Adolf Hitler's rise to power

Adolf Hitler's rise to power

Adolf Hitler's rise to power began in Germany (at least formally)[1] in September 1919 when Hitler joined the political party that was[2] known as the Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (abbreviated as DAP, and later commonly referred to as the Nazi Party). This political party was formed and developed during the post-World War I era. It was anti-Marxist and was opposed to the democratic post-war government of the Weimar Republic and the Treaty of Versailles; and it advocated extreme nationalism and Pan-Germanism as well as virulent anti-Semitism. Hitler's "rise" can be considered to have ended in March 1933, after the Reichstag adopted the Enabling Act of 1933 in that month; President Paul von Hindenburg had already appointed Hitler as Chancellor on January 30, 1933 after a series of parliamentary elections and associated backstairs intrigues. The Enabling Act — when used ruthlessly and with authority — virtually assured that Hitler could thereafter constitutionally exercise dictatorial power without legal objection.

Hitler rose to a place of prominence in the early years of the party. Being one of the best speakers of the party, he told the other members of the party to either make him leader of the party, or, he would never return. He was aided in part by his willingness to use violence in advancing his political objectives and to recruit party members who were willing to do the same. The Beer Hall putsch in 1923 and the later release of his book Mein Kampf (usually translated as My Struggle) introduced Hitler to a wider audience. In the mid-1920s, the party engaged in electoral battles in which Hitler participated as a speaker and organizer,[3] as well as in street battles and violence between the Rotfrontkämpferbund and the Nazi's Sturmabteilung (SA). Through the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Nazis gathered enough electoral support to become the largest political party in the Reichstag, and Hitler's blend of political acuity, deceptiveness and cunning converted the party's non-majority but plurality status into effective governing power in the ailing Weimar Republic of 1933.

Once in power, the Nazis created a mythology surrounding the rise to power, and they described the period that roughly corresponds to the scope of this article as either the Kampfzeit (the time of struggle) or the Kampfjahre (years of struggle).


The beginning (1918-1924)

From Armistice (November 1918) to party membership (September 1919)

For over four years (August 1914 – November 1918), Germany was a principal belligerent in World War I,[4] on the Western Front. Soon after the fighting on the front ended in November 1918,[5] Hitler returned[6] to Munich after the Armistice with no job, no real civilian job skills and no friends. He remained in the Reichswehr and was given a relatively meaningless assignment during the winter of 1918-1919,[7] but was eventually recruited by the Army's Political Department (Press and News Bureau), possibly because of his assistance to the Army in investigating the responsibility for the ill-fated Bavarian Soviet Republic.[8] Apparently his skills in oratory, as well as his extreme and open anti-Semitism, caught the eye of an approving army officer and he was promoted to an "education officer" — which gave him an opportunity to speak in public.[9][10]

One of his duties was to report on[11] "subversive" political groups, as ordered by his superiors. Any group which contained the word "Workers" in its name was certainly suspicious to the Political Department, and his commanders assigned Hitler, in his role as investigator, to attend a meeting of the small Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (German Workers' Party, abbreviated DAP) on 12 September 1919.[12][13]

During the 12 September meeting,[14] Hitler took umbrage with comments made by an audience member that were directed against Gottfried Feder, the speaker, a crank economist with whom Hitler was acquainted as a result of a lecture Feder delivered in an Army "education" course.[15] The audience member (Hitler in Mein Kampf disparagingly called him the "professor") asserted that Bavaria should be wholly independent from Germany and should secede from Germany and unite with Austria to form a new South German nation.[16] The volatile Hitler arose and castigated the hapless "professor," employing his oratorical skills and eventually causing the "professor" to leave the meeting before its adjournment.[17]

This bold (and typical) action by Hitler deeply impressed DAP founder Anton Drexler, who promptly handed Hitler a political pamphlet. Soon, Drexler or his designate sent Hitler a postcard that invited him to join the party[18] and to attend a "committee" meeting.[19] Hitler attended this meeting, held at the Alte Rosenbad beer-house,[20] and initially concluded that the party was too muddled and disorganized to merit further attention: It had neither membership numbers nor membership cards, and had a treasury of about seven Reichsmarks. However, on further reflection Hitler realized that because the party was neither well established nor particularly organized, he could exercise a greater influence on its direction. After two days in thought, Hitler decided to join the DAP; he was the party's fifty-fifth member.[21][22]

The first two years: party membership to the Hofbrauhaus Melee (November 1921)

Otto Strasser: What is the program of the NSDAP?
Hitler: The program is not the question. The only question is power.
Strasser: Power is only the means of accomplishing the program.
Hitler: These are the opinions of the intellectuals. We need power![23]

By early 1920 the DAP had swelled to over 101 members, and Hitler received his membership card as member number 555 (the group started the counting at number 500).[24]

Hitler's considerable talents were appreciated by the party leadership and in early 1920 he was named as its head of propaganda. Hitler's actions began to transform the party. On 20 February, the party added National Socialist (Nationalsozialistische) to its name and became the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (NSDAP).[25]

Four days later Feder and Hitler announced the party's 25-point program (see National Socialist Program).

In August Hitler also organized a group of "security men" under the guise of a party "Gymnastics and Sports Division." The group was named at first the Ordnertruppen and it may well be that their principal intended purpose was, in fact, to keep order at Nazi meetings and to only suppress those who disrupted the Nazi meetings. In early October the group's name was officially changed to the Sturmabteilung (Storm Detachment), which was certainly more descriptive and suggested the possibility of offensive, as well as solely defensive, action.

Throughout 1920, Hitler began to lecture at Munich's beer halls, particularly the Hofbräuhaus, Sterneckerbräu and Bürgerbräukeller. By this time, the police were already monitoring the speeches, and their own surviving records reveal that Hitler delivered lectures with titles such as Political Phenomenon, Jews and the Treaty of Versailles. At the end of the year, party membership was recorded at 2,000.

On 11 July 1921, Hitler resigned from the party after Drexler, the party's nominal leader, proposed merging the party into a larger Kampfbund coalition. Hitler rejoined once the policy was abandoned, and on 28 July assumed control of the party by outcasting Drexler.

On 14 September 1921, Hitler and a substantial number of SA members and other Nazi party adherents disrupted a meeting at the Lowenbraukeller of the Bavarian League. This federalist organization objected to the centralism of the Weimar Constitution, but accepted its social program. The League was led by Otto Ballerstedt, an engineer whom Hitler regarded as "my most dangerous opponent." One Nazi, Hermann Esser, climbed upon a chair and shouted that the Jews were to blame for the misfortunes of Bavaria, and the Nazis shouted demands that Ballerstedt yield the floor to Hitler.[26]

The Nazis beat up Ballerstedt and shoved him off the stage into the audience. Both Hitler and Esser were arrested, and Hitler commented notoriously to the police commissioner, "It's all right. We got what we wanted. Ballerstedt did not speak." [27] Hitler was eventually sentenced to 3 months imprisonment and ended up serving only a little over one month.

On 4 November 1921, the Nazi Party held a large public meeting in the Munich Hofbräuhaus. After Hitler had spoken for some time, the meeting erupted into a melee in which a small company of SA defeated the opposition.

From Beer Hall Melee to Beer Hall Coup D'État: the abortive Beer Hall Putsch and the ensuing trial

In the few months between the end of 1922 and the beginning of 1923, Hitler formed two organizations that would grow to have huge significance. The first was the Jungsturm and Jugendbund, which would later become the Hitler Youth. The other was the Stabswache, the first incarnation of what would later become the Schutzstaffeln (SS).

Inspired by Benito Mussolini's March on Rome Hitler decided that a coup d'état was the proper strategy to seize control of the country. In May 1923, elements loyal to Hitler within the army helped the SA to procure a barracks and its weaponry, but the order to march never came.

A pivotal moment came when Hitler led the Beer Hall Putsch, an attempted coup d'état on 8–9 November 1923. After it failed, Hitler was put on trial for treason, gaining great public attention.[28]

In a rather spectacular trial in which Hitler endeavored to turn the tables and put democracy and the Weimar Republic on trial as traitors to the German people, he was convicted and sentenced to five years imprisonment. He was eventually paroled, served only a little over eight months after his sentencing in early 1924. He was well-treated in prison, had a room with a view of the river, wore a tie, received visitors to his chambers and was permitted the use of a private secretary.

Hitler used the time in Landsberg prison to consider his political strategy and dictate the first volume of Mein Kampf, principally to his loyal aide Rudolf Hess.[29] After the putsch the party was banned in Bavaria, but it participated in 1924's two elections by proxy as the National Socialist Freedom Movement. In the German election, May 1924 the party gained seats in the Reichstag, with 6.55% (1,918,329) voting for the Movement. In the German election, December 1924 the National Socialist Freedom Movement (NSFB) (Combination of the Deutschvölkische Freiheitspartei (DVFP) and the Nazi Party (NSDAP)) lost 18 seats, only holding on to 14 seats, with 3% (907,242) of the electorate voting for Hitler's party.

The Barmat Scandal was often used later in Nazi propaganda, both as an electoral strategy and as an appeal to anti-Semitism.

Hitler had determined, after some reflection, that power was to be achieved not through revolution outside of the government, but rather through legal means, within the confines of the democratic system established by Weimar.

For six years there would be no further prohibitions of the party (see below Seizure of Control: (1931-1933)).

Move towards power (1925–1930)

In the German election, May 1928 the Party achieved just 12 seats (2.8% of the vote) in the Reichstag. The highest provincial gain was again in Bavaria (5.11%), though in three areas the NSDAP failed to gain even 1% of the vote. Overall the NSDAP gained 2.63% (810,127) of the vote. Partially due to the poor results, Hitler decided that Germans needed to know more about his goals. Despite being discouraged by his publisher, he wrote a second book that was discovered and released posthumously as Zweites Buch. At this time the SA began a period of deliberate antagonism to the Rotfront by marching into Communist strongholds and starting violent altercations.

At the end of 1928, party membership was recorded at 130,000. In March 1929, Erich Ludendorff represented the Nazi party in the Presidential elections. He gained 280,000 votes (1.1%), and was the only candidate to poll fewer than a million votes. The battles on the streets grew increasingly violent. After the Rotfront interrupted a speech by Hitler, the SA marched into the streets of Nuremberg and killed two bystanders. In a tit-for-tat action, the SA stormed a Rotfront meeting on August 25 and days later the Berlin headquarters of the KPD itself. In September Goebbels led his men into Neukölln, a KPD stronghold, and the two warring parties exchanged pistol and revolver fire.

The German referendum of 1929 was important as it gained the Nazi Party recognition and credibility it never had before.

On 14 January 1930 Horst Wessel got into an argument with his landlady — the Nazis said it was about rent, but the Communists alleged it was over Wessel's soliciting of prostitution on her premises — which would have fatal consequences. The landlady happened to be a member of the KPD, and contacted one of her Rotfront friends, Albert Hochter, who shot Wessel in the head at point-blank range. Wessel had penned a song months before his death, which would become Germany's national anthem for 12 years as the Horst-Wessel-Lied. Goebbels also seized upon the attack (and the two weeks Wessel spent on his deathbed) to premier the song. The funeral was designed to be a propaganda opportunity for the Nazis, however the Rotfront stole Wessel's wreath and wrote "pimp" onto it. Along with Horst Wessel, the year 1930 resulted in more deaths in political violence than the previous two years combined.

On 1 April Hannover enacted a law banning the Hitlerjugend (the Hitler Youth), and Goebbels was convicted of high treason at the end of May. Bavaria banned all political uniforms on 2 June, and on 11 June Prussia prohibited the wearing of SA brown shirts and associated insignia. The next month Prussia passed a law against its officials holding membership in either the NSDAP or KPD. Later in July, Goebbels was again tried, this time for "public insult", and fined. The government also placed the army officers on trial for "forming national socialist cells".

Against this violent backdrop, Hitler's party gained a shocking victory in the Reichstag, obtaining 107 seats (18.3%, 6,406,397 votes). The Nazis became the second largest party in Germany. In Bavaria the party gained 17.9% of the vote, though for the first time this percentage was exceeded by most other provinces: Oldenburg (27.3%), Braunschweig (26.6%), Waldeck (26.5%), Mecklenburg-Strelitz (22.6%), Lippe (22.3%) Mecklenburg-Schwerin (20.1%), Anhalt (19.8%), Thuringen (19.5%), Baden (19.2%), Hamburg (19.2%), Prussia (18.4%), Hessen (18.4%), Sachsen (18.3%), Lubeck (18.3%) and Schaumburg-Lippe (18.1%).

An unprecedented amount of money was thrown behind the campaign. Well over one million pamphlets were produced and distributed; sixty trucks were commandeered for use in Berlin alone. In areas where NSDAP campaigning was less rigorous, the total was as low as 9%. The Great Depression was also a factor in Hitler's electoral success. Against this legal backdrop, the SA began its first major anti-Jewish action on 13 October 1930 when groups of brownshirts smashed the windows of Jewish-owned stores at Potsdamer Platz.[30]

Seizure of control (1931–1933)

Political poster for the November 1932 Reichstag election. "Das Volk wählt Liste 1 Nationalsozialisten Reichstagswahl." Translation: "The people are voting for list 1, the Nazis, at the Reichstag election."

On March 10, 1931, with street violence between the Rotfront and SA spiraling out of control, breaking all previous barriers and expectations, Prussia re-enacted its ban on brown shirts. Days after the ban SA-men shot dead two communists in a street fight, which led to a ban being placed on the public speaking of Goebbels, who side-stepped the prohibition by recording speeches and playing them to an audience in his absence.

Ernst Röhm, in charge of the SA, put Count Micah von Helldorff, a convicted murderer and vehement anti-Semite, in charge of the Berlin SA. The deaths mounted up, with many more on the Rotfront side, and by the end of 1931 the SA suffered 47 deaths, and the Rotfront recorded losses of approximately 80. Street fights and beer hall battles resulting in deaths occurred throughout February and April 1932, all against the backdrop of Adolf Hitler's competition in the presidential election which pitted him against the monumentally popular Hindenburg. In the first round on 13 March, Hitler had polled over 11 million votes but was still behind Hindenburg. The second and final round took place on 10 April: Hitler (36.8% 13,418,547) lost out to Paul von Hindenburg (53.0% 19,359,983) whilst KPD candidate Thälmann gained a meagre percentage of the vote (10.2% 3,706,759).

At this time, the Nazi party had just over 800,000 card-carrying members. Three days after the presidential elections, the German government passed the Law for the Maintenance of State Authority, which banned the NSDAP and its paramilitaries. This action was largely prompted by details which emerged at a trial of SA men for assaulting unarmed Jews in Berlin. But after less than a month the law was repealed by Franz von Papen, Chancellor of Germany, on 30 May. Such ambivalence about the fate of Jews was supported by the culture of anti-Semitism that pervaded the German public at the time.[31]

Dwarfed by Hitler's electoral gains, the KPD turned away from legal means and increasingly towards violence. One resulting battle in Silesia resulted in the army being dispatched, each shot sending Germany further into a potential all-out civil war. By this time both sides marched into each other's strongholds hoping to spark rivalry. Hermann Göring, as speaker of the Reichstag, asked the Papen government to prosecute shooters. Laws were then passed which made political violence a capital crime.

The attacks continued, and reached fever pitch when SA storm leader Axel Schaffeld was assassinated. At the end of July, the Nazi party gained almost 14,000,000 votes, securing 230 seats in the Reichstag. Energised by the incredible results, Hitler asked to be made Chancellor. Papen offered the position of Vice Chancellor but Hitler refused.

Hermann Göring, in his position of Reichstag president, asked that decisive measures be taken by the government over the spate in murders of national socialists. On 9 August, amendments were made to the Reichstrafgesetzbuch statute on 'acts of political violence', increasing the penalty to 'lifetime imprisonment, 20 years hard labour or death'. Special courts were announced to try such offences. When in power less than half a year later, Hitler would use this legislation against his opponents with devastating effect.

The law was applied almost immediately but did not bring the perpetrators behind the recent massacres to trial as expected. Instead, five SA men who were alleged to have murdered a KPD member in Potempa (Upper Silesia) were tried. Adolf Hitler appeared at the trial as a defence witness, but on 22 August the five were convicted and sentenced to death. On appeal, this sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in early September. They would serve just over four months before Hitler freed all imprisoned Nazis in a 1933 amnesty.

The Nazi party lost 34 seats in the November 1932 election but remained the Reichstag's largest party. The most shocking move of the early election campaign was to send the SA to support a Rotfront action against the transport agency and in support of a strike.

After Chancellor Papen left office, he secretly told Hitler that he still held considerable sway with President Hindenburg and that he would make Hitler chancellor as long as he, Papen, could be the vice chancellor. On 30 January 1933, Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor of a coalition government of the NSDAP-DNVP Party. The SA and SS led torchlight parades throughout Berlin. In the coalition government, three members of the cabinet were Nazis: Hitler, Wilhelm Frick (Minister of the Interior) and Hermann Göring (Minister Without Portfolio).

With Germans who opposed Nazism failing to unite against it, Hitler soon moved to consolidate absolute power.

See also


  1. ^ The dates chosen for such periods can be somewhat arbitrary. It was starting with Hitler's decision in the Pomeranian hospital to enter politics, and only concluding with (for example) his removal of Röhm (1934) or his "bloodless" conquest of Czechoslovakia (1938) or even his military conquest of France (1940). The article simply uses Hitler's decision to join the party as the start date of the "rise" and the adoption of the Enabling Act as its completion. While that is not the only possible interpretation, it is certainly a reasonable one.
  2. ^ At its formation in 1919, the party was called simply the Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (German Workers' Party); the name was changed in 1920.
  3. ^ He could not, at this time, run for political office in Germany, as he was not then a German citizen.
  4. ^ Despite his receipt of several medals and decorations (including twice with the prestigious Iron Cross, both First and Second Class), Hitler was promoted in rank only once, to corporal (Gefreiter). Toland, p. 84-88.
  5. ^ The Armistice, ceasing active hostilities, was signed and effective 11 November 1918. Hitler, in hospital at the time, was informed of the upcoming cease-fire and the other consequences of Germany's defeat and surrender in the field — including Kaiser Wilhelm II's abdication, and a revolution leading to the proclamation of a republic in Berlin to replace the centuries-old Hohenzollern monarchy — on Sunday morning, 10 November, by a pastor attending to patients. Days after digesting this traumatic news, by his own account Hitler made his decision: "... my own fate became known to me ... I ... decided to go into politics." Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf (vol.1, chapter 7) ("MK").
  6. ^ Hitler, having been born in the defunct Austria-Hungarian Empire to Austrian parents, was not a German citizen, but had managed to enlist in a Bavarian regiment, where he served on the front lines as a runner. He was wounded twice in action; at the time of the Armistice, he was recovering in a German hospital (in Pomerania northeast of Berlin) from temporary blindness that had resulted from a mid-October British gas attack at the last Battle of Ypres. William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Simon & Shuster, 1959, pp. 28-30 ("Shirer"). Toland, John (1976peace). Adolf Hitler. New York: Doubleday & Company. pp. 1035. ISBN 0-385-03724-4. , p. 86. ("Toland")
  7. ^ Guard duty at a POW camp to the East, near the Austrian border. Interestingly, the prisoners were Russian, and Hitler and his supplier from the trenches had volunteered for the posting. Shirer, p. 34. Toland, p. xx.
  8. ^ Shirer, p. 34. Toland suggests that Hitler's assignment to this department was partially a reward for his "exemplary" service in the front lines, and partially because the responsible officer felt sorry for Hitler as having no friends, but being very willing to do whatever the Army required. Toland, p. xx.
  9. ^ Shirer, p. 35. Apparently someone in an Army "educational session" had made a remark that Hitler deemed "pro-Jewish" and Hitler reacted with characteristic ferocity. Toland states that Hitler had attracted the attention of a right-wing university professor who was engaged to educate enlisted men in "proper" political belief, and that the professor's recommendation to an officer resulted in Hitler's advancement.
  10. ^ "I was offered the opportunity of speaking before a larger audience and ... it was now corroborated: I could 'speak.' No task could make me happier than this ... I was able to perform useful services to ... the army ... in ... my lectures I led many hundreds ... of comrades back to their people and fatherland ..." MK, volume 1, chapter 8.
  11. ^ and, no doubt, to infiltrate and spy upon, Toland, p. xx
  12. ^ Toland, John (1976). Adolf Hitler. New York: Doubleday & Company. pp. 1035. ISBN 0-385-03724-4. , p. 86. ("Toland")
  13. ^ The DAP had been formed by Anton Drexler, Karl Harrer and others, through amalgamation of other groups, on 5 January 1919 at a small gathering in Munich at the restaurant Fuerstenfelder Hof. Hitler, Ian Kershaw, pp. 82-83 ("Kershaw 1").
  14. ^ Held, like so many meetings of the period, in a beer cellar, this time the Sterneckerbrau
  15. ^ Feder had formed the German Fighting League for the Breaking of Interest Slavery. The notion of "Breaking Interest Slavery" was, by Hitler's account, a "powerful slogan for this coming struggle. Shirer, p. 35; MK, vol. 1, chapter 8.
  16. ^ According to Shirer, the seemingly preposterous "South German nation" idea actually had some popularity in Munich in the politically raucous atmosphere of Bavaria following the war. Shirer, p. 36.
  17. ^ MK, volume 1, chapter 8.
  18. ^ Army regulations at the time prohibited soldiers from joining political parties, but Hitler's decision to join was eventually seconded by the high-ranking General Erich Ludendorff -- although Hitler had independently already decided, apparently, to hang the regulations and join in any case.
  19. ^ Shirer, p. 35-37.
  20. ^ a venue which, even to the vagabond Hitler, who had lived in the most squalid and wretched conditions both during the war and before the war in Vienna, seemed like a "very run-down place ... [with an] ill-lit dining room [and a] back room [illuminated by] ... a grimy gas lamp", MK, volume 1, chapter 8
  21. ^ Bullock, Alan (1971). Hitler: A Study in Tyranny. New York: Harper & Row. pp. 34–35. ISBN 0-06-080216-2. 
  22. ^ "It was the most decisive resolve of my life. From here there was and could be no turning back. ... I registered as a member of the German Workers' Party and received a provisional membership card with the number 7." MK, volume 1, chapter 8.
  23. ^ Toland, p. 106.
  24. ^ The membership numbers were artificially started at 501 because the DAP wanted to make itself look larger than it actually was. The membership numbers were also apparently issued alphabetically, and not chronologically, so one cannot infer that Hitler was in fact the party's 55th member. Toland, p. 131. In a Hitler speech shown in Triumph of the Will, Hitler makes explicit reference to his being the seventh party member and he notes the same in MK, op. cit..
  25. ^ The party eventually became known to the rest of the world as the Nazi Party, the word "Nazi" being a form of contraction for Nationalsozialistische, but this contraction was not used by the party itself.
  26. ^ Toland, pp. 112-113.
  27. ^ Toland, p. 113.
  28. ^ Shirer, p. xx
  29. ^ Hess of course participated in the putsch, but escaped police custody following its abortive end, as did Hitler. When he discovered that his leader had been captured by the Government, the loyal Hess turned himself in to the authorities.
  30. ^ Hakim, Joy (1995). A History of Us: War, Peace and all that Jazz. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-509514-6. 
  31. ^ Goldhagen, Daniel (1996). Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. New York: Knopf. 

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