Modern history





‘After long, planless wanderings from city to city,’ an unemployed 21-year-old printer from Essen wrote in the autumn of 1932, ‘my path took me to the port of Hamburg. But what a disappointment! Here was yet more misery, more unemployment than I had expected, and my hopes of getting work here were dashed. What should I do? Without relatives here, I had no desire to become a vagabond.’ The young man was not in the end forced to join the ever-growing hordes of homeless men living on the streets and roads of Germany’s towns and cities - anything between 200,000 and half a million of them, according to official estimates; he eventually found support in a voluntary labour scheme run by the Church.1 But many more had no such luck. Unemployment destroyed people’s self-respect and undermined their status, especially that of men, in a society where men’s prestige, recognition, even identity itself derived above all from the job they did. Throughout the early 1930s, men could be seen on street corners, with placards round their necks: ‘Looking for work of any kind’. Schoolchildren, when asked for their opinion on the matter by sociologists, often replied that the unemployed became socially degraded,

for the longer they are without work, the lazier they get, and they feel more and more humiliated, because they are always seeing other people who are decently dressed and they get annoyed because they want that too, and they become criminals ... They still want to live! Older people often don’t want that any more at all.2

Children were observed playing ‘signing on’ games, and when some of them were asked by an investigator in December 1932 to write short autobiographical essays, unemployment featured here too: ‘My father has now been unemployed for over three years,’ wrote one 14-year-old schoolgirl: ‘We still used to believe earlier on that father would get a job again some time, but now even we children have abandoned all hope.’3

Prolonged unemployment varied in its impact on the individual. The young could be more optimistic about finding a job than the middle-aged. Despondency got worse the longer people went without a job. Interviews carried out in the summer of 1932 revealed far gloomier attitudes than surveys conducted eighteen months before. People put off marriage plans, married couples put off having children. Young men roamed the streets aimlessly, sat listlessly at home, spent the day playing cards, wandering through public parks, or riding endlessly round and round on the electric trains of Berlin’s Circle Line.4 In this situation, action often seemed better than inaction; boredom turned to frustration. Many unemployed men, even young boys and girls, tried to make a meagre living by hawking, busking, house-cleaning, street trading or any one of a number of traditional makeshifts of the economically marginal. Groups of children haunted Berlin’s fashionable nightspots offering to ‘look after’ wealthy people’s cars, a primitive form of protection racket practised in other, less innocuous forms by grown-ups, too. Informal hiking clubs and working-class youth groups easily became so-called ‘wild cliques’, gangs of young people who met in disused buildings, scavenged food, stole to make a living, fought with rival gangs, and frequently clashed with the police. Crime rates as such did not climb as spectacularly as they had done during the inflation, but there was a 24 per cent increase in arrests for theft in Berlin between 1929 and 1932 none the less. Prostitution, male and female, became more noticeable and more widespread, the product of Weimar’s sexual tolerance as much as of its economic failure, shocking the respectable classes by its openness. At its lower end, hawking and street-selling shaded off into begging.5German society seemed to be descending into a morass of misery and criminality. In this situation, people began to grasp at political straws: anything, however extreme, seemed better than the hopeless mess they appeared to be in now.

How had this situation come about? Unemployment had already been high following the economic reforms that had brought the great inflation to an end in 1923. But by the early 1930s the situation had worsened immeasurably. The German economy’s recovery after the inflation had been financed not least by heavy investment from the world’s largest economy, the United States. German interest rates were high, and capital flowed in; but, crucially, reinvestment mainly took the form of short-term loans. German industry came to depend heavily on such funds in its drive to rationalize and mechanize. Firms such as Krupps and the United Steelworks borrowed very large sums of money. American enterprises invested directly in Germany, with Ford automobiles owning factories in Berlin and Cologne, and General Motors buying up the Opel car factory in Rüsselsheim, near Frankfurt, in 1929. German banks took out foreign loans to finance their own investments in German business.6 This was an inherently precarious situation for German industry and banking, and at the end of the decade it turned to catastrophe.

In the course of 1928, all leading industrialized countries began to impose monetary restrictions in the face of a looming recession. The United States began cutting its foreign lending. Such measures were necessary to preserve gold reserves, the basis of financial stability in the era of the Gold Standard, when currency values everywhere were tied to the value of gold, as they had been in Germany since the stabilization had come into effect. As individual countries started drawing up the monetary drawbridges, industry began to suffer. There was virtually no growth in industrial production in Germany in 1928-9 and by the end of that winter unemployment had already reached nearly two and a half million. Investment slowed down sharply, possibly because companies were spending too much on wages and welfare payments, but more likely because there was simply a shortage of capital. The German government found it difficult to raise money by issuing bonds because investors knew what inflation had done to the bonds issued during the war. International markets had very little confidence in the German state to deal with the economic problems of the day. It soon became clear that their lack of faith was entirely justified.7

On 24 October 1929, ‘Black Thursday’, the unmistakeable signs of a business crisis in the United States caused a sudden outburst of panic selling on the New York Stock Exchange. Share prices, already overvalued in the eyes of some, began to plummet. Early the following week, on 29 October, ‘Black Tuesday’, panic selling set in again, worse by far than before; 16.4 million shares were sold, a record unsurpassed for the next four decades.8 As frantic traders scrambled to sell before stocks fell even further in value, there were scenes of pandemonium on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. But these dramatic days of disaster were only the most visible aspects of what turned out to be a prolonged and seemingly inexorable decline over the next three years. The New York Times index fell from a high of 452 points in September 1929 to 58 points by July 1932. On 29 October, ten billion dollars were wiped off the value of the major American companies, twice the amount of all money in circulation in the United States at the time and almost as much as America had spent on financing its part in the Great War. Company after company went bust. American demand for imports collapsed. Banks plunged into crisis as their investments disappeared. And as American banks saw their losses mount, they started calling in the short-term loans with which so much of German industry had been financing itself for the past five years.9

American banks began withdrawing their funds from Germany at the worst possible moment, precisely when the already flagging German economy needed a sharp stimulus to revive it. As they lost funds, German banks and businesses tried to redress the balance by taking out more short-term loans. The faster this happened, the less stable the economy began to look, and the more foreign and domestic asset-holders began to transfer capital outside the country.10 Unable to finance production, firms began to cut back drastically. Industrial production, already stagnant, now began to fall with breathtaking speed. By 1932, it had dropped in value by 40 per cent of its 1929 level, a collapse matched only by Austria and Poland among European economies in its severity. Elsewhere, the fall was no more than a quarter; in Britain it was 11 per cent. With the withdrawal of funds and the collapse of businesses, banks began to get into difficulties. After a number of small banks failed in 1929-30, the two biggest Austrian banks went under and then, in July 1931, the big German banks began to come under pressure.11 Business failures multiplied. An attempt to create a larger internal market by forging a customs union between Germany and Austria was squashed by international intervention, for the political motivation behind it - a step in the direction of the political union between the two countries that had been banned by the Treaty of Versailles - was obvious to everyone. Thrown back onto its own resources, the German economy plunged into deep depression. Unemployment rates now rose almost exponentially. With millions of people in the great cities unemployed, less money was available to spend on food, the already severe agricultural crisis deepened dramatically, and farmers were unable to escape foreclosure and bankruptcy as the banks called in the loans on which so many of them depended. Agricultural workers were thrown out of work as farms and estates went under, spreading unemployment to the countryside as well as the towns.12

By 1932, roughly one worker in three in Germany was registered as unemployed, with rates even higher in some heavy industrial areas such as Silesia or the Ruhr. This dwarfed all previous unemployment rates, even during the worst period of the stabilization cutbacks. Between 1928 and 1932, unemployment rose from 133,000 to 600,000 in Germany’s biggest industrial centre, Berlin, from 32,000 to 135,000 in the trading city and seaport of Hamburg, and from 12,000 to 65,000 in the industrial town of Dortmund, in the Rhine-Ruhr area. Industry was obviously hardest hit; but white-collar workers lost their jobs, too, with over half a million out of work by 1932.13 The rise was frighteningly swift. By the winter of 1930-31 there were already over five million unemployed, little more than a year after the onset of the Depression; the number rose to six million a year later. At the beginning of 1932, it was reported that the unemployed and their dependants made up about a fifth of the entire population of Germany, nearly thirteen million people, all told.14 The true figure may have been even higher, since women who lost their jobs often failed to register themselves as unemployed.15

These terrifying figures told only part of the story. To begin with, many millions more workers only stayed in their jobs at a reduced rate, since employers cut hours and introduced short-time work in an attempt to adjust to the collapse in demand. Then many trained workers or apprentices had to accept menial and unskilled jobs because the jobs they were qualified for had disappeared. These were still the lucky ones. For what caused the real misery and desperation was the lengthy duration of the crisis, starting - at a time when unemployment was already fairly high - in October 1929 and showing no signs of abating for the next three years. Yet the benefits system, introduced a few years before, was designed only to cope with a far lower level of unemployment - a maximum of 800,000 compared to the six million who were without a job by 1932 - and provided relief only for a few months at most, not for three whole years and more. Things were made worse by the fact that the drastic fall in people’s income caused a collapse in tax revenues. Many local authorities had also got into trouble because they had financed their own welfare and other schemes by taking out American loans themselves, and these were now being called in, too. Yet under the unemployment benefit system, the burden of supporting the long-term jobless after their period of insurance cover had run out shifted first to central government in the form of ‘crisis benefits’ then, after a further period of time, devolved onto local authorities in the form of ‘welfare unemployment support’. Central government was unwilling to take the unpopular measures that would be required to bridge the gap. Employers felt that they could not increase contributions when their businesses were in trouble. Unions and workers did not want to see benefits cut. The problem seemed insoluble. And those who suffered were the unemployed, who saw their benefits repeatedly cut, or terminated altogether.16


As the Depression bit deeper, groups of men and gangs of boys could be seen haunting the streets, squares and parks of German towns and cities, lounging (so it seemed to the bourgeois man or woman unaccustomed to such a sight) threateningly about, a hint of potential violence and criminality always in the air. Even more menacing were the attempts, often successful, by the Communists to mobilize the unemployed for their own political ends. Communism was the party of the unemployed par excellence. Communist agitators recruited the young semi-criminals of the ‘wild cliques’; they organized rent strikes in working-class districts where people were barely able to pay the rent anyway; they proclaimed ‘red districts’ like the Berlin proletarian quarter of Wedding, inspiring fear into non-Communists who dared to venture there, sometimes beating them up or threatening them with guns if they knew them to be associated with the brownshirts; they marked down certain pubs and bars as their own; they proselytized among children in working-class schools, politicized parents’ associations and aroused the alarm of middle-class teachers, even those with left-wing convictions. For the Communists, the class struggle passed from the workplace to the street and the neighbourhood as more and more people lost their jobs. Defending a proletarian stronghold, by violent means if necessary, became a high priority of the Communist paramilitary organization, the Red Front-Fighters’ League.17

The Communists were frightening to the middle classes, not merely because they made politically explicit the social threat posed by the unemployed on the streets, but also because they grew rapidly in numbers throughout the early 1930s. Their national membership shot up from 117,000 in 1929 to 360,000 in 1932 and their voting strength increased from election to election. By 1932, in an area such as the north-west German littoral, including Hamburg and its adjacent Prussian port of Altona, fewer than 10 per cent of party members had a job. Roughly three-quarters of the people who joined the party in October 1932 were jobless.18 Founding ‘committees of the unemployed’, the party staged parades, demonstrations, ‘hunger marches’ and other street-based events on an almost daily basis, often ending in prolonged clashes with the police. No opportunity was lost to raise the political temperature in what the party leaders increasingly thought was a terminal crisis of the capitalist system.19

These developments drove an ever-deeper cleft between the Communists and the Social Democrats in the final years of the Republic. There was already a legacy of bitterness and hatred bequeathed by the events of 1918-19, when members of the Free Corps in the service of the Social Democratic minister Gustav Noske had murdered prominent Communist leaders, most notably Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. The murders were publicly recalled at every ceremony that the Communist Party staged in their memory. To this was now added the divisive influence of unemployment, as jobless Communists railed against Social Democrats and trade unionists still in work, and Social Democrats grew increasingly alarmed at the violent and disorderly elements who seemed to be flocking to join the Communists. Further resentment was added by the habit of Social Democratic union bosses of identifying Communists to employers for redundancy, and the practice of employers sacking young, unmarried workers before older, married ones, which again in many cases meant members of the Communist Party losing their jobs. Rank-and-file Communists’ ambivalence about the Social Democratic roots of the labour movement led to a love-hate relationship with the party’s ‘older brother’, in which it was always desirable to make common cause, but only on the Communists’ own terms.20

The roots of Communist extremism ran deep. Radical young workers, especially, felt betrayed by the Social Democrats, their hopes for a thoroughgoing revolution - stoked up by the older generation of Social Democratic activists - dashed just when they seemed on the point of being realized. The growing influence of the Russian model of a close-knit, conspiratorial organization helped cement a spirit of solidarity and ceaseless activity amongst the most committed. A graphic account of the life of the committed Communist activist during the Weimar Republic was later provided by the memoirs of Richard Krebs, a sailor born in Bremen in 1904 into the family of a Social Democratic seafaring man. Krebs was present as an adolescent in the 1918-19 Revolution in his home town and witnessed the brutality of its suppression by the Free Corps. In Hamburg, Krebs fought in food riots and fell into the company of some Communists on the waterfront. Clashes with the police strengthened his hatred of them, and their bosses, the Social Democratic rulers of the city. Krebs later described how committed Communists would attend street demonstrations with pieces of lead piping in their belts and stones in their pockets, ready to pelt the police with. When mounted police charged, young activists in the Red Front-Fighters’ League plunged their knives into the horses’ legs, causing them to bolt. In this atmosphere of conflict and violence, a young tough like Krebs could feel himself at home, and he joined the Communist Party in May 1923, leafleting sailors on the waterfront during the day and attending basic political education courses in the evenings.21

His grasp of Marxist-Leninist theory was minimal, however:

I was class-conscious because class-consciousness had been a family tradition. I was proud to be a worker and I despised the bourgeois. My attitude to conventional respectability was a derisive one. I had a keen one-sided sense of justice which carried me away into an insane hatred of those I thought responsible for mass suffering and oppression. Policemen were enemies. God was a lie, invented by the rich to make the poor be content with their yoke, and only cowards resorted to prayer. Every employer was a hyena in human form, malevolent, eternally gluttonous, disloyal and pitiless. I believed that a man who fought alone could never win; men must stand together and fight together and make life better for all engaged in useful work. They must struggle with every means at their disposal, shying at no lawless deed as long as it would further the cause, giving no quarter until the revolution had triumphed.22

Imbued with this spirit of fiery commitment, Krebs led an armed detachment of Red Front-Fighters in the abortive Hamburg Revolution of October 1923, as Communists stormed a police station and erected barricades.23 Not surprisingly, he felt it necessary to flee the scene after the failure of the uprising, and resumed his seafaring life. Escaping to Holland, then Belgium, he made contact with the local Communists. In no time his knowledge of English had led him to be commissioned by one of the Soviet secret agents who were present in many branches of the party - though probably not in so many as he later claimed - to spread Communist propaganda in California. Here he was ordered by the local party agents to kill a renegade who they believed had betrayed the party. Botching the attempt - deliberately, he claimed - Krebs was arrested and imprisoned in St Quentin. When he was released in the early 1930s, Krebs became a paid official of the seamen’s section of the Comintern, the international organization of Communist parties across the world, directed from Moscow, and began acting as a courier for the party, taking money, leaflets and much else from one country to another, and then from one part of Germany to another.24

Richard Krebs’s memoirs, which read like a thriller, portrayed a Communist Party bound together by iron ties of discipline and commitment, its every move dictated by the Soviet secret police agents from the GPU, successor to the Cheka, who ran every national organization from behind the scenes. The feeling that the Comintern was behind strikes, demonstrations and attempts at revolution in many parts of the world struck fear into many middle-class Germans, even though these activities were almost uniformly unsuccessful. The conspiratorial structure of the Comintern, and the undoubted presence of Soviet agents in the German party from the days of Karl Radek onwards, undoubtedly fuelled bourgeois anxieties. Yet Krebs painted too smooth a picture of the workings of the Comintern. In reality, strikes, labour unrest, even fights and riots often owed more to the temper of the ‘Red Front-Fighters’ on the ground than to any plans laid by Moscow and its agents. And men like Krebs were unusual. The turnover in Communist Party membership was more than 50 per cent in 1932 alone, meaning that hundreds of thousands of the unemployed had been close enough to the party to belong, at least for a while, but also that the party was often unable to hold the allegiance of most of its members for more than a few months at a time. Long-term members like Krebs constituted a hard and disciplined but relatively small core of activists, and the Red Front-Fighters’ League became an increasingly professionalized force.25 Words counted for a lot in such circumstances. Communist rhetoric had become a good deal more violent since the inauguration of the ‘third period’ by the Comintern leadership in Moscow in 1928. From this point onwards, the party directed its venom principally against the Social Democrats. Every German government in its eyes was ‘fascist’; fascism was the political expression of capitalism; and the Social Democrats were ‘social fascists’ because they were the main supporters of capitalism, taking workers away from revolutionary commitment and reconciling them to Weimar’s ‘fascist’ political system. Anyone in the leadership who tried to question this line was dismissed from his party post. Anything that would help overthrow the ‘fascist’ state and its Social Democratic supporters was welcome.26

The leader of the Communist Party of Germany at this time was the Hamburg trade union functionary Ernst Thälmann. There could be no doubt about his working-class credentials. Born in 1886, he had taken a variety of short-term jobs, including working in a fishmeal plant and driving wagons for a laundry, before being called up and serving on the Western Front in the First World War. A Social Democrat since 1903, Thälmann gravitated to the left wing of the party during the war and threw himself into political activity during the revolution of 1918, joining the ‘revolutionary shop stewards’ and becoming the leader of the Independent Social Democrats in Hamburg in 1919. Elected to the city parliament the same year, he joined the Communists when the Independents split up in 1922, and became a member of the national Central Committee. During this time he continued to work as a manual labourer, in tough trades such as ship-breaking. Uneducated, brawny, an instinctive revolutionary, Thälmann incorporated the Communist ideal of the revolutionary worker. He was anything but an intellectual; he won the sympathy of his proletarian audiences not least through his obvious struggles with complicated Marxist terminology; his speeches were passionate rather than carefully argued, but his audiences felt this showed his honesty and his sincerity. As a party leader and a professional politician in the mid- and late 1920s and early 1930s, Thälmann was often obliged to dress in collar and tie; but it became a set feature of his speeches that at some point he would take them off, to general and enthusiastic applause, and become a simple worker once more. His hatred of the generals and the bosses was palpable, his distrust of the Social Democrats obvious.

Like many rank-and-file Communists, Thälmann followed the party line laid down by the Comintern in Moscow as it changed this way and that, often in response to Stalin’s tactical needs in his struggle to marginalize his intra-party rivals at home. Thälmann’s faith in the revolution was absolute, and in consequence so too was his faith in the only revolutionary state in the world, the Soviet Union. Others in the party leadership may have been more subtle, more ruthless and more intelligent, like the Berlin party chief Walter Ulbricht; and the Politbureau and Central Committee, together with the Comintern in Moscow, may have been the arbiters of party policy and strategy; but Thälmann’s personal standing and rhetorical gifts made him an indispensable asset to the party, which twice put him forward as its candidate in the elections for the post of Reich President, in 1925 and 1932. By the early 1930s, therefore, he was one of the best-known - and, to the middle and upper classes, one of the most feared - politicians in the land. He was more than a mere figurehead but less than a genuine leader, perhaps. But he remained the personal incorporation of German Communism in all its intransigence and ambition, driving the party towards the foundation of a ‘Soviet Germany’.27

Led by a man such as Thälmann, the Communist Party thus seemed a looming threat of unparalleled dimensions to many middle-class Germans in the early 1930s. A Communist revolution seemed far from impossible. Even a sober and intelligent, conservative moderate like Victor Klemperer could ask himself in July 1931: ‘Is the government going to fall? Is Hitler going to follow, or Communism?’28 In many ways, however, Communist power was an illusion. The party’s ideological animus against the Social Democrats doomed it to impotence. Its hostility to the Weimar Republic, based on its extremist condemnation of all its governments, even the ‘Grand Coalition’ led by Hermann Müller, as ‘fascist’, blinded it completely to the threat posed by Nazism to the Weimar political system. Its optimism about an imminent total and final collapse of capitalism had some plausibility in the dire economic circumstances of 1932. But in retrospect it was completely unfounded. Moreover, a party consisting largely of the unemployed was inevitably short of resources and weakened by the poverty and inconstancy of its members. So strapped for cash were Communist Party members that one Communist pub or bar after another had to close during the Depression, or passed into the hands of the Nazis. Between 1929 and 1933, per capita consumption of beer in Germany fell by 43 per cent, and in these circumstances the better-funded brownshirts moved in. What one historian has called a ‘quasi-guerrilla warfare’ was being conducted in the poorer quarters of Germany’s big cities, and the Communists were slowly being beaten back into their heartlands in the slums and tenement districts by the continual brutal pressure of brownshirt violence. In this conflict, bourgeois sympathies were generally on the side of the Nazis, who, after all, were not threatening to destroy capitalism or create a ‘Soviet Germany’ if they came to power.29


Although unemployment was above all a working-class phenomenon, economic difficulties had been wearing down the morale of other social groups as well. Well before the onset of the Depression, for instance, the drive to reduce government expenditure in the retrenchment that had to underpin the currency stabilization after 1923 led to a wave of dismissals in the state sector. Between I October 1923 and 31 March 1924, 135,000 out of 826,000 civil servants, mostly in the state railway system, the post, telegraph and Reich printing services, had been sacked, along with 30,000 out of 61,000 white-collar workers and 232,000 out of 706,000 state-employed manual labourers.30 A further wave of cuts came after 1929, with a cumulative reduction in civil service salaries of between 19 and 23 per cent between December 1930 and December 1932. Many civil servants at all levels were dismayed at the inability of their trade union representatives to stop the cuts. Their hostility to the government was obvious. Some drifted into the Nazi Party; many others were put off by the Nazis’ open threat to purge the civil service if they came to power. Nevertheless, anxiety and disillusion with the Republic became widespread in the civil service as a result of the cuts.31

Many other middle-class occupations felt their economic and social position was under threat during the Weimar Republic. White-collar workers lost their jobs, or feared that they might, as banks and finance houses got into difficulties. Tourist agents, restaurants, retailing, mail-order firms, a huge variety of employers in the service sector ran into trouble as people’s purchasing power declined. The Nazi Party, now equipped with its elaborate structure of specialist subdivisions, saw this, and began to direct its appeal to the professional and propertied middle classes. All of this was anathema to those Nazis who, like Otto Strasser, brother of the Party organizer Gregor, continued to emphasize the ‘socialist’ aspect of National Socialism and felt that Hitler was betraying their ideals. Angered by the support given by Otto Strasser and his publishing house to left-wing causes such as strikes, Hitler summoned the leading men in the Party to a meeting in April 1930 and ranted against Strasser’s views. As a way of trying to neutralize Otto Strasser’s influence, he now appointed Goebbels Reich Propaganda Leader of the Party. But, to Goebbels’s annoyance, Hitler repeatedly postponed decisive action, hoping that Otto Strasser’s propaganda apparatus would still be of some use in the regional elections that took place in June 1930. Only after this, and Strasser’s publication of an unflattering account of his row with Hitler earlier in the year, did he decide to purge the party of Otto Strasser and his supporters, who pre-empted this move by resigning on 4 July 1930. The split was a serious one. Observers held their breath to see if the Party would survive this exodus of its left wing. But things had changed markedly from the days when Goebbels and his friends had revived the Party in the Ruhr with socialist slogans. The dissidents’ departure revealed that Strasser and his ideas had little support within the Party; even his brother Gregor disowned him. Otto Strasser vanished from serious politics, to spend the rest of his life in Germany, and, later, in exile, dreaming up small, sectarian organizations to propagate his views to tiny audiences of the like-minded.32

Having shed the last vestiges of ‘socialism’, Hitler now moved to build more bridges to the conservative right. In the autumn of 1931 he joined with the Nationalists in the so-called ‘Harzburg Front’, producing a joint declaration with Hugenberg at Bad Harzburg on 11 October stating their readiness to join together in ruling Prussia and the Reich. Though the Nazis emphasized their continued independence - Hitler, for example, refusing to review a march-past of the Steel Helmets - this marked a significant extension of the collaboration that had first taken place in the campaign against the Young Plan in 1929. At the same time, Hitler took serious steps to persuade industrialists that his Party posed no threat to them. His address to some 650 businessmen at the Industry Club in Düsseldorf in January 1932 appealed to his audience by denouncing Marxism as the source of Germany’s ills - he did not refer to the Jews in the speech even once - and by emphasizing his belief in the importance of private property, hard work and proper rewards for the able and the enterprising. However, the solution to the economic woes of the moment, he said, was mainly political. Idealism, patriotism and national unity would create the basis for economic revival. These would be provided by the National Socialist movement, whose members sacrificed their time and money, and risked their lives day and night, in the struggle against the Communist threat.33

Delivered in a two-and-a-half-hour oration, these remarks were extremely general, and offered nothing concrete in the way of economic policies at all. They revealed Hitler’s Social Darwinist view of the economy, in which struggle was the way to success. This cannot have impressed his knowledgeable audience very much. The senior industrialists were disappointed. The Nazis later declared that Hitler had won over big business at last. But there was little concrete evidence to show this was the case. Neither Hitler nor anyone else followed up the occasion with a fund-raising campaign amongst the captains of industry. Indeed, parts of the Nazi press continued to attack trusts and monopolies after the event, while other Nazis attempted to win votes in another quarter by championing workers’ rights. When the Communist Party’s newspapers portrayed the meeting in conspiratorial terms, as a demonstration of the fact that Nazism was the creature of big business, the Nazis went out of their way to deny this, printing sections of the speech as proof of Hitler’s independence from capital.

The result of all this was that business proved not much more willing to finance the Nazi Party than it had been before. True, one or two individuals like Fritz Thyssen were enthusiastic, and provided funds to subsidize the extravagant tastes of leading Nazis such as Hermann Goring and Gregor Strasser. And, in broad terms, the speech was reassuring. When the time came, it made it that much easier for big business to come round to the support of the Nazi Party. But in January 1932 this still lay some way in the future. For the time being, the Nazi Party continued, as before, to finance its activities mainly through the voluntary contributions of its members, through entry fees to its meetings, through the income from its press and publications and through donations from small firms and businesses rather than large ones. The antisemitism which Hitler had so conspicuously forgotten to mention when talking to representatives of large industrial firms was far more likely to have an appeal in quarters such as these.34 Nevertheless, Nazism now had a respectable face as well as a rough one, and was winning friends among the conservative and nationalist elites. As Germany plunged deeper into the Depression, growing numbers of middle-class citizens began to see in the youthful dynamism of the Nazi Party a possible way out of the situation. All would depend on whether the Weimar Republic’s fragile democratic structures held up under the strain, and whether the Reich government could produce the right policies to stop them from collapsing altogether.

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