D.6. The Rise of the Nazis and Communists
NOTE: For an impressive site on voting structures in the Weimar Republic, direct your browser to the German-language site on Weimar Voting.
The Weimar Republic succumbed to a large degree because radical political groups succeeded to build up mass followership. How did it happen that in a free, democratic, and liberal system a majority of the people ultimately voted for parties committed to some form of dictatorship? How and under which conditions did these parties win decisive support? To answer these questions we have to look at the structure of German political culture.
In a slightly simplifying way we can argue that there were three major political camps in the German population: the socialist-worker camp, the Catholic camp, and the bourgeois-Protestant camp. These three camps did not entirely correspond to single parties, but all parties of the Weimar Republic — with the exception of the NSDAP — to a large degree were bound to them. Voters made different choices within the three segments of the political culture, but they rarely transcended their borders. If we add the seats of the three workers’ parties throughout the Weimar Republic, we get a striking stability: 1919: 187; 1920: 190; 1924 (I): 162; 1924 (II): 176; 1928: 207; 1930: 210; 1932 (I): 222; 1932 (II): 221; 1933: 201. A similar continuity can be seen in the seats of the Catholic camp, the Center Party and its Bavarian sister party, the BVP (Bavarian People’s Party). Together they reached 1919: 91; 1920: 85; 1924 (I): 81; 1924 (II): 87; 1928: 76; 1930: 87; 1932 (I): 97; 1932 (II): 90; 1933: 92.
The Protestant-bourgeois camp is more complex, since democratic, nationalist, and right-wing parties competed for some of the same groups. The statistics show a marked rise of seats (votes) between 1930 and 1932, which has to do with the strong attraction of the NSDAP to young voters. 1920: 179; 1928: 206; 1930: 221; 1932 (I): 289; 1932 (II): 273; 1933: 354. Voting participation, of course, made a difference and accounts for the changes in the results of all three camps (see handout).
In terms of voting, the problem of the Weimar Republic was that the most radical parties in the socialist and the Protestant-bourgeois camp reduced or wiped out more moderate, democratic parties. The Nazis conquered most of the Protestant-bourgeois camp and made inroads into the socialist and Catholic camps, although the two latter proved more resistant to them than the first. The Communists became stronger in the socialist camp but never managed to dominate it or to expand beyond it (except for intellectual circles; but they were not significant in absolute numbers).
While the Nazis rose, the DDP, the DVP, and the DNVP lost votes. The DDP and the DVP suffered devastating losses: The DDP, one of the two parties most closely associated with the Weimar constitution, had won 75 seats (about 20% of the vote) in 1919. In late 1932 the DDP was a splinter party with 2 seats. The DVP did not fare much better. At its peak under Stresemann’s skillful and moderate leadership, the DVP received between 50 and 65 seats (1920 to 1924). In 1932, 7 seats were left, and only 2 remained in 1933. Even the proud DNVP, initially in strict opposition to the Weimar Republic, lost votes to the Nazis. Of its 103 seats in 1924 only 37 were left in July 1932. Under Hugenberg’s radical leadership and in alliance with the Nazis, the party recovered a little and rose to 52 seats in 1933, still only half of the 1924 figures.
Many voters disappointed with these parties joined small parties built around single issues, such as the problems of people affected by the inflation, farmers in economic crisis, and many others. Such splinter parties, and there were dozens of them, weakened the more moderate parties while making the formation of parliamentary majorities ever more difficult. The Nazis after 1930 benefited from these splinter parties in the Protestant-bourgeois camp and absorbed most of their voters until 1933.
The rise of intransigent anti-democratic parties at both extremes paralyzed democracy. The Reichstag and most of the single state parliaments could not function any more once the radical enemies of the Republic held nearly half of the seats, as in 1930, and more than half two years later. Not to think of the profound differences between the moderate parties from the SPD to the DVP! (Imagine that in the United States the radical religious right and the communists would win a near-majority. Democrats and Republicans suddenly would have to agree on most issues; left-wing Democrat environmentalists would have to ally with right-wing Republican business groups.)
The chances for the survival of democracy were further undermined by the Catholic camp’s move to the Right. The Center Party and the BVP had always tended to be more anti-socialist than genuinely democratic. The Center Party’s alliance with the SPD had been dictated by the circumstances of the last war years and the chaos of the first Weimar period. After 1928 the Center became increasingly reluctant to cooperate with the Social Democrats and purged its left wing, the predominant voice of democracy within the party.
But let us analyze the rise of the Republic’s radical enemies.
When the Russian Bolshevists stabilized their power in the bloody Russian civil war (1917-1921), Lenin issued a proclamation to the world’s labor parties. He called for a Third International of communist parties all over the world. As a condition for joining the Third International, however, national parties had to accept Russian leadership. This became a problem, since the central office of the Third International in Moscow — though including foreign advisers — was often poorly informed about events in other countries.
In Germany the Communist Party, formed out of the Spartacus League right before the uprising in January 1919, accepted the leadership of the Moscow communists. Taking Lenin’s successful model as an example, the German communists built up a strictly hierarchical, radical party. Initially, the KPD played a marginal role. Workers who resented the SPD’s moderate policies and wanted a more far-reaching revolution first supported the USPD, a party that had close connections to workers’ groups in many factories but refused to be guided by ideologues in Moscow. The USPD seemed to be the more sincere advocate of working people’s concerns than the radical KPD. At the Reichstag elections of 1920 the USPD received almost 18% of the vote, as compared to a little less than 22% for the SPD and only 2% for the KPD.
The USPD, however, broke apart within the next two years. On the one side, the SPD, no longer in the government, took class struggle more seriously after the elections of 1920 and thus won back some of the more radical workers. On the other side, the Communists started agitating with great skill and attracted much of the left wing of the USPD and also the prewar SPD, those who had always advocated more aggressive attacks on the existing system instead of cautious reforms and trade unionist bargaining.
After 1920 the USPD did not seem to make much sense any more. Its most intimate cause, the workers’ council movement, had not received constitutional consideration and was dead after 1920. Those workers who were too deeply dissatisfied with the political and social conditions and too resentful of the SPD’s repressive policies in 1919 were willing to believe the Communists that only a revolution could overcome the capitalist state. This was Marx’s opinion, and it made sense in the light of events. The SPD’s reformist stand seemed to have failed and appeared to many as an excuse for treacherous plotting with right-wing military and paramilitary groups. The KPD’s association with the revolutionary communist parties in other countries, even if it was bought at the expense of submission to Moscow, looked fascinating and promising to many workers. The fundamental changes occurring in the young Soviet Union further added to the appeal of the KPD.
The German communists were aware of their growing support after 1920. But they were not primarily interested in elections then. Until the fall of 1923 the KPD, following instructions from Moscow, planned for revolution. The chaos in Germany, the hyperinflation, and the international tensions made radical slogans more attractive than ever. Several times the communists attempted to start a general uprising (see the chronology of events, particularly 1920-21 and 1923). Every time the authorities sent Free Corps or army units to the trouble spots, usually the big cities and industrial areas, and let them restore order with much violence. Communist putschism at this stage was even more hopeless than the anti-republican machinations of the Right. Whereas the military tolerated the rightists and usually wished their takeover, it never hesitated to shoot rebellious workers.
Repression and a politicized judiciary, which considered right-wing terrorists misguided national heroes but could not be harsh enough on leftist offenders, cemented the bonds among the radical workers. In the elections of May 1924 the KPD got 62 votes (up 58 from 1920), a number that was a little reduced by the more stable situation at the end of that year, when the KPD lost 17 seats (retaining 45). After the disastrous uprisings of 1919-1923 the KPD renounced putschist activity for the time being and concentrated on building up a larger, even more disciplined apparatus. Like the Nazis, the KPD built up a street fighter force to protect its meetings and to intimidate political opponents. This Red Front soon engaged in bloody street battles with right-wing paramilitary units and later the Nazi SA. The Red Front distributed propaganda material (pamphlets and leaflets), and it helped to organize the party’s electoral campaigns. Much of the extremely aggressive and violent political rhetoric we know so well from the Nazis also characterized communist propaganda.
But as long as economic stability reigned the results of communist efforts were unimpressive. In 1928 the KPD won only 9 seats more than in December 1924. With the start of the Great Depression, however, Communist votes increased and almost doubled until December 1932. The disruption of the economy and mass unemployment benefited the KPD, all the more so as the crisis appeared to discredit capitalism in the eyes of many workers. The Stalinist Soviet Union was hardly affected. Most communists did not understand that this resulted more from the isolation of the Soviet economy from the world market than from the merits of socialist economics.
The picture of communist bands marching through the cities, singing aggressive songs, attracted many young, unskilled, and unemployed workers. Whereas the more skilled workers remained loyal to the trade unions (which were predominantly moderate, reformist and thus close to the SPD), the unskilled and the young preferred the KPD to the SPD, which gained the reputation of an old men’s party. The appeal of the KPD, however, reached not only workers.
A large number of intellectuals, artists, writers, musicians also felt attracted by the KPD. Often without joining the party, they helped its propaganda and joined its avantgardist cultural initiatives. Unlike the Nazis, the KPD embraced the new spirit of Weimar Culture. The idea of a movement that wanted to totally recreate society and rebuild traditional forms of life proved appealing to intellectuals. They spread a socialist message in films, plays, concerts, and spontaneous performances in the streets. They produced partly magnificent works of art in the process. The KPD seemed young, dynamic, forceful, fascinating, and inspiring. Its appeal outshadowed the SPD’s, which looked somewhat ossified, boring, and old. Usually, the intellectuals becoming fellow travelers of the KPD closed their eyes to the brutality of its street fighters and to the much more drastic brutality of Stalin’s rule in the Soviet Union.
The German communists did not manage to start a revolution and were brutally repressed when Hitler came to power (without the Soviet Union even protesting). Although the communists thus became the first victims of the Nazis it cannot be denied that they contributed to destabilize and bring down the Republic. Unwilling to think pragmatically and blindly obedient to Moscow’s machiavellian machinations they declared the SPD their main enemy. Whereas the KPD saw the Nazis as unmistakable slaves of capitalism, it claimed that the SPD was the more dangerous enemy of the working people because it looked like a socialist party. Communists thus denounced the SPD as “Social Fascist” and concentrated as much on fighting the SPD as on the beating up Nazis. Working-class unity against the Right, which had foiled the Kapp Putsch in 1920, was anathema to the KPD in the last years of the Republic. The SPD sometimes suggested it, and a few years later even the Soviet leaders advocated it, but by then the German communist movement had been broken up by the Nazis.
The DNVP (German Nationalist People’s Party):
Until 1930 the DNVP, not the NSDAP, was the leading right-wing opposition to the Weimar Republic. The DNVP’s electoral results and organizational structures overshadowed the Nazis throughout the 1920s. The party program displayed a monarchist orientation, but this never became a serious agenda. The DNVP attracted mostly reactionaries and supported the Kapp Putsch. It split in 1922, excluding its most racist, anti-Semitic right wing, which later merged with Ludendorff’s short-lived racist party. Many racists and anti-Semites remained in the DNVP, however.
During its electoral peak in 1924-28, the party split over the Dawes Plan, participation in government, and Locarno. Unable to reconcile its deep social divisions (nationalist employees, free farmers, Junkers, industrialists, small businessmen, domestic employees) the party assumed a more radical course in 1928 and repeatedly associated with the Nazis 1929-1933. In this period the party split again (the moderates left it) and became a junior partner of the NSDAP. The party’s respectability and its excellent connections to heavy industry are often seen as a decisive benefit the NSDAP derived from its cooperation with the DNVP. Hugenberg’s industrial connections opened generous sources of funding to Hitler, and the whole idea of conservatives in 1933 to manipulate the Nazis would be unthinkable without the DNVP’s association with Hitler before that date. The DNVP’s own losses, however, made it no more than a junior partner in Hitler’s accession to power.
In the revolutionary troubles of the winter 1918-19 some railway workers in Munich felt that both social change and nationalism should be the predominant goals of German workers. They founded the DAP (German Workers’ Party), later called the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP). Hitler, an obscure Austrian war veteran and failed artist who had fought in the German army and held no valid passport of any country, was commissioned by the political division of the local army section to watch the DAP. While doing his job, he decided to become a member of the DAP in September 1919 (he was not no. 7, as he claimed later). Under his dictatorial leadership and extraordinary rhetorical talents the NSDAP became a predominant force within the fragmented Bavarian Right. (For Hitler’s biography and rise to power, see the following web publication – with due criticism: The History Place: The Rise of Adolf Hitler.)
It was not clear what this party really wanted. The French secret service for a while funded Hitler, believing that he was a Bavarian separatist and would thus help to destabilize Germany. In 1922 some industrialists and right-wing nationalist politicians began to consider using Hitler’s charisma in order to woo workers away from socialism and increase the electoral strength of the right-wing parties. Even though they found his venomous anti-Semitism exaggerated, they hoped to manipulate him for their own ends (for Hitler’s early anti-Semitism, see H-German: Hitler, Discovery of Anti-Semitism in Vienna and H-German: Adolf Hitler’s First Antisemitic Writing, 1919). They understood that the element of “socialism” in the NSDAP was largely propaganda. But Hitler kept his party independent. He advocated a putsch against the Berlin government and built up a paramilitary force, the SA (Storm division) under Bavarian general Ernst Röhm.
With his tightly organized party and the violent storm troopers Hitler was a restive element in Bavarian politics during the crisis of 1923. The failure of the Munich Putsch in November 1923 destroyed his party and the SA, but he learned from this experience. In his luxury prison he wrote his programmatic book (Mein Kampf) and started to reorganize his party. He concluded that putschism, at least as a frontal assault on the Weimar Republic, did not have a chance. Every right-wing putsch had split the army and antagonized many people in the administration who approved the goals of the putschists but found their methods too risky. Hitler thus decided to win power “legally” through participation in elections and propaganda.
Legally requires quotation marks here because Hitler continued to foster street violence and had nothing against bending the law when it helped him. Hitler further toned down the anti-Semitic message in his propaganda. Much as anti-Semitism was a key factor in his political motivation, he recognized that it was attracting less people than he wanted and actually alienated some potentially powerful allies on the Right. Not that German rightists in general were philo-Semites; Jews in Germany undoubtedly witnessed an upsurge of anti-Semitism during and after the closing phase of the First World War, but raging against the Jews as irrationally and viciously as Hitler did seemed unjustified even to many rightists. Hitler thus decided to mute his anti-Semitism in public speeches, and this was true for the following years of his political campaigning and even some phases in his first years as a dictator.
After the Beer Hall Putsch the NSDAP and the SA were outlawed for about one year. While Hitler enjoyed his prison term, an alignment of Nazi and other racist groups joined to participate in elections under Ludendorff’s leadership. They scored impressive successes at the Bavarian elections of April 1924 and the Reichstag elections one month later. In Bavaria they got almost 18% of the vote. In Munich, the site of the abortive putsch, every second voter supported the NSDAP’s successor organization. In the Reichstag they got 6.5%. In the December elections of 1924, however, the prospect of economic stability worked against radicals of all sorts, and Ludendorff’s party suffered a crushing defeat.
Before 1925 the Nazis and their associates had appeared mainly on the stage of Bavarian politics. To non-Bavarians — Germans and foreigners alike — Hitler looked like a local political matador (or a clown escaped from the Munich Oktoberfest). This changed when Hitler left prison in early 1925. Disillusioned about the chances of using Bavaria as a footstep for takeover in Berlin, he started to build up a nation-wide organization strictly loyal to him. The SA was rebuilt, too. Increasingly, it engaged in bloody street battles with the communist and republican paramilitary units. But like the communists, the Nazis were unable to harvest the fruits of their organizational efforts before the Great Depression hit Germany. In the 1928 elections they received 12 seats (less than 3% of the vote); in 1930 their parliamentary group rose to 107, and it more than doubled in July 1932. It was now the largest group in the Reichstag. The Nazis lost some votes in December 1932 but gained power through a fatal intrigue.
How can this meteoric rise be explained? One likely key factor was the depression. Due to their improved nation-wide organization the Nazis would probably have made gains after their electoral defeat in 1928 anyway. But there is no reason to assume that they would have become nearly as powerful as they did without the acute, devastating crisis. It was not so much those who were most directly affected by the crisis who voted for Hitler. The unemployed, for instance, often preferred to vote for the communists or even for the SPD.
What gave the Nazis so much support was their image as a determined force of order and reconstruction at a time when all traditional structures — be they economic or social — seemed to break down. All voters who were neither affiliated with the labor parties nor with the Center or the BVP felt upset about the unprecedented breakdown of economic activity. Farmers voted for Hitler, as did Protestant middle-class people. Professors and schoolteachers, who had leaned to the Right since the Wilhelmine Empire, supported the Nazis. The NSDAP scored its greatest successes in small and medium-size towns in predominantly Protestant regions. Strongholds of the workers’ movement, such as Berlin, Hamburg, Saxony, and the Ruhr proved quite resistant to the Nazi upsurge, as did regions in which the Center or the BVP had been entrenched for a while. The Nazis’ insistence on order was hypocritical, of course, since the NSDAP in general and the SA in particular did their utmost to exacerbate the chaos from which they promised to deliver Germany.
Although the NSDAP drew its most important support from the Protestant bourgeoisie it was not predominantly a class-party but an integrative people’s party. It reached out to nationalist workers who had never liked the socialists, and it included large groups from all layers of German society. It also attracted a significant, though not overwhelming, group of formerly socialist workers. In this sense, the NSDAP was a true people’s party, a status the DVP or DNVP had never achieved.
Go on to D.7.