Military history

Book Two

5. THE ROAD TO POWER: 1925–31

THE YEARS FROM 1925 until the coming of the depression in 1929 were lean years for Adolf Hitler and the Nazi movement, but it is a measure of the man that he persevered and never lost hope or confidence. Despite the excitability of his nature, which often led to outbursts of hysteria, he had the patience to wait and the shrewdness to realize that the climate of material prosperity and of a feeling of relaxation which settled over Germany in those years was not propitious for his purposes.

He was confident that the good times would not last. So far as Germany was concerned, he said, they depended not on her own strength but on that of others—of America above all, from whose swollen coffers loans were pouring in to make and keep Germany prosperous. Between 1924 and 1930 German borrowing amounted to some seven billion dollars and most of it came from American investors, who gave little thought to how the Germans might make eventual repayment. The Germans gave even less thought to it.

The Republic borrowed to pay its reparations and to increase its vast social services, which were the model of the world. The states, cities and municipalities borrowed to finance not only needed improvements but building of airfields, theaters, sport stadiums and fancy swimming pools. Industry, which had wiped out its debts in the inflation, borrowed billions to retool and to rationalize its productive processes. Its output, which in 1923 had dropped to 55 per cent of that in 1913, rose to 122 per cent by 1927. For the first time since the war unemployment fell below a million—to 650,000—in 1928. That year retail sales were up 20 per cent over 1925 and the next year real wages reached a figure 10 per cent higher than four years before. The lower middle classes, all the millions of shopkeepers and small-salaried folk on whom Hitler had to draw for his mass support, shared in the general prosperity.

My own acquaintance with Germany began in those days. I was stationed in Paris and occasionally in London at that time, and fascinating though those capitals were to a young American happy to have escaped from the incredible smugness and emptiness of the Calvin Coolidge era, they paled a little when one came to Berlin and Munich. A wonderful ferment was working in Germany. Life seemed more free, more modern, more exciting than in any place I had ever seen. Nowhere else did the arts or the intellectual life seem so lively. In contemporary writing, painting, architecture, in music and drama, there were new currents and fine talents. And everywhere there was an accent on youth. One sat up with the young people all night in the sidewalk cafés, the plush bars, the summer camps, on a Rhineland steamer or in a smoke-filled artist’s studio and talked endlessly about life. They were a healthy, carefree, sun-worshiping lot, and they were filled with an enormous zest for living to the full and in complete freedom. The old oppressive Prussian spirit seemed to be dead and buried. Most Germans one met—politicians, writers, editors, artists, professors, students, businessmen, labor leaders—struck you as being democratic, liberal, even pacifist.

One scarcely heard of Hitler or the Nazis except as butts of jokes—usually in connection with the Beer Hall Putsch, as it came to be known. In the elections of May 20, 1928, the Nazi Party polled only 810,000 votes out of a total of thirty-one million cast and had but a dozen of the Reichstag’s 491 members. The conservative Nationalists also lost heavily, their vote falling from six million in 1924 to four million, and their seats in Parliament diminished from 103 to 73. In contrast, the Social Democrats gained a million and a quarter votes in the 1928 elections, and their total poll of more than nine million, with 153 seats in the Reichstag, made them easily the largest political party in Germany. Ten years after the end of the war the German Republic seemed at last to have found its feet.

The membership of the National Socialist Party in that anniversary year—1928—was 108,000. Small as the figure was, it was slowly growing. A fortnight after leaving prison at the end of 1924, Hitler had hurried to see Dr. Heinrich Held, the Prime Minister of Bavaria and the head of the Catholic Bavarian People’s Party. On the strength of his promise of good behavior (Hitler was still on parole) Held had lifted the ban on the Nazi Party and its newspaper. “The wild beast is checked,” Held told his Minister of Justice, Guertner. “We can afford to loosen the chain.” The Bavarian Premier was one of the first, but by no means the last, of Germany’s politicians to fall into this fatal error of judgment.

The Voelkischer Beobachter reappeared on February 26, 1925, with a long editorial written by Hitler, entitled “A New Beginning.” The next day he spoke at the first mass meeting of the resurrected Nazi Party in the Buergerbraükeller, which he and his faithful followers had last seen on the morning of November 9, a year and a half before, when they set out on their ill-fated march. Many of the faithful were absent. Eckart and Scheubner-Richter were dead. Goering was in exile. Ludendorff and Roehm had broken with the leader. Rosenberg, feuding with Streicher and Esser, was sulking and stayed away. So did Gregor Strasser, who with Ludendorff had led the National Socialist German Freedom movement while Hitler was behind bars and the Nazi Party itself banned. When Hitler asked Anton Drexler to preside at the meeting the old locksmith and founder of the party told him to go to the devil. Nevertheless some four thousand followers gathered in the beer hall to hear Hitler once again and he did not disappoint them. His eloquence was as moving as ever. At the end of a two-hour harangue, the crowd roared with applause. Despite the many desertions and the bleak prospects, Hitler made it clear that he still considered himself the dictatorial leader of the party. “I alone lead the movement, and no one can impose conditions on me so long as I personally bear the responsibility,” he declared, and added, “Once more I bear the whole responsibility for everything that occurs in the movement.”

Hitler had gone to the meeting with his mind made up on two objectives which he intended henceforth to pursue. One was to concentrate all power in his own hands. The other was to re-establish the Nazi Party as a political organization which would seek power exclusively through constitutional means. He had explained the new tactics to one of his henchmen, Karl Ludecke, while still in prison: “When I resume active work it will be necessary to pursue a new policy. Instead of working to achieve power by armed coup, we shall have to hold our noses and enter the Reichstag against the Catholic and Marxist deputies. If outvoting them takes longer than outshooting them, at least the result will be guaranteed by their own constitution. Any lawful process is slow … Sooner or later we shall have a majority—and after that, Germany.”1 On his release from Landsberg, he had assured the Bavarian Premier that the Nazi Party would henceforth act within the framework of the constitution.

But he allowed himself to be carried away by the enthusiasm of the crowd in his reappearance at the Buergerbraükeller on February 27. His threats against the State were scarcely veiled. The republican regime, as well as the Marxists and the Jews, was “the enemy.” And in his peroration he had shouted, “To this struggle of ours there are only two possible issues: either the enemy passes over our bodies or we pass over theirs!”

The “wild beast,” in this, his first public appearance after his imprisonment, did not seem “checked” at all. He was again threatening the State with violence, despite his promise of good behavior. The government of Bavaria promptly forbade him to speak again in public—a ban that was to last two years. The other states followed suit. This was a heavy blow to a man whose oratory had brought him so far. A silenced Hitler was a defeated Hitler, as ineffective as a handcuffed pugilist in a ring. Or so most people thought.

But again they were wrong. They forgot that Hitler was an organizer as well as a spellbinder. Curbing his ire at being forbidden to speak in public, he set to work with furious intent to rebuild the National Socialist German Workers’ Party and to make of it an organization such as Germany had never seen before. He meant to make it like the Army—a state within a state. The first job was to attract dues-paying members. By the end of 1925 they numbered just 27,000. The going was slow, but each year some progress was made: 49,000 members in 1926; 72,000 in 1927; 108,000 in 1928; 178,000 in 1929.

More important was the building up of an intricate party structure which corresponded to the organization of the German government and indeed of German society. The country was divided into districts, or Gaue, which corresponded roughly with the thirty-four Reichstag electoral districts and at the head of which was a gauleiter appointed by Hitler. There were an additional seven Gaue for Austria, Danzig, the Saar and the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia. A Gau was divided into Kreise—circles—and presided over by a Kreisleiter. The next smallest party unit was anOrtsgruppe—a local group—and in the cities these were further subdivided into street cells and blocks.

The political organization of the Nazi Party was divided into two groups: P.O. I, as it was known, designed to attack and undermine the government, and P.O. II to establish a state within a state. Thus the second group had departments of agriculture, justice, national economy, interior and labor—and, with an eye to the future, of race and culture, and of engineering. P.O. I had departments of foreign affairs and of labor unions and a Reich Press Office. The Propaganda Division was a separate and elaborate office.

Though some of the party roughnecks, veterans of street fighting and beerhouse brawls, opposed bringing women and children into the Nazi Party, Hitler soon provided organizations for them too. The Hitler Youth took in youngsters from fifteen to eighteen who had their own departments of culture, schools, press, propaganda, “defense sports,” etc., and those from ten to fifteen were enrolled in the Deutsches Jungvolk. For the girls there was the Bund Deutscher Maedel and for the women the N. S. Frauenschaften. Students, teachers, civil servants, doctors, lawyers, jurists—all had their separate organizations, and there was a Nazi Kulturbund to attract the intellectuals and, artists.

After considerable difficulties the S.A. was reorganized into an armed band of several hundred thousand men to protect Nazi meetings, to break up the meetings of others and to generally terrorize those who opposed Hitler. Some of its leaders also hoped to see the S.A. supplant the Regular Army when Hitler came to power. To prepare for this a special office under General Franz Ritter von Epp was set up, called the Wehrpolitische Amt. Its five divisions concerned themselves with such problems as external and internal defense policy, defense forces, popular defense potential, and so on. But the brown-shirted S.A. never became much more than a motley mob of brawlers. Many of its top leaders, beginning with its chief, Roehm, were notorious homosexual perverts. Lieutenant Edmund Heines, who led the Munich S.A., was not only a homosexual but a convicted murderer. These two and dozens of others quarreled and feuded as only men of unnatural sexual inclinations, with their peculiar jealousies, can.

To have at hand a more dependable band Hitler created the S.S.—Schutzstaffel—put their members in black uniforms similar to those worn by the Italian Fascisti and made them swear a special oath of loyalty to him personally. At first the S.S. was little more than a bodyguard for the Fuehrer. Its first leader was a newspaperman named Berchtold. As he preferred the relative quiet of the newsroom of the Voelkischer Beobachter to playing at cop and soldier, he was replaced by one Erhard Heiden, a former police stool pigeon of unsavory reputation. It was not until 1929 that Hitler found the man he was looking for as the ideal leader of the S.S., in the person of a chicken farmer in the village of Waldtrudering, near Munich, a mild-mannered fellow whom people mistook (as did this author when he first met him) for a small-town schoolmaster and whose name was Heinrich Himmler. When Himmler took over the S.S. it numbered some two hundred men. By the time he finished his job with it, the S.S. dominated Germany and was a name that struck terror throughout occupied Europe.

At the top of the pyramid of the intricate party organization stood Adolf Hitler with the highfalutin title of Partei-und-Oberster-S.A.-Fuehrer, Vorsitzender der N.S.D.A.V.—which may be translated as “Supreme Leader of the Party and the S.A., Chairman of the National Socialist German Labor Organization.” Directly attached to his office was the Reich Directorate (Reichsleitung) which was made up of the top bosses of the party and such useful officials as the “Reich Treasurer” and the “Reich Business Manager.” Visiting the palatial Brown House in Munich, the national headquarters of the party, during the last years of the Republic, one got the impression that here indeed were the offices of a state within a state. That, no doubt, was the impression Hitler wished to convey, for it helped to undermine confidence, both domestic and foreign, in the actual German State, which he was trying to overthrow.

But Hitler was intent on something more important than making an impression. Three years after he came to power, in a speech to the “old fighters” at the Buergerbraü on the anniversary evening of November 9, 1936, he explained one of the objectives he had had in building the party up into such a formidable and all-embracing organization. “We recognized,” he said, in recalling the days when the party was being reformed after the putsch, “that it is not enough to overthrow the old State, but that the new State must previously have been built up and be practically ready to one’s hand…. In 1933 it was no longer a question of overthrowing a state by an act of violence; meanwhile the new State had been built up and all that there remained to do was to destroy the last remnants of the old State—and that took but a few hours.”2

An organization, however streamlined and efficient, is made up of erring human beings, and in those years when Hitler was shaping his party to take over Germany’s destiny he had his fill of troubles with his chief lieutenants, who constantly quarreled not only among themselves but with him. He, who was so monumentally intolerant by his very nature, was strangely tolerant of one human condition—a man’s morals. No other party in Germany came near to attracting so many shady characters. As we have seen, a conglomeration of pimps, murderers, homosexuals, alcoholics and blackmailers flocked to the party as if to a natural haven. Hitler did not care, as long as they were useful to him. When he emerged from prison he found not only that they were at each other’s throats but that there was a demand from the more prim and respectable leaders such as Rosenberg and Ludendorff that the criminals and especially the perverts be expelled from the movement. This Hitler frankly refused to do. “I do not consider it to be the task of a political leader,” he wrote in his editorial, “A New Beginning,” in the Voelkischer Beobachter of February 26, 1925, “to attempt to improve upon, or even to fuse together, the human material lying ready to his hand.”

By 1926, however, the charges and countercharges hurled by the Nazi chieftains at one another became so embarrassing that Hitler set up a party court to settle them and to prevent his comrades from washing their dirty linen in public. This was known as the USCHLA, from Untersuchung-und-Schlichtungs-Ausschuss—Committee for Investigation and Settlement. Its first head was a former general, Heinemann, but he was unable to grasp the real purpose of the court, which was not to pronounce judgment on those accused of common crimes but to hush them up and see that they did not disturb party discipline or the authority of the Leader. So the General was replaced by a more understanding ex-officer, Major Walther Buch, who was given two assistants. One was Ulrich Graf, the former butcher who had been Hitler’s bodyguard; the other was Hans Frank, a young Nazi lawyer, of whom more will be heard later when it comes time to recount his bloodthirstiness as Governor General of occupied Poland, for which he paid on the gallows at Nuremberg. This fine judicial triumvirate performed to the complete satisfaction of the Fuehrer. A party leader might be accused of the most nefarious crime. Buch’s answer invariably was, “Well, what of it?” What he wanted to know was whether it hurt party discipline or offended the Fuehrer.

It took more than this party court, effective though it was in thousands of instances, to keep the ambitious, throat-cutting, big Nazi fry in line. Often Hitler had to intervene personally not only to keep a semblance of harmony but to prevent his own throat from being cut.

While he had languished at Landsberg, a young man by the name of Gregor Strasser had suddenly risen in the Nazi movement. A druggist by profession and a Bavarian by birth, he was three years younger than Hitler; like him, he had won the Iron Cross, First Class, and during the war he had risen from the ranks to be a lieutenant. He had become a Nazi in 1920 and soon became the district leader in Lower Bavaria. A big, stocky man, somewhat of a bon vivant, bursting with energy, he developed into an effective public speaker more by the force of his personality than by the oratorical gifts with which Hitler was endowed. Moreover, he was a born organizer. Fiercely independent in spirit and mind, Strasser refused to kowtow to Hitler or to take very seriously the Austrian’s claims to be absolute dictator of the Nazi movement. This was to prove, in the long run, a fatal handicap, as was his sincere enthusiasm for the “socialism” in National Socialism.

Over the opposition of the imprisoned Hitler, Strasser joined Ludendorff and Rosenberg in organizing a Nazi Voelkisch movement to contest the state and national elections in the spring of 1924. In Bavaria the bloc polled enough votes to make it the second largest party; in Germany, as we have seen, under the name of the National Socialist German Freedom movement it won two million votes and obtained thirty-two seats in the Reichstag, one of which went to Strasser. Hitler took a dark view of the young man’s activities and an even darker one of his successes. Strasser, for his part, was not disposed to accept Hitler as the Lord, and he pointedly stayed away from the big rally in Munich on February 27, 1925, which relaunched the Nazi Party.

If the movement was to become truly national, Hitler realized, it must get a footing in the north, in Prussia, and above all in the citadel of the enemy, Berlin. In the election of 1924 Strasser had campaigned in the north and made alliances with ultranational groups there led by Albrecht von Graefe and Count Ernst zu Reventlow. He thus had personal contacts and a certain following in this area and he was the only Nazi leader who had. Two weeks after the February 27 meeting, Hitler swallowed his personal pique, sent for Strasser, induced him to come back to the fold and proposed that he organize the Nazi Party in the north. Strasser accepted. Here was an opportunity to exercise his talents without the jealous, arrogant Leader being in a position to breathe down his neck.

Within a few months he had founded a newspaper in the capital, the Berliner Arbeiterzeitung, edited by his brother, Otto Strasser, and a fortnightly newsletter, the N. S. Briefe, which kept the party officials informed of the party line. And he had laid the foundations for a political organization that stretched through Prussia, Saxony, Hanover and the industrial Rhineland. A veritable dynamo, Strasser traveled all over the north, addressing meetings, appointing district leaders and setting up a party apparatus. Being a Reichstag deputy gave him two immediate advantages over Hitler: he had a free pass on the railroads, so travel was no expense to him or the party; and he enjoyed parliamentary immunity. No authority could ban him from public speaking; no court could try him for slandering anyone or anything he wanted to. As Heiden wrote sardonically, “Free travel and free slander—Strasser had a big head start over his Fuehrer.”

As his secretary and editor of the N. S. Briefe Gregor Strasser took on a twenty-eight-year-old Rhinelander named Paul Joseph Goebbels.

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