The Origins of Nazism in the Weimar Context
Ninety years ago, on 30 January 1933, Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany. Planning to write about the process that brought the Nazis to power, and Hitler’s ultimate downfall, the word count got a bit out of control for one post, so the story has been split up into six posts.
This first post will look at how the Nazi Party emerged in the German context after the First World War. The second article focuses on the ideology of the Nazism. The third article analyses how Nazism interacted with Christianity. The fourth post examines the Nazi path to power. The fifth article will trace how the Nazis consolidated power within Germany and began their war to expand the Reich. The sixth and final article will be about Operation BARBAROSSA, the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, which ultimately brought about Hitler’s defeat, and whether it could ever have gone another way.
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GERMANY’S FIRST WORLD WAR AND WEIMAR’S INHERENT INSTABILITY
The German High Command had won the First World War in the East in early 1918, formalised in the Brest-Litovsk Treaty, but rather than look for a settlement that traded away the occupation in the West for the holdings in the former Russian Empire, the de facto rulers of Germany, Chief of the General Staff Paul von Hindenburg and his nominal subordinate Erich Ludendorff, refused to move from the maximalist ambitions that had led Germany to starting the war, and conducting it with such atrocious means.The Germans made a reckless gamble: mauled by the British and French on the Somme, and nearly defeated when this combined with the Russian Brusilov Offensive, Berlin was determined never to fight such a direct land confrontation again, switching instead in early 1917 to unrestricted submarine warfare (and political subversion), knowing full well this would bring the United States into the war, but betting they could starve Britain and France into submission before the U.S. mobilised. It was a catastrophe for the Germans. Even the initial success of the 1918 Spring Offensive redounded against them: the German soldiers who broke through the lines were thoroughly demoralised by seeing how well-stocked Allied trenches were. With American troops arriving in vast numbers, the outcome was not in doubt, though it never came to the U.S. having to shoulder much of the fighting. The British and French turned back the offensive and shattered the German army in the field, while the German home front collapsed.
A sailors’ mutiny in Kiel that certainly involved Communists, though would later be falsely cast by the German Right as a Communists-only event, ignited a general uprising at the beginning of November 1918: within a week the Kaiser was gone. The spectre of the Communists—who had tried to take over the government in Berlin as the monarchy fell—convinced the Allies to stop short of pressing into Germany itself and demanding unconditional surrender: “it was important to get Germany on her legs again for fear of the spread of Bolshevism”, then-Minister of Munitions Winston Churchill told the British Cabinet the day before the Armistice.It was hardly an unreasonable fear: Russia had been knocked out of the war by the Bolshevik coup in November 1917 and the leader of the nascent Soviet Union, Vladimir Lenin, had begun trying to export Revolution immediately. Bulgaria had been forced out of the war partly by Bolshevik agitation within the military in September 1918, and its King overthrown by revolutionaries soon afterwards. Meanwhile, Lenin was offering—however quixotically—to send a million Russian troops and unlimited aid to support revolution in Germany. The Soviet menace would shape German politics in important ways ever-afterwards. Unfortunately, the Allied decision was, even on its own terms, exactly the wrong one, contributing to the political instability in Germany after the war that gave the Communists room to operate.
The Kaiser’s abdication was announced without informing him on 9 November 1918 and a German Republic proclaimed. Not even the Social Democratic Party (SPD) leader who would be the first President of what became the “Weimar Republic”, Friedrich Ebert (r. 1919-25), wanted to abolish the monarchy, but felt that without this step Germany would collapse into socialist revolution and/or civil war.
The authority of the new republic was immediately, violently contested, and would continue to be challenged in repeated rebellions, most by Moscow-run Communists, who saw in the disorder their chance to expand the Revolution that had begun in Russia:
The Communists might not have been the most powerful element in the revolution in November 1918 that felled the Kaiser, but they were very powerful and in strategic locations, too: Communist battalions tried to seize the institutions of the central government in Berlin and to take power in Munich, the provincial capital of the crucially-placed Bavaria.
In the turmoil after the fall of the Kaiser, with the state in disarray and the Allied blockade still fastened on Germany as leverage for the Paris Peace Conference, Berlin was shaken by the “Spartacist uprising” in January 1919, led by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, whose organisation was being paid from Moscow.This Soviet-backed enterprise was suppressed by the Freikorps, essentially self-organised paramilitary battalions of returning German soldiers. Lenin took revenge by ordering the murder of the final members of the fallen House of Romanov in Bolshevik hands.
In March 1919, the Spartacists, now joined by the Soviet-controlled Communist Party of Germany (KPD), Independent Socialists (USPD), and groups of mutinous sailors, tried again, with trades union agitator Richard Muller directing affairs, and powerful aristocratic figures—among them Foreign Minister Count Ulrich Brockdorff-Rantzau, one of the men most individually responsible for Lenin’s coup in Saint Petersburg—conspiring in the background to try for leading positions in a Red Germany. After a week of bloody fighting, and much destruction of property in central Berlin, the Communists had been defeated, again mostly by the Freikorps.
From early April to early May 1919, Bavaria fell under Communist rule, proclaiming a “Bavarian Soviet Republic” (Räterepublik), an extension of the Soviet clone regime created by Bela Kun in Hungary,which soon to spread to Slovakia. The Räterepublik was funded by the Soviet Union and entirely under the control of Soviet agents, starting at the top with its “head of state”, Eugen Leviné, a Russian Jew involved in the 1905 terrorist revolt in Russia, and his close comrade, Max Levien, another Russian, an ethnic German, a founder of the KPD in January 1919 and leader of its Bavarian wing, who had been involved in the two prior Spartacist-linked rebellions. Soviet agents like Tobias Akselrod, a veteran Russian terrorist-revolutionary who posed as a journalist in Europe, were spread throughout the lower levels of the regime as well. The Communists oversaw a terrifying regime in Bavaria that mingled anarchy with despotism. Taking their cues from Lenin, public property was looted, “spies” and other class enemies were seen everywhere and killed in the streets, and the religious faithful were unmercifully persecuted. One of the first things the Communists did was close the Munich Cathedral (Die Frauenkirche) and convert it into a “revolutionary temple”, a conscious echo of the French Revolution’s conversion of Notre Dame Cathedral into a “Temple of Reason” in November 1793 at the height of the anti-Christian savagery during the Terror. Hitler was present in Bavaria during these events. Another important witness to what the Bolshevik contagion did to Bavaria was Eugenio Pacelli, the Vatican ambassador and future Pope Pius XII (r. 1939-58), who faced down a mob that pointed a gun at his chest. The hideous cruelty of the Bavarian Red regime ensured that by the time the army and the Freikorps gathered themselves to put it down, there were very few people willing to stand with the Communists.
The one attempted Rightist coup before Hitler’s Munich uprising, which was far more threatening, was the March 1920 “Kapp-Lüttwitz Putsch”, named for the two leaders: the sixty-one-year-old Walther von Lüttwitz, a senior military officer and organiser of the Freikorps to rescue Berlin in January 1919; and the sixty-year-old civil servant Wolfgang Kapp, a stern nationalist. Kapp had the support of Ludendorff, though the old General’s role was mostly symbolic, unlike in 1923. The putsch, ignited by the coming into force of the Versailles Treaty that called for the cutting of three-quarters of the army and the disbanding of the Freikorps, was confined to Berlin: it managed to force President Ebert and his government to temporarily flee the capital, but popular backing for a general strike, among other things, led to the putsch fizzling in five days.
In the chaos as the Kapp Putsch collapsed, the Communists staged a far more serious revolt, particularly in the Ruhr district in western Germany, where cities like Dortmund, Dusseldorf, Hamm, Bochum, Elberfeld, and Essen fell to the Communists. Workers councils (soviets) were created, and violent efforts were made to impose them on Hamburg in the north and Chemnitz and Leipzig in the east, while tremendous violence was unleashed by Communist insurrectionists in Berlin and in the south, in Nuremberg and Dresden. The Ruhr had been designated neutral at Versailles, but in the emergency of this “March Revolution”, German troops backed by the Freikorps and French troops were deployed. After a brutal contest that killed about 1,250 Germans, the Communists were defeated.
A year later, in March-April 1921, the Communists rebelled again, this time concentrated in northeast Germany, in Saxony. The “March Action” also started as a general strike and soon spiralled into an armed uprising: the propaganda agitation for the overthrow of Weimar in the Communist press and pamphlets had been relentless, and it now seemed the moment had arrived. Weapons were distributed and policemen murdered in Saxony, and the Soviet-run KPD tried to nationalise the general strike, but largely failed. The only counter-part disturbances were in the centre of the country (around Thuringia), in the north (Hamburg, again), and in the west (the Ruhr, again). Likewise, the bombs the Communists set off in the Saxon capital, Dresden, and major cities of the state like Leipzig, to try to incite the population to revolt had essentially the reverse effect. Government troops were able to suppress the rising reasonably easily, though there were pockets of determined resistance.
In late October 1923, amid the hyperinflation crisis and months after the France and Belgium had occupied the Ruhr in reprisal for Germany defaulting on its reparations’ payments, creating a febrile atmosphere of popular anger against the Weimar authorities, the KPD staged an “October Revolution” in Hamburg. Though the Hamburg rebellion was intricately planned and overseen by the Soviet government,it was a shambles and government security forces were able to restore order relatively bloodlessly within twenty-four hours.
Two weeks after the Hamburg rising, the second Right-wing coup attempt, the Nazis’ “Beer Hall Putsch”, is staged, and it is even more disastrously executed.
The fighting squads like the Freikorps were successful in barring the road to Communism and were effectively co-opted by the Weimar state, which lacked an effective security capacity, and therein was the problem. These were not the only paramilitaries. After the election and formal establishment of the “Weimar Republic”,the SPD itself—the dominant governing force up to 1930—retained a paramilitary wing, the Reichsbanner Schwarz-Rot-Gold (Black-Red-Gold Reich Banner), as did all the mainstream parties. This militiafication was a practical necessity for the security of the state and its officials in such a dangerous situation, but it also contributed to the danger by further delegitimising the state and normalising violence in politics. With the endless street clashes and tit-for-tat political assassinations, it opened space for far-Right parties committed to violence as an end as well as a means to empower themselves by presenting their criminal behaviour in “pro-state” guise, as a way of protecting the country from the fate of Russia and (briefly) Hungary, Slovakia, and Bavaria. The inability of the Weimar state to establish a monopoly of force meant people did not look to the state for basic human security, the kind of social compact that induces legitimacy over time. Worse was to come.
WEIMAR’S POISONED ORIGINS
The most immediate issue for the Weimar government was the Versailles Treaty: a dictated peace, as opposed to a negotiated one the Germans had been expecting, the Weimar leadership hardly had a choice in agreeing to it. The blockade was still in place when the treaty was put before the German delegation in Paris in June 1919, alongside an ultimatum that if it was not signed within twenty-four hours a 500,000-man Allied army would invade Germany from the west, while Poland and the Czechs prepared to invade from the east and south.The Versailles Treaty was not, as is so often said, excessively harsh. For example, there is no obvious moral, political, or strategic reason the Treaty could not have partitioned Germany, a state created by a series of aggressive wars only in 1871. And Versailles was positively tender compared to the Brest-Litovsk and Bucharest treaties Germany had imposed on fallen enemies during the war. But it was resented all the same.
There were two central political ideas that led Germany down a dark path after the Great War, one from the beginning of the war and one from the end. Most Germans refused to accept the blame for starting the war, seeing Germany as having reacted defensively to French and Russian “encirclement” and believed the Kaiser’s deception that he declared war in response to Russian mobilisation.This is what made the famous “war guilt” clause at Versailles, a statement of plain fact, such a bitter a pill to swallow. It was from this starting premise, established in 1914, that many of the other pathological ideas that spread in 1920s and 1930s Germany logically followed. Even with this belief, however, Germans probably would have understood the necessity of their leaders signing whatever was put in front of them at the conclusion of the war—if Germany had been defeated, but most German did not believe Germany had been defeated.
Wartime censorship had hidden from Germans the true course of the war, meaning defeat came as a total shock and the sense of disbelief never went away.As far as Germans knew, things were going well, then suddenly they were told they had lost; internal treason was a very attractive explanation to bridge that gap. The German “stab-in-the-back” (Dolchstoßlegende) myth was abetted by the Allied failure to humiliate Germany in 1918-19. The Supreme Allied Commander, Ferdinand Foch, was especially adamant that if Berlin agreed to Allied terms for ending the war—evacuating France and the Low Countries, and giving up a certain amount of weaponry and the Fleet—it was not worth expending one more drop of blood to achieve the symbolic goal of invading Germany, let alone pressing for unconditional surrender. It was a terrible mistake. German troops were able to march home in formation with their weapons, which they had quite deliberately been allowed to keep in case they had to quell a domestic Communist Revolution, where they could be met by crowds with flowers and flags. No less a figure than Weimar President Ebert told troops as they reached Berlin on 10 December 1918: “No enemy has defeated you”, a first articulation of the stab-in-the-back myth. The steps the Allies could have taken to avoid this would not have required massive resources: the Allies could have forced German troops to surrender, disarmed them, and briefly interred them so they understood they were beaten; occupied parts of German territory to provide physical evidence of defeat; and held Allied victory parades in major German cities to reinforce the message.
Had German defeat been visible and unarguable, the population would have been able to move on. Instead, Germans felt they were left with a mystery (where in fact none existed)—i.e., Why had their leaders signed a treaty recognising a defeat that never occurred?—and a determination to fight the last war, to try to reverse the costs imposed on them after the Great War, since, if the defeat never happened, those costs were by definition unjust. In such a political environment, Versailles was devastating to the legitimacy of the Weimar state in its very foundations: this creature that emerged by default rather than desire, amid the shock of defeat, was led, so many Germans believed, by people who had in effect voluntarily surrendered territory and colonies, given away vast amounts of national wealth as reparations, and agreed to restrain Germany’s military power. What else to call this but treason?
The economic travails in Germany through the early 1920s related to Versailles are clearly a contributing factor in the Weimar state failing to gain widespread acceptance, a problem exacerbated—as were all others—by the Spanish flu raging in this period, which killed nearly 300,000 Germans. As an explanation for the breakdown of the Weimar Republic, however, Versailles and the economic impact from it only go so far, not least because the Treaty of Versailles was never really enforced, and by 1924 the hyperinflation crisis caused by Germany’s efforts to work around the reparations had been solved, as had the reparations issue itself, and shortly afterwards the Franco-Belgian occupation of the Ruhr, a nationalist irritant, had been ended. Between 1924 and 1929, the situation in Germany looked rather optimistic: the currency stabilised, unemployment fell below a million, wages increased by ten percent, and visitors found a thriving economy and night life. Germany was even readmitted to the international community, joining the League of Nations in September 1926.
What remained after 1924 was Versailles as a symbol of wounded national pride, widely seen as inflicted unfairly by vengeful foreigners and conspired in by domestic traitors, especially socialists, probably of Semitic extraction.It is impossible to tell the story of Weimar’s demise without economics, namely the 1929 Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression that followed, but the situation after 1929 took the form it did in Germany because of at least three underlying political fundamentals.
First, as set out above, most Germans simply never accepted the legitimacy of the Weimar Republic, and this was especially true in key areas like the military and civil service.Second, the proportional voting system ensured the Parliament was permanently weak and divided, leading, as so often happens when constitutions paralyse the state, to demands that the executive take on more and more power to break the deadlock. The irony is that when Weimar fell, the state was at the height of its power, but had almost no authority: Weimar President Paul von Hindenburg (r. 1925-34), in trying to salvage the state’s credibility to act, further damaged the legitimacy of a constitution that he seemed free to ignore and which would have led to negative consequences if he heeded it. This undoubtedly increased support for the idea of a powerful ruler at the head of a centralised state, unconstrained by a squabbling Parliament, but—and here is the third issue—this view was not marginal to begin with.
Put simply, the number of committed German democrats was reasonably small;the system itself was quite alien and some of its guiding assumptions—like accepting governance from opponents if an election is lost—appeared dangerous in the polarised atmosphere of Germany in the 1920s and 1930s; and those that might have been convinced were not because the results of the democratic experiment were so poor in terms of governance and the economy.
HITLER’S EARLY LIFE AND THE GREAT WAR
That Hitler was the beneficiary of Weimar’s breakdown was hardly a foregone conclusion, not least because he was born, on 20 April 1889, in what was then the Habsburg Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary. As will be explored in a subsequent post, when Hitler acquired German citizenship in 1932, there was no reason he should still have been in the country.
Hitler’s family moved to southern Germany in 1892, before moving back to Austria in April 1895, by which time Hitler had already acquired his distinctive Bavarian accent. Living on a farm until his father, Alois, sold it in 1897, Hitler did alright at primary school but was already drifting towards mixing with rough boys on the streets. Alois’ plans for Hitler to be a civil servant were firmly rejected. It seems to be as part of this rebellion that Hitler at one point considered becoming a Catholic priest. The attraction was not the doctrine, but “the magnificent splendour of ecclesiastical ceremonial [practice]”, as Hitler would later write in Mein Kampf (My Struggle). The idea of a Church vocation quickly faded, replaced by an interest in politics and art. In high school, Hitler continued to lose interest in formal education, believing his destiny was to be a great artist. Hitler later claimed his generally poor academic results in high school—except for art and history, which he enjoyed—were a deliberate part of the effort to avoid his father’s plans for him. Hitler’s teachers put it down to him being an argumentative and lazy teenager who lacked self-control.
After Hitler’s father died in 1903, he moved out to Linz to be nearer school. The family followed in 1905, the year Hitler graduated. At this point, Hitler was at a dead end. Having no career plan, Hitler moved to Vienna in 1907, financed by his mother, Klara, and attempted to study at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna. By the end of 1907, aged 18, Hitler had been rejected from the Academy and lost his mother to cancer. In 1908, the Academy rejected him again. Without income, Hitler bounced around a series of dosshouses, and tried to make a living selling paintings.
There was a strong antisemitic current in Vienna at this time and Hitler was significantly influenced by it, specifically by the pamphleteer Georg von Schönerer, a pan-German nationalist and militantly anti-Christian racial antisemite,and Vienna’s socialist-reformist Mayor Karl Lueger, whose demagogic antisemitism gained him mass political support, though Hitler doubled his sincerity. While Hitler had clearly adopted antisemitic ideas by the time he left Vienna, he was also still keeping company with Jewish families. In May 1913, the final monies from Hitler’s father’s estate cleared and he used it to move to Munich. Hitler describes the next year as the happiest pre-war time of his life, but in structure it differed little from the indolence in Linz and Vienna.
Hitler enthusiastically signed up for the German Army at the outbreak of war in August 1914, and worked as a despatch runner—not a combat role, but a hazardous one. Hitler’s bravery was recognised with an Iron Cross, for which he was recommended by his (Jewish) commanding officer, Hugo Gutmann.Hitler was regarded as eccentric by those around him, always reading and brooding and occasionally bursting into patriotic monologues. Hitler was far closer to the stray dog he adopted, Foxl, than any of the men in his trench. In October 1916, Hitler was wounded in the thigh on the Somme, and in mid-October 1918, in the final German offensive south of Ypres, Hitler was temporarily blinded by mustard gas. Hitler was recovering in a hospital bed in Pomerania when Germany was defeated and the Kaiser abdicated. The stress and upset of the news, brought to him by a Protestant pastor on 10 November 1918, triggered a second bout of temporary blindness.
HITLER RETURNING TO GERMANY AND TAKING OVER THE NAZI PARTY
Arriving back in Munich on 21 November 1918, Hitler was confronted with mayhem: the ancient Wittelsbach monarchy had been abolished and a revolution led by Leftist military officers was underway. At this stage, Hitler’s main interest was staying in the army, so he did not repudiate this new authority, even when it was swiftly displaced by Soviet-run Bolsheviks. Indeed, Hitler was elected as a representative for his barracks’ council (soviet) in April 1919. Hitler in this phase seemed heavily influenced by surroundings: he had absorbed antisemitism in Vienna, he had gone along with the Red dictatorship in Bavaria, and, as Bavaria then transformed into a hotbed of far-Right militancy, he would follow that trend, too.(Bavaria is often thought of as the German far-Right’s “Noah’s Ark”, but it was somewhat more complicated: the Protestant area of Franconia was the main Nazi stronghold, while the broader, deeply Catholic majority population in Bavaria remained one of the anti-Hitler bastions, seeing Nazism as just another face of “godless Bolshevism”.)
The German Workers’ Party (DAP), founded in Munich as a political party on 5 January 1919 under Anton Drexler, was part of the Völkisch movement, deeply nationalist and antisemitic, but also inflected with Marxism: the DAP supported abolishing land rents, restricting interest on loans, and profit sharing in industry. Even when the DAP’s small group of activists voices their nationalist grievances, the terminology was tinged with Marxism, raging against the agenda of “rapacious capital” that had, in collusion with the “November criminals” and “profiteering Jews”, imposed “interest slavery” on Germany. The army was interested in this curious nationalist-socialist blend. Hitler had been put through an anti-Bolshevik training course in the spring of 1919—with some lessons taught by Gottfried Feder, a founder of the DAP—because of lingering doubts about Hitler’s ideological leanings after his behaviour during the Bavarian Red Rising. Satisfied with Hitler’s progress, he was initially sent to the DAP meetings in September 1919 by Captain Karl Mayr as an army spy.
Hitler found he agreed with much that was said, and the DAP recognised Hitler’s speaking ability as an asset to bring them greater publicity and membership, inviting him to join in October 1919, which he did.Hitler’s relationship with army intelligence after this is murky. Mayr soon turned sharply against the Nazis and was killed in Buchenwald three months before the fall of Berlin. After a 24 February 1920 meeting organised by Hitler at the Hofbräuhaus beer hall, laying out the Party’s twenty-five-point plan, attended by 2,000 people—as compared to 111 at the first Hitler-organised DAP meeting on 16 October 1919—the DAP was renamed the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP), or Nazi Party. In this period—as the Versailles Treaty comes into force and Germany is rocked by the Kapp Putsch and the Communist rebellion that follows—Hitler remains, in terms of his personal position and his ideology, one among many within the German racialist radical Right, but his star is clearly rising. Hitler’s powers of oratory had, already by mid-1920, drawn to him the core of the network that would assist his rise.
The connection to Dietrich Eckart, a poet and journalist who had promoted The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and another DAP founder, was the most important for Hitler in these early days, both intellectually—Hitler said he was “a child still on the bottle” until he met Eckart—and materially. Eckart was the main NSDAP publicist, helping create and fund Nazi newspapers, and the gateway to other contacts. Eckart introduced Hitler to wealthy eccentrics whose donations sustained the Party, and to key figures in the Nazi movement like Alfred Rosenberg, a member of the “Party” before the DAP was officially a party. Hitler’s effective deputy in this era, Hermann Esser, another journalist, was an Eckart associate. Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s nominal deputy in power, a Great War veteran and Iron Cross recipient, became Hitler’s personal secretary.
Eckart, Rosenberg, and Hess—plus Feder—were members of the Thule Society, an occult, pagan, Nordicist “study group” that conceived of itself as a Teutonic Order. Other Thulists joining Hitler’s inner circle included: the Freikorps volunteer fresh from defeating the Bavarian Bolsheviks and soon-to-be Party lawyer, Hans Frank; the infamous propagandist Julius Streicher; and Wilhelm Frick, a security apparatchik at the time who would become Interior Minister and lead Hitler’s efforts to seduce the Protestant churches.Hermann Göring, an aristocrat and decorated pilot, Hitler’s heir-apparent in the Reich, joined the Party a bit later, in November 1922, bringing credibility and a measure of respectability with him. Göring was, if not a member of the Thule Society, then very close to its leadership. Participation in politics of any kind in Weimar naturally required a militia. Captain Ernst Röhm, another Thulist, a brave—reckless, according to many comrades—soldier in the Great War who had survived Spanish flu at its end, organised the Stormtroopers (Sturmabteilung) or SA, a.k.a. “the Brownshirts”, formally consecrated as such in October 1921 and thereafter engaged in running street battles with Communists.
Just as Hitler would later transition Germany very rapidly to dictatorship, he moved swiftly to bring the NSDAP under autocratic control. One of the first things Hitler did was sever NSDAP’s institutional ties with the Thule Society, even as the NSDAP absorbed its senior members. This fact, and Hitler’s general disdain for the militant pagans, makes it reasonably certain there was no occultist meaning behind the adoption of the swastika in 1920 as the Party emblem,at the same time as the Roman salute (copied from Schönerer in Vienna), the uniforms, and the black-white-red flags were adopted. The break with the Thule Society triggered the resignation from the NSDAP of one of the Thulist leaders, Karl Harrer, a DAP founder and Drexler’s deputy, who disliked Hitler moving the DAP/NSDAP away from its original structure as a small, semi-secret, Freemason-style group like the Thule Society. Drexler remained and led the effort to block Hitler becoming what Drexler called “Party dictator”. Rather than deny this was his goal, Hitler dramatically resigned on 11 July 1920, and said he would only re-join if he was made Party chairman and given “dictatorial powers”. The NSDAP gave Hitler what he wanted, making him uncontested leader on 29 July 1921 at a “national congress” by a vote of 553 to one, and embedded the twenty-five-point Party platform as unchallengeable.
By the end of 1921, the NSDAP had about 4,300 registered members, highly regionalised to Bavaria and its surroundings.With a much smaller party, developed versions of the Völkisch doctrines were broadly shared by the lower ranks of the NSDAP membership, but in the extremist milieu of far-Right factions in southern Germany this was not unusual. The antisemitism tied to anti-Weimar sentiment that appealed to both rural farmers and upper-class urban intellectuals, the bulwark against Communism offered to the middle-classes, the young men (from working-class labourers to university students) drawn by the spectacle and militaristic, action-oriented nature of the Party, even the aristocratic donors who thought they could use the NSDAP to restore the monarchy—none of these things were unique to the Nazis at this point. The development of the specifics of Nazi (i.e., Hitler’s) ideology and the Führer cult that that would set the NSDAP apart within the German extreme-nationalist Right will be discussed in detail in the next article.
Gary Sheffield (2001), Forgotten Victory: The First World War: Myths and Realities, pp. 58-61.
Forgotten Victory, pp. 221-23.
The Germans killed many Americans when they torpedoed the Lusitania in May 1915 and enraged American public opinion still further by sinking the William P. Frye in January 1917. In the weeks after, the Germans sank several more American merchant vessels. What finally exhausted the patience of President Woodrow Wilson was the disclosure in late February 1917 of the German effort to suborn a Mexican attack on the U.S. and annexation of American territory (American, at least, since 1848), which was publicly admitted by the Germans on 29 March 1917 [Forgotten Victory, pp. 67-70]. This kind of political warfare was of a piece with what Germany did to the other Allied states, successfully in the case of Russia with Lenin, of course, but with damaging effects even in failure in Britain, where the Germans sponsored Sir Roger Casement and orchestrated the Easter Rising in Ireland in April 1916, and in France, where the Radical Party leader Joseph Caillaux was a German agent [Richard Pipes (1990), The Russian Revolution, pp. 390-91]. Caillaux was convicted of treason after being uncovered in January 1918, but given a relatively light sentence. Casement, captured as he returned to Ireland aboard a German submarine in April 1916, was sent to the gallows in August 1916. The other Irish seditionist leaders were put to death in May 1916.
Forgotten Victory, p. 74.
Forgotten Victory, pp. 233-34.
Forgotten Victory, pp. 242-63.
Anthony Read (2008), The World on Fire: 1919 and the Battle with Bolshevism, pp. 37-8.
For the sake of ease, I am using “Soviet Union” to describe the Bolshevik regime from its inception in 1917, but the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.) was only formally created by a treaty on 30 December 1922. It was Lenin’s preferred organisational structure for the Empire he ruled over, and it was Lenin’s chosen successor, Joseph Stalin, who drove it through the Central Committee. Lenin himself would not be “present” to see the U.S.S.R. come into being: he had been incapacitated and would never regain function after a second massive stroke a week earlier. See: Stephen Kotkin (2014), Stalin: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928, p. 484.
The World on Fire, p. 65.
Two days before the abdication, Ebert famously told the last Chancellor of the Second Reich, Prince Maximilian of Baden, “If the Kaiser does not abdicate, the social revolution is unavoidable. But I do not want it, indeed I hate it like sin.”
The World on Fire, pp. 32-7.
The World on Fire, p. 119.
The World on Fire, pp. 120-24.
The World on Fire, pp. 151.
Joseph Howard Tyson (2008), Hitler’s Mentor: Dietrich Eckart, His Life, Times, and Milieu, p. 119.
Charles Bracelen Flood (1989), Hitler: The Path to Power, p. 54.
Robert A. Ventresca (2013), Soldier of Christ: The Life of Pope Pius XII, pp. 52-5.
The World on Fire, pp. 151-55.
The World on Fire, pp. 322-23.
Stalin: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928, pp. 525-27.
The first post-war General Election was held on 19 January 1919. On 6 February 1919, the elected deputies met for the first time, in the city of Weimar in central Germany, de facto beginning the Weimar government’s term of office. The Weimar Constitution was passed by the Constituent Assembly on 31 July 1919 and signed by President Ebert on 11 August.
The World on Fire, p. 233.
There was a rich intellectual tradition, much of it Romantic and poetic, that willed German nationalism into being on the back of Napoleon’s destruction of the Holy Roman Empire, but even this philosophy had ideas of German expansionism and domination at its heart. In practice, this was even more apparent. When Bismarck created the German nation-state in 1871, he was quite frank that speeches and democratic will were irrelevant; matters had been settled “by iron and blood”. The German Union was dominated by Prussia, “an army with a country”, as it was famously said. The strategic aims and concepts that motivated Germany to start the First World War—Mitteleuropa (a European Continent of dependent states) and lebensraum, underwritten by modern industrial economics and scientific racism—were distinguishable only by degrees from what led the Germans into the Second World War.
The role of Austria-Hungary in starting the First World War was important, but—without taking away from Austria’s determination for war—the fact is that Vienna’s behaviour was coordinated with, and in effect dictated by, Germany. Without the famous German “blank cheque”, the Habsburg Monarchy likely would have been drawn into the international conference Britain proposed on 24 July 1914, the kind of diplomatic initiative that had repeatedly defused intra-European tensions in the years before 1914, either avoiding war altogether (Fashoda, the two Moroccan crises, the Zabern Affair) or containing local wars (Libya in 1911, the Balkans in 1912-13).
Forgotten Victory, p. 39.
Michael Neiberg (2011), Dance of the Furies: Europe and the Outbreak of World War I, p. 237.
The German High Command did in fact understand the necessity to sign the terms put in front of them to avoid a total military and political collapse of Germany, which is why they signed up to them, albeit these officials later “disingenuously expressed shock at what they claimed was the harshness of the terms”. See: Michael Neiberg (2005), Fighting the Great War: A Global History, p. 360.
Beth A. Griech-Polelle (2017), Anti-Semitism and the Holocaust: Language, Rhetoric and the Traditions of Hatred, p. 55.
Fighting the Great War, p. 356.
Fighting the Great War, pp. 358-61.
E.J. Feuchtwanger (1993), From Weimar to Hitler: Germany, 1918-33, p. 24.
Forgotten Victory, pp. 266-68.
Frank McDonough (2003), Hitler and the Rise of the Nazi Party, p. 81.
Fighting the Great War, p. 364.
There are some revisionist historians who argue that the civil service was not quite so uniformly composed of vernunftrepublikaner (republicans by reason), i.e. monarchists who accepted the republic as the lesser evil given the other options available at the time, and “reactionaries”, but even these historians concede that the number of such people was very high. See: Anthony McElligott (2013), Rethinking the Weimar Republic: Authority and Authoritarianism, 1916-1936, p. 164.
The German state Bismarck put together in 1871 had some trappings of a parliamentary democracy, but it was autocratic and widely understood as such: the Kaiser ruled, and all other office-holders held their positions for only so long as they had his favour [Forgotten Victory, pp. 28-30]. There was a significant section of the German population that wanted this system back, regarding it as the natural order. The hard-Right and the Communists—both increasingly popular as answers to Germany’s predicament—disagreed about much, but their hatred of democracy was shared.
“[T]here was a general conviction that only a strong state leadership could transcend the damaging and divisive conflicts, overcome Germany’s deep-seated crisis and bring about new unity and prosperity.” Ian Kershaw (2008), Hitler, the Germans, and the Final Solution, p. 132.
The moderate SPD lost seats in the first German elections after the Weimar Constitution went into effect in June 1920, and would continue a relative decline, while the Communists—despite multiple schisms—would hold their ground as the third-largest party, becoming a mainstream force. The polarisation was most obviously expressed in the political murders, of which there were 356 between 1919 and 1922. See: The World on Fire, p. 323.
Bob Carruthers (2015), Hitler’s Violent Youth: How Trench Warfare and Street Fighting Shaped Hitler, pp. 27-35.
Kate Shoup (2016), Nazi Propaganda: Jews in Hitler’s Germany, p. 17.
Schönerer detested the Roman Catholic Church and encouraged supporters and allies to leave the Church. If people had to remain in a church, Schönerer suggested they join Protestant churches (an idea Hitler would later pick up). But Schönerer’s ultimate desire was to obliterate Christianity entirely by inter alia reviving ancient pagan holidays, eliminating Christian festivals if possible and transmuting them into Germanic festivals if not, and changing the calendar so it was not dated beginning with Jesus’ birth but began with the Battle of Noreia in 113 BC, when the Cimbri and Teutons (German tribes) defeated the Roman Republic. See: F. L. Carsten (1985), Essays in German History, p. 225.
Jackson Spielvogel and David Redles (2020, eighth ed., originally 1988), Hitler and Nazi Germany: A History, p. 42.
Hitler and the Rise of the Nazi Party, pp. 30-1.
Hitler and the Rise of the Nazi Party, pp. 31-2.
Spielvogel and Redles, Hitler and Nazi Germany, p. 45.
Hitler and the Rise of the Nazi Party, pp. 32-5
Hitler and the Rise of the Nazi Party, pp. 36-7.
Hitler and the Rise of the Nazi Party, p. 37.
In October 1922, the Nazi Party absorbed the German Socialist Party (DSP) in Franconia. Several similar, small Völkisch parties were annexed by the Nazis in Berlin and northern Germany—also Protestant areas. See: Hitler and the Rise of the Nazi Party, p. 44.
Ian Kershaw (2001), The “Hitler Myth”: Image and Reality in the Third Reich, pp. 34-5.
Hitler and the Rise of the Nazi Party, pp. 37-40.
When Hitler joined the Party, he was given membership number “555” (the Nazis had begun counting their members at number 500 to make the Party appear larger). Later, Hitler’s original membership card was amended to show him as member number 7, in line with Hitler’s claim in Mein Kampf that he had joined a “six-man party”. See: Thomas Weber (2016), Becoming Hitler: The Making of a Nazi, p. 125.
Hitler and the Rise of the Nazi Party, pp. 40-41.
“Nazi is, and always has been, an insult. … The standard butt of German jokes at the beginning of the twentieth century were stupid Bavarian peasants. … Bavarian jokes always involved a peasant called ‘Nazi’ … Nazi was a shortening of the very common Bavarian name, Ignatius. This meant that Hitler’s opponents had an open goal. He had a party filled with Bavarian hicks and the name of that party could be shortened to the standard joke name for hicks. … Hitler and his fascists … hated the word. Then, briefly, they tried to reclaim it … But once they got to power they adopted the much simpler approach of persecuting their opponents and forcing them to flee the country. So, refugees started turning up elsewhere complaining about ‘the Nazis’, and non-Germans of course assumed that this was the official name of the party. … [I]t all goes back to the popularity of the name Ignatius. The reason that Ignatius was such a common name in Bavaria is that Bavaria is largely Catholic and therefore very fond of St Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus, better known as the Jesuits.” See: Mark Forsyth (2011), The Etymologicon.
R. H. Stevens and Norman Cameron [translators of Martin Bormann's book] (1953), Hitler’s Table Talk: His Private Conversations, 1941-44, p. 217.
Eckart enabled the Nazi Party’s purchase of a local newspaper, the Münchener Beobachter (Munich Observer), in December 1920. Soon after the paper was renamed the Völkischer Beobachter (Racial Observer) and not only gave the Nazis a larger platform to disseminate their ideas, but provided the Party an important mechanism for transmitting orders to its members outside Bavaria. See: Hitler and the Rise of the Nazi Party, p. 42.
Spielvogel and Redles, Hitler and Nazi Germany, p. 54.
Hess de facto joined the Nazi Party in January 1920 after hearing a speech by Hitler and was given formal membership on 1 July 1920. See: Spielvogel and Redles, Hitler and Nazi Germany, pp. 54-5.
Trevor Ravenscroft (1972), Spear of Destiny, p. 102
Hitler and the Rise of the Nazi Party, p. 42.
Julius Evola (2013), Notes on the Third Reich, p. 65.
Spielvogel and Redles, Hitler and Nazi Germany, p. 51.
Hitler and the Rise of the Nazi Party, p. 43.
Martin Kitchen (2008), The Third Reich: Charisma and Community, p. 52.
The numbers are very uncertain, but, judging by the surviving documents for new membership registry, the NSDAP’s 200 members in December 1919 had become 2,350 members at the end of 1920, the roughly 4,000 members in late 1921 had doubled, to just over 8,000, by the end of 1922, and on the eve of the putsch attempt in November 1923 it had 55,000 members. See: Paul Madden and Detlef Mühlberger (2008), The Nazi Party: The Anatomy of a People's Party, 1919-1933, p. 82
Spielvogel and Redles, Hitler and Nazi Germany, pp. 55-6.