The National Socialist German Workers Party existed in German politics between 1919 and 1945. Led by Adolph Hitler, the party presided over among the darkest period of German and world history; characterized by the worst mass murder and world war. key to the party’s success was the ascension of Hitler to the chancellor of Germany after being appointed by the then president Paul von Hindenburg in 1933; from this point, Hitler went ahead to rule the country as a dictator till his death at the close of the second world war, after setting up a totalitarian regime known as the Third Reich.
The party and its leader came to power partly through their own efforts, by setting up a formidable and well organized political machine; however, the outcome was also greatly aided by social, political and economic issues that the German society was dealing with at the time; thus making it a fertile ground to sow the seeds of Nazism.
Origins of the Party
The roots of the Nazi party can be traced to smaller parties which had nationalist ideals that rose at the end of the First World War. One such party is the Freier Ausschuss für einen deutschen Arbeiterfrieden roughly translated as the Free Committee for a German Workers’ Peace; this party was formed in 1918 in the German town of Bremen. Soon, branches of this party stated popping up across the country.
Proponents of nationalism shared some political and social views that generally united them in their cause. Such include the opposition of the armistice that saw the end of the first world war and the subsequent signing of the treaty of Versailles; the hatred of Jews and the belief that they were responsible for Germany’s economic woes through capitalist practices; opposition of Marxism and communism; opposition to monarchism; belief in racial purity of Germans as they formed part of the “master race” or the Aryans (Lacoue-Labarthe, 1990, p291-312; Eatwell, 1996, p.303-319).
These parties eventually organized themselves into the Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (DAP) or the German Workers’ Party. The party had strong socialist and anti-Semitic ideologies; and believed that the government should play the role of supporting the Aryan German race that at the time formed the bulk of the middle class (Lacoue-Labarthe, 1990, 291-312). At first, the party was very small, comprising of only 60 members; however, its ideological stand attracted the attention of the government which sent an army corporal known as Adolph Hitler to infiltrate and investigate the movement.
In 1916, Hitler joined the DAP after being invited due to his ability to engage in political arguments. As the party continued to grow, the status of Hitler also grew as he found a niche in recruiting new members through his superior oratory skills. Finally, on July 18, 1921, he was appointed the chairman of the party. With this, Führer as he came to be titled transformed the party into a revolutionary movement complete with a militant wing known as the Storm-troopers (SA); and which main aim was to overthrow the Weimar Republic through violent means and to liberate the country from Jews, socialists and parties which betrayed the Germans in the First World War (Eatwell, 1996, p.303–319).
The ascent of Adolph Hitler saw the shift of the Nazi maxim from a socialist agenda to those of nationalist expansionism and anti-Semitism. As such, the Nazi did not seek to champion the welfare of the low-class masses. From this perch, Hitler saw himself and Germany as a country surrounded by enemies in form of countries controlled by Jews and communists; in form of Britain, the Soviet Union and France. This, together with expansionism and nationalism set the stage for the outbreak of the Second World War.
Growth of the Nazi party
The party continued to grow, buoyed both by the recruitment drive of Hitler and the attractiveness of the SA to young German men (Loewenberg, 1971, p1457-1502). The party also recruited from the First World War veterans, whom Hitler found a listening year; and even formed Hitler’s youth for children recruits (Loewenberg, 1971, p1457-1502). In the 1920, the Nazi stood for a number of issues that made them particularly appealing to the general public at the time. This can be attributed to various issues that had made life particularly difficult for pre-Nazi Germans citizens. Among the more prominent of these stands was the withdrawal from the treaty of Versailles, the formation of a strong central government, the destruction of communist elements in Germany, the rearming of the German military contrary to the provisions of the armistice, destruction of the Weimar republic and removal of the Jews.
Popularity of the Nazi ideas
The ideas put forward by the party were for various reasons popular with the general population. For starters, the Germans did not believe that they had lost the first word war; the popular sentiment was that the Weimar republic has betrayed the military by agreeing to surrender. Additionally, some aspects of the treaty were offensive to the people, particularly clauses that put the blame of the war entirely on Germany; forcing them to pay war guilt reparations. On one hand, these terms were seen as being grossly unfair; and resulted in the occupation of the Ruhr industrial region by France in January 1923 when the Weimar republic could no longer afford to pay the reparations. This led to severe economic effects; thus offering the Nazi a perfect tool to spread discontent through propaganda by blaming the government for the problems and the treaty; and promising to return Germany to greatness once they acquired power.
The Nazi also painted the Weimar government as weak and that could not control the economic downturn. This was evident with the resignation of the Wilhelm Cuno government and the attempted takeover by the communist party further destabilizing the political landscape. The Nazi party, through its propaganda machinery offered a strong stable government led by a strong leader in form of Adolph Hitler.
Nationalistic and expansionism aspects of the Nazi rhetoric also proved to be popular with the people; such sentiments were fueled by promises to restore the unity of the country by reacquiring the territories that had been lost in the fallout of the First World War. This was reinforced with the “master race” ideology that the Aryans were a superior race; and that they needed to occupy more land to allow for their expansion. These were the motivations to rearm Germany and reclaim her greatness (Eatwell, 1996, p303–319).
The Nazi also sought to gain popularity by finding the scapegoat for the economic woes plaguing the people; and for this, the Jews and the communists were the appropriate groups chosen. On one hand, the communists were feared by the rich classes since they advocated for a classless society; and sought to create civil disorder by instigating strikes by the workers. The attempt to take over the government did not also help. On the other hand, the Jews received all the blame for the market hyperinflation and the prevailing high unemployment levels. The anti-Semitism and anticommunism became central themes of the Nazi and Hitler regime until its end at the close of the Second World War.
The economic crisis
In the period between 1920 and 1923, the popularity of Hitler and the Nazi saw significant growth as aided by an economic crisis. The invasion of the Ruhr by France in 1923 and the hyperinflation resulted in massive job losses, loss of savings and increased poverty. During this period, the popularity of various extremist parties grew tremendously; and the oratorical prowess of Hitler assured him a large following; with the party boasting of up to 20,000 members.
The Munich putsch of 1923
Based on its popularity, Hitler had decided that an opportune time to overthrow the Weimar government had arrived. And on the 8th of November, 1923, what started as a patriotic rally in a beer hall in Munich ended up being an attested coup d’etat. Hitler had however overestimated the support from the Reichswehr commanders; and a rally the following day was violently broken up by government troops resulting in the death of 16 Nazi demonstrators and the arrest of Hitler and other prominent Nazi leaders. The Nazi party was also banned. Hitler was imprisoned during which he authored Mein Kampf (My Struggles), a semi-autographical political manifesto. He was to be released in the December of 1924.
During this period, the popularity of extremist and paramilitary organizations declined; this decline can be partly blamed for the failure of the coup. Indeed, some of the aspects which the Nazi was basing its opposition on were being solved. In particular, the economic outlook had improved with the award of loans from the United States government to the Weimar.
Reorganization of the Nazi
Following the failure of the putsch and during imprisonment, Hitler realized that he could not take power through force; and that he needed a legal and political solution. Therefore, after his release, he reformed the Nazi, but this time abandoned any plans of forceful takeover of the country. He also sought to attain a wide support base; aided in part by circulation of his book and leaning heavily on the publicity and popularity that he gained during the trail. The period between 1924 and 1927 saw a complete transformation of the party to a more organized entity; with Hitler as the supreme leader commanding total obedience (Gerth, 1940, p517-541). During this period, the party adopted its outstretched-arm salute and the swastika symbol. Other branches of the party were also formed particularly the SS and SA; in form of uniformed disciplined units.
The main goal of this reorganization was to improve the popularity of the party; this was achieved by portraying a strong and disciplined body. The SS and the SA were very attractive particularly to former soldiers and young people (Loewenberg, 1971, p1457-1502); these branches were used to met-out violence against vulnerable parties seen to oppose the reemergence of the Nazi.
During this period, the party also engaged in intense propaganda targeting Jews and communists; and seemingly addressing the grievance of the population. Among the people more vulnerable to this propaganda were lower middle class workers such as teachers, farmers, small businessmen and university students. Each of these groups had something to loose in the picture that Hitler painted of a Marxist-Jew takeover of Germany and Europe (Turner, 1985, p252). This effort paid off; with the party attaining 130,000 members by the end on 1929.
This propaganda was spread through various means ranging from films, radio broadcasts and posters; to organized marches and rallies. This ensured that their message reached even the smallest village in Germany. This was also greatly aided by Hitler’s orations. Hitler’s speeches sought to appeal to people from all classes; giving them each a solution to their problem; expulsion of Jews for the working class; the control of communism or the businessmen; and the creation of jobs for the poor and unemployed. To the former soldiers, a promise to rearm Germany and reverse the treaty of Versailles was the bait; the nationalistic message also attracted right wing sections of the country.
The great depression
Despite the gain of popularity by the party, this was not enough to ensure a legal and political take over of the country. This was evident in the 1928 Reichstag election where the Nazi party only managed to garner a paltry 3% of the vote translating to 12 seats in the house. This situation was however set to change dramatically; as five years later, in the 1933 elections, the Nazi emerged as the biggest party and Hitler became chancellor of Germany (Brown, 1982, p285-302). The great depression is arguably one event that allowed Hitler to finally ascend to power (Turner, 1985, p354)
Germany was still struggling to pay reparations during the 1929 Wall Street crash that saw the United States withdraw the financial assistance it was giving the country at the time. This led to increase in national debt, failing businesses and soaring unemployment hitting 6 million in 1932. In the same period, the ruling coalition was bitterly divided; and was unable to offer a political leadership out of the crisis. This gave the Nazi opportunity to increase their popularity by going on a propaganda overdrive; blaming the financial meltdown on Jewish financiers and Bolsheviks. Carrying this message to the electorate, the Nazi party managed to raise their proportion vote to 18% in the September 1930 Reichstag elections; effectively making them the second largest party in the Reichstag with 107 beaten only by the SPD (Brown, 1982, p285-302). During this election, Hitler had established himself as a formidable campaigner pioneering in the use of the radio and aircraft in campaign activities.
The Weimar government had made several crucial mistakes which allowed the Nazi to gains such popularity. As a counter to the economic downturn, the increased taxes and lowered unemployment benefits to raise government income and reduce expenditure; the first term only served to worsen the welfare of the unemployed. Worse still, these measures were not agreed upon by all parties in the coalitions, thus the deep division and precipitated its collapse (Turner, 1985, p84). In response the then President Paul von Hindenburg invoked statutes allowing him to rule by decree thus bypassing Reichstag authority; he dissolved in 1929 thus the elections held in 1930.
Two major reasons can therefore be identified for the sharp rise of Nazi popularity after the 1929 economic crisis; one of them is the discontent with the Weimar government for the way it handled the crisis; giving Hitler an opportunity both to apportion blame and garner support from aggrieved citizen. Secondly, the crisis had increased the strength of communist; frightening businessmen and farmers fearing to loose their property; thus voting for the Nazis who had shown the ability to combat the communist through the SS and the SA units (Brown, 1982, p285-302; Turner, 1985). The party also received massive financial backing allowing it to engage in widespread campaigns.
The final rise to power
The election of 1930 had severely weakened the democratic parties; and stood in the way of an effective government. As the political crisis deepened in 1931 and 1932, Hitler decided to run for presidency against the incumbent Paul von Hindenburg; he lost both rounds of elections held in 1932. The Nazi party had however managed to become the largest party in the Reichstag with over 200 seats; however, they viewed their failure to capture the top seat as a sign of diminishing popularity; with the other parties divided, party elements embarked in convincing Hindenburg to appoint Hitler as the Reich Chancellor, which he did on the 30th of January, 1933 (Brown, 1982, p285-302). By making this move, the president had hoped to achieve several goals; one of them was to use the already established anticommunism momentum of the Nazi to combat communist opponent. The president also hoped to tap some of the Hitler’s and Nazi popularity to improve the public image of the government. In all this, the president had banked on his ability to control Hitler; the latter, however, had his own agenda. Hitler had finally gained the opportunity to take over power through strictly legal and political methods.
The popularity of the Nazi was not constant and sustained; as shown above, it underwent periods of waxing and waning; driven mainly by the economic status of the country. However, the one event that gave the party the final momentum to attain power was the great depression. This, combined with other factors such as the organization of the party, the leadership and oratory gifts of Adolph Hitler and a weak and divided Weimar government worked independently and in combination to increase the popularity of the Nazi; and eventually to put Adolph Hitler in power.
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