In the heady days of late summer, Hitler seemed to stand on the threshold of power. All parliamentary logic dictated that as leader of the largest party in the Reichstag, he would be summoned to form a government. Within the party’s rank and file anticipation of the long-awaited “seizure of power” skyrocketed. The Storm Troopers were straining at the leash, poised for action. Many units had been given specific orders for actions to be taken, radio stations, courthouses, municipal buildings to be seized, once Hitler’s appointment was announced. The party’s political functionaries were almost giddy with expectation. At last, after years of struggle, power was virtually within their grasp.
And yet, beneath the chest-thumping headlines of the Völkischer Beobachter there flowed an undercurrent of palpable nervousness. The party had won almost 38 percent of the vote and had become the largest party in Germany. Its thirteen million votes more than doubled its 1930 totals, and 230 Nazi brown-shirted deputies would march into the Reichstag when it convened—more than the Communists and Social Democrats combined. But expectations had soared so unrealistically high that many in the party felt an undeniable twinge of disappointment. They had managed to convince themselves that the party might actually capture an absolute majority, something no German party had ever achieved, and impressive as the party’s thirteen million votes appeared, it had barely moved the needle from the NSDAP’s showing in the last round of presidential elections. The party had picked up only 300,000 more votes than in April—“a tiny trifle,” Goebbels mused. And the Marxists had made gains, climbing ahead of the Nazis in Berlin. Could it be that the Nazi juggernaut had finally hit a wall, that the party had reached the outer limits of its mass appeal? Some within the hierarchy, especially Strasser, thought so; Papen and Schleicher hoped so. A vulnerable Hitler, they thought, might prove more amenable to compromise in the coming negotiations.
Hitler spent the first days of August at his mountain retreat on the Obersalzberg, awaiting events, consulting with his inner circle, plotting strategy. Messengers came and went. Rumors of intrigues circulated. A call from Berlin, from the office of the Reich President, was expected at any moment. “High expectations filled the air,” Goebbels wrote, “the whole party is ready to take power. The SA are leaving their work places to prepare for this. Our political leaders are making ready for the great hour. If things go well, everything will be all right. If they do not,” Goebbels worried, “it will be a terrible setback.”
Hitler was determined to accept nothing less than the chancellorship of a presidential government, armed with emergency decree power, free from the troublesome inconveniences of parliamentary politics. He would also demand the installation of a National Socialist as minister president of Prussia, as minister of the interior (and hence the police) in both the Reich and in Prussia, the minister of justice (and hence the courts), agriculture, aviation, and the creation of a new Ministry of “People’s Education.” He pondered possible candidates to fill those posts; went over plans for the assumption of power. He would insist on an “enabling act” (Ermächtigungsgesetz) to govern without interference from the Reichstag. “Once we attain power,” Goebbels wrote prophetically in his diary, “we will never give it up until our dead bodies are carried from office.”
Strasser had grave doubts about this course of action. Nothing more could be done with propaganda and mass mobilization. The party had finally exhausted its electoral potential, he feared, and the time had come to consider entering into a coalition government. Hitler should be open to entering a cabinet, even as vice chancellor. Taking a hard line about the chancellorship was a serious mistake. Hitler’s “all or nothing” strategy would drive the party into a ditch. If the NSDAP, having reached the limits of its electoral potential, remained in fruitless opposition, it would lose credibility, not only with the rank and file but with the millions who had voted Nazi expecting some immediate impact on the government. His was a minority view. Phone calls and emissaries from Berlin brought almost hourly news and rumors. The Catholic Zentrum had taken soundings about the possibility of a Nazi-Zentrum coalition, which would command a majority in the Reichstag. Strasser was interested in the possibilities of such an arrangement, but Hitler was skeptical, and suspicions in both parties proved insurmountable. Trust was everywhere thin on the ground. Hitler, it was understood, would demand the chancellorship “with full governmental powers,” and Hindenburg, it was also understood, was staunchly opposed to such an appointment. Undeterred, Papen and Schleicher, now minister of defense in the cabinet, were both eager to entice Hitler into the government, hoping that he could be persuaded to serve as vice chancellor in a reconstituted Papen cabinet.
Events moved quickly. On August 6, Schleicher invited Hitler to meet with him at an army installation just north of Berlin, and the general appeared receptive to Hitler’s demands for the chancellorship, but warned that there might be trouble with the Reich President. Indeed, there was. When Schleicher raised the possibility with Hindenburg a few days later, the Old One dismissed it out of hand. Still smarting from the bitter presidential campaigns of the spring, Hindenburg declared that his decision was unalterable. On August 10, Papen tried his hand with the Reich President, raising the possibility of a Hitler chancellorship, perhaps presiding over a National Socialist–Zentrum majority in the Reichstag. Hindenburg wouldn’t hear of it. He would never make that loathsome “Bohemian corporal” chancellor of the Reich.
Feverish negotiations continued. The streets of the government quarter teemed with expectant crowds. The Berlin papers fairly sizzled with speculation about different combinations. A decision would be made soon. Meanwhile, the Berlin SA was making preparations for a Nazi takeover of the city. “The SA is gathering around Berlin,” Goebbels noted. “It makes the gentlemen nervous,” and “that,” he smirked, “is the purpose of the exercise.”
Acting as Hitler’s emissary, Röhm met with Schleicher and Papen on August 12. Opposition to a Hitler chancellorship, Röhm reported to Hitler, appeared to be hardening, and Hindenburg would make a decision very soon. It was time for the Führer and his entourage to come to Berlin. Before the day was out, a long caravan of black automobiles departed the Obersalzberg for the capital. Some party leaders raced on ahead by train, but Hitler preferred the lengthy trip by car. Arriving in the dead of night, he chose to stay at Goebbels’s country house outside the city at Caputh, a lakeside village where, among other luminaries, Albert Einstein owned a vacation home. “The Führer is facing some tough decisions,” Goebbels wrote that night, as he watched Hitler pace the terrace of the villa. “Without full power he cannot master the situation. If he doesn’t receive full power, he must refuse the offer.” But if he did refuse, there “would be a mighty depression in the movement and in the electorate.” After all, the party had “only this one iron in the fire.”
Hitler understood the high-stakes game he was playing. On the one hand, entering a Papen cabinet would certainly alienate the radicals within the party, especially within the impatient SA, whose Storm Troopers were ready for action against both the Marxists and the reactionaries. On the other hand, by refusing to enter a coalition government, Hitler risked undermining his credibility with the party’s newly expanded electorate. Many, in fact most of the party’s voters on July 31, Goebbels realized, were not staunch National Socialists drawn to the party by ideological conviction but protest voters fed up with the paralyzed “Weimar system.” They expected change, rapid change. Would they understand?
Despite Strasser’s insistent warnings about a failure to enter a coalition government, Hitler never seriously considered that alternative. If he agreed to join the cabinet as vice chancellor, he would be a diminished figure, binding himself to precisely the reactionary “Cabinet of Barons” he had campaigned so vigorously against. The “Führer mystique” he had carefully nurtured would be shattered, and he would be exploited by Papen, Schleicher, and the reactionaries he detested. He would be isolated in the cabinet and reduced to the role of “drummer,” winning mass support for a government that without him had as good as none. It was a role he was not going to play. “Hitler under Papen,” Goebbels sniffed: “a grotesque absurdity.”
On the morning of the 13th, Hitler, accompanied by Göring and Röhm, met first with Schleicher and then with Papen. Both conveyed the same message. They were determined to set aside the Weimar constitution and install an authoritarian government, and they wanted his help. But for now, a Hitler chancellorship was out of the question. Hindenburg was utterly opposed. Papen hinted that if Hitler entered the cabinet now, his moment would come, and soon. He even suggested that after sweeping away the remnants of the failed Republic and establishing an authoritarian regime, he would cede the chancellorship to Hitler. It could be a matter of months, perhaps even weeks. But Hitler’s cooperation now was essential. He should prove his willingness to work together, to demonstrate a sense of political responsibility by serving the conservative cabinet. Hindenburg’s opposition to a Hitler chancellorship might then be overcome. Hitler flatly refused, and the sometimes heated interview came to a close.
In the afternoon, a frustrated and angry Hitler was summoned for an audience with the Reich President. He was reluctant to go since he had heard from emissaries that Hindenburg had already decided to pass over him. Papen would remain chancellor. But Hindenburg wanted to discuss the matter with Hitler one last time. Maybe Hitler could be convinced to serve in the existing government or at least to cooperate with Papen. Or perhaps Hitler, with his mighty oratorical skills and personal magnetism, might persuade the old Feldmarschall to overcome his reservations and appoint a National Socialist government after all.
At the meeting in the Presidential Palace Hindenburg made no headway. Serving in the Papen government was out of the question, Hitler replied, and renewed his demand for the “leadership of the state to its full extent.” On this, Hindenburg simply could not be moved. He could not answer “before God, his conscience, and the Fatherland,” he told Hitler, “if he handed over the entire power of the government to a single party, and one which was so intolerant towards others with different views.” He feared that “a presidential cabinet headed by you would inevitably develop into a party dictatorship . . . something that he could never reconcile with his oath and his conscience.”
Hitler left the meeting enraged. The whole affair had been a setup, arranged by Papen to humiliate him, to put him in his place. “The notion of the Führer as Vice-Chancellor of a bourgeois cabinet is too grotesque to be taken seriously,” Goebbels scoffed after Hitler’s return from the meeting. The party, after its sensational electoral victory, would now be thrown back into opposition. That night Hitler and Röhm briefed disappointed SA leaders on the state of affairs, hoping to defuse a potentially explosive situation. Their task, Goebbels recorded, would be a difficult one. “Who knows if . . . [the SA] units will be able to hold together. Nothing is harder than to tell troops already sure of victory that this victory has come to naught.” They had good reason to be nervous.
While this debate occupied Hitler and the leadership during the late summer and early autumn, the monthly activity reports flowing in from the NSDAP’s regional propaganda operatives left little doubt about the impact of Hitler’s decision on the party’s grassroots appeal. In its monthly situation report for August, the RPL soberly acknowledged that Hitler’s refusal to enter the cabinet had generated considerable problems within the party’s membership and electorate and predicted serious difficulties for the NSDAP in any upcoming campaign. The prevailing mood “could be expressed with the words: ‘This time I voted for Hitler and again nothing has happened. Next time I won’t vote.’ ” The message from the party’s grassroots propaganda apparatus was both unmistakable and unsettling.
Another, more immediate and equally vexing problem confronted Hitler in the aftermath of the July election. If many middle-class voters were disappointed with his refusal to enter the government, impatient party militants, especially within the SA, were frustrated that the “march order” for action had not been given. They were ready to storm the battlements of the moribund Republic, and they could not understand why the leadership had backed away from a violent confrontation.
During the July campaign the brutal wave of political terror that had swept Germany since 1928 had crashed with unparalleled fury, and the violence did not stop with the conclusion of the campaign. In the first week of August, while Hitler and the leadership consulted and negotiated, frustrated SA units, bitterly disappointed by the party’s failure to seize power, unleashed a ferocious terror campaign all across East Prussia and Silesia. The wave of bombings, shootings, and arson began on August 1 in Königsberg. Acting on their own initiative, groups of SA men, convinced that only revolutionary action could now thrust the NSDAP into power, went on a binge of political violence that terrorized an entire city. Within hours, the terror spread beyond the East Prussian capital, engulfing the entire province. On August 2, Silesia also erupted in violence as SA units, acting for the most part on orders from their regional and district leaders, went on a rampage against union halls, consumer cooperatives, department stores, newspaper offices, banks, and even a police station. Their targets were not only Social Democrats and Communists but citizens prominently associated with the Catholic Zentrum as well as liberals and conservatives. SA thugs assaulted Jews, Poles, and others identified as enemies of the party, raising the already high level of political violence to unparalleled heights. On August 9, the Reich government finally took action. Papen issued two emergency decrees to deal with the escalating political violence, stiffening penalties for terrorist actions and creating special courts to try cases arising from the new decrees. Convictions for political murder were now punishable by death, and, Papen made clear, the special courts would act swiftly.
Although dozens of people were killed or wounded in the first ten days of August, one particularly vicious episode caught the attention of the public throughout Germany. In the small Silesian village of Potempa, a band of drunken SA men broke into the home of an unemployed Polish worker with Communist leanings and bludgeoned him to death while his family looked on in horror. The Potempa murder was given wide national coverage, especially since the trial of the SA assailants was the first to be conducted under the new anti-terrorism act. The evidence was overwhelming, and the Nazi defendants were convicted in short order. On August 22, five received death sentences. With the nation’s attention riveted on the trial, Hitler, in a move that shocked many even on the usually sympathetic conservative right, sent a public telegram to the condemned men, deploring “this most monstrous blood verdict” and expressing his solidarity with them. “From this moment onward,” he wrote, “your freedom is a question of our honor; the struggle against a regime under which this was possible is our duty.”
In an interview just days after the verdict, Hitler continued to claim that the violent actions of the SA were justifiable acts of self-defense and revenge for comrades murdered by the left. “The number of terrorist acts by the Marxist parties against our movement is in the tens upon tens of thousands. The number of dead is over three hundred, the number of our wounded in the past year was over six thousand, and in this year, in seven and a half months, already over 8,200. . . . We will not be talked out of a right to self-defense with such stupid phrases as ‘law and order.’ ” A week later he gave an ominous preview of law under a National Socialist regime. “I refuse to comprehend how five National Socialists can be sent to the guillotine for the sake of a Polish insurgent who once fought against our German brothers in Silesia.” For Hitler and the National Socialist movement, “whoever struggles and lives, fights and, if it has to be, dies for Germany has every right, and anyone who turns against Germany has no rights at all.”
Hitler’s defiant support of the Potempa killers and, in fact, the entire SA rampage in the east was a vivid reflection of his deep unease about SA loyalty in the late summer of 1932. It also highlighted a growing dilemma for the party. To a remarkable extent the authorities and the conservative press, while deploring these breaches of public order, tended to accept Nazi claims that leftist radicals were responsible for the bloodshed and mayhem. But the SA rampage in the east included vicious attacks on conservatives, on moderates, even on the police. Middle-class Germans who had previously seen the Nazis as defenders of law and order found this spasm of violence and the party’s support for it difficult to accept. The Nazis had always trod a fine line between “roughness and respectability,” successfully portraying their battles with the left as roughness in defense of respectability, suggesting that the NSDAP alone could restore public order and that the only obstacle to its restoration was a truculent and aggressive left. In the summer of 1932, the Nazis stumbled off that line.
The Potempa case marked the climax of the SA’s campaign of violence, but SA resentment continued to simmer into the early fall. Morale in many SA units was low, and rumors of defections to the Communists and other radical formations had begun to circulate. So worried about SA reliability was Hitler that he ordered an inquiry to determine the mood of the Storm Troopers, and in September Röhm dispatched a questionnaire to SA units all over the country. The responses, which arrived at the party’s Munich headquarters late in the month, were anything but reassuring.
Disaffection with the party’s policy of “legality” and its emphasis on electoral campaigning had grown steadily within the SA during this “year of elections” and by late summer had become a serious problem. “The mass of SA [men] don’t fully understand the repeated postponements of [decisive action],” one unit in Hessen-Darmstadt reported. “They are pressing for the attack. To them, an open fight is preferable to this incessant voting, which in the final analysis leads to nothing, or at least to very little.” From Hanover, SA leaders explained that “the activist SA man doesn’t understand why [we don’t] move against Hindenburg and Papen with all our might.” An SA leader in Baden put it most bluntly: “We, the SA don’t talk, we act. The Third Reich will not come through the babble of the political speakers and leaders but through the fists of the SA. We’ll clean house after November 6. The elections have no value.”
The mounting resentment voiced by so many Storm Troopers had been exacerbated by the fact that plans with specific timetables and objectives had been set for SA “actions” to be taken after each election in 1932. SA units had been on alarm status, ready to take “military action” to ensure the promised Nazi seizure of power. In each instance, these operations had been canceled, and the result was a growing exasperation within the SA.
Adding to the sense of desperation expressed by many SA men was their dismal economic situation. Many SA units were in desperate financial shape and were increasingly unable to provide aid to their often destitute members. These SA men, many of whom were unemployed, laid great hopes on a Nazi seizure of power to provide an immediate solution to their economic problems. This mounting economic pressure, some SA leaders were convinced, greatly aggravated their exasperation at the repeated postponements of the long-anticipated “march orders.” As an SA commander in Schleswig-Holstein warned in September, “the material and spiritual misery is so great with many SA men that they can no longer hold out.” The situation was critical. “The lofty political expectations of the recent past on the one hand and the economic despair, even hunger, on the other,” an SA leader from Baden urgently implored, “demand an act of deliverance.”
Although the intensity of these complaints was troubling to the political leadership, their substance hardly came as a surprise. Dissatisfaction with the lack of financial support from the party, with efforts of party leaders to subordinate the SA to their needs, and with the party’s emphasis on electoral campaigning had long been a source of friction. SA men and their leaders cherished their identity as “soldiers of the Third Reich,” military men belonging to an elite, uniformed party organization that stood outside the hierarchy, with special military tasks. But the party’s political leadership, and especially Goebbels and his propaganda staff, insisted that the Storm Troopers were “political soldiers,” important instruments to be employed in the party’s critical grassroots agitation. With their marches, parades, canvassing, and, not least, their violent confrontations with the left, the Brown Shirts were indispensable in the party’s campaign activities.
Some SA leaders tried to support the party’s efforts to change the organization’s self-image, but tensions between the party and the SA lingered, and the September morale reports were punctuated with complaints about party leaders who exceeded their authority, interfered in SA matters, or did not understand the special mission of the SA. In language usually reserved for the “bosses” of the Marxist left, some SA commanders continued to complain bitterly about local party leaders, dismissing them as “arrogant little political bureaucrats” and “paper pushers.” Party officials at all levels expressed mounting concern that the restless Storm Troopers were becoming sullen and unruly.
Aggravating these problems was the introduction in 1932 of uniforms for the NSDAP’s political functionaries. Much of the SA’s sense of elitism, of superiority over the other elements of the NSDAP, was bound up in its conception of its unique role as the uniformed branch of the party. To discover that all party officials were now entitled to wear uniforms was a harsh blow to SA self-esteem and yet another diminution of its status by the party. The September morale reports burned with the acid contempt with which the new uniforms were greeted by the SA rank and file. “The SA man does not recognize these National Socialists stuck in brown shirts and bursting with overflowing badges and braids,” the Dessau SA indignantly reported. “The magnificent preening of the political functionaries has provoked the indignation of the SA,” the Upper Bavaria SA acknowledged. “The SA man who proudly wears his plain brown shirt, which until now has been the robe of honor of the active fighter, cannot understand how the brown shirt can be debased in this way.”
For all these troubles, the NSDAP was the largest party in Germany, its leader, along with Hindenburg, the most recognizable political figure in the country, and a functioning government without Nazi participation or at least toleration was impossible. The Papen government had few supporters within the Reichstag before July 31; it had fewer now. Worse still, two parties that were determined to destroy the embattled Republic now held a majority in the Reichstag. Adding insult to injury, Hermann Göring, as representative of the largest party, assumed the position of president of the Reichstag.
In this impossible situation, Papen was determined to dissolve the Reichstag before a vote of no confidence could be taken, rule by emergency decree, and postpone new elections indefinitely, although elections within sixty days of a dissolution were required by law. This plan was brought to naught by a dramatic turn of events in the Reichstag itself. As soon as Göring gaveled the first working session to order on September 12, the Communists called for a vote of no confidence in the government. Papen had not even delivered his opening remarks. In a raucous scene, never before witnessed in the Reichstag chamber, Göring simply ignored parliamentary procedure and the outraged protests of the chancellor, who stood furiously waving his opening address, and allowed the vote to proceed. Göring’s action was a blatant violation of the parliamentary practice, which stipulated that the session was not officially convened until the sitting chancellor had spoken. In the tumult, few seemed to care. The result was not only a humiliating defeat for Papen—544 deputies voted against his government; only 42 deputies from the DNVP and DVP stood by him—but one more nail in the coffin of German democracy. The cabinet could not produce a parliamentary majority, and the Reichstag had been dissolved before it had even been officially convened. Already convulsed by economic calamity, social ferment, and political terrorism, parliamentary government in Germany had been reduced to farce. Who could take such a circus seriously? How could such an impotent, dysfunctional system solve Germany’s glaring problems? In this chaotic atmosphere, with no realistic parliamentary solution in sight, Hindenburg finally called for new elections. The date was fixed for November 6. It would be the fourth national campaign of the year.
Although the party’s treasury was greatly depleted and the organization near exhaustion, the RPL geared up once again for a national campaign. “Down with the Reaction! Power to Hitler!” was to be the party’s central theme for the new campaign. In the summer election, the Nazis had targeted the parties of the left, emphasizing their defense of the middle class against the ravages of Marxism; in the fall campaign the Nazis would train their fire on Papen and his reactionary government. “Papen is already finished,” Goebbels wrote to regional leaders in October. “A feeling of utter panic about Papen must be awakened in the broad masses, a feeling so strong that Papen and his cabinet will be completely discredited and can no longer be seen as a bulwark by the wavering middle class.”
As usual, the NSDAP waged an aggressive, often violent campaign, blasting the Marxist left but also unleashing a ferocious assault on “Papen’s reactionary gentlemen’s club.” With the liberal and special interest parties virtually eliminated as serious political competitors, the battle for the middle-class vote would be waged between Hugenberg’s DNVP and the NSDAP, so the Nazis were at pains to maintain their anti-Marxist credentials. At the same time, the party’s campaign strained to portray National Socialism as a dedicated enemy of the Reaction and a stalwart champion of the German worker. As the campaign progressed, Nazi attacks on Papen and the special interests behind him became so steeped in the language of class struggle that they might have been spoken by the Communists. At one point, Hitler, acting through his deputy Rudolf Hess, intervened, cautioning against the “class warfare tendencies” in the party’s propaganda and ordering the RPL to tone down its rhetoric against those forces associated with the traditional right. After all, many of the voters who cast ballots for the NSDAP in July were presumably crossovers from the conservative right, and it would hardly do to alienate them.
Goebbels was also convinced that in July the party had allowed its radical anti-Semitism to slide too much into the background. As the party prepared for yet another national election, he issued a secret directive to the party’s propaganda operatives, ordering that “In the coming campaign, the Jewish question must be pushed more than before into the foreground. Again and again we must make it clear to broad masses that Papen is praised by the Jewish press, that his economic program comes from the Jew [banker] Jakob Goldschmidt, that his cabinet is supported by Jewish money interests. There is only one salvation from this Jewish peril in Germany and that is Hitler and the NSDAP.”
Goebbels did make a halfhearted attempt to tamp down the party’s offensive against the right, but the blistering attacks on the reactionary nature of the Papen government did not subside. At the same time, the NSDAP was determined to burnish its “socialist” image. Under the watchword “Work and Bread,” its appeals to workers stressed the party’s support for full employment, the right to work, and other measures to cast off the crushing burden of joblessness. Winning working-class votes was essential, Goebbels stressed, but these efforts had to be done in a way that would not frighten away middle-class voters. It was a balancing act that not even the RPL could manage.
The party’s pronounced “swing to the left,” as its conservative opponents repeatedly described it, reached a dramatic crescendo during the final week of the campaign, when Goebbels, acting on his own, decided to throw Nazi support behind a wildcat strike of the Berlin transportation workers—a strike with high national visibility and one vigorously championed by the Communists. For days the public witnessed the spectacle of Nazis and Communists working side by side, as buses, trams, and subways staggered to a halt, paralyzing the capital. Coming as it did in the very first days of November, Nazi support for the strikers was a calculated gamble, drawing heightened attention to Nazi “socialism” at a critical stage of the campaign.
Goebbels certainly understood the risk, but felt it was one worth taking. “The entire press is furious with us and calls it ‘Bolshevism,’ but as a matter of fact we had no alternative. If we had held ourselves aloof from this strike . . . our position among the working classes, so far firm, would have been shaken.” The strike offered “a great opportunity . . . to demonstrate to the public . . . that the line we have taken up in politics is dictated by a true sympathy with the people.” Many in “bourgeois circles” would no doubt be “frightened off by our participation in the strike. But that’s not decisive. These circles can later be very easily won back. But if we’d have once lost the workers, they’d have been lost forever.”
Despite Goebbels’s effort to rouse the troops, the party faced daunting challenges. After months of intense, almost constant campaigning symptoms of strain had begun to surface. The party treasury was virtually empty, and complaints about the lack of money poured into party headquarters. Four major campaigns in nine months had left the party’s organization on the brink of exhaustion. An RPL memorandum to the regional leadership in October expressed concern about flagging energy in the midst of an important political campaign and urged district leaders to press on with the expected vigor. The RPL complained that “the entire movement must display more activity. . . . From now on the National Socialist press must concentrate entirely on the election. . . . Every article and essay must close with conclusion that Adolf Hitler is the only salvation and that one must therefore vote NSDAP.”
Hitler once again undertook a Deutschlandflug—his fourth of the year—but the novelty had clearly faded. Crowds were smaller, empty seats sprinkled the once-packed auditoriums even as his schedule, as before, was frantic. Although Hitler tried to focus the public’s attention on the failures of Papen, “a chancellor without a people,” and his government—the controversy surrounding his August 13 decision not to join the government simply would not go away. It hounded him throughout the campaign. In cities large and small, in hamlets and country villages, he was repeatedly forced to address the issue. His basic stump speech, which by November his audience could repeat almost verbatim, offered up the same explanation. “What you want to hear from me,” he began, typically, at a campaign stop in Breslau, “is the answer to a single question, the question that has been directed at me in past weeks from countless newspapers, countless politicians, elected representatives, and speakers: ‘Why,’ say these bourgeois politicians and their newspapers, ‘Herr Hitler, did you not climb aboard the train? It was your big chance; why did you say no and reject the offer?’ ”
The answer was, of course, always the same. “Why would I climb aboard when I knew full well that I would soon have to get off, since I could not support the actions of the reactionaries who drove the train.” Anyway, it was better to besiege the castle from the outside, than to be a prisoner inside. He was not a bourgeois politician, who joins first this coalition and then that, bargaining for ministerial posts here and there. He could not compromise his principles or weaken his unshakable commitment to the “Idea”; he could not play the parliamentary game. National Socialism was a Weltanschauung, a movement of ideological conviction, not ready to abandon its fundamental values, its mission, for momentary advantage. He was not afraid of assuming government responsibility, as Papen and the reactionaries had charged. He was ready and able to take the reins of power in hand. And, he invariably concluded, “If we do one day achieve power, we will hold on to it, so help us God. We will not allow them to take it away from us again.” By election day, Hitler had delivered a variant of this speech no fewer than forty-five times.
The Nazi press hailed Hitler’s campaign swing through the country as a victory tour with huge crowds shouting their support, straining for a view of the Führer. But behind these blustering headlines, party leaders were anxious. From the very outset of the campaign there were disquieting signs that the party’s propaganda machine, after months of operating at full throttle, was at last beginning to sputter. Reports from all across the country made clear that the party’s regional and local organizations were deeply in debt from the year’s campaigns and that even loyal party activists were distressed at the prospect of yet another major effort. Goebbels’s orders to regional propaganda leaders were punctuated by increasingly insistent demands for greater energy and enthusiasm. Implicitly acknowledging a morale problem within the ranks, the RPL’s directives during the final weeks of the campaign repeatedly emphasized the need to convince voters that “public opinion has undergone a powerful shift in favor of the NSDAP,” and that after an admittedly sluggish start, the party’s campaign was at last gathering “the old momentum.”
For all the brave talk about renewed energy in the last days of the campaign, the party leadership was privately preparing itself for a setback. Both Hitler and Goebbels thought the party would almost certainly lose some votes, but Strasser was far more pessimistic. He feared that Hitler’s “all or nothing” strategy had led the party into a dead end, and that Hitler’s refusal to enter the government in August was a missed opportunity that would come back to haunt the party. “It will not be too serious a matter even if we do lose a few million votes,” Goebbels gamely rationalized in his diary, “for what actually counts is not the outcome of this or that particular contest, but which party has the last battalion to throw into the fray.” Three days later, with the election at hand, the possibility of a disappointing outcome was still on his mind.
On election night, Goebbels listened to the returns with a mounting sense of foreboding. “The results are not as bad as the pessimists had feared,” he wrote in the whistling-past-the-graveyard tone that characterized his last diary entries before November 6, “but it still leaves a disgusting taste in one’s mouth to hear it over the radio. Every new announcement brings word of another defeat.” The results were, in fact, every bit as bad as Strasser and the pessimists had predicted. Less than four months after the party’s greatest triumph, the Nazis suffered a stunning defeat, losing more than two million votes and seeing their share of the national total tumble to 33 percent. The NSDAP would still be the largest party in the new Reichstag, if that body ever convened, but for the first time since the party had begun its astounding ascent in the fall of 1929, it had absorbed a serious setback, puncturing its aura of invincibility and casting doubt on its promises of an inevitable—and imminent—seizure of power. There was no way around it: “We have suffered a blow,” Goebbels conceded forlornly.
Goebbels’s first reaction was to blame the party’s failure to enter the government on Hitler’s August 13 decision and to claim that voters, especially middle-class voters, simply had not understood the party’s support for the Berlin strike. If only there had been more time to make the party’s position clear. Hitler’s refusal to enter the government in August was also a major contributing factor to the party’s decline. “August 13 accounts for it,” he decided. “The masses . . . have as yet not quite grasped the significance of the events of that day.” But that, as Goebbels realized, was hardly a sufficient explanation for the debacle. He wanted to hear from the party’s grassroots organizations, and he turned immediately to his national propaganda network for answers. Local propaganda leaders throughout the country were called upon to submit reports to their regional chiefs, who would evaluate their views and send a summary report to the RPL. There the regional reports were carefully analyzed and their important findings presented in a top secret document, a morale report, which was completed later in November and circulated among only the very highest leadership of the NSDAP. So sensitive was that document that only Hitler, Strasser, Hess, party treasurer Franz Xavier Schwarz, and party business manager Philipp Bouhler received a copy. Though struggling to accentuate the positive, the report was profoundly unsettling.
Turning first to the questions of turnout and organizational fatigue, the RPL maintained rather philosophically that the public, exhausted by months of political campaigning, had not turned away from the NSDAP alone but was disillusioned with the entire system of party politics. Growing public apathy had been clearly signaled by consistently low attendance at Nazi events through the fall, especially in the rural areas where the party had previously found an enthusiastic audience. In addition to election fatigue, the continued deterioration of the economy, the report went on, meant that the willingness of the public to make financial sacrifices for political causes had contracted sharply, and the ability of the local chapters to mount their usual propaganda operations had been severely impaired. The party treasury was running on empty, and because of the desperate financial situation, the NSDAP had nothing to spare for the regional organizations. In fact, the locals were expected to make contributions to the party treasury in Munich. This had forced them to scale back their rallies and leaflet campaigns and to concentrate instead on less costly forms of propaganda—man-to-man canvassing, the display of flags, stickers, party badges, etc. In many cases they were reduced to “chalk campaigns,” scrawling slogans on walls, and Sprechchöre—call-and-response political choruses chanted by party activists on street corners and public squares. Many impoverished local groups complained that the party’s opponents, especially the SPD and DNVP, were able to spend more and run better campaigns—a disheartening reversal of roles since the spring and summer.
Above all Goebbels wanted to know which voters had deserted the party or merely stayed at home November 6—and why? The party’s grassroots organizations provided an unequivocal answer to those questions. With startling candor, the RPL concluded that “the decline in our votes can in many ways be attributed to the fact that Hitler did not enter the government. Many quite simply have no understanding of our explanation.” The middle-class voter, in particular, had been led by his “neutral press” to believe “Hitler had to enter the Papen cabinet after August 13, and no campaign slogan could disabuse him of that notion.” The local chapters were unanimous in their conviction that middle-class voters were slipping away, and there was little to suggest that the party had been able to compensate for that loss by tapping into a reservoir of blue-collar support. Whether in the form of direct crossovers to the DNVP or DVP or in the form of no-shows, the NSDAP had suffered a massive hemorrhage of middle-class voters on November 6, and this had serious implications for Nazi strategy. The party’s unorthodox catchall strategy and its negative campaigning had proven remarkably successful after 1928 as anti-system anger boiled over and the traditional parties appeared both compromised and weak. But by the fall of 1932, after a year of relentless campaigning and intense public scrutiny, the difficulties of sustaining this anti-system, catchall strategy were becoming increasingly apparent to the NSDAP’s leadership.
“In previous campaigns,” the RPL explained with its usual cynicism, “appeals to the nationalist heart were enough to win the middle-class masses, and the socialist tendencies of the NSDAP could step into the background.” During the fall campaign that strategy had proven impossible. Since the party’s unstinting attacks on Papen and the Reaction were coupled with appeals to working-class Germans—appeals that often seemed indistinguishable from those of the Communists—the NSDAP confronted a serious dilemma. “National Socialism,” the RPL admitted, “found itself forced into an unequivocal stand against the ‘national reaction,’ rejecting compromises and placing itself—especially in the strike question—on the side of the German workers fighting for their rights.” A situation had been allowed to develop “in which we could not avoid doing things that the middle class will never understand . . . and a defection of the bourgeois masses had to follow.”
Papen and the conservatives sought to capitalize on the NSDAP’s dilemma, and in the aftermath of November 6 the Nazi leadership was convinced that they had succeeded only too well. Surveying the damage, the RPL concluded that the party’s aggressive efforts to win workers for the party had alienated important elements of the middle class. Reports from the party’s grass roots indicated that rural voters—since 1928 the mainstay of the party’s constantly expanding electorate—were shocked by the party’s apparent cooperation with the Communists in the Berlin strike, and in many cases simply refused to come to the polls as a consequence. This emerging schism between committed National Socialists and “fickle” one- or two-time supporters formed the leitmotif in the regional reports. A memorandum drafted by the Nazi county leader of Heilsberg in East Prussia offered a glimpse of the widespread bitterness toward such defectors. With a tone suffused simultaneously with aggression and anxiety, he claimed that those fair-weather bourgeois defectors “who recognized in time that they did after all belong to the gentlemen’s club or smelled a profit there for their egotistical souls, may wish to help the Reaction shield Jewish liberal capitalism from the deadly thrust our movement will deliver.”
In the face of this criticism, Goebbels doggedly insisted that the party had, in fact, made significant inroads into the working class, but his claims resounded with the hollow ring of forced optimism. Confronted by the mounting difficulties of maintaining a firm grip on the party’s socially diverse electorate and the unmistakable erosion of the party’s middle-class base, the RPL strongly implied that the moment for hard sociopolitical choices was at hand. Although the report did not advocate discarding the NSDAP’s revolutionary catchall strategy, it did endorse a propaganda more sharply focused on the working class. The outcome of the election had revealed that “the worker, once converted and embraced by National Socialist organization, is a thousand times more dependable than the middle class with its nationalist traditions.” The RPL acknowledged that “the largely unionized blue-collar labor force still approaches the NSDAP with a certain mistrust,” but strongly urged that efforts to win working-class voters continue. “In future propaganda, tactical concessions to the middle classes at the expense of the working class must cease.”
This plea for a shift in the social emphasis of Nazi propaganda was doubly significant. It clearly indicated a conviction that the NSDAP had reached the outer limits of its appeal to middle-class Germans and that even maintaining the party’s broad-based support within the Mittelstand at anything like the levels of the spring and summer was at best problematic. On the other hand, an intensified effort to win greater working-class support could only exacerbate the NSDAP’s problems within its volatile middle-class base, while hurtling the party into a more direct and doubtfully successful competition with the Social Democrats and Communists. After all, the two leftist parties together had won more votes than the Nazis in November. Equally distressing, the Nazis had not been particularly successful in mobilizing support among the unemployed, the vast majority of whom were workers and who on the whole seemed far more inclined to gravitate to the radical left than to the National Socialists.
As the implications of the election began to sink in, the spirits of the party plummeted. “Everywhere,” Goebbels wrote, “we find trouble, conflicts, and dissension.” Especially disturbing were reports of SA refusals to cooperate with local Nazi political leaders in the conduct of the campaign. The RPL reported that “approximately 60 percent of the party districts were dissatisfied with the SA’s propaganda efforts during the fall campaign.” Several districts even attributed a major share of the responsibility for the loss of voters in their region to the Storm Troopers.
While some districts registered disappointment with this mood of uncooperative resentment, other regional officials complained that vulgar, violent, and generally unruly behavior by the Brown Shirts had cost the party dearly at the polls. Understandably, such complaints were loudest in the east, where SA violence had been rampant since August and where relations between local Nazi political leaders and SA units had deteriorated dangerously. Party officials in Lower Silesia claimed that “a great segment of the electorate was deeply offended by the rowdy behavior of the SA, who have become a genuine pestilence in the land following the elections of 31 July.” In Central Silesia, Nazi political functionaries stated that “if we had more SA men who knew how to behave like decent people on the street,” the party’s propaganda operations could be conducted effectively. “It must be made clear to the SS and SA that they are parts of a political movement and as such must cooperate instead of striking out on their own often misguided ways.”
This image of an unruly horde of violent freebooters ran through the regional reports, almost all of which demanded tighter control over and greater political training for the SA. The Storm Troopers had gotten out of hand and something had to be done. “The SA man should not only be a soldier in the military sense but a political soldier as well,” the propaganda leader of Upper Silesia complained. He should “view himself as the representative of the National Socialist Weltanschauung and always conduct himself . . . in a manner consistent with this ideology.” The Storm Trooper, however, “creates the impression of mercenaries who have joined the NSDAP out of love of adventure . . . rather than out of ideological conviction.”
Nazi propaganda officials at all levels had ample reason for wanting to shift the responsibility for the party’s November slide to the SA, but it was painfully obvious to all that the NSDAP was confronting a very serious internal crisis at the close of 1932. It is indicative of the magnitude of that conflict that at a meeting of the Nazi leadership in Munich on November 8, SA leaders reportedly responded to charges of undermining the campaign effort by lashing out at Hitler’s policy of legality, claiming that it, not the SA, was losing support for the NSDAP. “The people are no longer satisfied with Hitler’s decisions,” they were quoted as saying. “It doesn’t work to keep on merely talking about continuing the parliamentary and propaganda struggle. That will lead the party to ruin, as the last elections have shown. . . . The people urgently demand a revolutionary act.” What was clear to Nazi propaganda operatives at all levels was that the party had failed to convert the legions of protest voters who had, for a variety of reasons, been attracted to the NSDAP since 1930. Some might be convinced to cast a protest vote once, twice, three times, or maybe even more, but the longer the party campaigned without being able to deliver on its promise to change the discredited system, the less likely it would be to maintain the credibility of its protest appeal. This problem was particularly dangerous to the NSDAP, since, as Goebbels understood, these millions of protest voters were not committed ideologically to National Socialism, and in November it appeared that it was to a large extent these volatile, uncommitted voters who had either defected or simply stayed home.
The propaganda leader of Hanover–South Braunschweig, in reporting on the provincial election, echoed the RPL’s criticism of Hitler’s strategy. Hundreds of thousands of former Nazi supporters, the RPL believed, “had registered their disapproval” by simply refusing to vote at all. Much of this election fatigue could undoubtedly be attributed to simple exhaustion after a year of nonstop campaigning. By November, funding, enthusiasm, and endurance were running low in all the Weimar parties, but for the NSDAP, as a party of protest that counted on voter anger, the growing public apathy was particularly ominous. The longer the NSDAP was forced to campaign without being able to deliver on its promises, the less convincing its image of irrepressible dynamism and power was bound to become and the less appealing its fanatical and yet fruitless anti-system stance would appear. As the year wore on, with four national elections and regional campaigns in almost every German state, Nazi propaganda strategists became increasingly aware of this problem. Goebbels had noted in his diary as early as April, when the NSDAP’s political star was still on the rise, that “we have to come to power in the near future or we will win ourselves to death in these elections.” The party’s window of opportunity was small, and its ability to sustain its protest-oriented appeal over time was tenuous at best.
By the close of 1932 party leaders realized that the NSDAP had reached the limits of its middle-class appeal, and any serious attempt to broaden the party’s base by more aggressive efforts to recruit working-class voters ran the very substantial risk of alienating the NSDAP’s essential middle-class base. The impact of the party’s radical quasi-socialist rhetoric and, more directly, its support for the Berlin transportation strike seemed to have demonstrated precisely that. On the other hand, if the party were now forced to fall back on a more traditional class-based strategy, the NSDAP would be admitting the end of its electoral expansion and would forfeit its cherished claim to be a genuine Volkspartei.
The RPL acknowledged this when it concluded that although the party had suffered serious losses in November, “the results proved that the hard core of the party remained unshaken and [had] by no means wavered.” Even though stated very confidently, this conclusion had to be extremely sobering to Nazi strategists. If the party were unable to sustain its mass protest appeal and were once again reduced to its lower-middle-class base, it would be forced inexorably back to the periphery of German political life.
While the NSDAP was attempting to cope with these dilemmas, the Papen cabinet, with no parliamentary majority in sight, resigned on November 17, and in a reprise of the August negotiations, a new round of discussions among Papen, Schleicher, Hindenburg, and Hitler took place. Far from being chastened by the November defeat, Hitler continued to insist on the chancellorship and full power in a presidential government, while Papen and Schleicher renewed their efforts to coax the Nazis into a coalition of right-wing forces. Hitler met twice with the Reich President, and although the latter man appealed to Hitler’s patriotism to “meet me half way,” Hitler could not be moved.
Hindenburg’s tone in these meetings had softened—even addressing Hitler as a fellow soldier, a comrade-in-arms of the Great War—but his unwillingness to appoint Hitler chancellor had not. Hindenburg informed Hitler that he could not justify “handing presidential power over to the leader of a party that has never renounced its claim to absolute power” and that he feared that “a presidential cabinet headed by you would necessarily develop into a party dictatorship with all the consequences this implies.” After one of his frustrating encounters with Hitler in the Presidential Palace, a scornful Hindenburg turned to his advisor Otto Meissner and asked if it was true that the Nazi leader had been a housepainter in Munich before the war. It wasn’t, but without waiting for an answer, he remarked, “One can’t put a house painter in Bismarck’s chair.”
As Hindenburg groped for a solution to this impasse, Papen approached him with a bold plan. It called for the Reich President to dissolve the Reichstag and declare a state of emergency. Although according to Article 25 of the Weimar constitution, elections were to take place no later than sixty days after a dissolution of the Reichstag, Papen now insisted that Hindenburg postpone elections indefinitely—a clear breach of the constitution. Papen would then rule by emergency decree, effecting the transition from stalemated Republic to authoritarian regime.
Although sympathetic to Papen’s goals, Hindenburg had deep reservations about such a course of action. He was not comfortable with such a blatant violation of the constitution, especially since the responsibility for such a move would rest squarely on him. Some members of Papen’s cabinet shared his reluctance, fearing that the chancellor’s plan would provoke a civil war, with both the Communists and Nazis rising against the government. Among those opposed to Papen’s strategy was his patron and minister of defense, Kurt von Schleicher. Although he had engineered Papen’s remarkable elevation to the chancellorship in June, he had grown increasingly irritated at Papen’s tendency to act independently, ignoring Schleicher’s advice. He, too, was convinced that a continuation of the massively unpopular Papen government would lead to serious unrest. It was time to make a change. At a meeting of the cabinet on December 2, Schleicher spoke out against Papen’s plan and produced an army study showing that the military, with its hundred thousand troops, would be no match for the paramilitary forces of both radical parties. Civil war would be the inevitable result, and the outcome would be very much in doubt.
Schleicher’s study, with its military imprimatur, made a strong impression on Hindenburg. Although he was quite fond of Papen, who treated him and his son Oskar with feudal obeisance and had become a close family friend, he had to act. With great reluctance, he asked for Papen’s resignation, and on December 3 turned to Schleicher to form a new government. The Reichstag, which had still not convened, was not consulted. Now a career military man with even less parliamentary backing than Papen was chancellor of the German Republic.
A virtual unknown to the public, Schleicher now stepped boldly from the shadows into the spotlight. He announced his intention of forming a government that would stand above parties, which was fortunate since he commanded, if possible, even less popular support than his predecessor. His government’s economic policy, he asserted, would transcend both capitalism and socialism, though just what this meant no one, perhaps not even the general, really understood. Schleicher was not burdened by Papen’s reactionary reputation (he favored, for example, a jobs creation program that Papen had opposed), and he had unorthodox ideas about forging a broad coalition that would bring together elements of the labor unions, the agrarian associations, and disaffected National Socialists. Such a government, he believed, would enjoy the support of the army and industrial interests. Schleicher liked to be called “the social general,” but most would have agreed with Leon Trotsky’s famous description that he was “a question mark in the epaulettes of a general.”
Feeling that a sobered Hitler might be more tractable in defeat, Schleicher renewed efforts to win his support, holding out the prospect of important cabinet positions in his government, but Hitler was in no mood for compromise. His strategy since the heady days of summer had been “all or nothing,” and even now he was not prepared to deviate from that hard-line stance. Schleicher opened secret negotiations with Strasser, though those talks soon became public news, and offered him the post of vice chancellor. He hinted that other National Socialists might also assume important cabinet posts. He hoped that Strasser, who commanded a strong following with the NSDAP, could bring a large contingent of Nazi Reichstag deputies into the fold. Schleicher also labored under the illusion that the more reasonable Nazis under Strasser might join with the Zentrum, the DNVP, DVP, and, most improbably, the Social Democrats to form a viable basis for the new government. Failing that, he held out the hope that an offer of important positions in the cabinet would finally tempt Hitler into joining forces with the new Reich government.
Strasser was tempted. His disaffection with Hitler had been building since the aftermath of the July 31 election. Strasser was one of the few inside the party who dared to question Hitler’s decisions, and his disapproval of “the chief’s” refusal to enter a coalition government in August was an open secret within the party hierarchy. Strasser was a deeply committed National Socialist, and he had worked tirelessly to build up the party’s imposing national organization. His differences with Hitler were tactical, not ideological, and he believed that he was negotiating with Schleicher in good faith as a true National Socialist.
His approach to politics was more pragmatic than Hitler’s, more oriented toward administrative structures, details, planning. Hitler was famously uninterested in the party’s organization except as an instrument for propaganda and campaigning. Despite the November setback and his unsuccessful negotiations with Hindenburg, Hitler was still confident that more intensive propaganda and “fanatical” campaigning would ultimately sweep the party into power. That moment, Strasser believed, had passed, and Hitler’s obstinate refusal to enter a coalition government was a disastrous mistake.
He was also painfully aware that he was being marginalized in strategy decisions, shouldered aside by his rivals Goebbels, Göring, and Röhm, all of whom scrambled over one another to win the ear of the Führer—a dynamic that would only grow worse once the party was in power. It was a symptom of his fading influence in the Führer’s inner circle that Hitler had unceremoniously renounced Strasser’s ideas for an emergency economic program at the outset of the fall campaign, and by November Strasser had lost all patience with Hitler and the circle of sycophants who surrounded him. To one fellow Nazi, he complained that “Hindenburg, a man of honor . . . honestly and decently offers him [Hitler] a place in the government, and there stands the delusional Lohengrin-Hitler with his darkly menacing boys.” The future for the party looked bleak. Göring was “a brutal egotist who cares nothing for Germany as long as he gets something [for himself]”; Goebbels was “a limping devil and basically two-faced,” while Röhm was “a pig.” These were the toadies who now surrounded the Führer, slavishly encouraging him as he led the party into inevitable decline. The situation, he lamented, was a disaster.
Matters came to a head on December 5. In a turbulent session at the Kaiserhof, Strasser pleaded with Hitler to accept Schleicher’s offer. He pointed out that before the election the National Socialists in the Reichstag might have formed a majority with the Zentrum, but now this possibility had ended. The votes were no longer there. Given Hindenburg’s resistance, the chancellorship would have to wait, but it wasn’t too late to make a deal that would put Hitler and the NSDAP into a position of power. Hitler, encouraged by Goebbels, rejected any such compromise.
Two days later, Strasser made one last personal appeal to Hitler. Meeting again at the Kaiserhof, the conversation quickly degenerated into mutual recrimination and charges of betrayal. Hitler accused Strasser of treason, of attempting to destroy the party from within and rob him of the chancellorship. Strasser held his ground. “Herr Hitler, I am no more a traitor than any other willing messenger,” Strasser responded. “My plan is to prevent a further deterioration of the party, not to bring it about.” The meeting ended with an enraged Strasser storming out, slamming the door behind him in disgust.
While this crisis within the leadership mounted, the bad electoral news just kept coming. In a series of local elections in Saxony, Bremen, and Lübeck in late November and Thuringia in early December, the NSDAP suffered catastrophic losses. “The situation in the Reich is disastrous,” Goebbels dolefully noted in early December: “In Thuringia . . . we have a loss of nearly 40 percent since July 31.” The campaign had been lethargic, the old verve absent. “This defeat is very unwelcome at the present moment,” Goebbels admitted. “In the future there must be no election in which we lose a single vote.”
Then, on December 8, a bombshell. With the party reeling from the setback in Thuringia, Strasser shocked the party and the country by publicly announcing his resignation from all his posts in the party leadership and declaring his intention to withdraw from politics. In a letter delivered to Hitler’s suite in the Kaiserhof around noon, Strasser reiterated his conviction that the Führer’s unbending stand against entering the cabinet had led the party into a cul-de-sac of futile opposition. With the flood tide of National Socialist victories now clearly ebbing, Hitler’s stubborn refusal to enter the government in both August and November had been a strategic blunder for which the party was now paying dearly. Thanks to Hitler’s intransigence, the NSDAP was no closer to power than it had been in January, and now the bottom was falling out. The great task of the age, his letter read, was “the creation of a great broad front of constructive people and their integration into the new-styled state.” In a rebuke to Hitler, he went on: “The single-minded hope that chaos will produce the party’s hour of destiny is, I believe, erroneous, dangerous, and not in the interests of Germany as a whole.” He closed by insisting that “as I refuse under all circumstances to become the focal point of oppositional endeavors or conflict of such kind, I am leaving Berlin today and subsequently leaving Germany for a considerable period.” The next morning he departed Berlin for a vacation in Italy.
The national press exploded with jubilant speculation. “The Jewish papers can hardly hide their satisfaction at Strasser’s step,” Goebbels grumbled. “The Führer and the party are given up by all. ‘Hitler’s star has faded,’ is the refrain of Jewish elation. One is almost ashamed to meet acquaintances in the street, and would like to hide one’s diminished head. . . . Everywhere the rats flee from the sinking ship,” he wrote in a tangle of mixed metaphors. “Among them are the grave robbers . . . who come to take part in the execution of the will. Wild rumors are afloat. Strasser’s defection is the talk of the day. He has a good Jewish press and deserves it, too.”
Coming on the heels of the party’s disastrous electoral performance, Strasser’s resignation confronted Hitler with a very real possibility that the party would disintegrate, splintering into competing factions. And for the first time, his nerve seemed to desert him. He hurriedly gathered party leaders and pleaded for their support; he convened a meeting of the Nazi Reichstag delegation to explain the situation and reassure them that he was in control. To Goebbels, he was not so confident. “If the party falls apart,” he told his startled propaganda chief, “I’ll finish myself off with a pistol within three minutes.”
“It is high time we attained power,” Goebbels noted forlornly, “although for the moment there is not the slightest chance of it.” He found it difficult to be upbeat. “Deep depression reigns in the organization,” Goebbels wrote in early December. “We are all very downhearted, above all because the danger now exists that the entire party will fall apart and all our work will have been done for nothing.”
Compounding these problems, the party’s financial situation was little short of catastrophic. Membership dues, subscriptions to party publications, and paid attendance at Nazi events had dropped precipitously, and contributions from backers in the business community, always exaggerated both then and subsequently, had virtually evaporated. Even the firm that printed the Völkischer Beobachter threatened several times in November and December to stop printing unless the party paid up. So deeply in debt was the party that wages to party employees were cut, and National Socialist Reichstag deputies were even ordered to forgo the customary Christmas tips to porters. SA men, who only weeks before had been planning to take the government by storm, could now be seen on Berlin street corners collecting money from passersby. They stood, Konrad Heiden observed with satisfaction, “in their thin shirts, shivering with the cold . . . rattling their tin collection cups and crying lamentably: ‘Give something to the wicked Nazis!’ ”
Only six months after reaching the very threshold of power, the NSDAP was poised on the cusp of decline and disintegration. In evaluating the party’s options, the RPL concluded that the cluster of strategic dilemmas facing the NSDAP could not be resolved in the context of a free and competitive parliamentary system. After an ascent of unparalleled swiftness, the Nazis had reached the limits of their popular support and now faced almost certain decline. The policy of legality, of mass mobilization for electoral campaigning, had failed. Only a National Socialist seizure of power could ensure the survival of the party as a mass phenomenon. Quoting from a local propaganda leader whose views it obviously endorsed, the RPL concluded its postmortem of the November election with the stunning conclusion that “On the basis of numerous contacts with our supporters, we are of the opinion that little can be salvaged by way of propaganda. . . . New paths must be taken. Nothing more is to be accomplished with words, placards, and leaflets. Now we must act!”
But above all else, the RPL asserted with uncommon frankness, “it must not come to another election. The results could not be imagined.” It was a sobering admission for the party’s proud propaganda operatives but one that accurately gauged the NSDAP’s grim electoral prospects. There was still hope, the RPL concluded, “if Adolf Hitler succeeds in bringing about a political transformation in Germany and appears before the German people as a man of action.” In December 1932 that prospect seemed remote indeed.
As “the year of elections” drew to a close, the great expectations of the spring and summer had dissolved. Hitler remained as far from the Reich Chancellery as ever, and none of the fundamental strategic dilemmas that had plagued the party in the fall had been resolved. The party’s narrow window of opportunity seemed to have been wedged firmly shut. Local elections in November and December had confirmed the verdict of the Reichstag campaign. It was becoming increasingly obvious that the disappointing results of the November election had not been a fluke but marked the onset of an undeniable trend. The volatile Nazi constituency was fragmenting; the party’s treasury was empty; and the Storm Troopers were fed up with the endless campaigns and impatient for action. Strasser’s resignation and the fear that he might lead a revolt within the ranks merely deepened the shadows that hung over the party and cast a lengthening pall over its future.
Reflecting back over the triumphs and travails of the past year, Goebbels could muster little optimism for the future. “The year 1932 was an endless run of bad luck,” he mused in late December. “Outside the peace of Christmas reigns in the streets. I am at home alone, pondering over my life. The past was sad, and the future looks dark and gloomy; all prospects and hopes have completely failed.”