The Rise of the Nazis By Jeremy Noakes, History Today – January 1983
Fifty years ago this month, Adolf Hitler was appointed Reich Chancellor of Germany by the aging President Hindenburg. How were the Nazis able to 'seize power' in this way? Jeremy Noakes begins our special feature by explaining their success.
Did Hitler take power through violent or peaceful means? Fifty years ago, on January 30th, 1933, Adolf Hitler, the leader of the National Socialist German Workers' Party, was appointed Reich Chancellor of Germany. A regime began which, within twelve years, had been responsible – directly or indirectly – for the death of some forty million people, including around six million Jews murdered simply on the grounds of their ethnic origin. The Nazi take-over of power is still one of the central issues of twentieth-century history. How was it possible for such a barbaric regime as the Nazi Third Reich to gain power in one of the most economically advanced and culturally sophisticated countries in the world? Foreign historians have sometimes blamed the German national character; conservative German historians have blamed the coming of mass democracy and the demonic nature of Hitler; Marxist historians have blamed the machinations of monopoly capitalism. Others have looked to simpler, immediate explanations: Versailles, fear of Communism, unemployment, Hitler's demagogy, Goebbels' clever propaganda, and so on. When submitted to detailed investigation, none of these explanations is satisfactory, though each contains a grain of truth. To understand how the Nazis rose to power requires answers to two separate but related questions: first, how did the Nazis achieve mass support; secondly, how did Hitler secure his appointment as Chancellor?
Above, highlight the different reasons that have been offered up to explain how Hitler was able to gain power. Firstly, there was no single type of Nazi supporter. Different people supported the Nazis in different ways at different times and for different reasons. Above all, the Nazi party before about 1930 was different from the party after that date, when it became a real mass movement. Before 1929-1930, Nazi supporters – both members and voters – tended to be activists committed to the party's ideological program of extreme nationalism and anti-Semitism; the movement was in some ways more like a religious sect than a conventional political party. From 1925, the party grew slowly year by year, absorbing members of the numerous anti-Semitic organisations and right-wing paramilitary groups which flourished in the post-war years, who were attracted by the Nazis' greater drive and radicalism and also by Hitler's effective leadership. Between 1915 and 1927, the party was mainly based in the towns and concentrated unsuccessfully on trying to win over industrial workers. There were converts here and there but basically the party remained a fringe group. The workers were not interested – they were loyal to the Social Democrats or, if they became more extreme, tended to go left to the Communists, rather than right to the Nazis. The middle classes generally found the Nazis too scruffy and radical – after all, they proudly proclaimed themselves to be the National Socialist German Workers ' Party and this emphasis frightened off many among the middle class. The party's support was mainly limited to a few malcontents among the lower middle class – artisans and small retailers – but also a few extreme nationalists among the educated middle class – teachers, civil servants, doctors and ex-military men.
Originally, who was drawn to the Nazi party? By the beginning of 1928, it looked as though their enthusiasm would not be enough. In the 1928 general election the Nazis won less than 3 per cent of the vote; the party was exhausting the reservoir of the radical Right and the workers were not being converted. However, between 1928 and 1930, the breakthrough was achieved. It occurred, firstly, through increasing discontent among the rural population owing to the impact of a world-wide slump in agricultural prices which began in 1928, discontent which the Nazis cleverly exploited; and secondly, in the shape of an alliance with the German Conservatives in a campaign against the new 'Young Plan' for war reparations payments. This latter alliance helped to make the party acceptable to the middle class. In consequence, the Nazi party began to change its nature. It was no longer a small sect; it became a mass movement. A bandwagon developed and all kinds of people began to jump on it.
On the whole these people were not – as some have suggested – the so-called rootless and alienated masses of the cities. The six million unemployed workers did not make up the bulk of the Nazi voters, though of course many Nazi members and voters were unemployed, particularly the SA stormtroopers. In fact, the Nazis did best in the rural areas and small towns of the Protestant parts of Germany, particularly in the north and east. They won much of their support from the most rooted and traditional section of the German population – peasant farmers, self-employed artisans, craftsmen and small retailers – the butchers and bakers and candlestickmakers of old Germany. These people felt threatened, but were by no means economically desperate. In urban areas, the party did best in those towns and cities which were administrative or commercial centers with large civil servant and white collar populations, rather than in industrial centers; and they tended to win most support in upper-middle-class districts. Nazi support also tended to be strongest among the younger generation. This was particularly true of the membership, which was also overwhelmingly male.
Nazism was most attractive to the discontented Germans that were suffering economically. True or false? Explain. Part of the background to the rise of Nazism was disillusionment among many sections of the community with their existing political and economic representatives. Parties and pressure groups were widely considered to have failed in their function of defending the interests of their supporters and clients. Many middle-class people felt resentful towards a political system which they felt had betrayed them. They sensed that since the collapse of the old German Empire there had been a shift in the balance of power in favor of the cities and against the countryside, in favor of industry and against small business, and in favor of the working class organized in trade unions and against the farmer and small business man. They faced high taxes, high social security contributions, and now, on top of this, had come the slump.
These groups felt themselves being squeezed between the forces of big business on the one side and organized labor on the other. But they reserved their bitterest hostility for the forces of the Left – the Social Democrats, the trade unions, and the Communists. For, although they resented big business, at least it upheld the principle of private property and private enterprise, whereas the Left with its Socialist ideology appeared to threaten the whole basis of their existence. A specific fear of Communism was probably less important than this general hostility to the Left, a hostility which, however emotional, was rooted above all in the fact that the organized Left with its consumer cooperatives, its trade unions, and its political weight in parliament in support of workers' and consumers' interests represented a real threat to their economic position, a position which was under severe pressure from the economic crisis.
How did the Nazi party feel about communists? How might this foreshadow events of WWII? Explain. Thus, apart from promises to deal with specific grievances of the various economic and social groups – of which there was no shortage in the party's propaganda – by projecting itself as, above all, an enemy of the Left, the Nazis promised to defend the interests of the middle class more ruthlessly and effectively than had their previous representatives. Moreover, by promising to destroy the Weimar state and create a new political order, they were also offering the middle classes a new deal at a time when disillusionment not only with parties but with the state itself ran deep, a state which had proved unable to deal with the economic situation and protect their interests.
It would, of course, be a mistake to see the decision of these middle-class groups to support Nazism as an entirely rational process. The economic crisis contributed to an atmosphere of insecurity in which emotional responses to the situation – fear, resentment, and despair, on the one hand, and a kind of millennarian optimism, on the other – were heightened. These emotions were encouraged and exploited by the Nazi movement through its propaganda, its vigorous political violence, and its projection of a pseudo-religious sense of national mission. Nevertheless, traditionally hard-headed peasants are not known for emotional indulgence and it is unlikely that they allowed their political decisions to be governed by irrational considerations. Above all, they were influenced by the fact that the Nazis had succeeded in creating an image for themselves as a party which could promise a better deal for the peasants. The same was true for other groups as well; indeed, it was even true – though to a lesser extent – of young people.
The Nazi appeal to young people was also characterized by a mixture of reason and emotion, although in rather different proportions than was the case with the peasantry and other occupational groups. The element of rational calculation can be seen best in the case of students, one of the earliest groups attracted to Nazism. For many it was partly a question of their future prospects. The job situation for new graduates in the early 1930s was appalling and the Nazi party and its programme of a new order offered – apart from anything else – prospects for future employment.
But the appeal of Nazism to young people went deeper than this. Nazism offered young people action, comradeship and a sense of personal commitment to a cause wider than themselves. They had the illusion that they were participating in the rebirth of their country in a much more direct way than as members of conventional parties. In short, Nazism appealed to their idealism. Young people also liked the simplification of Nazi propaganda – everything was conveniently divided into friends against enemies, black against white; there were no grey areas to complicate matters. Not much thought was needed; a lot of exciting emotion could be generated.
Then again, political practice in the Nazi party seemed much more straightforward, even heroic, than the bargaining and compromise of ordinary politicians, carried out in smoke-filled committee rooms by grey-haired men in dark grey suits. Many young people, weaned on the German youth movement, found the style of Nazism more attractive than the colourless forms of conventional politics. There were the flags, the uniforms, the mass rallies. Above all, there was the feeling of belonging to an in-group fighting an enemy and being at odds with the rest of society – with the world of their parents. And there were leaders whom one could hero-worship – Hitler from afar, one's local storm troop leader near at hand. These leaders had to prove themselves by their toughness and daring. The nearest equivalent to the psychology of a Nazi storm troop in a city like Berlin is that of the street gang, though the Nazi SA men had an additional sense of self-righteousness when they put the boot in to a Communist – it was their contribution to saving the Nation. The SA also provided concrete material benefits. At a time when social security benefits barely existed, the SA provided food and shelter for those who lacked them in its ad hoc barracks and soup kitchens. Above all, it gave the young unemployed something to do – a focus for their lives, and also the comradeship of others in the same boat as themselves and now working for the same cause, And it was a cause which seemed to offer them some future – these were all powerful incentives to commitment.
What was attractive to young people about the Nazis? The role of nationalism and anti-Semitism, so significant in many accounts of the rise of Nazism, was strongest in its impact on the educated middle classes and of rather less significance for some other important groups, such as the peasantry. The appeal of anti-Semitism appears to have been largely confined to specific areas where there was a tradition of anti-Semitism, such as Franconia and Hesse, although the fact that latent anti-Semitism was extremely widespread meant that the party's anti-Semitism was generally tolerated even where it had little active support.
The Nazis, then, were successful in appealing to a whole range of different groups through a multifaceted image which offered the prospects of concrete material advantages as well as a kind of general hope of national revival and, last but not least, for those taking part they offered a sense of personal fulfilment, an emotional fix, which was otherwise lacking in their lives.
Yet, although the Nazis won a considerable measure of popular support, it was not enough to secure them power. For, although by the summer of 1932 they had succeeded in becoming the largest party, at that point – with 37 per cent of the vote – they came up against the limits of their electoral success under a system of proportional representation. The industrial working class and the Roman Catholic population, particularly those in rural areas, remained largely resistant to the Nazi appeal and their parties won over 50 per cent of the electorate.
By the autumn of 1932, therefore, the Nazis were in deep trouble. Failure to gain power undermined their attractive impression of invincibility. In the general election of November 1932, they lost 1.25 million votes and their organization was riven by faction and sapped by disillusionment. In other words, the Nazis were not swept to power on an irresistible wave of popular support. There was nothing inevitable about the Nazi take-over. Indeed, had they been kept out of power for another six months or so the party might well have disintegrated, particularly since there were already the first signs of economic recovery. Yet, Hitler was appointed Chancellor by the Reich President, Hindenburg, who, acting under the emergency powers vested in him by Article 48 of the Constitution, was entitled to empower a Chancellor to by-pass parliament and rule by decree. Such a step was made possible by the breakdown of parliamentary government in March 1930, as the deeply flawed political system of Weimar Germany proved unequal to the exceptional burdens placed upon it. This collapse was a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition to produce a Nazi take-over. The fact that Hitler was appointed Chancellor was the consequence of the political infighting between 1930 and 1933 and, in particular, during the months between the fall of Chancellor Brüning in May 1932 and January 30th, 1933.
With the collapse of parliamentary government the main focus of power had shifted to the Reich President and his entourage. The intrigues of cabinet politics replaced the rhetoric and bargaining of parliamentary and party politics. Elite pressure groups which were fundamentally hostile to parliamentary democracy – the army, industry (particularly heavy industry) agriculture (particularly the Junker landowners of East Eliba) – were able to exercise pressure directly on the center of power. The exact role of these groups, especially that of industry, is still controversial. Moreover, Hitler and the Nazis were by no means their first choice. But when it became apparent that the Nazi movement alone could provide the necessary support for the establishment of a right-wing regime, they decided there was no alternative to the appointment of Hitler as Chancellor. They hoped the Nazis would act as a kind of public relations machine for an authoritarian state geared to the needs of the traditional German establishment. 'Don't worry, we've hired him' was the response of the Vice-Chancellor, Franz von Papen, to those who expressed their concern at the alliance with Hitler. It proved one of the most costly misjudgments in history, and unfortunately the main costs were borne by those who were innocent of the decision.
The rise of Nazism represents one of the most fateful events in recent history. After fifty years of analysis it is clear that there are no simple mono-causal explanations. Yet the need to understand how it happened is as urgent as ever. Indeed, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Nazi take-over there is a strong sense of déja vu . With unemployment high and rising, with the international financial system looking increasingly vulnerable, with both major political parties discredited by past and present failures, with signs of a break-down of the post-war political consensus and of a political polarization with extremism growing on left and right, and – last but not least – with the danger of a younger generation growing up alienated from the parliamentary system – with all these problems and no obvious solutions in sight, the history of Germany between 1918 and 1933 is no longer a remote and purely academic subject. It brings us uncomfortably close to home. But, for that very reason, it may be that we can now understand that period rather better than before and, in turn, a study of it may give us insights into our own.
What factors explain Hitler’s rise to power in Germany in the 1920s-1930s? Jeremy Noakes is Reader in Modern European History at Exeter University. Further reading:
David Abraham, The Collapse of the Weimar Republic. Political Economy and Crises (Princeton University Press, 1981)
W.S. Allen, The Nazi Seizure of Power. The Experience of a Single German Town, 1930-1935 (Eyre & Spottiswoode (now Eyre Methuen), 1965)
K.D. Bracher, The German Dictatorship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1971 and Penguin Books)