Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party took control of Germany in the early 1930s, established a dictatorship and started the Second World War in Europe. This article examines the origins of the Nazi Party, the troubled and unsuccessful early phase, and takes the story to the late twenties, just before the fateful collapse of Weimar.
Adolf Hitler and the Creation of the Nazi Party
Adolf Hitler was the central figure in German, and European, history in the middle of the twentieth century, but came from uninspiring origins. He was born in 1889 in the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, moved to Vienna in 1907 where he failed to get accepted at art school, and spent the next few years friendless and drifting around the city. Many people have examined these years for clues as to Hitler’s later personality and ideology, and there is little consensus about what conclusions can be drawn. That Hitler experienced a change during World War One - where he won a medal for bravery but drew skepticism from his fellows - seems a safe conclusion, and by the time he left hospital, where he was recovering from being gassed, he already seems to have become anti-Semitic, an admirer of the mythic German people/volk, anti-democratic and anti-socialist – preferring an authoritarian government – and committed to German nationalism.
Still a failed painter, Hitler searched for work in post-World War One Germany and found that his conservative leanings endeared him to the Bavarian military, who sent him to spy on political parties they considered suspect. Hitler found himself investigating the German Workers Party, which had been founded by Anton Drexler on a mixture of ideology which still confuses to this day. It was not, as Hitler then and many now assume, part of the left wing of German politics, but a nationalist, anti-Semitic organization which also included anti-capitalistic ideas such as workers rights. In one of those small and fateful decisions Hitler joined the party he was meant to be spying on (as the 55th member, although to make the group look bigger they had started numbering at 500, so Hitler was number 555.), and discovered a talent for speaking which allowed him to dominate the admittedly small group. Hitler thus co-authored with Drexler a 25 Point programme of demands, and pushed through, in 1920, a change of name: the National Socialist German Workers Party, or NSDAP, Nazi. There were socialist leaning people in the party at this point, and the Points did include socialist ideas, such as nationalisations. Hitler had little interest in these, and kept them to secure party unity while he was challenging for power.
Drexler was sidelined by Hitler soon after. The former knew the latter was usurping him and tried to limit his power, but Hitler used an offer to resign and key speeches to cement his support and in the end it was Drexler who quit. Hitler had himself made ‘Führer’ of the group, and he provided the energy – mainly via well received oratory - which propelled the party along and bought in more members. Already the Nazis were using a militia of volunteer street fighters to attack left wing enemies, bolster their image and control what was said at meetings, and already Hitler realised the value of clear uniforms, imagery and propaganda. Very little of what Hitler would think, or do, was original, but he was the one to combine them and couple them to his verbal battering ram. A great sense of political (but not military) tactics allowed him to dominate as this mishmash of ideas was pushed forward by oratory and violence.
The Nazis try to Dominate the Right Wing
Hitler was now clearly in charge, but only of a small party. He aimed to expand his power through growing subscriptions to the Nazis. A newspaper was created to spread the word (the People’s Observer), and the Sturm Abteiling, the SA or Stormtroopers / Brownshirts (after their uniform), were formally organised. This was a paramilitary designed to take the physical fight to any opposition, and battles were fought against socialist groups. It was led by Ernst Röhm, whose arrival bought a man with connections to the Freikorps, the military and to the local Bavarian judiciary, who was right wing and who ignored right wing violence. Slowly rivals came to Hitler, who would accept no compromise or merger.
1922 saw a key figure join the Nazis: air ace and war hero Hermann Goering, whose aristocratic family gave Hitler a respectability in German circles he had previously lacked. This was a vital early ally for Hitler, instrumental in the rise to power, but he would prove costly during the coming war.
The Beer Hall Putsch
By mid-1923 Hitler’s Nazis had a membership in the low tens of thousands, but were limited to Bavaria. Nevertheless, fuelled by Mussolini’s recent success in Italy, Hitler decided to make a move on power; indeed, as the hope of a putsch was growing among the right, Hitler almost had to move or lose control of his men. Given the role he later played in world history, it is almost inconceivable he was involved with something that failed as outright as the Beer Hall Putsch of 1923, but it happened. Hitler knew he needed allies, and opened discussions with Bavaria’s right wing government: political lead Kahr and military leader Lossow. They planned a march on Berlin with all of Bavaria’s military, police and paramilitaries. They also arranged for Eric Ludendorff, Germany’s de facto leader throughout the later years of World War One, to join in.
Hitler’s plan was weak, and Lossow and Kahr tried to pull out. Hitler wouldn’t allow this and when Kahr was making a speech in a Munich Beer Hall – to many of Munich’s key government figures - Hitler’s forces moved in, took over, and announced their revolution. Thanks to Hitler’s threats Lossow and Kahr now joined in reluctantly (until they were able to flee), and a two thousand strong force tried to seize key sites in Munich the next day. But support for the Nazis was small, and there was no mass uprising or military acquiescence, and after some of Hitler’s troops were killed the rest were beaten and the leaders arrested.
An utter failure, it was ill conceived, had little chance of gaining support across German, and may even have triggered a French invasion had it worked. The Beer Hall Putsch might have been an embarrassment and the death knell for the now banned Nazis, but Hitler was still a speaker and he managed to take control of his trial and turn it into a grandstanding platform, aided by a local government who didn’t want Hitler to reveal all those who’d helped him (including army training for the SA), and were willing to give a small sentence as a result. The trial announced his arrival on the German stage, made the rest of the right wing look to him as a figure of action, and even managed to get the judge to give him the minimum sentence for treason, which he in turn portrayed as tacit support.