Having secured supreme political power, Hitler went on to gain public support by convincing most Germans he was their saviour from the economic Depression, the Versailles treaty, communism, the "Judeo-Bolsheviks", and other "undesirable" minorities. The Nazis eliminated opposition through a process known as Gleichschaltung ("bringing into line").
Economy and culture
Hitler oversaw one of the greatest expansions of industrial production and civil improvement Germany had ever seen, mostly based on debt flotation (refinancing long term debts into cheaper short term debt) and expansion of the military. Nazi policies toward women strongly encouraged them to stay at home to bear children and keep house. In a September 1934 speech to the National Socialist Women's Organization, Adolf Hitler argued that for the German woman her "world is her husband, her family, her children, and her home." This policy was reinforced by bestowing the Cross of Honor of the German Mother on women bearing four or more babies. The unemployment rate was cut substantially, mostly through arms production and sending women home so that men could take their jobs. Given this, claims that the German economy achieved near full employment are at least partly artefacts of propaganda from the era. Much of the financing for Hitler's reconstruction and rearmament came from currency manipulation by Hjalmar Schacht, including the clouded credits through the Mefo bills.
Hitler oversaw one of the largest infrastructure-improvement campaigns in German history, with the construction of dozens of dams, autobahns, railroads, and other civil works. This revitalising of industry and infrastructure came at the expense of the overall standard of living, at least for those not affected by the chronic unemployment of the later Weimar Republic, since wages were slightly reduced in pre–World War II years, despite a 25% increase in the cost of living. Laborers and farmers, the traditional voters of the NSDAP, however, saw an increase in their standard of living.
Hitler's government sponsored architecture on an immense scale, with Albert Speer becoming famous as the first architect of the Reich. While important as an architect in implementing Hitler's classicist reinterpretation of German culture, Speer proved much more effective as armaments minister during the last years of World War II. In 1936, Berlin hosted the summer Olympic games, which were opened by Hitler and choreographed to demonstrate Aryan superiority over all other races, achieving mixed results.
Although Hitler made plans for a Breitspurbahn ("broad gauge railroad network"), they were preempted by World War II. Had the railroad been built, its gauge would have been three metres, even wider than the old Great Western Railway of Britain.
Hitler contributed slightly to the design of the car that later became the Volkswagen Beetle and charged Ferdinand Porsche with its design and construction. Production was deferred because of the war.
On 20 April 1939, a lavish celebration was held in honour of Hitler's 50th birthday, featuring military parades, visits from foreign dignitaries, thousands of flaming torches and Nazi banners.
An important historical debate about Hitler's economic policies concerns the "modernization" issue. Historians such as David Schoenbaum and Henry Ashby Turner have argued that social and economic polices under Hitler were modernization carried out in pursuit of anti-modern goals. Other groups of historians centred around Rainer Zitelmann have contended that Hitler had a deliberate strategy of pursuing a revolutionary modernization of German society.
In his first four years of government the number of unemployed dropped from 6 million to 900 thousand people, the gross national product grew 102%, he doubled the per capita income, augmented companies'profits from 175 million to 5 billion reichsmarks and reduced hyperinflation to a maximum of 25% a year.
Rearmament and new alliances
In a meeting with his leading generals and admirals on 3 February 1933, Hitler spoke of "conquest of Lebensraum in the East and its ruthless Germanisation" as his ultimate foreign policy objectives. In March 1933, the first major statement of German foreign policy aims appeared with the memo submitted to the German Cabinet by the State Secretary at the Auswärtiges Amt (Foreign Office), Prince Bernhard Wilhelm von Bülow (not to be confused with his more famous uncle, the former ChancellorBernhard von Bülow), which advocated Anschluss with Austria, the restoration of the frontiers of 1914, the rejection of the Part V of Versailles, the return of the former German colonies in Africa, and a German zone of influence in Eastern Europe as goals for the future. Hitler found the goals in Bülow's memo to be too modest. In March 1933, to resolve the deadlock between the French demand for sécurité ("security") and the German demand for gleichberechtigung ("equality of armaments") at theWorld Disarmament Conference in Geneva, Switzerland, the British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald presented the compromise "MacDonald Plan". Hitler endorsed the "MacDonald Plan", correctly guessing that nothing would come of it, and that in the interval he could win some goodwill in London by making his government appear moderate, and the French obstinate.
In May 1933, Hitler met with Herbert von Dirksen, the German Ambassador in Moscow. Dirksen advised the Führer that he was allowing relations with the Soviet Union to deteriorate to an unacceptable extent, and advised to take immediate steps to repair relations with the Soviets. Much to Dirksen's intense disappointment, Hitler informed him that he wished for an anti-Soviet understanding with Poland, which Dirksen protested would imply recognition of the German-Polish border, leading Hitler to state he was after much greater things than merely overturning the Treaty of Versailles.
In June 1933, Hitler was forced to disavow Alfred Hugenberg of the German National People's Party, who while attending the London World Economic Conference put forth a programme of colonial expansion in both Africa and Eastern Europe, which created a major storm abroad. Speaking to the Burgermeister of Hamburg in 1933, Hitler commented that Germany required several years of peace before it could be sufficiently rearmed enough to risk a war, and until then a policy of caution was called for. In his "peace speeches" of 17 May 1933, 21 May 1935, and 7 March 1936, Hitler stressed his supposed peaceful goals and a willingness to work within the international system. In private, Hitler's plans were something less than peaceful. At the first meeting of his Cabinet in 1933, Hitler placed military spending ahead of unemployment relief, and indeed was only prepared to spend money on the latter if the former was satisfied first. When the president of the Reichsbank, the former Chancellor Dr. Hans Luther, offered the new government the legal limit of 100 million Reichmarks to finance rearmament, Hitler found the sum too low, and sacked Luther in March 1933 to replace him with Hjalmar Schacht, who during the next five years was to advance 12 billion Reichmarks worth of "Mefo-bills" to pay for rearmament.
A major initiative in Hitler's foreign policy in his early years was to create an alliance with Britain. In the 1920s, Hitler wrote that a future National Socialist foreign policy goal was "the destruction of Russia with the help of England." In May 1933, Alfred Rosenberg in his capacity as head of the Nazi Party's Aussenpolitisches Amt (Foreign Political Office), visited London as part of a disastrous effort to win an alliance with Britain. In October 1933, Hitler pulled Germany out of both the League of Nations and World Disarmament Conference after his Foreign Minister Baron Konstantin von Neurath made it appear to world public opinion that the French demand for sécurité was the principal stumbling block.
In line with the views he advocated in Mein Kampf and Zweites Buch about the necessity of building an Anglo-German alliance, Hitler, in a meeting in November 1933 with the British Ambassador, Sir Eric Phipps, offered a scheme in which Britain would support a 300,000-strong German Army in exchange for a German "guarantee" of the British Empire. In response, the British stated a 10-year waiting period would be necessary before Britain would support an increase in the size of the German Army. A more successful initiative in foreign policy occurred in relations with Poland. In spite of intense opposition from the military and the Auswärtiges Amt who preferred closer ties with the Soviet Union, Hitler, in the fall of 1933 opened secret talks with Poland that were to lead to the German–Polish Non-Aggression Pact of January 1934.
In February 1934, Hitler met with the British Lord Privy Seal, Sir Anthony Eden, and hinted strongly that Germany already possessed an Air Force, which had been forbidden by the Treaty of Versailles. In the fall of 1934, Hitler was seriously concerned over the dangers of inflation damaging his popularity. In a secret speech given before his Cabinet on 5 November 1934, Hitler stated he had "given the working class his word that he would allow no price increases. Wage-earners would accuse him of breaking his word if he did not act against the rising prices. Revolutionary conditions among the people would be the further consequence."
Although a secret German armaments programme had been on-going since 1919, in March 1935, Hitler rejected Part V of the Versailles treaty by publicly announcing that the German army would be expanded to 600,000 men (six times the number stipulated in the Treaty of Versailles), introducing an Air Force (Luftwaffe) and increasing the size of the Navy (Kriegsmarine). Britain, France, Italy and the League of Nations quickly condemned these actions. However, after re-assurances from Hitler that Germany was only interested in peace, no country took any action to stop this development and German re-armament continued. Later in March 1935, Hitler held a series of meetings in Berlin with the British Foreign Secretary Sir John Simon and Eden, during which he successfully evaded British offers for German participation in a regional security pact meant to serve as an Eastern European equivalent of the Locarno pact while the two British ministers avoided taking up Hitler's offers of alliance. During his talks with Simon and Eden, Hitler first used what he regarded as the brilliant colonial negotiating tactic, when Hitler parlayed an offer from Simon to return to the League of Nations by demanding the return of the former German colonies in Africa.
Starting in April 1935, disenchantment with how the Third Reich had developed in practice as opposed to what been promised led many in the Nazi Party, especially the Alte Kämpfer (Old Fighters; i.e., those who joined the Party before 1930, and who tended to be the most ardent antisemitics in the Party), and the SA into lashing out against Germany's Jewish minority as a way of expressing their frustrations against a group that the authorities would not generally protect. The rank and file of the Party were most unhappy that two years into the Third Reich, and despite countless promises by Hitler prior to 1933, no law had been passed banning marriage or sex between those Germans belonging to the "Aryan" and Jewish "races". A Gestapo report from the spring of 1935 stated that the rank and file of the Nazi Party would "set in motion by us from below," a solution to the "Jewish problem," "that the government would then have to follow." As a result, Nazi Party activists and the SA started a major wave of assaults, vandalism and boycotts against German Jews.
On 18 June 1935, the Anglo-German Naval Agreement (AGNA) was signed in London which allowed for increasing the allowed German tonnage up to 35% of that of the British navy. Hitler called the signing of the AGNA "the happiest day of his life" as he believed the agreement marked the beginning of the Anglo-German alliance he had predicted in Mein Kampf. This agreement was made without consulting either France or Italy, directly undermining the League of Nations and put the Treaty of Versailles on the path towards irrelevance. After the signing of the A.G.N.A., in June 1935 Hitler ordered the next step in the creation of an Anglo-German alliance: taking all the societies demanding the restoration of the former German African colonies and coordinating (Gleichschaltung) them into a new Reich Colonial League (Reichskolonialbund) which over the next few years waged an extremely aggressive propaganda campaign for colonial restoration. Hitler had no real interest in the former German African colonies. In Mein Kampf, Hitler had excoriated the Imperial German government for pursuing colonial expansion in Africa prior to 1914 on the grounds that the natural area for Lebensraum was Eastern Europe, not Africa. It was Hitler's intention to use colonial demands as a negotiating tactic that would see a German "renunciation" of colonial claims in exchange for Britain making an alliance with the Reich on German terms.
In the summer of 1935, Hitler was informed that, between inflation and the need to use foreign exchange to buy raw materials Germany lacked for rearmament, there were only 5 million Reichmarks available for military expenditure, and a pressing need for some 300,000 Reichmarks/day to prevent food shortages. In August 1935, Dr. Hjalmar Schacht advised Hitler that the wave of antisemitic violence was interfering with the workings of the economy, and hence rearmament. Following Dr. Schacht's complaints, plus reports that the German public did not approve of the wave of antisemitic violence, and that continuing police toleration of the violence was hurting the regime's popularity with the wider public, Hitler ordered a stop to "individual actions" against German Jews on 8 August 1935. From Hitler's perspective, it was imperative to bring in harsh new antisemitic laws as a consolation prize for those Party members who were disappointed with Hitler's halt order of 8 August, especially because Hitler had only reluctantly given the halt order for pragmatic reasons, and his sympathies were with the Party radicals. The annual Nazi Party Rally held at Nuremberg in September 1935 was to feature the first session of the Reichstag held at that city since 1543. Hitler had planned to have the Reichstag pass a law making the Nazi Swastika flag the flag of the German Reich, and a major speech in support of the impending Italian aggression against Ethiopia. Hitler felt that the Italian aggression opened great opportunities for Germany. In August 1935, Hitler told Goebbels his foreign policy vision as: "With England eternal alliance. Good relationship with Poland . . . Expansion to the East. The Baltic belongs to us . . . Conflicts Italy-Abyssinia-England, then Japan-Russia imminent."
At the last minute before the Nuremberg Party Rally was due to begin, the German Foreign Minister Baron Konstantin von Neurath persuaded Hitler to cancel his speech praising Italy for her willingness to commit aggression. Neurath convinced Hitler that his speech was too provocative to public opinion abroad as it contradicted the message of Hitler's "peace speeches", thus leaving Hitler with the sudden need to have something else to address the Reichstag in Nuremberg, other than the Reich Flag Law. On 13 September 1935, Hitler hurriedly ordered two civil servants, Dr. Bernhard Lösener and Franz Albrecht Medicus of the Interior Ministry to fly to Nuremberg to start drafting antisemitic laws for Hitler to present to the Reichstag for 15 September.On the evening of 15 September, Hitler presented two laws before the Reichstagbanning sex and marriage between Aryan and Jewish Germans, the employment of Aryan women under the age of 45 in Jewish households, and deprived "non-Aryans" of the benefits of German citizenship.The laws of September 1935 are generally known as the Nuremberg Laws.
In October 1935, in order to prevent further food shortages and the introduction of rationing, Hitler reluctantly ordered cuts in military spending. In the spring of 1936 in response to requests from Richard Walther Darré, Hitler ordered 60 million Reichmarks of foreign exchange to be used to buy seed oil for German farmers, a decision that led to bitter complaints from Dr. Schacht and the War Minister Field Marshal Werner von Blomberg that it would be impossible to achieve rearmament as long as foreign exchange was diverted to preventing food shortages. Given the economic problems which were affecting his popularity by early 1936, Hitler felt the pressing need for a foreign policy triumph as a way of distracting public attention from the economy.
In an interview with the French journalist Bertrand de Jouvenel in February 1936, Hitler appeared to disavow Mein Kampf by saying that parts of his book were now out of date and he was not guided by them, though precisely which parts were out of date was left unclear. In March 1936, Hitler again violated the Versailles treaty by reoccupying the demilitarized zone in the Rhineland. When Britain and France did nothing, he grew bolder. In July 1936, the Spanish Civil War began when the military, led by General Francisco Franco, rebelled against the elected Popular Front government. After receiving an appeal for help from General Franco in July 1936, Hitler sent troops to support Franco, and Spain served as a testing ground for Germany's new forces and their methods. At the same time, Hitler continued with his efforts to create an Anglo-German alliance. In July 1936, he offered to Phipps a promise that if Britain were to sign an alliance with the Reich, Germany would commit to sending twelve divisions to the Far East to protect British colonial possessions there from a Japanese attack. Hitler's offer was refused.
In August 1936, in response to a growing crisis in the German economy caused by the strains of rearmament, Hitler issued the "Four-Year Plan Memorandum" ordering Hermann Göring to carry out the Four Year Plan to have the German economy ready for war within the next four years. During the 1936 economic crisis, the German government was divided into two factions, with one (the so-called "free market" faction) centering around the Reichsbank President Hjalmar Schacht and the former Price Commissioner Dr. Carl Friedrich Goerdeler calling for decreased military spending and a turn away from autarkic policies, and another faction around Göring calling for the opposite. Supporting the "free-market" faction were some of Germany's leading business executives, most notably Hermann Duecher of AEG, Robert Bosch of Robert Bosch GmbH, and Albert Voegeler of Vereinigte Stahlwerke. Hitler hesitated for the first half of 1936 before siding with the more radical faction in his "Four Year Plan" memo of August. Historians such asRichard Overy have argued that the importance of the memo, which was written personally by Hitler, can be gauged by the fact that Hitler, who had something of a phobia about writing, hardly ever wrote anything down, which indicates that Hitler had something especially important to say. The "Four-Year Plan Memorandum" predicated an imminent all-out, apocalyptic struggle between "Judo-Bolshevism" and German National Socialism, which necessitated a total effort at rearmament regardless of the economic costs. In the memo, Hitler wrote:
Since the outbreak of the French Revolution, the world has been moving with ever increasing speed toward a new conflict, the most extreme solution of which is called Bolshevism, whose essence and aim, however, are solely the elimination of those strata of mankind which have hitherto provided the leadership and their replacement by worldwide Jewry. No state will be able to withdraw or even remain at a distance from this historical conflict . . . It is not the aim of this memorandum to prophesy the time when the untenable situation in Europe will become an open crisis. I only want, in these lines, to set down my conviction that this crisis cannot and will not fail to arrive and that it is Germany's duty to secure her own existence by every means in face of this catastrophe, and to protect herself against it, and that from this compulsion there arises a series of conclusions relating to the most important tasks that our people have ever been set. For a victory of Bolshevism over Germany would not lead to a Versailles treaty, but to the final destruction, indeed the annihilation of the German people . . . I consider it necessary for the Reichstag to pass the following two laws: 1) A law providing the death penalty for economic sabotage and 2) A law making the whole of Jewry liable for all damage inflicted by individual specimens of this community of criminals upon the German economy, and thus upon the German people.
Hitler called for Germany to have the world's "first army" in terms of fighting power within the next four years and that "the extent of the military development of our resources cannot be too large, nor its pace too swift" (italics in the original) and the role of the economy was simply to support "Germany's self-assertion and the extension of her Lebensraum." Hitler went on to write that given the magnitude of the coming struggle, that the concerns expressed by members of the "free market" faction like Schacht and Goerdeler that the current level of military spending was bankrupting Germany were irrelevant. Hitler wrote that: "However well balanced the general pattern of a nation's life ought to be, there must at particular times be certain disturbances of the balance at the expense of other less vital tasks. If we do not succeed in bringing the German army as rapidly as possible to the rank of premier army in the world . . . then Germany will be lost!" and "The nation does not live for the economy, for economic leaders, or for economic or financial theories; on the contrary, it is finance and the economy, economic leaders and theories, which all owe unqualified service in this struggle for the self-assertion of our nation."Documents such as the Four Year Plan Memo have often been used by right historians such as Henry Ashby Turner and Karl Dietrich Bracher who argue for a "primacy of politics" approach (that Hitler was not subordinate to German business, but rather the contrary was the case) against the "primacy of economics" approach championed by Marxist historians (that Hitler was an "agent" of and subordinate to German business).
In August 1936, the freelance Nazi diplomat Joachim von Ribbentrop was appointed German Ambassador to the UK. Before Ribbentrop left to take up his post in October 1936, Hitler told him: "Ribbentrop . . . get Britain to join the Anti-Comintern Pact, that is what I want most of all. I have sent you as the best man I've got. Do what you can . . . But if in future all our efforts are still in vain, fair enough, then I'm ready for war as well. I would regret it very much, but if it has to be, there it is. But I think it would be a short war and the moment it is over, I will then be ready at any time to offer the British an honourable peace acceptable to both sides. However, I would then demand that Britain join the Anti-Comintern Pact or perhaps some other pact. But get on with it, Ribbentrop, you have the trumps in your hand, play them well. I'm ready at any time for an air pact as well. Do your best. I will follow your efforts with interest".
An Axis was declared between Germany and Italy by Count Galeazzo Ciano, foreign minister of Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini on 25 October 1936. On 25 November of the same year, Germany concluded the Anti-Comintern Pact with Japan. At the time of the signing of the Anti-Comintern Pact, invitations were sent out for Britain, China, Italy and Poland to adhere; of the invited powers only the Italians were to sign the pact, in November 1937. To strengthen relationships with Japan, Hitler met in 1937 in Nuremberg Prince Chichibu, a brother of emperor Hirohito. However, the meeting with Prince Chichibu had little consequence, as Hitler refused the Japanese request to halt German arms shipments to China or withdraw the German officers serving with the Chinese in the Second Sino-Japanese War. Both the military and the Auswärtiges Amt (Foreign Office) were strongly opposed to ending the informal German alliance with China that existed since the 1910s, and pressured Hitler to avoid offending the Chinese. The Auswärtiges Amt and the military both argued to Hitler that given the foreign exchange problems which afflicted German rearmament, and the fact that various Sino-German economic agreements provided Germany with raw materials that would otherwise use up precious foreign exchange, it was folly to seek an alliance with Japan that would have the inevitable result of ending the Sino-German alignment.
By the latter half of 1937, Hitler had abandoned his dream of an Anglo-German alliance, blaming "inadequate" British leadership for turning down his offers of an alliance. In a talk with the League of Nations High Commissioner for the Free City of Danzig, the Swiss diplomat Carl Jacob Burckhardt in September 1937, Hitler protested what he regarded as British interference in the "German sphere" in Europe, though in the same talk, Hitler made clear his view of Britain as an ideal ally, which for pure selfishness was blocking German plans.
Hitler had suffered severely from stomach pains and eczema in 1936–37, leading to his remark to the Nazi Party's propaganda leadership in October 1937 that because both parents died early in their lives, he would probably follow suit, leaving him with only a few years to obtain the necessary Lebensraum. About the same time, Dr. Goebbels noted in his diary Hitler now wished to see the "Great Germanic Reich" he envisioned in his own lifetime rather than leaving the work of building the "Great Germanic Reich" to his successors.
On 5 November 1937, at the Reich Chancellery, Adolf Hitler held a secret meeting with the War and Foreign Ministers and the three service chiefs, recorded in the Hossbach Memorandum, and stated his intentions for acquiring "living space" Lebensraum for the German people. He ordered the attendees to make plans for war in the east no later than 1943 in order to acquireLebensraum. Hitler stated the conference minutes were to be regarded as his "political testament" in the event of his death. In the memo, Hitler was recorded as saying that such a state of crisis had been reached in the German economy that the only way of stopping a severe decline in living standards in Germany was to embark sometime in the near-future on a policy of aggression by seizing Austria and Czechoslovakia. Moreover, Hitler stated that the arms race meant that time for action had to occur before Britain and France obtained a permanent lead in the arms race. A striking change in the Hossbach Memo was Hitler's changed view of Britain from the prospective ally of 1928 in the Zweites Buch to the "hate-inspired antagonist" of 1937 in the Hossbach memo. The historian Klaus Hildebranddescribed the memo as the start of an "ambivalent course" towards Britain while the late historian Andreas Hillgruber argued that Hitler was embarking on expansion "without Britain," preferably "with Britain," but if necessary "against Britain."
Hitler's intentions outlined in the Hossbach memorandum led to strong protests from the Foreign Minister, Baron Konstantin von Neurath, the War Minister Field Marshal Werner von Blomberg, and the Army Commander General Werner von Fritsch, that any German aggression in Eastern Europe was bound to trigger a war with France because of the French alliance system in Eastern Europe (the so-called cordon sanitaire), and if a Franco-German war broke out, then Britain was almost certain to intervene rather than risk the chance of a French defeat. The aggression against Austria and Czechoslovakia were intended to be the first of a series of localized wars in Eastern Europe that would secure Germany's position in Europe before the final showdown with Britain and France. Fritsch, Blomberg and Neurath all argue that Hitler was pursuing an extremely high-risk strategy of localized wars in Eastern Europe that was most likely to cause a general war before Germany was ready for such a conflict, and advised Hitler to wait until Germany had more time to rearm. Neurath, Blomberg and Fritsch had no moral objections to German aggression, but rather based their opposition on the question of timing – determining the best time for aggression.
Late in November 1937, Hitler received as his guest the British Lord Privy Seal, Lord Halifax who was visiting Germany ostensibly as part of a hunting trip. Speaking of changes to Germany's frontiers, Halifax told Hitler that: "All other questions fall into the category of possible alterations in the European order which might be destined to come about with the passage of time. Amongst these questions were Danzig, Austria and Czechoslovakia. England was interested to see that any alterations should come through the course of peaceful evolution and that the methods should be avoided which might cause far-reaching disturbances." Significantly, Halifax made clear in his statements to Hitler—though whether Hitler appreciated the significance of this or not is unclear—that any possible territorial changes had to be accomplished peacefully, and that though Britain had no security commitments in Eastern Europe beyond the Covenant of the League of Nations, would not tolerate territorial changes via war. Hitler seems to have misunderstood Halifax's remarks as confirming his conviction that Britain would just stand aside while he pursued his strategy of limited wars in Eastern Europe.
Hitler was most unhappy with the criticism of his intentions expressed by Neurath, Blomberg, and Fritsch in the Hossbach Memo, and in early 1938 asserted his control of the military-foreign policy apparatus through the Blomberg-Fritsch Affair, the abolition of the War Ministry and its replacement by the OKW, and by sacking Neurath as Foreign Minister on 4 February 1938, assuming the rank, role and title of theOberster Befehlshaber der Wehrmacht (supreme commander of the armed forces). The British economic historian Richard Overy commented that the establishment of the OKW in February 1938 was a clear sign of what Hitler's intentions were since supreme headquarters organizations such as the OKW are normally set up during wartime, not peacetime. The Official German history of World War II has argued that from early 1938 onwards, Hitler was not carrying out a foreign policy that had carried a high risk of war, but was carrying out a foreign policy aiming at war.
One of the foundations of Hitler's social policies was the concept of racial hygiene. It was based on the ideas of Arthur de Gobineau, a French count; eugenics, apseudoscience that advocated racial purity; and social Darwinism. Applied to human beings, "survival of the fittest" was interpreted as requiring racial purity and killing off "life unworthy of life." The first victims were children with physical and developmental disabilities; those killings occurred in a programme dubbed Action T4. After a public outcry, Hitler made a show of ending this program, but the killings continued (see Nazi eugenics).
Between 1939 and 1945, the SS, assisted by collaborationist governments and recruits from occupied countries, systematically killed somewhere between 11 and 14 million people, including about six million Jews, in concentration camps, ghettos and mass executions, or through less systematic methods elsewhere. In addition to those gassed to death, many died as a result of starvation and disease while working as slave labourers (sometimes benefiting private German companies). Along with Jews, non-Jewish Poles, Communists and political opponents, members of resistance groups, homosexuals, Roma, the physically handicapped and mentally retarded, Soviet prisoners of war (possibly as many as three million), Jehovah's Witnesses, Adventists, trade unionists, and psychiatric patients were killed. One of the biggest centres of mass-killing was the industrial extermination camp complex of Auschwitz-Birkenau. As far as is known, Hitler never visited the concentration camps and did not speak publicly about the killing in precise terms.
The Holocaust (the "Endlösung der jüdischen Frage" or "Final Solution of the Jewish Question") was planned and ordered by leading Nazis, with Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich playing key roles. While no specific order from Hitler authorizing the mass killing has surfaced, there is documentation showing that he approved theEinsatzgruppen killing squads that followed the German army through Poland and Russia, and that he was kept well informed about their activities. The evidence also suggests that in the fall of 1941 Himmler and Hitler decided upon mass extermination by gassing. During interrogations by Soviet intelligence officers declassified over fifty years later, Hitler's valet Heinz Linge and his military aide Otto Gunsche said Hitler had "pored over the first blueprints of gas chambers." His private secretary, Traudl Junge, testified that Hitler knew all about the death camps.
Göring gave a written authorisation to Heydrich to "make all necessary preparations" for a "total solution of the Jewish question". To make for smoother cooperation in the implementation of this "Final Solution", theWannsee Conference was held on 20 January 1942, with fifteen senior officials participating (including Adolf Eichmann) and led by Reinhard Heydrich. The records of this meeting provide the clearest evidence of planning for the Holocaust. On 22 February, Hitler was recorded saying to his associates, "we shall regain our health only by eliminating the Jews".