The Nazis desperately needed an issue, something that would thrust them into the mainstream of German political consciousness. The Wall Street crash and the onset of the Great Depression in the fall of 1929 did just that. As the stock market in New York collapsed, the Americans withdrew their short-term loans, and the German economy, so dependent on those loans, careened downward like the tail of a falling kite. Between June 1928 and May 1930, industrial production in Germany dropped by 31 percent; unemployment, especially among blue-collar workers, catapulted by 200 percent, and the government deficit mushroomed as claims for unemployment compensation skyrocketed. Bankruptcies soared, as small businesses failed in record numbers. It was only the beginning. By the summer of 1932, over one third of the German labor force was out of work, and over two million more had simply vanished from the unemployment rolls, having exhausted their meager benefits. Armies of shabby, jobless men drifted through the streets; bread lines and soup kitchens appeared in every community and squalid shantytowns sprouted like weeds on the fringes of the cities. A rising wave of foreclosures swept across the rural countryside, leaving hundreds of family farms up for auction. For three dismal years the economic news remained grim: there was no light at the end of the tunnel, no recovery predicted for the next quarter, or the next, or the next. The economy plunged in a free fall, and an atmosphere of mounting fear, tinged with anger, settled over the country. It was just the situation the Nazis needed.
In the aftermath of the party’s poor showing in the 1928 elections, the Nazi leadership began a reevaluation of the NSDAP’s considerably muddled public image. Especially dispiriting for Nazi strategists was the party’s consistently poor performance in the large cities. Despite years of intense agitation, the Nazis had made only marginal inroads into the urban working class. In 1928, however, the NSDAP had done surprisingly well in a number of rural areas, notably the farm communities of Schleswig-Holstein, Lower Saxony, Thuringia, and Upper Bavaria. Almost immediately, party leaders renewed their calls for a greater cultivation of the rural and small-town electorate as well as a sharper focus on the middle class. While the Social Democrats and Communists blocked the Nazi advance into the mainstream of working-class politics, the declining popularity of the traditional liberal and conservative parties seemed to offer a promising opportunity for a revitalized NSDAP. Evaluating the outcome of the election, the Völkischer Beobachter of May 31, 1928, signaled the party’s new direction. “The results in the countryside have shown that greater successes can be achieved with less expenditure of energy, money, and time than in the large cities. National Socialist rallies with good speakers are real events in small towns and villages and are talked about for weeks. In the large cities, on the other hand, even rallies with three or four thousand people disappear and are forgotten.”
As a result of these considerations, the Nazis undertook a significant shift in the focus of their propaganda. Without reducing its efforts to win a blue-collar following, the NSDAP intensified and broadened its campaign to cultivate support within the middle class. Although the party’s program remained essentially unchanged, the social revolutionary strategy advocated by Strasser and his followers assumed an increasingly subordinate role in Nazi policy. Even Strasser’s thinking underwent a gradual transformation after the 1928 debacle; he was not prepared to give up on the working class but recognized the need for a shift in emphasis. Hitler himself had presaged the party’s reorientation by publicly reaffirming the NSDAP’s strong support for private property during the 1928 campaign, explaining that Nazi demands “to expropriate the owners without compensation of any land needed for the common purpose,” Point Seventeen of the party’s Twenty-five Points, applied only to “alien” or “antisocial”—that is, Jewish—businesses and farms. Building on this foundation, the party gradually intensified its vilification of the department stores and consumer cooperatives so resented by small business and launched a major campaign to enhance its appeal to the rural, landowning population.
In addition to these propaganda offensives, the party also accelerated its efforts to infiltrate existing middle-class organizations and clubs as well as to sponsor occupational associations of its own. Between 1928 and 1930, the NSDAP founded its own organizations for doctors, lawyers, and students, while creating a National Socialist farm association as well. The NSDAP had not abandoned its determination to become a party of mass integration, bridging the great social divides of German politics, but it had become increasingly clear that a solid base of support within the fractious Mittelstand (middle class) offered the most promising foundation on which to build.
At the same time, the party introduced changes in its approach to political agitation. Recognizing its very limited resources and its determination to attract maximum public attention, the party adopted a variation of the plan first suggested by Goebbels two years earlier. In a memorandum of December 1928, Heinrich Himmler, chief of the Propaganda Section, announced his intention of conducting concentrated propaganda offensives “from time to time in every region of Germany” that would “surpass . . . our previous agitational activities.” These “propaganda actions” were to be carefully prepared and coordinated in one area after another. Seventy to two hundred rallies would be held in the selected districts (Gaue) within a period of seven to ten days. Motorized SA parades would be launched, well-known party figures would make appearances, and thousands of leaflets would be distributed in more than a hundred villages, towns, and cities in the area. An official list of the party’s most popular speakers would be made available to the local groups along with instructions on how to place requests for their favorites with the Gau and national headquarters. The objective of such saturation campaigns would be to concentrate the party’s energies and meager financial resources on specially selected locales, where the national party would rouse local Nazi activists, spark the growth of the party press, and stimulate recruitment for the SA and other party organizations. Most important, these propaganda actions would be mounted not only during election campaigns but were intended to provide the NSDAP with a high public profile in the fallow periods between elections.
These organizational and strategic reforms coincided with the first tremors of the oncoming world economic crisis, but the party was still groping for some issue that would provide the NSDAP with the national visibility it lacked. The revival of the highly volatile reparations issue in 1929 offered the party precisely the opportunity it needed. A new plan sought to establish exactly what Germany owed and to arrange a final schedule of payments. Drafted by an international committee of economic experts under the chairmanship of American businessman Owen Young, a final report was released on June 9, 1929, known as the Young Plan, and called for Germany to make payments over a period of fifty-nine years with annuities mounting gradually to a maximum of approximately 2.4 billion marks. Although that figure was considerably lower than the original Allied claim of 132 billion marks, the plan provoked a storm of protest in Germany. When the Great Coalition government accepted the report as the basis for negotiations, Alfred Hugenberg, the chairman of the conservative DNVP, opened talks with several right-wing organizations, including the Pan-German League, the Stahlhelm, and the NSDAP, to form a “front of national opposition” against the proposed settlement.
Hugenberg was a wealthy industrialist and press magnate and the leader of the DNVP’s far right wing. He had assumed the leadership of the DNVP in the aftermath of the party’s terrible showing in the 1928 election when its vote plunged from 20 percent in 1924 to 14 percent. He was determined to push the conservative right in a more radical, anti-Republican direction. With his extensive network of newspapers behind him, Hugenberg hoped to lead a “national opposition” in a referendum against the plan, and a draft bill, the so-called Freedom Law, condemning the Young Plan, was composed for submission to the Reichstag and ultimately to the general public.
Although some Nazi militants opposed even limited cooperation with the conservatives, Hitler was convinced that a temporary alliance would serve the party’s interests. Utilizing its new organizational structure and drawing considerable financial support from conservative sources, the Nazis played by far the most prominent role in the campaign waged against the plan and its supporters. While Hugenberg provided the funding and the extensive press coverage, it was the brown-shirted Nazis the public saw on the streets collecting signatures, distributing anti-Young leaflets, and leading demonstrations against the plan.
The Young Plan, the Nazis wailed, was a “pact with the devil” forced on Germany by the rapacious victor states. It would produce an “insane indebtedness” that would destroy “all economic credit,” eliminate “job opportunities for millions,” and lead to “the ruin of Germany’s economy, its agriculture, its middle class, and its small businesses.” It would be, after the Dawes Plan, “a third Versailles,” which would enslave Germans for decades to come. Generations of Germans yet unborn would be paying tribute to the vengeful Allies until 1988! The Nazi propaganda offensive dominated Germany’s national press for months, and Hitler, rather than Hugenberg, occupied center stage throughout. But the Freedom Law was decisively defeated in the Reichstag in late November and a national referendum on the Young Plan held on December 22, 1929, received less than one third of the required votes. Yet, despite its failure to sabotage the new plan, the anti-Young campaign had served its purpose for Hitler. Association with Hugenberg’s DNVP lent the Nazis a touch of respectability in conservative circles that they had previously lacked and constituted a major step in revising public perceptions of the party. Following the conclusion of the campaign, police reports on Nazi activities noted that “more and more frequently members of the Mittelstand and the so-called better classes are seen [at Nazi events].” The coarse, unruly Nazis were becoming socially acceptable. Even more important, the NSDAP had clearly emerged as the most prominent and aggressive voice of the anti-Republican right at a time when the beleaguered government parties were vainly attempting to cope with the onset of the Great Depression.
Timing was key. Just as the anti-Young campaign drew to a close in late 1929, the world economic crisis hit Germany with the force of a howling gale. Industrial production began a precipitous slide, and as production fell, unemployment rose. By January 1930, over three million Germans were unemployed, and with tax revenue shrinking and the government deficit soaring, the Great Coalition government found it increasingly difficult to fund the now desperately needed unemployment insurance program. While the national liberal DVP, supported by the major employers’ associations, insisted on a reduction of benefits, the Social Democrats, backed by powerful labor unions, countered by demanding greater government contributions to the fund. Neither party was willing to abandon its “principles,” and compromise proved impossible. Finally, after securing the Reichstag’s approval of the Young Plan, the Great Coalition government dissolved in March 1930. It would be the last majority government of the Weimar era.
With the collapse of the Great Coalition, government based on a sound parliamentary basis proved unattainable. After surveying the bleak political landscape and finding no viable majority combination, Reich President Hindenburg turned to Heinrich Brüning, leader of the Catholic Zentrum’s Reichstag delegation, to form a government “above parties.” His name was suggested to Hindenburg by General Kurt von Schleicher, a “desk general” who had served on Hindenburg’s staff during the world war. In that post he had acted as a monitor of the political scene, and, although only a captain, became a trusted advisor to the General Staff in political matters. After the war, as he rose rapidly in rank, he continued to act as a link between the army and the government. He preferred to work behind the scenes, and he made connections with a wide variety of political and government figures. Intrigue was his milieu. A political sphinx, he was a schemer—his very name in German means “creeper.” Many felt that it was apt.
In 1928 he became chief of the Minister’s Office, a new post created especially for him, with vague responsibility for representing the military in its relations with the government. He acted, in effect, as an unofficial cabinet member, and his influence, always shadowy, soared. He was a longtime friend of Hindenburg’s son Oskar, with whom he had served during the war, and he remained a close confidant of the Reich President. He was convinced, as were many within the army, that the Republic was beyond repair and some form of authoritarian regime was needed to save Germany from chaos. In the climactic years of the Republic, when power became concentrated in a few individuals close to the Reich President, Schleicher would play a critical—and destructive—role.
Brüning recommended himself to Schleicher in part because of his financial expertise but also because of his standing on the right wing of the Catholic Zentrum. Brüning had served with distinction as an officer in the army during the war, he was the holder of the Iron Cross first class, and his political preferences inclined decidedly toward an authoritarian—though not radical—solution to Germany’s problems. He had little confidence in the Reichstag and the vicissitudes of parliamentary politics, especially under current circumstances. He also hoped to dismantle Weimar’s extensive welfare state, which he held responsible for much of Germany’s economic distress. In the process, he would reduce the power of organized labor and of the Social Democrats. Although Brüning was able to convince members of the liberal parties, the Zentrum, and, temporarily, the conservative DNVP to hold posts in the new cabinet, their parties were not bound by the cabinet’s decisions. The government clearly rested solely on the confidence of the aging Reich President, and Hindenburg was determined to steer the unwieldy parliamentary system in a more authoritarian direction.
Following the economic orthodoxy of the day, Brüning viewed a balanced budget and thus a sharp reduction of government spending as the critical first step toward a reversal of the Republic’s disastrous economic fortunes. Between March and July he submitted a series of stringent fiscal reforms to the Reichstag, only to have each rejected for quite different reasons by a majority composed of Social Democrats, Communists, Conservatives, and Nazis. In late July, with a national deficit of more than one billion marks, Brüning presented a final budgetary plan, which, in effect, would have increased the government contribution to the unemployment fund but would also have ultimately reduced benefits. When the proposed legislation met with stiff resistance in the Reichstag, he moved to implement the plan by emergency decree. Shortly thereafter a motion calling for the abrogation of the decrees received majority support in the Reichstag, but Brüning refused to back down. Instead of resigning, he asked Hindenburg to dissolve the recalcitrant Reichstag and call for new elections in September.
Brüning’s decision proved a disastrous blunder. Using its expanded organizational network and its strategy of political saturation, the NSDAP had scored disquieting gains in a series of regional elections in late 1929 and early 1930. The upward curve of Nazi electoral fortunes began in October in Baden with a modest 7 percent of the vote, but less than a month before Brüning’s announcement of new national elections, the Nazis stunned observers by winning 15 percent of the vote in Saxony, a traditional stronghold of the left. Two years earlier the NSDAP had attracted less than 3 percent of the vote.
The big losers in these regional elections were not the parties of the Marxist left, nor were they the small splinter parties. Instead, they were the traditional parties of the liberal center and the conservative right. Voter dissatisfaction with these traditional alternatives of middle-class politics, which had begun to crystallize before the onset of the Great Depression, continued in 1929–30, accelerated by their inability to deal effectively with the nation’s deteriorating economic condition. After months of internal dissension and public recriminations between the liberal parties and the relentless bickering within the fragmented conservative camp, the parties of the traditional center and right were ill-prepared for the approaching battle.
The NSDAP, on the other hand, was primed for action. In the fall of 1930 the Nazis were better organized and better financed than at any time in their brief history. The party’s prominent role in the anti-Young campaign had given the Nazis a high national profile and a growing sense of self-confidence. Party membership was virtually three times as large as in 1923, and it was no longer confined largely to the south. New local chapters were springing up all over the country, and new recruits were flooding into the NSDAP.
Hitler, who was as uninterested in organizational matters as he was in mediating ideological disputes within the party, turned the job of managing the party’s burgeoning organization over to Gregor Strasser. Between 1928 and 1930, Strasser initiated a set of organizational reforms intended to tighten the leadership’s grip on the party and to enhance Nazi campaign performance. He crafted a vertical organizational structure, established a clear chain of command, delineated responsibilities, and created a team of inspectors, responsible to him, to ensure that Munich’s directives were being properly carried out. He redrew the NSDAP’s regional boundaries to conform to the Reichstag thirty-five electoral districts, and the authority of the Gauleiter was substantially strengthened in each area. The Gauleiter and his propaganda staff were now charged with executing the party’s campaign directives.
Working with this structure, Munich now assumed responsibility for the direction of all Nazi propaganda activities throughout the country. Since 1928 Hitler had been acting head of the Propaganda Section, with Himmler serving as his deputy. In the spring of 1930 Hitler appointed Joseph Goebbels to lead the party’s propaganda efforts. It was an inspired choice. Goebbels had distinguished himself as the energetic and combative Gauleiter of Berlin, where he was in perpetual conflict with the powerful leftist parties. He was creative and unflagging in his efforts to provoke and humiliate the Reds, to wean Berlin’s workers away from the Marxists and win them for National Socialism. His newspaper, Der Angriff (The Attack), established in 1927, aggressively courted workers, printing savage attacks on “the bosses of capitalism” that were in tone and content virtually indistinguishable from that of the Communists. From his position on the front lines of Berlin, he spearheaded the party’s efforts to win working-class support. Just as important as his ideological commitment, he was devoted to Hitler. “In Goebbels,” the journalist Konrad Heiden remarked, “Hitler found a man who would listen for days to his endless speeches; the arduously cultivated enthusiasm in his eyes never abated.” Goebbels, Hitler was said to have remarked, was “a man who burns like a flame.”
For some time Goebbels had been locked in a bitter conflict with the Strasser brothers, Gregor and his younger sibling Otto. It was less a doctrinal battle than a turf war. In spite of the Twenty-five Points, there was no official party line to be toed in the NSDAP, only unquestioned obedience to the Führer, and many variants of National Socialism flourished, with different ideological emphases and target constituencies. Otto Strasser’s brand was a compound of strident anticapitalism, rabid nationalism, anti-Semitism, and a revolutionary rejection of all things bourgeois. He was deeply concerned that Hitler and “the Munich clique” around him were not committed to the radical social revolutionary vision he espoused, that they were too timid, too willing to court the conservative right. The Strassers used their Berlin publishing house, the Kampfverlag, and daily and weekly newspapers as a platform for their views, hurting in the process the sales of Goebbels’s Der Angriff. By early spring 1930, the rivalry had reached the boiling point.
Otto and Gregor Strasser were committed National Socialists, but they were not blind adherents of the Hitler cult that had emerged after 1925. Each maintained a degree of quasi-independence and believed that the party, the “idea” of National Socialism, was larger and more important than any individual, including Hitler. Goebbels complained to Hitler that Otto Strasser was undermining his authority in Berlin, not adhering to party directives, and ignoring orders from Munich. Hitler promised to take action against Strasser but characteristically let the matter slide. “Munich, the Chief, has lost all credit with me,” Goebbels grumbled to his diary in mid-March 1930. “Hitler has—for whatever reason—broken his word to me five times. . . . Hitler withdraws into himself; he makes no decisions; he doesn’t lead any more but lets things happen.” Finally, in mid-April, after Otto Strasser had ignored a direct Hitler order by publishing an article critical of Hitler’s decision to break with the anti-Young coalition, Hitler again promised to purge the Strasser faction. Again he hesitated. “That’s the old Hitler,” Goebbels complained bitterly. “The procrastinator! Forever putting things off!” It was a common complaint. Only in midsummer was the conflict resolved—not by Hitler but by Otto Strasser, who read the handwriting on the wall and announced his decision to withdraw from the NSDAP. Gregor Strasser, a far more important figure in the party, did not follow him; he renounced his brother’s ideas, resigned as managing editor of the Kampfverlag, and pledged his unequivocal loyalty to Hitler. Goebbels was disappointed that Hitler had not purged the elder Strasser from the party, but the crisis was over for the present. The situation, as it so often did, had resolved itself.
Goebbels was now not only the Gauleiter of Berlin but head of Nazi propaganda throughout the country, and he quickly showed his talents. Under his leadership, the increasingly sophisticated National Socialist campaign machine pioneered a breathtaking array of modern political techniques—an innovative form of survey research, direct mailings, highly coordinated press and leaflet campaigns, films, slide shows, phonograph records, torchlight parades, motorcades through the countryside, and entertainment events to draw crowds and raise money. The party established a speaker’s school and a nine-month correspondence course for local Nazi operatives, with lessons in National Socialist ideology and propaganda techniques. Each regional party organization was required to enroll two speakers each term. “The major burden of the party’s campaign must be carried by the speakers,” Goebbels emphasized in a 1930 circular, because the party did not yet possess “the means necessary to saturate the entire country with propaganda material.” In addition to weekly communiqués and instructions, Goebbels’s staff produced monthly notes for speakers that offered analyses of international and domestic issues and provided suggestions for more effective local mobilization—everything from musical selections for entertainment events to the color of posters and handbills to how best to position busts of Hitler during recruitment meetings.
Shortly after the dissolution of the Reichstag on July 18, Goebbels and the reorganized Propaganda Section moved into action. At a meeting with members of the national leadership, the district chiefs, and the NSDAP’s tiny Reichstag delegation in late July, Hitler laid out in broad strokes the basic outline of the party’s campaign. As always, he confined himself to the big picture. Goebbels’s task was to translate Hitler’s general objectives into action on the ground. He and his young staff would manage the actual conduct of the campaign, plotting day-to-day strategy and coordinating the party’s propaganda activities. It was an arrangement that remained unchanged throughout the last Nazi campaigns of the Weimar era—indeed, would be a hallmark of Hitler’s leadership style throughout the Third Reich.
In the torrent of memoranda that followed that July meeting, Goebbels stressed to the regional party chieftains the importance of conducting the party’s campaign “in the most uniform possible manner.” At the outset of the campaign, the Propaganda Section issued a lengthy circular to the district leaders outlining the NSDAP’s strategic goals, explaining the major themes to be developed, and defining the slogans to be used. The party’s “entire campaign propaganda” was to revolve around the theme “For or Against Young,” launching a ruthless offensive “against the war guilt lie, against the Young Treaty, against the beneficiaries of the policy of fulfillment, against the jailer parties of enslaving capitalism.”
To ensure conformity with its objectives, Goebbels expressly forbade the local chapters to “make electoral propaganda on their own.” They were “to operate only according to the guidelines determined by the Propaganda Section and with campaign materials provided to them.” This centralized control was necessary to achieve the party’s strategic goals and to keep the entire party apparatus on message. “Everywhere in Germany the same placards will be posted, the same leaflets distributed, and the same stickers will appear.” The typewritten texts of all leaflets and other campaign literature would be wired from Munich to the district leaders, who were responsible for their printing and distribution. In this way, the flow of material to the locals could be closely monitored and coordinated. The circular also dealt extensively with propaganda techniques and acquainted the party’s functionaries with the services and propaganda aids that were available from either the regional or national headquarters. Locals were reminded that newspaper off-prints, leaflets, flyers, stickers, brochures, and special illustrated posters were available. It recommended that direct mailings be undertaken by the local chapters, using a personally addressed form letter to every inhabitant of a given area. Using local Address Books that listed the occupation of the head of the household, the party was able to subdivide the population by occupation and deliver letters that spoke directly to issues relating to farmers, shopkeepers, civil servants, white-collar personnel, workers, and retirees. The party also printed special election postcards and swastika-bedecked stamps for correspondence or display on windows, books, briefcases, etc. In a political culture dominated by print media, the distribution of leaflets, as usual, received special attention. Goebbels instructed the local leaders that “flyers, leaflets, etc. should be passed out early on . . . Sunday,” the day when the parties were most active, “so that the worker, the civil servant, and the petit bourgeois has them in hand before the expected flood of trash sets in.” Parades led by trucks with large placards and filled with storm troopers were also recommended as “a propaganda device that should not be underestimated.”
The content of these Nazi appeals was based on a crude system of marketing research that was, for its time, unparalleled in sophistication. District leaders were urged to send their functionaries into “the bakeries, butcher shops, grocery stores, and taverns,” to sample public opinion and find out for whom the people had voted and why. Local Nazi propaganda operatives filed weekly reports detailing which techniques worked and which didn’t, what sort of pitch appealed to farmers, to shopkeepers, to workers. What were civil servants, office clerks, homeowners, and tenants angry about? What worried Catholics, Protestants, and women? How had “the system” failed each, and how could the NSDAP articulate a set of appeals that would exploit their sense of grievance? This information could then be used by the national leadership in developing the party’s campaign strategy. Appeals and techniques that had originated and worked well in one locale were reported to the Propaganda Division and then incorporated into its monthly reports to all regional offices. In this way, a circular flow of valuable intelligence was generated that would serve the party well in the following campaigns.
Offering specific solutions to the country’s problems was not important, and ideological appeals based on the party’s famous Twenty-five Points were shuffled into the background. Gregor Strasser was surprisingly candid in his explanation of the Nazi message. “Everything which is detrimental to the existing order of things has our support . . . because we want catastrophe. . . . everything which hastens the beginning of catastrophe in the present system . . . every strike, every governmental crisis, every erosion of state power, every weakening of the System . . . is good, very good for us . . . and it will always and constantly be our endeavor to strengthen such difficulties . . . in order to expedite the death of this system.” Nor did the Nazis feel themselves constrained by a need for ideological consistency. When a confused supporter asked Goebbels if the NSDAP was still committed to “breaking interest slavery,” one of the party’s demands in the original, “immutable” platform of 1920, the propaganda chief responded, “I wish to God we had never heard of these miserable Twenty-Five Points.” For all their bluster about “the idea” of National Socialism, the Nazis campaigned not on a program or an ideology, but on a mood, and as anger and fear in Germany mounted, they touched a raw public nerve.
Throughout the campaign, the Propaganda Division issued updates, refining instructions, coordinating speaking dates, and announcing rallies or appearances by Hitler. The Nazi campaign was largely negative and bereft of anything in the way of specifics, directing instead a relentless assault on the corrupt, ineffectual Weimar “system” and “the heap of special interests” that controlled it.
More important than any particular theme was image. Hitler and Goebbels were intent on creating the impression of a vigorous, dynamic, youthful movement standing in sharp contrast to the dispirited, enervated parties of the bourgeois center and right. Energy, activism, and a fanatical determination to sweep away the old, Goebbels believed, were the keys to Nazi success. “By September 14,” he declared, “there must be no city, no village, no spot-in-the-road where we National Socialists have not appeared in a great rally.” On August 18 the Völkischer Beobachterannounced that a total of 34,000 rallies were planned for the final four weeks of the election campaign, and while that figure was probably exaggerated, the high-octane activism of the NSDAP could not be matched by the fading bourgeois parties. Relentlessly spurring his propaganda operatives into ever more frenzied activity, Goebbels concluded, “We want to conduct a campaign such as the corrupt parliamentary parties (Bonzenparteien) have never seen before.”
The plan was for the campaign to gather momentum throughout August, before reaching a crescendo in the last weeks before the election. But with election day only two weeks away and all progressing according to plan, a crisis broke suddenly over the party. Tension between the Berlin SA and the party had been simmering for some time. SA leaders felt underappreciated, underfinanced, and, most galling, under the thumb of the party’s political organization. Walter Stennes, the leader of the powerful Berlin SA, wanted Storm Troopers to be put on the party’s electoral ballot and additional funding for the organization; most unsettling, Stennes expressed the SA’s growing impatience with Hitler’s insistence on legality. The SA wanted action that would bring about social revolution and feared that Hitler and the “party bosses” in Munich, with their relentless calls for restraint, for maintaining the policy of legality, were less committed to that revolutionary vision. “Some things must be changed after the election,” Goebbels complained. The SA “under Pfeffer and Stennes was too independent and positively hostile to politics.” Above all he didn’t trust Stennes.
On August 30, Goebbels had just delivered a speech in Breslau, his sixth in four days, and was resting in his hotel, when he received an alarming message from Berlin. There were rumors that elements of the SA were planning a rebellion. “They are going to give us an ultimatum and if their terms are not met, they will go on the attack,” he wrote. “In the middle of a battle! I can’t believe it.” Later in the night those preliminary reports were confirmed. Things were worse than Goebbels had expected. SA men had stormed into party headquarters in the Hedemannstrasse, brushed aside the SS guards, smashed up the furniture and files. They were occupying the building; they were making demands; they were “in open rebellion against the Gau and against Munich. . . . Stennes is a traitor.”
Both Goebbels and Hitler, who was attending the annual Wagner festival in Bayreuth, rushed to Berlin. In the early-morning hours, the two met with Stennes at the Duke of Coburg Hotel beside the Anhalt Station. Stennes complained of broken promises—Goebbels had agreed to place SA men on the party’s electoral list and to consult with him about suitable candidates, but had not; he complained about the burden placed on the SA and its poor financial situation; he expressed the widespread SA frustration at the course of legality pursued by the party.
Hitler’s initial reaction was to reject Stennes’s demands out of hand, but during a night of consultation with Goebbels, he softened his stance. That night, while Hitler and Goebbels were conferring at the Goebbels private residence, Stennes and a group of SA leaders appeared, followed by a host of angry Storm Troopers. As Stennes presented his demands, the mob “stood outside chanting, growing more and more rebellious. . . . Stennes has organized his mutiny brilliantly.” Hitler listened and finally agreed to allow the SA to keep more of the dues it collected—the remainder was sent to the Munich HQ—and explained his position to Stennes. Later at a gathering of some two thousand SA men, Hitler swore his fervent allegiance to them and assured them that the revolution they—and he—so desperately wanted would come, but it would come not before but afterthe seizure of power. The takeover of the government must come by legal means, by mobilizing the masses, by participation in elections. The SA’s role in this strategy was crucial, their loyalty imperative, their fighting spirit essential.
To thunderous cheers, he announced that he was now personally assuming the leadership of both the SA and SS. Undercover police agents monitoring the meeting were struck by Hitler’s nervousness as he repeatedly appealed to the SA to trust him. With “his overstrained voice rising to an almost hysterical scream,” Hitler pleaded for their loyalty. “We will vow in this hour that nothing can divide us, as truly as God can help us against all devils! May almighty God bless our struggle!” The assembled SA men broke into shouts of “Heil!” Hitler had succeeded in defusing the situation. The immediate crisis passed, but the tension between the party leadership and the SA did not; it merely slipped beneath the surface, ready to erupt again at any moment.
September 14, election day, Hitler proclaimed, was “the beginning of Germany’s reckoning” with the “criminals of the November Republic,” the “judgment day for the Young parties.” Everyone sensed a palpable change in the air when the polls opened on Sunday morning. Voters were pouring into the polling stations all over the country. Turnout, which had dipped in 1928, was exceptionally high. The Nazis were confident of making significant gains, but in spite of their tireless campaigning and vigorous predictions of victory, few within the leadership were prepared for the magnitude of the party’s surge. As the returns were tabulated on the evening of September 14–15, the outcome sent shock waves across the political world and plunged the already embattled Weimar Republic into crisis. The Nazi vote had lurched from a mere 800,000 in 1928 to an astonishing 6,000,000. With 18 percent of the electorate, Hitler’s obscure NSDAP had overnight become the second-largest party in Germany after the Social Democrats.
The outcome came as a surprise even to the Nazis. “Fantastic,” Goebbels exulted in his diary, “an unbelievable advance.” At an election night rally at the Sportpalast, the largest arena in Berlin, he witnessed an explosion of enthusiasm and excitement “like 1914. . . . The Sportpalast a madhouse.” Ecstatic Storm Troopers carried him through the hall on their shoulders. He dropped in on one SA pub after another until four in the morning. Everywhere he was “greeted with the same scene—joy and fighting spirit.” It was, Hitler prophesied, the dawning of a new era in German politics, an era of radical political change that would sweep away the ineffectual sham democracy of the November criminals, return power to the people, and make Germany great again. Germany, he proclaimed, had awakened.
Brüning had anticipated a spike in the Nazi vote and even hoped to use the rising threat of right-wing radicalism to convince the other parties to cooperate with his government, but neither he nor anyone else in Germany was prepared for the seismic shift in the political landscape produced by the Nazi breakthrough. Only twelve Nazis had held seats in the old Reichstag; when the new Reichstag convened in October, 107 brown-clad National Socialist deputies filed into the chamber; only the Social Democratic delegation was larger. Hitler and his party were no longer specters haunting the lunatic fringes of German public consciousness. To the surprise of all, they had swept into the mainstream of German politics.
As Goebbels and his staff analyzed the election results, it was immediately clear that the Nazi breakthrough, though impressive virtually everywhere, was especially striking in the Protestant north. Even a cursory perusal of the election returns revealed that the Nazis, as anticipated, had done exceptionally well in rural areas and small towns hard hit by the lengthy agricultural depression. In some provincial counties, the party captured an unheard of 50 to 60 percent of the vote. In the large northern states of Prussia, Pomerania, Mecklenburg, and Hanover, the party’s vote surged past 20 percent. In Schleswig-Holstein, where two years before the Nazis had claimed a mere 4 percent of the vote, their total vaulted to 27 percent.
Just as they had before, Nazi appeals found their greatest resonance among elements of the anxious middle class—small shopkeepers, farmers, artisans (plumbers, electricians, carpenters), lower-level civil servants, teachers, and some white-collar workers. It was a constellation of social forces that would constitute the party’s base throughout its rise to power. For small businesses, the onrushing economic crisis had been little short of catastrophic. Caught between the large department stores owned, as the Nazis always pointed out, by Jews, and the socialist consumer cooperatives, the small shopkeepers and artisans were growing desperate. In 1930 bankruptcies were twice as high as they were two years before, with small businesses representing over half the total. Bankruptcies in the retail trade had risen by approximately 150 percent since 1928. Businesses that had somehow managed to survive the hyperinflation and harsh stabilization of the 1920s now found themselves confronting financial ruin, and Brüning’s austerity program offered little hope of immediate salvation. Germany was mired in a “battle between the rich and the impoverished,” the Nazis brayed, and under the present system, “this battle will proletarianize more and more members of the middle class,” bringing “ever greater numbers of reinforcements to the army of the unemployed.” Only the NSDAP could keep the “uprooted and expropriated” from “falling into the clutches of international capital” and the big conglomerates; only the NSDAP would provide “protection of small business” against “the pestilence of Jewish department stores.”
The situation for farmers was even bleaker. Already suffering from a deep agricultural recession in 1928, the Depression threatened to hurl farmers—especially small farmers—into the abyss. Between 1928 and 1930 foreclosures and forced sales of agricultural property almost doubled. Banks conducted auctions of family farms all across rural Germany, unleashing a tsunami of outrage in farm communities. While the government introduced programs to rescue the large agrarian estates of the east, it seemed remarkably indifferent to the suffering of the small farmer. Already in 1928 a protest movement, the Landvolk (Rural People’s Movement), had organized demonstrations against the banks, the government, the big agricultural lobbies, and even the DNVP, the traditional party of choice for farmers. The Landvolk called for a tax revolt among farmers; bankers were ambushed, auctioneers shot; suicides skyrocketed. The Conservatives tried to co-opt the movement but discovered that it could neither manage nor contain the spreading protest in the countryside. “Day by day the farmer sinks deeper into debt and misery,” the Nazis charged in 1928. “In the end he will be driven from his hearth and home while international money and Jewish capital take possession of his land.” By 1930 that dire prophesy, the Nazis claimed, had been fulfilled.
Support for the party in 1930 was not, however, confined to the frightened petit bourgeoisie that contemporary commentators—and generations of historians—believed. Although still widely perceived as raucous and crude, its leaders vulgar and uneducated, the NSDAP was picking up support among elements of the established upper middle class—civil servants, professionals, especially doctors, and residents of affluent neighborhoods in the cities and towns. No one felt insulated from the crisis; no one, even the well-off upper middle class, was immune to the spreading virus of fear and uncertainty. The NSDAP was no longer simply a lower-middle-class phenomenon, a revolt of the frightened little men of German society. It was becoming far more broad based, less class bound, more dangerous.
In spite of the NSDAP’s sharper focus on the Mittelstand, the Nazis were determined to make a major breakthrough among working-class Germans. In January 1930 the party founded its own labor union, the NSBO, or National Socialist Shop Floor Organization. Although it was hardly a challenge to the Social Democratic labor organizations, its timing was propitious. With real wages plummeting and unemployment climbing, here at last was the opening Hitler had looked for. But the vast majority of those standing in the unemployment lines were blue-collar workers, many of them union members, a group that had been consistently resistant to Nazi blandishments in the past. Unemployment among workers in the major industrial sectors was rampant. The highest rate of unemployment was recorded among unskilled and unorganized day laborers who flooded the job-referral and unemployment agencies in 1929–30. Even for those desperately clinging to a full-time job, reduced wages and the constant fear of layoffs haunted their daily lives. Everywhere one looked, the economic landscape yielded the same desolate view.
Instead of offering concrete plans to overcome the unemployment crisis and put people back to work, the Nazis chose to lambast the Social Democrats for their betrayal of the working class, their shameless “collaboration” with Brüning and his austerity program. The Social Democrats had produced nothing for the workers in the twelve years of Weimar democracy, the Nazis charged, “but hunger, misery, and slavery.” If the German working class wanted to set itself free, it would have “to break the chains” of both capitalism and Marxism, and “only a National Socialist regime could offer the working people of Germany genuine liberation.” Under Hitler, the German worker would no longer be a social pariah but would be “integrated into the nation with full rights and obligations” and guaranteed “social justice, work . . . a decent living, and bread.” In the National Socialist people’s community (Volksgemeinschaft), class distinctions would be a thing of the past. Neither the Communists nor the Social Democrats, whose very existence was based on struggle between the classes, could achieve this. “Only a new movement, which rejects the distinction between bourgeois and proletarian, could free German society from its destructive tradition of class conflict.” The Social Democrats and Communists, of course, ridiculed Nazi “socialism” and its professed concern for the working class as a cynical fraud, claiming that the NSDAP was nothing more than “the last bulwark of big capital.” Both parties warned working-class audiences that Fascism could be defeated only by proletarian unity and then proceeded to accuse each other of sabotaging that unity. Both blasted the “counterfeit socialism” of the Nazis, but saved their most vicious invective for each other.
In appealing to working-class audiences, Nazis could also give free rein to their anticapitalist rhetoric, often lacing it with rabid anti-Semitism. Nazi appeals to working-class audiences typically linked Social Democracy with the “system” and with “the Jewish wire pullers of international capitalism.” Over and over again in the industrial cities of the Ruhr, Nazi speakers inveighed against “stock market swindlers, the powers of international capital, and the Jews who stood behind them.” The Nazis were “fighting Marxism, international big capital and Jewry,” as one speaker explained. Jewry possessed “power over the banks and industrial enterprises, and works hand in hand with the Social Democrats to bolster the existing corrupt system.” Under the Weimar system, “lice-covered Jews were allowed to cross Germany’s eastern border, insinuate themselves in German social, economic, and cultural life.” They had “taken control of the banks and stock market, and carried off to Switzerland the money they have swindled from the German people.” That money “must be taken from them and returned to the working people.” Workers could not really expect the SPD to correct the system, when the Social Democratic leadership was shot through with Jews. “As soon as the NSDAP has the rudder of government in its hands,” another speaker declared, “there will be no place for Jews in the German Fatherland.”
Despite the NSDAP’s most energetic efforts to gain a beachhead on the embattled shores of working-class politics, the parties of the bitterly divided left held their own, gathering 37 percent of the vote. The Nazis had made some headway, gaining support among unorganized workers who stood outside working-class subculture and the influence of the labor unions, but it was obvious to all that movement within working-class politics tended to remain largely confined to crossovers between the SPD and the KPD, with the more disaffected and radical sliding from the former to the latter. The Nazis were by no means daunted by their modest successes. Their vigorous efforts to win adherents within the working class were a source of growing alarm to both the Social Democrats and Communists, but at a time when the energies of the two leftist parties might have been directed more forcefully toward defeating the upstart Nazis, they were instead wasted in a bitter internecine struggle against one another.
Another problem for Nazi strategists was the continuing trouble the NSDAP experienced in predominantly Catholic areas, where the Zentrum maintained its dominance and where the Church, with its extensive network of social and cultural organizations, exerted enormous influence. In Catholic Germany, parish priests issued condemnations of Nazi heathenism on election day, declaring that a vote for either godless Communism or pagan National Socialism was inconsistent with the Christian faith. Shortly after the election, the Nazi press officer in Hessen inquired of Church officials in Mainz if, as a local priest had declared from the pulpit, it was the Church’s official position that “1) Catholics were forbidden to be members of the Hitler party, 2) that as long as a Catholic remained a member of the NSDAP, he was not permitted to participate in funerals and other Church rites, and 3) could not receive the sacraments.” The Church informed him that it was so. Similar declarations followed from the Catholic provinces across the country, confirming the Church’s position that National Socialism was fundamentally incompatible with the teachings of Christianity and the Catholic Church.
The party’s image problem with the Catholic Church was not helped by the appearance of Nazi “philosopher” Alfred Rosenberg’s The Myth of the Twentieth Century, an impenetrable book that was both rabidly anti-Semitic and anti-Christian. Rosenberg, whose ideological fanaticism was undiluted by either reason or serious learning, attacked Christian ideals and institutions, calling for a return to the mystical religious practices of the ancient Germanic peoples, complete with the celebrations of the solstices, rune stones, and Norse gods. Although Hitler never officially endorsed such ideas and kept his distance from Rosenberg’s positions on religious matters, the damage had been done. The party, Goebbels concluded, would have to make a concerted effort to allay the fears of Christians, especially the Catholic Church whose “internationalism” came under particularly vitriolic attack by Rosenberg. This would prove to be a tall order.
In the aftermath of the election, the formation of a viable parliamentary coalition was virtually impossible. The devastating losses suffered by the parties of the center and right dashed Brüning’s hopes of reviving a Bürgerblock coalition, and the chancellor was not seriously interested in tempting the Nazis—or Social Democrats—into some form of participation in the government. Hugenberg also quickly informed the chancellor that the DNVP was not interested in serving in another Weimar cabinet. Brüning was not altogether displeased with this turn of events. After only desultory efforts to find a workable parliamentary majority, he was able to convince Reich President Hindenburg to allow him to continue the convenient presidential government based on emergency decrees. Afraid that a failure of the Brüning cabinet and new elections would only result in even more massive gains for both the radical right and left, the Social Democrats, still the largest party, were reluctantly willing to tolerate Brüning’s emergency rule.
Already paralyzed by the political extremes and deserted by the parties of the center, Weimar democracy now began a precipitous descent into authoritarian rule. The new Nazi Reichstag deputies were not interested in discussing policy, introducing bills, or passing legislation that might actually address the problems of the country; they were there to poison the well. In the chamber they chanted Nazi slogans, shouted down government spokesmen, whistled, and baited the smaller Communist delegation. The Communists responded, singing “The Internationale” and hurling insults across the chamber at the Nazis. Working sessions in the chamber became impossible. When in February 1931 the Reichstag considered a measure that would make it more difficult for the extremists to disrupt the proceedings, the Nazi and Communist delegates marched out of the chamber in protest. They did not return until October, leaving the Reichstag paralyzed.
Between 1920 and 1930 the Reichstag met in session for an average of one hundred days a year. Between the 1930 elections and March of 1931 it convened only fifty times; between March 1931 and the July elections of 1932, only twenty-four. After that, the Reichstag held only three working sessions. While the Reichstag virtually disappeared from public awareness in 1931, Brüning issued forty-four emergency decrees; in the following year, three successive Reich governments enacted no fewer than fifty-seven such measures. Government by emergency decree had become the norm. Almost three years before Hitler assumed the reins of power, Brüning had embarked on a course that resulted in the end of parliamentary government in Germany.
While the Nazis and Communists confronted one another on the floor of the Reichstag, the SA and paramilitary formations of the left fought deadly battles in the streets. Every day, in almost every town and city across Germany, Nazis clashed with the Communist Red Front and the Social Democratic Reichsbanner. Although the violence was most intense and relentless in the cities, no town, no village was out of the line of fire. The political terrorism that had lacerated the country in the early years of the Republic had subsided during the so-called Golden Twenties, but in 1929–30 it erupted with unprecedented savagery, threatening to plunge the country into chaos and civil war. Formations of armed Storm Troopers marched defiantly into working-class neighborhoods, intent on showing the swastika, on provocation. They succeeded. Advancing in ranks of four abreast, they poured into the courtyards of massive apartment complexes, the tread of their jackboots echoing from the cobblestones. They sang Nazi songs; they chanted call-and-response choruses.
“Wer hat euch verratten?” (Who has betrayed you?), the SA troop leader would call out. “Die Sozialdemokraten” (the Social Democrats) came the lusty response from the ranks. “Wer macht euch frei?” (Who will set you free?), answered by “Die Hitlerpartei” (the Hitler party). Phone calls and messengers would go out to the pubs that served as neighborhood command posts for the KPD, and within minutes armed men of the Red Front rushed to the scene. Brass knuckles, blackjacks, knives, pistols, and clubs materialized; blood flowed. Adding to the spectacle, flowerpots, ashtrays, clumps of coal, shards of glass rained down from apartment windows, and the casualties rose—just as they were intended to do. The overmatched police would arrive, make arrests, dispatch the wounded to hospitals, and make reports to headquarters. In almost every instance, the authorities tended to see the Communists as the source of the trouble, and the conservative press eagerly picked up the story and the official interpretation.
As the violence escalated, a culture of political martyrdom emerged on both sides of the ideological divide—men felled in heroic battle with the partisan enemy were given elaborate funerals attended by party dignitaries, guarded by paramilitary troops, and given extensive coverage in the party press. The Völkischer Beobachter, The Red Flag, and Forward carried photographs and commentary, punctuated by rhetoric that combined eulogistic commemoration with menacing intimations of revenge. For the Nazis, the model for this ritual celebration of party martyrdom was created by Goebbels in the winter of 1930, when a twenty-one-year-old SA man, Horst Wessel, was shot dead in his Berlin apartment by a Communist gunman. Goebbels launched a barrage of invective against the KPD and its “hired thugs” who were murdering National Socialists all around the country. The Communists responded by denying that Wessel’s murder had been politically motivated or ordered by the party. It was instead the result of a sordid private dispute. Wessel, they maintained, was a common pimp, living with his prostitute, and had refused to pay his rent to the widow of a fallen Communist. Wessel was well known in Nazi circles in the city and beyond both for his fearless assault on Communists in Friedrichshain, a working-class section of the capital, where he lived, and for a number of political songs he had written. One in particular, “Die Fahne Hoch!” (Raise the Banner), was a Goebbels favorite and already was being sung at party gatherings around the country.
Despite the murky circumstances surrounding the murder, Goebbels saw the propaganda potential in Wessel’s death. Using his Berlin newspaper, Der Angriff, he transformed the young SA man into a National Socialist martyr, a fallen hero in the epic struggle between the NSDAP and the predatory forces of the left. Goebbels orchestrated an elaborate show of Nazi strength for Wessel’s funeral. A lengthy funeral cortege followed by columns of Storm Troopers passed solemnly through the city, pelted and heckled along the way by Communist onlookers in the enormous crowds. At one point, a riot broke out as Communists tried to break through the police cordon and overturn the carriage carrying Wessel’s body. At the gates of the cemetery the funeral procession faced yet another affront, a brazen, blood-red epitaph scrawled across the walls during the night by Communists: “A Final ‘Heil Hitler’ to the Pimp Horst Wessel.” Some thirty thousand Berliners attended the funeral, and at the graveside Goebbels, speaking above the hoots and chants of the Communists beyond the gates, delivered a lengthy homily, an inspirational tribute to Wessel—the common SA man who was now ascending into the Valhalla of Nazi heroes.
Each year, the Nazis staged garland-draped memorial services on the anniversary of Wessel’s death; major figures from the party attended; the party press eulogized the fallen hero; party photographers snapped shots of the mournful proceedings. It was a hallowed event in the crowded calendar of Nazi spectacles, and “Die Fahne Hoch,” popularly referred to simply as the “Horst Wessel Song,” acquired the status of party anthem, played at every National Socialist occasion into the last days of the Third Reich. Other show funerals followed, as the brutal clashes between the Nazis and the left grew more frequent in 1931–32—pageants of political martyrdom that were, from Goebbels’s point of view, pitch-perfect propaganda for the party.
Frustrated by the rampant violence unleashed by the Nazis and Communists, Brüning produced an emergency decree in March 1931 that required all political meetings to be registered in advance with the police and subjected all political posters and leaflets to police censorship. It also gave the Reich government wide-ranging powers to combat “political excesses.” Fearful that the chancellor would invoke his new emergency powers to ban the party, Hitler issued an order to the SA to halt the street battles and to avoid violence for the foreseeable future—an order that did not sit well with the Storm Troopers. He used every opportunity to emphasize his commitment to taking power by constitutional means. There would be no Nazi Putsch. To underscore this position, Hitler volunteered in March to testify for the defense at a much publicized trial of three junior Reichswehr officers who were charged with forming an illegal Nazi cell in the army garrison in Ulm. As he had done in his 1923 trial, Hitler exploited the opportunity to make a dramatic political statement. He solemnly declared that the NSDAP was committed to a policy of legality, that it had no need to think of revolution since the party would win a majority in the next two or three elections and would then, having been put legally in power, proceed to transform the state. When the skeptical judge pressed him, asking what would happen to those who had opposed him, Hitler at first demurred, but finally responded, “When the National Socialist movement is victorious in its struggle, there will be a National Socialist court of justice; November 1918 will be expiated, and heads will roll.”
In spite of Hitler’s assurances of the party’s commitment to the path of legality, it proved difficult to keep the lid on the rambunctious SA. In the spring of 1931 the strains boiled over into open conflict when Walter Stennes, the disgruntled SA leader in Berlin who had been a source of trouble the previous August, attempted to lead a revolt of the eastern SA against Hitler and the party leadership. Fed up with Hitler’s “timidity” and outright “cowardice,” Stennes wrote a letter of complaint to SA headquarters in Munich, condemning Hitler’s orders to refrain from street battles and pointedly warning that no leader could expect to go unpunished in the long run if he acts “against the sentiments of the best element of the people, in this case against the sentiments of the SA.” Hitler saw this as a direct challenge to his leadership and immediately called a meeting of Nazi leaders in Weimar, where he proceeded to expel Stennes from the party.
Stennes responded by declaring his withdrawal from the NSDAP and his “takeover of the movement” in Berlin and the eastern provinces. He seized the party’s Berlin headquarters and the offices of Der Angriff and published an edition on April 2, in which he launched a direct assault on Hitler’s “un-German and boundless party despotism and the irresponsible demagogy.” In the following days, he remained on the attack, picking up support among frustrated SA men in Silesia, Schleswig-Holstein, and Pomerania. Party leaders condemned Stennes’s treachery and his rhetoric as “socialist” and “revolutionary,” but it was clear that he was expressing a view widely shared in SA circles that the Storm Trooper was not a handmaiden of the party bosses in Munich and their local functionaries.
Stennes’s actions represented, in Goebbels’s view, “the most serious crisis the party has had to go through,” and Hitler responded quickly to the threat. He published an emotional appeal to the SA in the Völkischer Beobachter, asking the Storm Troopers to choose between Stennes, “the retired police sergeant,” or “the founder of the National Socialist Movement and the Supreme Leader of your SA, Adolf Hitler.” There could be no separation between the National Socialist “idea” and the “person” of the Führer, Hitler insisted. Within days the rebellion began to unravel. Although many SA men shared Stennes’s dissatisfaction with the party’s insistence on a policy of legality, few were willing to follow his open break with Hitler. The short-lived rebellion ended in both a purge of some five hundred Storm Troopers and a renewed effort by the political leadership to bring the SA under tighter control. But the tensions that had surged to the surface in this second Stennes episode continued to simmer.
Although Hitler had assumed leadership of the SA during the first Stennes revolt in the previous August, that move was little more than a dramatic gesture, a personal call for loyalty and obedience to his leadership. He was neither interested in nor capable of managing a growing, boisterous organization like the SA, and in an attempt to establish discipline among the Storm Troopers, Hitler turned to his old comrade Ernst Röhm. Röhm had been serving as a military advisor to the Bolivian government since 1925 when Hitler recalled him in December 1930. He assumed the post of chief of staff for the SA in January 1931, and began his work immediately. At first his appointment was met with grumbling by some SA leaders—and by Gregor Strasser. Röhm’s homosexuality was well known and a topic of considerable gossip, both inside the NSDAP and beyond. The objections became so insistent that in February, Hitler felt compelled to issue a defense of his appointment. “The top SA leadership has presented a number of charges against the SA chief,” Hitler wrote, “foremost among them attacks on his private life.” These were matters that did not pertain to Röhm’s leadership role in the party but that lay “entirely in the private realm.” The SA, he reminded Röhm’s detractors, was not “a moral establishment for the education of proper young ladies but a band of rough fighters.”
Röhm repaid Hitler’s confidence with loyalty, energy, and a talent for organization that guided the SA through a period of stunning growth. Röhm did not support Stennes, although he shared the social revolutionary orientation of the rank and file and, like Stennes, viewed the SA primarily as an autonomous fighting force independent of the political leadership. He also saw himself primarily as a military man; the SA he envisioned was a disciplined military formation, the vital nucleus of a people’s army, which would work with the Reichswehr—at least for the time being. He was also apparently content to see the SA as an instrument of the political leadership, operating on the implicit assumption that as the membership grew, so, too, would its influence. He instituted far-reaching organizational reforms, established soup kitchens and barracks for unemployed SA men, and managed the integration of thousands of new recruits. Under his command, the SA grew dramatically during 1931. In January the SA counted 88,000 men; by April, 119,000; by year’s end, 260,000.
The economy meanwhile continued its free fall into the abyss. Between 1929 and 1932, industrial production plunged by almost 50 percent, the most precipitous drop coming in 1931. In roughly the same period, individual savings dwindled, bankruptcies soared, and unemployment lines grew steadily. In the winter of 1929–30, three million Germans had been out of work. During the following year that figure almost doubled, climbing to six million in early 1932. As grim as these official statistics appeared, they were certainly conservative. By 1932 perhaps as many as a million jobless men and women had exhausted their eligibility for unemployment benefits and in their despair no longer bothered to register at job referral agencies. In the midst of the prevailing economic gloom, a severe banking crisis battered the financial markets. In the summer of 1931, several major banks—among them the powerful Darmstädter and Dresdner, financial institutions thought too big to fail—teetered on the verge of collapse. The government moved to bail them out, avoiding runs on the banks like those that were occurring in the United States, but the already palpable crisis of public confidence in the beleaguered Weimar “system” only deepened. As joblessness increased, government expenditure on unemployment compensation and related benefits began an inexorable rise, while tax revenue continued to shrink.
Afraid that growing government deficits would ignite a new inflation, Brüning introduced a series of stringent austerity measures that he believed to be the preconditions for recovery. The chancellor also hoped to score a major foreign policy success by forming a customs union with Austria—an initiative blocked by France—and by convincing the Allies to reduce or even terminate Germany’s reparations obligations. A balanced budget, he felt, was a necessary precondition to demonstrate Germany’s commitment to fiscal responsibility. Realizing that he would take political heat for these policies, he nonetheless produced a package of harsh deflationary measures that systematically slashed wages, prices, rents, pensions, and social services while raising some existing taxes and introducing new ones to cover government expenditures. The nation had to drink this bitter medicine, he argued, and all the parties knew it, but none was willing to take responsibility for administering it to the patient.
Brüning proceeded to enact his grim austerity program by emergency decree, eliciting howls of indignation across the political spectrum. He issued emergency decrees that slashed salaries and wages in the public sector, amounting to a 20 percent reduction in pay for civil servants and public employees. He made painful cuts in pensions and other retirement benefits; he reduced public assistance for veterans and invalids, and subsidies for children and public housing. He encouraged state governments to enact similar austerity measures by dramatically reducing the level of national funding for the states. The resulting cuts were particularly harsh in the field of education, leading to significant layoffs of schoolteachers and university staff. To cut the national deficit still further, he introduced an emergency income tax for the self-employed and white-collar workers in the private sector, a blow that was felt keenly by small business. Even President Herbert Hoover’s moratorium on war debts and reparations payments in the summer of 1931—which only a year before would have been viewed as a dramatic diplomatic and economic triumph for Brüning’s policies—produced hardly a ripple of support for his government. It was, quite simply, too little, too late.
Exacerbating his problems, Brüning was incapable of selling his program, either to the parliament or to the public. Ramrod stiff in appearance, severe and aloof in his personal bearing, he seemed the very incarnation of the stern, forbidding German schoolmaster. Where Hitler thundered and inspired, Brüning lectured. While he had been a competent floor leader of the Zentrum in the Reichstag, operating smoothly with parliamentary colleagues, he never grew comfortable dealing with the public. He could not move audiences with his speeches or mingle with crowds or shake hands or pat children’s heads, and every day the contrast between this distant, dry, formal man and the energetic populist Nazi leader grew more glaring. Whether speaking on the radio or in public appearances, he seemed remote, out of touch with the suffering of ordinary people. Freed from the Reichstag and reliant only on the Reich President, he saw little need in trying to convince a desperate nation of the necessity of his chosen course. He was right, and he knew it, and in time the ungrateful public would recognize it as well. As the year wore on, the austere Brüning became the most reviled man in German politics, the “hunger Chancellor” who was reduced to moving about the country in a train carriage with the curtains down to hide from the public. If crowds spotted him they were apt to throw rocks. Worse still, his deeply unpopular deflationary measures failed to halt or even slow the economy’s inexorable plunge. They did, however, inflame political passions and provide an inviting target for anti-Republican protest.
The NSDAP led the assault. Although the party’s now imposing Reichstag delegation led by Hermann Göring could, and did, exploit parliamentary proceedings as a forum for Nazi propaganda, the NSDAP’s political energies continued to be focused on the streets. Between the Reichstag elections of 1930 and 1932 the Nazis did not relax or slacken the pace of their agitation. Instead, the party continued to centralize its propaganda apparatus and to pursue its policy of perpetual campaigning. This strategy had evolved gradually since the adoption of Himmler’s “propaganda action” campaigns in 1928–29, and with membership rising dramatically, it was now possible to keep the agitation at a fever pitch. Between 1928 and September 1930, the party’s membership almost tripled, lurching from 108,717 to 293,000. Then in the wake of the 1930 campaign, applications for membership jumped yet again. Between September and the end of the year, the Nazis registered almost 100,000 new names on the party rolls. Even without the benefit of a national campaign in 1931, the NSDAP doubled its membership again. Each of these members paid regular party dues, filling the Nazis’ rapidly expanding war chest and funding in large part the party’s propaganda campaigns. By the close of 1932, a year dominated by a plethora of national and regional elections, the NSDAP boasted a membership of almost 1.5 million.
The rapidly growing membership made work in the party’s modest headquarters in the Schellingstrasse increasingly difficult, and in 1930 the party, flush with funds from membership dues and a sizable contribution from the industrialist Fritz Thyssen, acquired an ornate palais on the Brienner Strasse just off the renowned Königsplatz. It quickly became known as the Brown House and served as party headquarters until January 1945, when it was badly damaged by Allied bombs. The building was extensively renovated in grand style by Hitler’s favorite architect, Paul Ludwig Troost, and was ready for occupancy by early 1931. Engraved above its entry portal was the party’s signature slogan: “Germany Awaken!” Along with offices for the party leadership and staff was a “hall of flags,” at the center of which the party’s “Blood Flag” from the 1923 Putsch was reverently displayed. By 1931 the NSDAP was no longer a fly-by-night enterprise but an established political institution, able to organize mass rallies and stage elaborate parades of the uniformed SA in every corner of the country. These activities were intended to create a dynamic, peripatetic public image for the party, bridging the gaps between national and regional elections. While the other parties, especially those of the bourgeois center and right, tended to go into hibernation between elections, the Nazis operated in a state of perpetual mobilization. As a circular to Nazi functionaries in the Rhineland emphasized in May 1931, all the other parties would be “going into their deep summer slumber and the legislatures [would] be closing their doors—[they think] it’s too hot for politics—[but] for us National Socialists there is no pause. . . . We have no time to rest. Now is the time to intensify our propaganda work.”
When no elections were on the horizon, the Nazis resorted to stunts. On December 4, 1930, the film version of Erich Maria Remarque’s antiwar novel All Quiet on the Western Front opened in Berlin. The film had been cleared for release by the Social Democratic authorities, and for days in advance of the premiere, Goebbels and the Nazi press inveighed against this “affront to German honor.” On opening night at the palatial Mozartsaal on Nollendorfplatz, 150 Storm Troopers reduced the theater to sheer bedlam. They rampaged through the theater, threw stink bombs from the balcony, released hundreds of mice in the orchestra, and, shouting “Juden raus,” (Jews out!) roughed up anyone they thought to be Jewish. Following their spectacular sabotage of its premiere, the Nazis mounted a series of mass demonstrations against the film, punctuated by violent clashes with the police. Within days, the country’s Film Board, responding to the public outcry drummed up by the Nazis, reversed itself and rescinded its approval of All Quiet. The film was withdrawn from distribution, and the Nazis boasted that they had won a major triumph. “We are once again in the spotlight of public interest. The Republic rages in fury about our film victory.” It could not have been grander, Goebbels gloated.
The Nazi campaign against All Quiet was but one manifestation of a broad assault on what it considered the un-German, cosmopolitan decadence of postwar Germany. In the aftermath of the Great War and the social and political tumult of the hyperinflation, the nation, censorious social critics lamented, had plunged into a morass of hedonistic squalor. Some blamed the war, some economic woes, others women’s suffrage, but all agreed that the frenetic pleasure-seeking disregard of the traditional values of family, faith, and fidelity had sent the country plummeting into a state of “moral collapse. The boulevard press—tabloids—were filled with lurid stories of crime and sex, and were, of course, tremendously popular. The appalling evidence of the country’s moral decay was everywhere: sex, jazz, flappers, homosexuality, “the New Woman,” and an orgy of wild uninhibited dancing, all challenges to traditional values, all foreign, especially American, imports.
The Nazis launched assaults on all these manifestations of postwar popular culture, posing as the stalwart defenders of traditional “German” values. They reviled the postwar cinema, with its sordid sexuality, and condemned the new art, exemplified by Kandinsky, Klee, Beckmann, and other Expressionist painters. All had existed before the war but became centerpieces of what came to be called Weimar culture. The new atonal music arriving from Vienna, the futuristic architecture and furnishings of the Bauhaus, the seductive cynicism of Bertolt Brecht’s plays all seemed urban, foreign, far from the image of an idyllic pastoral Germany, which had, like most objects of nostalgic yearning, hardly existed.
Cultural critics and many ordinary Germans shared these views, but the Nazis placed them in an ideological context. The degenerate developments that were corroding German cultural life from high to low were the creations of the Jews and amounted to nothing less than “cultural bolshevism.” The actors, directors, musicians, novelists, playwrights, publishers, and architects who now dominated the German cultural scene were either “Jews or were swimming completely in the Jewish backwash.” Indeed, all German culture had become “jewified” (verjudet). “Everywhere we look Jews. . . . They saturate the body of our people and stamp their mentality on it,” a mentality whose essence was “money and eroticism.” Not rooted in any indigenous national culture, “they recognize no traditional values. Always desirous for the New, they crave the sensational.” It was the task of National Socialism “to once again warn the people and save them from the abyss.”
Giving coverage to these views, the Nazis could now rely on a vastly expanded party press. Before the great electoral breakthrough in September 1930, the NSDAP controlled forty-nine newspapers, only six of which were dailies. By 1932 the number had expanded to 127, with a circulation in excess of a million. The party’s Völkischer Beobachter, published daily in both Munich and Berlin, saw its circulation rise steadily from 26,000 in 1929 to over 100,000 in 1931, and Goebbels’s Berlin-based Der Angriff became a daily for the first time in November 1930. All brought much needed revenue to the party treasury in Munich.
Utilizing their expanding membership and their increasingly sophisticated propaganda apparatus, the Nazis marched aggressively through a series of regional elections in 1931, registering significant gains in Oldenburg, Hamburg, Hessen, and Anhalt, while the traditional bourgeois parties faltered badly. Between these elections, Hitler enlisted the party in another referendum campaign, this time in a bizarre coalition of antidemocratic forces that ranged from the DNVP to the Communists. The referendum was an attempt to unseat the democratically elected Prussian state legislature, which was controlled by the parties of the Weimar coalition—the SPD, Zentrum, and left-liberals (DDP). It was the all-important power base of the Social Democrats in Germany, and the referendum was intended to undermine this bastion of pro-democracy forces. Beginning in April, the campaign raged across Germany’s largest state until August, when the Prussian public went at last to the polls. The referendum failed—it received just 36 percent of the vote—but, just as the anti-Young campaign had done, it offered the NSDAP another opportunity for national exposure.
The Prussian referendum was hardly over when the Nazis were given another important boost by a revival of the anti-Young alliance. Organized by Hugenberg, the alliance was intended to mobilize the “national opposition” under the DNVP’s leadership. Hugenberg, who was determined to project himself as the leader of the anti-system right, invited the Nazis to join the Stahlhelm (Steel Helmet), the largest of the veterans organizations, the Pan-German League, and other right-wing organizations in a mass demonstration of anti-Republican unity at the resort town of Bad Harzburg in October. Hitler played a double game during the gathering—on the one hand he threw his party into the “national opposition,” and a powerful show of strength by the Storm Troopers was the highlight of the event. On the other hand, he made a point of keeping his distance from Hugenberg and the Stahlhelm leaders Franz Seldte and Theodor Duesterberg. He did not join them for the official dinner and refused to be photographed with them, actions that were deeply resented by his “allies.” At that highly publicized event and in the months that followed, it became clear that Hitler, not Hugenberg, was the dominant figure in the antidemocratic alliance.
That preeminent position was underscored just a few weeks after Bad Harzburg, when, in an unparalleled display of the movement’s power, Hitler reviewed a parade of more than 100,000 Storm Troopers in Braunschweig. It was the largest gathering of the SA to date and required more than two hours for the brown-shirted ranks to pass before their leader’s salute. The loose cooperation between the Nazis and their reactionary Harzburg allies lasted only until the presidential election of the following spring and ended in considerable bitterness. But the Harzburg Front had been a success for Hitler, providing him with extensive national exposure and marking another stage in the legitimation of National Socialism in traditional conservative circles.
In spite of Hitler’s repeated efforts to reassure the government, the police, and the conservative public that the NSDAP was committed to a policy of legality, the threat of an SA Putsch just would not go away. In November 1931 state authorities in Hessen came into possession of a set of documents that laid out plans for a Nazi coup in the event of a Communist uprising. The documents were the product of discussions by a small group of Nazis at the Boxheimer Hof, a farm in rural Hessen, and came to be known as the Boxheimer Dokumente. They offered a hair-raising catalogue of virtually every radical idea ever attributed to the Nazis. According to the documents, armed Nazi groups, including the SA, would declare a state of emergency, round up all political opponents and deliver them to concentration camps that would be constructed to house them. “Resistance,” especially by government officials, the document declared, “will be punished by death.” Anyone failing to turn in weapons within twenty-four hours or who participated in strikes or efforts at sabotage would be shot. Among other measures, the documents called for the abolition of the right to private property, the obligation to pay debts, interest on savings, and of private incomes. The SA was also empowered to administer the property of the state, and, in fact, all private property.
Publication of the documents created a sensation. The liberal and leftist press erupted. Vorwärts described them as “the blood plans of Hessen,” declaring that for the Nazis, governing meant shooting others. Hitler vehemently denied all knowledge of such plans, a denial that seems, in this case, to have been true. The Boxheim Documents, he insisted, in no way reflected Nazi policy but were the unofficial, private conjectures of a small group, nothing more. Why, after all, would the NSDAP consider such a project? Looking ahead to the presidential elections in the spring, he explained in a newspaper interview, “A party that can count on 15 million votes doesn’t need to take an illegal step.”
Ultimately, the court agreed with Hitler and dropped the charges, but the Boxheim affair was an embarrassment to Hitler, especially at a time when the party was not only attempting to placate suspicious government authorities but openly courting the business community. The specter of a violent Nazi revolution, combined with the fiery quasi-socialist rhetoric issuing from some elements of the party, had long been a source of deep concern to business circles. With the growing political influence of the NSDAP, business leaders, who had been skeptical of the Nazis and their vague, inconsistent, and apparently radical economic views, thought it prudent to take a fresh look at Hitler. The NSDAP’s rigid anti-Marxist and anti-union stance had long found a receptive audience in business circles, but the party’s strong anticapitalist rhetoric and the “socialist” demands of the party’s Twenty-five Points program—breaking interest slavery, the nationalization of all corporations and trusts—were deeply unsettling. The leaders of German big business, especially in the powerful coal, iron, and steel industries, were hardly champions of the Weimar Republic, convinced as they were that Weimar’s extensive welfare state and its protection of the rights of organized labor had been prime factors in Germany’s economic demise. But what were they to make of the unsystematic, sometimes blatantly contradictory economic pronouncements of the National Socialists? Some industrialists had provided occasional contributions to individual Nazis—to Strasser, Göring, and men they viewed as more reasonable and more moderate, at least in economic matters, than firebrands like Goebbels and Streicher. Just where Hitler stood in all this remained a mystery.
In 1931 contacts between the Nazis and big business multiplied. Nazi leaders were invited to speak before business audiences in Berlin and in the Ruhr, and the Nazis reciprocated by asking important business leaders to attend Nazi forums dealing with economic issues. In mid-October, Walther Funk, Hitler’s top economic advisor, spoke to the exclusive Gentlemen’s Club (Herrenklub) in Berlin; a few weeks later Gottfried Feder, one of Hitler’s economic advisors, addressed an invited audience of coal industry representatives in Essen; in November, Feder and Otto Wagener, head of the party’s Economic Policy Section, appeared in Düsseldorf before an audience of eight hundred, including many business leaders, at a special Nazi conference devoted to economic policy; and in December, Gregor Strasser gave an after-dinner speech to some thirty coal executives in Essen. With this flurry of activity, the Nazis sought to dispel fears in the business community about their presumed radical socialist intentions, while cautious business leaders hoped to cultivate the more moderate elements of the party, or, at the very least, to win friends in a movement that had become a major player in German politics.
The highlight of these efforts came in two appearances by Hitler before audiences of prominent figures in German industry and finance. In December he was invited to address the conservative National Club in Hamburg, and in January Fritz Thyssen, the powerful steel magnate, arranged for him to speak at the influential Düsseldorf Industrial Club. The themes of his Hamburg address were repeated again in Düsseldorf, but his speech there, in the heart of the industrial Ruhr, generated far more interest and news coverage. More than six hundred of the club’s eight hundred members crowded into the grand ballroom to hear Hitler’s views on Germany’s economic future. Instead of his brown party uniform and swastika armband, Hitler appeared at the posh Park Hotel wearing a respectable blue business suit, the proper, understated man of affairs.
His reception was decidedly cool. Many in the room were intrigued by Hitler, but those hoping to learn anything specific about Nazi economic policy were sorely disappointed.
Hitler delivered a rambling two-and-a-half-hour speech that was calculated to reassure business leaders that the party did not harbor radical anticapitalist tendencies, to emphasize its determination to stand as a bulwark against Marxism, and to demonstrate that the NSDAP was a party that could be trusted to provide responsible leadership of the state. He spoke at some length about the rising danger of Communism, a threat that could not be countered by anemic, ineffectual democratic government. It had to be fought mercilessly, day and night, in every corner of the land, and only the NSDAP had the courage, power, and will to carry out this crucial mission. Emergency decrees and their economic palliatives could not save Germany, only the forceful exercise of political power. Politics, not economics, would revitalize the nation. “It was not German business that conquered the world, followed by the development of German power, but the powerful state (Machtstaat) which created for the business world the general conditions for its subsequent prosperity.” There could be no economic life “unless behind this economic life there stands the determined political will of the nation absolutely ready to strike—and to strike hard. . . . The essential thing is the formation of the political will of the nation: that is the starting point for political action.” Unless Germany could overcome its internal divisions, no measures of the Reichstag, no ephemeral foreign policy triumph could halt the decline of the German nation, and only the NSDAP, standing above class, above petty interest politics and driven by an unstoppable political will, could bring that unity.
He went on to assail Versailles, reparations, and the perfidy of the victor states; he spoke vaguely about international trade, markets, the value of the mark, closing with the assertion that in order to sustain itself and ensure growth, Germany must acquire Lebensraum in the East. But the prerequisite for all was the indomitable political will of a united German nation, and that was the goal of the National Socialist movement. About the economy he spoke, as usual, in maddening generalities, eschewing specifics and emphasizing his belief in the primacy of individual initiative, of private enterprise, and of the disastrous effects of weak democratic government. On the whole, the presentation seemed one of calculated ambiguity.
While business leaders may have come away from these encounters somewhat reassured about Nazi radicalism and the party’s commitment to lead the fight against Communism, they were decidedly unimpressed by the Nazi leadership’s feeble grasp of economic matters. Aside from “cheap demagoguery,” as one business leader summarized his impressions, the presentations by the party’s economic experts revealed “an astounding economic dilettantism”; another was struck by the “great shallowness, flaccidity, and primitiveness” of Nazi economic thinking. Some business leaders viewed National Socialism as a passing phenomenon, a product of extreme economic distress that would fade away as economic conditions improved. A handful of business leaders, such as Thyssen and Hjalmar Schacht, the highly respected former head of the Reichsbank, were impressed with Hitler and urged financial support for the NSDAP. But the general conclusion drawn from these interactions was that it might be possible—and prudent—to influence the Nazis, to educate them about economic affairs, and to discourage the party’s radical elements by cultivating contacts with the more reasonable among them. For the most part, however, business leaders, with a few notable exceptions, remained at arm’s length from the party. Despite contemporary accusations, especially by the parties of the left, that big business was bankrolling the NSDAP, the business community continued to be wary of the Nazis and preferred the more predictable center-right parties, especially the DNVP and DVP.
Hitler was not unduly upset with this state of affairs. It was not necessary to convert the leaders of big business to National Socialism, he believed, only to ensure that they did not use their influence to thwart the party’s drive toward power. Modest contributions from business sources were made in 1931 and into 1932, but the Nazis were not in need of their contributions. They were proud of the fact that the party did not rely on donations from special interests to fund its activities but relied almost exclusively on grassroots sources of funding—membership dues, subscriptions to the party press, admission to party events, and so forth. Despite considerable investigation, the police authorities in the Ruhr, for example, could find no evidence of significant donations from big business to the NSDAP in 1931. Nazi propaganda—the dances, the “German Evenings,” the concerts, the speeches—was a moneymaking operation. The party received occasional donations from business sources, but only after the July elections of 1932, with the party treasury exhausted, did the party turn to big business for loans or direct contributions.
As 1931 drew to a close, the Nazis had every reason to feel buoyant about the future. At each municipal and state election, the party was gaining ground. The obscure fringe party of 1928 had captured the public’s attention; even the establishment, however reluctant, however reserved, had come calling. The Nazis had grabbed the spotlight, and they intended to hold it. They were new and energetic, they were exciting, and they were on the move. Elections in Germany’s two largest states would be held in the spring, and there was even the possibility of presidential elections. With the promise of new triumphs and with the prospect of power, the new year beckoned.