The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank Study Guide

Anne's diary was written during the years 1942-1944. These years were the toughest times of World War II in Europe. To make sense of World War II, one must begin with the aftermath of World War I and the Versailles Treaty of 1919.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the German empire was one of the most powerful in Europe. Following its collapse (and the abdication of the German Kaiser) after Germany's defeat in World War One, a group of politicians in Berlin proclaimed a German republic. They represented the new nation at the peace negotiations in Versailles, and were shocked to realize that they would not be allowed to frame the negotiations at all. Instead, the victorious Allied powers--including England, France, Italy, and the United States--submitted the final treaty to Germany and informed them that if they did not sign, Germany would be invaded. The treaty placed sole responsibility for the war on Germany, stripped much German territory, and levied heavy reparations on the Republic. The result within Germany was widespread humiliation, anger at the politicians who had signed the treaty, and runaway inflation during the 1920s as Germany struggled to raise money for war reparations.

During the 1920s, multiple German political parties sprang up in the hopes of destroying the republic and the hated Versailles treaty. One of those parties was the National Socialist German Workers Party--also known as the Nazi party. In the beginning, the Nazi party appealed to unemployed workers and disaffected youth with the promise of wealth redistribution and full employment through the workings of a totalitarian state. The man who rose to power the party in 1921 was an Austrian named Adolf Hitler.

Under Hitler's influence, the Nazi party became less about socialism and more about race hatred. He quickly mastered the art of whipping up crowds by blaming someone for their troubles--radicals, Slavs (who he considered a race fit only for slavery to the "master race"), foreigners and Jews. He developed a special hatred for the latter, calling them an alien race responsible for the production of all the things that had "infected" German society: Communism, inflation, Christianity. In contrast, he obsessed over the idea of a "master" Aryan race. Germans, he claimed, were the strongest and most genetically pure people in the world. All other races were merely there to serve them. And their territory, he believed, they should forfeit to the German master race.

At first, the Nazis were small and relatively ineffectual. But after worldwide depression in 1929 began to weaken Germany, people began to listen to Hitler. He eventually developed a following so large that in 1933, the president of the republic, Paul von Hindenburg, appointed Hitler Chancellor of Germany. From this position Hitler bullied the other, weak members of the government until they all dissolved, granting him total power. He established a totalitarian state and ruled by decree. Propaganda flooded the country. All political parties other than the Nazis were outlawed, and all civic institutions--churches, youth leagues, the press--were made tools of the state. To enforce his power, Hitler used teams of secret police called the Gestapo. Members of the Gestapo were well-schooled in physical, emotional, and psychological torture and did not hesitate to use any or all methods.

In September 1939 Hitler launched the war he had been planning for a long time. The German army crushed Poland first, then went on to Denmark and Norway. England and France declared war, realizing that appeasement would not stop Hitler this time. But for a while, the result of the war was victory after victory for Germany. On May 10, 1940, Hitler switched his attention to the west, and quickly conquered Holland, Belgium, and in June, France. The British had messed up their attack in Dunkirk and went home to withstand, miraculously, a sustained program of German bombs meant to floor them into submission. In June 1941, Hitler had conquered most of Europe, and turned to the Soviet Union. Breaking the non-aggression pact he had signed with Stalin in 1939, Hitler attacked the Soviets relentlessly.

Everywhere he went, Hitler's army spread the poison of anti-Semitism and race hatred. Hitler implemented anti-Jewish pogroms in all occupied countries. Among other notorious rules, Jews were not allowed to marry or work with non-Jews. They were forced to wear a yellow star in public, so they could be recognized by German police and non-Jews. They were segregated into their own schools, businesses, and neighborhoods, and they were banned from many professions and public facilities. In addition to persecuting the Jews, Hitler's Germany also persecuted the non-Jewish citizens of every country they went into. Work camps made thousands of people virtual slaves. The German police had the rights of life and death over the populations they oversaw. Imprisonment and torture were commonplace for everyone who did not agree with the German program.

For the Jews, Hitler implemented his "final solution"--exterminating them, as if they were vermin. In addition to the German police, who murdered Jewish civilians in occupied territories, millions of Jews were rounded up and sent to concentration camps in Poland and Germany. The prisoners were worked to exhaustion and then gassed, shot, or left to die from one of the diseases that often ran rampant through the camps. Over six million Jews were eventually killed by the Nazi regime by the end of World War Two. It is estimated that another six million civilians--especially Slavs--were killed under the Nazi regime as well.

This is the climate Anne Frank's diary was written in. She knew that if her family was captured by the Nazis, they too would be sent away to a camp for death. Still, she managed to keep her eyes on the business of growing up and looking for the good in human beings.