Until the late 1920s, the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP, better known to history as the Nazis) was a minor political party, one of several nationalist groups on the fringe of Weimar politics. It emerged from humble beginnings, beginning in January 1919 as a tiny Bavarian group called the German Workers’ Party (DAP, short for Deutsche Arbeitpartei). The party’s founding members were unremarkable characters. Anton Drexler was a factory worker and aspiring poet who had supported German involvement in World War I. Gottfried Feder was an economist with a grudge against greedy bankers. Karl Harrer and Dietrich Eckart were insignificant figures, both previously involved in writing and publishing political pamphlets containing nationalist and anti-Semitic ideas. All four had links to Germany’s volkisch movement; all were strong nationalists who accepted the deluded stab-in-the-back theory as fact. Together they coddled together a few dozen followers and met sporadically through 1919, where they cursed the SPD government, foreign powers and Jews.
The DAP’s fate changed irrevocably with the arrival of a new member: Adolf Hitler. He first arrived in September 1919, attending his first meetings as a Reichswehr spy before becoming swept up in its political ideas. The DAP’s early members were struck by the passion and forcefulness of Hitler’s public speaking. The party grew steadily through 1920, due in some part to Hitler’s influence. It reinvented itself as the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (NSDAP, or National Socialist German Workers’ Party. In February 1920 Hitler convened a rally attended by 2,000 people, the party’s largest gathering to that point. The NSDAP also adopted a political manifesto, the ’25 Points’, outlining its core ideas and policies.
In July 1921 Drexler stood down as party chairman, allowing Hitler to fill this role. 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 (the SA, later known as the ‘Brownshirts’) to deal with political opponents. He also formed the Hitler-Jugend (Hitler Youth) to attract young people to the party, acquired a newspaper and adopted the swastika (a common motif) as the party’s emblem. By the end of 1921, the NSDAP had several thousand members, a considerable improvement on the few dozens of late 1919.
Hans Mommsen, historian
The NSDAP grew slowly through 1921-22. It was popular with ex-soldiers, who identified with the decorated war veteran Hitler, sympathising with his passionate nationalism and his 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 delivered convenient scapegoats for Germany’s problems: the ‘November criminals’ who signed the armistice, the liberals and socialists who signed the hated Treaty of Versailles, the communists who threatened revolution in Germany, the Jewish bankers and conspirators who plotted to undermine and destroy the German state. Well oiled by free beer supplied 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.
Yet for all their popularity in and around Munich, Hitler and the NSDAP were very much a regional phenomenon. Their supporter base was mostly in Bavaria; they were hardly known in northern, western or central Germany or in the capital. This would change after Hitler’s failed attempt to overthrow the Bavarian provincial government (November 1923), which thrust the NSDAP leader into the national spotlight. Hitler’s treason trial and his political diatribe in the courtroom received significant coverage and helped increase the party’s national profile. On his release from prison in 1924, Hitler pledged to transform the NSDAP from a revolutionary movement into a legitimate parliamentary party – not to participate in democracy but to infiltrate it and destroy it from within. Nevertheless, for much of the 1920s, the NSDAP remained a largely insignificant party holding just a handful of Reichstag seats. Hitler’s extremist rhetoric won him some supporters but alienated a much larger section of the German electorate. It would take the economic catastrophe of the Great Depression to boost the NSDAP’s popularity and electoral fortunes.
1. The Nazi Party, or NSDAP, began as the DAP, a small workers’ party of nationalist ideas, formed in January 1919.
2. Hitler joined the DAP in September 1919, at first to spy on it. He quickly joined and rose to prominence within the group.
3. In 1920 it re-formed as the NSDAP, and Hitler contributed to its organisation, expansion and ideological platform.
4. Hitler was the NSDAP’s most charismatic figure, and by September 1921 he had become its Fuhrer (leader).
5. The NSDAP continued to grow through 1921-22, though its supporter base remained very much in southern Germany.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “The National Socialists (NSDAP)”, Alpha History, 2014, accessed [today’s date], https://alphahistory.com/weimarrepublic/national-socialists-nsdap/.