Hitler’s Rise to Power and its Lessons for Today


At home and abroad, authoritarian politicians are staging a renewed assault on the institutions of democracy. Donald Trump, waging a campaign of revenge, says his opponents belong in jail. He has vowed to be a dictator, albeit “only” on the first day of a future Trump presidency.

“The big joke on democracy is that it gives its mortal enemies the tools to its own destruction,” Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister, wrote in his diary. With a high water mark of just 37 percent in Reichstag elections, Hitler secured appointment as Germany’s chancellor and began to dismantle the workings of imperfect democracy of the Weimar Republic.

A fascinating new book, Takeover: Hitler’s Final Rise to Power by Timothy Ryback, chronicles the Fuhrer’s rise to power even as his National Socialists were on the decline and nearly broke. The book is a distant mirror on today’s undermining of democracy and the enablers of authoritarianism. The Reich even had the Rupert Murdoch of its day in the person of media baron Alfred Hugenberg, who privately loathed Hitler but helped make him chancellor.

Hugenberg and fellow plutocrats felt they could use Hitler and his movement to fashion a governing majority. “So we box Hitler in,” predicted Hugenberg foolishly. Franz Von Papen, slated to be vice chancellor, predicted “within two months, we will have pressed Hitler into a corner so tight that he’ll squeak.”

Within two months of being reluctantly sworn in by 84-year-old President Paul von Hindenburg, however, Hitler had used the Reichstag fire to fashion for himself emergency powers and to call new parliamentary elections. Even then, with suppression of the opposition, the National Socialists took just 44 percent of the vote.

“Hitler vowed to destroy democracy through the democratic process, and he did,” writes Ryback. “An act of state suicide is more complicated, especially when it involves a democratic republic with a full compliment of constitutional protections — civil liberties, due process, press freedom, public referendum. Which leaves one wondering whether any democracy could have withstood an assault on its structures and processes by a demagogue as fierce as Hitler.”

Hitler laid out a road map for dismantling democracy, aspects of which are being followed today from Turkey to Hungary — and especially by Russia’s dictator Vladimir Putin. Its directions:

Deploy devil figures:

Hitler ranted at Jews and Communists, deploying the Reichstag fire to arrest opponents and calling for a boycott of Jewish-owned businesses weeks after taking office. He used the threat of a coup to murder his predecessor as chancellor and Storm Trooper leader Ernest Roehm, in the 1934 Night of the Long Knives.

The 21st Century is witnessing a demonizing of refugees and immigrants along America’s southern border. The “threat” of being overrun by immigrants has fueled a new generation of right wing parties in Europe and is fueling the Trump movement in the United States.

Pack the judiciary and control propaganda:

Hitler created the People’s Court, its proceedings likened to a drumhead court martial, to legalize oppression. Dr. Goebbels took charge of “coordinating” the news. The CBS correspondent William L. Shirer, returning from a Swiss vacation in the summer of 1939, found Goebbels telling Germans that Poland was about to attack them. The Putin regime has shut down any and all domestic press criticism of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and created legal mechanisms by which insulting the state is a crime. Ukraine’s government, headed by a Jewish president, has been labeled Nazi.

Deploy fear:

The Gestapo was an instrument of state terror. So were concentration camps. A Berlin synagogue was burning the morning after the 1938 Kristallnacht, prompting a tram passenger to mutter about “the disgrace of Germany.” He was promptly arrested by the rider next to him.

Copious surveillance is a hallmark of the Xi regime in China, organized by neighborhoods. The Putin regime has deployed assassins far beyond the borders of Russia. The regime in Belarusian has forced an international air flight to land so it could arrest an opposition politician. The 1933 Enabling Act made Nazi Germany, in Ryback’s words, a “legal dictatorship.” The Weimar Republic constituton was never repealed, just supplanted.

So it is going in the 21st century. Rights remain on the books in India while an opposition leader is arrested. A free press is on the books in Turkey and Hungary, but news media relentlessly broadcast the government line.

We have that with right-wing media in the United States, witness the unrelenting propaganda of Fox News and talk radio. Or witness the Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen, and the extent it is believed.

Ryback has written about a monster, put in power by plutocrats convinced they could control him. They foisted Hitler on a reluctant President Hindenburg, warning of Communism and stressing the need for order. The Fuhrer was put in power by means of a shabby backroom deal.

Authoritarian governments are staging a comeback, borrowing tactics that brought Hitler to power and by which he consolidated control. Not even our own republic is safe from the manipulative, determined minority.

Asked what government a newborn nation would have Benjamin Franklin Franklin famously replied: ”a republic if you can keep it.” Such is the year’s political agenda for America.

Joel Connelly
Joel Connelly
I worked for Seattle Post-Intelligencer from 1973 until it ceased print publication in 2009, and SeattlePI.com from 2009 to 6/30/2020. During that time, I wrote about 9 presidential races, 11 Canadian and British Columbia elections‎, four doomed WPPSS nuclear plants, six Washington wilderness battles, creation of two national Monuments (Hanford Reach and San Juan Islands), a 104 million acre Alaska Lands Act, plus the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area.


  1. Joel Connolly’s excellent commentary is far too little understood in our country, far too much ignored by the major mainstream media. Timothy Ryback’s book deserves a wide circulation, as does Rachel Maddow’s equally cogent book “Prequel.”

    Maddow relates how the Nazi financed campaign here in the United attracted some prominent figures, including some democratically elected officials. This documented fact corroborates Joseph Goebbles’ declaration that “The big joke on democracy is that it gives its mortal enemies the tools to its own destruction.”

    What is missing from our journalistic institutions, print, broadcast, and internet, is a sharp, concentrated focus on Trump’s lies and tactics with the kind of spotlight clarity that Walter Cronkite gave to the Watergate scandal in 1973. Repeated attention to Trump’s actions IN CONTEXT is necessary to drive home the threat he poses to our democracy and those of our allies.

    I fear it is assumed that people will get it. I fear, like the German aristocrats as well as the Hitlet-infatuated common folk, people here will dismiss Trump as either not a serious threat or as one who can be managed.

    That is a mistake. Connolly’s column is spot on. As the conservative Edmund Burke warned “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.”

    Sam Sperry

  2. Thank you, Mr. Connelly, for this recap of how Hitler came to power. If only our country had the leadership of a Winston Churchill to keep the world from devolving into its current state of conflict and bad actors! In addition to Russia and China, which you mention, we have Hamas and the Mexican drug cartels slip-sliding into our midst, and the President’s executive overreach seems matched only by his inability to address any of these foreign threats.
    I would suggest that, in addition to the right-wing conspiracy theorists, we might heed the danger created by those on the extreme left, who seem to have the ascendancy in D.C. and on college campuses. Donald Trump may be the least of our worries.

  3. Biden Admin has been working overtime to promote its Trump as Sturmführer narrative. In fact, this week we also learned that the White House staff has even taken to referring to Mr. Trump as Hitler Pig. The nexus between Hitler and Trump is a non sequitur.

    George Orwell’s ‘1984’ is a cautionary tale, wherein, the rewriting of history is an essential element for the continuance of ‘The Party,’ its primacy, and its control. “The object of power is power.” (1984, Part 3, Chapter 3)

  4. Ryback’s book adds to the library of Hitler’s chronicle and much as I may agree with my colleague’s review and the comments that follow there are dangers in drawing parallels to today’s extreme rightist movements in the US and elsewhere. Hitler’s rise to power followed a defeated Germany in WW I, an ill-conceived Treaty of Versailles that punished rather than guided a recovery from defeat and economic collapse. The US and Europe are both vibrant economies and have been for decades. Fear and discontent have been personalized by those seeking less “democratic” institutions, but elections have shown a different direction. MAGA Republicans in the US have produced a string of defeats thus far. While national surveys currently show a tight Presidential race, the pollsters and knowledgeable readers know that national surveys at this stage are close to meaningless. What those surveys do is play into the hands of the fearful and amplify their fears as well as encourage the fear mongers tactics. Election results have generally shown otherwise.
    Victor Orban in Hungary is the only authoritarian in power in Europe; all the other wannabes are members of minority parties. This is not to downplay legitimate concerns of threats that are endemic in any open system of government. Replaying the cautionary tales of Nazism in Germany and Facism in Italy are worth reading, but the parallels are also a stretch too far.

  5. Readers interested in this perspective should definitely check out a current piece in The NY Times titled: Donald Trump Has Never Sounded Like This by Charles Homans.

    “His current preferred term for Trump and like-minded figures like Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, and the title of his forthcoming book about them, is “wannabe fascists.”

    ….. “Perón was a fascist who wanted to reformulate himself in democratic terms,” Finchelstein told me, “whereas Trump seems to be doing the opposite.”

    It is always a shock when democracies crumble. It’s all kinda normal until it isn’t. Eyes Wide Open.

  6. If you’re looking for an heir to anti-Semitism, intolerance, tyranny and hate, look no further than Hamas and its apparatchiks on college campuses and “progressive” left media throughout the US, Europe, and the middle east. The mask has fallen.

    • “Apparatchiks”? Ah yes, slavish successors to the millions of North Vietnamese sleeper agents who overran campuses and infiltrated media in the 1960s.

      Check your Webster’s to see what “apparatchik” actually means. Lefties have no monopoly on ad hominem overkill.

  7. The birth certificate? Again?

    Or the night Dr. Gerberding was a guest on the Friday night local PBS news program?

  8. Thanks for the useful summary and reminder. Joel. Also worth remembering: Ivana Trump’s famous dish on her estranged husband’s literary tastes in a 1990 Vanity Fair interview with Brooke Baldwin, and Donald’s forgotten response:

    ….. Donald Trump appears to take aspects of his German background seriously. John Walter works for the Trump Organization, and when he visits Donald in his office, Ivana told a friend, he clicks his heels and says, “Heil Hitler,” possibly as a family joke.
    Last April, perhaps in a surge of Czech nationalism, Ivana Trump told her lawyer Michael Kennedy that from time to time her husband reads a book of Hitler’s collected speeches, My New Order, which he keeps in a cabinet by his bed. Kennedy now guards a copy of My New Order in a closet at his office, as if it were a grenade. Hitler’s speeches, from his earliest days up through the Phony War of 1939, reveal his extraordinary ability as a master propagandist.
    “Did your cousin John give you the Hitler speeches?” I asked Trump.
    Trump hesitated. “Who told you that?”
    “I don’t remember,” I said.
    “Actually, it was my friend Marty Davis from Paramount who gave me a copy of Mein Kampf, and he’s a Jew.” (“I did give him a book about Hitler,” Marty Davis said. “But it was My New Order, Hitler’s speeches, not Mein Kampf. I thought he would find it interesting. I am his friend, but I’m not Jewish.”)
    Later, Trump returned to this subject. “If I had these speeches, and I am not saying that I do, I would never read them.”
    That was four years after Dirty Donald first started stoking talk about a run for president. Still, Trump’s apologists may find this heartening: contrary to what his ghost writer Tony Roberts reported, it seems he did read at least one book.

    • Hard to believe the Donald has changed from what his staff report now and previously. Not only does he not read any books, he reads nothing that is put before him in the way of memos, briefs, policy issues….nothing.
      Trump hears what he wants to hear and only from the few who have access to him, which is tne reason his forced listening in court is an unusual of not unique exerience for him.

  9. Joel,
    You may have missed a chance to compare what Trump supporters in corporate and private equity America think they have to gain by funding Trump’s PACs with this note from Ryback’s book: “Hugenberg and fellow plutocrats felt they could use Hitler and his movement to fashion a governing majority.”

  10. For a quick read on how to recognize and resist a fascist movement, try Dr. Timothy Snyder’s ‘On Tyranny’, Penguin Randon House, 2017.

    This excellent book is written as 20 lessons on dealing with the advance of fascism that will chill the marrow of your bones.

    From chapter 1, page 17: “Do not obey in advance.”


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