Assess the role of each of the following in the rise to power of Hitler: ideological appeal; underestimation by opponents; propaganda. The historical debate surrounding the causal factors of the rise of the Nazi state in Germany by 1933 is fierce. Marxist historians, emphasising the idea that Nazism was no more than capitalism’s most extreme form, tend to view Hitler as a puppet of big business.
Others, including renowned scholars such as AJP Taylor stress the idea that Hitler and the Nazi’s were a product of unique German history and a ‘German struggle for mastery over Europe’. Amongst all of this debate, one thing is agreed upon and that is the fact that without the great depression stemming from the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the dire consequences that the withdrawal of American loans had on the German economy, Hitler would have remained on the sidelines of German politics.
It was the circumstances of early 1930’s Germany, as emphasised by historian Karl Bracher, that ultimately brought Hitler to power. Thus it is impossible to understand or assess the significance of the Nazi’s ideological appeal, the fatal underestimation of the Nazi’s by both the conservatives and the left and their use of propaganda whilst coming to power without understanding this context and it is thus the express intention of this essay to contextualise these factors in order to demonstrate the limitations of their significance.
Further, this essay will also attempt to highlight the inextricable links between these above stated factors and select other factors which are given as having helped the Nazi’s come to power, namely the brutality of the SA; Hitlers personality and the unique position of Germany in European history, with a view to unearthing the most significant amongst them.
Hitler’s ideas and thus the ideology of the Nazi party, as described by historian Martin Blinkhorn, brought together ‘pre-war Pan-Germanism, virulent anti-semitism, biological racism, crude social Darwinism, German-centered ‘geopolitics and obsessive anti-marxism. ‘ These nationalist ideas, such as the commitment of the party to ‘blood and soil’ were by no means original. They stemmed from the 19th century and earlier and were deep rooted in German society. Historians AJP Taylor and William Shirer argue that the Germans were familiar with and susceptible to these ideas of ational righteousness. In the wake of the defeat during the first world war, these ideas has once again risen to the surface of German socio-politics. Outraged by the actions of the so called ‘November criminals’ for stabbing Germany in the back by ending a war and signing a treaty that subjected their nation to the imperial bondage of western capitalism, many Germans had their ears open to the simplistic nationalist slogans that Hitler was hammering home during the 1920’s.
Indeed, Ian Kershaw argues that the first world war ‘made Hitler possible. ‘ In the years immediately after the first world war and again in the wake of the economic crisis emanating from America in 1929, when German society seemed divided and ungovernable, Hitler’s commitment to unity under a singular, dominant party and their ultimate leader, epitomized in his fuhrerprinzip after 1925, appealed to many different groups within German society, often for different reasons.
The Nazi’s were particularly skilled in the period from the late 1920’s to 1933 in exploiting the ‘bread and butter’ issues facing different groups, such as falling grain prices for northern farmers and the fear of ‘big business’ capitalism amongst small business owners and also the fear of communism amongst big business. Their vision of a united, national socialist society had benefits for everyone.
However, it is clear to see from the poor Reich election results of 1928, where the Nazi party won a mere 12 seats in the Reichstag, that during good times, there was little room for Nazi extremism in German politics. It has been asserted by historian Ian Kershaw that Hitler’s ‘brand of rhetoric only [sic] came into it’s own’ during the global depression that affected advanced industrialised economies. Only in 1930 were the Nazi’s able to attain more than one hundred seats in the Reichstag, registering 107 in September of that year.
The resurgence of communist activity in this period goes a long way to explain why many people turned to the Nazi’s to help them protect their positions in society, more as a reaction to the ‘red threat’ than as a pre-emptive jump towards Nazi ideas. This is seen in the fact that it was largely property-owning individuals, or in other words, individuals with something to lose in the event of a communist seizure of power, who voted for the Nazi’s.
This does not however, explain the attraction to the Nazi’s of the increasing numbers of unemployed in Germany. This point can be partially explained through Hitler’s promises of full employment. Thus, the appeal of Nazi ideology to many groups of people cannot be understood outside of the context of the economic misery in early 1930’s Germany. Moreover, another limitation on the significance of Nazi ideological appeal alone is the fact that it was largely delivered via Adolf Hitler himself.
The question therefore must be posed as to how effective and appealing these idea would have been coming from a less charismatic leader. Unfortunately there is not time to explore this avenue in this essay. The conservative elite of Germany had since the election of 1930 and the coming to power of Bruning been scheming to find a way to decapitate Weimar democracy. Initially, establishment figures such as President von Hindenburg, Franz von Papen and general turned politico Kurt von Schleicher were very suspicious of the seemingly insatiable rise of Nazism.
Between 1930 and July 1932, it seemed as though it was only a matter of time before the Nazi’s would be able to rule Germany by commanding a majority in the Reichstag. By July 1932 they were the largest party, with 230 seats, although still short of an absolute majority and their leader Hitler, who was steadfastly committed to obtaining power through democratic routes, had even taken an ageing President von Hindenburg to a second run off in the presidential election earlier in the year. This shows that the Nazi’s for the time being seemed unstoppable.
Even the reduced number of 196 seats that the Nazi’s gained in November was enough to convince von Schleicher that he had to act to split the party, offering it’s more socialist elements under the leadership of Gregor Strasser a position in the government with him if they abandoned Hitler. Von papen interpreted the loss of seats by the Nazi party differently, believing them to have lost their momentum. He now convinced von Hindenburg to appoint Hitler in January 1933 that it was the right time to harness their energies and mass support believing that Nazi support was ‘for hire’ and that he could, as Hugenburg put it, ‘box Hitler in. This was a fatal miscalculation, the elites had not, as Kershaw states, recognised that Hitler might be able to do more than just a ‘job for them. ‘ Understanding this miscalculation requires one to look at the rise in votes for the left in the November 1932 election. Whilst the Nazi vote fell in November 1932, the vote for the KPD rose and they obtained 100 seats in the Reichstag. However, the left itself was divided with the communists taking orders from Moscow not to cooperate with the more moderate SPD and was therefore unable in this entire period to mount any genuine challenge to the rise of Nazism.
They too in a sense underestimated the potential of Nazism to wipe them out. What is clear, nonetheless is that von Papen and his elitist cronies were scared that the political momentum could ultimately shift to the communists as an alternative mass movement to Nazism and that now, after November 1932, was the time to try to tame Hitler before it was too late. This anxiety displayed by the elites can only be explained in the context of the great depression which was causing more and more voters to turn to the extremes, particularly the unemployed who increasingly had nothing to lose from a red revolution.
Without the depression, the elites would surely not have even considered Hitler as a serious option. Hitler wrote about the importance of propaganda in his book Mein Kampf. He believed that the masses were essentially idiotic and could be persuaded through appeals to their emotions and through ‘black against white’ (simplistic) themes. His primary propagandist from 1929, Joseph Goebbels stated his belief that ‘if you are going to tell a lie, tell it big and tell it often,’ and then people will believe it. Indeed, these principles sum up the Nazi approach to propaganda during their rise and their rule.
The Nazis used an array of posters during both Reich and local election campaigns before 1933 with titles like ‘The Workers Have Awakened,’ ‘Free the Soil,’ and ‘We Women Vote for The National Socialists,’ clearly showing how the Nazi’s cleverly targeted different groups with different messages. Moreover, their party newspaper, the Volkisher Beobachter issued 120,000 copies weekly in 1931 alongside numerous other Nazi publications such Goebbels own circular, Der Angriff. This extensive coverage in an age before television and with limited private ownership of radios was crucial for the Nazi’s to get their message across.
During the well organized presidential election campaign of 1932, Hitler became one of the first politicians ever to make use of an aeroplane to get him from rally to rally. At these rallies, in front of thousands of people, Hitler’s fantastic oratory inspired and captured the imaginations of his crowds with fantastic visions of a glorious national future for the German people. Furthermore, the Nazi’s were also able to utilize the media connections of press baron, Alfred Hugenburg, to gain publicity during the anti-Young plan campaign of 1929.
Nonetheless, this seemingly impressive political engineering by the Nazi’s must be taken with a pinch of salt. For instance it has been suggested by a number of historians that Hitler was preaching to the converted at the rallies during the 1920’s and early 1930’s and that the number of sceptics or unconverted in the crowd remained limited, suggesting that they had little effect on penetrating into the realm of the undecided. On another note, the fact that the best result for the Nazi party during genuinely ‘democratic’ conditions in July 1932 was only 37. % of the vote, suggests that their ability to convince the public was limited to just over one third of the population. Moreover, it is important when trying to understand the significance of the propaganda and the role that it played in convincing the public to vote for the Nazis to mention the role played by the brutish paramilitary arm of the movement, the SA. Their intimidation and harassment of voters, particularly blue collar workers suspected by the Nazi’s of being communists, may go a long way towards explaining the increase in votes for the Nazis that has sometimes been attributed to successful propaganda.
Finally, slogans such as that on a November 1932 election poster which stated ‘Work and Food’ clearly show the context in which the Nazis were operating. Faced with an increasingly desperate economic situation, the people of Weimar Germany were much more likely to read the Nazi posters and want to believe what they saw. Had the situation not been as dire or consequential for the German public, their reading of the Nazi posters would have been dramatically different and it is reasonable to assert that they would have continued to view Hitler as a lunatic and his party as inconsequential to the future of the nation.
In conclusion, I assert that without the depressing and apocalyptic economic circumstances that the Wall Street Crash ushered in to German life, the Nazi party would not have risen to power. Their ideology would not have been as appealing to the mass public of an advanced industrial society heading towards a progressive and enlightened future, even though they may have held some moderated versions of the same ideas; their propaganda would have increasingly fallen on deaf ears and their conservative opponents would not have been forced into a situation that made them realize that the Nazi’s were perhaps the last hope.
However, in the context of the economic crisis of the early 1930’s in Germany, Hitler was able to utilise his appeal through propaganda and come in to roost from the fringes of German politics. His opponents, divided and naive, did not realize the potential of the phenomenon that was about to take Germany, Europe and the world by storm. This external factor above all else, whilst untenable outside of the context of early 1930’s Germany, is crucial to understanding how Hitler was able to come to power.