The middle years of the 1920s would be a challenging period for the Nazi Party as it tried to find its way.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 17 The Third Reich Part 3 The New Nazi Party. I would like to give a reminder that I am looking at doing a Q&A episode at the end of this series of episodes, so a few months from now, I already have a few questions so be sure to send yours in via email, social media, or any other way to communicate with me, which you can find in the show notes or on the website at historyofthesecondworldwar.com. In the time after the Beer Hall Putsch it appeared that, after five very rocky years, the Weimar government was stabilizing. A few weeks before Hitler was released from prison and election was held with the Social Democrats increasing their vote share to 26%, with the center parties making up a comfortable majority of the Reichstag. This was a good sign for the stability of the nation, and was assisted by discussions that would eventually result in the Dawes Plan, which would seek to try and determine a workable solution for the German government in regards to the reparations owed to other nations due to the First World War. Even though the national political situation appeared to be stabilizing, that did not mean that radical political groups just disappeared, but many of these radical groups, like the National Socialists, would find the mid-1920s to be a challenging time as the German economy began to improve. In this episode we will discuss the political situation in Germany in more detail, specifically looking at why the smaller parties in Germany, which in aggregate only made up a small percentage of the Reichstag, were still an important political force in the nation. Then we will discuss the events within the Nazi Party during the mid 1920s. This would be an important period for the party as it would develop its base within National politics and also create the administrative, organizational, and propaganda structures that would serve the party so well when they started to ascend not just to national recognition but national prominence after 1928.
One important trend within Germany in the years after the First World War was the growth in the number and support for very small parties. These parties would support a large variety of different positions on different issues. For most, no matter where they were on the political spectrum, they were generally united in their opposition to the nations government in Berlin. This was mostly based in the idea that the Reichstag government, and the Weimar coalition that supported it was being controlled by special interest groups which were controlled not by the will of the people but by the money and influence of a small group of individuals. Thomas Childers would say in The Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany that “They dismissed Weimar’s parliamentary system as the tool of powerful special interests and assailed the liberal and conservative parties that had sold out the small businessman, the small farmer, the small homeowner, civil servants, and pensioners.” Not all of the parties that held these views would even be considered radical, not all of them wanting to violently overthrow the government or launch some kind of revolution, many just did not believe that the Weimar system was functional. Initially these groups were small, in 1920 if you combined all of their support it only totaled a few percentage points. However, by 1924 their support had tripled, and their growth would continue. While they would not immediately threaten the larger parties, the continued shift in voter behavior away from the parties that supported the existing political system and towards those that wanted significant change, was an incredibly important trend. Among those smaller parties were many that would align reasonably closely with the National Socialists. However, the radical nationalist parties and the German Volkisch parties, were at this point quite divided and hesitant to work closely together. Many of these smaller parties were led by individuals who valued their independent leadership position and refused to merge with others just for the sake of more electoral success. One of the few individuals with the name recognition and national standing to have any kind of uniting influence, Ludendorff, would participate in the Presidential election in 1925, against his old partner Hindenburg, but Ludendorff would manage just over 1 percent of the vote. Later in the 1920s he would slide into even more radical politics. In 1928 he would found the Tannenberg League, a party based around fringe conspiracy theories, these were fringe enough that he would not find any political allies among any other German parties.
The period after the failed Beer Hall putsch was a bit of a wilderness period for the Nazi party, and it was not until Hitler was released from prison that things began to change. The party newspaper, the Voelkischer Beobachter would print a new edition on February 26, 1925 with a long editorial written by Hitler and entitled “A New Beginning.” Then on the 27th the first large public meeting of the party would occur in the Buergerbraukeller, the same beer hall in which the putsch was initiated. The article and the meeting would be the first steps in the creation of a very different party. The most important change was a shift away from the militant radicalism from before the putsch and instead a focus on becoming a party that participated in, and sought to make changes through, the legal political methods available. This meant that the party would seek to build up its members and funding, and it would use that funding to run for political offices around the country. The hope was that this would allow the party to eventually take control of Germany, although it might take a slightly longer period of time. This policy was not fully embraced by the entire party, with there still being members who believed that violent revolution was the best, and perhaps only, path forward. Hitler was able to maintain enough control, and he would increase that control very quickly, to prevent these revolutionaries from controlling the course of events. These two different points of view, between the revolutionary path and the more conventional political path was a disagreement that would only be finally resolved in 1934. With the shift in 1925 towards becoming a larger political party, pursuing purely political objectives, we should spend a bit of time discussing how the Nazi leadership structure was composed during this period.
The leadership of the Nazi party that would be put in place during the late 1920s would in many cases be the same men who would lead the party during the Second World War. They were however relatively young at this stage, at least relative to most politicians with most of the core leadership of the party, being under the age of 40, and some far closer to 30. One of the major features of this party leadership from its earlier moments was a huge amount of infighting between the leadership. Even though the various personalities, men that would later become well known, Goebbels, Goring, Hess, among others, would often be at odds with each other, they would still be quite loyal to Hitler. In the leadership role Hitler often kept his distance from the squabbles of others within the party, a purposeful aloofness which was done for two reasons. The first was that he believed that if his subordinates were allowed to solve their own problems, or at least be allowed to fighting among themselves to allow the most capable individuals to assert themselves. In theory this would allow more capable leadership to form, and the party would be stronger for it. The second was that he wanted to remained detached as a way of always retaining sole control of the party. By not taking a firm stance on many issues, and in fact purposefully keeping his exact position on many issues value, he was able to retain future flexibility. This was not always possible though, and there were times when Hitler, was the leader of the party, would be forced to make definitive statements and take control of his subordinates.
A great example of this would occur in 1926 and would be precipitated by a critical member of the Nazi leadership during the mid and late 1920s that is far less known than many of the others that would be part of the Third Reich after 1933, his name would be Gregor Strasser. Strasser would be put in charge of running most of the party’s recruitment campaigns in northern Germany, with Hitler retaining control in the south. Strasser would support Hitler’s position as leader of the party, but unlike some of the other party leaders he had a different view of his relationship with Hitler. Some were blindly loyal to Hitler, Strasser viewed Hitler as an important piece of the party, as a person who was able to hold all of the various factions together, but not an infallible person, and not one that should be blindly followed. Strasser would be one of the major public faces for the party in Berlin in his role as a member of the Reichstag. In November 1925 he would say in the Reichstag that “We National Socialists want the economic revolution involving the nationalization of the economy. . . . We want in place of an exploitative capitalist economic system a real socialism, maintained not by a soulless Jewish-materialist outlook but by the believing, sacrificial, and unselfish old German community sentiment, community purpose and community feeling. We want the social revolution in order to bring about the national revolution.” This quote is important, because it shows very clearly that Strasser had a different view of what the party should be. He was shaped by the political landscape of Northern Germany, and he along with many other northern Nazi party leaders believed that the party should pursue a policy that was much more closely aligned with radical socialism. This was popular in the more industrial Northern Germany, it was also in those same northern cities that the more moderate socialist parties like the Social Democrats saw their greatest support. However, if Strasser and others wanted the Nazi party to pursue a platform based on socialism it would require changes to the basic tenets of the party, a change to those 25 points we discussed a few episodes ago.
Strasser would seek to enact those changes with the help of one Joseph Goebbels. In 1925 Goebbels would be just 28 years old, but he was known for his speaking and writing skills. During the winter of 1925 and into 1926 Strasser and Goebbels would work on a new party program. They were both strong supports of a shift of the party towards the left, and toward a policy build to find support from German workers. There were several facets of this new program that would have represented a drastic change in policy for the Nazi party. It included a call for closer relations with Russia and a more direct support for socialism. Drafts of this new program were sent out of many leaders in the north. Not everyone that read the platform agreed with it, but it did find strong support among the northern leaders. As a first step towards its implementation Strasser hoped that the party would publicly support a new piece of legislation that was sponsored by the Communists and Social Democrats. It called for all property of the monarchy, so that would be estates and possessions of the former German ruling family be requisitioned by the state. This was a law that was strongly supported by the parties on the left, and strongly resisted by those on the right, many of which hoped to eventually restorer the monarchy. If the Nazi party wanted to drastically change its perception among the public, it would have been the public opportunity.
When Hitler learned of the program being circulated by Strasser he was furious for a variety of reasons. Some of these reasons were practical, the party was starting to garner support among some of the large industrial families, and also from former members of the monarchy. They were monetarily contributing to the party at a time when their person contributions were critical to the growth and continued existence of the party. If the party was seen to work with the Communists and Socialists this support might be removed. The other reasons were mostly just philosophical, with Hitler firmly supporting the principle of private property. Hitler was not alone in these beliefs, and he was supported by many within the party both in the north and the south. In February 1926 this ideological conflict between the two groups would be confronted directly during a meeting that Hitler called in the city of Bamberg. The meeting was designed from the start to put Strasser at a disadvantage, it was held in Southern Germany and it would be attended almost entirely by party leaders from the south except for Goebbels and Strasser. When the meeting began Hitler would address the group, apparently for something like 2 hours, during which he would directly confront some of the ideas found in Strasser’s new program. He restated that the party would always support the concept of private property, and should not support the Socialists and Communists on the question of royal property. He also confirmed that the 25 points of the party program were unalterable in any way. Confronted by such opposition to their proposed changes Strasser and Goebbels relented and they agreed to abandon their new changes. They also agreed to destroy all copies of the program that had been circulated. The Bamberg meeting had important influence on the future of the party, Hitler had firmly asserted his control over the party and its platform. It would also completely remove the possibility of a slide to the left. On an individual level it was also an important moment for Goebbels, who would begin to distance himself from Strasser in the following months. Eventually he would publicly break from Strasser, an important step for the person who would later become one of the Hitler’s most ardent supporters during his rise to power. After the Bamberg meeting Hitler’s position as leader of the party would also become much more secure, and the leadership cult which would later become a hallmark of the party would begin to be present.
During the mid 1920s the Nazi party was heavily reliant on its most supportive members to keep the party going. This was a period where the party was not hugely popular throughout the nation, and it was very distant from accomplishing its goal with its new electoral strategy. Much like the Fascists in Italy members of the party at this point played a critical role in convincing those outside the party that the Nazi party had a kind of dynamism and vitality that so many other political parties were lacking. They would give the party something that the leaders of the party could never provide directly, a kind of street level presence that was essentially impossible to fake. For those individuals who were out on the street, they believed that they were making sacrifices, both of their time, money, and with their bodies, for a cause that they believed in. For many of these individuals the most important part of the party’s ideology was its emphasis on social solidarity, the idea that Germans must remain united, together in common purpose. Many of the other pieces of the party platform were secondary to the idea that the most important way for German to evolve and develop was through unity. This militant unity was only strengthened by the violence that was done both by and to these supporters, most of which were SA members and colloquially known as stormtroopers. There would be clashes in the streets of many German cities during these years, with the supporters of the Nazi party one one side and those of the Social Democrats or Communists on the other. Both these violent clashes, and the government’s reaction to it by arresting Nazi supporters strengthened the belief that the Nazi Party was fighting against enemies of the people, and of Germany itself. Over the last half of the 1920s the party would grow, albeit slowly. In 1925 it would have just 27,000 members, but by 1929 there would be 178,000. Not all of these members were necessarily the fanatical stormtrooper type, some of them could easily be mistaken for ordinary citizens, but they were drawn to the Nazi party because they believed it was the party who could and would fix problems in Germany. Here is Roger Griffin from The Nature of Fascism “What enabled the NSDAP to eclipse all other ultra-right formations after 1925, however, was not just the ideological appeal of its policies to ultra-right activists and intellectuals who, after all, represented a small percentage of the population. Far more important in the long run was its impact on the increasing number of ‘ordinary’ Germans who became convinced that Nazism really was different, that it could break the mold of the Weimar ‘system’, that the NSDAP was the nucleus of a national revolution which was already under way, no matter how many seats it held in the despised Reichstag.” To these supporters unity was also an important party of the party platform, the Nazi Party claimed to be able to solve the political divisions that were growing in Berlin during this period as the unity that had been present during the early years of the Weimar government began to disintegrate.
Trying to grow the support outside of its more fanatical core would prove to be a challenge in the late 1920s. There were several things working against the Nazi party at this point. Before the Great Depression would hit in 1929 the German government and German businesses were able to utilize a large amount of foreign loans to kickstart the economy. Much of this money came from the United States, which would cause problems after 1929, but before that it meant that the German economy was actually doing quite well. In 1928 unemployment would even fall below a million for the first time in a decade and this type of relative prosperity, which was felt throughout most of Germany made for very infertile ground for the Nazi message of drastic change. During this period there was also some confusion in the overall message of the party which it came to publicity and propaganda. The party really was of two minds about the best path forward in terms of gathering more support. On one side there was Strasser and others who believed that they should put more efforts and money into gaining the support of urban workers. To gain support from this group Strasser hoped to emphasize the party’s anti-capitalist agenda. However, there would always be a strong group of Nazi leaders who preferred a rural focus for the party. Support for such a rural emphasis was strong in the south. It would be the rural voters themselves that helped shift the Nazi leaders into putting more energy into trying to engage those in the countryside. The party was gaining supporters before 1928 in these areas even without having a clear message for those individuals, which would change as the party shifted its focus to rural voters. There were many reasons why the Nazi message found support among the farmers, both large and small, within Germany. It helped that one of the core party principles, revolving around the importance of blood and soil, put an emphasis on the land and those who worked it which obviously appealed to the rural German voter. A rural focus for the party would also manifest in clarifications of party policies like the clarification of point 17 of the 25 points “We demand a land reform shaped by our national requirements, the passing of a law for the expropriation of land for public utility without compensation, the abolition of land interest and the prohibition of land speculation of any kind.” In April 1928 Hitler would make it clear that this really meant that only non-German and Jewish land would be taken over by the government, this was a simple clarifications it was not an alteration, absolutely not, because those 25 points were unalterable.
While support for the party had been growing for years before 1928, it is worth noting that the party was still quite small. In the elections of May 1928 they would receive just 2.6 percent of the nationwide vote, which allowed them to have just 12 members in the Reichstag. This meant that they were the 9th largest party in Germany and received under a million votes. They were not non-existent and in some some regional elections they garnered far more support, but they still had a long way to go if they wanted to accomplish their goals. They would be greatly assisted in accomplishing those goals by the trials and challenges faced by the Weimar government, especially when the greatest economic problems since the end of the war would hit Germany in 1929, those events will be our topic for next episode.