The Nazis

A Short History of the Nazi Party

Adolf Hitler poses with a group of Nazis soon after his appointment as Chancellor.
Adolf Hitler poses with a group of Nazis soon after his appointment as Chancellor. (Picture courtesy of USHMM Photo Archives.)

The Nazi Party was a political party in Germany, led by Adolf Hitler from 1921 to 1945, whose central tenets included the supremacy of the Aryan people and blaming Jews and others for the problems within Germany. These extreme beliefs eventually led to World War II and the Holocaust. At the end of World War II, the Nazi Party was declared illegal by the occupying Allied Powers and officially ceased to exist in May 1945.

(The name “Nazi” is actually a shortened version of the party’s full name: Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei or NSDAP, which translates to “National Socialist German Workers’ Party.”)

Party Beginnings

In the immediate post-World-War-I period, Germany was the scene of widespread political infighting between groups representing the far left and far right.  The Weimar Republic (the name of the German government from the end of WWI to 1933) was struggling as a result of its tarnished birth accompanied by the Treaty of Versailles and the fringe groups sought to take advantage of this political unrest.

It was in this environment that a locksmith, Anton Drexler, joined together with his journalist friend, Karl Harrer, and two other individuals (journalist Dietrich Eckhart and German economist Gottfried Feder) to create a right-wing political party, the German Workers’ Party, on January 5, 1919.

  The party’s founders had strong anti-Semitic and nationalist underpinnings and sought to promote a paramilitary Friekorps culture that would target the scourge of communism. 

Adolf Hitler Joins the Party

After his service in the German Army (Reichswehr) during World War I, Adolf Hitler had difficulty re-integrating into civilian society.

  He eagerly accepted a job serving the Army as a civilian spy and informant, a task that required him to attend meetings of German political parties identified as subversive by the newly formed Weimar government. 

This job appealed to Hitler, particularly because it allowed him to feel that was still serving a purpose to the military for which he would have eagerly given his life.  On September 12, 1919, this position took him to a meeting of the German Worker’s Party (DAP).

Hitler’s superiors had previously instructed him to remain quiet and simply attend these meetings as a non-descript observer, a role he was able to accomplish with success until this meeting.  Following a discussion on Feder’s views against capitalism, an audience member questioned Feder and Hitler quickly rose to his defense. 

No longer anonymous, Hitler was approached after the meeting by Drexler who asked Hitler to join the party.  Hitler accepted, resigned from his position with the Reichswehr and became member #555 of the German Worker’s Party.  (In reality, Hitler was the 55th member, Drexler added the 5 prefix to the early membership cards to make the party appear larger than it was in those years.)

Hitler Becomes Party Leader

Hitler quickly became a force to be reckoned with in the party.  He was appointed to be a member of the party’s central committee and in January 1920, he was appointed by Drexler to be the party’s Chief of Propaganda. 

A month later, Hitler organized a party rally in Munich that was attended by over 2000 people.  Hitler made a famous speech at this event outlining the newly created, 25-point platform of the party.  This platform was drawn up by Drexler, Hitler, and Feder.  (Harrer, feeling increasingly left out, resigned from the party in February 1920.)

The new platform emphasized the party’s volkisch nature of promoting a unified national community of pure Aryan Germans.  It placed blame for the nation’s struggles on immigrants (mainly Jews and Eastern Europeans) and stressed excluding these groups from the benefits of a unified community that thrived under nationalized, profit-sharing enterprises instead of capitalism.

  The platform also called for over-turning the tenants of the Treaty of Versailles, and re-instating the power of the German military that Versailles had severely restricted.

With Harrer now out and the platform defined, the group decided to add in the word “Socialist” into their name, becoming the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei or NSDAP) in 1920.

Membership in party rose rapidly, reaching over 2,000 registered members by the end of 1920.  Hitler’s powerful speeches were credited with attracting many of these new members.  It was because of his impact that party members were deeply troubled by his resignation from the party in July 1921 following a movement within the group to merge with the German Socialist Party (a rival party who had some overlapping ideals with the DAP). 

When the dispute was resolved, Hitler rejoined the party at the end of July and was elected party leader two days later on July 28, 1921.

Beer Hall Putsch

Hitler’s influence on the Nazi Party continued to draw members.  As the party grew, Hitler also began to shift his focus more strongly towards antisemitic views and German expansionism. 

Germany’s economy continued to decline and this helped increase party membership.  By the fall of 1923, over 20,000 people were members of the Nazi Party.  Despite Hitler’s success, other politicians within Germany did not respect him.  Soon, Hitler would take action that they could not ignore.

In the fall of 1923, Hitler decided to take the government by force through a putsch (coup). The plan was to first take over the Bavarian government and then the German federal government.

On November 8, 1923, Hitler and his men attacked a beer hall where Bavarian-government leaders were meeting. Despite the element of surprise and machine guns, the plan was soon foiled. Hitler and his men then decided to march down the streets but were soon shot at by the German military.

The group quickly disbanded, with a few dead and a number injured.

Hitler was later caught, arrested, tried, and sentenced to five years at Landsberg Prison. Hitler, however, only served eight months, during which time he wrote Mein Kampf.

As a result of the Beer Hall Putsch, the Nazi Party was also banned in Germany.

The Party Begins Again

Although the party was banned, members continued to operate under the mantle of the “German Party” between 1924 and 1925, with the ban officially ending on February 27, 1925.  On that day, Hitler, who had been released from prison in December 1924, re-founded the Nazi Party.

With this fresh start, Hitler redirected the party’s emphasis toward strengthening their power via the political arena rather than the paramilitary route.  The party also now had a structured hierarchy with a section for “general” members and a more elite group known as the “Leadership Corps.”  Admission into the latter group was through special invitation from Hitler. 

The party re-structuring also created a new position of Gauleiter, which were regional leaders that were tasked with building party support in their specified areas of Germany.  A second paramilitary group was also created, the Schutzstaffel (SS), which served as the special protection unit for Hitler and his inner circle. 

Collectively, the party sought success via the state and federal parliamentary elections, but this success was slow to come to fruition.

National Depression Fuels Nazi Rise

The burgeoning Great Depression in the United States soon spread throughout the world.  Germany was one of the worst countries to be affected by this economic domino effect and the Nazis benefitted from the rise in both inflation and unemployment in the Weimar Republic. 

These problems led Hitler and his followers to begin a broader campaign for public support of their economic and political strategies, blaming both the Jews and communists for their country’s backward slide. 

By 1930, with Joseph Goebbels working as the party’s chief of propaganda, the German populace was really starting to listen to Hitler and the Nazis. 

In September 1930, the Nazi Party captured 18.3% of the vote for the Reichstag (German parliament).  This made the party the second-most influential political party in Germany, with only the Social Democratic Party holding more seats in the Reichstag. 

Over the course of the next year and a half, the Nazi Party’s influence continued to grow and in March 1932, Hitler ran a surprisingly successful presidential campaign against aged World War I hero, Paul Von Hindenburg.  Although Hitler lost the election, he captured an impressive 30% of the vote in the first round of the elections, forcing a run-off election during which he captured 36.8%.

Hitler Becomes Chancellor

The Nazi Party’s strength within the Reichstag continued to grow following Hitler’s presidential run.  In July 1932, an election was held following a coup on the Prussian state government.  The Nazis captured their highest number of votes yet, winning 37.4% of the seats in the Reichstag. 

The party now held the majority of the seats in the parliament.  The second largest party, the German Communist Party (KPD), held only 14% of the seats.  This made it difficult for the government to operate without the support of a majority coalition. From this point forward, the Weimar Republic began a rapid decline.

In an attempt to rectify the difficult political situation, Chancellor Fritz von Papen dissolved the Reichstag in November 1932 and called for a new election.  He hoped that support for both of these parties would drop below 50% total and that the government would then be able to form a majority coalition to strengthen itself. 

Although the support for the Nazis did decline to 33.1%, the NDSAP and KDP still retained over 50% of the seats in the Reichstag, much to Papen’s chagrin.  This event also fueled the Nazis’ desire to seize power once and for all, and set in motion the events that would lead to Hitler’s appointment as chancellor.

A weakened and desperate Papen decided that his best strategy was to elevate the Nazi leader to the position of chancellor so that he, himself, could maintain a role in the disintegrating government.  With the support of media magnet Alfred Hugenberg, and new chancellor Kurt von Schleicher, Papen convinced President Hindenburg that placing Hitler into the role of chancellor would be the best way to contain him. 

The group believed that if Hitler were given this position then they, as members of his cabinet, could keep his right-wing policies in check.  Hindenburg reluctantly agreed to the political maneuvering and on January 30, 1933, officially appointed Adolf Hitler as the chancellor of Germany.

The Dictatorship Begins

On February 27, 1933, less than a month after Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor, a mysterious fire destroyed the Reichstag building.  The government, under the influence of Hitler, was quick to label the fire arson and place the blame on the communists. 

Ultimately, five members of the Communist Party were put on trial for the fire and one, Marinus van der Lubbe, was executed in January 1934 for the crime.  Today, many historians believe that the Nazis set the fire themselves so that Hitler would have a pretense for the events that followed the fire.

On February 28, at the urging of Hitler, President Hindenburg passed the Decree for the Protection of the People and the State.  This emergency legislation extended the Decree for the Protection of the German People, passed on February 4.  It largely suspended the civil liberties of the German people claiming that this sacrifice was necessary for personal and state safety. 

Once this “Reichstag Fire Decree” was passed, Hitler used it as an excuse to raid the offices of the KPD and arrest their officials, rendering them nearly useless despite the results of the next election.

The last “free” election in Germany took place on March 5, 1933.  In that election, members of the SA flanked the entrances of polling stations, creating an atmosphere of intimidation that led to the Nazi Party capturing their highest vote total to-date, 43.9% of the votes. 

The Nazis were followed in the polls by the Social Democratic Party with 18.25% of the vote and the KPD, which received 12.32% of the vote.  It was not surprising that the election, which occurred as a result of Hitler’s urging to dissolve and reorganize the Reichstag, garnered these results.

This election was also significant because the Catholic Centre Party captured 11.9% and the German National People’s Party (DNVP), led by Alfred Hugenberg, won 8.3% of the vote.  These parties joined together with Hitler and the Bavarian People’s Party, which held 2.7% of the seats in the Reichstag, to create the two-thirds majority that Hitler needed to pass the Enabling Act. 

Enacted on March 23, 1933, the Enabling Act was one of the final steps on Hitler’s path to becoming a dictator; it amended the Weimar constitution to allow Hitler and his cabinet to pass laws without Reichstag approval. 

From this point forward, the German government functioned without input from the other parties and the Reichstag, which now met in the Kroll Opera House, was rendered useless.  Hitler was now fully in control of Germany.

World War II and the Holocaust

Conditions for minority political and ethnic groups continued to deteriorate in Germany.  The situation worsened after President Hindenburg’s death in August 1934, which allowed Hitler to combine the positions of president and chancellor into the supreme position of Führer. 

With the official creation of the Third Reich, Germany was now on a path to war and attempted racial domination.  On September 1, 1939 Germany invaded Poland and World War II began.

As the war spread throughout Europe, Hitler and his followers also increased their campaign against European Jewry and others that they had deemed undesirable.  Occupation brought a large amount of Jews under German control and as a result, the Final Solution was created and implemented; leading to the death of over six million Jews and five million others during an event known as the Holocaust.

Although the events of the war initially went in Germany’s favor with the use of their powerful Blitzkrieg strategy, the tide changed in the winter of early 1943 when the Russians stopped their Eastern progress at the Battle of Stalingrad. 

Over 14 months later, German prowess in Western Europe ended with the Allied invasion at Normandy during D-Day. In May 1945, just eleven months after D-day, the war in Europe officially ended with the defeat of Nazi Germany and the death of its leader, Adolf Hitler.

Conclusion

At the end of World War II, the Allied Powers officially banned the Nazi Party in May 1945. Although many high-ranking Nazi officials were put on trial during a series of post-war trials in the years following the conflict, the vast majority of rank and file party members were never prosecuted for their beliefs. 

Today, the Nazi party remains illegal in Germany and several other European countries, but underground Neo-Nazi units have grown in number.  In America, the Neo-Nazi movement is frowned upon but not illegal and it continues to attract members.

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Goss, Jennifer L., Contributing Writer. "The Nazis." ThoughtCo, Mar. 29, 2016, thoughtco.com/history-of-the-nazi-party-1779888. Goss, Jennifer L., Contributing Writer. (2016, March 29). The Nazis. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-the-nazi-party-1779888 Goss, Jennifer L., Contributing Writer. "The Nazis." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-the-nazi-party-1779888 (accessed September 25, 2017).