From democracy to dictatorship

Retired history professor examines Hitler's consolidation of power

By Megan Webster | 3/1/17 10:47pm


GVL/ Hannah Zajac- Dr. Gary Stark, an award-winning professor and scholar, gives a speech on German History and how their Democracy turned into a Dictatorship on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017.

by Hannah Zajac / Grand Valley Lanthorn

Adolf Hitler’s rise to power was the topic of discussion at one of the latest installments of the Grand Valley State University Community Service Learning Center’s Democracy 101 series. The event, “The Path to Dictatorship: How Hitler Consolidated Power (1933-34),” took place in the Kirkhof Center Tuesday, Feb. 28.

Gary Stark, professor emeritus of history and specialist in modern German history, lectured to a group of faculty and students on how Germany went from being a democracy to a dictatorship in less than a year.

Hannah Zajac

GVL/ Hannah Zajac- Dr. Gary Stark, an award-winning professor and scholar, gives a speech on German History and how their Democracy turned into a Dictatorship on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017.

Polly Diven, director of the international relations program at GVSU and political science professor, introduced Stark by saying she had no doubt he would effortlessly lay out the transition from democracy to dictatorship.

“Gary Stark will absolutely describe this critical moment in history when the world witnessed the dramatic erosion in democracy,” she said.

Diving into his lecture, Stark noted that before Hitler’s rise to power and the conversion to dictatorship, the citizens of Germany had a strong fear of communism, the “red threat,” and their government was relatively unorganized with multiple political parties wishing to take power.

“In Germany, there were not two political parties but multiple,” Stark said. “There was about 12 and 15 political parties during the 1920s and 1930s.”

Stark also mentioned there was a growing problem of perception when it came to the rising threat of communism. There was no real understanding of what Nazism was at this time, and the citizens of Germany were often fed misinformation, which lead to a growing state of confusion.

“Hardly anyone in the early stages of this new government grasped what was happening,” Stark said. “They had no real understanding of what it would mean to the country if Hitler or the Nazis came to power. There was no real understanding of what Nazism was.”

The Nazi party took advantage of Germany’s instability and began to slowly yet surely pursue actions that became more daring over time and were declared legal. Stark said the Nazi government strived to generate fear, divide enemies and intimidate citizens through threats in order to get them to comply.

“They exploited the concept of legality,” Stark said. “The things that they were doing were legal. Good Germans, like good citizens everywhere, don’t want to break the law. If something is legal, it seems fine.”

Stark explained that the transition from democracy to dictatorship really occurred in three major steps: the consolidation of executive power through the use of emergency decrees, the elimination of other institutions and the control of the army.

During Hitler’s beginning days in power, he passed numerous decrees in order to cement his position as a dictator.

“There is a temptation in a time of great national crisis to react with legislation that curves certain limits, and the Nazis did this,” Stark said.

These decrees included the Executive Decree for Emergency and the Enabling Act. The Executive Decree for Emergency was passed in response to the Reichstag fire and successfully suspended most of the citizens’ constitutional civil rights. Then came the Enabling Act, which stated that laws could be passed by the government alone without adherence to the constitution. These two acts effectively put an end to a constitutional government, allowing Hitler to come one step closer to a complete dictatorship.

Stark said the second step toward dictatorship was the elimination of other institutions in Germany that were seen as threats. These institutions included, but were not limited to, local governments, the courts, the civil service and the Catholic Church. Stark mentioned that these institutions were brought down by a series of laws one by one until they were all eliminated or controlled by Nazis.

The last step toward a dictatorship, and the nail in the coffin, was the control of the German army. By doing this, Hitler made sure the last possible group who could possibly take him out of power was converted to his use.

“(The German army wasn’t) quite sure about Hitler,” Stark said. “As soon as he came to power, he courted the military, promised to help Germany rearm and build up the German military. They liked what they were hearing but were leery.”

Stark explained that at this point, there was no one left to oppose Hitler within the German borders.

“The only thing that would’ve stopped the Nazis at this time was some kind of organized resistance, but all of the institutions that could organize resistance were gone or under Nazi control,” Stark said.

For more information on future Democracy 101 events, visit

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