The Rise of the Nazi Party

Adolf Hitler presiding over the ratification of the Enabling Act at the Kroll Opera House, March 21, 1933.

Adolf Hitler presiding over the ratification of the Enabling Act at the Kroll Opera
House, March 21, 1933.

Courtesy of Randall Bytwerk's German Propaganda Archive.

The National Socialist German Workers Party began in 1919 as the German Workers Party (DAP), an obscure far rightist party founded by a disgruntled locksmith named Anton Drexler. Drexler believed in socialism, but not the international Marxist variety preached by the socialists or the communists. Rather, Drexler proposed a re-militarized pan-Germanic workers state that was free of Jewish influence. Despite Drexler's ambitious dreaming, the DAP was just another fringe group comprised of disgruntled veterans until Adolf Hitler joined the party as member 555 in July 1919.

Within two years of joining, Hitler wrestled control of the DAP (now known as the National Socialist German Workers Party, often abbreviated to Nazi) from Drexler and the other original founders and embarked upon a quasi-messianic plan to rescue Germany from the turmoil of the Weimar era. While the Nazi Party faltered after the failure of the Beer House Putsch (an ill conceived attempt to seize the city government of Munich) and the brief economic renaissance of the late 1920s, its ranks swelled as a protest movement against the status quo, once the Great Depression began in earnest in 1930. When the "Grand Coalition" (consisting of the Socialists and the Catholic Center Party) broke up over the issue of guaranteeing employee insurance benefits during a time of falling wages, the German government fell apart. This required emergency elections to be held, which enabled the Nazis, who were able to capitalize on the public's discontent with the existing goverment, to become a major political force.

Adolf Hitler leading a SA regiment in the late 1920s.

Adolf Hitler leading a SA regiment in the late 1920s.

Although the Nazi Party had a platform, there was no official ideology. There was nothing original about its antisemitic, nationalist, anti-democratic rhetoric, as there were dozens of similar far right parties in the Weimar political system. What distinguished the Nazi Party from its rivals was the manner in which it used various pre-existing ideologies (e.g., socialism, nationalism, antisemitism) and advertised them in such a way as to make the Party enticing to a wide spectrum of people; romantics found the “Blood and Soil” rhetoric appealing; the idea of a “People’s Community” appealed to Germans who tired of the class conflicts that characterized the Industrial Age; the dynamism and violent machismo of the Party’s paramilitary groups attracted unemployed young men; industrialists liked the Nazi Party’s anti-communist stance, while former socialists admired its promise of a meritocratic order. Nazi propagandists and speakers were careful not to mention any particular governmental style, so the recipient could impose his or her desires on the future Nazi regime. Many fellow travellers of the Nazi Party dismissed the group's antisemitism as hyperbole that was used to attract the poorly educated. It was assumed that such rhetoric would cease once the Nazis were moderated by the realities of the political system.

Using rhetoric that would later echo that of the "Fuehrer" cult, the Nazis claimed that only the figure of Adolf Hitler could unite a country that had degenerated into dozens of squabbling political parties. That, combined with the Party's promises of employment and stability, appealed to voters who were tired of the status quo. During the 1930 elections, the Nazi Party won 18.3 percent of the vote, making it the second largest party in the Reichstag after the Socialists. Some Germans who had voted for the Nazis in previous elections were frustrated that the Party had not managed to seize parlimentary control or made the sweeping societal and economic changes that had been promised during the campaign season. The fact that Hitler refused to serve in a subordinate position in the cabinet of Chancellor Franz von Papen, a conservative with the Catholic Center Party, suggested to many voters that the Nazis were all talk and no action.

After the Papen government fell and the new chancellor, Kurt von Schleicher tried to divide the Nazi Party by promising the Vice Chancellory and the position of Minister President of Prussia to Gregor Strasser, one of the more left-leaning figures in the Party. This act almost caused a schism, which was only averted when Hitler reasserted his authority as Fuehrer and vetoed the deal.

Kurt von Schleicher vacating the offical residence of the Reichs Chancellor in February 1933.

Kurt von Schleicher

Franz von Papen

Franz von Papen

Gregor Strasser

Gregor Strasser

The opportunity the Nazis were looking for occurred when Hitler was approached by Papen and industrialist Baron Kurt von Schroeder about accepting a position in the Papen cabinet. Although Hitler had been unwilling to be a subordinate to Papen earlier in the year, the political situation was now in his favor. Schleicher was unable to unite the communists, socialists, and labor leaders, which neutralized the only real opposition to the Nazi Party. Because Schleicher had refused to enact protectionist policies against imported food, large landowners were eyeing Hitler as a more suitable political leader. When President Hindenburg refused to let Schleicher dissolve the Reichstag, the latter resigned in protest on January 28, 1933. This gave Hitler an opening to demand the role of chancellor for himself and to fill key government positions with Nazi officials. Papen accepted this deal, hoping that the presence of more moderate conservative politicians from other parties would contain the Nazis' growing radicalism.

Chancellor Adolf Hitler shakes the hand of President Paul von Hindenburg, March 12, 1933.

Chancellor Adolf Hitler shakes the
hand of President Paul von
Hindenburg, March 12, 1933.

Courtesy of Randall Bytwerk's German Propaganda Archive.

Once Hitler became chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933, he immediately began the process of dismantling the democratic system that had been established fifteen years earlier. Temporarily downplaying antisemitic rhetoric, he instead emphasized the threats emanating from the Communist Party of Germany and the need for national unity to overcome the economic crisis. To neutralize the threat of the communists, the government was granted the power to ban political parties and newspapers on February 4, 1933.

After the Reichstag fire, which destroyed the German legislative building, the "Decree for the Protection of People and State" was passed on February 28, 1933. This law enabled the federal government to arrest at will any individual that was deemed a threat to the state, search private residences, and take over local governments that were perceived to be lax on enforcing the law. Hitler also consolidated his power among Germany's elites, including generals, industrialists, and large landowners to ensure that they would support the new regime. This enraged Nazi leaders such as Ernst Rohm and Joseph Goebbels, who believed in pursuing a more radical economic order than Hitler was willing to tolerate.

Although the March 1933 Reichstag elections did not give the Nazi Party a decisive victory (it had 43.9 percent of the vote), SA men began launching a series of violent terrorist attacks throughout the nation to gain control of regional government offices. On March 21, Hitler opened the first meeting of the Reichstag (held in the Kroll Opera House) to discuss the proposed Enabling Act. This bill would transfer the legislative power from the Reichstag to Hitler cabinet for a period of four years, thus abolishing the last democratic institution in Germany. The Enabling Act passed for three reasons. First, the eighty one Reichstag deputies belonging to the Communist Party were in prison, thus neutralizing the Nazi Party's major opposition. Second, Hitler was able to form an alliance with the numerous Liberal parties and with the Catholic Center Party, which mistakeningly believed that it could act as a moderating influence on the Nazi regime. Third, SA and SS men filled the opera house to intimidate the deputies, while rowdy Nazi supporters were outside the building. Hitler himself said that he would be, "prepared to go ahead in the face of the refusal and the hostilities which will result from that refusal." In other words, the Enabling Act would pass, either peacefully or violently. Consequently, by March 23, 1933, Hitler's word would be law until 1945.

Works Cited

Evans, Richard. The Coming of the Third Reich. The Penguin Press: New York, 2003.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. "Germany: Establishment of the Third Reich." The Holocaust Encyclopedia. http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/article.php?lang=en&ModuleId=10005204 (accessed June 27, 2008).