Left: Adolf Hitler in a 1928 Nuremberg rally; Hermann Göring is directly in front of Hitler
Given the horrors of the Holocaust and the human costs associated with the Second World War, it is not surprising that there is considerable interest in the reasons for the rise to power of the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (NSDAP - commonly known as the Nazi Party). Certainly an important part of the political successes of the Nazis was the failure of democracy to thrive in Weimar Germany, but this factor is really the subject of an altogether different essay. This particular essay examines the question of why the NSDAP – out of all the dozens of parties that formed in the fourteen years of the Weimar Republic – became the political movement that achieved power.
After all, there were numerous political competitors in the waning years of Weimar Germany. Even if one were to ignore the Deutsche Zentrumspartei or the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD) as “discredited” mainstream parties, there still remained a number of strong extremist political factions besides the NSDAP that could have risen to power. The Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands (KPD), for example, consistently received between 10 and 15 percent of the vote in Reichstag elections, while on the right there was no shortage of nationalist competitors, including the Deutschnationale Volkspartei(DNVP).
This essay examines the historiography related to the rise to power in Germany of the Nazi Party, and specifically considers the factors that positioned Hitler’s movement to outperform all other political parties by the end of the Weimar Republic. While this is by no means an exhaustive treatise on the topic – and one that is frankly limited by the author’s overreliance on English-language sources – readers will gain an appreciation of the variety of perspectives on the reasons for the rise of the NSDAP.
There are a number of books that are particularly useful for readers unfamiliar with the history of the NSDAP, at least beyond a basic acquaintance with the topic through televison and film. Those who seek a comprehensive overview of the Weimar period should consider Richard Evans’s impressive The Coming of the Third Reich, a comprehensive tour de force that will remain among the definitive accounts of the rise of Nazi Germany for many decades. Dietrich Orlow’s The History of the Nazi Party 1919-1933, though out of print, remains an authoritative, scrupulously-researched overview of the evolution of the NDSAP from a handful of Bavarian extremists to Hitler’s final accession to power on 30 January 1933. Geoffrey Pridham’s Hitler’s Rise to Power: The Nazi Movement in Bavaria, 1923-1933 is a thorough case study of the roots and growth of the Nazi movement at one of the main centers of the party’s electoral and organizational strength.
Left: 1925 front cover of Volume I of Hitler's Mein Kampf
Hitler and the NSDAP, in effect, were the first historians of the Nazi movement, and part of the difficulty in studying the Nazi rise to power is the need to separate National Socialist propaganda from the historical record. One of the first attempts to present a version of the earliest years of the Nazi Party occurred in Hitler’s Mein Kampf. In the following passage, Hitler described in humble terms the first tentative meetings of the group in 1919, creating images of an oppressed group of German patriots whose very lives were in danger by the supposed Jewish-Bolshevik menace the Nazis sought to oppose:
In the small circle that the movement then was a certain fear of such a fight prevailed. The members wanted to appear in public as little as possible, for fear of being beaten up. In their mind's eye they already saw the first great meeting smashed and go the movement finished for good. I had a hard time putting forward my opinion that we must not dodge this struggle, but prepare for it, and for this reason acquire the armament which alone offers protection against violence. Terror is not broken by the mind, but by terror. The success of the first meeting strengthened my position in this respect. We gained courage for a second meeting on a somewhat larger scale.Thus it is with a wary eye scanning for hyperbole, distortion, and outright fabrication that historians approach Mein Kampf, the Völkischer Beobachter, and the rest of the substantial body of NSDAP literature. Still, this material also represents an opportunity for students to understand the ideology and mindset of members of the Nazi Party, and any careful study of the reasons for the rise of National Socialism needs to include this primary source material.
About October, 1919, the second, larger meeting took place in the Eberlbraukeller. Topic: Brestlitovsk and Versailles. Four gentlemen appeared as speakers. I myself spoke for almost an hour and the success was greater than at the first rally. The audience had risen to more than one hundred and thirty. An attempted disturbance was at once nipped in the bud by my comrades. The disturbers flew down the stairs with gashed heads.
Peter Drucker was a writer with a unique historical opportunity to comment on the successes of the NSDAP, as he worked as a banker and journalist in Germany during the Weimar era. After immigrating to the United States in 1937 following a four-year stint in London, Drucker argued that all the organizational talents and propagandistic skills of the Nazis paled in comparison with the simple fact that the alternatives to fascism – capitalism and socialism – were no longer seen as viable systems of socioeconomic organization:
The collapse of the belief in the capitalist and socialist creeds was translated into terms of individual experience by the World War and the great depression. These catastrophes broke through the everyday routine which makes men accept existing forms, institutions, and tenets as unalterable natural laws. They suddenly exposed the vacuum behind the façade of society. The European masses realized for the first time that existence in this society is governed not by rational and sensible, but by blind, irrational, and demonic forces.
Nazi Propaganda and the Growth of the NDSAP
Left: Nazi Reichspropagandaleiter Joseph Goebbels
Among the many strengths of the Nazis in the years prior to Hitler becoming German Reichskanzler was that of party propaganda. This was a realm of activity in which party officials – especially Joseph Goebbels, who became Reichspropagandaleiter in 1928 – made innovations in the use of media to reinforce Nazi aims. Hitler himself outlined the principles of what would become the guiding strategy for future Nazi propaganda efforts; the most important of these precepts is the idea that propaganda must be targeted to the masses:
All propaganda must be popular and its intellectual level must be adjusted to the most limited intelligence among those it is addressed to. Consequently, the greater the mass it is intended to reach, the lower its purely intellectual level will have to be. But if, as in propaganda for sticking out a war, the aim is to influence a whole people, we must avoid excessive intellectual demands on our public, and too much caution cannot be extended in this direction.Efficacious propaganda, Hitler believed, had to be structured in such a fashion as to be retained by those to whom it was targeted:
The receptivity of the great masses is very limited, their intelligence is small, but their power of forgetting is enormous. In consequence of these facts, all effective propaganda must be limited to a very few points and must harp on these in slogans until the last member of the public understands what you want him to understand by your slogan. As soon as you sacrifice this slogan and try to be many-sided, the effect will piddle away, for the crowd can neither digest nor retain the material offered. In this way the result is weakened and in the end entirely cancelled out.Nazi propaganda avoided specific positive arguments that advocated particular policies, and focused instead on negative attacks on what the Nazis viewed as the decadent influences on German society. Thus, anti-Semitism, anti-Bolshevism, and anti-liberalism were among the most common themes in Nazi propaganda. Evans argued that one of the most effective propaganda devices developed by the Nazis revolved around the use by France of black colonial troops as occupying forces after World War I and during the occupation of the Ruhr. He noted that cartoonists depicted “crude, semi-pornographic sketches of bestial black soldiers carrying off innocent white German women to a fate worse than death.” Nazi propagandists used this imagery to discredit the Weimar regime, and mixed-race children in the 1930s were “almost universally regarded as the offspring of such incidents.”
Left: 1920s era Nazi propaganda poster proclaiming "Tod der Lüge"("Death of the Lie")
The nature of Nazi propaganda was among its strengths, as it was a type of communication in which truth was relative. Welch described the typical propaganda campaign as rhetoric that operated on “many different kinds of truth – from the outright lie, the half truth, to the truth out of context.” Craig noted that there could often be inconsistency in Nazi messages, citing the example of the Twenty-Five Points, which he described as “a confused mixture of nationalistic, anti-Semitic, and pseudo-socialist demands, which were either exasperatingly vague or mutually contradictory.” Echoing this theme of rhetorical incoherence by the Nazis, Drucker recalled a speech given by a Nazi agitator to German farmers: “We don't want lower bread prices, we don't want higher bread prices, we don't want unchanged bread prices - we want National-Socialist bread prices!”
As innovators of new forms of propaganda, the NSDAP created techniques that far surpassed their political contemporaries in the Weimar Republic. Mommsen held that the intensity of Nazi propaganda “exceeded all its rival parties,” and that Hitler consciously avoided the use of substantive political dialogue between party and the German people.
There is a considerable difference of opinions on the overall importance of Nazi propaganda efforts in the rise to power of the NSDAP. Fraser argued that Nazi propaganda all along was intended to prepare the nation for war, “the function, namely, of bringing about the psychological mobilization of the German people.” Orlow believed that party propaganda and organization acted in a “complementary and interdependent” fashion, with propaganda reaching the masses and then creating the next wave of party members and officials. While noting that Nazi propaganda efforts at the working class were far from a rousing success, Evans noted that the propaganda efforts leading up to the 1930 Reichstag elections “still exerted a sufficiently strong appeal to previously non-committed workers to ensure that some 27 percent of Nazi voters” were manual laborers. Drucker all but completely dismissed Nazi propaganda as an important element in the party’s rise to power:
Nothing impressed me more in Germany in the years before Hitler than the almost universal disbelief in the Nazi promises and the indifference toward the Nazi creed among the most fanatical Nazis. Outside party ranks this disbelief turned into open ridicule. And yet the masses flocked to the Nazi fold.Still, while the effects of economic collapse certainly contributed to conditions favorable to the rise of extremist groups in Weimar Germany, it seems logical that Nazi innovations in propaganda techniques contributed to the group’s exponential growth. Pridham noted that the NSDAP and KPD made use of similar propagandistic tactics, but argued that the Nazis “used these more successfully in attracting wider sections of the electorate.” Feuchtwanger argued that Nazi propaganda, “with its deliberate vagueness, eased the path of many into the Third Reich.” The evolution of Nazi propaganda strategies is also a function of the party’s ability to develop an internal structure that adapted to changes and was positioned for rapid growth.
Organizational Strengths and Adaptative Tactics of the National Socialists
Adolf Hitler had many qualities that enabled him to rise to positions of leadership in the formative years of the NSDAP, but accounts of his management style suggest that the future Führer lacked strong organizational skills. Orlow noted that Hitler approached his work in “a completely irrational fashion”- a style the author described as “deliberately schizophrenic leadership” - concerning himself with “whatever minute details of the party’s organizational life he happened to find interesting” on a particular day:
The party’s leader was just as likely to submerge himself in the routine bureaucratic life of the organization as to head and direct it; and only he knew when he would choose to do either.Yet despite any limitations Hitler may have possessed in managing a large organization, he nontheless demonstrated an ability to attract talented subordinates. Among the early administrators Hitler installed in the party organization were Executive Secretary Philip Bouhler and Treasurer Franz Xaver Schwarz, a pair of bureaucrats that Orlow described as “complementary parts of a human computer.” Craig argued that Hitler kept the NSDAP “atomized into countless rival agancies that were balanced and controlled by his personal authority.” Pridham described Bouhler’s “taciturn manner” as indicative of his lack of ambition beyond party bureaucracy and of his unwillingness to participate in party intrigues. The addition of these skilled administrators helped Hitler maintain control of a growing organization:
Bouhler delighted in issuing rules for office procedures that contained admonitions such as “Smoking during office hours is forbidden,” and “The outgoing mail must be presented in the signature folder to the executive secretary at 5:30 each evening.” Schwarz watched with loving care over each incoming penny, and both men pounced upon any local that attempted to bypass the central administration in issuing local membership cards.The Nazi Party demonstrated a willingness to adapt to changing circumstances as in the dynamic political environment of the Weimar Republic. Hitler and the NSDAP were quick to recognize the potential for a coup d'état in the midst of economic and political chaos in 1923, and while the Beer Hall Putsch did not succeed, the party gained a reputation for action and patriotism in many circles. Hitler skillfully used his 1924 trial as an occasion to get his message before German citizens. Pridham argued that the trial “gave Hitler a unique opportunity to build upon his political image as the spokesman for all those who were in some way dissatisfied with the political order.” Orlow, while acknowledging that Hitler’s incrceration “constituted a grave political setback for Hitler,” noted that this turn of events “convinced Hitler that further attempts to overthrow the Republic by force would be futile.” The leadership of the NSDAP, again showing this adaptative ability, thus began a process of organizatonal reinvention geared toward making the party a dominant force in Weimar electoral politics.
1920s NSDAP poster promoting the Nazis as "Germany's Liberation"
The party commenced a campaign to engage the German industrial proletariat, described by Orlow as “the Urban Plan.” The scheme, as described by Goebbels, called for the party to develop “two dozen cities into unshakeable foundations of our movement.” Hoping to draw voters away from leftist groups, especially the KPD, the plan failed to generate the types of electoral turns hoped for by the NSDAP leadership. The Nazi Party received only 2.6 percent of the vote in the 1928 Reichstag elections, which translated into just 12 seats. Yet despite the failure of the urban plan, the Nazi leadership noted that the party received significant support in rural areas in which the NSDAP spent little or no time and money. Thus began yet another period or organizational restructuring, but one in which the party demonstrated that it had the willingness and determination to adjust its tactics to changing political conditions.
Evans argued that one of the most important changes made leading up to and after the 1928 election was the realignment of the party’s regions to match the boundaries of the Reichstag constituencies. This created individual electoral responsibilities for each Gauleiter, and no longer would the party place emphasis on a select few demographic groups. Orlow described the individuals in the revamped position of Gauleiter as becoming “in fact, as well as theory, division managers of a highly centralized party-corporation.” Pridham noted that, especially in regions with a significant rural population such as Protestant Franconia, the NSDAP was able to achieve “effective penetration of the rural electorate.”
Moreover, the NSDAP created effective ancillary organizations in an effort to create connections with an even greater number of Germans. The Nationalsozialistischer Deutscher Studentenbund (NSDStB) provided opportunities for university students and academics to contribute to the success of the party, while the NS-Frauenschaft – fused together in 1931 from several existing women’s organizations – created a platform from which women and girls could participate in party affairs. The Hitler-Jugend, Bund Deutscher Arbeiterjugend (HJ) recruited boys between the ages of fourteen to eighteen, and this group not only indoctrinated its members but, ultimately, helped create the next generation of soldiers, party leaders, and state officials. The Sturmabteilung (SA) and Schutzstaffel (SS) not only provided the NSDAP with paramilitary muscle in the violent politics of the Weimar era, but also provided military training to future soldiers and officers in a time when the terms of the Versailles Treaty severely limited Germany’s armed forces.
Pridham argued that these specialist organizations “were presented simultaneously as effective representatives of different interests,” while assisting the NSDAP with “creating a new national community.” Evans maintained that efforts by the NSDAP to create and coordinate voluntary associations represented an attempt to make citizens “amenable to indoctrination and re-education according to the principles of National Socialism.” Orlow argued that the creation of new interest groups – and the eventual subjugation of existing, non-Nazi organizations – was an effort to move beyond the mere “image-buiding” of propaganda efforts into actually organizing future NSDAP voters.
The creation of this efficient and flexible party organization, and the development of innovative tactics, certainly helped propel the NSDAP to unprecedented electoral successes. In the 1930 Reichstag elections, the Nazi Party received 6.4 million votes, and claimed a total of 107 seats. Yet these electoral successes owed much to Adolf Hitler, the person whose personal magnetism and Großdeutschland vision of the future Third Reich inspired legions of fanatical followers.
The Personality Cult Surrounding Adolf Hitler
Hitler’s charismatic personality and rhetorical brilliance simply cannot be overlooked as factors in the rise of the NSDAP. Journalist Richard Breiting conducted a pair of confidential interviews with Hitler in 1931, which remained unpublished until 1968. Over the course of two interviews, Breiting – who was sworn to secrecy prior to the interview process – observed Hitler and his inner circle in an unusually candid setting. Breiting was especially astonished by the level of personal loyalty exhibited by Hitler’s assistants, and described the manner in which Hitler’s personality dominated Rudolf Hess:
The man [Hitler] is like a volcano; his flow of speech submerges his audience like a torrent; one has to watch for the moment to get a word in edgeways. On the other hand a highly intelligent man like Hess hangs on the words of the leader he idolizes with childlike faith in his eyes; there is no doubt that Hitler exerts over his staff a semi-hypnotic influence of almost inconceivable proportions.Evans argued that no other political party could produce a leader who could match Hitler’s abilities to win converts, and he noted that the NSDAP leader excelled in matching his rhetoric to the particular audience to which he spoke:
He used simple, straightforward language that ordinary people could understand, short sentences, powerful, emotive slogans… There were no qualifications in what he said; everything was absolute, uncompromising, irrevocable, undeviating, unalterable, final. He seemed, to many who listened to his early speeches testified, to speak straight from the heart, and to express their own deepest fears and desires… Such uncompromising radicalism lent Hitler’s public meetings a revivalist fervour that was hard for less demagogic politicians to emulate.Eyck echoed these sentiments, arguing that Hitler was an incomparable rhetorician whose speeches exhibited an element of the hypnotic. Hitler, argued Eyck, had a special gift for demagoguery, and structured his presentations with an eye toward convincing listeners that he alone knew the sources of Germany’s problems:
But no one can doubt that Hitler knew how to make the hour serve his impassioned ends. For he realized that in time of crisis nothing makes such a massive, moving effect upon one’s listeners as vehement, even libelous, attacks upon others, especially upon others who seemed more fortunate.Brecht believed that Hitler’s personality was “an altogether unfamiliar type” to both domestic and international observers. Hitler, he argued, rarely demonstrated a predictable demeanor, and used his mercurial nature to great advantage:
There were strange contradictions in his appearance. Alternately, he seemed plain and resourceful, soldierlike and mystical, intelligent and foolish, disciplined and hysterical. When he spoke to a large audience, his voice was harsh and his threats sounded barbaric. Yet in a private circle his speech could be soft and well modulated, and his eyes could appear friendly and frank.Hitler’s failed Beer Hall Putsch, his conviction, his incarceration in Landsberg Prison, and the ban on his post-prison public speeches were factors that would likely have broken a less indefatigable politician. Yet the future Führer learned valuable lessons through these setbacks, and he used the period of enforced silence to retool the NSDAP. Craig described Hitler as a “nonpareil in his own time,” and that he possessed a particularly unique political genius unparalleled by his Weimar rivals:
In his person were combined an indomitable will and self-confidence, a superb sense of timing that told him when to wait and when to act, the intuitive ability to sense the anxieties and resentments of the masses and to put them in words that transformed everyone with a grievance into a hero to save the national soul, a mastery of the arts of propaganda, great skill in exploiting the weaknesses of rivals and antagonists, and a ruthlessness in the execution of his designs that was stayed neither by scruples of loyalty nor by moral considerations.Hitler also exhibited a personal charm in speaking with individuals and small groups, and he was known for disarming critics once they met him in person. Craig noted that Hitler used this skill to great advantage in his dealings with adversaries:
In the course of his career he showed an unusual capacity for ingrtiating himself with people who were originally suspicious or antagonistic and winning them over to his point of view. His success in this was due partly to a kind of verbal sleight of hand that made them think that doing things his way would demonstrate the validity of their principles ( afine example of this from the late thirties was his masterful use of the word ‘realism’ in negotiations with the self-styled realist Neville Chamberlain), and partly to his skill in detecting and playing upon their weaknesses.Yet Hitler’s personal charisma, oratorical excellence, and martyr status were merely elements of a larger phenomenon: the rise of a cult of personality built upon the myth of Hitler as the personification of Nietzsche's Übermensch. The result of this semi-deification of Hitler was the evolution of the NSDAP’s version of Führerprinzip, built upon the unquestioning obedience to hierarchical superiors and an oath of personal loyalty to Hitler. Orlow argued that the Führerprinzip “enabled the party to weather the various changes in organizational priorities with neither major ideological debates nor administrtaive chaos.” Evans maintained that the cult of personality around Hitler “could not be matched by comparable efforts by other parties to project their leaders as Bismarcks of the future.” Mommsen argued that the Führerprinzip set the NSDAP apart from all other political rivals, especially those on the left, with its “main principle that the leader’s power must override any and all decision making within the party organization itself.” More than any other factor, it was this organizational advantage – reinforced by Hitler’s self-created myth of the would-be Führer as homo superior – that allowed the NSDAP to rise from political insignificance to a position of electoral superiority in the waning days of Weimar Germany.
Left: 1930 NSDAP poster promoting the slogan "Freedom and Bread"
After the New York stock market crash in 1929, Weimar Gemany entered a period of economic, political, and social upheaval that destabilized the young republic. At the height of the crisis, nearly six million Germans were out of work, and the flight of foreign capital ground German industry to a halt. The economic crisis exacerbated existing weaknesses in the political structure of the republic, and Germans lost faith in their government to provie even the most basic of services. This widespread discontent ushered in an era of political extremism, and parties such as the NSDAP, the KPD, and the KVP found new converts among German voters fed up with mainstream parties.
Yet the rise to power of the NSDAP was far from a foregone conclusion even as late as 1932, and the growth in membership of the KPD as a result of mass unemployment meant that the Nazis faced considerable competition on the political left. Certainly the Nazis also benefited from the poorly conceived political machinations of Franz von Papen and the increasing senility of Hindenburg. However, the organizational and propagandistic innovations of the Nazi Party – especially the ability of the NSDAP to appeal to widely disparate demographic and socioeconomic groups – led to the eventual usurpation of power by Hitler on 30 January 1933.
Finally, the sheer force of will, charismatic personality, and political genius of Adolf Hitler stand out as a unique blend of leadership characteristics perhaps unparalleled in modern history. While there is some merit to McKenzie’s argument that it is “one of the fateful coincidences of history that at that very time there existed a demagogue who possessed the personality and political ability” of Hitler, nonetheless his accomplishments cannot be minimized. Time and time again Hitler provided the necessary leadership that saved the NSDAP from seeming destruction, and he displayed an uncanny knack for political patience and for knowing the right time to act. While the horrors of the Holocaust and the Second World War had yet to unfold, Hitler’s ascension to the positions of Reichskanzler and Führer capped a personal quest that perhaps could have only been achieved by this former Austrian corporal and unappreciated Viennese street artist.
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