The Early Development of the Nazi Party

the emblem of the Nazi party
The Parteiadler or Emblem of the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (NSDAP; known in English as the National Socialist German Workers' Party, or simply the Nazi Party). (RsVe/Wikimedia Commons)

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 the hospital, where he was recovering from being gassed, he already seemed 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 program 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 nationalizations. 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 realized 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 organized. 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.

Mein Kampf and Nazism

Hitler spent only ten months in prison, but while there he wrote part of a book which was supposed to set out his ideas: it was called Mein Kampf. One problem historians and political thinkers have had with Hitler is that he had no ‘ideology’ as we’d like to call it, no coherent intellectual picture, but a rather confused mishmash of ideas he had acquired from elsewhere, which he melded together with a heavy dose of opportunism. None of these ideas were unique to Hitler, and their origins can be found in imperial Germany and before, but this benefitted Hitler. He could bring the ideas together within him and present them to people already familiar with them: a vast amount of Germans, of all classes, knew them in a different form, and Hitler made them into supporters.

Hitler believed that the Aryans, and chiefly the Germans, were a Master Race which a terribly corrupted version of evolution, social Darwinism and outright racism all said would have to fight their way to a domination they were naturally supposed to achieve. Because there would be a struggle for dominance, the Aryans should keep their bloodlines clear, and not ‘interbreed’. Just as the Aryans were at the top of this racial hierarchy, so other peoples were considered at the bottom, including the Slavs in Eastern Europe, and the Jews. Anti-Semitism was major part of Nazi rhetoric from the start, but the mentally and physically ill and anyone gay were considered equally offensive to German purity. Hitler’s ideology here has been described as terribly simple, even for racism.

The identification of Germans as Aryans was intimately tied into a German nationalism. The battle for racial dominance would also be a battle for the dominance of the German state, and crucial to this was the destruction of the Treaty of Versailles and not just the restoration of the German Empire, not just the expansion of Germany to cover all European Germans, but the creation of a new Reich which would rule a massive Eurasian empire and become a global rival to the US. Key to this was the pursuit of Lebensraum, or living room, which meant conquering Poland and through into the USSR, liquidating the existing populations or using them as slaves, and giving Germans more land and raw materials.

Hitler hated communism and he hated the USSR, and Nazism, such as it was, was devoted to crushing the left wing in Germany itself, and then eradicating the ideology from as much of the world as the Nazis could reach. Given that Hitler wanted to conquer Eastern Europe, the presence of the USSR made for a natural enemy.

All this was to be achieved under an authoritarian government. Hitler saw democracy, such as the struggling Weimar republic, as weak, and wanted a strong man figure like Mussolini in Italy. Naturally, he thought he was that strong man. This dictator would lead a Volksgemeinschaft, a nebulous term Hitler used to roughly mean a German culture filled with old fashioned ‘German’ values, free of class or religious differences.

Growth in the Later Twenties

Hitler was out of prison for the start of 1925, and within two months he had started to take back control of a party which had divided without him; one new division had produced Strasser’s National Socialist Freedom Party. The Nazis had become a disordered mess, but they were refounded, and Hitler started a radical new approach: the party could not stage a coup, so it must get elected into Weimar’s government and change it from there. This wasn’t ‘going legal’, but pretending to while ruling the streets with violence.

To do this, Hitler wanted to create a party which he had absolute control over, and which would put him in charge of Germany to reform it. There were elements in the party which opposed both these aspects, because they wanted a physical attempt on power, or because they wanted power instead of Hitler, and it took a full year before Hitler managed to largely wrestle back control. However there remained criticism and opposition from within the Nazis and one rival leader, Gregor Strasser, didn’t just remain in the party, he became hugely important in the growth of Nazi power (but he was murdered in the Night of the Long Knives for his opposition to some of Hitler’s core ideas.)

With Hitler mostly back in charge, the party focused on growing. To do this it adopted a proper party structure with various branches throughout Germany, and also created a number of offshoot organizations to better attract a wider range of support, like the Hitler Youth or the Order of German Women. The twenties also saw two key developments: a man called Joseph Goebbels switched from Strasser to Hitler and was given the role of Gauleiter (a regional Nazi leader) for the extremely difficult to convince and socialist Berlin. Goebbels revealed himself to be a genius at propaganda and new media, and would assume a key role in the party managing just that in 1930. Equally, a personal bodyguard of blackshirts was created, dubbed the SS: Protection Squad or Schutz Staffel. By 1930 it had two hundred members; by 1945 it was the most infamous army in the world.

With membership quadrupling to over 100,000 by 1928, with an organized and strict party, and with many other right-wing groups subsumed into their system, the Nazis could have thought themselves a real force to be reckoned with, but in the 1928 elections they polled terrible low results, winning just 12 seats. People on the left and in the center began to consider Hitler a comic figure who wouldn’t amount to much, even a figure who could be easily manipulated. Unfortunately for Europe, the world was about to experience problems which would pressure Weimar Germany into cracking, and Hitler had the resources to be there when it happened.