The National Socialist Revolution | Facing History & Ourselves
 The Parade of the Political Administrators in Nuremberg, Germany.

The National Socialist Revolution

Consider the factors that made it possible for the Nazis to transform Germany into a dictatorship during their first year in power.


At a Glance

chapter copy


English — US


  • History


  • The Holocaust


About this Chapter

On January 30, 1933, President Paul von Hindenburg named Adolf Hitler chancellor of Germany. Within days of Hitler’s appointment, the Nazis began to target their political opposition and those they considered enemies of the state, especially Communists and Jews.  Within months, they had transformed Germany into a dictatorship.  This chapter chronicles the National Socialist revolution that swept through Germany in 1933, and it examines the choices individual Germans were forced to confront as a result.

  • What made it possible for the Nazis to transform Germany into a dictatorship during their first years in power?
  • What choices do individuals have in the face of an emerging dictatorship? What can they do to nurture democracy and help it survive?
  • What roles do institutions—such as the media, law enforcement, schools, churches, and industry—play in sustaining democracy or enabling its destruction?

This chapter is from the The National Socialist Revolution section of Holocaust and Human Behavior and includes:

  • 24 readings 
  • Connection Questions

Facing History Scholar Reflections: The Nazi Rise to Power

In this video, Dr. Paul Bookbinder describes how the Nazis assumed power in 1930s Germany.

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. 

  • 1Sebastian 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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Inside this Chapter

Analysis & Reflection

Enhance your students’ understanding of our readings on the Nazis' first year in power with these follow-up questions and prompts.

  1. What attracted some people to Nazism? What did some people regard as problematic or unacceptable? What influenced so many to accept the Nazi regime despite ideas and actions they found objectionable? Use the readings in this chapter to make a list of the different ways in which Germans responded to the Nazi-led government in 1933 and 1934. What factors influenced each of the responses in your list?
  2. Make a timeline of important events from this chapter. What events seem most important or most pivotal to the experiences of individual Germans? Were there choices available in 1933 that were no longer available in 1935?
  3. Many writers quoted in this chapter speak of feeling suddenly alienated and unfamiliar in places where they had once been at home. What factors contributed to this sense that their world had been transformed around them? What does it take to transform a society?
  4. This chapter describes Germany’s transformation from a struggling democracy to a dictatorship. What factors seem most important in bringing about that change? What opportunities for resistance were missed? How do the readings in this chapter help you understand not only what undermines democracy but also what it might take to protect and strengthen it?
  5. How did the actions taken by the Nazis in their first year in power change Germany’s universe of obligation? What effect did the Nazis’ actions have on the universes of obligation of the individual Germans you read about in this chapter? How do you explain these changes?

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