The rise of the NSDAP

For most of the 1920s, the NSDAP was a tiny fringe party, commanding just a few Reichstag seats and a small supporter base in Bavaria. But the mid-1920s was also a period of transformation for Hitler and his supporters, who revised their tactics in the wake of the disastrous 1923 putsch. The NSDAP worked to broaden its support and reinvent itself as a legitimate political party. Released from prison at the end of 1924, Hitler told NSDAP members that he no longer intended to seize control through a revolution. Instead, the Nazis 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 revolutionary rhetoric, expand its membership and work towards becoming a national movement. Thus began the rise of the NSDAP.

This transformation was not overseen by Hitler but was left to his talented subordinates, who campaigned effectively, made good use of propaganda and employed clever tactics to expand the party’s supporter base. Nazi operatives infiltrated other right-wing groups – political groups, returned soldiers’ leagues and paramilitary groups – and orchestrated mergers with the NSDAP. They recruited high profile right-wing leaders to the party, which thus inherited 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. By 1928, the NSDAP was 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 SPD and KPD remained strong.

By 1928 the NSDAP’s membership had grown to 108,000, a far cry from its few thousand members at the time of the 1923 Munich putsch. Hitler was also busy seeking financial support from German business interests. But despite this growth in both membership and support, the NSDAP failed to achieve much at the ballot box. The party fielded candidates in elections at both levels: 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 14. In contrast, Germany’s largest right-wing party, the DNVP, increased its representation in both 1924 elections.

“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.”
Stephen Lee, historian

The NSDAP’s electoral fortunes did not improve between 1924 and 1929. The economic recovery of the mid-1920s took its toll on right-wing parties. In 1928 the NSDAP 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. But 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.

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. At the start of 1929 Hitler was in charge of a large and well-organised party, a significant membership base and a powerful paramilitary group. The NSDAP also enjoyed a measure of financial security and growing support in high circles.

1. After his release from prison in 1924, Hitler set about transforming the NSDAP into a legitimate political party.
2. It expanded beyond Bavaria, establishing itself across Germany and seeking to attract new members.
3. The period 1924-28 was one of growth and restructuring for the NSDAP – though not of any electoral success.
4. Despite poor election returns, the NSDAP continued to gain support, boasting over 100,000 members by 1929.
5. Hitler also cultivated the support of influential figures in capitalism, industry, the military and the press.

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