From Armistice to Beer Halls: Hitler and the Nazi Party, 1918-1923
How did the state of Germany help the rise of right-wing groups?
It was the situation in Germany following its defeat in the First World War that brought the party into being. Following Germany's defeat and the abdication of the Kaiser, a parliamentary democracy was created in Weimar. In the belief that a democratic state would be looked upon more favourably by the victorious Allies, most Germans welcomed the new government.
However, the Volkisch (People's) movement were vehemently opposed to the Weimar government. Volkisch groups, which were strongly right-wing, antisemitic and nationalistic, gained significant support during the chaotic years following the end of the war.They played upon the already widely felt antisemitic ideas by claiming that Germany's defeat was brought about by a Jewish international conspiracy that betrayed Germany, known as the 'Stab-in-the-back' legend. These ideas were strengthened after the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, which Germany was forced to sign, and as people moved towards the extremes as the Weimar constitution became increasingly associated with national humiliation.
Numerous volkisch groups emerged in the post-war years, and the Nazi Party was just one of the many. However, the NSDAP had the advantage of being located in Bavaria, where circumstances had been significantly chaotic following the war. In a short period of time Bavaria had undergone numerous left-wing regimes. As well as the crushing of revolutionary activity by the Freikorps (Free Corps), this made extremist support particularly strong in Bavaria. Bavaria furthermore became a 'haven' of sorts for right-wing activity after the appointment of a conservative right-wing regime under Gustav von Kahr.
For a more detailed overview of the German crisis between 1918-1923 read my other article 'Germany in Crisis, 1918-1923'.
Hitler before the Party
Hitler was born in Austria-Hungary but came to identify himself as a German as he was strongly influenced by the pan-Germanism that surrounded him growing up. In his youth he expressed strong dislike of the Habsburg Monarchy which ruled Austria-Hungary, and showed loyalty to Germany, singing the German national anthem rather than the Austrian one. His German identity was further strengthened during his years living in homeless shelters in Vienna, making a small living selling his paintings, where some argue his racist antisemitism also formed.
In 1913 Hitler moved to Munich, Bavaria. This was in an attempt to both improve his artistic prospects, which were lacking, and to escape national service in Austria-Hungary. He continued to live out a boring, humiliating life selling few paintings, living in poor housing and willing away the hours imagining great future achievements, As such, when the war came in 1914, it was good thing for Hitler, and he immediately joined the Bavarian Army.
Hitler was a dispatch runner during WW1, normally behind the front lines, but was present at the First Battle of Ypres, the Battle of the Somme, the Battle of Arras and the Battle of Passchendaele. Interestingly, Hitler was never promoted to a leadership position, as his commanding officer believed that Hitler lacked leadership qualities.
In 1918 Hitler was wounded and temporarily blinded by a mustard gas attack, and was recovering in a field hospital when he found at that the war had ended. He was shocked and troubled by the news, as Germany's defeat saddened him and he feared going back to his bleak existence. Ironically, the entropy produced by Germany's loss in the war was the perfect environment for getting Hitler the status and power he so desired.
Not wanting to return to his former lifestyle Hitler attempted to remain in the army, which was cutting jobs due to the end of the war and the imposition of greatly reduced army numbers by the Treaty of Versailles. The army firstly assigned him to political indoctrination courses, where his oratory skills flourished (Interestingly, as Bavaria was under the control of a socialist republic at the time, Hitler must have actively supported and espoused socialist ideas in order to keep his job in the army. To get a greater understanding of this, read 'Hitler: Hubris' by Ian Kershaw). After this Hitler was appointed as an intelligence agent to keep a close eye on emerging political groups in Munich, and this is where he first encountered the German Worker's Party (Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, DAP).
Hitler joins the German Worker's Party
Hitler first encountered the DAP when he attended one of its meetings as part of his army assignment. He demonstrated his oratory skills and ideological fanaticism in the meeting by arguing with other patrons. His fervour and public speaking skills attracted the attention of the founder and leader of the DAP, Anton Drexler, who later recounted:
"He gave a short but trenchant speech in favour of a greater Germany which thrilled me and all who could hear him...we could do with people like him"
Drexler persuaded Hitler to join the party, which was few in members; Hitler was its 55th member. By the end of 1919 Hitler had become the party's Propaganda Chief. This position and the party was particularly useful to Hitler, as it gave him an outlet for his political energies, and its small size allowed his influence to be immediately felt. Its ideological focus on antisemitism and winning over the masses was the same as Hitlers, and this was noticeable in the party's propaganda and its party programme which was presented at a party meeting in 1920.
A point to note is that whilst the part was small and insignificant at the time of Hitler's joining, its weaknesses were likely exaggerated by Hitler to increase his own image and his impact upon the party. Regardless of this, Hitler was very successful in turning the masses to his and the party's side. He was able to play upon their hopes and fears and act as a representative of them; an ex-soldier who was out of work and bitter at the government he considered responsible.
Membership and support for the party during these years is an interesting area. The party made themselves appeal to both nationalist and socialist supporters by changing the name of the DAP to the 'National Socialist Germany Worker's Party' (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei) or NSDAP in 1920. Membership increased largely as a result of Hitler's oratory, and was quite varied, representing a good cross section of German society. It increased to 2000 in 1920 and then 3300 in 1921. Branches soon began to appear in Bavaria outside of Munich. The successes soon began to attract military attention, who provided funding to the party, allowing the party to purchase a newspaper, the Volkischer Beobachter.
However, party finances were still a difficult area, as funds were derived from membership fees and small collections at meetings, as well as occasional contributions from wealthy persons or groups. The lack of funds meant that most of the party's staff were unpaid.
Leadership crisis and Hitler's ascension as Head of the Party
Hitler's role within the party was of recognised importance. He had established himself as the main figure of the NSDAP, as its rising membership was largely the result of his oratory. He furthermore possessed useful connections with the army, such as Captain Ernst Rohm, who was a political liaison between the party and the army and a member of the NSDAP. However, despite his importance he was still only the Propaganda Chief. At first this was out of his own choosing; he was offered the post of Party Chairman after the previous chairman, Karl Harrer, resigned, but Hitler decline as he felt his propaganda work more important than the routine role of chairman.
However, the leadership issue was brought up when the Party committee discussed combining the NSDAP with other National Socialist groups in Germany, an idea that Hitler strongly objected to. Whilst Drexler and the other leaders supported the idea, Hitler felt that a union would dilute the NSDAP's drive as well as threaten his own influential position within the party. Drexler was persuaded to merge the party with a volkisch group called the 'Western League' (Abendlandischer Bund), and Hitler tried to persuade the committee to oppose to merger. When the committee refused to oppose it, Hitler resigned from the party.
Shortly after resigning, Hitler issued an ultimatum stating his conditions for rejoining the party, which were:
- The resignation of the committee and the granting of Hitler as chairman of the party with dictatorial powers.
- The party headquarters were to remain in Munich and not move to Berlin, a proposed idea alongside the merger. This was so Hitler wouldn't lose his influence, as his main following was in Munich.
- There were to be no changes to the party's name or programme for six years, and anyone working towards this were to be removed.
- The party was never to merge with other National Socialist groups.
Initially, Drexler and the committee attempted to defeat Hitler by removing some of his colleagues from the party, but eventually turned to Hitler's side after realising his indispensable position within the party. At a special meeting Hitler was made chairman with dictatorial powers, and Drexler was made honorary president. Upon becoming Chairman, Hitler appointed strong supporters of his into positions of authority in order to further strengthen his influence. And so Hitler's role as leader of the Party had begun.
The Party's development, 1921-1923
Before Hitler became chairman the 45 local branches of the NSDAP, most of which were in Bavaria, had a degree of autonomy, but Hitler abolished this in order to consolidate his authority, and he demanded the subordination of the branch leaders, giving him absolute control over the party.
In 1921 the Party organised its armed squads into a unit under the cover name 'Gymnastic and Sports Section', later renamed the 'Storm Detachment' (Sturmabteilung, SA). The SA had strong appeal to ex-soldiers and ex-Freikorps members. who desired violent action and a sense of military purpose, which the SA provided through military ranks, uniforms and formation marches.
The SA were used for propaganda purposes, to protect NSDAP meetings and to disrupt the meetings of rival parties. They intimidated political opponents of the NSDAP, especially left-wing parties. This intimidation and violent employed by the SA gained Hitler and the party publicity, and the Bavarian authorities were rather tolerant of it. This can be seen in that after the assassination of Foreign Minister Walter Rathenau in 1922 by the right-wing death squad, Organisation Consul, the NSDAP were banned in every German state except Bavaria.
Further developments were made in the party when a notorious antisemite called Julius Streicher joined the party. Streicher controlled the German Socialist Party (DSP) in northern Bavaria, and his personal following in the party joined the NSDAP with him. Streicher was an important acquisition and became a popular speaker among supporters. The party also had its first party rally in early 1923, which was initially halted by fears of a putsch attempt by the Nazis, but was allowed to go ahead after Hitler reassured them that no such attempt would be made. But what of in late 1923?
The Beer Hall Putsch, 8-9 November 1923
It was a complex series of events throughout 1923 that led to the Putsch in November, but I'll do my best to explain them.
In January 1923, the French occupied the Ruhr in response to failed reparations payments. This concerned the army, which worried about possible annexation attempts by Germany's bordering nations. In response they began to form a 'Black Reichswehr' made up of extreme right-wing paramilitary groups, including the SA. Hitler was disapproving of this 'Black Reichwehr' as he believed a civil war was imminent in Germany, due to rising inflation and the Ruhr occupation. He furthermore disagreed with it because it meant he had to work with other nationalist groups, and he may be forced to support the Weimar government against the French. He wanted his forces to be free to crush any coup d'etat attempt by the left and to replace the Weimar Republic with a right-wing dictatorship.
Later in the year the chancellor, Gustav Stresemann, ended 'passive resistance'. To Hitler, this was a sign of the first stage of the establishment of a communist regime. Communists had already formed paramilitary units that were allied with socialist governments in Thuringia and Saxony. (For more on Passive Resistance read 'Germany in Crisis, 1918-1923')
Hitler coordinated the activities of the NSDAP and other paramilitary organisations as the political head of the Kampfbund, a league of nationalist paramilitary groups. Under its pressure, the Bavarian government declared a state of emergency and the Kahr government was given dictatorial powers. The Kahr government and the Kampfbund both wanted to bring down the Weimar government through a march on Berlin akin to Mussolini's 'March on Rome' in October 1922, and so developed an uneasy relationship. They decided to use the excuse of needing to crush the communists in Thuringia and Saxony to launch a coup against the republic.
However, the plan to overthrow the government was made problematic when the republic crushed the communists in Thuringia and Saxony, removing the right-wings excuse to march on Berlin. As such Kahr, at a meeting of the Kampfbund, warned against independent action. Hitler however could not wait any longer to act: his follower's enthusiasm was at its strongest and the crisis situation would not last forever. He decided to create a situation where Kahr and another Bavarian officer called Otto von Lossow had no choice but to work for him.
At a meeting against the growth of Bolshevism, Kahr was to speak, and Lossow and another general called Seisser were present, among other leading Munich citizens. Around 600 SA troops gathered outside and Hitler interrupted the meeting. He took Kahr, Lossow and Seisser to a side room where he attempted to persuade them to join his cause, but even after threatening to use violence, Kahr refused to be intimidated by Hitler. The crowd and Hitler's supporters were growing restless, so Hitler put pressure on Kahr by going back to the hall and claiming that they had agreed to his plans. Soon after General Erich von Ludendorff, a WW1 military hero, arrived and pretended to be surprised by the whole affair, actually already on Hitler's side and a part of the affair, and helped persuade Kahr to agree.
However, whilst it appeared Hitler was triumphant, the situation quickly changed. When Kahr, Lossow and Seisser were released to sort out their side of things they quickly joined the opposition to the putsch, and as such ordered reinforcements from the Reichswehr, who were already doubtful that the putsch would succeed, to use against Hitler. In the hope of receiving sufficient support, Hitler and his few thousand supporters marched to the centre of Munich. However, due to a lack of public and military support, the putsch was put down, ending in the deaths of 16 putschists.
With the failure of the putsch the conspirators were put on trial. Ludendorff, using the same excuse he used to get out of being convicted during the Kapp Putsch, that he was there by accident, was acquitted, also because of his war service and his connections. Hitler was charged with treason, and should have been executed for his crimes. However, Hitler turned the trial into a political stage, going on long rants against the government and claiming his actions were for the good of the volkisch cause (he dropped antisemitism in these speeches). The judge, impressed by his oratory and inclined to favouritism, sentenced Hitler to 5 years in Landsberg Prison, although he only served 9 months due to good behaviour.
Thank you for taking the time to read this article and I hope it was informative and interesting. If you feel I have made any mistakes or have omitted anything of importance please let me know and I will be willing to make changes.
My other hubs
- Germany in crisis, 1918-1923
We all know of Hitler and the Nazi Party, the appalling crimes committed by the Nazi regime, but to understand how they managed to commit those crimes one must understand the state of Germany when the Party began.