Who Supported Hitler and Why?

A Nazi rally in 1936
Nazi rally, 1936. H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

Adolf Hitler not only had enough support amongst the German people to take power and hold it for twelve years while effecting massive change in all levels of society, but he retained this support for several years during a war which began to go very wrong. The Germans fought until even Hitler had conceded the end and killed himself, whereas just a generation earlier they had expelled their Kaiser and changed their government without any enemy troops on German soil.

So who supported Hitler, and why?

The Fuhrer Myth: A Love for Hitler

The key reason to support Hitler and the Nazi regime was Hitler himself. Aided greatly by propaganda genius Goebbels, Hitler was able to present an image of himself as a superhuman, even god-like figure. He wasn’t portrayed as a politician, as Germany had had enough of them.  Instead, he was seen as above politics. He was all things to a lot of people – although a set of minorities soon found that Hitler, beyond not caring about their support, wanted to persecute, even exterminate them instead – and by changing his message to suit different audiences, but stressing himself as the leader at the top, he began to bind the support of disparate groups together, building enough to rule, modify, and then doom Germany. Hitler wasn’t seen as a socialist, a monarchist, a democrat, like many rivals. Instead, he was portrayed and accepted as being Germany itself, the one man who’d cut across the many sources of anger and discontent in Germany and cure them all.

He wasn’t widely seen as a power-hungry racist, but someone putting Germany and ‘Germans’ first. Indeed, Hitler managed to look like someone who would unite Germany rather than push it to extremes: he was praised for stopping a left-wing revolution by crushing the socialists and communists (first in street fights and elections, then by putting them in camps), and praised again after the Night of the Long Knives for stopping his own right (and still some left) wingers from starting their own revolution.

Hitler was the unifier, the one who halted chaos and brought everyone together.

It has been argued that at a crucial point in the Nazi regime the propaganda stopped making the Fuhrer myth successful, and Hitler’s image started making the propaganda work: people believed the war could be won, and believed Goebbels carefully crafted work, because Hitler was in charge. He was aided here by a piece of luck and some perfect opportunism. Hitler had taken power in 1933 on a wave of discontent caused by the depression, and luckily for him, the global economy began to improve in the 1930s without Hitler having to do anything except claim the credit, which was freely given to him. Hitler had to do more with foreign policy, and as a great many people in Germany wanted the Treaty of Versailles negated Hitler’s early manipulation of European politics to reoccupy German land, unite with Austria, then take Czechoslovakia, and still further the swift and victories wars against Poland and France, won him many admirers. Few things boost a leader’s support than winning a war, and it gave Hitler plenty of capital to spend when the Russian war went wrong.

Early Geographical Divisions

During the years of elections, Nazi support was far greater in the rural north and east, which was heavily protestant, than in the south and west (which was mainly Catholic voters of the Centre Party), and in large cities full of urban workers.

The Classes

Support for Hitler has long been identified among the upper classes, and this is largely believed to be correct. Certainly, large non-Jewish businesses initially supported Hitler to counter their fear of communism, and Hitler received support from wealthy industrialists and large companies: when Germany rearmed and went to war, key sectors of the economy found renewed sales and gave greater support. Nazis like Goering were able to use their backgrounds to please the aristocratic elements in Germany, especially when Hitler’s answer to cramped land use was expansion in the east, and not re-settling workers on Junker lands, as Hitler’s predecessors had suggested. Young male aristocrats flooded to the SS and Himmler’s desire for an elitist medieval system and his faith in the old families.

The middle classes are more complicated, although they have been closely identified with supporting Hitler by earlier historians who saw a Mittelstandspartei, a lower middle class of craftspeople and small shop owners drawn to the Nazis to fill a gap in politics, as well as the central middle class. The Nazis let some smaller businesses fail under Social Darwinism, while those who proved efficient did well, dividing support. Nazi government used the old German bureaucracy and appealed to white collar workers across German society, and while they seemed less keen on Hitler’s pseudo-medieval call for Blood and Soil, they benefitted from the improving economy which enhanced their lifestyles, and bought into the image of a moderate, unifying leader bringing Germany together, ending the years of violent division. The middle class was, proportionally speaking, over-represented in early Nazi support, and the parties which usually received middle-class support collapsed as their voters left for the Nazis.

The working and peasant classes also had mixed views on Hitler. The latter gained little from Hitler’s luck with the economy, often found Nazi state handling of rural matters annoying and were only partially open to Blood and Soil mythology, but as a whole, there was little opposition from rural workers and farming did become more secure overall. The urban working class was once seen as a contrast, as a bastion of anti-Nazi resistance, but this doesn’t appear to be true. It now seems that Hitler was able to appeal to the workers through their improving economic situation, through new Nazi labor organisations, and through removing the language of class warfare and replacing it with bonds of shared racial society which crossed classes, and although the working class voted in smaller percentages, they made up the bulk of Nazi support. This isn’t to say working class support was passionate, but that Hitler convinced a lot of workers that, despite the loss of Weimar rights, they were benefitting and should support him.

As the socialists and communists were crushed, and as their opposition was removed, workers turned to Hitler. 

The Young and First Time Voters

Studies of the electoral results of the 1930s have revealed the Nazis gaining noticeable support from people who hadn’t voted in elections before, and also among young people eligible to vote for the first time. As the Nazi regime developed more young people were exposed to Nazi propaganda and taken into Nazi Youth organisations. It’s open to debate exactly how successfully the Nazis indoctrinated Germany’s young, but they drew important support from many.

The Churches

Over the course of the 1920s and early 30s the Catholic Church had been turning towards European fascism, scared of the communists and, in Germany, wanting a way back from the liberal Weimar culture. Nonetheless, during the collapse of Weimar, Catholics voted for the Nazis in far lower numbers than Protestants, who were much more likely to do so. Catholic Cologne and Dusseldorf had some of the lowest Nazi voting percentages, and the Catholic church structure provided a different leadership figure and a different ideology.

However, Hitler was able to negotiate with the churches and came to an agreement in which Hitler guaranteed Catholic worship and no new kulturkampf in return for support and an end to their role in politics. It was a lie, of course, but it worked, and Hitler gained vital support at a vital time from Catholics, and the possible opposition of the Centre Party vanished as it closed. Protestants were no less keen to support Hitler being no fans of Weimar, Versailles, or Jews. However, many Christians remained skeptical or opposed, and as Hitler continued down his path some did speak out, to mixed effect: Christians were able to temporarily halt the euthanasia program executing the mentally ill and disabled by voicing opposition, but the racist Nuremberg Laws were welcomed in some quarters.

The Military

Military support was key, as in 1933-4 the army could have removed Hitler. However once the SA was tamed in the Night of the Long Knives - and SA leaders who wanted to combine themselves with the military had gone - Hitler had major military support because he rearmed them, expanded them, gave them the chance to fight and early victories. Indeed, the army had supplied the SS with key resources to allow for the Night to happen. Leading elements in the military who opposed Hitler were removed in 1938 in an engineered plot, and Hitler’s control expanded. However, key elements in the army remained concerned at the idea of a huge war and kept plotting to remove Hitler, but the latter kept winning and defusing their conspiracies. When the war began to collapse with defeats in Russia the army had become so Nazified that most remained loyal. In the July Plot of 1944, a group of officers did act and try to assassinate Hitler, but then largely because they were losing the war. Many new young soldiers had been Nazis before they joined.

Women

It might seem odd that a regime which forced women out of many jobs and increased the emphasis on breeding and raising children to intense levels would have been supported by many women, but there is a part of the historiography which recognizes how the many Nazi organisations aimed at women —with women running them—offered opportunities which they took. Consequently, while there was a strong set of complaints from women who wished to return to sectors they’d been expelled from (such as women doctors), there were millions of women, many without the education to pursue the roles now shut off from them, who supported the Nazi regime and actively worked in the areas they were allowed to, rather than forming a mass block of opposition.

Support through Coercion and Terror

So far this article has looked at people who supported Hitler in the popular meaning, that they actually liked him or wanted to push forward his interests. But there was a mass of the German population who supported Hitler because they did not have, or believe they had, any other choice. Hitler had enough support to get into power, and while there he destroyed all political or physical opposition, such as the SDP, and then instituted a new police regime with a state secret police called the Gestapo that had large camps to house limitless numbers of dissidents. Himmler ran it. People who wanted to speak out about Hitler now found themselves at risk of losing their lives. Terror helped boost Nazi support by providing no other option. Plenty of Germans reported on neighbors, or other people they knew, because being an opponent of Hitler became treason against the German State.

Conclusion

The Nazi Party was not a small group of people who took over a country and ran it into destruction against the wishes of the populace. From the early thirties, the Nazi Party could count on a large range of support, from across the social and political divide, and it could do it because of clever presentation of ideas, the legend of their leader, and then naked threats. Groups who might have been expected to react like Christians and women were, at first, fooled and gave their support. Of course, there was opposition, but the work of historians like Goldhagen has firmly broadened our understanding of the base of support Hitler was operating from, and the deep the pool of complicity among the German people. Hitler did not win a majority to be voted into power, but he polled the second greatest result in Weimar history (after the SDP in 1919) and went on to build Nazi Germany on mass support. By 1939 Germany wasn’t full of passionate Nazis, it was mostly of people who welcomed the stability of government, the jobs, and a society which was in marked contrast to that under Weimar, all of which people believed they’d found under the Nazis. Most people had issues with the government, as ever, but were happy to overlook them and support Hitler, partly out of fear and repression, but partly because they thought their lives were okay. But by ’39 the excitement of ‘33 had gone.