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East Germany

Hitler and the Rise of National Socialism

Adolf Hitler was born in the Austrian border town of Braunau am Inn in 1889. At the age of seventeen, Hitler was refused admission to the Vienna Art Academy because of his lack of talent. He remained in Vienna, where he led a Bohemian existence, acquiring an ideology based on belief in the Germanic master race and a form of anti-Semitism that blamed social and political crises on Jewish subversive activities. Hitler remained in Vienna until 1913, when he moved to Munich to avoid the draft. After serving in the German army during World War I, he joined the right-wing Bavarian German Workers' Party in 1919. The following year, the party changed its name to the National Socialist German Workers' Party (National-Sozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei-- NSDAP); the members were known as Nazis, a term derived from the German pronunciation of "National". In 1921 Hitler assumed leadership of the NSDAP.

As führer (leader) of the NSDAP, Hitler reorganized the party on a monolithic basis and encouraged the assimilation of other radical right-wing groups. He was assisted by Ernst Röhm, Dietrich Eckart, and Alfred Rosenberg. Röhm's Stormtroopers (Sturmabteilung--SA) constituted Hitler's private army. Eckart published the Völkischer Beobachter, the official party newspaper. Rosenberg, the party ideologist, developed slogans and symbols and conceived the use of the swastika, the future emblem of the Third Reich. Under Hitler's leadership, the NSDAP denounced the republic and the "November criminals" who had signed the Treaty of Versailles. The postwar economic slump won the party a following among unemployed ex-soldiers, the lower middle class, and small farmers; in 1923 membership totaled 55,000. General Ludendorff supported the former corporal in his beer hall putsch of November 1923, an attempt to overthrow the Bavarian government. The putsch failed, and Hitler was imprisoned until December 1924. In prison he wrote Mein Kampf, the Nazi ideological tract.

After the failure of the putsch, Hitler chose "legal revolution" as the road to power and then pursued a double goal. First, the NSDAP employed propaganda to create a national mass party capable of seizing power through electoral successes. Second, the party developed a bureaucratic structure and prepared to assume the functions of

state. Beginning in 1924, numerous Nazi cells sprang up in parts of northern Germany; the northern groups were consolidated with the Munich-Bavarian party core. The NSDAP bureaucracy was established in 1926. The SA, which was subordinated to centralized political control, functioned primarily to train party members and to supervise the Hitler Youth (Hitlerjugend-- HJ). Postwar youth and university students increasingly formed the core of the NSDAP membership. In 1927 the NSDAP organized the first Nuremberg party congress, a mass political rally. By 1928 party membership exceeded 100,000; the Nazis, however, polled only 2.6 percent of the vote in the May Reichstag elections.

The NSDAP, a mere splinter party in 1928, began its rise to power the following year. The original breakthrough was the July 1929 alliance with the DNVP. Alfred Hugenberg, a DNVP leader, arranged the alliance for the purpose of launching a plebiscite against the Young Plan on the issue of reparations. Hugenberg, owner of a large chain of news media enterprises, considered the spellbinding Hitler to be a useful drummer who would attract the masses. The DNVP-NSDAP union brought the NSDAP within the framework of a socially influential coalition of the antirepublican right. As a result, Hitler's party acquired respectability and access to financial resources from a number of industrialists.

Had it not been for the economic depression of 1929, however, Hitler might have faded out of Germany's history. The depression greatly augmented political and social instability. By 1932 German unemployment figures had reached more than 6 million out of a population of 65 million. The situation caused the middle class, which had not fully recovered from the inflation of 1923, to lose faith in the economic system and in its future. The NSDAP exploited the situation, making an intensified appeal to the unemployed middle-class urban and rural masses and blaming the Treaty of Versailles and reparations for the developing crisis. Nazi propaganda attacked the Weimar political "system," the "November criminals," Marxists, internationalists, and Jews. In addition to promising a solution to the economic crisis, the NSDAP offered the German people a sense of national pride, the acquisition of lebensraum (living space), and the restoration of order. The racist concept of the "superior" Aryan requiring defense against foreign intrusion, i.e., Jews, was also proclaimed.

Frequent elections had to be held because no workable majority was possible in the Reichstag; the economic depression was causing an increase in votes only for the extremist parties. The cabinet crises of the depression years led to increased experimentation with authoritarian methods of rule. The most important consequence of this experimentation was President Hindenburg's appointment of chancellors whose politics favored the right. In the spring of 1930, Hindenburg appointed Heinrich Brüning as chancellor. The NSDAP won 18.3 percent of the vote that year and emerged as the second strongest Reichstag party (following the SPD, which had 38.2 percent). The KPD polled 13.1 percent of the vote. In 1931 the DNVP, which was devastatingly defeated in the elections, joined with the NSDAP to form the Harzburg Front coalition against Brüning's government. Under orders from Moscow, the KPD cooperated with the NSDAP in an attempt to destroy the Weimar Republic. Under attack from both sides, the Brüning government survived only until June 1932.

In July 1932, the NSDAP more than doubled its 1930 Reichstag representation and became the strongest German party. In the November 1932 election, however, NSDAP popularity declined as the economic depression began to abate. The KPD increased its representation in this election. In the same year, a group of conservative and antirepublican aristocrats and industrialists, thinking they could use to their advantage the wave of discontent that had contributed to Hitler's rise in popularity, supported the NSDAP with funds. Meanwhile, Brüning's successor, Franz von Papen, a strong authoritarian who wished to establish a corporate state under aristocratic leadership and thus circumvent the problems of parliamentary politics, sought NSDAP-DNVP support in May 1932. He, however, met with Hitler's refusal. After the electoral success of the NSDAP in the July 1932 elections, Hitler also refused Papen's offer to join the cabinet as vice chancellor.

General Kurt von Schleicher, having forced Papen's resignation, was appointed chancellor in December 1932. Unable to form a coalition in the Reichstag, Schleicher also offered Hitler the vice chancellorship, but the führer was determined to hold out for the highest government post. When Schleicher was dismissed, he and Papen, intriguing separately, prevailed upon President Hindenburg to appoint Hitler chancellor of a coalition government. On January 30, 1933, by entirely legal means, Adolf Hitler became chancellor of the republic.

Data as of July 1987

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