The National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP), also known as the National Socialists or more colloquially as the Nazis, were a right-wing nationalist party active in the Weimar era. Formed in the southern German kingdom of Bavaria, the NSDAP and its leader, Adolf Hitler, assumed control of Germany in 1933-34 and brought the Weimar Republic to an end.
Until the late 1920s, the NSDAP was a minor 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 minor figures with a history of publishing nationalist and anti-Semitic material.
All four men 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. At these meetings, they lamented the loss of German power and cursed the Social Democratic Party (SPD) government, foreign powers and Jews.
A new member
The DAP’s fate changed irrevocably with the arrival of a new member. Adolf Hitler first joined the DAP in September 1919, attending his first meetings as a Reichswehr. Hitler shared the group’s ideas and prejudices, however, and he quickly became swept up in its activities. 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 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.
Hitler as führer
In July 1921, Anton Drexler stood down as party chairman, allowing Hitler to step into this role. Two months later, Hitler scrapped the NSDAP’s council and declared himself the party’s führer (absolute leader).
Two years after joining the DAP, Hitler was now solely responsible for policy and decision-making. He ordered the organisation of a paramilitary branch, the Sturmabteilung (the SA, later known as the ‘Brownshirts’). Filled at first with fisty-happy ex-soldiers and drunken brawlers, the SA would serve as the NSDAP’s muscle.
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 a few dozen in late 1919.
The NSDAP in the early 1920s
The NSDAP grew slowly through 1921-22. It was popular with ex-soldiers, who identified with decorated war veteran Hitler, sympathising with his passionate nationalism and his attacks on the Weimar government. Small businessmen and unemployed workers in search of easy 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 bled the people and undermined the German state.
Well oiled by the free beer supplied at NSDAP meetings and rallies, Hitler’s audiences lapped up these conspiracy theories, hanging on every word and applauding his calls for the overthrow of the Weimar government.
For all their popularity in and around Munich, however, Hitler and the NSDAP remained a regional phenomenon. Their supporter base was mostly in Bavaria; they were hardly known in northern, western or central Germany or in the capital, Berlin.
The Munich putsch
This would change after the Munich putsch. In November 1923, Hitler and several hundred supporters stormed a Munich beer hall, detained those present and attempted to instigate a nationalist revolution, beginning with the overthrow of the Bavarian provincial government.
Hitler’s attempted putsch failed inside two days but it thrust the NSDAP and its leader into the national spotlight. Hitler was arrested and his trial in Munich became something of a sideshow. His courtroom diatribes received significant press coverage and helped increase the party’s profile.
Despite being convicted of treason, the NSDAP leader was sentenced to just five years in prison and served less than a year. He used this time in prison to dictate his personal and political memoir, Mein Kampf.
On his release from prison in 1924, Hitler pledged to transform the NSDAP from a revolutionary movement into a legitimate parliamentary party. He had no wish to participate in democracy, only to infiltrate it and destroy it from within.
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 a larger section of the German electorate ignored the NSDAP and saw its leader as a Chaplinesque crank.
If not for the Great Depression, Adolf Hitler and the NSDAP may well have remained a historical footnote. Instead, Hitler and his party were able to exploit the economic catastrophe of 1929-32 and move from the fringes of German politics into the mainstream.
A historian’s view:
“The breakthrough of the NSDAP as a mass movement was the decisive event in the last phase of the Weimar Republic. At times the NSDAP was able to mobilise more than a third of the electorate, at the expensive of the moderate bourgeois parties. Its inroads among these voters revealed that large sectors of the moderate bourgeoisie were unwilling and unable to accept the social and political conditions of post-war Germany… This produced an unprecedented rise in protest voting that benefited first and foremost the NSDAP, a party that was extremely adept at exploiting the social resentments of the German middle classes.”
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.