Germany’s Fascist Story

Traveling across Germany, we learn how fascism rose and then fell, taking millions of people with it. Visiting actual locations — from Munich to Nürnberg to Berlin — we trace the roots of Nazism in the aftermath of World War I, when masses of angry people were enchanted by Hitler. We explore the totalitarian society Hitler built, and see the consequences: genocide and total war. Learning from Germany's fascist story, we can recognize that hateful ideology as well as the tricks of wannabe dictators in our own age.

Travel Details

Georg Reichlmayr

Georg, who has helped me generously with my guidebooks, offers three-hour walking tours of Munich, among other options.

Holger Zimmer

A cultural connoisseur and public-radio journalist, Holger is also available as a guide in Berlin — when he's not leading one of my group tours (tel. +49 163-345-4427, [email protected]).

Nazi Rally Grounds (Reichsparteitagsgelände)

Albert Speer, Hitler's favorite architect, designed this immense complex of buildings for the Nazi rallies. Not many of Hitler's ambitious plans were completed, but you can visit the courtyard of the Congress Hall, Zeppelin Field (where Hitler addressed his followers), and a few other remains. Figure an hour round-trip from the Documentation Center for the full circuit. If you have less time, just look into the courtyard of the Congress Hall from the perch at the end of your Documentation Center visit and then walk the short way around the lake directly to Zeppelin Field and back.

Eagle's Nest (Kehlsteinhaus)

In the 1930s, after becoming the German Chancellor, Hitler chose the Berchtesgaden region as the place to build his mountain retreat, a supersized alpine farmhouse called the Berghof — the Nazis' answer to Camp David. His handlers crafted Hitler's image here — surrounded by nature, gently receiving alpine flowers from adoring little modern arms industry, no ugly extermination camps. In reality, Obersalzberg was home to a huge compound of 80 buildings — connected by extensive bunkers — where the major decisions leading up to World War II were hatched (some of which are open to visitors as the Obersalzberg Documentation Center and Bunker).

Some mistakenly call the entire area "Hitler's Eagle's Nest," but that name actually belongs only to the Kehlsteinhaus, a small mountaintop chalet on a 6,000-foot peak that juts up two miles south of Obersalzberg. While a fortune was spent building this perch and the road up to it, Hitler, who was afraid of heights, visited only 14 times. Today, the chalet is basically a three-room, reasonably priced restaurant with a scenic terrace, 100 yards below the summit of a mountain. On a nice day, the views are magnificent. If it's fogged in (which it often is), most people won't find it worth coming up here (except on David and Christine Harper's tours, which can make the building come to life even without a view). Bring a jacket, and prepare for crowds in summer (less crowded if you go early or late in the day).

German Historical Museum

This impressive museum offers the best look at German history under one roof, anywhere. The permanent collection packs 9,000 artifacts into two huge rectangular floors of the old arsenal building. You'll stroll through insightfully described historical objects, paintings, photographs, and models — all intermingled with multimedia stations. The 20th-century section is far better than any of the many price-gouging historical Nazi or Cold War "museums" all over Berlin.

Topography of Terror

This exhibit sits on the site of what was once the nerve center for the Gestapo and the SS, the most despicable elements of the Nazi government. This stark, gray, boxy building is one of the few memorial sites that focuses on the perpetrators rather than the victims of the Nazis. It's chilling to see just how seamlessly and bureaucratically the Nazi institutions and state structures merged to become a well-oiled terror machine. There are few actual artifacts; it's mostly written explanations and photos, like reading a good textbook standing up. And, while you could read this story anywhere, to take this in atop the Gestapo headquarters is a powerful experience. The exhibit is a bit dense, but WWII historians (even armchair ones) will find it fascinating.

Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial

"Auschwitz" actually refers to a series of several camps in Poland — most importantly Auschwitz I, in the village of Oświęcim (50 miles west of Kraków), and Auschwitz II, a.k.a. Birkenau (about 1.5 miles west of Oświęcim). Auschwitz I, where public transportation from Kraków arrives, has the main museum building, the Arbeit Macht Frei gate, and indoor museum exhibits in former prison buildings. Birkenau is on a much bigger scale and mostly outdoors, with the infamous guard tower, a vast field with ruins of barracks, a few tourable rough barracks, the notorious "dividing platform," a giant monument flanked by remains of destroyed crematoria, and a prisoner processing facility called "the Sauna."

Site of Hitler's Bunker

A short walk from Berlin's Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe are the buried remains of the Führerbunker. Though this site is part of history, there really isn't much to see here beyond an information plaque placed near a parking lot — and that's on purpose: No one wants to turn Hitler's final stronghold into a tourist attraction.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

This Holocaust memorial, consisting of 2,711 gravestone-like pillars (called "stelae") and completed in 2005, was the first formal, German government-sponsored Holocaust memorial. The monument was criticized for focusing on just one of the groups targeted by the Nazis, but the German government has now erected memorials to other victims — such as a Roma/Sinti memorial nearby in the Tiergarten, and a memorial to the regime's homosexual victims, also nearby. The memorial itself is free and always open, but the information center underneath (also free) it is closed on Mondays.

Nazi Documentation Center (in Nürnberg)

This excellent museum meticulously traces the evolution of the National Socialist movement. Special attention is paid to Nürnberg's role in the Nazi movement, including the construction and use of the Rally Grounds, where Hitler's largest demonstrations took place. The museum is housed in one small wing of Hitler's cavernous, unfinished Congress Hall — the largest surviving example of Nazi architecture. The building was planned to host the mammoth annual Nazi Party gatherings. Today, it has been symbolically cut open by its modern entryway — exposing the guts and brains of the Nazi movement. Inside the museum, the exhibit is a one-way walk; allow at least two hours. WWII history buffs should allow an extra hour for the various 10-minute videos that play continuously throughout the exhibit, offering excellent insights into the mass hypnosis of the German nation. Exhibit descriptions are in German only, so the English audioguide is a must.


See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.

Hi I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the best of Europe — no, actually this time it's the worst of Europe. In this special episode, we'll travel together through Germany and learn from the hard lessons of fascism that this country from learned nearly a century ago and why it matters. Thanks for joining us.

As democracies are being threatened throughout the West by the rise of angry populist masses and wannabe autocrats, thoughtful travels reveal that history is speaking to us. Traveling through Germany today, you see many reminders of the rise and fall of Nazism and the devastation wrought by its fascist leader, Adolf Hitler.

In this episode, we'll travel to places that evoke those terrible times in Germany and see a few of the sights and memorials that recall that country's fascist nightmare. We'll learn how, in Germany, fascism rose and then fell — taking millions of people with it. Along the way, we'll learn from Germans whose families lived through those times…

Georg: See, you do not trust in anybody any longer, after the burning of books.

…and see how Germany guards against the rise of fascism again.

Throughout Germany we'll see sights related to fascism. We'll start where Hitler got his political start: Munich. Then we'll visit Nürnberg, the site of his notorious political rallies; Berchtesgaden, home of his getaway, the Eagle's Nest; and Berlin, the capital and site of German fascism's downfall.

In 1918, World War I ended, leaving 10 million dead and Europe in ruins. The chaotic aftermath of the war created fertile ground for the seeds of fascism. Nowhere was that more true than in defeated and devastated Germany.

After World War I, Germany was in a shambles. After a humiliating defeat and the loss of over two million men, they were forced by the Allies to pay costly war reparations. Their emperor had abdicated and was replaced by a weak democracy. The economy was terrible: Unemployment was high and inflation was out of control. Germans had no faith in their government to get society back on track.

In this vacuum of power, a fringe movement — claiming to be the champion of the oppressed — emerged. They dressed in intimidating brown-shirt uniforms, roamed the streets in gangs, and wanted to restore Germany's national pride. They called themselves the "National Socialists," or "Nazis." Their leader: Adolf Hitler.

Those early Nazis found a natural base here in Munich. While a pleasant and idyllic city today, this capital of Bavaria was known for its conservative and nationalistic passions. Nazi street gangs violently attacked unwanted outsiders: Jews and Communists.

In 1923, in a beer hall like this, the original Nazi leadership gathered their followers. They were impatient and eager to take power. Hitler waved his pistol in the air, and called for the revolution to begin.

Hitler led the ragtag revolutionaries in the beer hall into the streets of Munich, planning to overthrow the government.

But that attempted revolt, called the "Beer Hall Putsch," failed. After a bloody confrontation, the police crushed it here at Odeonsplatz. Hitler was arrested and sent to jail, and it seemed that Germany's fascist movement was finished before it got off the ground.

Unable to overthrow the government by force, Hitler resolved to take it by political means. While in prison, he wrote Mein Kampf (or "My Struggle"), which preaches his message of uniting all ethnic Germans and giving them more space to live.

Once out of prison, Hitler managed to take power within the existing political system. Shaping his National Socialist party into a political entity, he put forward a populist strategy: rousing a disillusioned workforce, reviving a struggling economy, and fixing what was considered a weak government.

At first, the boom times of the Roaring '20s blunted his populist message. But then the Great Depression hit in 1929, the working masses were angry again, and Hitler's promises gained traction. Fascism was now taking root in Germany.

Georg: So, Hitler promised jobs, jobs, jobs, to everybody, and of course people needed jobs.

Andreas: Hitler promised the people everything, everything they wanted. He promised them a bright future, he promised them work, he promised them Lebensraum — "living space"…

Hitler was a powerful, mesmerizing speaker.

Holger: People were taken by Hitler's speech — not so much by the beauty of his arguments, but by his shear fanaticism, by his anger, by his rage, and his repetitive rhetoric. And people — eyewitness accounts — would describe it as barbaric, primitive effect.

Andreas: He repeated a lie endlessly, and he didn't make it a small lie; he'd make a big lie and he kept hammering it into their heads. He also dumbed it down as much as possible.

His simplistic promises were made to order for his political base: more prosperity and expanded borders for more room in which to live, or Lebensraum.

Andreas: Fascism is perceived as a strong movement with simple answers for complicated problems.

He blamed Germany's problems on scapegoats — like Jews and Communists — and fears that the Communist Revolution in Russia would spread to Germany.

In 1932 the Nazi party won only about a third of the seats in parliament. But Hitler managed to put together a ruling coalition and was appointed Chancellor in January 1933. Suddenly Adolf Hitler was heading a new German government.

Then, just a few weeks into Hitler's rule, under mysterious circumstances, there was a fire in Germany's parliament building, or "Reichstag."

A disaster like this (which many historians believe was actually the work of Hitler's people), is an answer to an aspiring dictator's prayer. With this "national security emergency," Hitler now had his excuse to crush the Communists, silence moderates, and create laws giving him sweeping new powers. Suddenly, in Germany, there was no middle ground: You were either with Hitler…or against him. Hitler followed a playbook that has inspired autocrats — left and right — ever since.

Hitler proceeded to consolidate his power in the most ruthless ways. He locked up the few courageous politicians who voted against him and established his total control of the German government.

This poignant memorial remembers those who tried to resist Hitler's power grab. The German equivalent of congressmen and senators, they were silenced. You can see the dates they were arrested, sent to concentration camps, and executed.

Hitler had hijacked Germany's democracy. He was given extraordinary powers to temporarily suspend democratic procedures in order to get things done. A dictator now in charge of a mighty industrial nation, Hitler and his team began to lay out his plan for Germany and the world.

Inheriting a German economy suffering from the Great Depression, including an unemployment rate of nearly 30 percent, Hitler quickly turned to improving the economy. He accelerated the previous government's policy of large public works and infrastructure projects financed with deficit spending. As a result, employment increased dramatically from 1933 to 1936.

Despite this new focus on jobs, and the German worker, the Nazis had no use for labor unions.

Holger: Well, fascism basically hates everything communist — or "Bolshevik," as they called it — so they would not like trade unions. They were not within the frame of the fascist movement.

Andreas: One year into their government, they declared May Day a holiday for the first time; the unions celebrated…and the next day, when they were hung over, more or less, they smashed the unions.

Despite having the term "socialist" in the party name, Hitler was a friend of industry. He privatized many industries, and the corporations that had supported his candidacy continued to back him.

Andreas: Corporations would support the Nazi government of Germany because it was good for their profits.

With all this economic activity and employment, Hitler re-energized Germany.

Hitler:zwei Schichten kannte, den Bauer und den deutschen Arbeiter. ["…[I] knew two ranks: the German farmer and the German worker."]

Much of Germany was swept up in Hitler's charismatic vision and the country had a common purpose. Everywhere he went, crowds adored him. Women swooned when his car drove by. In clubs called the "Hitler Youth," boys and girls pledged their allegiance to him.

Andreas: A little boy in 1935, when he looked at Hitler, he would see a god-like person. He was somebody who would elevate the German people; he would elevate the people of this boy to become the perfect master race running the planet.

Hitler became known by a new title that meant he was their leader, their Führer.

Georg: The idea about fascism is to have a big community that all operates exactly the same way, and to have a common opinion that covers all.

Holger: There was one phrase that was called "Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer" — "one people, one empire, one leader." Full stop.

There was a dark side to all this Nazi conformity. Individuality was lost.

Georg: Individualism doesn't even exist in fascism. It doesn't exist in any aspect. It doesn't exist in art, it doesn't exist in lectures at university, it doesn't exist in newspapers, in [the] press…

For the Nazis, the city that most embodied their sense of national unity was Nürnberg. Nürnberg, so steeped in German history, was nicknamed the "most German of German cities." That's one reason it was a favorite of Hitler's to showcase his nationalistic pomp and pageantry…to inspire all of Germany to get on board.

There were three German Reichs, or empires. The first was medieval — it was called the "Holy Roman Empire." In fact, the emperor's castle still towers above Nürnberg. The Second Reich was 19th century — the creation of the modern German state by Prussia under the leadership of Bismarck. And it was here, in Nürnberg, that Hitler declared the Third Reich — a powerful German empire to last a thousand years.

When Hitler took power, he made Nürnberg's Zeppelin Field the site of his enormous Nazi Party rallies. Today, the stark remains of this massive gathering place are thought-provoking.

German tour guide Thomas Schmechtig is joining me for some insight.

For several years, increasingly elaborate celebrations of Nazi culture, ideology, and power took place right here.

Fascist dictators understood the propaganda power of big rallies, where they can manufacture the adoration of their people, bask in it, and then broadcast it to the rest of the population — as Hitler said, turning the "little man" into part of a "great dragon."

Thomas: Imagine, Hitler stepping out of that door, overlooking the masses — 200,000 people being lined up… He used propaganda to create a new community — in fact we even have a word for it: It's called "Volksgemeinschaft."

Inspirational images from Leni Riefenstahl's propaganda movie Triumph of the Will were filmed at the 1934 Nürnberg rallies, and then shown in theaters and schoolroom throughout the country. The goal? To bring a visual celebration of the power of the Nazi state to all 70 million Germans.

Nürnberg shows the enormous power of fascism's secret weapon: propaganda.

Looming over a now peaceful lake in Nürnberg is another remnant of the dictator's megalomania: his huge, yet unfinished, Nazi Congress Hall. Hitler, who believed he would create a new civilization based upon fascist values, modeled this building after the ancient Roman Colosseum…but [it's] even more colossal.

Thomas: Imagine — 50,000 leading Nazis in here. One third higher, covered by a roof; a window inside the ceiling; sunshine would have fallen down to the podium. Once a year, one speech, of Adolf Hitler.

Another stage set for this propaganda show was Hitler's mountain-capping Eagle's Nest. This alpine getaway, just south of Munich in Berchtesgaden, was used to soften Hitler's image against a majestic, almost theatrical backdrop.

His visits were lovingly filmed to show him as the embodiment of all that was good about Germany: healthy, vigorous, respectable…everyone's favorite uncle.

Set in the scenic foothills of the Alps, it was built in 1938 as a mountain retreat for Hitler and his guests. A stone tunnel, crafted with fascist precision, leads to Hitler's plush elevator, which still whisks visitors to the top. Because it was in this corner of Bavaria that Hitler claimed to be inspired and laid out his dark vision, some call Berchtesgaden "the cradle of the Third Reich."

Hitler may have stoked Germany's economy and put people back to work. But it was becoming clear that, whatever benefits fascism might bring to its political base, it had a darker side — and it came at a huge cost. Despite its veneer of respectability, and its popularity among ordinary people, the thriving fascist state relied on increasingly brutal repression.

Hitler continued his ruthless creation of a totalitarian fascist state. The free press was silenced, as were intellectuals and universities.

Art was expected to be naturalistic, and depict wholesome, blond, blue-eyed Germans.

Books that caused people to question the Nazi agenda were forbidden…and publicly burned with delight by Hitler's supporters.

Georg: If you have some books, titles, of those books that were burnt the night before, and you invite some people, they can argue against because you have those books in your private library, and even your roommate has an argument against you. You do not trust anybody any longer after the burning of books. One famous German writer and author said, "Once you're burning books, very soon you are going to burn people."

Artifacts and posters in Berlin's German Historical Museum illustrate the Nazi notion of a master race.

Artifacts and posters illustrate the Nazi notion of a master race. Anyone who didn't fit into their model could be viewed as an enemy of the state, and sent to concentration camps. The Nazis required those they imprisoned to wear badges that identified their status: Political traitor, law-breaker, foreigner, homosexual, and a catchall, "Asocial" — [for] anyone who would not conform. A special badge, the yellow Star of David, went to Hitler's lowest of the low: the Jews.

Andreas: The Nazis believed that the German people were the "master race" — the toughest, the strongest, the bravest, the smartest. They said, "We should be running the planet; we just can't do it because of the conspiracy, the Jewish 'world conspiracy,' is in the way. And without them, if we deal with that conspiracy, then we will achieve our rightful status again.

The Nazis started putting their anti-Semitic ideas into action as early as April of 1933, when they organized a boycott of Jewish businesses.

Andreas: He specifically blamed one group, the Jewish people, for ruining things for everybody else.

Holger: For him, it was clear his scapegoat was the Jews. They were the source of all evil in Germany, and in the world, and he wanted to kind of get rid of that evil, and that's what he worked for.

Then in November of 1938 the Nazis led a pogrom against Jews throughout Germany. During Kristallnacht, or the "Night of Broken Glass," as it was called, Jewish homes, hospitals, and schools were ransacked. Seven thousand Jewish businesses were damaged or destroyed, and over a thousand synagogues were burned. And 30,000 Jews were arrested and put in concentration camps. This was a turning point from earlier economic, political, and social persecution to physical beatings, incarceration, and even murder. It was the beginning of Hitler's "Final Solution."

Today, Berlin's Topography of Terror exhibit stands on the rubble of what was once the most feared address in Berlin: the headquarters of the Gestapo secret police and the elite SS force. It was from here that government employees managed the Nazi state and dispassionately coordinated its most ruthless activities. The efficient and heartless bureaucracy behind Hitler's crimes gave rise to the expression "the banality of evil."

Fascism in Germany turned ever more hateful, and militaristic. And fascism in Italy, [under Benito Mussolini, had been firmly rooted since the 1920s. Italian fascism practiced similar militaristic and expansionist policies. Peace in Europe was under threat, and war seemed inevitable.

In 1939, Germany invaded Poland, and World War II began. The military might of Germany seemed unstoppable. Employing their fast, "lighting war" technique called "Blitzkreig," Hitler's mighty tanks and high-tech air force, the Luftwaffe, swept across Europe. France fell quickly, and suddenly Hitler was playing tourist at the Eiffel Tower. Soon, nearly all of the Continent was under direct or indirect fascist rule. With their "Final Victory" seemingly inevitable, the Nazis tightened the screws within their own society.

The evils of fascism were incremental. As its small evils became big evils, German society managed to be oblivious to its own atrocities. At first, concentration camps contained people who didn't conform. Then, they became forced labor camps. Eventually, the Nazis built death camps — which were located outside of Germany and therefore farther from public view. With what the Nazis called the "Final Solution," the entire Jewish population was targeted for extermination.

In total, approximately six million Jews died from Nazi persecution. 2.7 million of those died in death camps.

Auschwitz-Birkenau, in Poland, was the biggest and most notorious concentration camp in the Nazi system. Seeing the camp can be difficult. But Auschwitz survivors want tourists to come here, to try to appreciate the scale and the monstrosity of the place in human terms, in hopes that this horror, known as the Holocaust, will never be forgotten.

To finally defeat fascism — the alliance of Hitler and Mussolini — it took a massive and heroic allied effort led by Britain, America, and the Soviet Union.

Germany was overwhelmed as the combined military might of the Allies closed in on the Third Reich. Finally, the Nazi capital of Berlin was liberated by Soviet troops.

And Hitler finished his life here in Berlin. Deep underground in a bunker below my feet, with his capital smoldering in ruins, the dictator committed suicide. Finally, in the spring of 1945, the war in Europe ended.

The death toll was staggering. In addition to six million Jews the Nazis killed hundreds of thousands of so-called "undesirables," over a million political and religious prisoners, and nearly nine million Soviet and Polish civilians.

Europe's experiment with fascism left the Continent devastated, with entire societies needing to be rebuilt. Germany had to be reconstructed inside and out.

The sweeping impact of fascism can be felt to this day in the many memorials across Europe that remind us of those horrific years.

In Berlin, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is a touching and evocative field of gravestone-like pillars. It's designed to cause people to think and to ponder this horrible chapter in human history.

A common refrain at many of these memorials is, "Never Again." But even today, in well-established democracies throughout the West, societies are facing many of the same emotions, frustrations, and inequities that, a century ago, opened the door to fascism in Europe.

Holger: If I ask myself "could it happen again?" I would say no…but it has happened in Germany, and it might happen again.

Georg: Fascism happened here in Germany, the center of civilization, in the land of Beethoven, Goethe, and Schiller. And if it could have happened here, it can happen anywhere in the world.

Today Germany deals responsibly with the legacy of pain it brought Europe. Germany knows the importance of a well-informed electorate. Every school child learns of the Holocaust with a visit to a concentration camp. Nazi documentation centers in major cities [such as Nürnberg's, shown here] tell the story.

But perhaps most important is the preservation of government by the constitution and the rule of law, and not by the dictates of a charismatic all-powerful leader.

Andreas: One of the things that you can do to make sure that something like this will not happen here or in other countries is not trust people that promise you very easy answers for very complicated problems. It never works.

As we've seen through the story of fascism in Germany, a charismatic leader rose to power through the democratic process, and then seized extra-constitutional power by unlawful means. When citizens allowed leaders to do this, individual freedoms and rights soon fell by the wayside, and democracy was lost. While democracy was restored to Western Europe, it easily could have been lost forever — and the cost was millions of lives. As history continues to unfold around us today, it's important to remember that freedom and democracy are not guaranteed. We are all participants, and we are all responsible.

The story of fascism in Europe has taught us that strong and charismatic leaders can capitalize on fear to lead a society astray. Democracy is fragile. It requires a vigilant and engaged populace. And if you take freedom for granted, you can lose it. Thanks for joining us. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, travel thoughtfully.