Prof Rempel lecture: the depression

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The Great Depression: Parliamentary Paralysis and Presidential Government

This is a reprint of an article by
Professor Gerhard Rempel, who was Professor of History at Western New England College, Springfield, Massachusetts. The lecture is provided here as it would seem to be no longer available online.


Even before the famous New York stock-market crash on October 24, 1929, business activity in Germany had experienced a slowdown resulting in 1.3 million unemployed by the fall of that year. The stock-market crash, however, had an even greater effect on the German economy because it led to the recall of short-term American loans that had helped fuel Germany's economic prosperity in the late 1920s. Business failures multiplied and unemployment rose dramatically to 3 million in 1930, 4.35 million in 1931, and 6 million by winter of 1932. The last figure meant that one in three of the working population was out of work. This economic crisis created a climate of despair for many Germans. Many workers, especially hard hit by unemployment, remained committed to the left but turned increasingly away from the democratically oriented Social Democrats (SPD) toward the more radical Communist party (KPD), which desired the overthrow of the Weimar Republic.

The middle classes, who remembered what the inflation of 1923 had done to them economically and socially, were alarmed. Although not unemployed, they feared the eventual loss of their jobs and their social prestige and status. As the workers became more radicalized and joined the KPD in larger numbers, the middle classes grew apprehensive at the thought of a communist revolution. Small businessmen resented big business and big labor. As the depression progressed from 1930 to 1932, the middle classes, like the workers, tended to become radicalized.

Unlike the workers, however, they found the answers to their insecurity in the messages of the NSDAP. Nazi propaganda provided simple but apparently understandable reasons for the economic collapse. The Nazis blamed the Versailles settlement and reparations, the Weimar system itself, the "November criminals" who created it, and the political parties that perpetuated it. They blamed the Communists, who wanted a revolution that would destroy the traditional German values. They blamed big business and the economic profiteers who were ruining the middle classes. And they blamed the Jews, who allegedly stood behind Marxism, the Weimar system, much of big business, and economic profiteering. The Nazi accusations were unsophisticated but effective. Lower middle-class unemployed and employed embraced a Nazi party that promised to eliminate this corrupt Weimar system.

The economic, social, and psychological crises created by the Great Depression had dire political consequences for Weimar democracy. Beginning in 1928, the "Great Coalition," which included the left-wing Social Democrats and the conservative People's Party (DVP), had governed Germany. This unlikely combination worked largely because of the economic recovery and the political acumen of the DVP leader Gustav Stresemann, the primary architect of Germany's progress between 1924 and 1929. His death in October 1929 and the simultaneous economic decline severely tested the coalition. It fell completely apart in March of 1930 over the issue of the rising cost of unemployment benefits. The DVP, representing the interests of industrialists, wished to reduce unemployment benefits. On the other hand the SPD, unwilling to see any loss in the benefits gained by labor since 1918, favored an increase in unemployment funds with employers shouldering half of the burden. Neither side was willing to compromise, and the government resigned.

The collapse of the Great Coalition and the continuing economic chaos created a parliamentary crisis that opened the door to the so-called presidential system, built upon the extension of the president's constitutional powers. Article 48 of the Weimar constitution gave the president emergency powers to restore law and order in a crisis, including use of the army if necessary. However, the Reichstag had the right to revoke these emergency measures. Because of the imprecision of Article 48's wording, it was left to the Reich president himself to determine when a threat to law and order existed. This power had been invoked by the first Weimar president, Friedrich Ebert, to defend the republic against armed attacks. It had, in fact, saved Weimar democracy on a number of occasions.

This power of the president to rule in an emergency was now enlarged to cover the crisis created by the depression and the failure of the parliamentary parties to form a majority government that could deal with the economic difficulties. The president would form a new government composed of a chancellor and cabinet ministers. The government would not be affected by the interests of the political parties but would rule by emergency decrees issued by the president in lieu of laws passed by the Reichstag. Such a government would depend on presidential support rather than on the Reichstag.

Several forces converged to create this presidential system. Reich president Paul von Hindenburg, at heart a monarchist, had never fully accepted the republican system of party politics and had come to detest the squabbling of the parties. The president was old (he had been first elected in 1925 at the age of seventy-eight) and was easily persuaded by his advisers to pursue a new course because of the political stalemate . The president's state secretary, Otto Meissner, and other members of the state bureaucracy favored a change to a more authoritarian system that would be "above parties" and, through use of the president's emergency power, independent of the Reichstag.

The army favored the change as well. It felt that the Weimar system, especially because of the power of the pacifistic left, had never created a climate favorable to army growth. The army's political expert, General Kurt von Schleicher, was the foremost exponent of a presidential system. Because of his intimate ties to Hindenburg's advisers and to Hindenburg himself, he was able to manipulate the appointment and dismissal of chancellors and cabinets behind the scenes. But Schleicher was not a right-wing fanatic; he wished to use the presidential system not to destroy but to maintain the life of the republic.

Despite Schleicher's objectives, it is easy to see in hindsight that the presidential system meant the demise of democratic rule. The Germans were politically inexperienced, and to many of them democracy seemed merely a sham anyway. A more authoritarian system, reminiscent of imperial Germany, was envisioned as Germany's salvation. In many ways, Weimar democracy ended in 1930 with the establishment of the presidential system. It prepared. people for the dictatorial rule of the Nazis.

Upon Schleicher's recommendation, the first chancellor under the presidential system was Heinrich Bruening, one of the leaders of the Catholic Center party. Bruening tried to deal with the depression by applying traditional economic theory, and submitted a balanced budget to the Reichstag in July 1930. When the Reichstag failed to pass it, Bruening had Hindenburg invoke Article 48 and implement his program by presidential decrees. The Reichstag, acting within its constitutional rights, overrode the chancellor and revoked these decrees. Normally, upon this vote of no confidence, Bruening and his government should have resigned. But, considering his government a presidential one and above parliamentary politics, Bruening had Hindenburg dissolve the Reichstag and establish new elections for September 14, 1930. Meanwhile, Bruening continued to run the government and even reinstated his economic agenda through the use of Article 48.

Bruening believed that the forthcoming election would vindicate his efforts at strong leadership and produce a parliamentary majority that would bolster his presidential chancellorship. But he was very wrong. The economic crisis in Germany had spawned fear and insecurity. Supporters of the republic attacked the government for destroying the constitution. Others blamed the government for the economic crisis. The extremists of left and right saw new possibilities in the midst of crisis. In the end, they were right.

The Reichstag election of September 14, 1930, proved to be the decisive breakthrough that Hitler and the Nazis had planned for. Even Hitler was surprised by the magnitude of the Nazi victory. The Nazi vote went from 800,000 in the 1928 election to 6.5 million, or 18.3 percent of the total. This gave the Nazis 107 seats and made them the second largest party in the Reichstag after the Social Democrats. The NSDAP made its best showing among farmers and the middle class, especially the lower-middle-class voters in rural, small-town Protestant areas in northern, central, and eastern Germany. The Nazis also gained support from considerable numbers of new voters and pulled middle-class voters away from center and right-wing parties such as the People's party (DVP), the Democrats, and the Nationalists (DNVP). These last three parties lost 67 seats in the Reichstag.

The Nazi shift in strategy in 1928 had proved to be a master stroke. The party had been organized so well that the Nazis easily made the transition to a mass movement. Within three months of the election, they added another 100,000 members. The SA began to mushroom. The Nazi party had become a formidable force.

Hitler and the Nazis believed that more electoral victories would eventually produce a majority that would give them power. Although this did not happen, Nazi electoral successes were an important factor in Hitler's eventual claims to the chancellorship. In turn, a crucial element in the party's election successes was its superior use of mass propaganda.

Elections and Nazi Propaganda, 1930-1932

The Nazis became adept at propaganda. Hitler emphasized its importance and established the principles on which it should be based. Propaganda must be addressed to the masses and not to the intellectuals. Its function was to call the attention of the masses to certain facts, not to educate them. Since the masses were influenced more by emotions than by reason, propaganda must be aimed primarily at the emotions. Given the limited intelligence of the masses, propaganda had to focus on constant repetition of a few basic ideas, eventually establishing these ideas as truths in the minds of the masses. In addition, mass meetings were psychologically important in creating support for a movement. They offered a sense of community, gave meaning to life, and created the emotional effects that gave people strong convictions.'

The man responsible for putting Hitler's principles into practice was Joseph Goebbels, the master propagandist of the Third Reich. Goebbels, the son of a Catholic working-class family in the Rhineland, had received a Ph.D. in German literature from the University of Heidelberg in 1921. After failing in his attempts at a professional career and writing a novel, Goebbels joined the Nazi party in 1924 and became a collaborator of Gregor Strasser. A cynical opportunist and shrewd realist, Goebbels switched to Hitler's side in 1926 and was rewarded with the position of Gauleiter of Berlin. His tremendous success in Berlin, achieved through the brilliant use of propaganda and his oratory (many thought he was as good an orator as Hitler), brought a new appointment by Hitler in 1929 as Reich propaganda leader of the NSDAP. In this position, Goebbels played a crucial role in the electoral campaigns from 1929 to 1932.

The Reich Propaganda Office under Goebbels maintained control over the propaganda activities of the party. Propaganda departments were set up at each level of party offices. Although subordinate to the political leadership at each level, propaganda offices had their own chain of command as well. Information on local activities was collected and passed up to higher levels. The Reich Propaganda Office sent out specific directives to lower levels by means of a monthly magazine. These directives specified the themes and slogans to be used at mass rallies and underscored the necessity of adapting subjects to the interests of the local audience. The Reich Propaganda Office printed standard posters and pamphlets for all districts and distributed patriotic and party movies.

Recognizing the need for effective orators at all levels, including small villages, the NSDAP established a Speakers' School for the training of propaganda speakers. Students memorized set speeches and rehearsed answers to questions in front of mirrors. Two thousand speakers were trained in 1929 and 1930 alone. The program was expanded with the establishment by Fritz Reinhardt of a correspondence school. Students memorized a simple speech written by Reinhardt, who also corrected speeches written by the students themselves. Each month questions and answers on a new topic would be sent to each student. Undoubtedly these methods did not produce great orators, but they did give to the Nazi party a cadre of dedicated speakers who pushed the party line in every corner of Germany.

The most effective regional and national speakers were used on more important occasions. Through posters and leaflet campaigns controlled from above, local groups mobilized people for mass rallies of varying sizes. The Nazis used a technique of saturation advertising. They would schedule 70 to 200 rallies in the space of one to two weeks in one district. These rallies were carefully planned to make maximum use of party groups. This saturation strategy was used particularly where there was hope for a major electoral breakthrough for the party. This type of campaign usually made use of Hitler as the featured speaker.

In fact, the Nazis were pioneers in modern electioneering techniques. They covered Germany in whirlwind campaigns by car, train, and airplane. "Hitler Over Germany" was the name attached to one of Hitler's campaign tours, which covered fifty cities in fifteen days. The Nazis also established voter recruitment drives that continued both during and between elections.

Undoubtedly, there was a relationship between the number of young people in the Nazi party and the dynamism of its electoral politics. As we have seen, young people were especially attracted to Nazism. It offered a politics of activism, clear-cut lines of authority, and opportunities for leadership at an early age. Compared with the other political parties (except for the Communists, who attracted working-class youth for similar reasons), Nazism certainly offered a break with old conventions and a hope of restoring German greatness. Nazism gave young people a chance to actually be part of this process, to feel a part of historical destiny. In a sense, Nazism liberated in young people the tremendous energy that comes from participating in a politics based on the belief that one is indeed going to create a new world or a new age. Many observers have commented on how the Nazis, regardless of the size of their local group, seemed to do more in election campaigns than all the other parties combined.

The mass meetings of the election campaigns were carefully organized to the smallest item. Marching bands, swarms of fluttering flags, shouts of Heil, the play of spotlights-all were precisely orchestrated to produce the maximum emotional effects on the crowd. Hitler's own rallies were except well managed. A Hamburg schoolteacher gave this impression of a rally she attended:

"The Fuehrer is coming!" A ripple went through the crowds. Around the speaker's platform one could see hands raised in the Hitler salute. A speaker opened the meeting, . . . A second speaker welcomed Hitler and made way for the man who had drawn 120,000 people of all classes and ages. There stood Hitler in a simple black coat and looked over the crowd, waiting-a forest of swastika pennants swished up, the jubilation of this moment was given vent in a roaring salute. Main theme: Out of parties shall grow a nation, the German nation. He censured the system ("I want to know what there is left to be ruined in this state!").... When the speech was over, there was roaring enthusiasm and applause. Hitler saluted, gave his thanks, the Horst Wessel song sounded out across the course.... Then he went.-How many look up to him with touching faith as their helper, their savior, their deliverer from unbearable distress."

This schoolteacher's impressions reveal the emotional impact of these rallies on the onlookers. They disclose as well the approach Hitler took to campaign themes. What were the Nazis telling the German people that made them so attractive to certain groups?

The Nazis successfully managed two fundamentally opposite approaches to the German voters. First of all, in their election campaigns they specifically geared their themes to the needs and fears of different social groups. In working-class areas, they campaigned against capitalism, offering to protect workers by destroying international high finance, or exploited the economic issues of unemployment. One Nazi campaign poster directed to the working class shows a Nazi destroying the stock exchange, which is labeled "International High Finance." Another poster, entitled "Work and Bread," pictures an arm with a Nazi armband, the hand offering tools to the outstretched hands of the unemployed. For the middle classes, the Nazis exploited fears of the communist revolutionary threat to private property. A Nazi poster portrayed a hideous skeleton in a Communist uniform against a red background with the caption "Only one man can save us from Bolshevism -Adolf Hitler." To appeal to lower middle-class businessmen, the Nazis attacked big department stores as a threat to shopkeepers, stressing that the attacks were really aimed at the Jews who controlled these stores. The Nazis were flexible, however. In areas where anti-Semitism was not popular, the Nazis would drop the attacks on Jews and focus instead on anticommunism, nationalism, and the defense of religious values. The last of these issues was important for Protestant voters.

The second half of the Nazis' dual approach blatantly contradicted the first. The Nazis denounced conflicts of interest and claimed to stand above classes and parties. They promised to overcome the old class and caste spirit and build a Volksgemeinschaft, a national community, a new Germany based on social equality. To create the new Germany, the Nazis would have to replace democracy with the principle of leadership. The Nazis also appealed to traditional militarism, national pride, and national honor, denouncing the Versailles treaty and the "traitors" who accepted and upheld it. Hitler believed that human beings are motivated by more than economic forces, that idealism, national honor, sacrifice, and dedication struck chords of emotion in his listeners. While his Nazi speakers in various regions of Germany could appeal to the specific interests of different groups, Hitler claimed to stand above it all. Hitler's only promise was to create a new Germany, a nation great and proud again, devoid of class differences and party infighting, a nation where all could work after the turmoil of Weimar democracy. Hitler struck a note to which many Germans responded from the depths of their souls.

Political Maneuvering

Since the unsuccessful Beer Hall Putsch, Hitler had pursued a legal strategy of working within the system to achieve power. The campaigns of 1930 to 1932, in which the Nazis sought power through victories at the ballot box, reflected this strategy. But Hitler and the Nazis did not plan to govern democratically. The Nazis made it clear that they intended to establish a new order under their sole direction once they came into power legally. Indeed, in the oath of legality Hitler had taken at a trial of young army officers in Leipzig in 1930, he had stated that the Nazis were entering the legal arena in order to make their party the ruling power. Once they possessed constitutional power, they would mold the state into "the shape we hold to be suitable." Parliamentary elections, however, proved to be a stumbling block, and the Nazis were forced to become involved in the intricate political maneuvering within the presidential system in order to come to power "legally."

Heinrich Bruening had failed miserably in the elections of 1930 to gain a center-right majority to support his presidential regime. Bruening's government, relying upon Hindenburg's use of Article 48, did survive, but only because the Social Democrats were unwilling to face new elections. Although that party considered Bruening's presidential regime a violation of the constitution, it was unwilling to bring down the government.

During 1931, Bruening's government proved unable to cope with Germany's problems. His difficulties were exacerbated by Nazi tactics. SA troops marched through the streets challenging Communists and engaging them in pitched battles. Themselves the instigators of this civil violence, the Nazis nevertheless blamed the government for being unable to curb the lawlessness on the streets of Germany. While claiming to work within the constitutional system to gain power, the Nazis worked at the same time within the Reichstag to undermine the parliamentary system and create additional chaos. Eighty-eight percent of the Nazi delegates were newcomers to the parliament; 60 percent were under forty years of age. Nazi delegates were effective obstructionists in the Reichstag. They boycotted sessions and disrupted parliamentary debates with shouting and calls for discussion of points of order. They did not want the system to work, but demanded its protection while pursuing a legal path to power.

Within the Nazi party one group in particular, the SA, favored a return to the path of revolution. Indeed, in April 1931 a group of SA leaders in Pomerania reproached Hitler thus: "the NSDAP had departed from the revolutionary course of true National Socialism for Germany's freedom, had pursued the reactionary line of a coalition party, and consequently had given up-purposely or accidentally-the pure ideal for which [SA leaders were] fighting."' Many SA members resented the control exercised over them by the political wing of the party while they were carrying out the strenuous and even life-threatening work of the party. Hitler was faced with a serious dilemma. He wanted to keep the SA on the legal path. He did not want to alienate the authorities and was especially fearful after his Beer Hall Putscb of creating a situation where the army would be used to crush his movement. At the same time, he had to conciliate the militants within the SA who wanted action. For the time being, Hitler managed to keep the SA in line by personal appeals for loyalty and vague promises of the SA as a reservoir of the future national army.

In 1931 and early 1932, Hitler worked on reestablishing his ties with conservative groups in Germany. In the summer of 1931, the Nazis agreed to cooperate again with their old Young Plan referendum allies, the German Nationalists (DNVP). This led to a demonstration with parades at Bad Harzburg in October. But Hitler once again demonstrated his independence by leaving the rostrum after the SA marched past, but before the Stahlhelm, the Nationalist version of the SA, had paraded.

Hitler made a concerted effort to woo industrialists and financiers in western Germany in a speech to that region's leading industrial magnates at the Industry Club in Duesseldorf in January 1932. He posed as the defender of their economic well-being who would destroy the Communists and establish an authoritarian government under which big business could thrive. Although Hitler did receive some money from a few big businessmen before 1933, only a minority of large industrialists supported the Nazis. Smaller businessmen at local levels accounted for considerably more contributions. Self-financing through membership dues, initiation fees, and sale of newspapers remained an important source of the party's income.

In October of 1931, Hitler attempted to convince Hindenburg that the Nazis should be allowed to form a government. Hindenburg had a very low opinion of Hitler and refused. With Hindenburg's term as president coming to an end in the spring of 1932, Hitler was confronted with a new decision whether or not to run for the presidency. Both Hindenburg and Hitler were reluctant to run. The old field marshal was eighty-four and would have preferred retirement. But he was warned that only he could prevent the election of Adolph Hitler, and reluctantly he agreed to run. He was supported not by the parties of the right, as in the election of 1925, but by the left and by moderate supporters of democracy, who now saw Hindenburg as their last hope to preserve the Weimar system against the Nazis. This was not a reassuring development for the future of the republic, since Hindenburg had once been an opponent of the republic and was now approaching senility. Hitler was not eager to run against the popular Hindenburg, knowing he would certainly lose. But as leader of the second largest party, he thought it crucial that the Nazis contest the election. Since he was an Austrian citizen, the tiny state of Brunswick, which had a considerable number of Nazi officeholders, made Hitler a state councilor, a position that automatically bestowed German citizenship upon him. Despite an intensive and exhausting campaign, Hitler gained only 30 percent of the vote. But since Hindenburg failed to gain an absolute majority (he had 49.45 percent of the vote), a second ballot was required, pitting Hitler against Hindenburg without the Nationalist candidate Theodor Duesterberg. This time Hindenburg achieved his absolute majority with 53 percent. Hitler's vote increased to almost 37 percent.

The reelection of Hindenburg set the stage for another change in the presidential system. Three days after the election, Hindenburg accepted Chancellor Bruening's recommendation for a ban of the SA because of its illegal activities during the election. General Kurt von Schleicher, originally a supporter of Bruening, began now to agitate against him. He was especially anxious to harness the Nazis to a new right-wing government and opposed the ban on the SA. Through Hindenburg's son Oskar, Schleicher put pressure on the Reich president to dismiss Bruening.

Hindenburg had already grown increasingly disenchanted with Heinrich Bruening. He blamed him for a political situation in which the Social Democrats and other moderate parties had been his chief support in the recent election. Moreover, Bruening had failed to solve the economic crisis, and his deflationary policies had led opponents to label him the Hunger Chancellor. The final and decisive strike against him, in Hindenburg's eyes, was his plan to carve up the estates of bankrupt Prussian landlords and distribute the land to landless peasants. The Junkers (of whom Hindenburg was one) objected, and Hindenburg agreed with them. By the summer of 1932, Hindenburg was willing to let go of Bruening. Bruening, having neglected to win favor in the Reichstag because he had ruled by presidential decree, had no support left. Hindenburg's only condition was a suitable replacement, and General Schleicher arranged that.

Schleicher's choice as the new chancellor was Franz von Papen, a Catholic aristocrat who had defected from the Center party because his political views were considerably closer to those of the German Nationalists. Schleicher considered Papen a person who could easily be controlled from behind the scenes. He hoped that Papen, a dedicated right-winger, would win back conservative support for the presidential government. Schleicher negotiated with Hitler to gain Nazi toleration of a Papen government. Fearing a civil war if the Nazis were not won over, Schleicher agreed to lift the ban on the SA and to call new Reichstag elections in return for Hitler's consent. Hitler agreed. Bruening was dismissed on May 30 and the Papen government installed. Reichstag elections were set for July 31, and the ban on the SA was lifted on June 14.

There now entered the German political arena a figure who played a crucial role in Hitler's accession to power. A cunning man, he proved to be dangerous not because of his craftiness but because he did not really have the political ability to play the role he thought he could. He entered big-time politics as a small-time player and was eventually outclassed by his opponents, especially Hitler. Papen was a reactionary who planned to end the democratic system by instituting an authoritarian order. To prove that his government could be effective and to win rightist support in the forthcoming elections, Papen used emergency decrees to depose the anti-Nazi Prussian state government run by a coalition of Social Democrats and the Center party. He purged the Prussian civil service, replacing government officials loyal to the Weimar Republic with Nationalists. Since Prussia constituted almost three fifths of Germany, this action was a serious blow to the republic. It provided an example to the Nazis of how to take over power in the federal states by pseudolegal means. The relative ease of the Papen takeover convinced Nazis that the process could be easily repeated. Papen's action in Prussia was a step toward an authoritarian regime.

The Nazis waged a vigorous campaign for the July 31 elections. The election campaign itself was conducted in an atmosphere reminiscent of civil war: frequent street battles took place between Nazis and Communists after the ban on the SA was lifted. Almost 1 00 men were killed and over a thousand wounded in one month's battles in Prussia alone. The Nazis again stressed the inability of the government to maintain law and order.

On July 31, 1932, the Nazis won their most impressive victory to date. The party advanced from 108 to 230 delegates and was now the largest party in the Reichstag. The Nazis had won 37 percent of the vote and yet had failed to gain the majority they thought they could win. Goebbels commented in his diary: "Conclusion: we must come to power. Since the last presidential election we have greatly increased our votes. We'll drop dead from winning elections."

Hitler now demanded that he be made chancellor and that the Nazis be allowed to fill the major cabinet positions. Hindenburg refused and suggested that Hitler take the vice-chancellorship and enter a coalition government. Hitler rejected this offer, believing he must hold out for the top position if the Nazis were to achieve their goals. The morale of the Nazi party began to suffer badly. Great expectations of success had not materialized. The SA began again to agitate for a revolutionary course of action since the path of legality seemed at an end. Hitler, ever fearful of army suppression of the movement, rejected any illegal action.

Hitler believed that the Nazis still occupied a good position. The Nazis and Communists now made up 52 percent of the Reichstag. Although these extremist parties of the left and the right would never make a coalition government, they could essentially cripple the parliamentary system. Hermann Goering had, in fact, been elected president of the Reichstag. Since the Reichstag had the right by Article 48 to repeal any presidential emergency decrees, the Nazis and Communists could also wreak havoc with a presidential government by coordinating their efforts.

Faced with this dilemma, Papen called for a new election when the Reichstag met in September. Aware of sagging Nazi morale, he hoped that a loss of votes would make the Nazis more cooperative. The Nazis feared another election campaign. After the July 31 Reichstag elections, they were psychologically and financially unprepared for another vigorous campaign. The Nazis' fears seemed justified: their vote fell from 37 to 33 percent, with a corresponding decrease in Reichstag seats to 196. It was a costly defeat for the Nazis. It broke the myth of invincibility that they had fostered. It appeared to contemporaries that the Nazis had peaked in July and then had lost much of their political momentum. By the end of 1932 the Nazi party seemed at an important crossroads.

The Nazi Party on the Eve of Power

By the end of 1932, membership in the Nazi party had risen to 450,000, with an additional 400,000 men in the SA. The latter was now four times the size of the regular army.

The composition of the Nazi rank and file remained consistent with that from 1924 to 1930, and in its expansion into a mass movement the Nazi party continued to attract people from all classes. Although both the lower middle class and elite were overrepresented in terms of the total German population, in absolute numbers the Nazi party was predominantly a lower middle-class party. One could also argue that the economic depression was not the only direct cause of the growth of the NSDAP toward the end of the republic. After all, workers, who suffered the most from unemployment, were underrepresented in the party. The lower middle class and upper middle class (the elite), which suffered the least, were overrepresented. No doubt, fear of hardship rather than hardship itself motivated many Germans to become Nazis. But noneconomic variables, such as disenchantment with political democracy, the trauma associated with the loss of the war and subsequent yearning for national greatness, fear of communism, anti-Semitism, and an inclination to militarism, also help to explain their willingness to become Nazis. These factors transcend class differences and economic determinism. There is no doubt that Hitler and the Nazis cleverly appealed to these fears and hopes.

As more people joined the Nazi party the average age of joiners began to rise, from thirty in 1930 to thirty-two in 1932. By the end of 1932 the percentage of female members had increased slightly, from 5.9 percent to 7.8 percent. This increase was due to the greater attention given to females because of their voting potential, the development of specific organizations for women, and the example of upper-class women who joined the party and thereby attracted other women.

A social profile of Nazi leaders shows little change from the period 1924-1929. With the expansion of the party, there was, of course, a tendency to seek out more highly trained professional people, thus increasing the number of upper-middle-class leaders. Recent analyses of elections show that although the Nazis did draw from all classes, they gained their main strength from the middle class, especially the lower middle class. Despite the effort to woo workers, the latter remained mostly with the SPD or transferred their allegiance to the KPD. The Nazis gained support in lower-middle-class areas in the small towns and countryside of northern, western, and eastern Germany, areas that were heavily Protestant. Overall the Nazis were weakest in big cities, such as Berlin and Leipzig, and in industrial areas and Catholic rural areas. The urban vote for the Nazis tended to come from upper-middle-class districts where it was often substantial. The Nazis were extremely weak in predominantly Catholic rural areas. The significance of the religious factor can best be seen in Bavaria: the northern part, which was heavily Protestant, tended to vote Nazi while Catholic southern Bavaria gave the Nazis their lowest vote in any section of Germany. This was, of course, where the party had started and where its leadership was still based.

Although the Nazis had failed in elections to achieve a majority in the Reichstag, they had managed to gain control of five German federal states: Anhalt, Oldenburg, Mecklenburg, Thuringia, and Brunswick. In addition, they had gained a fair number of offices throughout Germany. These Nazi officeholders presented a taste of what national rule would be like. They politicized all aspects of life under their control. In the state of Anhalt, they expelled the Bauhaus School of Design from Dessau because of its modern approach to architecture.

For all its efforts, it was apparent by the end of 1932 that the Nazi party was in considerable trouble. As Joseph Goebbels remarked in his diary: "The year 1932 was one eternal run of bad luck. One must beat it into pieces.... The past was difficult and the future is dark and gloomy; all prospects and hopes have completely disappeared." The NSDAP had many problems. In addition to the psychological tests of apathy and depression, the party was faced with seemingly insurmountable debts. Rumors continued to circulate about incipient SA revolts. There were additional losses in state and local elections in November and December, and it was clear that the Nazis had reached a limit with their voting constituency. They could not break the refusal of Catholic and working-class voters to vote for them. Economic improvement in the winter of 1932 made the Nazis realize that they might lose even more of the protest vote that had made their electoral successes possible.

Finally, a minority within the party was critical of Hitler's unwillingness to enter a coalition. Hitler's demands, even after the election reversal, remained the same the chancellorship for himself and a Nazi-dominated cabinet. Gregor Strasser, in particular, feared that the Nazis would miss their chance unless they entered a coalition and tried to gain power through the "back door." Hitler disagreed, believing that progress to full Nazi control through this approach would be too slow and the SA would get out of control from impatience. Strasser's position, however, was shared by others, creating the possibility of a split in the party. But renewed political maneuvering led indirectly to the salvation of the Nazi movement and to the appointment of Hitler as chancellor.


This is a reprint of an article by
Professor Gerhard Rempel, who was Professor of History at Western New England College, Springfield, Massachusetts. The lecture is provided here as it would seem to be no longer available online.


Related casahistoria sites on this topic:

  Collapse of Weimar & Hitler's Rise   
  Hitler Home & Structure of the Hitler State
Background | Ideas | The Nazi State: Leadership & Party | Control,
Propaganda & Art |Economics
  Living in the Nazi State:
Social Policy (KDF |Youth |Education )
Persecution (Antisocials, Jewish Attacks, 1933-39|Final solution)
  Women & Family in Nazi Germany
Role of Women | Women & Art | Eugenics & sterilisation |Women & Concentration Camps |Women & War
  The End of the Reich

Resistance | The Impact of Bombing |Death of Hitler | Collapse of the Reich



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