In Nazi terminology, Gleichschaltung ( [ˈɡlaɪçʃaltʊŋ]), was the process of Nazification by which Nazi Germany successively established a system of totalitarian control and coordination over all aspects of society, "from the economy and trade associations to the media, culture and education".
The apex of the Nazification of Germany was in the resolutions approved during the Nuremberg Rally of 1935, when the symbols of the Party and the State were fused (see Flag of Germany) and the German Jews were deprived of citizenship (see Nuremberg Laws), paving the way for the Holocaust.
The Nazis used the word Gleichschaltung for the process of successively establishing a system of totalitarian control and coordination over all aspects of society. It has been variously "translated" as Nazification of state and society, synchronization, bringing into line, and co-ordination, but the German word is often left as a cultural term in English texts.
The period from 1933 to 1937 was characterized by the systematic elimination of non-Nazi organizations that could potentially influence people, such as trade unions and political parties. Those critical of Hitler's agenda were suppressed, intimidated or murdered. The regime also assailed the influence of the churches, for example by instituting the Ministry of Ecclesiastical Affairs under Hanns Kerrl. Organizations that the administration could not eliminate, such as the education system, came under its direct control.
The Gleichschaltung also included the formation of various organisations with compulsory membership for segments of the population, in particular the youth. Boys first served as apprentices in the Pimpfen (cubs), beginning at the age of six, and at age ten, entered the Deutsches Jungvolk (Young German Boys) and served there until entering the Hitler Youth proper at age fourteen. Boys remained there until age eighteen, at which time they entered into the Arbeitsdienst (Labor Service) and the armed forces. Girls became part of the Jungmädel (Young Maidens) at age ten and at age fourteen were enrolled in the Bund Deutscher Mädel (League of German Maidens). At eighteen, BDM members went generally to the eastern territory for their Pflichtdienst, or Landjahr, a year of labor on a farm. In 1936 membership in the Hitler Youth numbered just under six million.
For workers, an all-embracing recreational organization called Kraft durch Freude (Strength through Joy) under the German Labor Front (DAF) was set up. In Nazi Germany, even hobbies were regimented, and all private clubs (whether they be for chess, football, or woodworking) were brought under the control of KdF and the Nazi Party. The Kraft durch Freude organization provided vacation trips (skiing, swimming, concerts and ocean cruises). With some 25 million members, KdF was the largest of the many organizations established by the Nazis. Workers were also brought in line with the party, through activities such as the Reichsberufswettkampf, a national vocational competition.
Joseph Goebbels said: "The best propaganda is that which, as it were, works invisibly, penetrates the whole of life without the public having any knowledge of the propagandistic initiative", further claiming on another occasion that "Good propaganda does not need to lie, indeed it may not lie. It has no reason to fear the truth. It is a mistake to believe that the people cannot take the truth. They can. It is only a matter of presenting the truth to people in a way that they will be able to understand."
In a more specific sense, Gleichschaltung refers to the legal measures taken by the government during the 20 months following 30 January 1933, when Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. It was in this sense that the term was used by the Nazis themselves.
- One day after the Reichstag fire on 27 February 1933, President of Germany Paul von Hindenburg, acting at Hitler's request and on the basis of the emergency powers in article 48 of the Weimar Constitution, issued the Reichstag Fire Decree. This decree suspended most citizen rights provided for by the constitution and thus allowed for the arrest of political adversaries, mostly Communists, and for terrorizing of other electors by the SA (the Nazi paramilitary force) before the upcoming election.
- In this atmosphere the Reichstag general election of 5 March 1933 took place. The Nazis had hoped to win an outright majority and push aside their coalition partners, the German National People's Party. However, the Nazis won only 43 percent of the vote, well short of a majority. The Nazi-DNVP coalition did enjoy a slim majority, just enough to conduct the ordinary business of government.A state election was held in Prussia at the same time, which produced a similar result.
- When the newly elected Reichstag first convened on 23 March 1933—not including the Communist delegates because their party had been banned on 6 March—it passed the Enabling Act (Ermächtigungsgesetz). This law gave the government—in practice, Hitler—the right to make laws without the involvement of the Reichstag. For all intents and purposes, the entire Weimar constitution was rendered void. Soon afterwards the government banned the Social Democratic Party, which had voted against the Act. By midsummer, the other parties had been intimidated into dissolving themselves rather than face arrests and concentration camp imprisonment and all non-Nazi ministers of the coalition government had been compelled to resign their posts.
- The "First Gleichschaltung Law" (Erstes Gleichschaltungsgesetz, 31 March 1933), the first passed using the Enabling Act, dissolved the diets of all Länder except the recently-elected Prussian parliament, which the Nazis already controlled. The same law ordered the state diets reconstituted on the basis of the votes in the last Reichstag election (with the exception of Communist seats), and also gave the state governments the same powers the Reich government possessed under the Enabling Act.
- A "Second Gleichschaltung Law" (Zweites Gleichschaltungsgesetz, 7 April 1933) deployed one Reichsstatthalter (Reich Governor) in each state, apart from Prussia. These officers, responsible to Interior Minister Wilhelm Frick, were supposed to act as local proconsuls in each state, with near-complete control over the state governments. For Prussia, which in any event constituted the bulk of Germany, Hitler reserved these rights for himself and delegated them to Prussian minister-president Hermann Göring. This law effectively defederalized the Reich for the first time ever.
- The trade union association ADGB (Allgemeiner Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund) was shattered on 2 May 1933 (the day after Labour Day), when ADGB leaders were imprisoned and SA and NSBO units occupied union facilities. Other important associations, including trade unions, were dissolved and replaced by the German Labor Front (German: Deutsche Arbeitsfront—DAF), to which all workers had to belong.
- The Gesetz gegen die Neubildung von Parteien ("Law against the establishment of political parties") (14 July 1933) declared the Nazi Party to be the country's only legal party. However, for all practical purposes Germany had been a one-party state since the passage of the Enabling Act.
- The Nazis called parliamentary elections for November 12, 1933. Since the Nazi Party was the sole legal party in Germany, voters were presented with a single list containing Nazis and 22 pro-Nazi "guests." Furthermore, to whip up nationalist sentiment in the run up to the vote, the Nazis intentionally timed the election to coincide with the fifteenth anniversary of the Armistice. Compelled to vote in far from secret circumstances, 92.1% the electorate voted in favour of the Nazi list, thereby formally replacing the Reichstag elected eight months earlier with a rubberstamp legislature. A referendum on German withdrawal from the League of Nations was held on the same day under the same circumstances, and passed with 95.1% support.
- The Law concerning the reconstruction of the ‘Reich’ (Gesetz über den Neuaufbau des Reiches) (30 January 1934) formally did away with the concept of a federal republic, converting Germany into a highly centralized state. The states were reduced to mere provinces, as their institutions were practically abolished altogether. All of their powers passed to the central government. It can be argued that this law violated the Enabling Act, since it effectively neutered the Reichsrat, the representation of the Länder at the federal level. Article 2 of the Enabling Act stated that the institutions of both legislative chambers could not be altered. A law passed on 14 February formally abolished the Reichsrat. This law indisputably violated the Enabling Act, since Article 2 explicitly protected the existence of both chambers. However, there was no remedy for violations of Article 2, and no challenge was ever mounted in court.
- In the summer of 1934 Hitler instructed the SS to kill Ernst Röhm and other leaders of the Nazi party's SA, former Chancellor Kurt von Schleicher and several aides to former Chancellor Franz von Papen in the so-called Night of the Long Knives (between 30 June and 2 July 1934). These measures received retroactive sanction in a special one-article Law Regarding Measures of State Self-Defense (Gesetz über Maßnahmen der Staatsnotwehr) (3 July 1934).
- The Law Concerning the Highest State Office of the Reich (1 August 1934) prescribed that upon the death of the incumbent president, that office would be merged with the office of the chancellor, and that the competencies of the former should be transferred to the "Führer und Reichskanzler Adolf Hitler", as the law stated. Hindenburg died at nine o'clock the next morning, making Hitler head of state as well as head of government. Like the law abolishing the Reichsrat, this law actually violated the Enabling Act, which specifically forbade Hitler from tampering with the presidency. Additionally, in 1932 the constitution had been amended to make the president of the High Court of Justice, not the chancellor, acting president pending new elections. However, no one raised any objections. This law abolished the last remedy by which Hitler could be legally dismissed—and with it the last check on his power. The changes were ratified by the electorate in a referendum held on August 19 and conducted in a similar manner to the vote of November 1933 - albeit with a slightly reduced majority (88.1% in favour). From this point onward, Hitler can be described as the absolute dictator of Germany until his suicide in 1945.