In 1933, a totalitarian regime came to power in Germany with the consent of at least a substantial minority of the German people. Its Nazi ideology was rooted in fanatic racism and resentment over recent history. Hitler and those around him preached that it was the destiny of the German race to dominate Europe and exterminate the Jews. One of the Nazis’ most bitter enemies from the beginning was a rival regime — the Soviet Union — whose ideology was rooted in class rather than race but was equally totalitarian.
Shortly after they came to power, the Nazis began a major arms buildup, in violation of their international treaty obligations. They enhanced their control of the instruments of power in German society by creating two new organizations, the SA and the SS, which took over many of the roles of the police and the military, dominating the streets and infiltrating the armed forces. They sought to subvert neighboring countries by using their intelligence service to encourage support for their regime among, for example, the Sudeten Germans in Czechoslovakia.
German society was by no means monolithic in its support of the Nazis, particularly at first. Certain groups of clerics and segments of the Prussian officer corps were opposed to Nazi rule; it was from these latter circles that the nearly successful plot to assassinate Hitler came in the early 1940s. Intellectuals, student groups such as the White Rose, and much of organized labor also opposed the Nazis for some time.
But three important factors led the Nazi leadership to believe by 1938–39 that it was free to begin the Holocaust and its conquest of Europe.
First, their arms buildup had been successful. Not effectively constrained by either the arms-control agreements or the other international pledges of the era, such as the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact, which outlawed war, the German buildup had been relentless and effective, as the country’s Panzer divisions and dive bombers quickly showed. Further, in no small part because of their rearmament, Germany’s leaders were able to convince the Soviets in 1939 that it was in the latter’s interest to join them in the Hitler-Stalin Pact, an alliance that astounded the world. And although it was less than two years before the Nazis invaded their totalitarian rival and temporary ally, the pact enabled Germany to conquer most of Europe.