How Did Hitler Succeed? And Why Wasn’t He Stopped?

One hundred years ago, Adolph Hitler became the leader of the Nazi party. Who or what enabled his 20-year rise to power?

Weekly Newsletter

The best of The Saturday Evening Post in your inbox!


A century ago, on July 29, 1921, a failed Austrian painter became leader of a tiny nationalist group called the National Socialist German Worker’s Party. Twenty years later, he was the absolute ruler of Germany. Under his direction, the nation had rearmed and conquered France, Holland, Norway, Czechoslovakia, and Poland. It also occupied Hungary, Romania, the Baltic States, and the Ukraine. Its air force was pounding London to rubble.

Then, inspired by this string of successes, Adolf Hitler declared war on the United States.

How did a man of very limited education and money, who’d succeeded at little in his life up to 1921, turn Europe upside down, rebuild Germany and then destroy it again, and cause millions of deaths?

And why did nobody stop him?

There are many reasons behind Hitler’s rise to power. One was his own unexpected skill in public speaking. It quickly became obvious to his comrades in the German Worker’s Party — soon renamed the National Socialist German Worker’s Party (or Nazi) party — that Hitler had a rare talent for stirring up audiences, infecting them with his boundless anger and racism.

In October of 1923, journalist Kenneth L. Roberts wrote in the Post about Hitler’s career:

As a talker, Hitler could easily win the diamond-studded belt if there were an annual official gabfest in Southern Germany. He is particularly exciting to the fluent beer drinkers of Bavaria; … Hitler naturally attracted to himself all the tough nuts and the hard-boiled eggs and the rough diamonds of Bavaria and particularly of Munich. When Hitler would stand up and bark at the existing government and call it by the meanest German names in or out of the dictionary, all the hard-boiled eggs would slap each other on the back and say, ” Aha! Here is the boy for us!” And they would promptly sign up with Hitler.

[“Suds,” by Kenneth L. Roberts October 27, 1923]

Timing was another key to Hitler’s success. He appeared on the public stage at a time when Germany was hungering for an effective leader. The Germans had faithfully followed their foolish, vacillating Kaiser through four years of costly war. He was gone now, self-exiled in Holland. But many Germans wished to have him — or some other monarch — solve Germany’s problems and restore its pride.

And its problems were immense. Its economy was destroyed, and much of its workforce was killed or injured in World War I. On top of that, Germany was forced to pay crippling reparation to the allies. Its once-great military had been disarmed, leaving the country defenseless and surrounded by perceived enemies. It had begun building an empire, like other European states, but had now been stripped of its foreign colonies. Many of its citizens had believed Germany was meant to be the premier nation in Europe, if not the world, but now the country lay humbled and impotent.

Adolf Hitler said he had solutions to all these problems. Screaming his threats and boasts, he could seem insane to outsiders, but he was saying what his audiences wanted to hear. He promised jobs, better living conditions, restored power and pride for Germany, and suppression of communism and other political trouble-makers. He also attacked Germany’s Jews, saying they were responsible for Germany’s defeat in the war.

Despite his growing support, some had a hard time taking him seriously. Hitler’s boasts that Germany would regain power sounded so fantastic, it kept the world laughing for a few more years. Even some Jewish Germans couldn’t take him seriously. A young Jewish  man, reported the Post, “appeared at the office of a friend, wearing in the lapel of his coat a button showing a large number ‘1.’ Asked whether the button indicated membership in some singing or athletic society, he made the response: ‘Hitler says he’s going to kill every second Jew. I am, therefore, playing it safe.’  [“The New German Leadership” by Isaac F. Marcosson, May 16, 1931]

Hitler’s messages would have made him a local celebrity, but by themselves they probably wouldn’t have made him a national leader. For that goal, he was aided by Alfred Hugenberg, a politician who controlled most of Germany’s newspapers. Hugenberg wanted to eliminate the communists and social democrats, and topple the Weimar government, with the possibility that a Kaiser would rule Germany again. Since Hitler shared several of Hugenberg’s ideas, the media boss helped get Hitler’s message out to the nation.

Alfred Hugenberg (Wikimedia Commons)

Hitler was also helped by German business owners, who feared the growing number of German communists and another revolution like the one that followed World War I. Their financial support kept the Nazi party running and competitive in the political sphere.

Both the business owners and Hugenberg were confident they could control Hitler. He was, they thought, too naïve or ignorant to run the country. At the right time, they’d step in and begin directing the new Germany. Hugenberg even joined Hitler’s cabinet when he became chancellor, but soon quit when he realized he would have no power in the new government.

It was easy to misread Hitler. In conversation, he had very few ideas except about politics, but in that field, he was sharper and more ruthless than any competitor. In 1923, when Hitler was first mentioned in the Post, he was described as merely a puppet of Hermann Ehrhardt, the leader of another nationalist paramilitary group. But in 1934, Ehrhardt had to flee to Switzerland when Hitler’s Gestapo came for him at his home.

With coverage in the media and support from business, Hitler was able to grow the Nazi party and successfully run members for seats in the German parliament. By 1932, the Nazis had won 37 percent of the popular vote. In 1933, Germany’s aging president, Paul von Hindenburg, made Hitler chancellor in order to get the Nazis’ support for legislation. By the next year, when Hindenburg died, Hitler assumed dictatorial power, including the right to arrest any political rivals.

Now, anyone who spoke against him could be whisked off to one of the concentration camps he had started building. The number of legislators opposing him in the Reichstag began to shrink as he arrested his opponents.

Many Germans were jubilant when, after taking power, Hitler announced he was rebuilding the country’s military power, in violation of the Versailles Treaty with the Allies.

He also made good on his promises of employment and higher living standards for Germans. In just three years, unemployment went from five million to zero. While the other nations of Europe suffered from the Great Depression, Germany had the continent’s strongest economy.

Life had gotten much better for the male worker; the government forced women and Jews out of jobs that were then offered to “Aryan” men. Their newfound prosperity made it easier to ignore the laws Hitler passed to give himself unlimited power. They could turn a blind eye to the concentration camps, the middle-of-the-night raids by the newly established Gestapo, the burning of books that didn’t receive Nazi approval, and the brutalizing of Jews.

But Hitler’s success was mainly due to the times, not the man. As historian Ian Kershaw noted, “Without a lost war, revolution, and a pervasive sense of national humiliation, Hitler would have remained a nobody.”But he didn’t. Hitler’s path to power left a wake of massive destruction and astonishing inhumanity. It was only after his brazen invasion of Poland in 1939 that France and Britain declared war on Germany. And it was only after half a decade of world war that Germany was defeated. Hitler was found dead from suicide on April 30, 1945.

Hitler’s rise was certainly smoothed by powerful businessmen and political leaders, but it was ultimately allowed to grow unchecked by complacent citizens. As William L. Shirer observed in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, “No class or group or party in Germany could escape its share of responsibility for the abandonment of the democratic Republic and the advent of Adolf Hitler. The cardinal error of the Germans who opposed Nazism was their failure to unite against it.”

Featured image: Picture of Hitler in lederhosen, 1927 (National Archives)

Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now


  1. Edward Rudder says:
    August 22, 2021 at 1:30 pm
    “It is sad that James Cunningham can’t see that he is in that type of group that followed and worshipped Hitler. I also doubt his faux commitment to Jesus Christ since Jesus is the greatest liberal of all time.”

    It is very clear Edward that you are the “liberal” you describe. You always identify the followers of Jesus to the Nazi group you belong to, doing the exact same playbook of Hitler, his followers as well as the followers of the current traitorous criminals in our current administration now. How despicable of you! You should be ashamed and have the delusion lifted from you by repenting of the demon you really are.

  2. “Hitler had a rare talent for stirring up audiences”

    Altho Adolf did on occasion pack ’em in at Nuremburg Stadium, Albert Speer wrote in his “Inside the Third Reich” that Hitler did a lot of his stirring from a movie soundstage. Speer, an architect by training, wrote that he designed sets to look like amphitheaters; Hitler was filmed while he ranted on; cheering was dubbed; crowd stock footage was inserted; & the finished products were shown in movie theaters, in the form of newsreels.

  3. It is sad that James Cunningham can’t see that he is in that type of group that followed and worshipped Hitler. I also doubt his faux commitment to Jesus Christ since Jesus is the greatest liberal of all time.

  4. So, Bob McGowan Jr. says, “the Republicrats that are hell-bent on destroying the U.S from within and succeeding using Hitler’s playbook” are responsible for the heinous violence and negligent actions trying to destroy our nation.
    Those in our country with faith in God and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ clearly know and understand who Hitler’s and Stalin’s neo-minions are by the actions of the traitors in our country who are so obvious by their actions and hate of our “One Nation Under God.” They commit heinous crimes daily bringing great harm to citizens of our great nation to the applause and hateful ignorant and arrogant lies spewing from the mouths of followers of Goebbels, Hitler’s propagandist: The hateful, narcissistic attitudes and actions glaringly demonstrated directly in “in-your-face” broadcasts on CNN, MSNBC, ABC, CBS, and NBC and other minor fake news outlets. This is a clearly understood fact to every follower and believer in our “One Nation Under God.” We citizens who believe this founding principle of our great nation clearly see, without any doubt that those currently in power are those “that are hell-bent on destroying the U.S. from within and succeeding using Hitler’s playbook.”
    Furthermore, these traitors are deep within our two houses of Congress, and they are obviously and purposely playing into the hands of the Chinese Communist Party, who is hell-bent on destroying our nation. This fact is pervasive throughout not only Congressional leadership, but military leadership as well. This is obviously demonstrated in recent current events.
    The CCP committed a great crime against all humanity by purposely attacking the entire world with the COVID-19 virus, and the cowardly in our nation’s leadership will do nothing about it; not to mention leaders of the rest of the world. This is the worst attack ever in history if not the biggest in scope and breath brought upon the free nations of the entire earth. Only the freedom loving, God loving, people and nations can do anything about it. The likes of those who fought for our freedom against Hitler clearly are not among those in power in the U.S. now, nor, as it seems, anywhere else on earth.
    Those REAL citizens of the U.S.; those following our Lord Jesus Christ have a very powerful solution, the power of Prayer.

  5. Great article, Jeff. There are just too many things all happening with our nation’s one political party, the Republicrats that are hell-bent on destroying the U.S from within, and succeeding using Hitler’s playbook. Before the COVID crisis they could disguise or hide they’re true, deep-seated, absolute HATRED of the average American because it hadn’t been tested like this in many decades by a health and economic crisis simultaneously.

    No money to help the average the American, but billions for Wall Street to bail them out, then the media proclaims they’re doing great as a false barometer that we’re ALL doing great and therefore need no help. Plenty of trillions for defense contracts to keep us in endless wars to bombing innocent civilians. With the 20th anniversary of 9/11 coming up, it’s become quite clear it was either an inside job here to justify new wars to bring in billions of dollars. Were the initial building collisions pre-arranged by our government, or were they payback for our country being in countries it had no business being in, causing destruction in that country to justify all of our money allocated for that?

    Terrible to contemplate, but it’s become very clear that our government will do anything for money; for them, and them only. They never even call themselves Americans, always hiding behind their “party” name. The bottom line with Hitler was extermination, and it’s quite evident that’s the goal here. It’s on a much wider scale, and through different, quieter, economic means than Auschwitz. This includes trying to overthrow our Democracy and the 1/6 “test run” experiment, which was considered very ‘successful’ to those behind it, leading to more in the future.

    This looks like it’s being dealt with, but we’ll see. One mastermind of it (Jim Jordan) could barely talk beyond fast, rapid-fire gibberish a few days ago. I hope he was wearing Depends. Kevin McCarthy, Mitch McConnell, Manchin, Gaetz? If I were Jim Jordan I’d say “If I’m going down for this, I’m taking you with me.” Clever fake phone call to Trump Kevin, to ‘report’ the awful things going on, and they needed help from this ‘terrible mob’. Nice little preemptive cover your butt attempt at a ‘save’ if one would be needed later. Let’s see what happens when McCarthy is put on frying pan, which should be soon, hopefully. He IS the vicious bully elephant in the living room after all, loudly trumpeting his guilt. Anyone fighting the investigation might as well have ‘guilty’ stamped on their foreheads.

  6. I don’t remember whether the following happened just before the war or after it had begun, but I have read from a reliable historical source than when Hitler broached his plans for a Holocaust to those of his colleagues who hadn’t figured out what he was implying, he received a lot of immediate talkback, none of it moral, all of it having to do with the unappeasable rage news of it would provoke in Germany’s opponents. Hitler is reported to have looked gleeful, and responded, “They will NEVER believe it!”

    They did believe it, though it is a world tragedy that few did until the war was under way. News of the mass shootings in Ukraine had got to Roosevelt, and certainly to Churchill, before Pearl Harbor was attacked.

    It fascinates me that some German Jews, such as the peerless theater composer, Kurt Weill, figured out what was likely to happen ultimately not long after Hitler took power, and got away, but most did not, until it was too late. And who could blame them for carelessness, any more than any decent person could blame the young women the serial killer, Ted Bundy, lulled into helping the supposedly injured Bundy ( leg in a cast, Bundy on crutches ) carry his books to his car?

    Anyone who has ever been damaged by a psychopath or a malignant narcissist understands that those of us whom God has kept from becoming monsters can’t readily imagine that the person in question really is a monster.


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *