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READ: Fascism in Germany

The Nazis were not the only fascists in Europe. But Nazism’s racist ideology and persecution of Jews distinguished it from other varieties of fascism.

Fascism in Germany

By David Eacker
The Nazis were not the only fascists in Europe. But Nazism’s racist ideology and persecution of Jews distinguished it from other varieties of fascism.


Nazi Germany is often held up as the model of a fascist government, and for good reason. Robert O. Paxton has said that “[o]nly in Nazi Germany did a fascist regime approach the outer horizons of radicalization.” Beginning in 1933, the Nazis tried to build a powerful state with the intent of controlling most aspects of life. They were defeated in 1945, but not before using this state to drag Germany and the world into a catastrophic war. It cost tens of millions of lives, including more than six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust. In this article, we look at how Nazism rose to power in Germany, the way it used the state to advance its agenda, and how persecution of the Jews was a defining feature of the Nazi regime.

Nazis take power

Between the founding of the Nazi Party (NSDAP)1 in February 1920 to the rise of its leader, Adolf Hitler, who gained the office of chancellor in January 1933, the Nazis never held an elected majority in Germany and therefore had limited political power. But those limits began to change after a fire nearly destroyed the Reichstag building in Berlin on February 28, 1933. As news of the incident spread, Hitler claimed that the fire was a terrorist act by communists trying to overthrow the government. Using a combination of political tactics, violence, and intimidation, Hitler and the Nazis gathered enough parliamentary support to pass the Enabling Act (March 24, 1933), which transferred broad lawmaking powers to Hitler. It’s significant that this was done by parliamentary vote. By confirming this law with a two-thirds majority, the German parliament ended Germany’s democracy. They gave Hitler the powers needed to create a dictatorship. Within weeks, Hitler had dissolved all other political parties to eliminate any opposition as he assumed the powers of an autocrat.
While the Enabling Act allowed the Nazis to take power, it also illustrated Hitler’s desire to look like he was playing by the rules. In fact, the Nazi state was in many ways a regime of laws administered through institutions already in place. Hitler and the Nazi Party used the legal system to enact sweeping changes and take control of more and more aspects of German life. This is a key trait of totalitarianism. The Nazis wanted to bring about social, political, and economic transformations, but with as little disruption as possible. On the surface, it seemed to at least some people that institutional continuity was steady. Thus, Hitler and the Nazis were able to make big shifts in policy as if this were all business as usual.

Antisemitism and the Nazi state

Because the Nazis used familiar institutions to take over the government, it may have felt like nothing extraordinary was taking place. In truth, a revolution was under way. The regime’s laws allowed for policies that dramatically altered the relationship of German people to the state and how they related to each other. The Nazi Party made use of, and encouraged, existing antisemitism in Germany. Legal attacks on Jews started right away in 1933, but perhaps the most significant act of Nazi legislation was the passage of the Nuremberg Laws on September 15, 1935.2 These statutes allowed the persecution of German Jews on two important fronts. One, Jews were stripped of their citizenship because they did not have “German blood,” and, two, intermarriage between Jews and ethnic Germans was prohibited. With the loss of citizenship came the loss of basic rights. Oppressive antisemitism had been common in Germany before 1935, but the Nuremberg Laws gave it the state’s official stamp of approval. After 1935, wave after wave of laws made things even worse for Germany’s Jewish population. They were denied employment in certain trades and industries, and many Jewish businesses were boycotted or forced to close. Access to public education was restricted. Civil service careers were forbidden to anyone considered non-Aryan by birth. The state often seized the property of Jewish families. These measures took a huge toll on German Jews. In just a few short years a once thriving community, some of whose families had lived in Germany for centuries, was reduced to a population living at the complete mercy of the Nazis and their fellow Germans.
The purpose of the Nuremberg Laws was to terrorize Jews and remove them, first from legally participating in German society, and then from being physically there at all. German fascists believed that Jews posed a threat to the well-being of the nation. But in addition to wanting Jews out of Germany, there was another goal behind Nazi racist ideology. German fascists portrayed Jews and communists—and Jewish communists above all—as the greatest danger to the German nation and its people. The Nazi leadership exploited the fear this generated to convince everyday people to support their terrible policies. They told German citizens that the displacement of the Jews from Germany, and eventually all of Europe, would bring racial and national renewal to Germany and, eventually, all Europe. Thus they used their racist ideology to create a powerful, centralized state that gave them total power.
Nazis placing a sign on the storefront window of a Jewish business that reads “Germans! Defend Yourselves! Don’t buy from Jews!” © Getty Images.

Defining the nation

The Nuremberg Laws and other laws didn’t stop there. Excluding and demeaning Jews contrasted what it was to be German with what it was to be Jewish. It meant that part of being German was not being Jewish, and vice versa. German citizens had rights, access to national resources, and economic privileges; Jews did not. Germans formed one racial group, the Jews another, and the two were not meant to coexist. By “othering” Jews in these ways, anti-Jewish laws made German ethnic and political identity more uniform. Religious identity was used the same way. Some Protestants and Catholics used the Nazis’ antisemitic policies and language to reaffirm Christianity’s place as the foundation of German and European culture. Jews, instead of just not being Christian, came to be seen as enemies of Christianity. According to this logic, the Nazis were making sure Europe remained Christian by eliminating the Jews. Anti-Jewish laws also revealed just how far into everyday life the tentacles of the Nazi state could reach. After watching the Nazis systematically ban Jews from German society and seize their property, other Germans could be certain of one thing: Hitler’s regime had enormous power over the lives of ordinary people. And it was not only the persecution of Jews that made this clear. Nazi policy shaped everything from the military and the economy to the health-care system and elementary education. Even the film and radio industries became tools of Nazi propaganda under the guidance of Joseph Goebbels.3 This kind of pervasive control, or hegemony, was meant to bring people into compliance with the regime in every aspect of their lives. The efforts of Nazi leaders to insert the power of state into the most remote corners of society is a typical feature of totalitarianism.


It is important to remember that the Nazis took over in Germany because of a vote. Anxious about security concerns raised by the Reichstag fire, parliament granted Hitler the sole authority to make laws. Using his new powers, Hitler obtained one-party rule. He and his party destroyed the liberal notions of equality before the law and individual rights. They built a totalitarian state to reshape German society in accordance with Nazi ideology. These are the basic elements of Nazi authoritarianism. From 1933 onward this state terrorized Jews and other minorities in an effort to remove them entirely from German society and, ultimately, from all of Europe. Antisemitism was central to German fascism, and German fascism was central to Nazism. Still, the Nazis’ enforcement of measures like the Nuremberg Laws wasn’t just because they hated Jews. It also reinforced a sense of German ethnic identity and showed how far-reaching the arm of state really was.
Author bio
David Eacker is a Ph.D. student in History at Indiana University–Bloomington. His research focuses on modern Europe with an emphasis on Germany and Britain from 1789 to 1918. He is currently working on a dissertation about missionaries, theology, and empire in the 18th and 19th centuries. David has worked for two academic journals, Theory and Society and The American Historical Review.

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