The 1930 election would result in a drastic shift in German politics.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 18, the Third Reich Part 5 - The Election that Broke Germany. The last years of the 1920s had been a time of growing political divisiveness in Germany. In October 1929 Gustav Streseman, one of the most consistent voices within the government during the 1920s, and leader of the People’s Party, died. His party would withdraw its support for the chancellor at the time, the Social Democrat Hermann Muller, when they refused to cut unemployment benefits and reduce the national budget. This loss of support would cause the government to fall on March 27, 1930, triggering elections. These elections will be the primary focus of this episode. The elections of 1930 would be important to every political party in Germany, and they would be a critical turning point where the parties that did not support the continuation of the Weimar government, and the Weimar constitution, would transition from a group of small but divided parties into parties with enough support to meaningfully shift the balance of power in the Reichstag. Both on the left and the right these parties would gain support, with the National Socialists and the Communist parties coming out of the election as the largest winners. The ascendency of these two groups, and their revolutionary message, albeit quite different versions of revolution, meant that the Weimar government was in for serious trouble. In fact the Muller government would be the last that would be able to obtain a majority in the Reichstag, and for the next 3 years the leaders of Germany would be forced to rule under the powers of presidential decree, which would cause a whole host of problems that we will discuss in detail in future episodes. All of these issues, and the eventually destruction of the Weimar system after 1933, would be rooted in the results of the 1930 election.
After the resignation of Muller and his cabinet on March 27th, elections were not immediately called. Instead a new government was briefly formed under the leadership of Heinrich Bruning, a member of the Centre Party. This was done by President Hindenburg under the assumption that Bruning would be able to form a cabinet that could gain majority support in the Reichstag. Bruning would run into problems almost immediately after taking office, with one of his first priorities being to pass a budget which would reduce public spending in an effort to balance the federal budget. This priority was rooted in Bruning’s orthodox economic beliefs, which caused him to put his faith in deflationary budgets as a way of bringing Germany out of its economic issues caused by the Great Depression. As a reminder, these deflationary policies were very common among world political leaders at this time, so Bruning was not trying to do something crazy. However, those other world political leaders did not have to gain the support of the Reichstag, and in that body Bruning ran into problems because he could not gain support from the parties that he needed to pass the budget, including the Communists, National Socialists, and Nationalist parties. Bruning would refuse to make changes to the legislation and would instead take the opposite direction, threatening to invoke Article 25 of the constitution which gave him the ability to fall for new elections. When this threat did not have the desired effect, Bruning put those threats into action, and on July 18th 1930 the Reichstag would be dissolved and elections would be set for September 14th.
In the National Socialist party the new elections were seen as a huge opportunity. There was a lot of dissatisfaction within the voting public with the state of the government, and the party had been slowly gaining in popularity. In the 2 months between the announcement of the elections and the election date the Nazi party put their campaigning into overdrive. Just in the last month before September 14th the party would hold over 34,000 meetings across all of Germany. This large number is a testament to the administrative and organizational capabilities of the party, and the previous years of growth had prepared them for the massive expansion of their public profile in 1930. By this point Hitler was not really involved in the details, being a role very similar to the leader of any large party or business, providing a guiding philosophy, being the decision maker of last resort, and perhaps most importantly giving a lot of speeches. While the Nazi Party had always been fueled by a kind of fanatical belief among many of its members, to support this much greater pace of campaigning it was also a party that required funding, just like any other political party. When trying to gather this funding, the Nazi Party turned into businesses, just like many other parties in Germany. Different political parties drew their financial support from different sectors of the German economy. The Communists and the far left parties were, of course, not getting the support of large businesses. On the right the German National People’s Party, the largest Conservative party, and the Centre party, the party supported by the Catholic church, were able to get funding from some of Germany’s wealthiest individuals, those who controlled German industry. Many of these wealthy individuals were still a bit skeptical about the Nazi’s ability to grow their base of support, and so outside of a few exceptions like the Thyssen family, the bulk of money given to the Nazi party from the business community originated from small and medium sized business owners. This money was spent very quickly in 1930 for the election campaign, in both organizational expenses and salaries for party members. Of course Hitler, quite publicly, did not draw a salary from the party, but he was well compensated for his time in the form of the party covering all of his expenses, plus very generous direct donations that were given to his person.
When it came to the policies that the Nazi’s were campaigning on, they would join other opposition parties in having some pretty big advantages. They were able to criticize specific actions of the government and the political leaders of the parties that had been in power, which was essentially the entire center of the political spectrum, however they were not required to have specific information about what they planned to do. The message from the Nazi party and others was that the country was broken due to the inefficiencies of the Weimar government. Instead of offering specific plans on how to solve specific problems, Nazi leaders, right up to Hitler, focused their speeches on presenting a kind of utopian vision. The presented the idea of a nation united with one vision, of one that had destroyed class as a basis for division, a people with one destiny. They offered national redemption from the problems that had plagued the nation since the end of the First World War. While in broad strokes this message was the same that the Nazi party had used for almost a decade, there were some differences in 1930, for example there was a much smaller emphasis on anti-Semitism, at least at the largest party events and events where Hitler spoke, this change was put in place due to concerns that anti-Semitism was not as broadly supported as the party previously believed. One of the targets of the Nazi rhetoric was the Social Democratic party. This was a multi-pronged attack, with one of the key pillars being an attack on the support that the Social Democrats had given the Bruning economic program, which would be called a betrayal of the working class Germans that the Social Democrats claimed to support. They would also claim that the Social Democrats were capitalists who were under the control of the Jewish international conspiracy. The Social Democrats would be attacked from both sides, with the Communist party also making the Social Democrats a frequent target. Both of the largest Left parties in Germany would attack each other venomously during the election, both would claim that the other was betraying the proletariat, sabotaging the unity of the German workers, and even perhaps helping the Nazis. One of the only things that the two socialist parties could agree on was that the Nazi Party was two thing: it was actually a capitalist party and that it was in fact not socialist at all. This was a common refrain from German socialist parties at this time, especially when addressing working class audiences. They would claim that the Nazis only cared about the workers as a way of getting votes, once they had accomplished their goals they would betray them. Among the urban workers this message seems to have worked pretty well. The urban working class was the target of a lot of Nazi effort during the 1920s, but even up to and after the 1928 election they had done very poorly among that group. This was not the only area of possible expansion for the Nazi party, and even if the Social Democrats and Communists prevented the majority of workers from voting for the Nazis, the beginnings of a total collapse among the traditional liberal and conservative parties presented another avenue for success. For these parties, like the People’s Party and the German National People’s Party, the 1930 election presented problems because their traditional message was not lining up with what most Germans wanted. Specifically their message had always been one that did not involve drastic change, they were moderate parties that advocated for gradual change, not revolution. For many Germans, who had such a negative view of the situation within the nation, these parties were not proposing the kind of changes that they hoped to see, and that they believed were necessary. Nowhere was the drop in support more strongly felt than in rural Germany. Rural voters had been a strong point for the traditional conservative parties throughout the 1920s, but it was also an area that was hard hit by the economic problems of the late 1920s. The biggest problem for the German farmer was the amount of agricultural goods that were being imported into the country, making it hard for German farmers to compete. This caused them to demand some sort of agricultural import quotas, or at least very heavy tariffs on any agricultural goods that entered the country. The inability of the traditional conservative parties to make these kinds of reforms caused many rural Germans to be radicalized, and in this radicalization they turned to the more radical political parties, like the Nazi party, whose message of radical nationalism seemed to promise a different tactic in dealing with Germany’s neighbors and foreign trade. For these two moderate parties these issues meant that the 1930 election was catastrophic and between them they would lose 47 seats in the Reichstag, and from a percentage basis they would both see almost half of their popular support evaporate.
When the results were tallied for the election it was found that a higher percentage of registered voters had voted, at 82%, than in any other Weimar election up to that point. This turnout was important because of how Reichstag seats were apportioned. Seats were given proportionally, but the number of seats was dictated by the number of total votes, with a seat given to a party based on every 60,000 votes they received. This means that the Reichstag created as a result of the 1930 election had 86 more seats than the one before, bringing the number up to 577. What this means is that the parties that gained seats, did not necessarily steal seats from other parties, there were after all more seats to go around. It also means that the parties that lost seats, especially those who lost a lot of seats, had actually performed worse than just the number of seats lost indicates because they ended up with a smaller piece of a much bigger pie. 4 million more people would vote, but three out of the four parties that would be qualified as parties near the political center or as traditionally conservative lost over 2.5 million voters combined. The big winners were the two parties that could not have been more opposed to the other, the German Communists who gained 1.3 million votes, bringing them up to 4.5 million votes and 77 seats and of course the National Socialist party, who gained a staggering 5.5 million votes, bringing their total up to 6.3 million, catapulting them from the 9th to the second largest party in Germany. The growth in support for these two parties came from across the geographic and demographic landscape. They were both well supported by new voters, with almost a 1/4 of those who voted for the Nazi Party being first time voters. The Nazi party also did very well among women, which was an important voting demographic in German elections due to the number of male casualties during the First World War which skewed gender demographics within the nation. One of the key messages of the Nazi party after the election was that it had done very well throughout all of Germany, and throughout all of society, allowing them to make the claim that they appealed to a wider base than any other party. The growth of two of the most radical parties, the Communists and Nazis, had an important impact on the Reichstag. For a new cabinet to be formed, it needed a majority in the Reichstag, however, with the Nazi Party and the Communist party now occupying so many seats, getting to that majority became incredibly difficult. A right-wing coalition, which would of course exclude the Social Democrats and the Communists was impossible unless it had the support of the Nazi party. One the left, the math was essentially impossible, because even if the Communists and the Social Democrats could somehow work together, which was already unlikely, that would leave them at just under 38%, and they would be hard up to find coalition partners. This is why, in many ways, the 1930 election was the moment that broke the Weimar republic. It was a system that needed some kind of coalition majority to function, and now there was almost no chance of that coalition being formed. The only real path for such a majority was for the center and the right to join in coalition with the Nazi Part, this would require the party, but mostly Hitler, to accept being a member of a coalition, and importantly not the leader of that coalition, which was unacceptable. This refusal to enter into a coalition without being the primary partner, and without Hitler being Chancellor, would be the position of the Nazi Party until 1933.
While the 1930 election made it challenging for a government to form, it was also the beginning of a period in which it was hard for the Reichstag to function at all. Before 1930 the Reichstag was in session for about one hundred days per year, in the six months after the 1930 elections it would meet 50 times, but then the number of sessions would fall off of a cliff, between March 1931 and July 1932 it would spend just 24 total days in session, and then only 3 sessions would occur in the last six months of 1932. To continue to have a national government at all Bruning, who was still in the position of Chancellor, would be forced to use emergency decrees, 44 of them all together. These decrees were included in the constitution for just such an occasion, but it was never imagined that they would be used on such a scale. In fact, from the 1930 election until 1933 the nation was essentially run based on emergency decrees. While this was happening the political violence which had already been happening before 1930 just escalated. The Social Democrats, having been clearly defeated at the voting box by parties which endorsed this violence began to move towards supporting it as well. The leaders of the party would call this period the “War of Symbols” and they would join together with the trade unions, other working class organizations, and the Reichsbanner paramilitary group to form the Iron Front, designed to fight back against the continued rise of fascism and communism in Germany. This change went hand in hand with changes within the Social Democratic party as a whole, as they embraced the propaganda methods of their two largest rivals, the Communists and the Nazis. Their message became one that emphasized emotions and public displays of collective will, instead of their traditional emphasis on reason and science. However, this new style would never really fit with the Social Democratic party in the way that it did with their opponents. At its core the party was simply not setup for such actions, both from the leadership as well as the rank and file, and it showed. That did not mean that they actions did not increase the political volatility throughout Germany. As Thomas Childers would say in his work The Third Reich “As the violence escalated, a culture of political martyrdom emerged on both sides of the ideological divide—men felled in heroic battle with the partisan enemy were given elaborate funerals attended by party dignitaries, guarded by paramilitary troops, and given extensive coverage in the party press.” With violence increasing in the spring of 1931 Bruning announced an emergency decree in march which required all political meetings to be registered with local governments and the police. While the announced intention was to reduce the level of violence, it also had the effect of censoring groups that the authorities, especially the police, did not agree with, which meant that the parties on the left would experience no small amount of discrimination due to existing views with the police force.
The election would also be a turning point when it came to support for the Nazi Party among the industrialists and among Army leadership. In 1931 support among businesses leaders from some of the larger industrial firms began to increase rapidly, which meant more money for the party and also more opportunities to speak to wealthy and influential individuals in the industrial areas. As with many relationships between rising politicians and wealthy business owners, the German industrialists hoped that if they bankrolled further Nazi campaigns the party would create a new government which was tied to their interests. After contacts increased with the industrialists during the spring of 1931, Hitler and other top Nazi party leaders would make a concerted effort during the summer to grow and strengthen these relationships, knowing that such support would be important if the party was to take the next step towards their final goals. A similar shift in attitude was happening in the army as well. There was already strong support for the Nazi party within the ranks of the army, just as they was support for other parties as well, but after the elections, and with the greatly increased public support for the party, among the upper echelons of army leadership there was a growing belief that perhaps the Nazi party was not the worst option when it came to who should lead Germany in the future. It helped that one of the core messages of the Nazi party from the very beginning had been a strong support for increasing the strength of the Germany army, and undoing the humiliations that Versailles had placed upon what had been one of the strongest armies in Europe.
Even though the Nazi party was coming off of a huge victory, it very quickly became apparent that all was not well within the party. The most important problem was the growing discontent among the ranks of the SA. After 1925 there had always been tension between Hitler and the political leaders of the party and the leaders of the SA. At the time of the elections in 1930 the SA in Berlin was led by Walter Stennes, who made his displeasure clear during August 1930. Stennes, like many others within the SA, was growing frustrated with the slow progress, or to use his words “timidity” and “cowardice”, of the Nazi political leaders. While Stennes was the most open about the situation, there had been concerns within the SA for years, with many members viewing the organization as one created for and existing to launch a revolution. As the political side of the party, or the leaders of the party who wanted to pursue the goals of the party through legal political means, grew in strength and popular support there was a growing concern that the more radical and revolutionary elements of the party would be sidelined. The SA viewed themselves as one of the primary reasons that the party had grown in support, they had put their blood, sweat, and tears into the party, and they did not want their revolutionary mission to be snatched away by any moderation that was creeping into the party. Stennes would move in August 1930, at which point he would write a letter to Munich, making demands including a guarantee of leadership placements for SA men. The Berlin SA, of which Stennes was the leader appeared to be on the verge of leaving the party, and they threatened to do so. It was only by Hitler’s direct intervention that the crisis was averted, or as it turned out, delayed. It would be delayed until that decree that I mentioned earlier, which Bruning put in place in March 1931 to attempt to place some government control over political meetings in Germany. Stennes was not a big fan of any attempt by the Weimar government to control the SA, but the Nazi political leaders did not resist this new decree, which Stennes felt was simply unacceptable. He declared that he was leaving the party, and he was taking all of the Berlin SA with him, and as much as he could of all of the SA in Eastern Germany. He would seize the party headquarters in Berlin and publish an article in Der Angriff, the Berlin party newspaper. In the article he would claim that Hitler’s actions were “un-German and [displayed] boundless party despotism and irresponsible demagogy.” The overall rebellion of the Berlin SA would be short and the party would be able to rely on the police to expel them from the party headquarters, after this was done the resistance form the SA members would dwindle. Stennes would be expelled from the party, and 500 other SA members would go with him. Interestingly enough, while this was the most direct confrontation that would occur between Hitler and the SA during this period, it actually ended up helping the party for two reasons. The first was that, by taking the legal route against men of his own party, men who had supported him over a decade, Hitler convinced many people within the nation that he was serious in his conviction to only pursue greater power via legal means. The second was that Hitler would recall Ernst Rohm from his time with the Bolivian Army in South America. He would offer Rohm a position as leader of the SA, in the hopes that Rohm would be able to control what was becoming a very problematic wing of the party. There were many within the party leadership team that did not want Rohm to be brought back, he had left the party in 1925 and some were concerned that his return would reduce their own influence, they would use the excuse of concerns about some of the details of Rohm’s person life, but Hitler believed that he was the right person for the job and Hitler trusted his leadership ability. Rohm would return in late 1930, and as the leader of the SA he would be a critical piece of the party for the next four years, until in 1934 he wasn’t, but that is a story for a later episode. Next episode we will discuss something that was happening for only the third time in the Weimar Republic, a Presidential election, which occurred every seven years.