won the runoff for Austria’s presidency with 53.9 percent of the 4.7 million votes cast. But the controversy over his past did not subside. On April 28, 1987, the Justice Department barred Mr. Waldheim from entering the United States after determining that he had “assisted or participated in” the deportation, mistreatment and execution of civilians and Allied soldiers in World War II.

At Mr. Waldheim’s request, the Austrian government appointed a commission of historians from more than a half-dozen countries to investigate the accusations. On Feb. 8, 1988, the panel said it had no evidence that Mr. Waldheim was guilty of war crimes. But it concluded that he must have been aware of the atrocities committed around him and that by doing nothing about the crimes, he had facilitated them.

Rejecting a Hint of Guilt, Refusing to Offer Regrets

Mr. Waldheim maintained that he was guiltless. He never expressed remorse or regret for his Balkan service or for his efforts to hide it.

Mr. Waldheim did not seek a second six-year term when his presidency ended in 1992. In a 1996 autobiography, “The Answer,” he contended that his banishment from the United States had resulted from a conspiracy by American Jews, who he said had pressed the Reagan administration to send a “useful signal” to Jewish voters in the 1988 presidential campaign.

And throughout his later years, Mr. Waldheim portrayed himself as an ordinary citizen who had been caught up in a maelstrom.

“Waldheim was clearly not a psychopath like Dr. Josef Mengele nor a hate-filled racist like Adolf Hitler,” Professor Herzstein wrote. “His very ordinariness, in fact, may be the most important thing about him. For if history teaches us anything, it is that the Hitlers and the Mengeles could never have accomplished their atrocious deeds by themselves.

“It took hundreds of thousands of ordinary men — well-meaning but ambitious men like Kurt Waldheim — to make the Third Reich possible.”


  1. Chaka

    I remember once and for all!

  2. Sevrin

    Let's discuss this issue. Here or at PM.

  3. Skelly

    This was not enough yet.

  4. Hudak

    I think the subject is very interesting. I offer you to discuss it here or in PM.

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