Third Reich (1933- 1945): History, Meaning, Atrocities, and Symbols

Third Reich History and Meaning

The Third Reich refers to the autocratic government that managed the affairs of Nazi Germany from the early part of 1933 to May 1945. With the ruthless dictator Adolf Hitler as its supreme leader, the Third Reich inflicted pain, misery and deaths not just in Europe, but across the globe. The peak of its horrors came during World War Two (1939 – 1945), where they brutally massacred tens of millions of people across Europe.

The Third Reich’s goal was to turn Germany into a “racially pure” country. They did this by exterminating all those that they considered “racially impure”, i.e. those that didn’t belong to the Aryan race. Here is everything that you need to know about the Third Reich, including the meaning and symbols of the totalitarian regime.

Meaning of the Third Reich

Drittes Reich was how the Germans called the Third Reich. The Third Reich in simple terms means “Third Realm” or “Third Empire”. But why was it called the Third Realm?

Nazi Germany believed that they were the third of three empires, starting with the Holy Roman Empire (800- 1806) and then the German Empire (1871 – 1918).

Between 1933 and 1943, the official name of the German state was Deutsches Reich (German Reich), and from 1943 to 1945, the state was called Großdeutsches Reich (Greater German Reich)

Birth of the Third Reich

Shortly after the First World War (WWI) the Germans went on to form the Weimar Republic that had a semi-presidential system of governance. Owing to WWI and the struggling economic situation of the 1920s, the Weimar Republic had an extreme difficulty stabilizing the economy. Examples of the problems that bedeviled the Weimar regime was high inflation (hyperinflation actually), massive unemployment, factional and disjointed legislature, rise of political extremists, and an unstable coalition government.

In addition to the numerous challenges, Germany had to pay out massive reparations as agreed in the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. It did not take too long for the government to default on those payments. Due to its inability to meet its war debt obligations, many German state assets and factories were seized France.

Sensing the despair and frustration in the country, the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP – the offspring of the German Workers’ Party, which in turn was established in 1920) decided to take matters into their own hands.

Rise of the Nazi Party

Commonly called the Nazi Party by the West, the NSDAP was an ultra-right political party. They campaigned rigorously to undermine the Weimar Republic. They called on all Germans to out rightly reject the Treaty of Versailles.

In 1928, the NSDAP secured a minuscule 2.6% at the federal election. Two years later, in 1930, the NSDAP electoral gains shot up to about 18%. At this point in time, NSDP had become a force to reckon with. They were the second biggest party in the Reichstag.

Antisemitism, racial hygiene and eugenics

The party’s message also had high levels of anti-Semitic and anti-communist flavor. The Nazis blamed Jews in particular for the nation’s economic and political hardships. They even called on Germans to evict the Jews and other minorities out of Germany. Steadily, Jews, Romani, gypsies, gays, and the physical challenged started losing their civil rights.

In the nutshell, the Nazis carefully exploited the frustrations amongst the Germans in order to advance their radical ideologies. They even had paramilitary wings (the Storm Detachment – the Sturmabteeilung) in the party that went about terrorizing businesses and institutions affiliated to Jewish people.

Adolf Hitler’s Machtergreifung (“seizure of power”)

For most part of the time, Adolf Hitler – head of the Nazi Party – was the one that orchestrated the violence meted out to those ethnic minorities. The onset of the Great Depression in 1929 even made things worse for Germans.

With no one to turn to, the Germans voted massively for the Nazi Party during the 1932 federal election. Hitler and his party pulled about 37% of the popular vote, becoming the largest party in Germany’s legislature – the Reichstag.

In what is often called the Machtergreifung (“seizure of power”), Adolf Hitler was able put excessive amount of pressure on his fellow politicians, forcing President Paul Von Hindenburg to swear him in as the Chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933.

Early Atrocities Committed by the Third Reich

A month after Hitler’s seizure of power, the German Reichstag building caught fire. Nazis were quick to point out that the arsonist, Marinus van der Lubbe, was a communist. Under the pretense of restoring order in the country, Hitler asked legislators to pass the Reichstag Fire Decree. In actual sense, the decree was meant to turn the country into a totalitarian one. All civil liberties that were once enjoyed vanished upon the passage of the decree on February 28, 1933.

Hitler then proceeded to suppress the Jews in particularly. The Third Reich’s propaganda secretary Joseph Goebbels drummed home the message that Jews and communists were the problem. Goebbels was also able to build a strong cult of personality around Adolf Hitler.

The enabling Act of 1933, which was passed in March, effectively gave Hitler absolute power in Germany. The act allowed Hitler to bypass both the president and parliament.

On May 10, 1933, the last nail was knocked into the coffin of the Social Democratic Party. Their offices were raided and the party banned. Demise of the SDP effectively turned Germany into a one-party state in July 1933. It was illegal for anyone to establish a political party. So was criticizing the Nazi Party.

Massive centralization schemes were rolled out. This gave Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party complete control of all the various German states. The Nazis termed this exercise as Gleichschaltung (“co-ordination”). By January 1934, the various states’ parliaments and the German Congress (the Reichstag) had been eliminated.

Those that did not support the Nazi Party found their lives increasingly difficult to live. Non Nazi sympathizers were removed from their jobs only for them to be replaced by Nazi party members. German unions also suffered. By the mid-1930s, no union was left standing. Jewish people turned out to be the biggest sufferers. They lost their jobs, their businesses, civil liberties, and rights as German citizens.

Symbols of the Third Reich

Third Reich Emblem and Flag

All political symbols and emblems of previous regimes and political parties were suppressed. For its symbol and flag, the Third Reich chose the colors of the German empire (1871 – 1918) – white, black and red. The Third Reich also picked the ancient swastika symbol – a symbol which was used as a “well-being” symbol by countless civilizations – as the official emblem of Nazi Germany. The national anthem of the Third Reich was “Horst-Wessel-Lied” (“Horst Wessel Song”).

How the Third Reich stayed in Power

The first two years of Hitler’s reign was anything but sunshine and roses. In spite of all the promises he made to lift the German economy out of difficulties, the Germans still had massive unemployment figures. Also, Hitler struggled to manage Germany’s trade deficit.

Although he maintained strong grips on the country, Hitler was well aware of his precarious situation that stemmed from the bad economy. In 1934, the German Fuhrer spent extensively on fixing Germany’s dilapidated infrastructure. Several other social intervention programs were also instituted. In short, Hitler lifted the German economy out of its rut through deficit spending. By so doing, he created close to 2 million new jobs in 1934 alone. Soon, the German public began singing his praises. Their economy was back on track. Blinded by those economic gains, the Germans latched onto Hitler’s words and followed his every instruction.

Systematic elimination of all forms of opposition

Hitler had no tolerance for the opposition, be it outside or within the Nazi Party. So when the Sturmabteilung (SA; Storm Detachment) began to act out, Hitler had their leaders shot dead. He set up the Schutzstaffel (SS) and the Gestapo to over the paramilitary functions of the SA.

Upon the death of President Hindenburg in August 1934, Adolf Hitler and his cabinet passed a law that allowed the office of the presidency to be combined to the office of the chancellor. His was given a new title: Führer und Reichskanzler (“Leader and Chancellor”).

Adolf Hitler had direct control over the state and the government. He was also the German armed forces (Wehrmacht) Supreme Commander. Every soldier and public servant was mandated to swear an oath to Hitler. The term for this was Führerprinzip, which means that the leader is infallible and his words were final. The Third Reich structure was shaped like a pyramid, with Adolf Hitler at the top of this pyramid.

Hitler’s consolidation of power was met with quite some amount of excitement. They were thankful that the years of political infighting during the Weimar Republic was long gone. Hitler had successful brought order to Germany. At least that was the message master propagandist and Hitler’s chief of communication Dr. Joseph Goebbels kept telling the German public.

When the Hitler opened his first concentration camp (located in Dachau), Propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels expertly told the German people that those rehabilitation centers were meant to maintain the peace in the country. Similar remarks were also made when the Jews in the country started getting lost one by one.

The Nuremberg Laws (1935)

To legitimize his horrific practices, Hitler passed the Nuremberg Laws in 1935. The laws took away the fundamental human rights from the Jews in Germany. It also gave the Third Reich the power to confiscate properties and businesses owned by the Jews. Their freedoms of expression and association were removed. Soon, the Jews were rounded up and transported en masse to concentration camps and forced labor centers. The Third Reich tagged the Jews as misfits in an Aryan society like that of Germany.

1935- 1938: Restoration of Germany’s Military Might

Largely due to the manner in which Hitler bulldozed his way to power, Germany remained very isolated in the early 1930s. Many European nations were either weary or antagonistic towards Hitler’s rise to power.

Poland had talks with France concerning a possible attack on Germany. Even Fascist Benito Mussolini of Italy was weary of Hitler’s meteoric rise to power in Germany. Italy and Germany were at odds over some territories in Balkans.

As a result of all those concerns, Adolf Hitler decided to make a proactive move by restoring Germany’s army to how it was prior to WWI. Obviously, this was a clear violation of the Versailles Treaty. Hitler went on record to say that he was willing to disarm so long as other European countries did the same. After Hitler’s offer was turned down by Europe, the German withdrew his nation out of the League of Nations and the World Disarmament Conference. Believe it or not, but it was estimated that over 90% Germans took the side of their leader. They favored restoring the military might of Germany.

The events that prelude Hitler’s rearmament include: Saarland voting to join Nazi Germany; the creation of the German Air Force (Luftwaffe); and massive military recruitment across Germany.

When his military rearmament program neared completion, Hitler and Japan signed the Anti-Comintern Pact in 1936. That same year, the Third Reich also went into a non-aggression pact with Fascist Italy.

In addition to above, the Third Reich provided military aid to General Francisco Franco during the Spanish Civil War (1936 – 1939). The Nationalist government, led by Franco, would go on to be Hitler’s ally in the years to come.

Anschluss: The Third Reich Annexes Austria

The Third Reich – Anschluss | Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

The Third Reich invaded Austria in 1938. The invasion came after Austrian Chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg refused ceding power to the Austrian Nazi Party. With virtually no resistance, the Third Reich strolled into Austria in March 1938.

That same year, the Third Reich annexed Czechoslovakia as well. Czechoslovakia’s arms, goods and reserves were also seized by the Nazis.

Start of WWII: How the Third Reich’s Invasion of Poland kick started WWII

Prior to the 1939 German invasion of Poland, the Germans and the Poles had an existing non-aggression pact, which was signed in January 1934. Regardless, Hitler still marched his army into Poland under the pretext of freeing the City of Danzig. The invasion occurred on September 1, 1939. Three days later, Britain and France declared war on Germany. Thus, the Second World War was born.

By the end of 1939, about 70,000 Polish intelligentsia, clergy, noblemen, and teachers were killed by the Third Reich.

Hitler also invaded Denmark and Norway starting around April 9. The invasion was driven by Hitler’s desire to gain access to resources of those Scandinavian countries. In May 1940, Luxembourg and the Netherlands capitulated to Germany.

It took high doses of courage for the Allied troops to Dunkirk evacuate British and French troops from Dunkirk in June 1940.

While occupying the lower European countries, the Third Reich made factories in the Netherlands, Belgium and France produce items that fueled their war efforts.

Read More: Complete Timeline of World War II


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