How Hitler Happened: 36 Photos That Explain The Nazis’ Rise

Published October 18, 2017
Updated October 6, 2020

Chilling images that reveal how and why the Nazis came to power.

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How Hitler Happened: 36 Photos That Explain The Nazis’ Rise
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There's perhaps no more well-trodden scholarly ground than that which seeks to explain the rise to power of Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist German Workers' Party in Germany following the devastation of World War I. It's the ultimate cautionary tale, and generations of historians and journalists have treated it accordingly, exploring it from every conceivable angle in exhaustive detail.

That's why looking back on original reporting from the era is a balm, of sorts, but also deeply unsettling in its unconcerned take on Hitler's rise. Four American reporters, for example, won the Pulitzer Prize in the 1930s for their work covering the rapid ascent of the Nazis, and it's invaluable as a barometer of the often nonchalant U.S. attitude toward Hitler and his followers at the time.

Edgar A. Mowrer was one of those reporters. Writing a German election preview story in the Chicago Daily News on July 30, 1932, Mowrer reported, without condemnation or comment from any opposing party, that Hitler wanted an "empire based on his own mystical knowledge of the superiority of the Germans and the Aryan race." Mowrer noted sagely that "Hitler is not an intellectual genius, but he has a formidable instinct for politics."

(The casual tone is shocking, but common for American newspapers at the time. Twelve days before Germany invaded Poland in 1939, The New York Times published a now-infamous puff piece about the Fuhrer's fondness for gooseberry pie, his love of orphans, and his exquisite taste in interior design. Needless to say, it did not earn a Pulitzer, or any other prize.)

While Mowrer's lack of alarm seems odd to modern readers, his tone was suitable for the work at hand, knowing what he and the rest of the world knew about Hitler at the time. It wasn't Mowrer's duty to forecast the situation, and he didn't try.

On the other hand, Dr. Emil Lengyel, a professor of social sciences at New York University and an authority on matters related to central Europe, like many academics of his day, did make a few predictions about Hitler and the Nazis before they showed their true colors — and they're chilling to read today due to just how wrong they are.

In 1932, three months after Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, Lengyel told Every Week Magazine that the future Fuhrer was a "first class agitator" but lacked vision, among other eerily inaccurate prognostications:

"That he may have, or suddenly develop as he progresses, certain hidden powers is not beyond the realm of possibility. But I doubt it. He is, perhaps, the best speaker of Germany and he has a certain animal vitality that carries people off their feet, but he does not seem to have the power to think things out to their logical conclusion or to lay wise long-range plans of national scope."

The gallery above is a visual record of the rise of the Nazi Party, a rise unforeseen by even Lengyel and his ilk and chronicled in brave reporting by Mowrer and his peers.

These chilling images date from the post-World War I days when Germany was punished by the Allies that helped cause the economic collapse and homelessness of the Weimar Republic and the Great Depression, finally leading to Hitler's ascendancy in his horrific, full-color glory in the pages of TIME, on the verge of World War II, before the true horror of his "long-range plans" were finally exposed.

Still curious? Read about the drug that fueled the Nazis' rise and fall. Want to learn more? Explore the election of 1932 and how Hitler convinced Germany to vote for Fascism.

Kellen Perry
Kellen Perry is a veteran writer on topics including television, history, music, art, video games, and food. His work has also appeared on Grunge, Ranker, and Looper.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.