Hitler’s appointment as chancellor on January 30, 1933, thrilled some Germans and horrified others. Writing in 1939, journalist Sebastian Haffner said that when he read the news that afternoon, his reaction was “icy horror”:

Certainly this had been a possibility for a long time. You had to reckon with it. Nevertheless it was so bizarre, so incredible, to read it now in black and white. Hitler Reich Chancellor . . . for a moment I physically sensed the man’s odor of blood and filth, the nauseating approach of a man-eating animal—its foul, sharp claws in my face.

Then I shook the sensation off, tried to smile, started to consider, and found many reasons for reassurance. That evening I discussed the prospects of the new government with my father. We agreed that it had a good chance of doing a lot of damage, but not much chance of surviving very long . . .

. . . How could things turn out so completely different? Perhaps it was just because we were all so certain that they could not do so—and relied on that with far too much confidence. So we neglected to consider that it might, if worse came to worst, be necessary to prevent the disaster from happening . . .1

Few people expected the Nazi leader to remain in office for long. After all, in the 14 years since the creation of the Weimar Republic, Germany had had 14 chancellors, most of whom served for less than a year. Only two were in office longer, and not a single chancellor had held his post for three consecutive years. Therefore, many Germans, like Haffner and his father, set about the task of adjusting to life under a regime they thought would soon pass. The readings in this chapter, which focus on the Nazis’ first two years in power, have been chosen to help answer the question Haffner asked several years later: How could things turn out so completely different?

The Nazis’ swift actions in early 1933 began to establish a new order in German society, taking advantage of the weakness of the Weimar Republic to create a dictatorship. Individuals and institutions across the country were forced both to navigate the dangers the Nazis posed to dissenters and to weigh the incentives they offered to encourage acceptance of the new government. Each person had to figure out how to live in a society under National Socialism, and even whether that would be possible at all.

How did they do it? Some were true believers in Nazism, some calculated that the benefits to them of Nazi government outweighed the parts they found unsettling, some who could do so left the country, some learned to stay quiet and retreat into “internal exile,” and some protested openly. All of these choices had consequences for the individuals who made them, for their neighbors, and for their nation.

This chapter deepens the investigation of democracy begun in Chapter 4 by examining how the Weimar Republic crumbled in Germany and how the Nazis created a dictatorship to replace it. By focusing on Germany during the Nazis’ first years in power, the readings in this chapter invite students to also think deeply about what it takes to sustain democracy in our own time. Teachers should select the readings and questions that seem most appropriate for their curricula and classrooms. 


  • 1 : Sebastian Haffner, “Street-Level Coercion,” in How Was It Possible? A Holocaust Reader, ed. Peter Hayes (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2015), 118–19, excerpt from Defying Hitler: A Memoir, trans. Oliver Pretzel (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2002), 106–08. Reproduced by permission from Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

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