As the new year dawned, Hitler looked forward to what promised to be the year of decision. Elections were scheduled for the spring in Prussia and Bavaria, the country’s two largest states, and the NSDAP was well financed, well organized, and brimming with confidence. The Nazis were riding a wave of inevitability. Every election—shop floor, student government, town council, it didn’t matter—the Nazis contested them all, and in locale after locale, they were scoring spectacular gains. Hitler had every reason to feel optimistic. The NSDAP stood on the threshold of power.
The Nazis opened the year in impressive fashion, winning 30 percent of the vote in the tiny state of Lippe. For the first time, the NSDAP surpassed the combined totals of the center-right parties and exceeded the Social Democratic vote as well. The elections in Bavaria and Prussia were tantamount to a national election, and contests in Anhalt, Hamburg, and Württemberg were also scheduled for the early spring. In fact, elections would be held in virtually every German state before the high days of summer. But beyond those important contests, a much more enticing prize loomed on the near horizon. Hindenburg’s term as Reich President was due to expire in May 1932. In an effort to forestall a new election, Brüning, whose continued presence as Reich Chancellor depended on Hindenburg, appealed to “the Old Gentleman” to stay on. But Hindenburg was reluctant—at eighty-four, he could not face the rigors of a national campaign. Encouraged by General Schleicher, Brüning floated a plan that would allow Hindenburg’s term to be extended for another seven years—in effect, for life. Working the backstairs, Schleicher believed that it would be possible to convince the Nazis to support a rightist government that would have the backing of the Reich President, the army, and big business. With the popular support the Nazis would bring, this constellation of forces could then ditch the Weimar constitution and install the sort of authoritarian system they had long preferred. But extending Hindenburg’s presidency without an election would mean a revision of the constitution and that, in turn, would require passage by a two-thirds majority in the Reichstag. For this Brüning would need the support of the NSDAP.
When first approached in November, Hitler was reluctant to agree—after all, he piously objected, this amounted to a serious breach of the constitution. For weeks in December and January a dazed public was treated to the unlikely spectacle of Adolf Hitler wrapping himself reverently in the constitution, posing as the principled defender of a constitutional order he had publicly pledged to destroy. Behind the scenes, he was more amenable. He held talks with Schleicher, with Brüning, and finally with Hindenburg. He told the Reich President that he would put aside his constitutional scruples if Hindenburg would agree to dismiss Brüning, dissolve the Reichstag, and call for new elections. Hindenburg balked, and in January 1932, with the country mired in the depths of economic despair and political passions running at a fever pitch, a presidential campaign became inevitable.
Hitler did not relish the prospect of challenging the highly venerated Hindenburg. The old field marshal was the most respected figure in German political life. Although a conservative and, in his heart of hearts, a monarchist, he was viewed as a man “above politics,” the last bulwark of stability amid the chaos, violence, and polarization of German politics. He was also a living link with a glorious German past. Opposing him would be an enormous gamble for Hitler. So much of the NSDAP’s rising prestige and Hitler’s mystique rested on an image of unbroken momentum, of a relentlessly rising tide of public support that was sweeping them inexorably into power. Challenging Hindenburg, which Strasser and other party leaders feared would end in certain defeat, risked undoing all that Nazi propaganda had labored so assiduously to create.
Throughout January and much of February Hitler wavered. Although he projected a public image of unswerving resolve and decisive action, Hitler tended to be hesitant, vacillating sometimes for weeks before making important decisions—a tendency that would characterize his leadership throughout his political career. Once he had reached his decision, however, he would cling to it with fanatical resolve, and nothing and no one could change his mind. Goebbels and Röhm strongly favored contesting the election. Hitler had to run. How, after all the clamoring for power, could the Führer of NSDAP sit out the election? Goebbels’s diary entries for January and February bear ample testimony to his mounting frustration. Hitler’s procrastination was maddening; the “eternal waiting [was] creating low morale in the party.” Many in the leadership feared that Hitler had waited too long. “When will Hitler decide,” Goebbels asked on January 30, “does he lack the necessary courage? We must give it to him.”
While Hitler struggled with his decision, Goebbels was already hard at work planning for a presidential campaign. He and his staff were drafting speeches and slogans, creating leaflets and placards, outlining themes and a plan of attack for the campaign. But before a Hitler candidacy could become a reality, there was a small technical problem that demanded his attention: Adolf Hitler was not a German citizen. In 1925, fearing deportation to Austria after his release from Landsberg, he had renounced his Austrian citizenship and had remained officially stateless since. In 1929, he had applied to the Bavarian authorities for naturalization, only to be brusquely denied. But according to a peculiarity of German law, an appointment to a government post, either at the Reich or regional level, brought with it automatic citizenship. The situation was resolved when in March 1932 Hitler was appointed government councilor in the Office of Culture and Measurement in Braunschweig, the only state in which a National Socialist held a position in the government.
All that remained was Hitler’s commitment to run. On February 5, Goebbels briefed the Führer on his plans for the campaign. Hitler seemed impressed and on the verge of declaring his candidacy. “Everything is ready,” Goebbels assured him. “Just press the button and the avalanche will begin.” Still, to Goebbels’s dismay, Hitler procrastinated. “We must begin the battle,” Goebbels wrote in exasperation two weeks later. “Slogans [for Hitler’s candidacy] have been postponed for yet another day. This eternal waiting is frightful. Hitler is hesitating too long.”
By early February, the preparations for the campaign were complete, the themes laid out in a memorandum drafted on February 4. “It must be made clear to the masses . . . that the National Socialist movement is determined to use the presidential elections to put an end to the entire system of 1918. The two words ‘Schluss Jetzt!’ ”—End It Now!—“represent the most direct and forceful formulation of that determination. As the final words of every leaflet and placard this slogan must be relentlessly hammered into the head of the reader and voter. In ten days no one in Germany should be talking about anything but this slogan.” The presidential election was to be framed “as the decisive battle between National Socialism and the system. It must be pounded into the masses that this system will inevitably lead to Bolshevist chaos.” Only the NSDAP could “overcome the threatening specter of Bolshevism and . . . create a true people’s community of all productive [schaffenden] Germans.” The time had come to “End It Now!”
Finally, on February 22, Hitler gave the green light. Goebbels could announce his candidacy that night at a mass meeting in Berlin’s cavernous Sportpalast. The news, proclaimed with all the stormy theatricality Goebbels could muster, was greeted with wild cheering that went on for twenty minutes. It was an auspicious beginning. Despite the infuriating delays, Goebbels was confident that the party was well prepared for the coming battle. “It will be a campaign that will leave all previous ones in the shadows,” he predicted. “Everything is ready. . . . The election is already won. Poor Hindenburg.”
The field of candidates reflected the shifting topography of late Weimar politics. Hindenburg, the conservative, the monarchist, was spurned by the DNVP and other right-wing organizations, who put forward Theodor Duesterberg of the Stahlhelm as their candidate. Hindenburg was, however, supported by the Social Democrats, Zentrum, and the rapidly shrinking parties of the moderate center. The Social Democrats were hardly enthusiastic but considered Hindenburg the lesser of several evils. The Communists put forward their leader, Ernst Thälmann.
Hindenburg was a reluctant candidate, uncomfortable from the outset. He refused to go out on the campaign trail—it was beneath his sense of dignity and beyond his physical endurance—preferring instead to campaign from the halls of the Presidential Palace. It was at best a lackluster effort. He pointedly offered no endorsement of the Brüning government, which he had himself installed. He did not attend any rallies, and he made only one radio address to the nation. Symptomatic of his aloofness were two short campaign films that were as unexciting and detached as the old gentleman himself. In one, he read ploddingly through prepared remarks about his decision to enter the race, his eyes never leaving the page he held in his hands. In a second film he did not appear on camera at all. Instead, an actor stood on stage, script in hand, and declaimed in arch-thespian style Hindenburg’s record of achievement. Interspersed with his peroration were newsreel clips of Hindenburg at various state ceremonies. It was Brüning who bore the brunt of Hindenburg’s campaign, Brüning who was out on the hustings, the face of the campaign.
With its propaganda machine well organized and well financed, the NSDAP launched a massive media blitz the likes of which had never been seen in German politics. In February Goebbels moved the RPL, the Propaganda Leadership, from Munich to Berlin, where he would direct the campaign. Every day the new offices in the Hedemannstrasse bustled with frantic activity: the rooms were full, the atmosphere electric. The clatter of typewriters echoed from every room in the building; telephones jangled without stop. Hourly reports poured in from all over the country. The staff produced fifty thousand phonograph records, small enough to slip into a postal envelope, and several short films for distribution. The films, none longer than fifteen minutes, featured speeches by Hitler, Goebbels, and other Nazi leaders. They would not be shown in theaters but in public plazas in major cities and market towns. Otto Dietrich, head of the Nazi press corps and a rival of Goebbels for Hitler’s affection, mobilized the party’s daily and weekly newspapers, adding campaign extras and articles to its big-city dailies and smaller regional weeklies. In the torrent of printed matter that rained down on the country, special leaflets were addressed to every conceivable social and demographic group—shopkeepers, civil servants, farmers, workers, Catholics, Protestants, the old, the young, women. The content of these appeals was based on an analysis by the party’s market research. In Department III, on the second floor, a group of young men, most in their twenties and early thirties, analyzed reports submitted from the party’s regional propaganda affiliates. They sifted through them all, preparing summaries for Goebbels, their chief, who would evaluate them.
For weeks the party saturated the country with pamphlets, rallies, and theatrically orchestrated appearances by Nazi leaders. In addition to the mass of printed materials provided to regional leaders on an almost daily basis, the RPL earmarked some for public distribution on specific dates. Their appearance on the designated dates was intended to coincide with important speeches or rallies devoted to a particular social group or political issue. “The placards must appear, whether in the press, as leaflets, or as posters on exactly the date for which they are marked,” the RPL stressed. “The end effect must be that on the same day all over Germany our attack on the system and its parties has been launched as a unified assault.” Such coordinated propaganda offensives became hallmarks of the National Socialist campaigns in 1932, and they produced the desired effect: on a given date, from Königsberg to Aachen, from the Baltic to the Alps, Nazis would be on the streets distributing the same leaflets, posting similar placards, and holding highly publicized speeches or rallies on the designated topic of the day. This degree of nationwide coordination was unrivaled by the other parties and gave the NSDAP a tremendous advantage in the day-to-day conduct of national campaigning.
Along with these displays of national coordination and centralized control, the party targeted virtually every group, with farmers, civil servants, and workers leading the list. No group was too small, too insignificant for the NSDAP to mobilize. The message generated in a variety of ways was simple, direct, and shorn of any nuance, couched in a few snappy catchphrases, a handful of images, and easily recognized code words—sound bites, in today’s vernacular—that could be easily remembered and passed on. The local party chapters studied their area’s Addressbuch, a forerunner of telephone directories, which listed the occupation of the head of the household. Using that information as a guide, the Nazis were able to design leaflets and short pamphlets that addressed the specific woes of the shopkeeper, the civil servant, farmer, white-collar employee, and worker. These were then delivered in person, and the recipient was invited to a follow-up meeting for his particular occupational group.
These printed materials were accompanied by the usual reminders about other propaganda aids available from the national or Gau headquarters. The party’s list of such aids and services had grown considerably since 1930, including not only films and phonograph records, but loudspeakers, motorcycles, trucks, and, for the most affluent and important regions, even airplanes. The RPL also continued to offer detailed instructions on virtually every aspect of campaigning from the sort of music to play at rallies to the colors of campaign placards and the frequency with which they should be changed to hold public attention. In each of the 1932 campaigns, the NSDAP continued to concentrate on what the RPL referred to as “systematic work at the grass-roots level (Kleinarbeit).” No detail was to be ignored.
The Nazis staged more than thirty thousand events, distributed eight million leaflets, and plastered the walls of every town and city with Nazi posters. Goebbels’s office circulated regular propaganda updates, designating new themes and target groups for particular emphasis. But the main attractions of the campaign were the public appearances of Hitler, Goebbels, Strasser, and Göring, whose public profile had risen dramatically since he returned from exile in 1927 to lead the party’s Reichstag delegation. Other big guns of the party also spoke, but Hitler and Goebbels were the headliners. Between the announcement of Hitler’s candidacy of February 22 and election day on March 13, Goebbels made nineteen speeches in Berlin, and addressed mass meetings in nine other towns scattered across Germany. Hitler kept to an exhausting schedule, speaking in twelve cities in eleven days, traveling always by car. He raced from engagement to engagement in a small convoy of automobiles, accompanied by his usual team of bodyguards, secretaries, drivers, and a changeable entourage of party figures. At the edge of every town or city, the convoy would be met by local Nazi officials, who were in charge of security for the event. Hitler, sitting beside his driver, always kept a map on his knees, marking the route, careful to avoid known Communist strongholds. He also carried a revolver. Everywhere he drew monster crowds, who often waited patiently through hours of delay for his arrival. In the last frenetic days of the campaign, Hitler addressed mass meetings in Berlin, Hamburg, Stettin, Breslau, Leipzig, Bad Blankenburg, Weimar, Frankfurt, Nuremberg, Stuttgart, Dortmund, and Hanover, where crowds of sixty to one hundred thousand turned out for his well-choreographed appearances.
Throughout the campaign, the party handled the ancient Feldmarschall with uncharacteristic restraint. The strategy was to praise Hindenburg’s great service to the fatherland, in both war and peace, to show respect (a rare exercise for the Nazis) for his patriotism and person, while at the same time suggesting that der Alte (the Old One) was being manipulated and misused by an unscrupulous chancellor—a strategy that tied Hindenburg to Brüning while at the same time serving as an indirect, if not very subtle, reminder of Hindenburg’s age. A vote for Hindenburg, the Nazis insisted, was a vote for Brüning and his emergency decrees. It was time for new leadership.
There were bright clear skies over Germany on election day, March 13—“Hitler weather,” Goebbels prophesized. “Everyone is confident of victory. [Hitler], too.” From early in the day reports from around the country indicated a massive turnout. Polling places everywhere were teeming with activity. Long lines snaked along crowded sidewalks. “Fate, do not help us,” Goebbels prayed, “but be just. . . . We await your judgment. Evening should find us joyful.”
As he left his office in the Hedemannstrasse in the early evening, he was struck by the mood of excitement and anticipation he saw on the streets. “Everywhere victory fever prevails.” That night a small crowd of friends and party colleagues gathered in his house to listen to the returns. The early results from cruise ships leaving Hamburg and Bremen harbors reported “a fantastic win for Hitler,” a good omen. But as the evening wore on and more returns began trickling in, the optimistic mood evaporated. “Things look bad. . . . Around ten one can sense the final result. We have been beaten,” Goebbels conceded glumly. The outlook was “frightful.” By 2 a.m. everyone was “dejected and discouraged.” It was depressingly clear, he concluded, that “we had set our goals too high.” He placed a call to Hitler in Munich. The Führer was “completely surprised by the results,” Goebbels thought, but was determined to go on, to get back down to work. “In that,” Goebbels gushed, “he is great.”
Putzi Hanfstaengl, Hitler’s piano player, foreign press chief, and general factotum, had a rather different recollection of Hitler’s reaction to the defeat. Hitler listened to the returns in his office at the Brown House surrounded by Hanfstaengl, Hess, his secretary Martin Bormann, and the party’s business manager Philipp Bouhler. In the early-morning hours, when the final verdict was in, a heavy pall settled over the little group. The telephone began to ring. Calls from various party leaders. “Goebbels was completely distraught and cried with disappointment,” Hanfstaengl remembered. Göring kept his head and pointed out that due to Hindenburg’s advanced years, he would never survive a runoff. Hitler hardly uttered a word. He rose stiffly from his chair and departed as if in a trance. Sometime later Hanfstaengl drove to Hitler’s apartment on the Prinzregentenplatz and found the Führer sitting alone in a darkened room, staring into the shadows, brooding. He was, Hanfstaengl thought, “the very picture of a disappointed, dejected gambler who had wagered beyond his means.”
Although deflated by the results, the Nazis had captured eleven and a half million votes, almost double their total from 1930, and with 30 percent of the vote, Hitler left Duesterberg (6.8 percent) and the KPD’s Thälmann (10 percent) in the dust. Hindenburg had prevailed, the outcome not even close. With more than eighteen million votes, he was the clear winner. And yet when the final results were officially tabulated, there was a problem. In order to avoid a runoff, a candidate needed at least 50 percent of the vote. Now it was the Hindenburg camp’s turn to be disappointed. The old field marshal had captured 49.6 percent. A second round would be necessary.
Initially Strasser and Göring were reluctant to embark on a new campaign. With the other candidates eliminated, a direct Hindenburg-Hitler contest could only end in another, possibly more damaging setback. Even the Harzburg parties, still smarting from Hitler’s refusal to back Duesterberg in the first round, were urging their voters to abstain rather than endorse Hitler. But having once decided to challenge Hindenburg, Hitler was not about to back out now. He would confront Hindenburg in the runoff. On March 14, a special edition of the Völkischer Beobachterappeared, carrying the party’s new rallying cry: “The first election campaign is over,” Hitler wrote. “The second has begun today. I will lead it.”
The party’s propaganda machine shifted immediately into high gear. Drawing on reports from their regional propaganda operatives, the RPL was convinced that the party had failed to attract sufficient support from civil servants, pensioners, and women. Hindenburg’s strong showing, Goebbels believed, could be “traced to the typical mentality of certain bourgeois circles, especially the German petit bourgeois whose vote was won with sentimentality and the fear of the unknown; the woman whose vote was swayed by appeals to the tear ducts and fear of war; and the pensioner and public official who were misled by references to inflation, cuts in benefits, and National Socialist hostility toward civil servants.” To counter such charges, Goebbels and his staff deluged regional leaders with drafts of leaflets directed to precisely these groups.
As the campaign unfolded, the Nazis avoided a frontal assault on the Reich President and directed their fire to the parties that supported him. Hindenburg was the candidate of the “system parties,” and what did they stand for? “The SPD—Marxism, socialization. ‘Property is theft,’ hate of the army, nationalism”; they were “the treasonous guarantors of Versailles [and] enemies of the church”; the Zentrum was assailed for its “misuse of religion” and “working arm in arm with atheists.” The liberals merited hardly a mention. They were simply the tools of “Jewish money bag interests.” The Nazis again sought to tar Hindenburg with Brüning’s unpopular emergency decrees, repeatedly reminding voters that “if you vote for Hindenburg, you’re voting for Brüning, and whoever votes for Brüning casts his ballot for the emergency decrees.”
At the same time, the RPL chose to concentrate on candidate Hitler, implicitly contrasting his youth, energy, and populist magnetism with the ancient Prussian field marshal. Hindenburg was a great and honorable man but a man whose day had passed. It was time for a new generation to take up the torch. Day after day the public was bombarded with articles about Hitler—his humble beginnings (not the privileged background of a Prussian Junker), his service as a common front soldier, his creation of a movement of political, social, and cultural renewal that, against all odds, was taking the country by storm. Typical was a series of leaflets composed by Goebbels that would appear nationwide on four consecutive days: “Adolf Hitler as Human Being,” March 29; “Adolf Hitler as Comrade,” March 30; “Adolf Hitler as Political Fighter,” March 31; “Adolf Hitler as Statesman,” April 1. By election day, his stern visage looked down from every wall, every kiosk. Hitler preferred one poster in particular—his chalk-white face staring hypnotically out from the center of a solid black background, presumably capturing his fanatical magnetism. The caption read only: “Hitler.”
Hitler touched on all these themes in a campaign declaration entitled “My Program,” released on April 2. As in almost all Hitler’s public utterances, “My Program” began with a recapitulation of his unlikely rise from political obscurity, depicting himself as a lonely visionary engaged in a long and bitter struggle against the establishment, the insiders, the power brokers. The story did not lack for melodrama—or false humility. Hitler’s fanatical devotion to the cause of Germany’s revival (in the Nazi lexicon “fanatical” was an adjective of the highest praise) was a defining leitmotif of the campaign. Delivered in a tone of aggrieved self-righteousness, he thundered against the system that had relentlessly persecuted him and his movement. The authorities had banned the movement’s newspapers, suppressed its organizations, prohibited him from speaking in different states, charged the party’s leaders with slander, libel, and sedition, and thrown others into prison. “When thirteen years ago,” he typically began, “an unknown man and German soldier, entered political life, I listened only to the dictates of my conscience. . . . I could not convince myself, as millions of others did, to keep quiet and go along . . . with those whose actions were driving Germany to ruin. For thirteen years of hard struggle . . . I have followed my sense of duty and founded a movement to fight against those . . . responsible for Germany’s collapse.” The “system parties,” he wrote, “have tried to silence me; they have scorned me; they could prohibit my speaking, suppress the movement, gag our propaganda, just as today they ban my newspapers, confiscate our leaflets, and deny us access to the radio. All this they can do and have for thirteen years. But one thing they have failed to do: they have not been able to show me wrong.”
In the campaign’s most dramatic stroke, Hitler took to the skies in a highly publicized “flight over Germany” (Deutschlandflug), appearing in twenty-one cities in six days. It was a sensation. He was the first German—or for that matter, European or American—politician to campaign by airplane, and the image of a daring, innovative leader literally descending from the heavens spearheaded the Nazi propaganda offensive. When his plane touched down for the last rally of the whirlwind tour, he had spoken to a half million people.
At each of his stops Hitler was greeted by boisterous, adoring crowds, and at each he thundered with fury, his rasping voice rising to a piercing crescendo, as he gave vent to all their anger, frustration, and resentment. He spewed venom at the Marxists, the November criminals, the system parties, who were responsible for Germany’s disgrace and his audience’s personal misery. He, and he alone, could make Germany great again by toppling the rule of Weimar’s corrupt and divisive party system and forging a new Germany united in one cohesive people’s community (Volksgemeinschaft) that would transcend class, religion, and region. That, he promised, was Germany’s future under a National Socialist regime. To his many opponents, these melodramatic tirades were the sheerest demagoguery, a paranoid amalgam of vacuous shibboleths, hate, distortions, and outright lies. To those angry multitudes caught up in the frenzy, it hardly mattered.
As election day approached, the atmosphere in Germany was electric. Every day the SA clashed in vicious street battles with the Red Front and the SPD’s Reichsbanner. Columns of Storm Troopers marched through the streets; buildings were festooned with placards; discarded leaflets littered the streets; party banners fluttered from windows. “Berlin,” Goebbels wrote, “is no longer recognizable. Everything is in motion.” On April 10, Hitler again fell short, but this time there was not a whisper of disappointment in the Nazi camp. Hitler had captured more than thirteen million votes (36.6 percent of the total), an increase of more than two million over the first round. “For us an overwhelming victory,” Goebbels gushed, almost in disbelief. In “red Berlin” alone, the Nazi vote had jumped from 300,000 to more than 800,000. “Fantastic numbers. Hitler is completely happy. Now we have a springboard for the Prussian elections.” While Hindenburg claimed 53 percent of the vote, Hitler had dwarfed the other leaders of the anti-Republican right and left. He was now the anti-system alternative. Equally important, he had demonstrated the stature to stand on the same national platform with the venerated Hindenburg.
First incubated within the NSDAP after 1925 and largely confined to the party’s true believers, the presidential campaigns had thrust the Führer cult into the mainstream of national political consciousness. Hitler was now not only a political force of the first magnitude, he was a national celebrity, easily the most recognizable—and controversial—figure in German political life. Even his enemies—and they were legion—were obsessed with him. His habits, his tastes, his background, his personal life were the topics of endless speculation, gossip, and analysis.
Yet for all the attention and public scrutiny, Hitler remained an enigma, his personal life a mystery. Away from Berlin and Munich, he liked to relax in lederhosen, the traditional leather shorts worn in southern Germany. He almost always carried a whip. He loved dogs and was fond of children, with whom he was frequently photographed. He took pride in his highly publicized “Spartan” lifestyle, his simplicity in dress and diet; he was, after all, marketed as “a man of the people.” But by 1932, Hitler led anything but the simple life. For years, from 1920 to 1929, he had lived in a narrow, one-room apartment on the Thierschstrasse, its worn linoleum floor covered by cheap, threadbare carpets. But in 1929 a wealthy benefactor secured for him a luxurious nine-room apartment on the posh Prinzregentenplatz, which would remain his personal residence for the remainder of his life. His spacious Munich apartment; his Alpine retreat—Haus Wachenfeld—outside Berchtesgaden; his lengthy stays at the ornate Kaiserhof Hotel in Berlin; his ubiquitous detachment of bodyguards, drivers, secretaries, and advisors; his massive chauffeur-driven Mercedes; and his innate restlessness that kept him and his entourage almost constantly on the move—all reflected a very different reality.
He made a great point of not drawing a salary from the party or taking honoraria for his speeches, but he did accept gifts from admirers, was paid handsomely for articles published in the party press and interviews he gave to foreign newspapers, and his expenses from his numerous speaking engagements were lavishly—and excessively—reimbursed. Sales of Mein Kampf, which had been a disappointment—the second volume published in 1927 had sold only thirteen thousand copies by 1929—began to rise after the breakthrough of 1930 and continued to climb, reaching eighty thousand in 1932. He was a best-selling author and financially independent.
Although constantly surrounded by obsequious lieutenants and fawning admirers, he had no friends, no close confidants. It was, after all, difficult to be on familiar terms with a deity. Sefton Delmer, an English reporter who was allowed to accompany Hitler during his campaigns in 1932, observed that
Hitler was either completely silent during his meals or he was laying down the law, expounding at length with all the dogmatic assurance of the self-taught man. He had no small talk. And he did not like others to have any either. . . . Argument was taboo. Only questions were welcome. And his companions took care that the questions they asked . . . should be questions that would provide him with an opening to lecture them on some favorite topic. What he liked talking about most was war, war of the future and war of the past, particularly the war of 1914–1918.
Only Röhm and Strasser, old comrades from the early days of the movement, dared address him with the familiar “du.” Although he liked the company of women, especially young, attractive women, he was unmarried and had no romantic connections. His one serious attachment ended in tragedy and scandal. He appears to have fallen in love with his twenty-three-year-old niece, Geli Raubal, who had come along with her mother, Angela (Hitler’s half-sister), to look after “Uncle Alf’s” house outside Berchtesgaden. In 1929 Hitler invited her to live with him at his new Munich apartment. Geli was attractive and outgoing; she drew the attention of men. For two years they were photographed around Munich, in the cafés, at the opera, the cinema. Salacious stories circulated, embarrassing Goebbels and his handlers, but Hitler didn’t seem to care. More than twenty years her senior, he was almost pathologically possessive. In time Geli grew weary of Hitler’s jealousy and domineering control, and expressed a desire to return to Vienna to pursue a singing career. He refused to let her go.
On September 19, 1931, while he was away giving a speech in Nuremberg, Geli was found shot dead in Hitler’s apartment, his pistol by her side. The death was ruled a suicide, though rumors persisted that Hitler had murdered her or that Himmler or Goebbels or Strasser had had her removed to protect Hitler and the movement from further scandal. Hitler’s opponents couldn’t get enough of the story, the opposition press publishing one lurid rumor after another. Insinuations of domestic violence and sexual perversions of the most varied sorts made the rounds.
Hitler was genuinely shocked at Geli’s death. For days he was despondent, unable to focus. Close associates had never seen him like this; some feared that he might be suicidal. Then, within days after her funeral in Vienna, he seemed to snap out of it. He plunged again into his political work, and the scandal gradually faded. The nature of his relationship with Geli remained shrouded in obscurity, but Hitler ordered her room to be left just as she left it, and he kept a shrine to his niece in his residence in Berlin, in Berchtesgaden, and even in the Führerbunker where he ended his life. No one outside a small coterie within the party leadership knew as yet about another young woman, in many respects very similar to Geli, whom Hitler had met in 1929. Eva Braun would remain a secret until well into the Third Reich.
The votes in the presidential elections were still being counted when Goebbels began preparing for important regional elections on April 24. On that day, voters in Prussia, Bavaria, Anhalt, Hamburg, and Württemberg would go to the polls. With four fifths of the country’s population voting, the regional elections amounted to yet another national campaign. The party’s propaganda apparatus was fully mobilized and ready, its coffers full. But before the campaign could get under way, Brüning convinced Minister of the Interior General Wilhelm Groener to issue a decree dissolving the SA and the SS. Once before he had tried to rein in the Storm Troopers, who were so integral a part of Nazi campaigning. At the close of 1931 Brüning enacted a decree that prohibited the wearing of uniforms by party formations. The Storm Troopers had flouted that decree by putting away their brown shirts and appearing the next day in white shirts—or in some cases no shirts at all. The prohibition was quickly dropped. But the level of political violence had escalated dramatically during the two rounds of the presidential elections, and with regional campaigns looming, Brüning felt that something had to be done.
The decree went into effect on April 13. The Nazi press was quick to point out that no such order was issued regarding the Reichsbanner or the Red Front. It was yet another example, Hitler complained, of the government’s remorseless campaign of persecution against the NSDAP. At first Röhm considered resisting the decree—after all, the SA now numbered roughly 400,000 men, four times as many as the Reichswehr. Hitler, however, disagreed, and appealed to the SA and SS, again urging patience and a renewed commitment to participation in elections. “I understand your feelings,” he wrote in an address directed to them. “For years you have been true to my directives about winning political power by legal means. You are horribly persecuted and harassed. Yet in spite of all the gruesome agony perpetrated against you by today’s momentarily ruling parties, you have remained upright and honorable Germans.” He urged them to continue the fight as party comrades, to cooperate more than ever with local party groups in the upcoming campaigns, and “to give the current rulers no cause, under any circumstances, to set aside the elections. If you do your duty, our propaganda will strike a blow at General Groener and his accomplices a thousand times harder [than he has delivered against us].” Still, he was uneasy. As he had done during the SA unrest of the previous year, he pledged his loyalty to the Storm Troopers and demanded their fealty in return. “I will give my all for this struggle and for Germany. You will follow me, for in spite of General Groener, I belong to you as long as I live and you belong to me.”
Two days later, on April 15, Hitler once again embarked on a “flight over Germany.” Following an itinerary determined by Goebbels, he crisscrossed the country, landing in smaller aerodromes, speaking in smaller venues. In all, he spoke in twenty-six towns in just over a week. The great prize was, of course, Prussia, where three fifths of the country’s population lived and where a coalition of Social Democrats, Zentrum, and left-liberals had held power since the early years of the Republic. It was a bastion of pro-democracy forces, with an administration and police force second in size only to the Reich government.
Navigating the sociopolitical geography of German politics, Goebbels directed the party’s campaign in Prussia against the ruling Social Democrats and targeted the blue-collar worker for special attention. An RPL memorandum of April 2 instructed the local chapters to do all they could to remove working-class mistrust of the NSDAP and “to interest the worker in us, to bring him into our rallies, to win him.” To help with this task, the RPL bombarded local leaders with an almost ceaseless barrage of leaflets addressed explicitly to working-class voters, detailing Nazi positions on labor-oriented issues while ruthlessly assailing the parties of the Marxist left for their failures. In Bavaria, on the other hand, the party concentrated less on the working-class vote than on the Catholic electorate, and the local chapters were instructed to emphasize the NSDAP’s defense of religious values against Weimar’s cultural decadence, the shameless misuse of religion by the Zentrum, and the onslaught of godless Marxism. There the campaign theme was to be a “National Socialist Bavaria as a bulwark against centralization [from Berlin] and Godlessness.”
On April 24 the NSDAP rolled to impressive victories all across the board. Despite the government’s efforts to reduce the party’s public presence, the NSDAP captured 36 percent of the vote in Prussia, 32 percent in Bavaria, 26 percent in Württemberg, and 31 percent in “red Hamburg.” The results in Prussia were particularly striking. Since 1928 only six Nazis had sat in the state legislature; National Socialists now occupied 162 seats, becoming the largest delegation in the chamber. In May, the parade of Nazi triumphs continued. In Oldenburg the Nazis took a spectacular 48 percent of the vote, while in Hessen, traditionally a Social Democratic stronghold, the NSDAP captured 44 percent. The specter of a Nazi majority was in sight.
Confronted by this tidal wave of support for the NSDAP, Brüning found himself floundering in increasingly hostile seas. He was convinced that his unpopular economic initiatives were on the verge of bearing fruit, that signs of recovery would be evident by summer or early fall, and that Hitler’s popularity would fade as that recovery took hold. He also hoped to score foreign policy victories in Lausanne, where he was pressing for a final end to reparations and war debts as well as greater arms equity at a League of Nations disarmament conference. It was imperative, even in the face of growing radicalism and continued economic suffering, to stay the course. But not only had his austerity program lost all credibility with the public, powerful economic interests were increasingly disenchanted with Brüning and his policies. His failure to make headway in dismantling Weimar’s welfare state had alienated leaders of the business community, especially in heavy industry, and his plan, floated in May, to seize fatally indebted agrarian estates in the east, subdivide them into small farms, and resettle the country’s unemployed there enraged powerful agrarian interests close to the Reich President. The chancellor’s plan, in their view, amounted to nothing less than “agrarian Bolshevism.”
Perhaps more important was Brüning’s continuing failure to coax Hitler into some sort of positive relationship with the government. Brüning had tried on several occasions in 1931 and early 1932 to lure the Nazis into the cabinet, always as a junior partner, always subordinate to other coalition parties. It was crucial, he believed, to have Hitler sharing the burden of government responsibility rather than assaulting it from the outside. Brüning’s inability to strike a deal with the Nazis was especially disappointing to the leadership of the Reichswehr. In the aftermath of the May state elections, General Schleicher, who had played a major role in maneuvering Brüning into power, came to the conclusion that the chancellor had outlived his usefulness. Schleicher clung to the illusion that it would be possible to enlist the Nazis in a coalition of right-wing forces that would enjoy the backing of business and agrarian leaders, the DNVP, the Reich President, and, most importantly, the Reichswehr. Supremely confident of his own Machiavellian skills, he was convinced that the Nazis could be “tamed” and used to drum up popular support for a new authoritarian regime. Like many military leaders, Schleicher tended to dismiss Hitler’s radical campaign rhetoric as mere demagoguery for the masses; he shared their view that Hitler was actually a restraining influence on the revolutionary hotheads in his party.
Based on a number of behind-the-scenes meetings with Hitler and Göring, Schleicher and other military leaders had come to the conclusion that the NSDAP and the Reichswehr shared a number of common interests. In those secret discussions Hitler was sweet reason itself, at pains to emphasize that the NSDAP was eager to cooperate with the Reichswehr. After all, both were determined to reshape the German state on an authoritarian basis and to smash the armaments clauses of the Versailles Treaty. Hitler advocated a rapid buildup of the German military, music to the ears of the High Command. Nazi extremism, Reichswehr leaders convinced themselves, was a reaction to the discriminatory treatment and outright persecution the party had suffered from the Republican authorities. With more careful and accommodating handling, Hitler and the Nazis could be put to productive use.
Schleicher began courting the Nazis before the spring regional elections, letting Hitler know by back channels that he had opposed the SA ban and believed Brüning’s days were numbered. In May, as Brüning contemplated another emergency decree that would further reduce pensions and other benefits, Schleicher persuaded Hindenburg that the time had come to dismiss him. He convinced the Reich President that a new right-of-center cabinet could secure the support of both the DNVP and the Nazis, providing a parliamentary base of support for a rightward shift. On May 29, Hindenburg stunned the public by unceremoniously sacking the chancellor who only weeks before had helped secure his reelection as Reich President. Even more surprising was his installation of Franz von Papen, an obscure representative of the Zentrum in the Prussian legislature, in the Reich Chancellery. Hindenburg’s choice, French ambassador André François-Poncet quipped, was met with scarcely concealed “incredulity.” Everyone “smiled or tittered or laughed because Papen enjoyed the peculiarity of being taken seriously by neither his friends nor his enemies.” He was also “regarded as superficial, mischief-making, deceitful, ambitious, vain, crafty, given to intrigue,” observations that events would soon prove to be all too true.
Papen was a lively, dapper man, a Catholic aristocrat with charm and excellent social connections. He married the daughter of a wealthy Saar industrialist and enjoyed close ties to business leaders. Before entering politics, he had made a career in the military. During the war, he had served as military attaché in Mexico and Washington but was expelled from the United States in 1916 for attempting to sabotage American military shipments to Canada. Thereafter he served briefly as a battalion commander in France and then as a staff officer in Turkey. Following the war, he embarked on a political career as a member of the Zentrum and gravitated immediately to its far right wing. Despite being almost completely unknown, his aristocratic heritage, business connections, military background, and antidemocratic sentiments all recommended him to Schleicher, who referred to his creation condescendingly as Fränzchen, little Franz. He was the ideal front man to lead the authoritarian transformation of the German state Schleicher and the High Command envisioned.
Papen’s was to be a government of national concentration, which would stand above parties. The cabinet, selected by Schleicher, was composed almost exclusively of conservative aristocrats without formal party affiliation. It contained no figure of national prominence, in either government or business, and commanded virtually no support in the Reichstag. No matter. It was a government that was never intended to rely on the support of the public or the parties, only on the favor of Hindenburg and his military entourage. Its opponents disdainfully christened it “the cabinet of barons.” Virtually every parliamentary party, including Papen’s own Zentrum, immediately denounced this new chancellor sprung on the country by Hindenburg and Schleicher. Only Hugenberg’s DNVP and the tiny business-oriented DVP threw their meager support behind the Papen government, leaving it with an even smaller parliamentary base than its late and unlamented predecessor.
Key to the new cabinet’s success was the attitude of the NSDAP. Schleicher believed that he had secured the cooperation, if not outright support, of the Nazis. In secret meetings in May he had struck a bargain with Hitler, or so he thought. In return for a Nazi pledge to refrain from attacking the new government, Papen would lift the ban on the SA and SS and call for new elections, two demands made by Hitler. It was to be a policy of toleration, a political truce that Schleicher hoped would evolve into close cooperation.
Lacking any sign of public support and demonstrating precious little interest in it, Papen openly courted business and industrial leaders. His government, he claimed, was “the last great chance” to save private enterprise and halt Germany’s calamitous slide into state socialism. He indicated that tax credits for industry and a retreat from the binding nature of wage contracts, steps long sought by business, were on the way, and he promised a sharp reduction in government spending on social programs. As a sign of his determination to dismantle Weimar’s welfare programs, he used his first emergency decree in June to announce substantial reductions in unemployment and health benefits, while suggesting that government spending in certain areas—transportation and housing construction, in particular—might stimulate economic activity in the private sector. These harsh measures outraged labor but found considerable resonance in the wary business community.
While sending encouraging signals to business, Papen also openly courted the political right, hoping to bind Hitler and conservative leader Hugenberg in one manner or another to his government. Following through on Schleicher’s deal with Hitler, he lifted the ban on the SA and SS on June 16, despite strong objections from several state governments, and he used his emergency powers to dissolve the Reichstag and call for new elections to be held on July 31. Papen apparently hoped that new elections would further weaken the moderate center and left, while providing broad popular support for his authoritarian designs. “The system is collapsing,” Goebbels gleefully confided to his diary. Papen might be chancellor for now, but the people were to be called to the polls once again. “Voting, voting! Out to the people. We’re all very happy.”
No sooner had the ban on the SA been lifted than a firestorm of political terrorism raged through the country. Storm Troopers surged back onto the streets, and violent clashes with the Red Front and Reichsbanner became everyday occurrences. In the last half of June, the police reported seventeen political murders, and during the run-up to the election on July 31, no fewer than eighty-six killings and literally hundreds of wounded were recorded. The dead and wounded were for the most part Nazis and Communists. “Berlin was in a state of civil war,” wrote Christopher Isherwood, the English writer, who was living in the city that summer. “Hate exploded suddenly without warning, out of nowhere; at street corners, in restaurants, cinemas, dance halls, swimming baths; at midnight, after breakfast, in the middle of the afternoon. Knives were whipped out, blows were dealt with spiked rings, beer-mugs, chair legs or leaded clubs; bullets slashed the advertisements on the poster columns, rebounded from the iron roofs of latrines.”
During seven days in mid-July, the carnage in the streets reached a murderous crescendo. On Sunday, July 17, some seven thousand Storm Troopers marched into the Communist stronghold of Altona, a working-class suburb of Hamburg, where they encountered thousands of heavily armed men of the Red Front. Stones were thrown; shots fired; a pitched battle raged through the narrow streets. When the police finally established order, eighteen people, many of them innocent bystanders, were dead and more than a hundred wounded. Despite all the mayhem and bloodshed Germany had endured since 1929, “Bloody Sunday” came as a shock.
On the day after the Altona riot, the Papen government issued an emergency decree that prohibited all outdoor rallies and marches. The measure had little effect. The fighting continued; the casualties mounted. Then, on July 20, claiming that the inability of the Prussian authorities to preserve public order forced him to act, Papen dismissed the Social Democratic government of Prussia and declared himself Reich commissar for Germany’s largest state. It was nothing more than a thinly veiled coup d’état carried out against the last lingering stronghold of Weimar democracy.
Papen hoped that this bold—and illegal—move would establish his anti-Marxist credentials and allow him to present himself to the public as a strong law-and-order leader, and it did win praise in conservative, nationalist circles. But the parties of the moderate center and left were unalterably opposed to Papen and his action. Even the DNVP and DVP, while applauding the chancellor’s “Prussian coup,” were not enthusiastic about mounting a pro-Papen campaign. The Nazis remained true to their pledge to “tolerate” the Papen government, but toleration, they insisted, did not imply support. Although the Nazi campaign refrained from a direct assault on Papen, Goebbels, in a secret memorandum, warned the party’s regional leaders that they “should refuse most strenuously to be associated with this cabinet.” The Nazis heaped ridicule on the emergency decrees of the Papen government, but the primary target of the Nazi campaign was not Papen but “the bankrupt system parties,” which were trying to divert attention from their own dismal history of failure by attacking the newly installed government. The Social Democrats and Communists were responsible for the “bloodbath in the streets,” the Nazis insisted, and “the red civil war” raging over Germany was “the product of a Marxist-Jewish murder campaign.” The chief goal of the campaign was therefore “to destroy the bourgeois splinters, to make inroads for the first time into the ranks of the Zentrum, and to drive the Marxists from power once and for all.”
During the campaigns of 1932, the Nazis raised the already shrill pitch of negative campaigning into an entirely new register. Rather than emphasizing the party’s radical Weltanschauung or the specifics of its own vague program, the Nazis chose to hammer away at Weimar democracy’s political and economic failures. The existing “system” was a swindle, the Nazis howled, and the other parties were the puppets of special interests—especially big business and big labor. The mainstream parties—the liberals, the Conservatives, the Social Democrats—had sold out the farmer, the shopkeeper, and the worker to the corporate giants and corrupt union bosses. What had this democracy delivered but an unbroken string of economic disasters, social strife, and humiliating international oppression?
Hitler again took to the skies, carrying this message to fifty cities in the final fortnight of the campaign. His public appearances were carefully choreographed events. The RPL dispatched special instructions to the party authorities where Hitler was to speak, and an advance team checked the venue, musical selections, the parade route, security, and the roster of preliminary speakers—the warm-up acts for the main performance. Propaganda, the Nazis understood, was not about information; it was about emotions, it was about spectacle, about showmanship. Goebbels and his staff were particularly sensitive to the entertainment value of campaign events, especially Hitler’s public appearances. They understood the marketing concept of branding—and the merchandising associated with it. At each stop on Hitler’s speaking tour, they peddled photographs of Hitler, Goebbels, Strasser, and other top party leaders; they hawked swastika-crested pens, scarves, pendants, bookmarks, and copies of Mein Kampf.
Theirs was a politics of presentation, and certain tactical considerations were axiomatic: always rent a room too small—better to have spectators scrambling to get in, waiting outside, straining to hear, than to rent a large hall that might be only half full. Place loudspeakers outside so those unfortunates who couldn’t manage a ticket could experience some of the excitement inside. Always provide warm-up acts—either local Nazi political leaders or a speaker from the party’s official list—to work the crowd. The star attraction should always arrive late, allowing the anticipation to build to a fever pitch. In their staging, these Nazi productions resemble nothing in our current public life so much as a rock concert. The stagecraft, the timing, the theatricality was everything.
Even the daily confrontations and violence seemed scripted. Nazi campaign speeches were intended to provoke, and they did. At many campaign events, local Communists would appear, as if on cue, to sing Communist songs and hurl taunts at Nazi speakers. A brawl would erupt, windows would be smashed, heads broken. The fight would be discussed in the taverns and barbershops for days. Between 1930 and 1933 these clashes became virtual rituals, a drama with a discernible narrative arc, and everyone, from the Nazi speakers and Storm Troopers to the Communist Red Front, understood their roles. It was entertainment; it was spectacle. You didn’t want to miss it.
Hitler and Goebbels understood that to an electorate grown cynical and angry, the details, the facts didn’t matter. The public, they were convinced, did not want a nuanced discussion of the issues. The party certainly had detailed position papers on everything from fertilizer for farmers to foreign policy, but this was not what Nazi campaigns were selling. For those who bothered to examine the party’s appeals, blatant contradictions abounded—the Nazis promised farmers higher prices for their livestock and produce while pledging lower food prices to city dwellers—and opposing parties never tired of pointing them out.
Nazi promises didn’t add up, their exasperated opponents complained in frustration. The Nazis were promising everything to everybody, essentially asking people to believe that two and two equal five. Such criticism did not faze the Nazis in the least. They either ignored it or turned it on its head: that sort of whining and impotent criticism was what was wrong with German politics. The other parties—the liberals, the Conservatives, the Communists and Socialist Democrats—were paralyzed by pessimism. They could only wring their hands helplessly while the country sank deeper into chaos and despair. They understood only why things wouldn’t work. But there are times, Hitler understood, when desperate, angry people want two and two to be five, and National Socialism would make it so. There would be a “triumph of the will” over ineffectual rationalism. In the toxic political atmosphere of Depression Germany, slurs, smears, innuendo, and character assassination became the norm as the level of political discourse plummeted. The truth, the facts, hardly mattered, only the successful spin.
In his countless speeches, Hitler offered no specific policy solutions to the country’s crushing economic problems—that, too, was left to party journals and position papers, which few, either inside the party or in the general public, bothered to read. The RPL warned party speakers and local organizations not to worry about the specifics. “These things don’t need to be discussed in propaganda,” it explained. “Currency questions, autarky, and financial issues don’t belong in rallies. They are technical problems to be handled by specialists.” Party functionaries were instructed to confine themselves to the general campaign slogans and talking points developed at headquarters.
Hitler was most comfortable pounding away at one theme—the criminal failures of the ineffectual Weimar system, the perfidy of the parliamentary parties, and the determination of the National Socialists to destroy both. Intermingled with this negative assault was a positive message, a vision of an “awakened” National Socialist Germany that would liberate itself from international subjugation and unleash its own energies and talents that had been suppressed by class conflict, religious division, and parochial regional loyalties. Hitler and only Hitler could make Germany great again. This was Hitler’s basic stump speech, delivered literally hundreds of times. It was a speech that combined lofty calls for national unity and common purpose with a wickedly sarcastic caricature of the current system that invariably drew appreciative applause and knowing laughter from the crowd. One did not need to be a Nazi sympathizer or a committed Nazi to find this critique of Germany’s political plight on target.
These themes were on vivid display in a brief speech Hitler delivered in Eberswalde in the last days of July—a speech important enough for Goebbels to film for national distribution. Having utterly failed the worker, the artisan, the shopkeeper, the farmer for the past thirteen years, the system parties, Hitler charged, did not care to talk about their past performance; they preferred instead to focus only on the past six weeks of the campaign and its violence. “They say: For these past six weeks the National Socialists are responsible.” How this could be so, he didn’t quite see—the National Socialists had not appointed Herr von Papen. Hindenburg and the parties that support him had done that. “But,” moving to the punch line, “even if it were so, I would gladly take responsibility for the last six weeks, but the gentlemen should be so kind as to take responsibility for the past thirteen years. . . . For thirteen long years they have proven what they are capable of accomplishing: A nation destroyed economically, the farmers ruined, the middle class in misery, the finances in the Reich, the states, the towns in shambles, everything bankrupt and millions unemployed. They can twist it any way they want to—but for all this they are responsible.” The line always brought storms of applause.
Did anyone really believe that a nation could achieve anything worthwhile, he continued, when its “political life is so mangled and mutilated as ours in Germany.” He had just glanced at the ballot in Hessen-Nassau—“thirty-four parties,” he exclaimed, his words dripping with sarcasm.
The workers their own party, and not just one, that would be too few, it had to be three, four; the middle class, which is so intelligent, must have even more parties; business interests their parties; the farmer his own particular party—also two, three; and the gentlemen homeowners must have their specific interests of a political and philosophical nature represented in a party; and naturally the gentlemen renters can’t be left behind; and the Catholics a party and the Protestants a party, and the Bavarians a party and the Thuringians their own party and the Württembergers an extra special party, and so on and on. Thirty-four parties in one tiny state and that at a time when we are facing monumental challenges that can only be solved if the entire strength of the nation is pulled together. . . . I have set myself one goal, and that is to sweep these thirty-four parties out of Germany.
He closed with the usual rousing rhetorical flourish:
We don’t want to be the representatives of one occupation, one class, one estate, one religion, or one region. No, we want to educate the German to understand that there can be no life without justice, and there can be no justice without power, and that there can be no power without strength and that that strength must reside in our own people.
Surprisingly underplayed in Hitler’s campaign speeches in 1932 were the vicious anti-Semitic tirades of earlier years. Hitler was an ideological fanatic, and anti-Semitism was at the very core of National Socialist ideology, but he was also a cunning, cold-eyed political strategist. Selling Nazi ideology, he and his staff concluded, had attracted a small but intensely loyal hard core of supporters—the 3 to 6 percent of the electorate the party had received during the first decade of its obscure existence. But ideological appeals could not be expected to attract more.
While Hitler rarely spoke directly to the “Jewish question” during the campaigns of 1932, the party’s anti-Semitism had hardly gone into total eclipse. It was always there, always in plain sight. Hitler might soar above the ugly, hate-fueled rhetoric when addressing large crowds of potentially undecided voters—after all, everyone presumably knew his views—but out on the campaign trail, the party’s regional speakers railed against the pernicious influence of the Jews, and much of the graphic material produced by the RPL—the leaflets, pamphlets, and posters that blanketed the streets during the campaigns—portrayed the most repellent anti-Semitic stereotypes. Those images, some bordering on the pornographic, were a prominent feature of Julius Streicher’s scurrilous Der Stürmer and found their way into the party’s Illustriert Beobachter (Illustrated Observer), the NSDAP’s contribution to the country’s popular picture press.
For most Germans the most visible manifestation of National Socialism in their daily lives was the ubiquitous presence of the brown-shirted SA—Storm Troopers handing out leaflets, canvassing, marching in never-ending parades, collecting money for various National Socialist causes—and it was among the SA that the public encountered the most violent expressions of Nazi anti-Semitism. The pitched battles with the Communists and Social Democrats drew the most extensive coverage in the press, but the Storm Troopers also regularly harassed Jews on the streets and smashed up Jewish shops. SA battle songs spewed hatred against the Jews and issued appallingly bloodthirsty threats. “Sharpen the long knives on the pavement,” one such song began, “let the knives plunge into the body of the Jew, blood must flow in streams, and we shit on the freedom of this Jew Republic.”
Nor were the party’s anti-Semitic pitches limited to lower-middle-class audiences, as is so often assumed, but appeared frequently in Nazi appeals to workers, where anti-Semitism could be interwoven with the party’s anticapitalist rants. Aimed primarily at a working-class readership, Der Angriff was saturated with images of the Jew as “the wirepuller of international capital,” and articles with headlines such as “Vote for Communism and Jewry,” or “SPD—the Jewish Party,” appeared with regularity. So relentless was Der Angriff in its attacks on Jews that the Prussian government banned the paper for a week in January for “holding the Jewish religion up to contempt.”
Nazi strategists clearly believed that anti-Semitism was not enough to galvanize voters and propel the party into power. “People became anti-Semites because they became Nazis,” one historian has argued, “not the other way around,” and there is much truth to that. And yet, anti-Semitism had entered the bloodstream of German politics, and the fact that none of the other parties felt moved to challenge the Nazis for their brutish Jew baiting is in itself revealing. All the mainstream parties except the Conservatives, who sought to exploit it for their own ends, issued perfunctory condemnations of Nazi anti-Semitism and then moved on to more pressing problems. The Communists and Social Democrats were quick to dismiss anti-Semitism as shallow demagoguery intended to divert attention from the reactionary nature of National Socialism, while the left-liberal DDP, the party of choice for many middle-class Jews, downplayed anti-Semitism as “a fire made of straw—it flames up brightly but quickly burns out.” Left-liberals simply could not believe that it was an issue to be taken seriously. On a more unsettling note, they may also have calculated that in the end there were no votes to be gained by making it one.
On July 31, the NSDAP took 38.8 percent of the vote. The parties of mainstream center and right—the system parties so reviled by Hitler—suffered staggering losses, as their constituents defected to the NSDAP in droves. Together the liberal parties managed to win only 2 percent of the vote, the Conservatives a mere 5.9 percent, and the bevy of specialinterest, regional, and single-issue parties saw their vote plummet to 3 percent. On the other side of the social divide, the Social Democrats sustained serious losses as well, falling from 24.5 percent in 1930 to 20.4 percent, while the Communist vote nudged upward from 13.1 to 14.3 percent. The NSDAP, a party that only four years before had been unable to attract even 3 percent of the electorate, had become Germany’s largest political party. It was the most dramatic ascent in modern political history. The man with the funny mustache (it looked strange to Germans, too), thick Austrian accent, appalling grammar, and odd mannerisms, an unelectable outsider ridiculed by the national press and Berlin intelligentsia, stood improbably on the threshold of power.
Contemporary analysts, political opponents, and many subsequent historians were convinced that the apparently unstoppable surge of National Socialist support could be explained as a “revolt of the lower middle class,” a movement of the undereducated, downwardly mobile, and economically marginal who deserted the traditional parties of the moderate center and right after 1928. Driven by economic despair and desperately afraid of “proletarianization,” so the argument goes, the resentful and frightened “little men” of German society flocked to the NSDAP. It is true that the base of the Nazi support was to be found among the shopkeepers, small farmers, schoolteachers, and clerks of the embattled Mittelstand, but by 1932 the NSDAP was far from being a party of the lower middle class.
The Nazis always vehemently rejected such characterizations, claiming that National Socialism represented “a new political synthesis of seemingly antagonistic and contradictory currents.” It was, they claimed, a Volksbewegung, a people’s movement that stood above class, region, and religion, and as such a novelty in German political culture. The other parties scoffed. Virtually all the parties maintained that they were Volksparteien; virtually all invoked “the people’s community” well before the NSDAP appropriated it. What was striking—and baffling—to contemporaries was the fact that the Nazis actually attempted to translate that claim into political reality, to mobilize support in every sector of German society, in every occupational group, in every demographic, in every region, and in both Protestant and Catholic populations. It mounted serious campaigns to recruit not only the small shopkeeper and farmer but the day laborer and steelworker as well, attacking both Marxist socialism and large-scale corporate capitalism in the process.
According to well-established traditions of German political culture, parties made little effort to cross social boundaries in mobilizing support. The parties of the left appealed to workers, the liberals and conservatives to elements of the middle class. This practice extended back into the Wilhelmine period but was greatly exacerbated by the Weimar electoral system. If a party secured 60,000 in one of the country’s 35 electoral districts, it earned a seat in the Reichstag for every additional sixty thousand votes it received nationwide, securing its base—the operational imperative of all campaigning. If a party picked up votes here and there beyond that base, well and good, but securing the base was the key to its success. The parties of the middle class—the liberals and conservatives and the plethora of special interest parties—were, therefore, determined above all else to establish their credentials as stalwart defenders of middle-class interests against the threat of the Marxist left. Similarly, the Social Democrats and Communists competed fiercely for the blue-collar vote but made little effort to draw support from the fractious bourgeoisie. Only the Catholic Zentrum, whose appeal was based on religious affiliation, sought to straddle the great social divide of German politics, but almost exclusively within the Catholic community.
From the beginning, the NSDAP refused to follow in these well-worn grooves of German politics. The Nazis were charting a radically new course, pursuing a catchall strategy that aimed at capturing support from all across the social and cultural landscape. The result was considerable uncertainty as to the party’s proper placement on the political spectrum—was it a party of the reactionary right, as the Communists and Social Democrats maintained, or, as the conservatives charged, a party of the socialist left? Even within the NSDAP’s own ranks, local party officials occasionally expressed confusion about the social locus of the movement. “Are we a worker’s party or a middle-class party?” one perplexed member of the Stuttgart NSDAP inquired of the leadership in 1923. The question might just as easily have been posed ten years later.
In pursuing this catch-all strategy, the Nazis had two major assets. Unlike the other parties, the NSDAP was neither associated with any clearly defined set of economic interests nor had it been saddled with government responsibility in the discredited Weimar state. It could not be held responsible for any failed policy or unpopular measure. The Communists, too, stood on the outside, free of the taint of participation in the discredited Weimar state, but while the KPD continued to confine its recruitment efforts to the working class, the Nazis cast their net wide. The NSDAP’s unique appeal across the traditional social divides of German politics and its simultaneous insistence that it stood above special interests, that it was, in fact, a genuine people’s party, carried a significant measure of plausibility to an increasingly desperate public. It also positioned the Nazis to assume the mantle of the bold outsider fighting the debilitating corruption and divisiveness of the system. They alone could give voice to the protest of the angry masses against the failed establishment. While the other parties talked, the NSDAP projected itself as a party of action, of dynamism and energy. The Nazis would get things done. And Hitler, the ultimate anti-establishment candidate, could posture as the unsullied idealist at war with the Berlin insiders, foreign oppressors, stock market swindlers, and the special interests, a role he played with consummate skill.
The NSDAP that emerged triumphant from the 1932 elections was far more than a party of angry déclassés and petit bourgeois misfits. Between 1929 and 1933 Hitler managed to attract a following of unprecedented demographic diversity, drawing support from elements of the affluent upper crust, the blue-collar labor force, and the lower middle class in both town and countryside. To the surprise of many, the party had done unexpectedly well in affluent, upper-middle-class neighborhoods and among civil servants of the upper ranks. Even more unprecedented, the NSDAP had found considerable support within the German working class, considered by many, both then and for decades afterward, to be immune to Nazi appeals. Although the Nazis proved unable to make dramatic inroads into the industrial strongholds of the SPD and KPD, they did succeed in attracting a substantial following among workers in handicrafts, small-scale manufacturing, and agriculture. These workers were usually employed in small plants, in government enterprises, or in the countryside, and were rarely integrated into the ranks of organized labor. It has been estimated that as much as 40 percent of the National Socialist vote by 1932 was drawn from these elements of the working class. Despite sustained efforts to court the Church and its flock (as an act of piety, the SA in many towns even marched to church—in uniform), the Nazis continued to have problems in Catholic areas. As the frustrated Gauleiter of Cologne-Aachen reported in March 1932, “the effectiveness of our work was hindered by the systematic counter activities of the Catholic clergy, who . . . proceeded to proclaim from the confessional box, from the pulpit, and in the press that Catholics could not work or vote for the National Socialists if they wished to receive the holy sacraments.” The clergy continued to characterize National Socialism as a pagan, anti-religious, anti-church movement and in doing so, the Gauleiter complained, “has made the most unbelievable accusations.” Still, in 1932 support for the party among Catholics was increasing but it was a work in progress.
From the earliest days of the party, the NSDAP had relentlessly projected an image of youthful dynamism, proclaiming itself “the party of young Germany.” Its leaders, especially by German standards, were young: Goebbels was thirty-four; Himmler, thirty-two; Göring, thirty-nine; Röhm, forty-five; Hitler, forty-one; Gregor Strasser, forty; Rosenberg, thirty-nine; and 60 percent of the party’s Reichstag deputies in 1930 were under forty—compared to the SPD’s 10 percent. Its membership was also young. Of the 720,000 new members who joined the NSDAP between 1930 and 1933, 43 percent were between the ages of eighteen and thirty; another 27 percent were between thirty and forty. Between 1930 and 1932 the party made impressive gains in student elections in various German universities; the party also established a youth organization for boys ages sixteen to eighteen that would evolve into the Hitler Youth (Hitlerjugend or HJ) in 1932 and a similar organization for girls, the League of German Girls (Bund deutscher Mädel or BdM).
At the same time, the Nazis made a systematic, sustained, and surprisingly successful effort to attract older Germans to the cause, especially pensioners, widows, and veterans. Since 1930 the Nazis had remorselessly lambasted Brüning’s austerity program, warning older voters that it would lead to a reduction of their health benefits and pensions—a claim given credibility by the government’s first emergency decree in July 1930. In every regional and national campaign in 1932 they accused the Brüning and Papen governments of attempting to balance the budget by slashing the benefits of veterans, especially disabled veterans, and retirees. The deepest cuts came in Papen’s emergency decree of June 14, and the Nazis loudly demanded a restoration of the funds. “With one stroke of the pen,” the chancellor, operating by emergency decree, had “taken away the rights of pensioners,” reducing their benefits to little more than “beggars’ pennies.” They fumed against the cold insensitivity of a system that would swindle society’s most vulnerable, while giving tax breaks to the rich. Millions of ordinary Germans had “saved and paid for decades in order to have a secure retirement,” only to be fleeced by a heartless government and the feckless middle-class parties that “no longer have either the strength or the will to help you.” Only the NSDAP could save retirees and the disabled heroes of the Great War. The Nazis would not only preserve retirement and health benefits but increase payments and services. The strategy paid off. In 1932 the “party of youth” drew considerable support from fearful older Germans trying to stay afloat.
Even women, who had been the most reluctant demographic to embrace the Nazis, were turning to the party in ever-increasing numbers. In July 1931 the party created its own national women’s organization, the National Socialist Women’s League (Nationalsozialistische Frauenschaft(NS-F). The NS-F, as its first declaration of principles stated, stood for “a German women’s spirit which is rooted in God, nature, family, nation, and homeland.” Although it tended to be underfunded and encountered some resistance from regional party leaders, the NSDAP lavished increasing attention on its new women’s organization, especially during the campaigns of 1932. The party sought to mobilize middle-class women with appeals that pledged the NSDAP’s support for the traditional religious and cultural values of Kinder, Kirche, und Küche. In addressing working women, the party attacked Weimar’s “sham liberation” of women, which had merely exposed them to shameless exploitation by greedy capitalists and deprived them of their most cherished role, that of wife and mother. National Socialism would restore the honor of women, who, safe in their domestic sphere, would play a central role in the creation of the Third Reich. The Nazis, as one historian has cogently put it, were offering women emancipation from emancipation. “The woman judges things primarily with the heart,” a Nazi women’s leader asserted. “For her it is not logical and purely reasoned considerations that are decisive but the intuitive recognition of the moral and spiritual worth of a person or an idea. . . . At the same time the woman wants to be instructed and lifted up, whether by the spoken or written word.”
These efforts were not without effect. Although women still tended to favor parties with a strong religious orientation and remained underrepresented in the party’s membership, the NSDAP made enormous strides with women voters after 1930, especially in 1932. In those areas where votes were tabulated by sex, women for the first time outnumbered men in the Nazi constituency in Protestant areas but still lagged behind in Catholic districts. Fighting off charges of misogyny, the Nazis discovered that women, no less than men, were disillusioned with the failures of the system and were searching for alternatives.
By the summer of 1932 the NSDAP could claim, with some credibility, that it was what it always claimed to be—a genuine people’s party. Although the hard core of its following was composed overwhelmingly of elements of the lower middle class, what made the party such a powerful political force was its ability in a period of severe economic and political crisis to reach far beyond this limited reservoir of support and mobilize protest voters from a surprisingly broad range of social and demographic groups. Germany had seen nothing like it.
But there was a problem lurking behind the party’s spectacular election numbers. As a catchall party of protest, its surprisingly diverse following was a highly unstable political compound. Goebbels recognized that the millions who had flocked to the NSDAP were not drawn to the cause by a commitment to National Socialist ideology, to the “idea.” What held the party’s uniquely heterogeneous following together was the conviction that the political system in Germany was broken, its institutions hopelessly dysfunctional, and its mainstream parties ineffective, fatally contaminated by participation in the hapless government at one time or another. As Weimar’s most relentlessly militant and uncompromised critic, the NSDAP skillfully mobilized that sense of protest in each of the elections of the Depression era. Why not let Hitler have a go, many people felt. Maybe the Nazis could shake things up, make things work. Anyway, how could they be worse than those who had wielded power and gotten Germany into this abysmal situation?
Manipulating this deep-seated anger and anxiety had served the party well in the short term, but maintaining a firm grip on a socially diverse mass constituency held together less by a commitment to Nazi ideology than by protest and vague, often contradictory promises of dramatic “change” would grow increasingly problematic if the party did not actually come to power—and soon. Nazi leaders understood the potential perils of the party’s position. As Goebbels noted in his diary in the full afterglow of the party’s greatest triumph, “Now we must come to power and annihilate Marxism. One way or the other. Something has to happen. The time for talk is over. Now action!”