Nazi Germany is the common English name for the period in German history from 1933 to 1945, when Germany was governed by a dictatorship under the control of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party (NSDAP). Under Hitler’s rule, Germany was transformed into a fascist state in which the Nazi Party took totalitarian control over nearly all aspects of life. The official name of the state was Deutsches Reich from 1933 to 1943 and Großdeutsches Reich (“Greater German Reich”) from 1943 to 1945. The period is also known under the names the Third Reich (Drittes Reich) and the National Socialist Period (Zeit des Nationalsozialismus, abbreviated as NS-Zeit). Common English terms are “Nazi Germany” and “Third Reich”. The latter, adopted by Nazi propaganda, was first used in a 1923 book by Arthur Moeller van den Bruck. The book counted the Holy Roman Empire (962–1806) as the first Reich and the German Empire (1871–1918) as the second. The Nazis used it to legitimize their regime as a successor state. After they seized power, Nazi propaganda retroactively referred to the Weimar Republic as the Zwischenreich (“Interim Reich”). The Nazi regime came to an end after the Allied Powers defeated Germany in May 1945, ending World War II in Europe.
Although the Nazis won the greatest share of the popular vote in the two Reichstag general elections of 1932, they did not have a majority, so Hitler led a short-lived coalition government formed by the NSDAP and the German National People’s Party. Under pressure from politicians, industrialists, and the business community, President Paul von Hindenburg appointed Hitler as Chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933. This event is known as the Machtergreifung (seizure of power). In the following months, the NSDAP used a process termed Gleichschaltung (co-ordination) to rapidly bring all aspects of life under control of the party. All civilian organizations, including agricultural groups, volunteer organizations, and sports clubs, had their leadership replaced with Nazi sympathizers or party members. By June 1933, virtually the only organizations not in the control of the NSDAP were the army and the churches.
On the night of February 27, 1933, the Reichstag building was set afire; Marinus van der Lubbe, a Dutch communist, was found guilty of starting the blaze. Hitler proclaimed that the arson marked the start of a communist uprising. Violent suppression of communists by the Sturmabteilung (SA) was undertaken all over the country, and four thousand members of the Communist Party of Germany were arrested. The Reichstag Fire Decree, imposed on February 28, rescinded most German civil liberties, including rights of assembly and freedom of the press. The decree also allowed the police to detain people indefinitely without charges or a court order. The legislation was accompanied by a propaganda blitz that led to public support for the measure.
Hitler and the Nazis exploited the German state’s broadcasting and aviation facilities in a massive attempt to sway the electorate, but this election yielded a scant majority of 16 seats for the coalition. At the Reichstag elections, which took place on March 5, 1933, the NSDAP obtained 17 million votes. The Communist, Social Democrat and Catholic Centre votes stood firm. This was the last multi-party election of the Weimar Republic and the last multi-party all-German election for 57 years.
Hitler addressed disparate interest groups, stressing the necessity for a definitive solution to the perpetual instability of the Weimar Republic. He now blamed Germany’s problems on the Communists, even threatening their lives on March 3. Former Chancellor Heinrich Brüning proclaimed that his Centre Party would resist any constitutional change and appealed to the President for an investigation of the Reichstag fire. Hitler’s successful plan was to induce what remained of the now Communist-depleted Reichstag to grant him, and the Government, the authority to issue decrees with the force of law. The hitherto Presidential Dictatorship hereby was to give itself a new legal form.
On March 15, the first cabinet meeting was attended by the two coalition parties, representing a minority in the Reichstag: The Nazis and the DNVP led by Alfred Hugenberg (288 + 52 seats). According to the Nuremberg Trials, this cabinet meeting’s first order of business was how at last to achieve the complete counter-revolution by means of the constitutionally allowed Enabling Act, requiring a 66% parliamentary majority. This Act would, and did, lead Hitler and the NSDAP toward his goal of unfettered dictatorial powers.
The Reichstag convened on March 23, 1933, and in the midday opening, Hitler made a historic speech, appearing outwardly calm and conciliatory. Hitler presented an appealing prospect of respect towards Christianity by paying tribute to the Christian faiths as “essential elements for safeguarding the soul of the German people”. He promised to respect their rights and declared his government’s “ambition is a peaceful accord between Church and State” and that he hoped “to improve our friendly relations with the Holy See.” This speech aimed especially at the future recognition by the named Holy See and therefore to the votes of the Centre Party addressing many concerns Kaas had voiced during the previous talks. Kaas is considered to have had a hand therefore in the drafting of the speech. Kaas is also reported as voicing the Holy See’s desire for Hitler as bulwark against atheistic Russian nihilism previously as early as May 1932.
Hitler promised that the Act did not threaten the existence of either the Reichstag or the Reichsrat, that the authority of the President remained untouched and that the Länder would not be abolished. During an adjournment, the other parties (notably the Centre) met to discuss their intentions.
In the debate prior to the vote on the Enabling Act, Hitler orchestrated the full political menace of his paramilitary forces like the storm division in the streets to intimidate reluctant Reichstag deputies into approving the Enabling Act. The Communists’ 81 seats had been empty since the Reichstag Fire Decree and other lesser known procedural measures, thus excluding their anticipated “No” votes from the balloting. Otto Wels, the leader of the Social Democrats, whose seats were similarly depleted from 120 to below 100, was the only speaker to defend democracy and in a futile but brave effort to deny Hitler the ⅔ majority, he made a speech critical of the abandonment of democracy to dictatorship. At this, Hitler could no longer restrain his wrath.
In his retort to Wels, Hitler abandoned earlier pretence at calm statesmanship and delivered a characteristic screaming diatribe, promising to exterminate all Communists in Germany and threatening Wels’ Social Democrats as well. He did not even want their support for the bill. “Germany will become free, but not through you,” he shouted. Meanwhile, Hitler’s promised written guarantee to Monsignor Kaas was being typed up, it was asserted to Kaas, and thereby Kaas was persuaded to silently deliver the Centre bloc’s votes for the Enabling Act anyway. The Act — formally titled the “Act for the Removal of Distress from People and Reich” — was passed by a vote of 441 to 94. Only the SPD had voted against the Act. Every other member of the Reichstag, whether from the largest or the smallest party, voted in favor of the Act. It went into effect the following day, March 24, 1933.
The passage of the Enabling Act of 1933 is widely considered to mark the end of the Weimar Republic and the beginning of the Nazi era. It empowered the cabinet to legislate without the approval of Reichstag or the President, and to enact laws that were contrary to the constitution. Before the March 1933 elections, Hitler had persuaded Hindenburg to promulgate the Reichstag Fire Decree using Article 48, which empowered the government to restrict “the rights of habeas corpus […] freedom of the press, the freedom to organize and assemble, the privacy of postal, telegraphic and telephonic communications” and legalized search warrants and confiscation “beyond legal limits otherwise prescribed”. This was intended to forestall any action against the government by the Communists. Hitler used the provisions of the Enabling Act to preempt possible opposition to his dictatorship from other sources, in which he was mostly successful.
The process of bringing all major organizations into line with Nazi principles and into the service of the state was called Gleichschaltung. Gleichschaltung is usually translated as “coordination”, but sometimes as “forcible coordination”. It is a compound word, consisting of gleich, meaning alike, and schaltung, which means switching. The NSDAP meant to imply a particular mechanical meaning of the word: a certain means of wiring an electrical generator and electric motors, so that when the generator is made to turn at a given speed or turned to a certain angle, each motor connected to it will also turn at that speed, or to the same angle — in other words, synchronization. The NSDAP was thought of as the generator, and other civil groups as motors wired to it.
Hitler’s cabinet issued many decrees for the purpose of Gleichschaltung in the weeks following the passage of the Act. It removed Jews from the civil service (at Hindenburg’s request, an exception was made for Jews who had served at the front during World War I). It banned all trade unions and eventually outlawed all other political parties. After the exiled SPD published its new weekly Neuer Vorwarts in Prague, Hitler banned the party, confiscating its assets and abolishing its parliamentary representation, by decree of June 22.
On May 10, 1933, the government seized the assets of the Social Democrats; they were banned in June. The remaining political parties were dissolved, and on July 14, 1933, Germany became a de facto one-party state when the founding of new parties was made illegal. Further elections in November 1933, 1936, and 1938 were entirely Nazi-controlled and saw only the Nazis and a small number of independents elected. The regional state parliaments and the Reichsrat (federal upper house) were abolished in January 1934.
The Nazi regime abolished the symbols of the Weimar Republic, including the black, red, and gold tricolor flag, and adopted reworked imperial symbolism. The previous imperial black, white, and red tricolor was restored as one of Germany’s two official flags; the second was the swastika flag of the NSDAP, which became the sole national flag in 1935. The NSDAP anthem “Horst-Wessel-Lied” (“Horst Wessel Song”) became a second national anthem.
In this period, Germany was still in a dire economic situation; millions were unemployed and the balance of trade deficit was daunting. Hitler knew that reviving the economy was vital. In 1934, using deficit spending, public works projects were undertaken. A total of 1.7 million Germans were put to work on the projects in 1934 alone. Average wages both per hour and per week began to rise.
The demands of the SA for more political and military power caused anxiety among military, industrial, and political leaders. In response, Hitler purged the entire SA leadership in the Night of the Long Knives, which took place from June 30 to July 2, 1934. Hitler targeted Ernst Röhm and other SA leaders who, along with a number of Hitler’s political adversaries (such as Gregor Strasser and former chancellor Kurt von Schleicher), were rounded up, arrested, and shot.
On August 2, 1934, President von Hindenburg died. The previous day, the cabinet had enacted the “Law Concerning the Highest State Office of the Reich”, which stated that upon Hindenburg’s death, the office of president would be abolished and its powers merged with those of the chancellor. Hitler thus became head of state as well as head of government. He was formally named as Führer und Reichskanzler (leader and chancellor). Germany was now a totalitarian state with Hitler at its head. As head of state, Hitler became Supreme Commander of the armed forces. The new law altered the traditional loyalty oath of servicemen so that they affirmed loyalty to Hitler personally rather than the office of supreme commander or the state. On August 19, the merger of the presidency with the chancellorship was approved by 90 percent of the electorate in a plebiscite.
Most Germans were relieved that the conflicts and street fighting of the Weimar era had ended. They were deluged with propaganda orchestrated by Joseph Goebbels, who promised peace and plenty for all in a united, Marxist-free country without the constraints of the Versailles Treaty. The first Nazi concentration camp, initially for political prisoners, was opened at Dachau in 1933. Hundreds of camps of varying size and function were created by the end of the war. Upon seizing power, the Nazis took repressive measures against their political opposition and rapidly began the comprehensive marginalization of persons they considered socially undesirable. Under the guise of combating the Communist threat, the National Socialists secured immense power. Above all, their campaign against Jews living in Germany gained momentum.
Beginning in April 1933, scores of measures defining the status of Jews and their rights were instituted at the regional and national level. Initiatives and legal mandates against the Jews reached their culmination with the establishment of the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, stripping them of their basic rights. The Nazis would take from the Jews their wealth, their right to intermarry with non-Jews, and their right to occupy many fields of labor (such as practicing law, medicine, or working as educators). They eventually declared them undesirable to remain among German citizens and society, which over time dehumanized the Jews; arguably, these actions desensitized Germans to the extent that it resulted in the Holocaust. Ethnic Germans who refused to ostracize Jews or who showed any signs of resistance to Nazi propaganda were placed under surveillance by the Gestapo, had their rights removed, or were sent to concentration camps.
Everyone and everything was monitored in Nazi Germany. Inaugurating and legitimizing power for the Nazis was thus accomplished by their initial revolutionary activities, then through the improvisation and manipulation of the legal mechanisms available, through the use of police powers by the Nazi Party (which allowed them to include and exclude from society whomever they chose), and finally by the expansion of authority for all state and federal institutions.
As early as February 1933, Hitler announced that rearmament must be undertaken, albeit clandestinely at first, as to do so was in violation of the Versailles Treaty. A year later he told his military leaders that 1942 was the target date for going to war in the east. He pulled Germany out of the League of Nations in 1933, claiming its disarmament clauses were unfair, as they applied only to Germany. The Saarland, which had been placed under League of Nations supervision for 15 years at the end of World War I, voted in January 1935 to become part of Germany. In March 1935, Hitler announced that the Reichswehr would be increased to 550,000 men and that he was creating an air force. Britain agreed that the Germans would be allowed to build a naval fleet with the signing of the Anglo-German Naval Agreement on June 18, 1935.
When the Italian invasion of Ethiopia led to only mild protests by the British and French governments, on March 7, 1936, Hitler ordered the Wehrmacht Heer ground forces to march 3,000 troops into the demilitarized zone in the Rhineland in violation of the Versailles Treaty; an additional 30,000 troops were on standby. As the territory was part of Germany, the British and French governments did not feel that attempting to enforce the treaty was worth the risk of war. In the one-party election held on March 29, the NSDAP received 98.9 percent support. In 1936, Hitler signed an Anti-Comintern Pact with Japan and a non-aggression agreement with the Fascist Italy of Benito Mussolini, who was soon referring to a “Rome-Berlin Axis”.
Hitler sent air and armored units to assist General Francisco Franco and his Nationalist forces in the Spanish Civil War, which broke out in July 1936. The Soviet Union sent a smaller force to assist the Republican government. Franco’s Nationalists were victorious in 1939 and became an informal ally of Nazi Germany.
In February 1938, Hitler emphasised to Austrian Chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg the need for Germany to secure its frontiers. Schuschnigg scheduled a plebiscite regarding Austrian independence for March 13, but Hitler demanded that it be canceled. On March 11, Hitler sent an ultimatum to Schuschnigg demanding that he hand over all power to the Austrian NSDAP or face an invasion. The Wehrmacht entered Austria the next day, to be greeted with enthusiasm by the populace.
The Republic of Czechoslovakia was home to a substantial minority of Germans, who lived mostly in the Sudetenland. Under pressure from separatist groups within the Sudeten German Party, the Czechoslovak government offered economic concessions to the region. Hitler decided to incorporate not just the Sudetenland but the whole of Czechoslovakia into the Reich. The Nazis undertook a propaganda campaign to try to drum up support for an invasion. Top leaders of the armed forces were not in favor of the plan, as Germany was not yet ready for war. The crisis led to war preparations by the British, the Czechoslovaks, and France (Czechoslovakia’s ally). Attempting to avoid war, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain arranged a series of meetings, the result of which was the Munich Agreement, signed on September 29, 1938. The Czechoslovak government was forced to accept the Sudetenland’s annexation into Germany. Chamberlain was greeted with cheers when he landed in London bringing, he said, “peace for our time.” The agreement lasted six months before Hitler seized the rest of Czech territory in March 1939. A puppet state was created in Slovakia.
Austrian and Czech foreign exchange reserves were soon seized by the Nazis, as were stockpiles of raw materials such as metals and completed goods such as weaponry and aircraft, which were shipped back to Germany. The Reichswerke Hermann Göring industrial conglomerate took control of steel and coal production facilities in both countries.
In March 1939, Hitler demanded the return of the Free City of Danzig and the Polish Corridor, a strip of land that separated East Prussia from the rest of Germany. The British announced they would come to the aid of Poland if it was attacked. Hitler, believing the British would not actually take action, ordered an invasion plan should be readied for a target date of September 1939. On May 23, he described to his generals his overall plan of not only seizing the Polish Corridor but greatly expanding German territory eastward at the expense of Poland. He expected this time they would be met by force.
The Germans reaffirmed their alliance with Italy and signed non-aggression pacts with Denmark, Estonia, and Latvia. Trade links were formalized with Romania, Norway, and Sweden. Hitler’s foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, arranged in negotiations with the Soviet Union a non-aggression pact, the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, which was signed in August 1939. The treaty also contained secret protocols dividing Poland and the Baltic states into German and Soviet spheres of influence.
Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. Britain and France declared war on Germany two days later. World War II was under way. Poland fell quickly, as the Soviet Union attacked from the east on September 17. Reinhard Heydrich, then head of the Gestapo, ordered on September 21 that Jews should be rounded up and concentrated into cities with good rail links. Initially, the intention was to deport the Jews to points further east, or possibly to Madagascar. Using lists prepared ahead of time, some 65,000 Polish intelligentsia, noblemen, clergy, and teachers were killed by the end of 1939 in an attempt to destroy Poland’s identity as a nation. The Soviet forces continued to attack, advancing into Finland in the Winter War, and German forces were involved in action at sea. But little other activity occurred until May, so the period became known as the “Phoney War”.
From the start of the war, a British blockade on shipments to Germany affected the Reich economy. The Germans were particularly dependent on foreign supplies of oil, coal, and grain. To safeguard Swedish iron ore shipments to Germany, Hitler ordered an attack on Norway, which took place on April 9, 1940. Much of the country was occupied by German troops by the end of April. Also on April 9, the Germans invaded and occupied Denmark.
Against the judgment of many of his senior military officers, Hitler ordered an attack on France and the Low Countries, which began in May 1940. They quickly conquered Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Belgium, and France surrendered on June 22. The unexpectedly swift defeat of France resulted in an upswing in Hitler’s popularity and a strong upsurge in war fever.
In spite of the provisions of the Hague Convention, industrial firms in the Netherlands, France, and Belgium were put to work producing war materiel for the occupying German military. Officials viewed this option as being preferable to their citizens being deported to the Reich as forced labor.
The Nazis seized from the French thousands of locomotives and rolling stock, stockpiles of weapons, and raw materials such as copper, tin, oil, and nickel. Financial demands were levied on the governments of the occupied countries as well; payments for occupation costs were received from France, Belgium, and Norway. Barriers to trade led to hoarding, black markets, and uncertainty about the future. Food supplies were precarious; production dropped in most areas of Europe, but not as much as during World War I. Greece experienced famine in the first year of occupation and the Netherlands in the last year of the war.
Hitler made peace overtures to the new British leader, Winston Churchill, and upon their rejection he ordered a series of aerial attacks on Royal Air Force airbases and radar stations. However, the German Luftwaffe failed to defeat the Royal Air Force in what became known as the Battle of Britain. By the end of October, Hitler realized the necessary air superiority for his planned invasion of Britain could not be achieved, and he ordered nightly air raids on British cities, including London, Plymouth, and Coventry.
In February 1941, the German Afrika Korps arrived in Libya to aid the Italians in the North African Campaign and attempt to contain Commonwealth forces stationed in Egypt. On April 6, Germany launched the invasion of Yugoslavia and the battle of Greece. German efforts to secure oil included negotiating a supply from their new ally, Romania, who signed the Tripartite Pact in November 1940.
On June 22, 1941, contravening the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, 5.5 million Axis troops attacked the Soviet Union. In addition to Hitler’s stated purpose of acquiring Lebensraum, this large-scale offensive (codenamed Operation Barbarossa) was intended to destroy the Soviet Union and seize its natural resources for subsequent aggression against the Western powers. The reaction among Germans was one of surprise and trepidation. Many were concerned about how much longer the war would drag on or suspected that Germany could not win a war fought on two fronts.
The invasion conquered a huge area, including the Baltic republics, Belarus, and West Ukraine. After the successful Battle of Smolensk, Hitler ordered Army Group Centre to halt its advance to Moscow and temporarily divert its Panzer groups to aid in the encirclement of Leningrad and Kiev. This pause provided the Red Army with an opportunity to mobilize fresh reserves. The Moscow offensive, which resumed in October 1941, ended disastrously in December. On December 7, 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Four days later, Germany declared war on the United States.
Food was in short supply in the conquered areas of the Soviet Union and Poland, with rations inadequate to meet nutritional needs. The retreating armies had burned the crops, and much of the remainder was sent back to the Reich. In Germany itself, food rations had to be cut in 1942. In his role as Plenipotentiary of the Four Year Plan, Hermann Göring demanded increased shipments of grain from France and fish from Norway. The 1942 harvest was a good one, and food supplies remained adequate in Western Europe.
Reichsleiter Rosenberg Taskforce was an organization set up to loot artwork and cultural material from Jewish collections, libraries, and museums throughout Europe. Some 26,000 railroad cars full of art treasures, furniture, and other looted items were sent back to Germany from France alone. In addition, soldiers looted or purchased goods such as produce and clothing — items which were becoming harder to obtain in Germany — for shipment back home.
Germany, and Europe as a whole, was almost totally dependent on foreign oil imports. In an attempt to resolve the persistent shortage, Germany launched Fall Blau (Case Blue), an offensive against the Caucasian oilfields, in June 1942. The Red Army launched a counter-offensive on November 19 and encircled the Axis forces, who were trapped in Stalingrad on November 23. Göring assured Hitler that the 6th Army could be supplied by air, but this turned out to be infeasible. Hitler’s refusal to allow a retreat led to the deaths of 200,000 German and Romanian soldiers; of the 91,000 men who surrendered in the city on January 31, 1943, only 6,000 survivors returned to Germany after the war. Soviet forces continued to push the invaders westward after the failed German offensive at the Battle of Kursk, and by the end of 1943, the Germans had lost most of their territorial gains in the east.
In Egypt, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps were defeated by British forces under Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery in October 1942. The Allies landed in Sicily in July 1943, and in Italy in September. Meanwhile, American and British bomber fleets, based in Britain, began operations against Germany. In an effort to destroy German morale, many sorties were intentionally given civilian targets. Soon German aircraft production could not keep pace with losses, and without air cover, the Allied bombing campaign became even more devastating. By targeting oil refineries and factories, they crippled the German war effort by late 1944.
On June 6, 1944, American, British, and Canadian forces established a western front with the D-Day landings in Normandy. On July 20, 1944, Hitler narrowly survived a bomb attack. He ordered savage reprisals, resulting in 7,000 arrests and the execution of more than 4,900 people. The failed Ardennes Offensive (December 16, 1944, to January 25, 1945) was the last major German campaign of the war. Soviet forces entered Germany on January 27. Hitler’s refusal to admit defeat and his repeated insistence that the war be fought to the last man led to unnecessary death and destruction in the closing months of the war. Through his Justice Minister, Otto Georg Thierack, he ordered that anyone who was not prepared to fight should be summarily court-martialed. Thousands of people were put to death. In many areas, people looked for ways to surrender to the approaching Allies, in spite of exhortations of local leaders to continue the struggle. Hitler also ordered the intentional destruction of transport, bridges, industries, and other infrastructure — a scorched earth decree — but Armaments Minister Albert Speer was able to keep this order from being fully carried out.
During the Battle of Berlin (April 16 to May 2 1945), Hitler and his staff lived in the underground Führerbunker, while the Red Army approached. On April 30, when Soviet troops were one or two blocks away from the Reich Chancellery, Hitler and Eva Braun committed suicide in the Führerbunker. On May 2, General Helmuth Weidling unconditionally surrendered Berlin to Soviet General Vasily Chuikov. Hitler was succeeded by Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz as Reich President and Goebbels as Reich Chancellor. Goebbels and his wife Magda committed suicide the next day, after murdering their six children. From May 4 to 8, most of the remaining German armed forces surrendered unconditionally. The German Instrument of Surrender was signed May 7, 1945, marking the end of World War II in Europe.
With the issuance of the Berlin Declaration on June 5, 1945, and later creation of the Allied Control Council, the four Allied powers temporarily assumed governance of Germany. At the Potsdam Conference in August 1945, the Allies arranged for the Allied occupation and denazification of the country. Germany was split into four zones, each occupied by one of the Allied powers, who drew reparations from their zone. Since most of the industrial areas were in the western zones, the Soviet Union was transferred additional reparations. The Allied Control Council disestablished Prussia on May 20, 1947. Aid to Germany began arriving from the United States under the Marshall Plan in 1948. The occupation lasted until 1949, when the countries of East Germany and West Germany were created. Germany finalized her border with Poland by signing the Treaty of Warsaw (1970). Germany remained divided until 1990, when the Allies renounced all claims to German territory with the Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany, under which Germany also renounced claims to territories lost during World War II.
The Allied powers organized war crimes trials, beginning with the Nuremberg trials, held from November 1945 to October 1946, of 23 top Nazi officials. They were charged with four counts — conspiracy to commit crimes, crimes against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity — in violation of international laws governing warfare. All but three of the defendants were found guilty; twelve were sentenced to death. The victorious Allies outlawed the NSDAP and its subsidiary organizations. The display or use of Nazi symbolism such as flags, swastikas, or greetings, is illegal in Germany and Austria, and other restrictions, mainly on public display, apply in various countries.
Nazi ideology and the actions taken by the regime are almost universally regarded as gravely immoral. Hitler, Nazism, and the Holocaust have become symbols of evil in the modern world. Interest in Nazi Germany continues in the media and the academic world. Historian Sir Richard J. Evans remarks that the era “exerts an almost universal appeal because its murderous racism stands as a warning to the whole of humanity.”
The Nazi era continues to inform how Germans view themselves and their country. Virtually every family suffered losses during the war or has a story to tell. For many years, Germans kept quiet about their experiences and felt a sense of communal guilt, even if they were not directly involved in war crimes. Once study of Nazi Germany was introduced into the school curriculum starting in the 1970s, people began researching the experiences of their family members. Study of the era and a willingness to critically examine its mistakes has led to the development of a strong democracy in today’s Germany, but with lingering undercurrents of antisemitism and neo-Nazi thought.
In the Second World War, the Reichspost authority spread out to the Polish areas annexed by Nazi Germany, such as the Reichsgau Wartheland, the Reichsgau Danzig-Westpreußen, and the Polish General Government. The world’s first postal code system was introduced on July 25, 1941, with a two-digit number system. This system was initially used for the packet service and later applied to all mail deliveries. The Feldpost military mail organization of the Wehrmacht not only served Army, Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine service members, but also SS-Verfügungstruppen, Waffen-SS and Reichsarbeitsdienst members in the field, becoming the general postal authority of the occupied territories. Deliveries were more and more affected by the advance of Allied troops from January 1945 on. The Reichspost finally ceased to function with the German Instrument of Surrender on May 8. The last Reichspostminister Julius Dorpmüller, member of the Flensburg Government, was arrested two weeks later, the governmental authority was officially taken over by the Allied Control Council with the Berlin Declaration of June 5.
The first postage stamps officially issued under the new Reich were the surtaxed (charity or semi-postal) commemorative stamps showing scenes from Wagner’s Operas, issued on November 1, 1933. Beginning in 1934, the German government started printing the stamps on swastika watermarked paper. The swastika watermark was continued for all stamp issues, through April 1945. Certain stamps of this period also show the swastika watermark sideways and/or inverted. The paper used to print the existing Hindenburg definitive postage stamps was also changed to having a swastika watermark. All the denominations were printed in this manner during 1934, except for the 1 pfennig in December 1933 and the 80 pfennig in February 1936. These Hindenburg issues are considered as being issued under the new Reich, whereas the previous network watermarked Hindenburg issues are considered as being issued under the Weimar Republic. After nine years of use, the Third Reich finally got rid of the Hindenburg definitive stamps and replaced them with a brand new series in 1941 featuring the profile of Adolph Hitler.
Scott #245 — a 12-pfennig dark carmine stamp with 88 pfennig surcharge — was released on August 14, 1943, to mark the Vienna horse race at Freudenau. During the years of the Third Reich, horse racing was a very popular spectator sport in Germany. People flocked to the annual national races in great numbers even in the waning days of World War II when going to large public events meant taking the chance of getting caught in an Allied bombing raid. That didn’t stop them at all. Aside from the wagering aspects of the races, they were also major social events, as is the Kentucky Derby in the United States today.
During the period from 1936-1944, the government of the Third Reich sponsored a number of national horse races. As a result, quite a few surtaxed postage stamps with horses on stamps were issued. The surtaxes on these German stamp issues usually went to pay for the event or to provide the funding for the sweepstakes prize.
The race track in Freudenau, the port section of Vienna, was built in 1839 by the Vienna Horse Racing Society. The Imperial Box and the covered grandstands were added in 1870. Historically, in Austria, horse racing was a huge spectator sport during the Imperial period especially for the upper classes, royalty, and military officers.