The National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP, or Nazi Party) became the dominant political force in Germany – but the party sprang from humble beginnings.
In January 1919, a nationalist political group calling itself the Deutsche Arbeitpartei (DAP, or German Workers’ Party) was formed in Bavaria. This itself was far from remarkable. Post-war Germany was a hotbed of political ideas and contained dozens of fledgeling political parties.
There was nothing particularly remarkable about the DAP’s founding members either. Anton Drexler was a factory worker and aspiring poet who supported German involvement in World War I, without enlisting himself. Gottfried Feder was an economist with a grudge against greedy bankers. Karl Harrer and Dietrich Eckart were insignificant figures, involved in publishing nationalist and anti-Semitic pamphlets.
All four had connections with Germany’s volkisch movement, a group obsessed with romantic notions about race, patriotism and homeland. All were strong nationalists convinced that Germany’s surrender in November 1918 was an act of treachery, engineered by Jews and socialists to destroy the country and enslave its people.
Together, Drexler and his associates coddled together a few dozen followers and formed the DAP. This group met sporadically through 1919. At these meetings, they cursed the failures of the new democratic government and the forces destabilising Germany.
The arrival of Hitler
The fate of the DAP changed forever with the arrival of a new member. After the war, the Reichswehr (German military) was tasked with monitoring and infiltrating newly formed political groups that might harbour communist revolutionaries. In the autumn of 1919, an Austrian-born corporal was ordered to join the DAP and report back on its activities. The agent’s name was Adolf Hitler.
Hitler began attending DAP meetings in September 1919 – but instead of dutifully reporting what was being discussed, the 30-year-old corporal was swept up in the DAP’s passionate debates about the fate of Germany. At Hitler’s second meeting, when someone suggested Bavaria break away from Germany and unify with Austria, Hitler leapt to his feet and delivered an impromptu speech against the idea. Those present were struck by his forceful oratory.
By the end of September, Hitler chose to join the DAP rather than spy on it. He resigned from the army and became the group’s 55th member. Over the following year, Hitler refined his talent for political speeches and became one of the small party’s best orators.
Reinvention under Hitler
In early 1920, the DAP began to grow and reform, in large part due to Hitler’s influence. It reinvented itself as the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei or ‘National Socialist German Workers’ Party’. (The term ‘Nazi’, an abbreviation of National Socialist devised by a journalist, was not widely used until around 1930 and was unpopular within the party itself.)
During this period, Hitler worked for the party as an organiser, propagandist and public speaker. In February 1920, he convened a party rally attended by 2,000 people, the NSDAP’s largest gathering to that point. He also assisted Drexler and Feder with drafting the NSDAP’s political manifesto, a 25-point list of its core ideas and policies.
By mid-1921, most NSDAP members, including Drexler himself, acknowledged Hitler as the party’s obvious leader. In July, Drexler stood down as chairman to make way for Hitler. Two months later, Hitler scrapped the NSDAP’s council and declared himself the party’s Fuhrer (absolute leader).
Two years after joining the DAP, Hitler was now solely responsible for policy and decision-making. He ordered the formation of a paramilitary branch, the Sturmabteilung (SA), to deal with political opponents. He formed the Hitler-Jugend (Hitler Youth) to attract young people to the party, acquired a newspaper and adopted the swastika as the party’s emblem.
By the end of 1921, the NSDAP had several thousand members, a significant improvement on the few dozen it could claim back in late 1919.
Growth in the 1920s
The NSDAP grew slowly through 1921-22. It was popular with ex-soldiers who identified with decorated war veteran Hitler and sympathised with his passionate nationalism and attacks on the Weimar government. Small businessmen and unemployed workers, in search of answers to their own miseries, also joined the group.
Hitler’s rousing speeches identified and honed in on convenient scapegoats: the ‘November criminals’ who signed the 1918 armistice, liberals and socialists who signed the hated Treaty of Versailles in 1919, communists who threatened revolution, Jewish bankers and conspirators who, according to Hitler, were plotting to destroy the German state. Well oiled by free beer at NSDAP meetings and rallies, Hitler’s audiences lapped up these conspiracy theories, hanging on the Fuhrer’s every word and applauding his calls for the overthrow of the Weimar government.
Despite their growing popularity, Hitler and the NSDAP remained a regional phenomenon during the early 1920s. Their supporter base was mostly in Bavaria; they were hardly known of in northern, western or central Germany or Berlin. This was a problem Hitler needed to address if he was to one day rule the nation.
A historian’s view:
“Since the inception of the Nazi Party, social scientists have attempted to define its nature in terms of its membership. Scholars have described the party variously as a class movement, a regional movement, an anti-urban revolt against modernity, a generational revolt, and even as a collection of losers, cut-throats and criminals.”
1. The Nazi Party or National German Workers’ Party (NSDAP) began life as the German Workers’ Party (DAP). It was formed by a small group of nationalists in January 1919.
2. Adolf Hitler first attended DAP meetings in September 1919, after being sent to spy on it for the Reichswehr. Hitler soon joined the DAP and rose to prominence within the group.
3. In 1920 the DAP re-formed as the NSDAP. Hitler was one of the key figures in its reorganisation, expansion and ideological platform, and by September 1921 he had become its Fuhrer (leader).
4. The NSDAP was primarily a nationalist party that sought the restoration of German power, prosperity and prestige. It was popular with ex-soldiers, failed businessmen and unemployed blue collar workers.
5. The NSDAP continued to grow through 1921-22, reaching a membership of several thousand people – however its supporter base remained very much in southern Germany, mainly in Bavaria.