Modern history



It did not take Hitler long to recover his nerve after the events of 9 November 1923. He knew that he could implicate a whole range of prominent Bavarian politicians in the putsch attempt, and expose the army’s involvement in training paramilitaries for a march on Berlin. Aware of this threat, which had emerged already during Hitler’s interrogation, the Bavarian government managed to persuade the authorities in Berlin to hold the trial not in the Reich Court in Leipzig, but before a specially constituted ‘People’s Court’ in Munich, where they had more control over events.71 It seems likely that they offered Hitler leniency in return for his agreement to carry the can. As judge they picked Georg Neithardt, a well-known nationalist who had been appointed by Bavaria’s reactionary Justice Minister Franz Gürtner in 1919 and had presided over Hitler’s previous trial, early in 1922. When the trial began, on 26 February 1924, Hitler was allowed to appear in civilian dress, wearing his Iron Cross, and to address the court for hours on end without interruption. While Neithardt let him bully and insult prosecution witnesses, the state prosecutor failed to call a number of key figures whose testimony would have proved damaging to the defence case. The court suppressed evidence of Ludendorff’s involvement, and rejected a plea for Hitler to be deported as an Austrian citizen, because he had served in the German army and shown himself to be a German patriot.72 Hitler took the entire responsibility on himself, declaring that serving the interests of Germany could not be high treason. The ‘eternal Court of History’, he declared, ‘will judge us ... as Germans who wanted the best for their people and their fatherland.’73

Despite the fact that the participants in the putsch had shot dead four policemen and staged an armed and (in any reasonable legal terms) treasonable revolt against a legitimately constituted state government, both offences punishable by death, the court sentenced Hitler to a mere five years in prison for high treason, and the others were indicted to similar or even lighter terms. Ludendorff, as expected, was acquitted. The court grounded its leniency in the fact that, as it declared, the participants in the putsch ‘were led in their action by a pure patriotic spirit and the most noble will’. The judgment was scandalous even by the biased standards of the Weimar judiciary. It was widely condemned, even on the right. Hitler was sent to an ancient fortress at Landsberg am Lech, west of Munich, where he took over the cell held up to that point by Count Arco-Valley, the assassin of Kurt Eisner. This was what was called ‘fortress incarceration’, a mild form of imprisonment for offenders thought to have acted from honourable motives, such as, before the war, gentlemen of honour who had killed their opponent in a duel. Hitler’s cell was large, airy and comfortably furnished. Visitors had free access. Over five hundred of them came during the course of his stay. They brought him presents, flowers, letters and telegrams from well-wishers outside. He was able to read, indeed there was little else to do when he was not receiving visitors, and he ploughed his way through a variety of books by authors such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Houston Stewart Chamberlain, searching them in the main for confirmation of his own views. More importantly, at the suggestion of the Nazi publisher Max Amann, Hitler also sat down to dictate an account of his life and opinions up to this point to two of his fellow-prisoners, his chauffeur Emil Maurice and his factotum Rudolf Hess, an account published the following year under the title, probably proposed by Amann, of My Struggle.74

My Struggle has been seen by some historians as a kind of blueprint for Hitler’s later actions, a dangerous and devilish book that was unfortunately ignored by those who should have known better. It was nothing of the kind. Heavily edited by Amann, Hanfstaengl and others in order to make it more literate and less incoherent than the rambling first draft, it was none the less turgid and tedious, and sold only modest numbers of copies before the Nazis achieved their electoral breakthrough in 1930. After that it became a best-seller, above all during the Third Reich, when not to own a copy was almost an act of treason. Those people who read it, probably a relatively small proportion of those who bought it, must have found it difficult to gain anything very coherent out of its confusedmélange of autobiographical reminiscences and garbled political declamations. Hitler’s talent for winning hearts and minds lay in his public oratory, not in his writing. Still, no one who read the book could have been left in any doubt about the fact that Hitler considered racial conflict to be the motor, the essence of history, and the Jews to be the sworn enemy of the German race, whose historic mission it was, under the guidance of the Nazi Party, to break their international power and annihilate them entirely. ‘The nationalization of our masses’, he declared, ‘will succeed only when, aside from all the positive struggle for the soul of our people, their international poisoners are exterminated.’75

The Jews were now linked indissolubly in Hitler’s mind with ‘Bolshevism’ and ‘Marxism’, which received far greater prominence in My Struggle than the finance capitalism that had so obsessed him during the period of monetary inflation. For Russia was where Germany’s conquest of ‘living-space’ would be made at the same time as the elimination of the ‘Jewish-Bolsheviks’ who he supposed ruled the Soviet state. These ideas were laid out in more detail in the book’s second volume, composed in 1925 and published the following year; they were central to Hitler’s ideology from now on. ‘The boundaries of the year 1914 mean nothing at all for the German future,‘he declared. Drawing a comparison with the vast Eastern conquests of Alexander the Great, he announced that ‘the end of Jewish rule in Russia will also be the end of Russia as a state’. The soil now occupied by ‘Russia and her vassal border states’ would in future be given over to ‘the industrious work of the German plough’.76

Hitler’s beliefs were clearly laid out in My Struggle, for all to see who wished to. No one familiar with the text could have emerged from reading it with the view that all Hitler wanted was the revision of the Treaty of Versailles, the restoration of the German borders of 1914 or the self-determination of German-speaking minorities in Central Europe. Nor could anyone have doubted the visceral, fanatical, indeed murderous quality of his antisemitism. But beliefs and intentions are not the same as blueprints and plans. When it came to working out how to implement these views, Hitler’s text naturally reflected the politics of the particular period in which it was written. At this time, the French were the enemy, having only recently withdrawn from the Ruhr. The British, by contrast, looked like a possible ally in the struggle against Bolshevism, having lent their support to the ‘White’ forces in the Russian civil war only a few years before. A little later, when Hitler composed another, similar work, unpublished during his lifetime, the clash between Italy and Germany over the South Tyrol was on the international agenda, and so he concentrated on that.77 What remained central through all these tactical twists and turns, however, was the long-term drive for ‘living-space’ in the East, and the fierce desire to annihilate the Jews. This, again, could not be done all at once, and Hitler obviously, at this stage, had no clear idea as to how it would be achieved, or when. Here, too, there would be tactical manoeuvres along the way, and a variety of interim solutions would present themselves. But none of this affected the genocidal quality of Hitler’s hatred of the Jews, or his paranoid conviction that they were responsible for all of Germany’s ills and that the only long-term solution was their complete annihilation as a biological entity; a conviction easily discernible not only from the language of My Struggle, but also from the words and phrases he used in his speeches, and the atmosphere of revivalist intolerance in which they were held.78 The Jews were a ‘pestilence’, ‘worse than the Black Death’, a ‘maggot in the decomposing body of Germany’, and they would be driven from what he thought of as their positions of power, and then expelled from the country altogether, if necessary by force. What would happen to the Jews of Eastern Europe once Germany had acquired its living-space there, he could not say; but the murderous violence of his language left little doubt that their fate would not be a pleasant one.79

The composition of his book, the massive publicity he gained from the trial, the adulation that poured in from the nationalist right after the attempted putsch, all helped convince Hitler, if he had not been convinced before, that he was the man to turn these views into reality. The failed putsch also taught him that he would not even be able to take the first step - the acquisition of supreme power in Germany itself - by relying on paramilitary violence alone. A ‘march on Rome’ was out of the question in Germany. It was essential to win mass public support, by the propaganda and public-speaking campaigns which Hitler knew were his forte. The revolutionary conquest of power, still favoured by Röhm, would not work in any case if it was undertaken without the support of the army, so conspicuously lacking in November 1923. Hitler did not, as was sometimes later said, even by himself, embark on a path of ‘legality’ in the wake of the failed putsch. But he did realize that toppling the Weimar ‘system’ would require more than a few ill-directed gunshots, even in a year of supreme crisis such as 1923. Coming to power clearly required collaboration from key elements in the establishment, and although he had enjoyed some support in 1923, it had not proved sufficient. In the next crisis, which was to occur less than a decade later, he made sure he had the army and the key institutions of the state either neutralized, or actively working for him, unlike in 1923.80

Meanwhile, however, the situation of the Nazi Party seemed almost irretrievable in the wake of Hitler’s arrest and imprisonment. The paramilitary groups broke up in disorder, and their arms were confiscated by the government. Kahr, Lossow and Seisser, badly compromised by the putsch, were pushed aside by a new cabinet under the Bavarian People’s Party leader, Heinrich Held. Bavarian separatism and ultra-nationalist conspiracies gave way to more conventional regional politics. The situation calmed down as the hyperinflation came to an end and the policy of ‘fulfilment’ took hold in Berlin, bearing fruit almost immediately with the rescheduling of reparations under the Dawes Plan. Deprived of their leader, the Nazis split up into tiny squabbling factions again. Röhm continued to try and reunite the remaining fragments of the paramilitaries in allegiance to Ludendorff. Hitler put Alfred Rosenberg in charge of the Nazi Party as virtually the only leading figure left in the country who was still at large. But Rosenberg proved completely incapable of establishing any authority over the movement.81

Both the Nazi Party and the brownshirts were now illegal organizations. They were completely unprepared for a clandestine existence. Opinions differed widely on what tactics to use in future - paramilitary or parliamentary - and rivalries between figures like Streicher and Ludendorff, as well as the congeries of ultra-nationalist groups who emerged to try to claim the Nazi succession, were crippling attempts to resurrect the movement. Hitler more or less washed his hands of all these squabbles, announcing his withdrawal from politics to write his book. Matters were not much improved when Hitler was released on parole, by a decision of the Bavarian Supreme Court and against the advice of the state prosecutorial service, on 20 December 1924. He still had almost four years of his sentence to run, during which he had to be careful not to violate the conditions of his parole. He was not allowed to speak in public in most parts of Germany until 1927; he was still banned in Prussia, which covered over half the Weimar Republic’s land surface and contained the majority of its population, as late as 1928. The ultra-nationalist right was humiliated in the national elections of 1924. The only ray of sunshine in the gloom was provided by the Austrian government, which scotched official attempts to get Hitler repatriated by refusing to accept him.82


Map 7. The Nazis in the Second Reichstag Election of 1924


Nevertheless, Hitler still had a few friends in high places. One key figure was the Bavarian Justice Minister Franz Gürtner, who sympathized with his nationalist ideas. Gürtner agreed to lift the ban on the Nazi Party and its newspaper, the Racial Observer, when the Bavarian state of emergency was finally ended on 16 February 1925.83 Armed with his newly won prestige and self-confidence as the nationalist hero of the putsch and the subsequent trial, Hitler promptly refounded the Nazi Party, calling on his former followers to join it and (a key new point) to submit themselves unconditionally to his leadership. Julius Streicher, Gottfried Feder, the Party journalist and propagandist Hermann Esser and others publicly buried their differences in a show of solidarity. Hitler moved to push his most serious rivals out onto the margins of politics. First, as it became legal to reconstitute the brownshirt organization, he insisted that it be subordinated to the Party, and cut its links with the other paramilitary groups; Ernst Röhm, who rejected this view, was ousted, left politics and was forced to become a salesman and then a factory hand before accepting an invitation to go to Bolivia to instruct the country’s troops in the ways of European warfare.84 And secondly, Hitler worked steadily to undermine the continuing prestige of Ludendorff, who was not only a serious rival but was also rapidly becoming more extreme in his views. Under the influence of Mathilde von Kemnitz, whom he married in 1926, Ludendorff founded the Tannenberg League, which published conspiracy-theory literature attacking not only Jews but also Jesuits and the Catholic Church - a certain recipe for electoral disaster in Bavaria and other pious parts of southern Germany. Ludendorff’s fate was sealed when he stood as a candidate for the Presidency in the 1925 elections on behalf of the Nazi Party and received a derisory 1.1 per cent of the vote. There is some evidence that Hitler himself had persuaded him to stand in the knowledge that his reputation would be irreparably harmed by the attempt.85 From now until his death in 1937, Ludendorff and his Tannenberg League remained on the fringes of politics, condemned to complete irrelevance and lacking in any kind of mass support. Nothing demonstrated more clearly than this the changed situation of extreme nationalism in Germany: the all-powerful military dictator of the First World War had been pushed out to the margins of politics by the upstart Nazi politician; the general had been displaced by the corporal.

With Ludendorff safely out of the way, Hitler had no serious rival on the extreme right any more. He could now concentrate on bringing the rest of the ultra-nationalist movement to heel. While disparate groups in the south gravitated into the orbit of the Nazi Party, the various branches of the Party in northern and western Germany were undergoing something of a revival. The person mainly responsible for this was another Bavarian, Gregor Strasser, a pharmacist from Landshut. Born in 1892, the son of a politically active lawyer, Strasser was well educated and well read, and his middle-class upbringing and manners made him an attractive figure in the eyes of many potential sympathizers of the Nazi movement. At the same time, like many bourgeois German men of his generation, he was stamped by the experience of 1914, the spirit of unity that he believed needed to be re-created among all Germans. After finishing his military service as a lieutenant, Strasser sought to re-create this experience and to right what he believed to be Germany’s wrongs. He fought with the Free Corps in Munich at the end of the war and then built up his own paramilitary group, which brought him into contact with Hitler. For Strasser, it was the cause rather than the leader that mattered. On 9 November 1923 he led his brownshirt unit into Munich to seize a key bridge over the river, as arranged, and when the putsch backfired he took his unit back to Landshut again, where he was duly arrested.86

But in the end his rather peripheral participation in the putsch did not seem to the authorities to warrant particularly harsh treatment. Strasser therefore remained at large while the other Nazi leaders either fled or were landed in gaol. In April 1924 he was elected to the Bavarian Parliament. He proved to be a talented administrator, bringing together many of the fragments of the shattered ultra-right. Once the Nazi Party was legal again, Hitler, recognizing his ability, sent him to revive it in north Germany. By the end of 1915, Strasser’s tireless recruitment drive had increased the number of branches nearly fourfold, using a pronounced emphasis on the ‘socialist’ aspects of Nazi ideology to try and win over the industrial working class in areas like the Ruhr. Strasser was contemptuous of the other ultra-right groups which thought ‘the primitive solution of antisemitism to be adequate’. He told Oswald Spengler in July 1925 that Nazism was different because it sought ‘a German revolution’ through a German form of socialism.87His idea of socialism, however, while it involved the state taking a 51 per cent stake in major industries and 49 per cent in all other businesses, also included the return of the guilds and the payment of wages in kind rather than in money. ‘Socialist’ ideas of this kind were developed by Strasser in conjunction with a number of Nazi leaders in the new branches of the Party in various parts of North Germany. These Party branches owed little or nothing to the leadership of Hitler during this period; the Party, as it were, was largely reconstituting itself, independently of headquarters in Munich. Soon, perhaps inevitably, Strasser and his allies were voicing their suspicions of what they regarded as the corrupt and dictatorial clique under Hermann Esser that was running the Party’s Munich office while Hitler was composing the second volume of My Struggle. Many of them had not even met Hitler in person, and so had not fallen under the spell of his growing personal charisma. They particularly disliked the existing Nazi Party Programme, and declared their intention of replacing it with one more in tune with their own ideas.88

Particularly prominent in these moves was another new recruit to the Party, the young ideologue Joseph Goebbels. Born in 1897 in the industrial town of Rheydt on the Lower Rhine, son of a clerk, Goebbels was given a grammar-school education and went on to study Ancient Philology, German, and History at Bonn University, gaining a Ph.D. in Romantic literature at Heidelberg University in 1921, which entitled him to be addressed, as he was ever after, as ‘Dr Goebbels’. But despite his doctorate, Goebbels was not destined for the academic life. He too was a kind of bohemian, already occupying his spare time in his student days with writing plays and dreaming of an artistic future. Throughout the 1920s he wrote and rewrote the novel that was eventually published in1929 as Michael: A German Fate in the Pages of a Diary. The novel was mainly a vehicle for Goebbels’s own vague and confused conceptions of a national revival, based on fanatical faith and belief in the future, for which the novel’s hero eventually sacrifices himself. By such means, Goebbels sought to give meaning to a life dominated by his own very obvious physical disability: a club foot, which made him walk with a limp. It exposed him to merciless teasing at school, and indeed throughout his life, and rendered him unfit for military service in the First World War. Perhaps in compensation, Goebbels came to believe that he was destined for great things; he kept a diary, he pursued women and love affairs with extraordinary vigour and a surprising degree of success, and he spurned any ordinary means of earning a living. Instead, he read avidly - Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Spengler, and above all Houston Stewart Chamberlain, who convinced him that the rebirth of the West prophesied by Spengler could only be achieved by the removal of the Jews.89

Goebbels was different in some ways from the other leading Nazis. His intellect and temperament were often described as ‘Latin’, perhaps because he avoided vague philosophical and rhetorical declamation and instead spoke and wrote with a remarkable clarity and openness mixed on occasion with sarcastic humour.90 Like many others, however, he had been profoundly shocked by Germany’s defeat in the First World War. He spent the winter semester of 1919-20 in Munich - it was common for German students to change universities at least once during their studies - and so, as well as being exposed to the extreme right-wing atmosphere of student life, he now imbibed the rabidly nationalist atmosphere of the counter-revolution in the city in those months. Although he sympathized with men like Count Arco-Valley, whose imprisonment for the assassination of Kurt Eisner deeply dismayed him, Goebbels did not really discover his political commitment, or his political abilities, until 1924, when, after coming into contact with a number of ultra-nationalist groups, he was introduced to the Nazi Party by an old school friend.

As Goebbels made his way in the Nazi Party, he met Erich Koch, a Rhenish Nazi and former member of the violent wing of resistance against the French. He also encountered Julius Streicher, whom he described privately as a ‘Berserker’ and ‘perhaps somewhat pathological’.91 And he was impressed by Ludendorff, whom he already admired as the great general from the First World War. Soon, Goebbels had become a Party organizer in the Rhineland. He developed into an effective orator, perhaps the most effective of all the Nazi speakers apart from Hitler himself, lucid, popular, and quick-witted in response to hecklers. He began turning his literary talents to political use in articles for the Nazi press, giving a pseudo-socialist twist to the Nazi creed. Goebbels had finally found hismétier. Within a few months he was one of the most popular Nazi orators in the Rhineland, attracting the attention of leading figures in the regional Party and starting to play a significant role in deciding its policy. It was Joseph Goebbels as much as Gregor Strasser who was behind the north German challenge to the Munich Party leadership in 1925. But he too soon began to fall under Hitler’s spell, enthused by a reading of My Struggle (‘who is this man,’ he wrote: ‘half plebeian, half God!’).92 Meeting him in person for only the second time, on 6 November 1925, Goebbels was impressed by his ‘big blue eyes. Like stars.’ Hitler was, he thought after hearing him speak, ‘the born tribune of the people, the coming dictator’.93

Goebbels and Hitler failed to see eye to eye on many central issues. Alerted to the growing assertiveness of the north Germans, Hitler summoned them to a meeting on 14 February 1926 in Bamberg, Franconia, where Julius Streicher had built up a large following for him. The Nazi leader spoke for two hours, rejecting their views and reasserting his belief in the centrality of the conquest of ‘living-space’ in Eastern Europe for the future of German foreign policy. Whereas Strasser and Goebbels had urged the Nazis to join in the campaign to expropriate the German princes, who had retained their extensive properties in the country after their deposition in the Revolution of 1918, Hitler damned such a campaign as an attack on private property. ‘Horrifying!’ wrote Goebbels in his diary: ‘Probably one of the greatest disappointments of my life. I no longer believe fully in Hitler.’94 But, although Goebbels now wondered whether Hitler was a reactionary, he did not offer any overt opposition to Hitler at the meeting. Shocked at Hitler’s tough stance, Strasser capitulated completely and dropped his proposals. In return, Hitler mollified the north Germans by removing Hermann Esser, whose corruption had so angered them, from his post in Munich.95

In April 1926 Hitler brought Goebbels to Munich to give a speech, providing him with a car and generally giving him the red-carpet treatment. At Nazi Party headquarters, Hitler confronted Goebbels and his two co-leaders of the Westphalian Region of the Party, Franz Pfeffer von Salomon, another leading north German Nazi, and, like so many leading Nazis, an ex-army man and Free Corps member, and Karl Kaufmann, who had made his name by organizing violent resistance to the French during their occupation of the Ruhr. Hitler berated these men for going their own way in ideological matters, lectured them on his views of the Party’s policies, then offered to let bygones be bygones if they submitted unconditionally to his leadership. Goebbels was converted on the spot. Hitler, he confided to his diary, was ‘brilliant’. ‘Adolf Hitler,’ he wrote, thinking of the 1923 putsch, ‘I love you because you are both great and simple at the same time. What one calls a genius.’96 From now on he was entirely under Hitler’s spell; unlike some of the other Nazi leaders, he was to remain so right up to the end. Hitler rewarded him by putting him in charge of the tiny and internally divided Nazi Party in Berlin, as Regional Leader, or Gauleiter. Pfeffer von Salomon was made head of the brownshirt paramilitaries, and Gregor Strasser became Reich Propaganda Leader of the Party. Meanwhile, the annual Party meeting reaffirmed the 1920 Party Programme and underlined Hitler’s total dominance over the movement, placing all the key appointments, and in particular those of the Regional Leaders, in his hands.97

This meeting was required by law; and following legal requirements it duly re-elected Hitler as Party Leader. The true nature of the Party’s inner workings was demonstrated, however, by a Party rally, held in July 1926 and attended by up to 8,000 brownshirts and Party members. Its time was almost wholly taken up with rituals of obeisance to Hitler, the swearing of personal oaths of loyalty to him, and mass marches and displays, including the parading of the ‘Blood Flag’ that had been held above the ill-fated march on Munich in November 1923.98 This set the tone in a modest way for the far more grandiose Party rallies of future years. But at this point, though now united and disciplined under Hitler’s unquestioned leadership, the Nazi Party was still very small. The developments of the following three years, up to late 1929, were to lay the foundation for the Party’s subsequent success. But more would be required than leadership and organization if the Nazis were to gain the popular backing that Hitler now sought.99


The years 1927-8 saw the creation of a new basic structure for the Nazi Party across the country. In 1928 the Party Regions were realigned to follow the boundaries of the Reichstag constituencies - only 35 of them, all very large, to conform to Weimar’s system of proportional representation by party list - to signal the primacy of their electoral functions. Within a year or so of this, a new intermediate organizational layer of districts (Kreise) had been created between the Regions and the local branches. A new generation of younger Nazi activists played the most prominent role at these levels. They pushed aside the generation left over from prewar Pan-German and conspiratorial organizations, and outnumbered those who had taken an active part in the Free Corps, the Thule Society and similar groups. But it is important to remember that even the older generation of leading Nazis were themselves still young men, particularly when compared with the greying, middle-aged politicians who led the mainstream political parties. In 1929 Hitler was still only 40, Goebbels 32, Goring 36, Hess 35, Gregor Strasser 37. Their role remained crucial, especially in providing leadership and inspiration to the younger generation.

Goebbels, for example, made his reputation above all as Regional Leader of Berlin, where his fiery speeches, his incessant activity, his outrageous provocations of the Nazis’ opponents, and his calculated staging of street-fights and meeting-hall brawls to gain the attention of the press won the Party a mass of new adherents. More publicity accrued from the Berlin Party’s aggressive and extremely defamatory campaigns against figures such as the Berlin deputy police chief Bernhard Weiss, whose Jewish descent Goebbels drew attention to through calling him ‘Isidor’ - an entirely made-up name, commonly used by antisemites for Jews, and borrowed on this occasion, ironically, from the Communist press.100 Goebbels’s violence and extremism earned the Nazi Party in Berlin an eleven-month ban from the city’s Social Democratic authorities in 1927- 8; but they also won him the allegiance and admiration of younger activists such as the 19-year-old Horst Wessel, a pastor’s son who had abandoned his university law studies for the world of the paramilitaries, most recently the brownshirts. ‘What this man has shown in oratorical gifts and talent for organization’, he wrote of ’our Goebbels’ in 1929, ‘is unique... The S.A. would have let itself be hacked to bits for him.’101

A great deal of in-fighting took place over key posts in the Party organization at a local and regional level. On the whole, however, as Max Amann told one local activist towards the end of 1925, Hitler

takes the view on principle that it is not the job of the Party leadership to ‘install’ branch leaders. Herr Hitler takes the view today more than ever that the most effective fighter in the National Socialist movement is the man who pushes his way through on the basis of his achievements as a leader. If you yourself write that you enjoy the trust of almost all the members in Hanover, why don’t you then take over the leadership of the branch?102

In this way, Hitler thought, the most ruthless, the most dynamic and the most efficient would rise to positions of power within the movement. He was later to apply the same principle in running the Third Reich. It helped ensure that the Nazi Party at every level became ceaselessly active, constantly marching, fighting, demonstrating, mobilizing. Yet this did not bring immediate rewards. By the end of 1927 the Party still had only some 75,000 members and a mere seven deputies elected to the Reichstag. The hopes of men like Strasser and Goebbels that it would be able to win over the industrial working class had proved to be illusory.103

Recognizing the difficulties of breaking into the Social Democratic and Communist heartlands, the Nazis turned instead to rural society in Protestant north Germany, where rising peasant discontent was spilling over into demonstrations and campaigns of protest. The contradictory effects of inflation and stabilization on the farming community had merged into a general crisis of agriculture by the late 1920s. While large landowners and farmers had bought machinery on hire purchase and were thus able to modernize at very little real cost to themselves, peasants tended to hoard money and so lost it, or spent it on domestic goods and so gained no benefit for their businesses. After the inflation, government measures to ease credit restrictions on agriculture to help recovery only made things worse, as peasants borrowed heavily to make good their losses, expecting a fresh round of inflation, then found they were unable to pay the money back because prices were declining instead of rising. Bankruptcies and foreclosures were already rising in number towards the end of the 1920s, and small farmers were turning to the extreme right in their despair.104 Larger farmers and big landowners were suffering from the downturn in agricultural prices, and were unable to pay what they regarded as excessively high taxes to support the Weimar welfare state.105 Both the Prussian and the Reich governments had tried to alleviate the situation by tariffs, subsidies, import controls and the like, but all these proved wholly inadequate to the situation.106 Farmers of all types had modernized, mechanized and rationalized in order to try and deal with the agricultural depression since the early 1920s, but it was not enough. Pressure for high import tariffs on foodstuffs grew more insistent as the farming community began to see this as the only way to protect their income. In this situation, the Nazis’ promise of a self-sufficient, ‘autarchic’ Germany, with foreign food imports more or less banned, seemed increasingly attractive.107

Realizing that they were winning support in rural areas in the Protestant north without really trying, the Nazis accelerated the shift in their propaganda from the urban working class to other sectors of the population. Now the Party turned its attention to rural districts and began to mount serious recruiting drives in areas like Schleswig-Holstein and Oldenburg. 108 Hitler retreated still further from the ‘socialist’ orientation of the Party in north Germany, and even ‘clarified’, or in other words amended, Point 17 of the Party Programme, on 13 April 1928, in order to reassure small farmers that its commitment to ‘the expropriation of land for communal purposes without compensation’ referred only to ‘Jewish companies which speculate in land’.109 The Nazis lost 100,000 votes in the Reichstag elections of May 1928, and with a mere 2.6 per cent of the vote were only able to get 12 deputies into the legislature, among them Gottfried Feder, Joseph Goebbels, Hermann Goring and Gregor Strasser. None the less, in some rural areas of the Protestant north they did much better. While they could only manage 1.4 per cent in Berlin and 1.3 per cent in the Ruhr, for example, they scored no less than 18.1 and 17.7 per cent respectively in two counties in Schleswig-Holstein. A vote of 8.1 per cent in another area inhabited by discontented Protestant small farmers, namely Franconia, reinforced the feeling that, as the Party newspaper put it on 31 May, ‘the election results from the rural areas in particular have proved that with a smaller expenditure of energy, money and time, better results can be achieved there than in the big cities’.110


Map 8. The Nazis in the Reichstag Election of 1928

The Party soon revamped its propaganda appeal to the farming community, telling them that it would create a special position for them in the Third Reich. Farmers of all kinds would be granted a ‘corporation’ of their own, in which they would work together in harmony and with the full backing of the state. Refractory farmhands, many of whom were active in the Social Democratic Party, would be brought to heel, and labour costs would at last come under tight control. After years of unsuccessful, sometimes violent protest, farmers in Schleswig-Holstein flocked to the support of the Nazi Party. It did no harm to its cause that the Party was led locally by members of the farming community, nor that it laid unmistakeable stress on an ideology of ‘blood and soil’ in which the peasant would be the core of the national identity. Even some of the larger landowners, traditionally identified with the Nationalists, were convinced. The Nazi Party’s support amongst middling and small landowners skyrocketed. Soon, farmers’ sons were providing the manpower for stormtrooper units being despatched to fight the Communists in the big cities.111

Thus, the new strategy soon began to bear fruit. The Party’s membership grew from 100,000 in October 1928 to 150,000 a year later, while in local and state elections its vote now began to increase sharply, rising to 5 per cent in Saxony, 4 per cent in Mecklenburg and 7 per cent in Baden. In some rural areas of Protestant Saxony it nearly doubled its share of the vote, increasing, for example, from 5.9 per cent in the Schwarzenberg district in 1928 to 11.4 per cent in 1929.112 In June 1929 the Nazi Party took over its first municipality, the Franconian town of Coburg. Here they won 13 out of the 25 seats on the council in the wake of a successful campaign for the removal of the previous council after it had sacked the local Nazi leader, a municipal employee, for making antisemitic speeches. The victory reflected in part the huge effort the Party put into the elections, with top speakers like Hermann Goring and even Hitler himself appearing at the hustings. But it also demonstrated that there was electoral capital to be won in local politics, where the Party now became much more active than before.113

And in the autumn of 1929 there was a further electoral bonus for the Party, in the shape of the campaign against the Young Plan (which involved the reduction and rescheduling of reparations payments, but not their abolition) organized by the Nationalists. Their leader, Alfred Hugenberg, enlisted the support of the Nazis and other ultra-right groups in his efforts to win acceptance for a referendum on his proposal for a law to reject the plan and prosecute any government ministers who signed it. Not only did the Nazis gain publicity from this campaign, they also won a degree of respectability on the mainstream right through the presence of Hitler on the organizing committee, along with such Pan-German stalwarts as Heinrich Class and the Steel Helmet leaders Franz Seldte and Theodor Duesterberg. The referendum itself was a failure, with only 5.8 million votes in favour. But the campaign had revealed to many supporters of the Nationalists how much more dynamic the brown-shirted and jackbooted Nazis were than the frock-coated and top-hatted leaders of their own party.114

Meanwhile, Hitler was soon whipping up popular enthusiasm again, his charisma now reinforced by the leadership cult that had grown up around him within the Party. An important symbolic expression of this was the use of the ‘German greeting’, ‘Hail Hitler!’ with outstretched right arm, whether or not Hitler was present. Made compulsory in the movement in 1926, it was also used increasingly as a sign-off in correspondence. These customs reinforced the movement’s total dependence on Hitler, and were enthusiastically propagated by the second tier of leaders who had now gathered around him, whether, as with Gregor Strasser, for tactical reasons, to cement the Party’s unity, or, as with Rudolf Hess, out of blind, religious faith in the person of the ‘Leader’, as he was now generally known.115 At the Party rally, held in Nuremberg in August 1929, and the first such meeting since 1927, the Party’s new-found confidence and coherence was demonstrated in a huge propaganda display, attended, so the police thought, by as many as 40,000 people, all united in their adulation for the Leader.116

By this time the Nazi Party had become a formidable organization, its regional, district and local levels staffed with loyal and energetic functionaries, many of them well educated and administratively competent, and its propaganda appeal channelled through a network of specialist institutions directed at particular constituents of the electorate. 117 Despite Hitler’s repeated insistence that politics was a matter for men, there was now a Nazi women’s organization, the self-styled German Women’s Order, founded by Elsbeth Zander in 1923 and incorporated as a Nazi Party affiliate in 1928. Its membership was estimated by the police to have reached 4,000 by the end of the decade, nearly half the Nazi Party’s total female membership of 7,625. The German Women’s Order was one of those paradoxical women’s organizations that campaigned actively in public for the removal of women from public life: militantly anti-socialist, anti-feminist and antisemitic. Its practical activities included running soup kitchens for brownshirts, helping with propaganda campaigns, hiding weapons and equipment for the Nazi paramilitaries when they were being sought by the police, and providing nursing services for wounded activists through its sub-organization the ‘Red Swastika’, a Nazi version of the Red Cross.118

Zander was an effective speaker by all accounts, but she was not much of an organizer, and early in 1931 her German Women’s Order collapsed amid a welter of accusations and counter-accusations, of which the charge of financial corruption was the most serious. The Order was so deeply in debt that Zander herself, as the responsible official, faced personal bankruptcy. In addition, there were scurrilous reports that Zander was having an affair with the Order’s chauffeur, while brownshirts were appearing at some of its meetings dressed in women’s clothes. Gregor Strasser, now the Party’s Organizational Leader, responded by dissolving all the Nazi Party’s female affiliates, politely but effectively removing Zander from a position of authority, and replacing them on 6 July 1931 with the National Socialist Women’s Organization (NS-Frauenschaft), which was initially at least a decentralized body with its regional associations controlled by the Regional Leaders. Soon, however, it was successful enough to acquire a nationwide identity, with its own magazine for women and not only a greater degree of autonomy for its own regional leaders but also a greater degree of co-ordination between them.119 The fundamental problem for Nazi women, however, lay in the Party’s ineradicable male chauvinism, a conviction that women’s role was not to take part in politics but to stay at home and bear children. For the time being, it had to compromise its position in the interests of winning over female voters, but in the long run, if the Nazis ever came to power, its anti-feminist women activists seemed doomed to argue themselves out of a role.

Alongside the organizations catering for women there was also one directed at youths aged between 14 and 18, founded in 1922. This initially had the rather cumbersome title of the Youth League of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party; but in 1926 it was renamed the Hitler Youth. Beginning as a recruiting agency for the brownshirts, it was revamped in 1929 under Kurt Gruber as a rival to the myriad informal youth groups that existed on the Weimar scene, most of them opposed to the Republic. It, too, met with little success to begin with; even in January 1932 it only had a thousand members in the whole of Berlin.120 Backing it up was a National Socialist School Pupils’ League, founded in 1929, and a League of German Maidens, established the following year.121All these organizations were soon dwarfed in size and significance by the National Socialist German Students’ League, founded in 1926 by Wilhelm Tempel. The League, too, did relatively little until 1928, when it was taken over by Baldur von Schirach, who proved to be a durable and increasingly important figure in the Nazi movement. Born in 1907 in Berlin, he was the son of a traditionalist, ex-army theatre director in Weimar, who was married to a wealthy American woman. Schirach grew up in culturally conservative, antisemitic circles in Weimar. He was educated at a boarding school whose head emphasized character-building rather than academic education. The young Schirach was profoundly influenced by his elder brother’s suicide in October 1919, announced in a letter to his family as a response to ‘Germany’s misfortune’. By the mid-1920s he was reading Houston Stewart Chamberlain, and when he discovered Hitler’s My Struggle he was converted to Nazism, developing his commitment into real hero-worship when he heard Hitler speak in the town in 1925. Soon he had attracted the Leader’s attention with a seemingly endless outpouring of poems glorifying the movement and its chief. They have been described as ‘superior to the outpourings of other racist versifiers’ and were published in a collected volume in 1929.122

During his studies in Munich (which he never completed) he joined the National Socialist German Students’ League, quickly rising to the top of the branch based at Munich University, where he had been advised to study by Hitler. It was his success in this capacity that propelled him to the leadership of the national League in 1928, replacing Wilhelm Tempel. Schirach purged the League of its social-revolutionary elements and led it in extremely vigorous campaigning for seats on the student unions of individual universities. Pushing aside the traditional, rather stuffy duelling corps and fraternities, the League gained a reputation for provocative actions, and campaigned on issues such as the reduction of overcrowding in lectures (by imposing a limit on the number of Jewish students), the dismissal of pacifist professors, the creation of new chairs in subjects like Racial Studies and Military Science, and the harnessing of the universities to the national interest, away from the pursuit of knowledge as an end in itself. By the summer of 1932 they had already gained a much-trumpeted success in combination with right-wing professors and local politicians in hounding Emil Julius Gumbel, a particularly hated figure as a Jew, a socialist, a pacifist and a campaigner against right-wing judicial bias, from his chair in Heidelberg, prompting the declaration from a Frankfurt magazine that ‘Heidelberg has thus opened the era of the Third Reich in the sphere of academia’.123

Carefully avoiding antagonizing the fraternities, Schirach rapidly increased the League’s vote in student elections, and in July 1931 the League was able to take over the national organization of the General Students’ Unions with the help of other, sympathetic right-wing groups. In 1932 the students voted the ‘leadership principle’ through the national Union, abolishing elections altogether. Even though total membership of the Nazi Students’ League did not even reach 10 per cent of national fraternity membership, the Nazis had completely taken over student representation in Germany. Impressed by such successes, Hitler appointed Schirach to the leadership of the Hitler Youth on 3 October 1931.124

Not just women, young people, students, and school pupils, but also many other sectors of German society were catered for by specially designed Nazi organizations by the end of the 1920s. There were groups for civil servants, for the war-wounded, for farmers, and for many other constituencies, each addressing its particular, specifically targeted propaganda effort. There was even a kind of trade union movement, the clumsily named National Socialist Factory Cell Organization, which met with a conspicuous lack of success in trying to attract industrial workers, who were either already organized in socialist-oriented or Catholic or Communist trade unions, or out of a job and so not in need of a trade union.125 Yet the Nazis still had a particular appeal to the lower middle classes at this time, to artisans, shopkeepers and the self-employed. Often they gathered up such people from other, similar movements. The German Nationalist Commercial Employees’ Union, for example, played a significant role in politicizing many young men and turning them in the direction of Nazism.126 Founded in the Wilhelmine period, it articulated the resentments of male clerks in a world where women were coming into secretarial and similar jobs in ever larger numbers, and big employers in the banks, finance corporations, insurance companies and so on were often perceived as Jewish by religion, ethnic origin or simply character. Well before the war, it had launched furious attacks on Jews as the architects of the proletarianization of their members.127 One junior civil servant, born in 1886, joined the union in 1912. and later noted that he thought that the government was dominated by Jews even under the Kaiser. When he finally left the Nationalists for the Nazis in 1932 after attending a Party rally, he noted that ‘this was what I had been looking for since 1912’.128 With many older Nazis from such backgrounds it must have been the same.

Strasser encouraged the establishment of this extremely elaborate structure of subdivisions within the movement, even if many of the different branches, like the Hitler Youth or the Factory Cell Organization, had very few members and did not seem to be going anywhere very fast. For he had a long-term aim in mind. All of this was intended to form the basis for the creation of a society run by Nazified social institutions once Hitler came to power. Strasser expended a great deal of energy and diplomacy in the creation of this embryonic Nazi social order. In the shorter run, it helped the Party direct its electoral appeal towards virtually every constituency in German society, helping to politicize social institutions that had previously considered themselves more or less unpolitical in their nature. It meant that the Party would be able to expand with ease should it suddenly gain a rapid influx of new members. And the whole structure was held together by unconditional loyalty to a leader whose power was now absolute, and whose charisma was fed on a daily basis by the adulation of his immediate group of subordinates.129

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