The Depression’s first political victim was the Grand Coalition cabinet led by the Social Democrat Hermann Müller, one of the Republic’s most stable and durable governments, in office since the elections of 1928. The Grand Coalition was a rare attempt to compromise between the ideological and social interests of the Social Democrats and the ‘bourgeois’ parties left of the Nationalists. It was held together mainly by its common effort to secure the Young Plan, an effort made in the teeth of bitter opposition from the Nationalists and the extreme right. Once the plan was agreed towards the end of 1929, there was little left to bind the parties to one another. Following the onset of the Depression in October 1929, the coalition’s constituent parties failed to agree on how to tackle the rapidly worsening unemployment problem. Deprived of the moderating influence of its former leader Gustav Stresemann, who died in October 1929, the People’s Party broke with the coalition over the Social Democrats’ refusal to cut unemployment benefits, and the government was forced to tender its resignation on 27 March 1930.35
Although few realized it at the time, this marked the beginning of the end of Weimar democracy. From this point on, no government ruled with the support of a parliamentary majority in the Reichstag. Indeed, those who had President Hindenburg’s ear saw the fall of the Grand Coalition as a chance to establish an authoritarian regime through the use of the Presidential power of rule by decree. Particularly influential in this respect was the German army, represented by the Minister of Defence, General Wilhelm Groener. His appointment in January 1928 to replace the Democrat politician Otto Gessler had signalled the liberation of the army from any kind of political control, and was cemented by the right of the army chief to report directly to the President instead of going through the cabinet. Despite the limitations placed by the Treaty of Versailles on its numbers and equipment, the army remained by a long way the most powerful, most disciplined and most heavily armed force in Germany. While civilian institutions of one kind and another, from the political parties to the legislature itself, crumbled, the army remained united. For most of the 1920s, since the debacle of the Kapp putsch, it had stayed quiet, focusing its attention on building up illegal equipment and manpower, but in the crisis of the early 1930s it saw its opportunity. Rearmament and the rebuilding of Germany as a great power could, in the view of men like Groener’s political adviser, Colonel, later General Kurt von Schleicher, now be grasped by freeing the state from the shackles of parliamentary coalitions. And the more Germany descended into political chaos and extremist violence, the more pivotal the position of the army became. Already in the autumn of 1930 Groener was telling officers: ‘Not a brick can be moved any more in the political process in Germany without the word of the army being thrown decisively onto the scales.’36
The army threw its weight into the political process initially in order to protect itself from budgetary cutbacks, which it successfully did. While all around it state institutions were having their budgets slashed, the army’s stayed intact. But it still remained generally aloof from the Nazi Party. Older officers, schooled in the stern traditions of Prussian monarchism, were generally resistant to the populist appeal of radical nationalist politics. Even here, however, there were some who openly favoured the Nazis, like Colonel Ludwig Beck.37 And younger officers were much more susceptible to Nazi propaganda. Already in 1929 a number of junior officers were engaging in discussions with the Nazis and debating the prospects for a ‘national revolution’. The army leadership under Groener and Schleicher combated these tendencies vigorously, engaging in counter-propaganda and having the three ringleaders in the discussions arrested and put on trial in 1930 for preparing an act of high treason. The trial outraged other young officers, even those who were not inclined to collaborate with the Nazis. The army leadership, wrote one of them, had caved in to the ‘Novemberists’ and tried men whose only motivation was ‘unselfish love of the fatherland’. Ninety per cent of the officers, he added, thought the same way.38
The trial was the occasion for a widely publicized speech delivered by Hitler from the witness box, where he was summoned by Hans Frank, the Nazi lawyer who was acting for one of the defendants. The Nazi Party, he declared, had no intention of committing high treason or subverting the army from within. Its intention was to come to power by legal means, and he had expelled those, like Otto Strasser, who had urged it to carry out a revolution. The Party would win a majority in an election and form a legitimately constituted government. At that point, he said, to cheers from the public benches, the real traitors, the ‘November criminals’ of 1918, would be put on trial, and ‘heads will roll’. But until then, the Party would stay within the law. The court made Hitler swear to the veracity of his testimony on oath. ‘Now we are strictly legal’, Goebbels is reported to have said. Putzi Hanfstaengl, recently put in charge of Hitler’s foreign press relations, made sure that the speech was reported around the world. He sold three articles by Hitler outlining the Nazi Party’s aims and methods, in suitably bowdlerized form, to William Randolph Hearst, the American press baron, for 1,000 Reichsmarks each. The money enabled Hitler to use the Kaiserhof Hotel in the centre of Berlin as his headquarters whenever he stayed in the capital from then on. In Germany itself, Hitler’s reassurances dispelled the fears of many middle-class Germans about the Nazi Party’s intentions.39
The court was not impressed by Hitler, whom it reprimanded for abusing his position as a witness, and sentenced the young officers to eighteen months’ imprisonment, cashiering two of them from the army.40 The conservatism of the judiciary was almost bound to put the court on the side of the army. Still, the sentences did nothing to stop young army officers from continuing their flirtation with Nazism. Schleicher’s attempts to counter such ideas, curb the radicalism of the younger officers and restore political discipline in the army, were less than effective, not least because he admitted openly to the officer corps that he sympathized with the ‘national part’ of the Nazis’ programme, and particularly with ‘the wave of indignation brought forth by the National Socialist movement against Bolshevism, treason, filth etc. Here’, he said, ‘the National Socialist campaign undoubtedly has extremely stirring effects.’41 Sympathy with the Nazis meant co-operating with them, but such was the arrogance and self-importance of the army leaders that they still thought they could bend the Nazis to their will and enlist them as military and political auxiliaries, much as they had done with other paramilitary groups in the early 1920s. Time was to show how misguided this policy really was.
The newly prominent political position of the army found expression in the appointment by Hindenburg, acting above all on the advice of senior officers, including Schleicher, of Müller’s successor as Chancellor. From the outset there was no attempt to appoint a government that would rest on the democratic support of the parties represented in the Reichstag. Instead, a ‘cabinet of experts’ would be put in place, with the intention of bypassing the Reichstag through the use of Hindenburg’s power to rule by emergency decree. Of course, the scope of rule by decree was limited, and many measures, above all the budget, still had to be approved by the Reichstag. Steps were taken to ensure that this did not appear as the inauguration of an authoritarian regime. The new cabinet included such well-known Reichstag politicians as Josef Wirth, a former Reich Chancellor, for the Centre Party, Hermann Dietrich, for the Democrats (renamed the State Party in July 1930), Martin Schiele, for the Nationalists, Julius Curtius, for the People’s Party, and Viktor Bredt, for the small Economy Party. But it did not include the Social Democrats, to whom Hindenburg and his advisers were unwilling to entrust the power of ruling by decree. Without the Social Democrats it had no parliamentary majority. But this did not seem to matter any more.
The new government was led by a man whose appointment as Reich Chancellor proved in retrospect to be a fatal choice. Superficially, the President’s nomination of Heinrich Brüning, born in 1885, as Reich Chancellor was defensible in democratic terms. As floor leader of the Centre Party’s deputies in the Reichstag, he represented the political force that more than any other had been the mainstay of parliamentary democracy in the Weimar Republic. But already by the time of his appointment the Centre, under the influence of its new leader Prelate Ludwig Kaas, was moving towards a more authoritarian position, more narrowly concerned with defending the interests of the Catholic Church. Moreover, Brüning himself was at best a fair-weather friend of Weimar democracy. A former army officer, he had been shocked by the November Revolution, and remained a staunch monarchist all his life. In his memoirs, indeed, he portrayed the restoration of the monarchy as his main purpose after becoming Chancellor. Yet in doing so he was probably lending retrospective coherence to a political career that was dominated, like that of so many politicians, by short-term imperatives.42 Despite his inner conviction that a return to the Bismarckian system would be best for all, he had no detailed plan to restore the monarchy, let alone bring back the Kaiser. Nevertheless, his instincts were authoritarian at heart.43 He planned to reform the constitution by reducing the power of the Reichstag and combining the offices of Reich Chancellor and Prussian Minister-President in his own person, thus removing the Social Democrats from their dominance of Germany’s largest state. Brüning did not have sufficient backing from Hindenburg to put this idea into effect, but it remained on the table, ready for anyone to use who did. Brüning also began to restrict democratic rights and civil liberties.44 In March 1931, for instance, he introduced sharp curbs on the freedom of the press, especially when it published criticisms of his own policies. By mid-July the liberalBerlin Daily News-Sheet(Berliner Tageblatt) was estimating that up to a hundred newspaper editions were being banned every month across the country. By 1932 the Communist newspaper The Red Flag was being banned on more than one day in three. Press freedom was seriously compromised long before the Nazis came to power.45
In effect, Brüning thus began the dismantling of democratic and civil freedoms that was to be pursued with such vigour under the Nazis. Some, indeed, have argued that his much-criticized economic policy during the crisis was in part designed to weaken the trade unions and the Social Democrats, two of the main forces that kept Weimar democracy afloat.46 To be sure, Brüning was not a dictator and his appointment did not mark the end of Weimar democracy. Brüning had not reached his position in the Centre Party without becoming adept at political calculation and manoeuvre, or skilled in constructing political coalitions and alliances. He had won himself a considerable reputation as a specialist on finance and taxation, and a man who knew his way around in these often rather technical areas was clearly needed at the helm in 1930. But the room for manoeuvre was becoming rapidly narrower after 1930, not least because of his own catastrophic political miscalculations. And even his staunchest defenders have never maintained that he was a charismatic or inspiring leader. Austere in appearance, secretive, inscrutable, given to taking decisions without sufficient consultation, denied the gift of rhetoric, Brüning was not the man to win mass support from an electorate increasingly appalled at the economic chaos and political violence that were plunging the country into a crisis whose dimensions beggared even those of 1923.47
Brüning’s major task was to deal with the rapidly deteriorating economic situation. He chose to do this by radically deflationary measures, above all by cutting government expenditure. Government revenues were sinking fast, and the possibilities of borrowing to meet the state’s obligations were virtually non-existent. Moreover, while Germany’s currency had been stabilized after the great inflation of 1923 by tying it to the value of gold, it was by no means clear that it had been stabilized at the right level. The values arrived at were regarded as sacrosanct, however, so that the only way of dealing with a currency that became overvalued, because its reserves were being drained by a balance of payments deficit, was to cut prices and wages and raise interest rates at home.48Finally, reparations still loomed over the German economic scene, even though they had been rescheduled and in effect substantially reduced by the Young Plan in the summer of 1930. Brüning hoped to cut German domestic prices by reducing demand, and so make exports more competitive on the international market, a policy by no means unwelcome to the export manufacturers who were among his strongest supporters.49 This was not a very realistic policy at a time when world demand had slumped to an unprecedented degree.
Cuts in government expenditure came first. A series of measures, culminating in emergency decrees promulgated on 5 June and 6 October 1931, reduced unemployment benefits in a variety of ways, restricted the period for which they could be claimed, and imposed means-testing in an increasing number of cases. The long-term unemployed thus saw their standard of living being steadily reduced as they went from unemployment insurance pay onto state-financed crisis benefits, then local authority welfare support and finally no support at all. By late 1932 there were only 618,000 people left on unemployment insurance pay, 1,230,000 on crisis benefits, 2,500,000 on welfare support and over a million whose period of joblessness had run through the time-limits now set on all of these and so lacked any kind of regular income.50 Whatever Brüning’s wider aims might have been, growing poverty made the economic situation worse. People who were barely in a situation to supply themselves and their families with the basic necessities of life were hardly going to spend enough money to stimulate industry and the service sector into recovery. Moreover, fear of inflation was such that even without the international agreements (such as the Young Plan) that depended on maintaining the value of the Reichsmark, devaluation (the quickest way to boost exports) would have been politically extremely hazardous. In any case, Brüning refused to devalue, because he wanted to demonstrate to the international community that reparations were causing real misery and suffering in Germany.51
In the summer of 1931, however, the situation changed. A fresh crisis hit the economy as the flight of capital reached new heights, leading to the collapse of the Darmstadt and National (or Danat) Bank, heavily dependent on foreign loans, on 13 July, and threatening a collapse of credit more generally.52 The impossibility of baling out the German government with foreign loans had become starkly clear in any case: one calculation estimated that the amount required to cover the budgetary deficit in Germany would be greater than the entire gold reserves of the United States. International financial co-operation had been made effectively impossible by the rigidities imposed by the Gold Standard. Brüning and his advisers saw no alternative but to put a stop on the convertibility of the Reichsmark, a step they had been so far reluctant to take because of their fear that it would cause inflation. From this point onwards, therefore, the Reichsmark could no longer be exchanged for foreign currency.53
This rendered the Gold Standard meaningless as far as Germany was concerned, allowing a more flexible approach to monetary policy, and permitting an expansion of the currency supply that could, theoretically at least, ease the government’s financial situation and allow it to begin reflating the economy through job-creation schemes.54 Fatally, however, Brüning refused to take such a step, because he was nervous that printing money that was not tied to the value of gold would cause inflation. Of all the long-term effects of the German inflation, this was probably the most disastrous. But it was not the only reason why Brüning persisted with his deflationary policies long after feasible alternatives had become available. For, crucially, he also hoped to use the continuing high unemployment rate to complete his dismantling of the Weimar welfare state, reduce the influence of labour and thus weaken the opposition to the plans he was now concocting to reform the constitution in an authoritarian, restorationist direction.55
The bank crisis put into Brüning’s hands another card that he was unwilling to use. In view of the flight of foreign funds from the German economy in the spring and early summer of 1931, reparations payments, along with other international capital movements, were suspended by the Hoover Moratorium, issued on 20 June 1931. This removed another political constraint on the freedom of manoeuvre of the German government. Up to now, almost any economic policy it had undertaken - such as increasing taxes, or boosting government revenue in some other way - had run the risk of being accused by the far right of contributing to the hated reparations payments. This was now no longer the case. Yet for Brüning this was not enough. It was still possible, he thought, that once the crisis was over the Moratorium would be lifted and demands for reparations payments would resume.56 So he did nothing, even though the means of escape were now there and voices were already being raised in public in favour of stimulating demand through government-funded job-creation schemes.57
Brüning’s deflationary stance could not be shaken. The events of 1931 made the Depression even worse than before. And it showed no signs of ending. Brüning himself told people that he expected it to last until 1935. This was a prospect that many, and not just amongst the unemployed and the destitute, found too appalling to contemplate.58 Soon Brüning, who issued another emergency decree on 8 December requiring wages to be reduced to their 1927 level and ordering a reduction of various prices, was being called ‘the Hunger Chancellor’.59 Satirists compared him to the mass-murderer of the early 1920s, Fritz Haarmann, whose habit of chopping up the bodies of his victims was the occasion of a nursery-rhyme used to frighten small children and still repeated in Germany today:
Wait a while and just you’ll see,
And Bruning will come up to you
With the ninth emergency decree
And make mincemeat out of you.60
There never was a ninth emergency decree; but even after promulgating only four of them, Brüning found himself the most unpopular Chancellor there had yet been in the Weimar Republic.61
Like many traditional conservatives, Brüning wanted to curb or emasculate the rabid radicalism of the extreme right, and at times showed some courage in attempting to do so. Like them, however, he also underestimated its power and influence. His adherence to what he regarded as Prussian virtues of piety, objectivity, non-partisanship and selfless service to the state derived not least from the patriotic traditions of the Centre Party since Bismarck’s attack on the supposed national disloyalty of the Catholics in the 1870s. It gave him a lasting distrust of party politics, and an instinctive faith in the political reliability of a Prussian political icon such as President Hindenburg - a faith that turned out in the end to be completely misplaced.62 Moreover, this was not Brüning’s only fateful miscalculation. From the outset, he used the threat of wielding Hindenburg’s power under Article 25 of the constitution to call new Reichstag elections to bring the Social Democrats, the major oppositional force, into line. When they joined with the Nationalists and the Communists in refusing to approve a starkly deflationary budget, he had no hesitation in putting this threat into action and brought about a dissolution of the Reichstag. Ignoring the evidence of local and regional elections that had brought massive gains for the Nazis, the Social Democrats assumed that voters would continue to act along well-worn lines, and had every hope of a result that would provide sufficient support for their way of thinking. Like many Germans, Brüning and his political opponents on the left still found it impossible to take the Nazis’ extremist rhetoric and bullying tactics on the street as anything other than evidence of their inevitable political marginality. They did not conform to the accepted rules of politics, so they could not expect to be successful.63
Map 9. Unemployement in 1932
The election campaign was fought in an atmosphere of feverish, unprecedented excitement. Goebbels and the Nazi Party organization pulled out all the stops. In speech after speech, attended by crowds of up to 20,000 in the larger cities, Hitler ranted against the iniquities of the Weimar Republic, its fatal internal divisions, its multiplicity of warring factions and self-interested parties, its economic failure, its delivery of national humiliation. In place of all this, he shouted, democracy would be overcome, the authority of the individual personality reasserted. The revolutionaries of 1918, the profiteers of 1923, the traitorous supporters of the Young Plan, the Social Democratic placemen in the civil service (‘revolutionary parasites’) would all be purged. Hitler and his Party offered a vague but powerful rhetorical vision of a Germany united and strong, a movement that transcended social boundaries and overcame social conflict, a racial community of all Germans working together, a new Reich that would rebuild Germany’s economic strength and restore the nation to its rightful place in the world. This was a message that had a powerful appeal to many who looked nostalgically back to the Reich created by Bismarck, and dreamed of a new leader who would resurrect Germany’s lost glory. It was a message that summed up everything that many people felt was wrong with the Republic, and gave them the opportunity to register the profundity of their disillusion with it by voting for a movement that was its opposite in every respect.
Below this very general level, the Nazi propaganda apparatus skilfully targeted specific groups in the German electorate, giving campaigners training in addressing different kinds of audience, advertising meetings extensively in advance, providing topics for particular venues and picking the speaker to suit the occasion. Sometimes local non-Nazis and prominent sympathizers from conservative backgrounds shared the platform with the main Nazi speaker. The elaborate organization of the Party’s subdivisions recognized the growing divisions of German society into competing interest-groups in the course of the Depression and tailored their message to their particular constituency. Antisemitic slogans would be used when addressing groups to whom they might have an appeal; where they were clearly not working, they were abandoned. The Nazis adapted according to the response they received; they paid close attention to their audiences, producing a whole range of posters and leaflets designed to win over different parts of the electorate. They put on film shows, rallies, songs, brass bands, demonstrations and parades. The campaign was masterminded by the Reich Propaganda Leader, Joseph Goebbels. His propaganda headquarters in Munich sent out a constant stream of directives to local and regional Party sections, often providing fresh slogans and fresh material for the campaign. As the campaign reached its climax, the Nazis, driven by a degree of commitment that exceeded even that of the Communists, outdid all other parties in their constant, frenetic activism and the intensity of their propaganda effort.64
Map 10. The Communists in the Reichstag Election of 1930
The results of the Reichstag elections of September 1930 came as a shock to almost everyone, and delivered a seismic and in many ways decisive blow to the political system of the Weimar Republic. True, the Centre Party, the major electoral force behind the Brüning government, could feel moderately pleased at boosting its vote from 3.7 million to 4.1 million, thereby increasing its seats in the Reichstag from 62 to 68. Brüning’s main opponents, the Social Democrats, lost ten seats, declining from 153 to 143, but still remained the largest party in the legislature. To this extent the election gave a very mild fillip to Brüning. However, the centrist and right-wing parties on which Brüning might possibly hope to build his government suffered catastrophic losses, with the Nationalists declining from 73 seats to 41, the People’s Party from 45 to 31, the Economy Party (a recently founded middle-class special-interest group) from 3 1 to 23, and the State Party from 25 to 20. The parties represented in Brüning’s first cabinet thus lost 53 out of 236 seats, bringing their total down to 183. And not even all of these were solidly behind the Chancellor: the People’s Party was deeply divided over whether to support him, and the Nationalist leader Alfred Hugenberg was bitterly critical of the Brüning government and forced out of his party the moderate Reichstag deputies who still wanted to give it a chance. After September 1930 Hugenberg was virtually unopposed amongst the Nationalists in his policy of trying to co-operate with the National Socialists in a drive to bring down the Republic and replace the Reich Chancellor with someone even further to the right.65
As this suggests, the political forces which could be expected to offer incessant and unremitting opposition to the Brüning government and all its works, in the belief that this would hasten the Republic’s demise, received a substantial boost from the 1930 elections. The Communists, buoyed up by their popularity among the unemployed, increased their mandate from 54 seats to 77. But the biggest shock was the increase in the Nazi vote. Only 0.8 million people had supported the National Socialists in the Reichstag election of 1928, giving the party a mere 12 seats in the national legislature. Now, in September 1930, their votes increased to 6.4 million, and no fewer than 107 Nazi deputies took up their seats in the Reichstag. ‘Fantastic,’ gloated Joseph Goebbels in his diary on 15 September 1930, ‘... an unbelievable advance ... I hadn’t expected that.’66 Sympathetic newspapers registered the result as a ‘world sensation’ that announced a new phase of Germany’s history. Only the Communists dismissed it as a flash in the pan (‘what’s coming next can only be decline and fall’).67
Map 11. The Nazis in the Reichstag Election of 1930
Yet the Nazis’ gains reflected deep-seated anxieties in many parts of the electorate. In some rural constituencies in the north the Nazi vote amounted to a landslide: 68 per cent in Wiefelstede in the Weser-Ems constituency, 57 per cent in Brünen in the Düsseldorf West constituency, 62. per cent in Schwesing in Schleswig-Holstein.68 To some extent, Brüning might have seen this coming, since elections for state legislatures and town councils all over Germany had been registering strong gains for the Nazis since 1928. His chances of getting what he wanted from the elections of 1930 were therefore very small even before the campaign started. Yet the triumph of the Nazis in the Reichstag election was much greater than anyone had anticipated. In many places, indeed, it far outran the impact of Nazi propaganda, and the Party scored votes of 25 to 28 per cent in remote rural areas of the Protestant north to which its organizational effort had barely penetrated.69
How can this dramatic success be explained? The Nazis were seen, particularly by Marxists of various hues, as the representatives of the lower middle classes, but in this election they had clearly burst the bounds of this particular constituency and succeeded in winning the support not only of white-collar workers, shopkeepers, small businessmen, farmers and the like, but also of many voters further up the social scale, in the professional, mercantile and industrial bourgeoisie.70 It was above all the Nazis who profited from the increasingly overheated political atmosphere of the early 1930s, as more and more people who had not previously voted began to flock to the polls. Roughly a quarter of those who voted Nazi in 1930 had not voted before. Many of these were young, first-time voters, who belonged to the large birth-cohorts of the pre-1914 years. Yet these electors do not seem to have voted disproportionately for the Nazis; the Party’s appeal, in fact, was particularly strong amongst the older generation, who evidently no longer considered the Nationalists vigorous enough to destroy the hated Republic. Roughly a third of the Nationalist voters of 1928 voted for the Nazis in 1930, a quarter of the Democratic and People’s Party voters, and even a tenth of Social Democratic voters.71
The Nazis did particularly well among women, whose previous tendency to stay away from the polls sharply diminished in 1930, an important change since there were many more female voters than male as a result both of military casualties in the First World War and of the growing tendency of women to live longer than men. In the city of Cologne, for instance, the percentage poll amongst women jumped from an average of 53 per cent in 1924 to 69 per cent in 1930; in the East Prussian commune of Ragnitz, from 62 per cent to 73 per cent. Their previous avoidance of radical parties such as the Nazis disappeared, though their over-proportional support for the Centre largely remained. For all the speculation of contemporaries, and some later historians, about the special reasons why women might have voted Nazi - ranging from their supposed greater susceptibility to the emotional appeal of the Party’s propaganda to their alleged disillusion with the Republic for failing to bring them equality - the fact is that there is no indication that they cast their votes for any different reasons than those which led men to support the Party. But cast them they now did.72
Whether its voters were men or women, young or old, the Nazi Party did particularly well in Protestant north Germany, east of the Elbe, and much less well in the Catholic south and west. It attracted voters in the countryside but not to the same degree in urban-industrial areas. In some parts of Schleswig-Holstein and Oldenburg, deeply rural areas in the Protestant north, it won over 50 per cent of the vote. Yet, contrary to a widespread contemporary view, the Nazis did not do any better in small towns than in large ones overall; the effects of religious allegiance, which meant that a Protestant voter was twice as likely to support the Nazis as a Catholic one, were far more important in rural areas, perhaps because the influence of the clergy was greater in the countryside and secularization had made greater progress in the towns, whatever their size. Some Catholics did vote Nazi, but the great majority stayed loyal to the Centre Party in 1930, locked into its cultural milieu and insulated against the appeal of the radical right by its patent hostility by this time to democracy, the Jews and the modern world.73
The Social Democrats, too, as we have seen, together with the Communists, proved relatively resilient in the face of the Nazis’ electoral challenge in 1930. But this does not mean that the Nazis completely failed to win any working-class votes. Wage-earning manual labourers and their spouses made up nearly half the electorate in Germany, one of the world’s most advanced industrial societies, while the two working-class parties combined regularly secured just under a third of the vote in Weimar elections, so a significant number of workers and their spouses must have voted for other parties on a regular basis. In such a large and varied social group, these included many Catholic workers, workers in small, often paternalistically managed firms, manual labourers in the state sector (the railways, the postal service and so on) and employees who were not unionized (including especially female manual workers). Rural labourers in Protestant areas with a relatively small proportion of manual labourers proved particularly susceptible to the Nazi appeal, though workers on the great landed estates tended to stick with the Social Democrats. The Nazi propaganda effort, indeed, was directed in particular at workers, borrowing images and slogans from the Social Democrats, attacking ‘reaction’ as well as ‘Marxism’, and presenting the Party as heir to Germany’s socialist tradition. It failed to make much more than a small dent in the Social Democratic and Communist vote, but still exerted a sufficiently strong appeal to previously non-committed workers to ensure that some 27 per cent of Nazi voters in September 1930 were manual labourers.74
Since, as we have seen, the working class constituted nearly half the electorate, and the Nazi Party obtained just over 18 per cent of the vote, this still meant that the Party was less attractive to workers than to members of other social classes, and left the great majority of working-class electors voting for other parties. Where the Social Democratic or Communist tradition was strong, unionization high, and labour-movement culture active and well supported, the cohesive power of the socialist milieu generally proved resistant to the Nazis’ appeal.75 The Nazis, in other words, reached parts of the working class that the traditional left-wing parties failed to reach.76 Social and cultural factors accounted for their appeal, rather than economic ones; for the unemployed voted Communist, not Nazi. Workers who were still in jobs in September 1930 were fearful of the future, and if they were not insulated by a strong labour movement milieu, they frequently turned to the Nazis to defend themselves against the looming threat of the Communist Party.77
While the Nazis directed their propaganda particularly at workers, they were surprisingly neglectful of white-collar employees, who may well have resented Nazi attacks on many of the institutions for which they worked, from finance houses to department stores. Many female employees in low-paid jobs belonged to the working-class political milieu by origin or marriage and so voted Social Democrat, like a good proportion of male white-collar workers, and not just those who were employed by the unions and other labour movement institutions. White-collar workers in the private sector were also one of the groups least affected by the Depression. Despite a widespread contemporary belief to the contrary, therefore, white-collar workers, like manual labourers, were somewhat under-represented among the ranks of Nazi voters in 1930. By contrast, civil servants were over-represented, perhaps reflecting the fact that government cutbacks had put hundreds of thousands of them out of work and reduced the income of many more to the level of a skilled manual labourer or below. The Nazis’ appeal to the self-employed, particularly in Protestant rural areas, was even greater; many of these, of course, were small farmers.78
The Nazi Party had established itself with startling suddenness in September 1930 as a catch-all party of social protest, appealing to a greater or lesser degree to virtually every social group in the land. Even more than the Centre Party, it succeeded in transcending social boundaries and uniting highly disparate social groups on the basis of a common ideology, above all but not exclusively within the Protestant majority community, as no other party in Germany had managed to do before. Already weakened in the aftermath of the inflation, the bourgeois parties, liberal and conservative, proved unable to retain their support in the face of the economic catastrophe that had broken over Germany towards the end of 1929. Middle-class voters, still repelled by the Nazis’ violence and extremism, turned to splinter-groups of the right in even greater numbers than they had already done in 1924 and 1928, increasing their representation in the Reichstag from 20 seats to 55, but substantial numbers also flocked to the Nazi banner in September 1930, joining with members of other social groups, including farmers, various kinds of workers, civil servants, first-time voters (including many women) and voters from older age groups, to expand the Nazi vote massively in a powerful expression of their dissatisfaction, resentment and fear.79
In the increasingly desperate situation of 1930, the Nazis managed to project an image of strong, decisive action, dynamism, energy and youth that wholly eluded the propaganda efforts of the other political parties, with the partial exception of the Communists. The cult of leadership which they created around Hitler could not be matched by comparable efforts by other parties to project their leaders as the Bismarcks of the future. All this was achieved through powerful, simple slogans and images, frenetic, manic activity, marches, rallies, demonstrations, speeches, posters, placards and the like, which underlined the Nazis’ claim to be far more than a political party: they were a movement, sweeping up the German people and carrying them unstoppably to a better future. What the Nazis did not offer, however, were concrete solutions to Germany’s problems, least of all in the area where they were most needed, in economy and society. More strikingly still, the public disorder which loomed so large in the minds of the respectable middle classes in 1930, and which the Nazis promised to end through the creation of a tough, authoritarian state, was to a considerable extent of their own making. Many people evidently failed to realize this, blaming the Communists instead, and seeing in the violence of the brown-uniformed Nazi stormtroopers on the streets a justified, or at least understandable reaction to the violence and aggression of the Red Front-Fighters’ League.
Voters were not really looking for anything very concrete from the Nazi Party in 1930. They were, instead, protesting against the failure of the Weimar Republic. Many of them, too, particularly in rural areas, small towns, small workshops, culturally conservative families, older age groups, or the middle-class nationalist political milieu, may have been registering their alienation from the cultural and political modernity for which the Republic stood, despite the modern image which the Nazis projected in many respects. The vagueness of the Nazi programme, its symbolic mixture of old and new, its eclectic, often inconsistent character, to a large extent allowed people to read into it what they wanted to and edit out anything they might have found disturbing. Many middle-class voters coped with Nazi violence and thuggery on the streets by writing it off as the product of excessive youthful ardour and energy. But it was far more than that, as they were soon to discover for themselves.80