Close
Stay informed: Sign up for eNews Subscribe

The Third Reich Sourcebook

Read the Introduction
Close

Chapter 1

The Munich Years and the Legacy of the War

No event is more crucial to understanding the emergence of Nazism than Germany's surrender to the Allies at 11 o'clock on 11 November 1918. Until the very end of World War I, wartime propaganda portrayed the undefeated Imperial German Army as invincible, giving no hint of the coming disaster on the Western Front. The anti-Hitler journalist Sebastian Haffner recalled that when he was eleven years old and saw the newspaper headline "Armistice Signed," his "entire inner world ... collapsed." Adolf Hitler, recuperating from partial blindness in a military hospital in Pasewalk, also recalled the trauma of defeat, later describing in Mein Kampf the moment when an elderly pastor told the stunned patients that the royal House of Hohenzollern had fallen, the Kaiser had gone into exile, and the German Empire had become a republic. For Hitler, as for many of his generation, his personal suffering vanished, as he wrote in Mein Kampf, "in comparison with the tragedy of the fatherland." During the 1930s, much of the literature produced in National Socialist Germany mythologized the experience at the front and lauded war veterans. For example, Heinrich Lersch's war poems presented a redemptive vision of death and destruction, and Otto Gmelin portrayed a simple but war-wise German in his saga Prohn Fights for His People (1938). Though the account in Mein Kampf, composed during Hitler's brief fourteen-month imprisonment in the Landsberg Fortress for an abortive coup in Munich on 9 November 1923, may be questioned, Hitler claimed that on the day of Germany's humiliation-9 November-he had vowed "to go into politics."

When Hitler joined the Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (German Workers' Party, DAP) in Munich in September 1919, he was still by his own description a "nameless" political neophyte. His pan-German sympathies did not begin to emerge until the summer of 1919 after he received political training as a military informer in an anti-Bolshevik instruction course, courtesy of the Reichswehr (Armed Services). In his first written statement on the "Jewish Question," a letter dated 16 September 1919, written at the behest of Captain Karl Mayr, head of the Army Intelligence and Propaganda Unit, to a soldier, Adolf Gemlich, Hitler proposed a "rational" rather than "emotional" anti-Semitism in order to be all the more effective "in the irrevocable removal of the Jews."

Hitler was greatly influenced by the economic theorist Gottfried Feder (1883-1941), whom he had heard speak and whose Manifesto for Breaking the Bondage of Interest had just appeared. Feder was a central figure in the DAP, which had been organized in 1919 and was one of many political groups that emerged on the fringes of Munich's turbulent political scene. The DAP's founding statement, published on 5 January 1919, addressed its appeal to the working class, promoted antipathy to the "socialization" of the German economy put forward by the parties of the Left, called for wage stabilization and profit sharing, and passionately demanded government by Germans rather than by "foreigners and Jews." From its inception, the DAP embraced an ideological cluster of antiliberalism, pan-Germanic nationalism, antimodernism, racial anti-Semitism, and a mystical ideal of Germanic or Nordic spirituality derived from a variety of pre-1914 "völkisch" sources. It blamed Germany's defeat on the "November criminals"-Marxists and Jews-whom it held responsible for any and all of Germany's misfortunes. The fourth point of the party's twenty-five-point program, adopted on 24 February 1920, explicitly excluded Jews from citizenship, defining citizens as "members of the nation" who are "of German blood." Along with Feder, who focused largely on economic issues like Germany's debt and the need to nationalize the credit system, the main ideologues of the DAP were the poet Dietrich Eckart (1868-1923), who saw all life as a world-historical battle between the worldly Jew and the spiritual non-Jew, and Alfred Rosenberg (1893-1946, executed at Nuremberg), whose writings were marked by biological and racial anti-Semitism and a radical hatred of Bolshevism.

When the Nazis came to power in 1933, they rewrote their early history to put Hitler at center stage from the beginning, publishing a highly fictionalized account of the founding of the DAP and of Hitler's 1924 trial in a collector's album illustrated with stick-on photographs that was offered with cigarette purchases. Though the official version of how Hitler joined the movement was fanciful, the miniscule size of the party at its inception, his discovery of his ability to mesmerize audiences, and the resulting mushrooming of membership were not exaggerated. After seizing control of the party in July 1921, Hitler revamped it, calling it the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (National Socialist German Workers' Party, usually referred to in English as the Nazi Party and in German abbreviated as NSDAP); designing its red, white, and black swastika flag; creating the uniformed paramilitary Sturm Abteilung (Storm Troopers, SA); starting a daily newspaper (Völkischer Beobachter); staging countless mass meetings featuring speakers trained to create political fireworks; and adopting new propaganda techniques, some of which are described in Hans Hinkel's One of a Hundred Thousand (1933). One of the greatest successes of the Nazi Party in the 1920s was in recruiting young activists and mobilizing the Hitler Jugend (Hitler Youth, HJ) and the Bund Deutscher Mädel (League of German Girls, BDM), which by 1930 had twenty-five thousand members under eighteen. Hans Johst's (1890-1978) play Schlageter, based on the life of a young Nazi martyr executed by the French in 1923, depicts party members as dynamic and idealistic, the mirror opposite of the cynical and exhausted older generation. Also typical of propaganda in the earlier years were the books by Wilfred Bade. Combining his writer's activity with his role as press chief (Reichsamtsleiter der Reichspressestelle) of the Nazi Party, Bade was an able popularizer of the history of the party and an advocate of its technological triumphs, especially the putative expansion of mass automobile ownership.

In the late 1920s, under the leadership of Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Party focused on winning the battle for the traditionally Social Democratic stronghold of Berlin by staging barroom brawls, disrupting meetings, and provoking street battles with Socialist and Communist opponents. Midlevel party organizers such as Fritz Oertner exhorted speakers to be drilled in effective anti-Marxist rhetoric. Though the party was already a formidable presence, not until its breakthrough in the elections of 14 September 1930, described here by Herman Führbach, did it become a force in German politics and a threat to the Weimar Republic.