As many people know, the infiltration and deconstruction of the Weimar Republic was orchestrated by Adolf Hitler and the National Socialists (NSDAP), a party that began as a small nationalist group in Bavaria. The rise of the NSDAP spanned the 1920s and was shaped by the events of that decade.
In the early 1920s, the NSDAP was a fringe party commanding just a handful of Reichstag seats and a few thousand members.
In the wake of the disastrous 1923 putsch in Munich, Hitler and the NSDAP undertook a shift in strategy and a period of transformation.
During the 1920s, the NSDAP sought to broaden its support and reinvent itself as a legitimate political party. This necessitated Hitler’s transformation from tub-thumping revolutionary to credible politician.
Reorganisation as a party
Released from prison at the end of 1924, Hitler told NSDAP members the group would enter mainstream politics, win seats in the Reichstag and seize power from within the parliamentary system they despised. The party, Hitler told his followers, would tone down its more extreme rhetoric, expand its membership and become a national movement.
The mechanics of this transformation were not managed by Hitler but left to his talented subordinates. Under their direction, the party campaigned effectively, made good use of propaganda and employed clever tactics to expand its supporter base.
Nazi operatives infiltrated other right-wing organisations, including political groups, returned soldiers’ leagues and paramilitary groups. Once established inside these groups, they recruited talented members or orchestrated mergers with the NSDAP. The Nazis also lured high profile right-wing leaders to their party, thus inheriting their followers.
The NSDAP utilised volkisch rhetoric and propaganda to appeal to Germany’s farmers and rural population. As a result, the party picked up considerable support in rural areas and around the city of Nuremberg.
The NSDAP became popular with farmers, small business owners, public servants and others in the middle-class who felt ignored or betrayed by the Weimar government. The Nazis failed to muster much support in industrial and working-class areas, such as Berlin, Hamburg and the Ruhr, where support for the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and Communist Party (KPD) remained strong.
By 1928, the NSDAP’s membership had grown to 108,000, a far cry from the few thousand members on its books at the time of the 1923 Munich putsch. Hitler was also busy seeking financial support from German business interests.
Little electoral success
Despite this growth in both membership and support, however, the NSDAP failed to achieve much at the ballot box. The party fielded candidates in elections both for the national Reichstag and the various provincial Landtags – but the improving economic conditions of the mid-1920s prevented the NSDAP from gaining much electoral support.
In May 1924, the NSDAP won 32 seats in the Reichstag – but by the December 1924 election, this number had dropped to just 14. In contrast, Germany’s largest right-wing party, the German National People’s Party (DNVP), increased its representation in both 1924 elections.
The economic recovery of the mid-1920s took its toll on all right-wing parties. As a consequence, the NSDAP’s electoral fortunes did not improve much between 1924 and 1929. In 1928, the National Socialists won just 12 Reichstag seats while the DNVP lost 30 of its seats. In contrast, the SPD increased its share to more than 30 per cent of the Reichstag.
Hitler’s patient game
This did not concern Hitler, who was prepared to bide his time. The party was slowly growing and tapping into dissatisfaction and resentment wherever it could.
Propaganda was carefully chosen to exploit the grievances of particular classes. Blut und Boden (‘Blood and Soil’), for example, was chosen to appeal to German farmers hit by a slump in agricultural prices in 1927.
Increases in NSDAP membership were reflected by attendances at party rallies and meetings. In 1927, more than 20,000 people attended the NSDAP’s third rally in Nuremberg, a hefty turn-out for any political event.
The NSDAP’s paramilitary branch, the Sturmabteilung (SA) also grew rapidly in the late 1920s, soaking up former soldiers, Freikorps members and disgruntled young men. By 1930, SA numbers had reached more than 80,000, concerning both the civilian government and the Reichswehr.
Obtaining corporate backing
Hitler himself spent the late 1920s courting Germany’s upper echelons: wealthy industrialists, press magnates and military generals. The NSDAP leader sought their political and moral backing – and, if they were wealthy enough, donations to fund the growth of his party.
One notable Nazi backer was Alfred Hugenberg, Germany’s largest newspaper owner and, from 1928, the leader of the DNVP. Hugenberg supported Hitler with sizeable donations as well as favourable coverage in his newspapers.
The rise of the NSDAP was nearing its zenith. By the start of 1929, Hitler was in charge of a large and well-organised party, boasting a significant membership base and a powerful paramilitary group. The NSDAP was able to fund its political activities and it enjoyed growing support in high circles.
A historian’s view:
“The older section of the middle class, comprising artisans, small retailers and peasant farmers, formed the core of the support for Hitler, and were showing support for him before the Depression; theirs was a disillusionment with the structure and policies of the Republic itself. To these was subsequently added the weight of much of the new middle class – the non-manual employees, civil servants and teachers – who aligned themselves with Nazism as a direct result of the Depression.”
1. After his release from prison in 1924, Adolf Hitler sought to transform the NSDAP into a legitimate political force, expanding its supporter base and becoming a national movement.
2. The NSDAP developed the structures of a political party, used propaganda and expanded beyond Bavaria, establishing itself across Germany in the search for members and supporters.
3. The period 1924-28 was one of growth and restructuring for the NSDAP. This growth was not matched by electoral success, as other parties continued to dominate the Reichstag.
4. Despite these poor electoral returns, the NSDAP continued to gain support, particularly among German farmers and members of the disgruntled middle-classes.
5. Hitler also cultivated the support of influential figures in capitalism, industry, the military and the press.