This is a reprint of an article by Professor Gerhard Rempel,
who was Professor of History at Western New England College, Springfield, Massachusetts.
The Beer Hall Putsch and Hitler's subsequent imprisonment proved a significant turning point in his career. Hitler saw clearly the need for a change of tactics. The Nazis could not achieve power by a frontal assault on the Weimar Republic, but would have to work within constitutional or legal means. This meant the creation of a mass political party that would actively compete for votes with the other political parties in Weimar Germany. Hitler, having regained faith in himself and ever the opportunist, guided the Nazi party through this transformation.
By 1932, the NSDAP had become the largest party in the German Reichstag. Even so, it failed to achieve a majority in the Reichstag, frustrating Hitler's wish to become chancellor. However, conservative and reactionary groups, who favored the restoration of an authoritarian system, made possible the appointment of Hitler as chancellor. Once in office, the Nazis established dictatorial control over Germany within a remarkably short time.
Disillusioned by the weakness of the Bavarian authorities, he became convinced that he alone would have to lead the national revolution, that it no longer sufficed to play the role of "drummer" for nationalist forces in Bavaria. The German army would have to be courted more carefully and subtly. Its opposition had meant certain failure for the putsch. If the Nazis had any hope of gaining power, it would have to be with the support or, at least, the neutrality of the army. Most important, Hitler perceived that he and the Nazis would have to seek power by legal or pseudolegal means, within the framework of the Weimar political system. Once in power, the Nazis could dismantle the republic by using the agencies of the state itself The Nazi national revolution could then be established.
The most immediate and tangible result of Hitler's stay in prison was the first volume of Mein Kampf (My Struggle). (Volume Two was completed in 1926.) Rudolf Hess, one of Hitler's most devoted followers, had voluntarily joined his leader in prison and served as his secretary. Hitler began his book by creating an official Nazi version of the Beer Hall Putsch. The fiasco was transformed into a myth of the revolutionary hero Hitler leading his band of dedicated followers, who wanted only "the resurrection of their people." Those who had fallen in the streets of Munich were heroes and martyrs for the Nazi movement and the German nation. This revolutionary event was later remembered each year in a commemorative ceremony in Munich on November 9.
As historians have pointed out, the only originality in Mein Kampf is Hitler's discussion of effective methods of propaganda, mass psychology, and mass organization of peoples. What is remarkable about Mein Kampf, however, is Hitler's elaboration of a set of ideas that would guide his actions once he achieved power. That others failed to take Hitler and his ideas seriously was one of his greatest advantages over his opponents. However crackpot those ideas may have been, it was Hitler who brought them to their frightening logical fruition in the Third Reich.
Although Hitler quickly reestablished his control over the party in Munich and in Bavarian districts outside of Munich, he was faced with opposition to his rule from other parts of the party, especially in northern and western Germany. Gregor Strasser had been especially important in securing the growth of the Nazi party in the north and west. Gregor and his brother Otto tended to take the socialist part of the Nazi program seriously and especially hoped to obtain support for the party from the working classes in western and northern Germany. Late in 1925, a group of party leaders from the north and west formed the National Socialist Working Association with Gregor Strasser as director and Joseph Goebbels, an intellectual and unsuccessful novelist, as secretary.
This group differed from Hitler and the Munich party leadership on four issues. They objected to the control and domination of the party by the Munich leaders, especially the unsavory Julius Streicher and Hermann Esser. They supported the Socialist demand for the expropriation of the property of the royal princes. Hitler labeled this demand a Jewish swindle, fearing that the party's support from businessmen would be harmed if it pushed the expropriation bill in the Reichstag. The Working Association also opposed participation in election campaigns and favored instead the use of strikes by the urban masses, another reflection of its socialist orientation. Goebbels, in fact, had even called for the expulsion of the "petty bourgeois Adolf Hitler" from the party. Finally, the actions of the Working Association implied that regional party organizations should participate in the framing of major lines of policy. Hitler, on the contrary, believed that discussion of any of the policies within the party's program, the 25 Points of 1920, would encourage doctrinal disputes within the party, endanger party unity, and impede the ability of the party leader to act as needed for the good of the party. The Working Association posed a threat both to Hitler's leadership as the ultimate source of authority and to the Munich leadership of the party.
Hitler realized he had to move decisively. He called a meeting of party leaders in the city of Bamberg on February 14, 1926. He spoke for five hours and emerged victorious. He denounced the expropriation of the princes' property, disagreed with the opening to the left, and refused to allow any tampering with the twenty-five-point program of 1920. The program of 1920, Hitler said, "was the foundation of our religion, our ideology. To tamper with it would constitute treason to those who died believing in our Idea."
This success was followed by a number of measures designed to reinforce Hitler's sole control over the party. In May 1926, at a national membership meeting, the NSDAP program was declared unchangeable. Other party meetings outlawed working associations, such as that of Strasser and Goebbels. Further centralization of the party was achieved when local Nazi groups were ordered to gain approval from party headquarters before making any local changes, and local committees on propaganda were instructed to report to and receive instructions from the Munich leadership. Party tribunals known as Uschla were established in 1926 under Hitler's direction to adjudicate internal party differences. Since the Uschla judges were appointees loyal to Hitler, this new organization gave him the opportunity to control the party without direct involvement. Uschla could expel individuals or even entire local groups from the party.
Joseph Goebbels, whom
Hitler recognized as a man of considerable talent, was completely won over
to Hitler's side. Hitler gave him the important position of regional party
leader in Berlin in November 1926. Goebbels responded to Hitler's personal
attention with great joy, as expressed in his diary:
We drive to Hitler. He is having his meal. He jumps to his feet, there he is. Shakes my hand. Like an old friend. And those big blue eyes. Like stars. He is glad to see me. I am in heaven.... I arrive. Hitler is there. Great joy. He greets me like an old friend. And looks after me. How I love him! What a fellow! And he tells stories the whole evening. I could go on listening forever. A small meeting. He asks me to speak first. Then he speaks. How small I am! He gives me his photograph. With greetings from the Rhineland. Heil Hitler! ... I want Hitler to be my friend. His photograph is on my desk. I could not bear it if I had to despair of this man.
Goebbels submitted to the Hitler cult with extreme emotionalism. But he was intelligent and clever enough to realize that his future with the party was more secure with Hitler than with anyone else.
In July 1926 in Weimar,
the NSDAP held its first party congress since the Beer Hall Putsch. It was
apparent that the party was now unified under the control of Adolf Hitler
and the Munich party branch. All final decision-making powers rested in
Hitler's hands. His position was clear, and he wanted no discussion of ideas
in the party: "A good National Socialist is one who would let himself be
killed for his Fuehrer at any time. The party had established the
Fuehrerpinzip, the leader principle. It was a single-minded party under one
leader and only one leader. Even Gregor Strasser, after the Bamberg meeting,
had hailed Hitler as the outstanding leader to whom party members would be
loyal until death.
Hitler was not dismayed by the return to stability in Germany. He did not believe it would last and worked to establish a highly structured party that could compete in elections throughout Germany and attract new recruits when another time of troubles arose. The organization of the Nazi party was established on a regional basis. Germany was divided into regions called Gaue. At the head of each Gau stood a Gauteiter, or regional party leader. Originally, Gauleiter owed their position to their superior effectiveness in their regions. But after 1926, they were officially appointed by Hitler and served as executive agents for their districts. Basically, Gauleiter became bureaucratic agents subject to control by Hitler and the party leadership in Munich. The physical size of the Gaue was originally determined by circumstances peculiar to each district, but in 1928, the Gaue were reorganized to correspond more closely to the thirty-five Reichstag electoral districts.
Each Gau was divided into smaller units known as Kreise (districts) under the control of Kreisleiter (district leaders). These units were subdivided into Ortsgruppen (local branches or chapters) led by Ortsgruppenteiter (branch or chapter leaders). At least fifteen members were required to form a local branch. Local branches were responsible to district leaders, who in turn were responsible to regional leaders. Although the various administrative units of the Nazi party were allowed some freedom to exploit issues unique to their areas, they were supposed to be totally obedient to the policies established by Hitler and the Munich leadership. The Uschla, the party court system, gave the leadership the means to expel members and thus enforce obedience to a rigid authoritarian order.
By 1929, the NSDAP had created a national party organization. The party itself had experienced considerable growth since being refounded by Hitler in 1925. In that year the party had 27,000 members, slightly less than half of its membership in 1923. After a modest expansion to 35,000 members in 1926, the party grew to 75,000 in 1927 and 108,000 in 1929. The regional, district, and branch leaders of the Nazi organization were relatively young men, mostly between twenty-five and thirty-five, who had been uprooted after the war from normal family ties and jobs. They were committed to Hitler as their leader because he gave them the kind of active politics they wanted. Instead of democratic debate they favored brawls in beer halls and in the streets, enthusiastic speeches, and comradeship in a struggle on behalf of a new Germany. One new, young Nazi member expressed his participation in the party in these words:
Such enthusiasm created tremendous dynamism for the party when turned against Nazi opponents.
But this energy could also result in passionate internal conflicts resulting in struggles for leadership positions. As a dedicated believer in struggle and the victory of the fittest, Hitler rarely interfered in leadership conflicts. For him, the strongest and hence best leaders would emerge as the victors. When party conflict got out of control and created chaos, then Hitler and the Munich leadership would intervene. In 1926, disintegration of the Berlin and Hamburg parties led to the replacement of the Gauleiter there by Joseph Goebbels and Albert Krebs, respectively. Goebbels proved especially competent in transforming the energy that had created internal chaos into a dynamic movement against the Communists.
As part of the Nazi party's organizational overhaul, the SA was refounded in the fall of 1926 under a new leader, Franz Pfeffer von Salomon. In reestablishing the SA, Hitler stressed that it was no longer connected to any other paramilitary group, that it was, in fact, not a pseudomilitary force, but an instrument of propaganda and strong-arm tactics led by the party. Its function was to make war on Marxism and Jewry by mass demonstrations and the conquest of the streets. The growth of the SA made it useful for campaigns of terror and propaganda, especially in the cities. But Hitler feared it could get out of control, which might lead the government to ban the party again. Responding to these fears, Hitler appointed himself supreme leader of the SA in 1930 and recalled Hitler addressing the SA, the paramilitary unit of the Nazi party.
In 1925 and 1926 an elite group known as the SS (Schutzstaffeln) was established within the SA for special duties. It remained insignificant until Heinrich Himmler was appointed its leader in 1929.
In addition to its paramilitary forces, the NSDAP established a series of auxiliary organizations in the late 1920s. For the young there were the Hitler Youth, the Student League, and the Pupils' League. Professional groups, such as teachers, lawyers, and doctors, had their own auxiliary units. The National Socialist Women's League offered female supporters some involvement in a predominantly male party. With its numerous auxiliary organizations the Nazi party created an all-inclusive movement that met the needs of many different groups.
Moreover, various departments with specific responsibilities were created within the party. The Reich Directorate had overall administrative responsibility for the party. Departments were created for such areas as foreign policy, the press, labor, agriculture, the economy, the interior, and justice. These departments virtually constituted a miniature state bureaucracy within the Nazi party itself, making it, in Hitler's words, "the germ of the future state." This party bureaucracy, then, not only gave Hitler a powerful instrument for controlling the party but also created a shadow government that could govern the state when the Nazis achieved power.
During these years of
organization new party trappings were likewise instituted. The outraised-arm
salute, an imitation of Mussolini's practice, was introduced. Increased use
was made of special uniforms and titles. And in 1927 the annual party rally
was held in Nuremberg for the first time. This city was one of the party's
substantial growth areas, and as the center of the medieval German Reich it
had a rich historical tradition that helped to root Nazism in the German
This pro-working-class strategy had other repercussions. It led many middle-class Germans to see the NSDAP as a socialist working-class party. It alienated business leaders, whose subsequent withdrawal of financial support created money problems for the party. For a while, the Nazis were forced to rely upon members' dues, contributions at rallies, and other such sources of support that were insufficient for the expansion of the party.
In 1928, the Nazis began a shift in strategy, one that was accentuated after their failure in the Reichstag elections in May of that year. The Nazis received only 800,000 votes, or 2.6 percent of the total vote, and gained only twelve seats in the Reichstag. The NSDAP lost heavily in the urban areas-precisely those areas designed to be won by the urban plan. The party did relatively well in rural areas, such as Schleswig-Holstein in northwest Germany, where it had tried early in 1928 to appeal to the growing discontent among farmers and to small towns dependent on agriculture. These electoral results solidified the need for a shift in strategy.
In the summer of 1928, Hitler told a leadership conference in Munich that the party had to concentrate more on rural and small-town areas, especially in northern, central, and eastern Germany. Although Munich and Bavaria in southern Germany remained the organizational headquarters, the party had limited appeal in an area dominated by the Catholic Bavarian People's party (BVP). The Nazis now pursued a propaganda program aimed at rural voters and the interests of lower-middle-class inhabitants of small towns, although in some areas, such as Berlin, they continued direct appeals to the working classes.
Farmers were especially vulnerable to Nazi propaganda because of the economic difficulties they began to experience in 1927 as a result of a worldwide agricultural depression. Falling prices and harvests, high expenses, and indebtedness had resulted in growing numbers of foreclosures. The Nazis identified Jewish bankers and capitalists and the Weimar government controlled by Marxists (the SPD) as the cause of the farmers' economic distress. They promised to eradicate indebtedness and tax relief once in power. Nazi ideological emphasis on "blood and soil" -the belief that the products of German soil grown by the noble peasants and eaten by the people created a pure German blood and thus a pure Volk-made an effective impact on rural areas. Appeal to German nationalism, as the Nazis discovered, also played well with both farmers and the middle classes.
In the small towns Nazis appealed to the lower middle classes, composed of small businessmen, artisans, white-collar workers, and civil servants, in a variety of ways. They downplayed the anticapitalist slogans of their urban plan and became defenders of private property. They attacked the Marxists (whether the SPD or KPD variety) as revolutionaries who wanted to destroy private property. In order to defend private property, Hitler officially reinterpreted point 17 of the twenty-five-point-program, which called for expropriation of agricultural estates. Now, he explained, this meant only estates owned by Jews. Hitler thereby raised the anti-Semitic issue anew. The Nazis assailed large department stores, especially those owned by Jews, as an economic threat to small businessmen. The Nazis presented an antimodernist image to the middle classes, claiming to embody traditional German values and to oppose the decadent democratic values of the Weimar Republic. By promising to destroy Marxism and the Weimar political party system, they implied a return to the authoritarian order of imperial Germany, when the traditional middle class had supposedly been secure and honored.
The new propaganda barrage was aimed also at university students, veterans' organizations, and professional groups. The Nazis were particularly successful with university students. By 1930 they had infiltrated the chief student self-governing organization. In shifting his focus to new sources of votes, Hitler was eager to find people who could bring professional skills to the party's bureaucracy. Hitler perceived correctly that if the Nazi party were to emerge as an effective mass party, it would need intelligent, well-trained members who could organize election campaigns and membership drives and activities. Gauleiter would need to be efficient bureaucrats who could be counted on to secure votes and members in their region.
By 1929, the party had
successfully shifted to its new political strategy. In that year, the Nazis
joined in a right-wing attack on the Weimar Republic that brought them
considerable success and foreshadowed the impressive breakthrough they would
make in 1930.
Although the referendum to
reject the Young Plan, voted on in November 1929, failed miserably, the
Nazis gained considerably from the affair. They were now seen as less
radical and more acceptable, especially by the middle classes. As allies of
Hugenberg, the Nazis received national attention and attained
respectability. They acquired financial resources that enabled them to wage
an efficient and dynamic political campaign. Hitler's speeches alone
generated enormous enthusiasm and added to the general impression of a
dynamic, young, spirited movement. Consequences were immediate and
impressive. The party made gains in local and state elections in November
and December 1929. In the December elections in Thuringia, the Nazi vote
grew from 4.7 percent to 11.3 percent of the total. Party membership
increased dramatically. By the end of 1928 the NSDAP had 108,000 members; by
the end of 1929 it had grown to 178,000, almost doubling its membership in
one year. The SA had grown to 100,000 men, the size of the German army. The
year 1929 was a good one for the Nazis, even before the effect of the
October 1929 stock-market crash, which would have dramatic repercussions in
Germany. Before examining the impact of the depression, though, we need to
take another look at the social composition of the Nazi party.
Historians distinguish an old and a new lower middle class in twentieth century Germany. The old lower middle class consisting of artisans, shopkeepers, and independent merchants (in general, small businessmen) joined the party in large numbers. They were especially attracted by the Nazis' attack on large department chain stores and their blame of the Jews for the problems of small business. Farmers, who were underrepresented in the party from 1925 to 1927, began flocking in after the NSDAP began to direct its propaganda toward their problems. In fact, by 1928 they were over-represented in the party compared with their percentage of the total population. The new lower middle class was slower in opting for Hitler, but also became over-represented in the party. This group included white-collar salaried employees in industry and commerce, lower civil servants, and elementary school teachers. These groups consistently faced economic uncertainties.
Elite and upper-middle-class membership in the Nazi party was not large in number; nevertheless these segments of society were overrepresented in the party after 1925. Already in 1926, a small group of discontented students under Wilhelm Tempel at Leipzig had founded the National Socialist German Student Union. By 1930 half of the entire German university student body had joined the Nazi party. Managers and entrepreneurs joined the party in large numbers as well. The frequent assertion that a significant number of industrial leaders became party members or contributed large amounts of money to the Nazis seems not to be true. The party did gain support from smaller manufacturers and entrepreneurs who resented the tycoons. Although fewer academic intellectuals were attracted to the NSDAP after 1924, this group was still overrepresented in the party. Higher civil servants also remained overrepresented and increased in proportion after 1924.
During its rebuilding phase, then, the NSDAP retained the allegiance of the lower middle class and the elite but was unable to attract larger numbers of workers. It remained a young man's party. The average age of joiners between 1925 and 1928 was twenty-nine and of those in 1930, thirty. The percentage of party members eighteen to twenty-nine remained considerably greater than the proportion of that age group in the German population. The party was thus much more youthful than the German population - undoubtedly a crucial factor in understanding the dynamism of the Nazi movement. An openly radical party, the Nazis attracted young people who were turned off by the inertia of the established parties and who welcomed the constant activity of the Nazi party. Women continued to remain conspicuously absent from the party, constituting between 5 and 6 percent of total membership.