When Hitler returned to Landsberg Prison on April 1, 1924, his old cell was waiting. He had left the prison for his trial an obscure street corner agitator whose notoriety was confined largely to Bavaria. When he returned, he was the “martyr of Munich,” a hero of the radical right. The disastrous Putsch had been ridiculed everywhere as a bumbling, almost farcical calamity, but Hitler’s virtuoso performance in the courtroom had transformed him into a national figure. Now he was Landsberg’s “prisoner of honor,” a celebrity to the other conspirators, the jailers, and the prison officials.
In the wing of Landsberg Prison reserved for political prisoners—a commodity with which Bavaria, given its turbulent postwar history, was well stocked—Hitler was again assigned cell 7 on the upper floor, reserved for the most important prisoners. His cell was small but comfortable, holding a table, two chairs, a cupboard, and bed. Light poured in from two large windows, and although Hitler complained about the bars, his view was of shrubbery, trees, and hills. Visitors brought geraniums and other flowers.
Under the circumstances, he had all he could ask for. He dressed in his own clothes, usually lederhosen and the traditional Tyrolean jacket, white shirt, and sometimes a tie. Telegrams and letters from loyal party members and doting admirers poured into the prison; some sent books, others packages of food (Hitler was partial to Viennese pastries and fretted about his weight). Hitler’s cell, Putzi Hanfstaengl later remarked, “looked like a delicatessen. You could have opened up a flower and fruit and a wine shop with all the stuff stacked in there.”
Although visitors were to be restricted, the sympathetic prison authorities turned a blind eye to the rising tide of visitors who arrived for an audience with “the hero of Munich.” On some days Hitler spent up to six hours receiving guests. Even his dog was allowed a visit. By summer Hitler was besieged by so many visitors that he asked the jailers to admit only those with a written appointment. The prisoners were granted two hour-long sessions of physical exercise, including boxing and gymnastics. Hitler sometimes refereed the contests but usually preferred to walk—after all, the leader of the movement could hardly enter into a physical competition with his followers.
Even as a prisoner, Hitler was very much in command, the master of his surroundings. When a new prisoner was assigned to the block, he was taken immediately to report to Hitler. At meals in the common room Hitler presided over the table, holding court. One fellow conspirator wrote to a friend that every day at 10 a.m. “there is normally an hour’s discussion with the Chief or better still an address by the Chief.” The jailers and other prison staff often listened from beyond the doorway, and were as impressed as the prisoners. When Hitler spoke, “the warders gathered outside on the staircase and listened without making a sound . . . the men of the police guard unit would form up in the courtyard outside and none of these listeners ever made even the smallest disturbance.”
Hitler’s main occupation while at Landsberg was writing. He had in mind to write a book about his wartime experiences, his political awakening, and the beginnings of the NSDAP. A second volume might be necessary to explain National Socialism’s Weltanschauung, its ideological goals and assumptions. Together the two volumes would constitute an autobiographical political manifesto. Visitors supplied him with paper, pen, and ink, even a typewriter, on which he tapped out the pages, using the two finger method. Sometimes he dictated to fellow conspirators Emil Maurice or Rudolf Hess. One jailer remarked that “all day long and late into the night the typewriter would be tapping and one could hear Hitler in his small room dictating to his friend Hess. On Saturday evenings he would generally read the completed sections to his fellow prisoners who sat around him like schoolboys.”
Hitler was not altogether unhappy with this respite from the frenetic rough and tumble of politics. Since his entry into the party, he had found little time to reflect and write. His considerable energies had been devoted to speaking, organizing, and attempting to hold the rambunctious NSDAP together. Now, with the enforced discipline and quiet of prison, he could turn at last to developing his ideas in a more systematic form. As he would recall many years later, his book would never have been written had it not been for his time in prison. In Landsberg, with few diversions, he threw himself into his writing. He had high hopes for the book. He intended to call it Four and a Half Years of Struggle Against Lies, Corruption, and Cowardice, but was dissuaded by his old army comrade and publisher Max Amann, who gingerly suggested that the title might not be as compelling to potential readers as it was to Hitler. Amann suggested a shorter, pithier title: Mein Kampf (My Struggle).
Although Hitler was kept informed about developments beyond the prison walls, he refused to become involved in the incessant wrangling among his lieutenants. While awaiting trial, he had deputized Alfred Rosenberg, the editor of the Völkischer Beobachter, to act as caretaker for the party in his absence. It was a curious choice. Pedantic, aloof, and bereft of any personal charisma, Rosenberg liked to think of himself as the philosopher of the party. He had no administrative experience and no personal following. Many believed that Hitler had chosen him for precisely these reasons. Rosenberg was in no danger of usurping his power, nor would he be a threat to his position as leader when he returned.
Almost immediately Rosenberg encountered challenges on several fronts. Little had been done to prepare for the possibility that the coup might fail, and Rosenberg discovered that the party’s organization was in almost hopeless disarray. Hoping to establish a caretaker organization for the banned NSDAP, he founded the Greater German People’s Community (Grossdeutsche Volksgemeinschaft or GVG) on January 1, 1924, but few party leaders were ready to accept him as leader. Many Hitler loyalists remained aloof, and by summer Esser and Streicher had assumed control of the GVG. Other Nazi leaders attached themselves to a rival radical party, the German Völkisch Freedom Party (DVFP), headquartered in Berlin and headed by Ludendorff and Albrecht von Graefe, who had marched in the failed Putsch. What was left of the NSDAP was fragmenting by the day, splintering into mutually mistrustful factions.
Complicating matters further, the Nazis were confronted by the approach of the first national elections since 1920. Hitler had always vehemently opposed participation in democratic elections, but the situation in early 1924 seemed to offer rich possibilities. Between November 1923 and the spring of 1924 the Reich government, using emergency decree powers provided by Article 48 of the Weimar constitution, introduced a series of stringent deflationary measures that led to an immediate stabilization of the economy but also had serious social and political ramifications. They entailed the de facto suspension of the eight-hour workday, a massive and unprecedented dismissal of civil servants and public employees, a severe restriction of credit, which produced a flood of bankruptcies, especially by small businesses, and a startling rise in unemployment, most striking among white-collar personnel. In addition, the government’s Third Emergency Tax Decree, which revalued debts and mortgages at only 15 percent of their original value, triggered a volcanic eruption of protest from creditors. The inflation crisis of 1923 quickly gave way to the stabilization crisis of 1924.
Contributing to the furor raised by the government’s harsh stabilization measures was the revival of the reparations issue. The question—how much, in what form, and on what schedule Germany would pay—had not been settled at Versailles or at subsequent international conferences. It would prove to be the most intractable issue in postwar international politics. In early 1924, an international committee of economic experts, appointed by the League of Nations’ Reparations Commission and chaired by the American banker Charles Dawes, drafted a new scheme of payment to be presented to the German government. In early April, with the Reichstag campaign just getting under way, the committee presented its report to the commission. Quickly dubbed the Dawes Plan, this bundle of recommendations called for a graduated schedule of payments, beginning with approximately one billion marks in 1925–26 and rising to a normal annual payment of 2.5 billion by 1928–29. To Berlin’s dismay, it did not, however, establish Germany’s total liability, and hence the ominous prospect of paying and paying endlessly into the future loomed over the negotiations.
Among the most galling aspects of the plan were provisions that were widely viewed as infringements on Germany’s sovereignty. The plan called for the creation of an international general council with broad powers to oversee the German economy. Since a stable currency and a balanced budget were viewed as prerequisites for German recovery, the operations of the German central bank (Reichsbank) were to be closely supervised by the international general council, and an Allied reparations agent was to be stationed in Berlin to direct the transfer of reparations payments. As sweeteners, the committee indicated that acceptance of the Dawes Plan and a good-faith effort to put Germany’s economic house in order would prompt a much needed influx of foreign capital that would allow the country to get back on its feet again. Although not formally part of the plan, the Allies also suggested that evacuation of the Ruhr within one year could be expected if the Germans cooperated and accepted the report.
As soon as the details of the Dawes Plan—and its positive reception by the German government—were made public, a nationwide furor erupted. The Conservatives, Nazis, and Völkisch parties as well as the Communists denounced the plan as a “second Versailles,” another link in the chains of slavery imposed on Germany by the vindictive Allied governments. Although the press referred to it as the “inflation election,” the government’s harsh stabilization policies and the Dawes Plan quickly became the central issues of the ensuing campaign, galvanizing all the enemies of the Republic.
With the election scheduled for May 4, the Nazis would have to make a decision on whether to participate—and quickly. It was a highly contentious issue. Held in the shadow of the hyperinflation and the draconian stabilization that followed, the spring campaign of 1924 seemed to offer anti-Republican forces a tremendous launching pad. Anger over the destruction of the currency and the severe measures undertaken to stabilize the economy—all unpopular and all by emergency decree—was running high. At the same time, the extensive media coverage of the Hitler trial had thrown a spotlight on the National Socialists just as the campaign was getting under way, and although Hitler was no longer on the scene, many within the party believed that the moment should not be wasted.
The foremost advocate of this position was Gregor Strasser, a thirty-two-year-old druggist who in 1924 emerged as one of the most energetic and influential leaders of the NSDAP. Like Hitler, Strasser was a decorated war veteran, a militant nationalist, and an anti-Semite. After four years in the trenches, he returned home to Bavaria, finished his degree in pharmacology at Erlangen, and began a career as an apothecary. In 1919 he signed on with Franz Ritter von Epp’s Free Corps to overthrow the Bavarian Socialist Republic; two years later he joined Hitler’s fledgling party. Big, gruff in appearance, Strasser had a commanding personality, boundless energy, and a talent for organization. He founded an SA unit in Landshut, acted as SA chief for all of Lower Bavaria, and worked assiduously to establish party chapters in other Bavarian towns. A former army officer, a man of action, he also enjoyed reading Homer in the original classical Greek. Strasser had participated in the Putsch but was cast in a minor role. A few days later he was arrested, charged not for his minimal participation in the coup but with attempting to recruit a soldier for the now-outlawed NSDAP. His stay in prison was brief; he was released in late April 1924 after he was elected to the Bavarian state legislature, a reflection of his burgeoning regional stature.
Strasser was convinced that the party should dive into the Reichstag campaign, even if it meant an alliance with other parties, and he vigorously championed a coalition with the German Völkisch Freedom Party (DVFP). This might be a short-term accommodation, Strasser acknowledged, but he hoped to exploit the DVFP’s connections in northern Germany to expand Nazi influence beyond Bavaria. His plans met stiff resistance from Esser and Streicher, leaders of the Bavarian clique that dominated party headquarters in Munich. Despite their considerable personal liabilities, both were longtime party men. They were slavishly devoted to Hitler, who returned their loyalty and trust in equal measure. Both rejected even a temporary alliance with the DVFP and scorned Strasser’s efforts to thrust the NSDAP into electoral politics. Didn’t he understand that Hitler had always rejected collaboration with other parties and had opposed on principle any participation in Weimar’s corrupt parliamentary system?
In spite of these rancorous disagreements within the Nazi camp—or perhaps because of them—Graefe and Ludendorff relentlessly pressed the case for a joint Nazi-Völkisch venture. They saw in Hitler’s absence an opportunity to assume the leadership of the entire Völkisch movement and score a major electoral victory. With Strasser’s support, Graefe began negotiations with Rosenberg and other Nazi leaders for an amalgamation of the two organizations. At a January meeting in Salzburg, Rosenberg refused to accept a merger but did agree to the formation of a temporary electoral alliance. The DVFP would focus primarily (but not exclusively) on the north, the Nazis on the south—and policy would be determined by consultation between the leadership of the two parties. It would be the Nazis’ first election campaign.
Although the Nazis had to operate under the banner of the DVFP, the spring campaign displayed all the basic themes of National Socialist ideology. Denouncing class struggle, the Nazis were determined to break down social barriers and establish a “genuine people’s community” (Volksgemeinschaft) that would bridge the deep divides of German society. The “ultimate cause” of Germany’s collapse in 1918 lay precisely in this “hate-filled divisiveness,” which had been “systematically fostered by Jewish Marxism.” After having driven the kings from their thrones in 1918, the workers now confronted the “kings of finance.” “International bank and stock-market capital” had assumed absolute power, with the greatest financial clout resting in the hands of the Jews, who “maintain a powerful network covering the whole world.” The central issue confronting the German people, the Nazis warned, was not left or right, Nationalist or Socialist, but “for or against the Jews.”
With the aftershocks of the political and economic eruptions of 1923 still reverberating, Germans went to the polls on May 4, and the extent of their disaffection was reflected in a dramatic surge of the radical, antidemocratic parties. The anti-Republican Conservatives, whose vote jumped from 14 percent in 1920 to 19.5 percent, were the big winners, but with 6.5 percent of the vote, the DVFP made a surprisingly strong showing. Despite organizational difficulties, bitter personal rivalries, and internecine bickering, the Nazis and their partners collected almost two million votes, surpassing each of the small special interest and regional parties and the mainstream Democratic Party (DDP) as well. As expected, support for the Nazis was centered in the south, particularly in Bavaria, but the ability of the Nazi-Völkisch coalition to win votes in the north served notice that the appeal of National Socialism was hardly a regional phenomenon.
With the anti-Republican forces of both right and left claiming almost 40 percent of the vote and the democratic parties divided on a number of issues, the creation of a stable majority cabinet proved elusive, and in October, after much wrangling, the Reichstag was dissolved again and new elections called for December. But the political and economic environment had undergone a considerable transformation since May. The ominous sense of impending doom that had clouded the spring campaign had dissipated. Passage of the Dawes legislation triggered a massive infusion of foreign, especially American, capital, which acted as a catalyst to economic revival. Unemployment dropped, real wages rose, and the desperate pall of economic calamity that had lingered throughout the spring had begun to lift before the fall campaign began. The threat of Rhenish and Bavarian separatism as well as armed insurrection by the political extremes had also greatly diminished. French and Belgian troops were evacuating the Ruhr. The Republic, against all odds, had managed to survive.
For the Nazi-Völkisch alliance none of these developments was welcome news. Following their surprisingly strong showing in May, the forces of the radical right were unable to bridge the steadily widening rifts in their coalition. In late August, Strasser and Rosenberg decided to join Ludendorff in founding a new party of Völkisch unity, the National Socialist Freedom Movement (NSFB), in time for the new election. But in Bavaria, Streicher and Esser refused to join the new national party and established their own rival organization. The NSFB was apparently neither sufficiently anti-Semitic nor xenophobic enough to suit their tastes. They denounced the Ludendorff-Strasser creation as hopelessly bourgeois and urged Bavarian National Socialists to boycott the approaching elections.
Although repelled by Esser and Streicher, many Nazi leaders shared their aversion to parliamentary elections and particularly disliked any formal association with the NSFB. They openly advocated total abstention from the new campaign, even encouraging those Nazis who did vote to cast Conservative ballots. To no one’s surprise, the radical right lost over half of its constituency in the December election. With a paltry 3 percent of the vote, the Nazis and the Völkisch right began a drift back to the periphery of German politics, where they remained firmly anchored until the onset of the Great Depression in 1929.
Cocooned in Landsberg, Hitler chose to sit on the sidelines. Until the ill-fated Kampfbund, he had always disparaged cooperation, not to mention merger, with other right-wing parties, and he had condemned any participation in parliamentary politics. But removed from the scene and unable to stay abreast of developments, he seemed surprisingly ambivalent, evasive. Rival leaders who made the pilgrimage to Landsberg seeking Hitler’s blessing for their plans often departed believing that they had secured his support, only to discover that he had offered similar encouragement to their adversaries. It often seemed to depend on who had seen him last. When Ludendorff made two visits to Landsberg in May, hoping to coax Hitler into agreeing to a union of the NSDAP with the much stronger DVFP, Hitler temporized. Ludendorff responded by issuing a press release claiming that Hitler had, in fact, endorsed the merger. When Hitler publicly disavowed the article, it merely added to the confusion. Hitler was livid, furious at his own powerlessness and at the treachery of Ludendorff. The event vividly underscored just how little he was able to manage events from the confines of prison.
So frustrated with the situation was Hitler that in early July he announced his temporary withdrawal from active politics and requested that no more delegations from the different party factions visit him. He had had enough. He explained that he could not be responsible for developments while still in prison. He would bide his time, finish his book, and would, he hoped, be released in the not too distant future. Hitler’s announcement surprised and disappointed many party leaders, some of whom lashed out at his curious disengagement, his passivity. Hitler, they felt, was simply drifting along, allowing the rudderless party to disintegrate.
Hitler fully understood this. But he had little incentive to try to sort out matters, to referee the conflicts between the different factions of his movement. Why should he be involved in matters over which he had no control? It was clear to him—and to all others—that no real unity in the movement could be attained without him, and he was more than content to await events. He was due for parole in September; then he would leave Landsberg as the savior of a revived National Socialist movement.
Hitler was denied parole in September, but against the recommendation of the state prosecutor was released from Landsberg on December 20, 1924, two weeks after the party’s electoral fiasco. In all, he had spent thirteen months in prison for attempting the violent overthrow of the duly constituted government of Germany. Beyond the right-wing fringe, his release stirred little interest. A small news item in The New York Times on the day of his discharge—“Hitler Tamed by Prison”—was typical:
Adolf Hitler, the demigod of the reactionary extremists, was released on parole from imprisonment at Fortress Landsberg, Bavaria, today and immediately left in an auto for Munich. He looked a much sadder and wiser man today than last spring when he, with Ludendorff and other radical extremists, appeared before a Munich court charged with conspiracy to overthrow the government. His behavior during his imprisonment convinced the authorities that, like his political organization, he was no longer to be feared. It is believed he will retire to private life and return to Austria, the country of his birth.
Hitler, of course, had no intention of fading meekly into a quiet retirement in Austria. He left prison determined to achieve two objectives: to reestablish the party and to assert his undisputed leadership of it. Both would be daunting tasks. The centrifugal forces that had threatened to tear the movement asunder during his detention were still strong, and when he returned to Munich a free man, his status as leader was far from clear. Before the Putsch, he had been at best only one of several figures vying for leadership of the Völkisch right. The trial had catapulted him momentarily onto the national stage, and his time in prison lent him a mysterious aura, which he assiduously cultivated. But while everyone paid homage to the heroic Hitler of Landsberg, the flesh-and-blood Hitler freed from prison and back on the streets of Munich was another matter. Some leaders on the far right, especially those in the north, were not inclined to accept him as the “Führer” of the anti-Republican Völkisch movement. At a meeting in Berlin on January 17, 1925, intended to find common ground between representatives of the Völkisch right and the National Socialists, Völkischleaders dismissed Hitler as little more than “a drummer,” a successful agitator, but hardly the stuff from which national political leaders are made. What had he actually accomplished? By what right could he claim undisputed leadership of the Völkisch right? After all, Graefe was far more active, and Ludendorff enjoyed far greater national recognition than Hitler. Furious, the Nazi representatives stormed out of the meeting.
On that same day some three hundred miles to the south Hitler announced his intention to reestablish the NSDAP. Since his release from prison, he had met several times with Bavarian minister president Heinrich Held to convince him that he had learned his lesson, that a refounded National Socialist Party would follow a path of legality in its future activities. No more violence, no more attempts to overthrow the government by force. It was, as usual with Hitler, a persuasive performance. With some misgivings, Held lifted the ban on the NSDAP on February 16, 1925.
Ten days later the first issue of the revived Völkischer Beobachter appeared on the newsstands. It carried several announcements and declarations from Hitler, beginning with an appeal to the squabbling factions of the movement to put their quarrels behind them and come together behind the party’s banner. He was not interested in the conflicts of the past, he wrote. There would be no questions asked, no settling of scores. All that was behind them. He was interested only in the present and future, in men who were committed National Socialists, devoted to “the idea.” Above all, “every split in the struggle is to be avoided,” Hitler insisted. “The entire strength of the movement must be thrown against the most fearsome enemy of the German people: Jewry and Marxism as well as the parties allied with or supportive of them.”
There would be some organizational reforms within the party, but “the political and propaganda struggle of the new movement,” he proclaimed, would “be uniformly led according to the principles of the old movement. The program of the movement and the more detailed guidelines issued by the leadership will be the deciding factor for this.” The role of leader—his role—was key. “First [comes] the Führer, then the organization and not the other way around.” His claim to leadership was total. He would take sole responsibility for the party, its policies, organizations, and goals, and he would brook no interference or sniping. If, after a year, the party was dissatisfied with his leadership, he would step aside. The leader was more than a political leader; he was to be the very embodiment of the National Socialist idea. The message was clear: To oppose Hitler was to oppose National Socialism. His time in Landsberg had convinced him that he was the chosen one, the savior ordained by History to liberate the German people from their “enslavement,” to preserve the endangered Aryan race, and to lead the German nation again to greatness. Now he needed to convince his fractious party of that calling.
On February 27 Hitler made his first public appearance since his trial. As the venue, he chose the Bürgerbräukeller. His speech was scheduled for eight, but by late afternoon a large crowd had begun gathering outside. More than three thousand of the party faithful finally squeezed into the hall, while thousands more jostled outside as the police finally barred the doors. Those in the expectant audience paid one mark for an admission ticket—the party needed the money, and Hitler remained its biggest attraction.
Speaking in the cavernous auditorium beneath wagon-wheel-shaped lamps that hung pendulously from the ceiling, Hitler spoke for two hours, his rasping voice rising and falling in the familiar frenzied cadences, his arms flailing, his raised right hand stabbing the air for emphasis, his body straining into the odd contortions so familiar to the party faithful. He called for a revival of the German spirit, of German power, of German self-reliance. He railed against the weakness of the bourgeoisie, the cowardice of their parties, and the pacifism of the left. Above all he fulminated against that “devilish power that had plunged Germany into this misery . . . Marxism and the carrier of that world pestilence and scourge, the Jew.”
The Jewish Marxist threat was not simply a matter of ideology, of political philosophies locked in mortal combat. The peril penetrated far deeper and was more insidious than that. “The greatest threat . . . for us,” he warned his spellbound listeners, was “the alien poison in our body. All other dangers are transitory. . . . Only this one alone is . . . for us eternal.” The National Socialists could break the Versailles Treaty, refuse to pay the reparations; they could eliminate political parties, “but blood, once contaminated, can’t be changed. It continues to degenerate, pushing us year after year down deeper and deeper.” If today his audience wondered about the fractiousness of the German people, the cause was as simple as it was sinister: it was merely the corruption of their contaminated blood manifesting itself.
The evening ended, revival fashion, with leaders who only days—even hours—before had been at each other’s throats, climbing onto the garland-draped platform to shake hands and embrace, to swear brotherhood to each other and fealty to the Führer. They stood on chairs and tables, cheered and laughed and wept; they roared their approval. Their Führer Adolf Hitler was back; the old fanaticism still burned.
Hitler had carried it off, energizing the troops, demanding obedience and party unity, declaring war on the movement’s enemies. Yet outside the fragile bubble of far-right politics, Hitler’s return to the stage was hardly newsworthy. He was no longer a figure of national significance; the party was half the size it had been in November 1923 and was riddled with seemingly intractable internal conflicts. In one sense, however, Hitler’s appearance at the Bürgerbräukeller had succeeded altogether too well. Alarmed by the inflammatory radicalism of Hitler’s speech, especially his violent rhetoric about the life-and-death struggle against his enemies, the Bavarian government on March 9 issued an edict prohibiting Hitler from speaking in public. He would be permitted to address closed party functions, but nothing more, nothing in the public arena. Shortly thereafter, virtually every German state issued a similar ban.
Coming at a time when he was attempting to reinvigorate the party and to restore his leadership over it, the ban was a potentially serious blow. His oratory, his ability to energize crowds, had always been his greatest political asset, and now at a critical juncture it was lost. In the spring of 1925 his claim to leadership of the radical right was tenuous, his position challenged from a number of quarters—by Graefe and the Völkisch crowd, even by some within the NSDAP, and, most seriously, by Erich Ludendorff. The general was viewed by many as a unity figure who could transcend all the petty differences that had bedeviled the radical right in 1924. He was certainly the most visible figure on the right-wing fringe, and he still commanded the allegiance of many, even within the NSDAP. If Hitler were to challenge him, he would need to proceed with caution. In all his official statements Hitler was careful to show great deference to the general, to praise his service to the nation, but he was determined to undermine him and then, at the right moment, push him aside. Just how he would do this was not clear. But events, as they so often did in Hitler’s career, came to his rescue.
On February 28, Reich President Friedrich Ebert died suddenly of complications from an appendectomy. Ebert’s death at fifty-four was a tragedy for Weimar democracy but a godsend for Hitler. There would be presidential elections, and Hitler recognized an opportunity to deal a blow to Ludendorff. Playing to the general’s vanity, Hitler convinced him to enter the race as the National Socialist candidate. Some in Hitler’s inner circle felt this a risky move, but Hitler was convinced that Ludendorff could not win and saw in it the possibility of eliminating him as a serious rival. The general took the bait. Throughout the March campaign, the Völkischer Beobachter, with its modest and overwhelmingly regional readership, issued perfunctory endorsements, and Hitler sounded all the right notes. But the party’s ability to mobilize was still weak, and Hitler’s support was a masterpiece of understatement. He wrote respectfully of Ludendorff, addressing him always as “his Excellency,” and as “the military leader” of the Völkisch right, a formulation that implicitly if none too subtly suggested that he, Adolf Hitler, was its true political leader. Adding to Ludendorff’s meager prospects, the other Völkisch organizations chose to back another candidate—Karl Jarres—put forward by the mainstream Conservatives.
Underfunded and poorly organized, Ludendorff’s candidacy proved to be exactly the disaster that Hitler had anticipated. Out of the roughly two million votes cast in the first round of the election on March 29, only 285,793 Germans cast ballots for the general—a humiliating 14 percent of the total. Since no candidate won a majority of the vote, a second round was necessary. The discredited Ludendorff chose not to enter the runoff, and the Nazis shifted their support to another hero of the Great War, Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg. Standing as a man above party and supported by a combination of right/center-right parties, Hindenburg carried the election with a mere plurality. At seventy-seven years of age, Hindenburg was a living legend, associated with the glories of the old empire. He had been called out of retirement in 1914 and dealt the Russians a major defeat at Tannenberg—the first great German victory of the war. Hindenburg quickly became Germany’s most celebrated war hero, and by 1916 was by far the most revered man in the Reich. Although he was a conservative, a devout monarchist, in fact, the very embodiment of the old order, he took his oath to defend the Republic seriously, as a matter of honor. Despite his reservations about parliamentary democracy, his assumption of the Reich presidency lent the struggling Republic a degree of legitimacy it had hitherto lacked. Yet, unlike Ebert, Hindenburg was hardly devoted to the Weimar Republic he agreed to serve, and in time he would play a crucial role in the final collapse of German democracy.
The elections of 1925 shattered Ludendorff’s standing as leader of the “national opposition,” and in the following years his increasingly eccentric views pushed him beyond even the outer fringes of German politics. He launched occasional thunderbolts aimed most frequently at the Catholic Church, but his threat to Hitler’s leadership of the radical right was at an end. The Völkisch party began a slow but relentless slide into irrelevance. Its followers drifted gradually to the NSDAP, joined by many of its leaders, and after 1928 it virtually vanished from the political stage.
With Ludendorff’s position gravely weakened and the DVFP’s influence rapidly ebbing, Hitler faced another, potentially more serious problem, one arising from within the party’s ranks. In the run-up to the Putsch, Ernst Röhm had worked assiduously to build bridges to other right-wing paramilitary organizations. He had played a central role in the events of November 9, 1923, and had spent two months in prison as a consequence. Upon being granted parole, he once again took up the organizational reins, hoping to bring about an amalgamation of the same armed groups with which he had worked in 1923. Traveling around the country, he made contact with different paramilitary organizations and began welding them into an umbrella organization, the Frontbann, which he hoped would function as a purely military formation, free from the endemic factional bickering that plagued the right in 1924. The Frontbann, as Röhm envisioned it, would be the military arm of the NSDAP but remain an autonomous organization within the party owing allegiance to him personally.
Röhm’s extensive military experience, his contacts with the army and other paramilitary leaders, as well as his determination to transform the SA into a mass organization made him an invaluable asset for the party, but his vision of an autonomous SA, technically subordinate to the party but in fact largely independent, was unacceptable to Hitler. The Storm Troopers, in Hitler’s view, were to be integrated into the party and subordinated to his leadership. The SA was to be an instrument of the party’s political strategy—providing protection for Nazi speakers at mass rallies, handing out leaflets, posting placards, staging gigantic parades and other demonstrations. The SA was to be an integral part of the party’s propaganda offensives. Above all, Adolf Hitler, not Ernst Röhm, would be its supreme leader.
During 1924 Röhm made several visits to Hitler in Landsberg, hoping to convince him of his plans, only to be rebuffed time and again. With the reestablishment of the NSDAP in 1925, matters came to a head. In Hitler’s first programmatic statement in the Völkischer Beobachter, he spelled out the SA’s role as an instrument for political agitation. In mid-April Röhm presented Hitler with a memorandum that suggested that the thirty thousand men he had organized in the Frontbann could serve as the basis for a national political organization, albeit under his control. When Hitler failed to respond, Röhm issued an ultimatum, threatening to resign from his post as leader of the SA. This he intended as an opening gambit in a difficult bargaining process, and he was shocked when Hitler simply refused to reply. In fact, Hitler never offered a response of any kind to his old comrade.
In late April, Röhm formally resigned his position as head of the SA and the Frontbann. He made several personal appeals to Hitler, appeals in which he used the familiar “du,” and invoked the “memory of the fine and difficult days we have lived through together,” begging Hitler “not to exclude me from your personal friendship.” Hitler still did not reply, leaving Röhm offended and deeply hurt. To a party colleague he grumbled about Hitler’s unwillingness to tolerate any opposition to his ideas and his notorious indecisiveness when faced with difficult choices. When problems arose, Röhm complained, Hitler would resolve them “suddenly, at the very last minute,” after allowing the situation to fester, sometimes for weeks or months on end. The situation often became “intolerable and dangerous only because he vacillates and procrastinates.” Hitler wanted “things his own way and gets mad when he strikes firm opposition.” He didn’t “realize how he can wear on one’s nerves,” and he didn’t understand “that he fools only himself and those worms around him” with his fits and histrionics. For the time being the SA question was not so much resolved as simply left in limbo. Göring, formerly head of the SA, was still in exile (he would not return to Germany for five years when the Reich government issued an amnesty for political criminals) and SA units were to organize themselves at the local level, with little in the way of a national structure or clear chain of command. It was symptomatic of Hitler’s leadership style that he did not address the SA question or move to appoint a new leader of the Storm Troopers for more than a year.
Meanwhile another threat was brewing in the north. In March 1925, only days after he was banned from speaking, Hitler deputized Gregor Strasser to take charge of the party in northern Germany. From his days working with the NSFB in the Nazi-Völkisch alliance of the previous year, Strasser had many contacts in the north, and, armed with the free railroad pass given to all Reichstag deputies (he had been elected in December 1924), he crisscrossed northern Germany, giving speeches, founding local chapters of the party, and revitalizing old ones. With Hitler sidelined, Strasser spoke at ninety-one Nazi events in 1925, the vast majority in the north. As one political commentator observed, Strasser lacked “Hitler’s oratorical gift, but possessed something just as rare: the power to move an audience by his very personality.” He also proved to be a master organizer. By the end of the year, the northern party could boast 272 local chapters compared to a mere 71 prior to the Putsch, and Strasser had become the most visible Nazi leader in the country.
Leaders in northern Germany were drawn to Strasser both for his strong anticapitalist, “socialist” stance and his emerging role as a counterpoise to the domination of the party by the Bavarian faction. Many were also disturbed by Hitler’s apparent indifference to their concerns. Banned from speaking in public, Hitler spent much of 1925 concentrating his energies almost exclusively on Bavaria and, inexplicably to many party leaders, spent long weeks virtually secluded in the mountains outside Berchtesgaden writing the second volume of Mein Kampf. Leaders in the north, many of whom had never actually met Hitler, grew increasingly restless. They chafed at what they considered Munich’s attempt to impose its control over the entire party and hoped to break the dominance of the Bavarian camarilla at party headquarters. They were convinced that Esser, Streicher, and Amann were leading Hitler astray, pushing him in a bourgeois, reactionary direction that might play well in rural Bavaria but would ultimately limit the party’s appeal in urban Germany. They were also increasingly frustrated by Hitler’s inattention to party matters—a passivity that de facto left Esser, Streicher, and the Munich clique in charge.
In the course of 1925 they gravitated naturally toward Strasser, who operated out of Berlin and was visible on the ground all across northern Germany. He organized meetings of regional district leaders (Gauleiter) from the north and west where disgruntled leaders could voice their frustration with Munich—and by implication, Hitler. In September, inspired by Strasser, these leaders formed the Working Group of Northern and Western German Gauleiter of the NSDAP (Arbeitsgemeinschaft or AG), intended to be a sounding board for like-minded Gauleiter and a counterweight to party headquarters. They insisted that they were not challenging Hitler’s leadership, but the northern leaders were determined to create an alternative center of power to Munich.
Strasser was loyal to Hitler, recognizing him as the indispensable leader of the party, the glue that held it together. But, like Röhm, he considered himself a “colleague” of Hitler rather than a follower. Strasser’s unwavering loyalty to Hitler did not, however, extend to the program or the Munich headquarters. He believed that the program—the “immutable” Twenty-five Points of 1920—needed serious revision. Like many leaders in the industrial north, Strasser believed that the party should place far greater stress on its radical “socialist” impulses. He was wary of the southern faction’s heavy emphasis on fanatical nationalism and anti-Semitism and was convinced that the NSDAP should develop a labor-oriented, anticapitalist stance that would appeal to the industrial working class. His brand of “socialism,” as he made clear on numerous occasions, was not a form of Marxism but a radical national socialism, a German socialism rooted in the Volk. Speaking in the Reichstag in November 1925, Strasser explained: “We National Socialists want the economic revolution involving the nationalization of the economy. . . . We want in place of an exploitative capitalist economic system a real socialism, maintained not by a soulless Jewish-materialist outlook but by the believing, sacrificial, and unselfish old German community sentiment, community purpose and community feeling. We want the social revolution in order to bring about the national revolution.”
To provide a platform for these views, he and his younger brother Otto established their own publishing house, the Kampfverlag (Struggle Publishing), in Berlin, which would publish a variety of National Socialist newspapers and journals. Foremost among them was the daily Workers’ Press(Arbeiterzeitung), which focused largely on Berlin, and the National Socialist Letters, a bimonthly journal that was intended to produce serious intellectual articles devoted to National Socialist ideology and strategy. Strasser was the Kampfverlag’s publisher, but for its managing editor (and chief writer) he selected a young Rhinelander, a university graduate, would-be novelist, poet, freelance journalist, and political agitator who had joined the party only in late 1924. Dr. Joseph Goebbels (he received his PhD in Romantic Literature from Heidelberg in 1921) was short in stature and slight of build; he walked with a pronounced limp due to a crippled foot from a childhood illness. He was filled with a deep-seated rage at his failed career aspirations and his physical deformity, a burning resentment that he projected onto the German nation and its unjust treatment by Fate. Inspired by Hitler’s defiant words in the Munich courtroom, he became a fervent adherent, worshipping Hitler from afar as the ordained savior who would restore the soul of Germany and lead the nation once more to greatness.
Based in Elberfeld in the Rhineland and working as a freelance journalist, Goebbels was drawn to the NSDAP and to Strasser, acquiring a reputation as a firebrand, both for his incendiary articles in the Völkisch press and his equally biting oratory. He proved to be a creative and gifted public speaker, sharp-tongued, clever, a master of unabashed demagoguery. He quickly became a popular speaker at National Socialist and Völkisch gatherings throughout the Rhineland and across northern Germany, drawing on an extensive repertoire of radical rhetoric. Goebbels shared Strasser’s vision of National Socialism that emphasized the socialist strains of the party’s ideology, at times swerving toward a form of national Bolshevism. In 1925 he was appointed business manager of the Gau (party district) Rhineland-North, overseeing its press and its propaganda. He showed remarkable skill at both.
During the winter of 1925–26 Strasser and Goebbels set to work on a draft of a revised party program and distributed copies to a number of district leaders in the north. In it they endorsed a closer relationship with Russia and emphasized the party’s socialism and its determination to crush corrupt capitalism. To demonstrate the party’s leftist credentials they also advocated Nazi participation in a Communist- and Socialist-sponsored referendum to block a government plan that would compensate aristocratic and princely families for property lost in the 1919 revolution.
They chose not to inform Hitler about this draft revision, though it was widely discussed by National Socialist leaders in the Northern Working Group. The draft did not find universal approval even in the North, but it was, by its very existence, a challenge to the established powers within the party. It was not until February 1926 that Hitler, informed by an incensed Gottfried Feder, came to understand fully the threat posed by Strasser and his draft. He immediately called a conference of party leaders to set matters straight. The meeting was to be held in the Baroque city of Bamberg, in Upper Franconia (northern Bavaria), in February. Goebbels and Strasser traveled to the conference intending to press their ideas, hopeful that Hitler could be won over to their views. But Hitler preempted them. The audience of some sixty participants consisted largely of leaders from the south, and Hitler, speaking first, delivered a powerful address of some two hours, scornfully dismissing the draft and insisting that the program of 1920 was inviolate.
Without mentioning Strasser or Goebbels by name, he restated the party’s commitment to the principle of private property and firmly rejected any National Socialist participation in the leftist referendum on princely property. It would undermine the NSDAP’s standing with the already nervous middle class and undermine his efforts to win financial backing from prominent business interests. Most of all, the NSDAP could not, under any circumstances, afford to be seen as working with the Communists and Socialists. He was equally adamant about the party’s foreign policy. He restated his conviction that France was Germany’s implacable enemy and hence England and Italy offered the most as potential allies. Cooperation with Russia was unthinkable. “Anyone who talks about a Russo-German alliance hasn’t realized that such an alliance would result in the immediate political bolshevization of Germany and thus national suicide.”
When he at last rose to speak, Strasser was clearly intimidated. He stumbled haltingly through his remarks, and Goebbels decided to pass on his opportunity to address the room. Both had assumed that Hitler would be sympathetic to their ideas and were shocked by his performance. “What Hitler is this? A reactionary?” Goebbels agonized in his diary that night. “Incredibly clumsy and uncertain. Russian question completely beside the point. Italy and England [Germany’s] natural allies. Awful! Our mission is the destruction of Bolshevism. Bolshevism and its Jewish progenitors.” Germany, Hitler had insisted, must ultimately secure Russia, with its vast lands and natural resources. Germany was to pursue a colonial policy, not in Asia or Africa, but on the European continent. On the home front, National Socialism must not shake the principle of private property. The party’s program, Hitler declared, was sufficient as it was. To Goebbels’s disgust, Hitler was obviously satisfied with it. “Feder nods. Ley nods. Streicher nods. Esser nods. It hurts me to the bottom of my soul,” Goebbels confided to his diary, “to see you in this company.”
Bamberg was a decisive moment in the evolution of the NSDAP. At Bamberg, Hitler reasserted his control over the party. The National Socialists were fond of invoking “the idea” of the movement, but at Bamberg it was not so much this nebulous ideological idea that carried the day but Hitler’s powerful personality. He had become the embodiment of the “idea,” and to oppose the program was to oppose him. The NSDAP was now unequivocally Hitler’s party, and the leaders at Bamberg overwhelmingly swore fealty to him. He and he alone would ultimately decide the content of the program. Isolated in Bamberg, Strasser and Goebbels beat a hasty retreat. Hitler demanded that Strasser destroy all copies of his draft program, which he did. And Goebbels, mortified by Hitler’s speech, returned to Ebersfeld shaken, wondering how he could have been so wrong about Hitler.
In May, delegates at the party congress formally pronounced the NSDAP’s Twenty-five Points immutable, and early in the summer Hitler prohibited the existence of working groups within the party. To placate Strasser and his followers, Hitler courted leading men among the northern leaders, embracing those who were a potential threat to his leadership. He tapped Franz Pfeffer von Salomon, a member of Strasser’s Northern Working Group, to assume the national leadership of the SA, a position he had left vacant since Röhm’s departure in April of the previous year. Pfeffer had a long history of right-wing militancy—he was a Free Corps leader, a participant in the Kapp Putsch, and a resistance fighter against the French occupation of the Ruhr. In 1925—at age twenty-five—he became the Gauleiter of the important Westphalian/Ruhr district. On accepting Hitler’s offer on November 1, 1926, he changed his name to von Pfeffer, feeling that Pfeffer von Salomon sounded too Jewish. He understood his mission and the place of the SA in Hitler’s plans. As Hitler had unsuccessfully tried to impress upon Röhm, the SA was to be neither a secret band of conspirators nor an armed militia but an instrument of party policy, subordinate to the political leadership in Munich and, above all, to the Führer. Although tension between the regional SA and the political leadership would linger for years to come, under Pfeffer’s leadership the friction receded, and by early 1927, the SA seemed firmly under Hitler’s control.
Hitler also had plans for Strasser’s chief lieutenant, Joseph Goebbels. Shortly after the Bamberg conference, Hitler launched a personal offensive to lure Goebbels away from his mentor. He invited Goebbels to Munich to give a speech at the Bürgerbräukeller, the Nazi holy of holies, and when he arrived at the station, he found Hitler’s gleaming black Mercedes waiting for him. As he was driven through the city, Goebbels noticed gigantic blood-red placards plastered everywhere announcing his speech. It was, Goebbels thought, “a noble reception.”
For several days Hitler played the genial host; he invited Goebbels to join him and a lady friend for dinner; Hitler supplied tickets for concerts and the opera and offered his chauffeured car for tours of the Bavarian countryside; they had conversations tête-à-tête about party matters, each move calculated to convince Goebbels that he was a valued figure in the party, even a trusted friend of the Führer. Dr. Goebbels did not need Strasser, Hitler implied, he could stand on his own. In private discussion with a small circle of party leaders, Hitler chastised those who had challenged him at Bamberg, then proceeded to expand on the views he had propounded so fiercely at the conference. “We ask questions,” Goebbels wrote, “he answers brilliantly. I love him. A mixture of collectivism and individualism. Land to the people. Production, where one creates, individualism. Corporations, trusts, finished goods, transportation, etc. socialized.” Goebbels was overwhelmed. The disenchantment he had experienced at Bamberg was swept away by Hitler’s attentions, his show of friendship, his charisma. Goebbels succumbed entirely. Hitler “has thought everything through . . . always sees the big picture.” Such a man, Goebbels gushed adoringly, “can be my leader. I bow to the greater man, the political genius.”
Hitler rewarded him by appointing him to head the Berlin NSDAP. It was a tough assignment, but Goebbels seemed up to the challenge. He spoke the language of revolutionary politics; he espoused a nebulous, non-Marxist form of socialism, and his attacks on capitalism, mixed with a particularly toxic dose of anti-Semitism, were vicious and unrelenting. When he arrived in the capital, the Berlin party was disorganized and in disarray, with barely eight hundred members, and the city—the “asphalt desert,” as Goebbels sometimes referred to it—was the epicenter of left-wing politics in Germany, a stronghold of both the Social Democrats and the Communists. Goebbels threw himself into the fray with utter fanaticism. He wrote incendiary articles in the party press, he pushed the SA into the streets; he provoked violent confrontations with the Communists’ powerful paramilitary Red Front. He had a natural propensity for theatricality, for public spectacle, which he would develop to great effect in the following years. After only a few difficult months, he had injected new energy, new confidence, and aggressiveness into the Berlin party, greatly expanded its membership, and given it a much higher profile in Berlin politics.
Goebbels would prove to be an inspired choice, both in Berlin and nationally, but Hitler’s most important move at this juncture was to strike a deal with Gregor Strasser. In the aftermath of Bamberg, Strasser agreed to disband the Northern Working Group, and Hitler agreed to remove the loathsome Esser from the party leadership. He then asked Strasser to take charge of the party’s propaganda department. Then a devastating car crash in March 1926 left him seriously injured and bedridden through much of the spring, and Hitler was forced to name an interim director to manage the Propaganda Section until Strasser’s appointment was formally announced in mid-September. But Strasser was brought back into the fold.
A tireless organizer and campaigner, Strasser seemed ideal for the position, and he took up his new task with the same boundless energy that characterized all his political actions. Between 1926 and 1928, the Propaganda Section initiated a set of organizational reforms intended to tighten the leadership’s control of the party and to enhance Nazi campaign performance. He crafted a vertical organizational structure that established a clear chain of command. He redrew the NSDAP’s regional boundaries to conform to the Reichstag thirty-five electoral districts, and the authority of the regional Chiefs, the Gauleiter, was substantially strengthened in each area. It was the Gauleiter and their propaganda staffs that were charged with executing the party’s campaign directives.
This emphasis on propaganda, its organization and content, came as a result of Hitler’s decision, made while in prison, to take a new strategic tack. He had learned his lessons from the failed Putsch. “From now on,” he said to a follower during a visit to Landsberg, “we must follow a new line of action. . . . When I resume active work, it will be necessary to pursue a new policy. Instead of working to achieve power by an armed coup, we shall have to hold our noses and enter the Reichstag.” The party would embrace parliamentary politics not to save German democracy but to destroy it. “Sooner or later,” he said, “we shall have a majority—and after that Germany.”
The key was propaganda, and here Hitler had quite specific ideas. Propaganda, he argued, “must be aimed at the emotions and only to a very limited degree at the so-called intellect.” Propaganda appeals, therefore, “must be adjusted to the most limited intelligence among those it is addressed to.” The art of propaganda lay “in understanding the emotional ideas of the great masses and finding, through a psychologically correct form, the way to the attention and thence to the heart of the broad masses.” To do this, it was necessary to have only a few major themes. “The receptivity of the great masses is very limited,” he added scornfully, “their intelligence is small, but their power of forgetting is enormous. In consequence . . . 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.” “The people in their overwhelming majority are so feminine by nature and attitude that sober reasoning determines their thoughts and actions far less than emotion.” Given the limited intelligence and “primitive sentiments” of the broad masses, it was, therefore, necessary to restrict appeals “to a few points and repeat them over and over.” Equally important, due to “the primitive simplicity” of their minds, the “great masses of the people . . . more easily fall a victim to a big lie than to a little one, since they themselves lie in little things, but would be ashamed of lies that were too big. Such a falsehood will never enter their heads, and they will not be able to believe in the possibility of such monstrous effrontery and infamous misrepresentation in others.” The “Jews and their Marxist fighting organizations” operate on this “sound principle,” and, in self-defense, so, too, should the National Socialists.
The party, for Hitler, existed for propaganda, and these were the principles on which the party’s propaganda would be based. Street propaganda, recruitment drives, and mobilization for elections now became the raison d’être of all National Socialist activities. Hitler’s first priority, after establishing his control over the movement, was to create a broadly based, centrally directed party organization necessary for the NSDAP’s entry onto the stage of Weimar electoral politics. The Völkisch campaigns of 1924 had been too disjoined, lacking clarity and central direction. With the reestablishment of the party in 1925, Hitler hoped to concentrate responsibility for the conduct of nationwide propaganda in the hands of the party leadership in Munich. He was convinced that if the reconstructed NSDAP was to compete successfully in democratic elections, it needed a grassroots organization capable of attracting dues-paying members and mobilizing voters.
In the spring of 1926 the party took the first steps toward creating a tightly organized and energetic propaganda operation. Reorganization of the party’s propaganda apparatus was to be taken at the grass roots. Each local party chapter (Ortsgruppe) was ordered to organize a propaganda cell to be staffed by party members from diverse occupational backgrounds who were “infused with a fanatical, fiery spirit for our movement.” To broaden the social and cultural perspective of local propaganda operations, one third of cell operatives were to be women. As a measure to increase centralized control over local propaganda, the leadership instructed the cells to bypass their regional leaders (Gauleiter) and establish direct contact with the Propaganda Leadership in Munich.
The drive to create this network of propaganda cells, inspired by the Communist example, was launched in 1926, but the party had neither the financial resources nor the membership to generate the sort of national grassroots activity that Hitler and Strasser envisioned. Goebbels suggested another approach. He praised the party’s expanding organizational network but warned that the party should have no illusions about its strength or effectiveness. The network of propaganda cells was “ready to break in some places,” while in others it was “too finely spun, as delicate as a spider’s web.” On the other hand, Goebbels noted that the party was truly well organized in three or four areas, and rather than expending its energies on a nationwide effort, the NSDAP should concentrate its resources in these places. He argued that “our objective in the coming winter must be to transform one, maybe two dozen large metropolitan areas into unshakable bulwarks of the movement.” These cities must be carefully chosen, and then, only after the most exhaustive and detailed preparation, subjected to an intensive propaganda barrage. Following centralized direction and guidelines from the Propaganda Section in Munich, these propaganda offensives would saturate the selected cities with leaflets, placards, parades, pamphlets, rallies, and special appearances by the party’s “big guns.” In this way, the party could maximize its very limited financial resources, employ its best speakers, and devastate its overwhelmed enemies in the targeted cities. Having secured such urban bastions, the NSDAP could launch an assault on the surrounding countryside.
Although Goebbels’s plan found a favorable reception in the party’s leadership, it was not implemented in 1926. Instead, Hitler opted to continue the party’s emphasis on national grassroots expansion and to tighten the party’s central control over its burgeoning but loose apparatus. He confirmed that decision at the NSDAP’s first Party Day congress at Weimar, when he officially clarified the national chain of command. The local party chapters were explicitly subordinated to the regional chiefs (Gauleiter), who were in turn selected by Hitler. The local party chapters (Ortsgruppen) were required to submit monthly reports on their propaganda activities to the regional party leadership, where the Gauleiter and his propaganda staff would then pass them on to the Reich Propaganda Leadership in Munich. There they would be analyzed and used to formulate the party’s propaganda and campaign strategy.
From 1926 to late 1927, the thrust of the party’s propaganda was set by Strasser in his role as propaganda chief, but the ideological message remained blurred. Appeals to farmers, shopkeepers, and clerks did not cease, but Strasser relentlessly pressed for greater efforts to mobilize the urban proletariat, stressing the revolutionary, anticapitalist themes calculated to attract working-class support. That position was vigorously opposed by other Nazi leaders in the less industrial south. They contended that the future of National Socialism lay not in the cities, where the Communists and Social Democrats dominated working-class politics, but in the towns and villages of the countryside, where the small-town, rural population would be more attracted to radical nationalist and anti-Semitic themes.
Hitler chose not to intervene in these disputes. His interests at this point were primarily organizational, not ideological, and he was willing to tolerate considerable internal controversy so long as the rival factions recognized his ultimate authority to determine party policy. But since his own views remained typically vague, conflicts within the NSDAP persisted, and ideological murkiness continued to characterize the NSDAP as it entered the vigorous regional campaigns of the mid-1920s.
Behind these campaigns was a vision of propaganda that was shared by Strasser and Goebbels. Whatever theme the party chose to emphasize, the forms, dictated by Munich, were to be the same. Even when the party was an obscure fringe phenomenon, the Nazis envisioned nothing less than the creation of an alternative political universe, a new political myth, complete with their own festivals, rituals, songs, symbols, and language. By 1927, when the party published its first propaganda handbook for local Nazi officials, the basic forms of Nazi propaganda had already emerged. The handbook described the different officially sanctioned types of meetings, festivals, celebrations, and demonstrations; it set guidelines for their organizational format, advertising, and security; and it offered instructions on how to make the most effective use of leaflets and placards, the party press, films, and other forms of agitational activity. Included among these activities were the major festivals on the National Socialist calendar: the celebration of Hitler’s birthday on April 20; the summer solstice festival on June 22; the Day of Mourning, a memorial service in honor of fallen party comrades; a reenactment of the march to the Feldherrnhalle on November 9; and Christmas. Later, the party’s increasingly elaborate annual rally at Nuremberg during September, which would acquire monumental dimensions after Hitler’s assumption of power in 1933, would be added to the list.
In between these fixed dates on the calendar, the party encouraged the holding of other propaganda events: “German Days” or “German Evenings”; SA marches and parades; flag dedications; memorial services for war veterans. Regardless of region or featured speaker, these ceremonies were intended to follow a set of standard procedures. The sight of the SA marching through a small town or big-city neighborhood to a wreath-laying ceremony at the local war memorial followed by a military religious service, either in church, under a tent, or in the open air, became a familiar spectacle throughout Germany after 1925.
These Nazi festivals followed a set ceremonial form. Some ritual events might consume hours or, in some instances, days. A typical German Day festival might begin with a torchlight parade from a neighboring town, where a ceremonial military retreat was followed by a public rally. The evening would then conclude with a concert by the local SA band and a speech in the hall of a hotel. The next morning was to be given over to a ceremony honoring Germany’s fallen heroes, followed by church services, and a musical concert in the marketplace. After lunch, a “propaganda march” to neighboring villages would be planned, with brief rallies and a short concert in each, before returning for another concert at the marketplace and a speech in the town hall. Marches, music, and masses were the essential ingredients of this National Socialist event.
The “public mass meeting” was a particularly favored option on the Nazi propaganda menu. Following the party’s guidelines, it called for a major speech and a public discussion. In the last turbulent years of the Weimar Republic, this sort of meeting, advertised in the local press, was viewed as an effective means of recruitment. Since Communists and Social Democrats regularly attended these meetings, catcalls, insults, threats, and finally bottle-throwing melees often ensued. Such fracases were not only accorded wide coverage in the local press, giving the party heightened visibility, they were also widely seen as a rough form of local entertainment.
The party sought to attract not the local elite, but respected representatives of the different occupational, professional, and social groups who might then lead the way for others to join. If the local bookseller or schoolteacher or farmer saw something in the NSDAP, then maybe the Nazis were not so out of bounds after all. These notables were invited to special recruitment evenings that included a ritual ceremony of great solemnity that combined many of the basic elements of the NSDAP’s propaganda repertory. Instructions for the evening were detailed down to the minute.
Beyond these grassroots forms of propaganda, the NSDAP in 1926 held the first of what came in subsequent years to be its signature event: the national party rally. The event was held in Weimar in the summer, and attendance was modest, with only seven to eight thousand in attendance, roughly half of whom were Storm Troopers. In their brown caps, shirts, and trousers, which became their official uniform in 1926, they marched in massed formation past Hitler, who, with arm outstretched in the Nazi salute, reviewed the troops. Trumpets, drums, torchlight parades, the solemn military ritual of the retreat at day’s end—all would be essential elements in the annual rallies that would later be staged with increasing grandiosity in Nuremberg.
The Weimar rally marked the first public appearance of a new National Socialist formation, the Security Staff or SS (Schutzstaffel). Unlike the mass SA, the SS was a small elite organization, founded in November of the previous year as an heir to Hitler’s personal bodyguard, the Shock Troop Adolf Hitler. In these early days, the SS, with its jet black uniforms with silver trim, was a mysterious unit; its duties were ambiguous and its place in the National Socialist hierarchy unclear. It was officially subordinate to the SA, but, in fact, owed its allegiance directly to Hitler. It gradually took on policing duties, ferreting out spies within the party, compiling lists of Jews and enemies of the NSDAP, and was always alert for opportunities to expand its influence. But during the party’s formative years the SS remained a small, select organization operating in the shadow of the much larger SA. It had yet to acquire the bone-chilling reputation for cold-eyed murder, sadism, and unthinkable cruelty that it would develop in the Third Reich.
It was also at the Weimar rally that Hitler introduced the “blood flag” into the National Socialist liturgy. The flag had been carried at the head of the procession on November 9, 1923, stained, presumably, with the blood of the “martyrs” who died at the Feldherrnhalle. In a reverent, almost mystical ceremony enacted before the massed formation of the party’s uniformed minions, Hitler solemnly touched the sacred blood flag to the banner of each SA and SS unit, an act of consecration that symbolically bound the Storm Troopers and SS men to him in eternal loyalty. It was a ceremony to be enacted with solemn piety at all subsequent national party rallies.
By the end of 1927, with Hitler’s dominance over the NSDAP firmly established, a “Führer cult” gradually took hold within the party. Before the Putsch, he was simply “Herr Hitler” or “the boss,” but after his release from prison, Hess and then others began referring to him as “the Führer,” the leader. It caught on. The “German greeting” of “Heil” morphed into “Heil Hitler,” and although the idea did not originate with Hitler, he did nothing to discourage it. Adding to his mystique, he grew more aloof in his personal and professional activities, a being apart, hard to reach, his movements, his whereabouts, shrouded in mystery. Even high-ranking party officials often had to wait days or weeks before being granted an audience.
Much of 1926 he spent away from Munich, retreating to the Alpine village of Berchtesgaden, where he worked feverishly on the second volume of Mein Kampf. There above the village on the slopes of the Obersalzberg he rented a cottage, Haus Wachenfeld, from a widowed party member. Within a short time he was able to buy the cottage on very favorable terms and expanded it gradually, until, during the Third Reich, it was transformed into the grand villa, the Berghof. The first volume of Mein Kampf appeared in July 1925, the second in December 1927. The book registered only modest sales but contributed mightily to his reputation within the party as a political visionary, a man of piercing political insights and profound philosophical depths. Couched in portentous biblical imagery, Hitler presented himself as the prophet called by providence to unite the German peoples of Europe and lead them from the depths of their humiliation to redemption. “Today,” the book begins, “it seems to me providential that Fate should have chosen Braunau on the Inn as my birthplace. For this little town lies on the boundary between two German states which we of the younger generation at least have made it our life work to reunite by every means at our disposal.” Sounding the essential racial and expansionist themes that reverberated through the roughly thousand pages of text that followed, he proclaimed that “one blood demands one Reich. . . . Only when the Reich borders include the very last German, but can no longer guarantee his daily bread, will the moral right to acquire foreign soil arise from the distress of our own people. Their sword will become our plow, and from the tears of war the daily bread of future generations will grow. And so this little city on the border seems to me the symbol of a great mission.”
Aside from detailing his ideas about marketing for a mass public, Mein Kampf offered nothing new to the party faithful. Hitler’s obsessive racial anti-Semitism and his genocidal rhetoric; his determination to expunge “Judeo-Marxism” from the face of the earth; his calls for Lebensraum in the East had been loudly proclaimed in innumerable speeches and articles for years. Readers of the book might find it convoluted, contradictory, turgid, and virtually unreadable (it was, and they did), but party members were wise to have a copy on hand. The book was a collection of dubious aphorisms, backward projections of Hitler’s views, a semifictional portrayal of his past, stray thoughts on alcohol, diet, dress, and sex, historical observations, and a tangled effort at theory. What came through loud and clear was Hitler’s insatiable hatred, his enraged self-pity. Sales of Mein Kampf remained disappointing until the Nazi electoral breakthrough in 1930, when the book’s popularity followed the sharp upward curve of Nazi electoral fortunes. Even then, the tragic irony of Mein Kampf was not that people read it and were convinced by it, but that people did not read it.
While Hitler in private appeared distant, disconnected to those around him, an empty shell, he came alive when he strode onstage. To read Hitler’s speeches is to miss entirely the passion, the power, and electricity of his performances. Parades, spectacles, rallies were important, but for Hitler “the power which has always started the greatest religions and political avalanches in history rolling has from time immemorial been the magic power of the spoken word, and that alone.” The “broad masses of the people,” he declared, “can be moved only by the power of speech. All great movements are popular movements, stirred either by the cruel Goddess of Distress or by the firebrand of the word hurled among the masses. . . . Only a storm of hot passion can turn the destinies of peoples, and he alone can rouse passion who bears it within himself. It alone gives its chosen one the words which like hammer blows can open the gates to the heart of a people.”
Between 1925 and 1928 Hitler’s grand vision of propaganda was the ideal; practice was another matter. For most of the period the party relied on the regional chiefs and a cadre of dedicated activists sprinkled thinly across the country. The Storm Troopers, whose parades, demonstrations, house-to-house canvassing, and other activities Hitler considered essential to political mobilization, were certainly the most visible and energetic elements of Nazi propaganda. The party had neither the money nor the manpower to create a national network of propaganda cells, and its organization was still too loose to guarantee the party leadership the degree of control it desired. The Gauleiter, although appointed by Hitler and loyal to him, displayed a tenacious independence, choosing to emphasize the themes they favored and to target the constituencies they thought most susceptible in their area. As a consequence, while the forms and techniques of Nazi political mobilization were becoming more uniform, the party could look quite different from region to region.
In January 1926, Strasser left the Propaganda Leadership to take command of the party’s Organization Section, recommending his young adjutant Heinrich Himmler to run the party’s national propaganda operation. Himmler, twenty-eight with a degree in agriculture from Munich’s Technical University, had participated in the Putsch and thereafter served as Strasser’s deputy in Lower Bavaria in 1924–25, hurrying on his motorbike along narrow country lanes to deliver messages, give speeches, and arrange meetings. When Strasser moved to Berlin in 1925, Himmler served as his surrogate in Lower Bavaria. Strasser found Himmler, with his thick rimless glasses and pale owlish face, humorless and uncomfortably formal, but he recommended him to the party leadership nonetheless. Punctilious, obsessed with detail and discipline, Himmler combined a prodigious bureaucratic talent for organization with a cold ideological fervor. Hitler was duly impressed. In January 1928 Himmler assumed the reins of the Propaganda Section and began preparations for the first national election since 1924.
The party, though still very small, was better organized and prepared for a national campaign than four years earlier, but major problems remained. Communications between Munich and the regional and local party organizations were unreliable, compelling the Propaganda Section on occasion to publish directives openly in the Völkischer Beobachter, to which all party chapters were required to subscribe. Mixups and miscommunication were common. The Propaganda Section found itself fielding endless queries and complaints on matters large and small.
Complaints and demands went both ways. If a local group decided to draft its own leaflets, the text had to be first submitted to and approved by the Propaganda Section. Himmler chided affiliates that failed to comply with directives from Munich. All chapters were ordered to send regular reports on their activities and those of the party’s enemies to the Propaganda Section, and if Himmler discovered an Ortsgruppe or district underperforming, he fired off threatening dispatches. He always seemed to be watching, attentive to even the smallest detail. Whereas Strasser drew followers to him through the strength of his personality, Himmler compelled cooperation with pettifogging harassment of the local groups.
With much enthusiasm but also with a campaign apparatus that was underfunded and far from the smooth-functioning organization Hitler envisioned, the NSDAP prepared for Reichstag elections on May 20, 1928. The Nazis wanted to enter the Reichstag, Goebbels forthrightly stated, in order “to arm ourselves with democracy’s weapons. If democracy is foolish enough to give us free railway passes and salaries that is its problem. It does not concern us. Any way of bringing about the revolution is fine by us.” This was the very public position the party had taken since 1925, and it had paid very poor dividends. The NSDAP had staggered through the regional state elections of 1926 and 1927, faring miserably all across the board. In none of the ten provincial elections of the period could the NSDAP muster even 4 percent of the vote. Despite the fierce intensity of their efforts, the Nazis had shown themselves remarkably inept in the arts of democratic electoral politics.
The NSDAP’s poor performance at the polls was not simply a consequence of its organizational shortcomings; it also reflected the effects of a hopeful though fragile economic recovery. The Dawes Plan had ushered in a period of relative economic stability and political calm, wedged between the seismic disruptions of the hyperinflation and the Great Depression. The Golden Twenties, as the period from 1924 to 1929 came to be called, saw a resurgence of the pro-Weimar parties and a serious setback for both the conservative and radical right. For the first time in Germany’s tumultuous postwar history, it seemed to have achieved a measure of domestic stability. The Weimar government also jettisoned its policy of noncompliance and obfuscation and moved to reintegrate Germany into the European state system. In 1926 Germany signed the Locarno Pact with England, France, Belgium, and Italy recognizing the western borders of the Reich as set by Versailles and pledging not to go to war with its western neighbors. Significantly, no such agreement was reached on Germany’s eastern frontier. In 1928, Germany was a signatory to the Kellogg-Briand Pact, an international agreement in which signatory states promised not to resort to war to resolve “disputes or conflicts of whatever nature or of whatever origin they may be, which may arise among them.” Germany was at last admitted to the League of Nations and reentered the community of nations. It was no longer a pariah state.
The Reichstag election of May 1928 seemed to confirm that newfound economic and political stability. The Nazis could muster only a dismal 2.6 percent of the vote. Many, using the poor performance of the anti-Republican parties as a yardstick, have interpreted the 1928 elections as a triumph of Weimar democracy, and used the abysmal Nazi vote as a baseline from which to measure its dramatic breakthrough in 1930 and its breathtaking ascent thereafter. After all, for the first time since 1923, a Social Democrat, Hermann Müller, assumed the chancellorship, leading a broadly based pro-democratic coalition (the Great Coalition) that stretched from the SPD to the liberal but right-of-center German People’s Party.
Yet the elections of 1928 reveal not that German democracy was on solid ground but rather offer subtle manifestations of a momentous transformation within the Weimar party system and within the middle-class electorate in particular. This trend was not reflected in the growth of radicalism but in the steady growth of special-interest, single-issue, and regional parties. Greatly facilitated by Weimar’s radical system of proportional representation, sixty thousand votes nationwide earned a party a seat in the Reichstag, parties such as the Bavarian Peasants Party, the Hanoverian Party, the Homeowners Party, the Christian Service and Peoples Party, the Christian-National Peasants and Rural People’s Party, the People’s Justice Party, the Revalorization and Reconstruction Party, not to be confused with the Revalorization and Construction Party, both representing people who were irate at the government’s harsh stabilization of the economy after the hyperinflation. Altogether some thirty such parties crowded onto the ballot in every state.
These small splinter parties drew their support almost exclusively from middle-class voters and although they claimed to be “above politics,” their programs contained an implicit ideological message. They attacked big business, big labor, and big government. They dismissed Weimar’s parliamentary system as the tool of powerful special interests and assailed the liberal and conservative parties that had sold out the small businessman, the small farmer, the small homeowner, civil servants, and pensioners. Instead, they advocated various forms of corporatist government, where representation would be based on occupational or interest blocs, each given equal weight. In this way, the “disenfranchised” of the Weimar system could compete on equal terms with the powerful entrenched interests. Although most of these parties were not radical, they represented a mounting anti-system protest that went far beyond simple interest politics. Under more desperate circumstances, circumstances that would soon come with the onset of the Great Depression, their message of protest could—and would—be nestled quite snugly within the ideological framework of National Socialism.
Individually these small splinter parties were utterly insignificant, but together they attracted a sizable chunk of the middle-class electorate, revealing in the process that traditional political allegiances had been badly shaken and that a major migration of middle-class voters was under way. In 1919 and 1920 these Lilliputian parties had garnered only 3 percent of the national vote; by 1924 they won 10 percent, and even when the economy rebounded during the Golden Twenties, their vote inched upward in regional elections, while the liberals and conservatives stumbled. In May 1928, they captured 13.7 percent of the national vote, matching the Conservatives and surpassing the two liberal parties combined. More than a year before the Great Depression crashed over Germany, roughly one third of the middle-class electorate had deserted their traditional parties and were clearly searching for political alternatives.
In 1928, the high-water mark of Weimar stability, Germans, especially middle-class Germans, were not ready to embrace the radical politics of Hitler and the NSDAP, but they were increasingly disenchanted with the political mainstream. The Nazis were not yet able to capitalize on this growing disaffection, and for them the outcome of the Reichstag election of 1928 was a disappointing surprise. After all the reorganization, all the propaganda innovations, all the ideological fervor, the party had actually lost ground since 1924. With 2.6 percent of the vote, the NSDAP was again relegated to the fringes of German politics, and Hitler, the Führer, the self-proclaimed savior of Germany, seemed condemned to remain a marginal, quixotic figure in German political life. That was the verdict of an undercover official from the Reich Ministry of the Interior whose confidential report on the NSDAP declared: “This is a party that is not going anywhere. It is a numerically insignificant . . . radical revolutionary splinter group incapable of exerting any noticeable influence on the great mass of the population and the course of political events.” On the eve of the Great Depression, few would have disputed his judgment.