Dark Star Rising - Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939 - Volker Ullrich

Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939 - Volker Ullrich (2016)

Chapter 9. Dark Star Rising

“In the past I have been a prophet in many things…at least concerning the big picture,” Hitler declared in a private missive in early February 1930. Previously, he had refused to set a timetable for Nazi success. Now he claimed he could predict with “near oracular certainty” that “Germany will have overcome the lowest point of its humiliation in two and a half to three years.” He went on: “I believe that our triumph will come about in this period. With that our phase of decay will be over, and the resurgence of our people will begin.”1 In the spring of 1930 such predictions looked like the fantasies of a provincial politician convinced that he was on a divine mission. But only a few months later, after the Reichstag election of 14 September, the NSDAP could celebrate a sudden, massive upsurge in support. The Führer, previously a curiosity on the outer fringe of the political right wing, found himself catapulted into the centre of German politics. All at once what had been vague promises to his followers seemed on the verge of becoming reality. Hitler’s party was very close to assuming power.

This development was hardly a total surprise. The Landtag and district elections in 1929 had shown that the NSDAP was on the rise, as the party noticeably increased its share of the vote wherever it chose to stand. Moreover, the campaign against the Young Plan had allowed it to position itself as the protest party on the far right. But the Nazis’ definitive breakthrough towards becoming a mass party only happened with the onset of the Great Depression. The economic crisis hit Germany particularly hard.2 The upturn during the Golden Twenties had been financed with short-term foreign credit, particularly from the United States, and after Black Friday, American banks had to call in their loans. That hastened the collapse of the German economy, which had already begun to decline in 1928 and 1929. The number of unemployed leapt from 1.3 million in September 1929 to 3.4 million in February 1930. One year later 5 million people were out of work, and at the height of the crisis in 1932, Germany had 6 million jobless. In fact, the number of people who were out of work was far higher, since the official statistics did not include those who, for whatever reasons, did not register at unemployment offices. In the words of the historian Hans-Ulrich Wehler, the Weimar Republic was “cast down into the abyss of an unprecedented economic depression.”3

The psychological consequences were overwhelming. The trying experiences of the post-war period of turmoil and hyperinflation had left many Germans without the emotional strength to deal with an economic crisis that exceeded everything that had come before. An apocalyptic mood of hopelessness began to take hold, even among those segments of the populace that were not primarily affected by the Depression. Faith in democratic institutions and democratic political parties dissolved, and anti-parliamentary sentiment, already rife in the Weimar Republic, was given a huge boost. Those in power appeared to have no solutions to the crisis, and the more helpless they seemed to be, the greater the demand became for a “strong man,” a political messiah who would lead Germany out of economic misery and point the way towards renewed national greatness. More than any other German politician, Hitler presented himself as the answer to these hopes for salvation.4 The hour was at hand for the man who already enjoyed the quasi-religious worship of his supporters and who had long identified with the role of the charismatic Führer.

By early 1930, it was clear that the Weimar Republic was built on sand. On 27 March, the grand coalition of Social Democratic Chancellor Hermann Müller collapsed after the SPD and the DVP became embroiled in a petty quarrel about whether to raise unemployment insurance contributions from 3.5 to 4 per cent. Underlying the squabbling was a fundamental disagreement about who should bear the brunt of the costs of combating the economic crisis. After Stresemann’s death, under the leadership of its new chairman, Ernst Scholz, the big-business-friendly DVP had become more conservative, and influential forces within the party, supported by the Reich Association of German Industry (RDI), were calling for it to end its cooperation with the Social Democrats.5 Conversely, the SPD felt that it could no longer demand any further political compromises of its constituency. The supply of common ground, as Müller put it when he announced the end of the grand coalition, was exhausted. The liberal Frankfurter Zeitung newspaper called 27 March 1930 a “black day,” and indeed the date marked a watershed in the history of the Weimar Republic. Henceforth, no government would enjoy a parliamentary majority. The dissolution of German democracy was under way.6

Reich President Paul von Hindenburg and his closest advisers were by no means dismayed that government and parliament were shooting themselves in the foot. Hindenburg had long been pondering how to remove the SPD from power and subordinate Germany’s political parties to an authoritarian rule by the presidency.7 That was the brief handed to Heinrich Brüning, the chairman of the Centre Party, who was appointed Germany’s new chancellor. He governed without a parliamentary majority in the interest of Hindenburg and his camarilla, relying on the president’s support and on Article 48 of the Reich constitution, which accorded the president extensive powers in states of emergency. As a result Brüning was able to form a cabinet of “experts” that excluded the SPD. This was equivalent to a tacit abrogation of the constitution. From the very beginning of his tenure, Brüning made no secret of the fact that he was willing to dissolve the Reichstag and rule by emergency decree if parliament refused to follow his lead.8

The NSDAP played no part in their plans as Hindenburg and Brüning installed this presidential regime. The Nazi faction in parliament was too small to merit attention. Nonetheless, the government’s turn away from parliamentarianism and the undermining of democracy played into Hitler’s hands. When the Brüning cabinet was formed on 30 March 1930, Goebbels noted: “Perhaps this cabinet will be immediately brought down. Then the Reichstag will be dissolved. Bravo! These are marvellous times!”9 The NSDAP could count on increasing its share of the vote if fresh elections were called. Thus the party actively worked towards a dissolution of parliament, for instance by supporting a vote of no confidence brought against Brüning on 4 April. The new chancellor survived that motion, however, after the DNVP withheld support. “The DNVP as a whole caved in…” Goebbels noted. “The boss is furious.”10 That very day, Hitler announced he was quitting the committee advocating the popular referendum against the Young Plan.11 On 12 April, when the budget came up for a decisive vote, the DNVP again sided with the government, sparing Brüning’s cabinet an early parliamentary defeat.

Right from the start, Hitler was set on unscrupulously exploiting the political and economic crisis, and the way that the state government of Thuringia was formed in early 1930 amply illustrated Hitler’s strategy. In Landtag elections in December 1929, the NSDAP had polled 11.3 per cent in Thuringia, giving them six parliamentary seats. If the conservative and liberal parties wanted to govern without the SPD, they needed the support of the National Socialists. Hitler decided that the party would join a governing coalition, but only if it were given two key ministries, those of the interior and of culture and popular education. “He who possesses these two ministries and uses his power within them unscrupulously and with determination can achieve the extraordinary,” Hitler wrote in a confidential missive on 2 February. The Interior Ministry gave the NSDAP oversight of the state police force; the Culture Ministry put the party in charge of the entire Thuringian school and educational system. Hitler was not interested in participating in government per se: he was aiming to take over the executive branch from the inside. As his candidate for both ministerial posts, Hitler put forward Wilhelm Frick, his comrade from the Beer Hall Putsch. The DVP initially rejected the appointment. “So I travelled to Weimar and informed these gentlemen, succinctly and in no uncertain terms, that either Dr. Frick would be our minister or there would be fresh elections,” Hitler related. The potential coalition was set a deadline of three days to accept Frick. New elections were anathema to the centre-right parties since they would certainly have strengthened the NSDAP’s position. Thus the DVP gave in to Hitler’s ultimatum, and on 23 January 1930, Wilhelm Frick was named Thuringia’s new interior and education minister.12

During his fourteen-month term in office, Wilhelm Frick gave Thuringians a preview of what would be visited upon Germany as a whole when the Nazis came to national power on 30 January 1933. Veteran, highly skilled civil servants suspected of sympathising with the SPD were fired and replaced with Nazi stooges. Prayers were made mandatory in schools in order, as Frick told the Landtag, to “prevent the people being swindled by Marxism and the Jews.” The University of Jena was given a chair in racial sciences, which was filled by the notorious anti-Semite Hans F.K. Günther. The new director of the Weimar Academy of Art and Architecture, the National Socialist true believer Paul Schultze-Naumburg, removed modernist works of art from the city’s Royal Museum. There was little resistance to such iconoclasm. The former home of Goethe and Schiller had become a Nazi stronghold: in the 1929 elections, the Nazis had polled 23.8 per cent of the vote in the city of Weimar.13

It took quite some time before the Thuringian DVP realised what sort of partners it had taken on board. Eventually, on 1 April 1931, the party supported a vote of no confidence brought by the SPD, which led to Frick’s downfall. But in September 1932, the NSDAP would return to power on the back of an election in which the party took 42 per cent of the vote. Frick, for his part, earned Hitler’s gratitude for putting Thuringia “at the centre of the national, political and economic renovation of Germany” and was made Reich interior minister when Hitler became chancellor the following year.14

By the spring of 1930, it was also clear that the NSDAP would do well in the Landtag election in Saxony the following June. Unfortunately for Hitler, the long-simmering conflict between Goebbels and the Strasser brothers was about to break out in public. On the surface, the rivalry revolved around who would be responsible for Nazi publicity in Berlin and be given commensurate authority. With their Kampf Verlag publishing house, the Strassers directly competed with Goebbels’s periodical Der Angriff. But the competition was also about ideological issues. Unlike Goebbels and his brother Gregor, Otto Strasser had never backed away from the “socialist” line of the Working Association North-west. Since Gregor was busy as Reich organisational director, Otto was primarily responsible for Kampf Verlag’s publications, which promoted a mélange of nationalist and anti-capitalist ideas with a pronounced anti-Western and pro-Soviet slant.15

The power struggle between Goebbels and Otto Strasser escalated in late January 1930, when Kampf Verlag announced it would begin publishing a daily newspaper in Berlin in March. “This is a true stab in the back,” Goebbels fumed, lobbying Hitler to block the new periodical and to make Der Angriff into a daily paper.16 Hitler promised to rein in Otto Strasser but did nothing, and when the first issue of Der Nationale Sozialist appeared on schedule on 1 March, Goebbels’s patience was at an end. He threatened to resign from the party and confided to his diary: “Hitler…has broken his word to me five times. That’s a bitter realisation and I’m drawing my conclusions from it. Hitler has gone into hiding. He’s not making any decisions. He’s not leading. He’s just going with the flow.”17 Goebbels’s annoyance about Hitler’s lack of intervention was increased by his disappointment that the party chairman declined to attend Horst Wessel’s funeral on 1 March. The former university student and SA Sturmführer had been shot by a Communist in late January and died of his wounds on 23 February. Goebbels had decided to mould him into “a new martyr for the Third Reich” and make him the focus of ritual celebrations. “Die Fahne hoch”—“Hold High the Flag”—the song which Wessel had written, became the official party anthem and was played after the German national anthem at official state functions as of 1933.18

The fact that Hitler shied away from getting involved in the Goebbels-Strasser conflict had less to do with indecisiveness than his desire to avoid making public the fact that the party was internally divided on the verge of its political breakthrough. But in late April, at an internal NSDAP leadership conference in Munich, Hitler dropped his guard. “A complete excoriation of Strasser, Kampf Verlag and the salon Bolshevists,” a relieved Goebbels crowed. “Hitler is leading once again. Thank God. Everyone enthusiastically behind him. Strasser and his crowd have been smashed.”19 At the end of the conference, Hitler named Goebbels Reich propaganda director. For the latter that was the icing on the cake: he now took over the office that Gregor Strasser had given up, in Hitler’s favour, in 1927.

Hitler, however, was not ready to break once and for all with Otto Strasser and his supporters. In late May he made one last attempt at an amicable reconciliation, summoning the dissident to his Berlin residence, the Hotel Sanssouci on Linkstrasse. For two days Hitler employed all of his rhetorical talents in an attempt to win over Strasser, but the latter proved surprisingly unimpressed by the characteristically long-winded mix of enticements and threats. Strasser categorically refused to consider Hitler’s offer of naming him Reich press secretary if he would sell Kampf Verlag to Max Amann. The core of the two men’s disagreement, however, was their varying interpretation of what was meant by the term “socialism” in the party programme. Strasser accused Hitler of “choking off revolutionary socialism in the interest of keeping the party legal and…cooperating with the mainstream right-wing parties (Hugenberg, Stahlhelm, etc.).” An agitated Hitler responded: “I am a socialist…But what you mean by socialism is nothing but crass Marxism. The masses of workers only want panem et circenses. They have no comprehension of any sort of ideals.” Hitler also reaffirmed his axiomatic belief that race and not class warfare was the motor of history. “There can only be one revolution, the revolution of race,” he proclaimed. “There is no economic, political or social revolution. The fundamental struggle is always the same: the struggle of a racially inferior lower class against a dominant high race. The day the higher race forgets this iron law, it has lost the battle.”

Strasser wanted certainty, so he posed the cardinal question of what Hitler intended to do after coming to power. Would he, for instance, preserve the assets of large privately owned companies like Krupp? “Of course!” Hitler replied. “Do you think I’m crazy enough to destroy German heavy industry?” Strasser shot back: “If you want to retain the capitalist regime…you have no right to talk about socialism.”20 With that, all bridges were burned. After their discussion, Hitler described Strasser as “an intellectual white Jew” and “the purest sort of Marxist.”21 He waited to take action until after the Saxony election on 22 June, in which the NSDAP almost tripled their share of the vote to 14.4 per cent and emerged as the second-strongest party behind the SPD (33.4 per cent) and ahead of the KPD (13.6 per cent).22 Eight days later, Hitler ordered Goebbels in an open letter to purge the Berlin party chapter of all “salon Bolshevists,” telling him to “act ruthlessly and severely.”23 Goebbels read Hitler’s message out loud at a general party meeting in Berlin on 30 June, where it was greeted with cries of “String them up!” With satisfaction, Goebbels noted in his diary: “The whole thing ended with an oath of loyalty to the movement, to Hitler and to me!”24

Otto Strasser and his followers avoided being expelled from the party by voluntarily resigning their membership. “The socialists are leaving the NSDAP,” read the headline in Strasser’s mouthpiece, Der Nationale Sozialist. But he had overestimated his status within the party. Few NSDAP supporters followed his call. Strasser founded the Fighting Society of Revolutionary National Socialists, later known as the Black Front, but these organisations never attracted more than a few thousand members. Gregor Strasser had already broken with his brother. Otto’s tendency to act on his own, Gregor claimed, had “fully destroyed their relationship.”25 In any case, the crisis within the party was resolved without attracting much notice in the wider public.

Hitler’s rise in the spring and summer of 1930 was significantly aided by mistakes made by the Brüning government. Immediately after taking office, the new chancellor sought to combat the effects of the Depression with a rigid austerity programme. State expenditures were slashed, taxes and levies increased, and civil servants and salaried employees were forced to make emergency financial contributions. What followed was inevitable. On 16 July, the Reichstag refused to approve the government’s draft proposal for covering its obligations. Brüning declared that he was unwilling to engage in any more negotiations with parliament and pushed through the proposal by emergency presidential decree. The SPD faction then sponsored a successful motion to lift the state of emergency, whereupon Brüning announced that he was dissolving the Reichstag. It was a short-sighted decision. After the election results in Saxony, it was clear to all political observers that the NSDAP would emerge as the big winner from fresh elections, which were called for 14 September 1930.26

“Hurrah” was how Goebbels greeted the dissolution of parliament. The propaganda director immediately started organising the Nazi campaign—it was his chance to demonstrate his abilities in the new post. Germany had never quite seen a campaign like it. “In the run-up to 14 September, there must not be a single city, village or hamlet where we National Socialists have not staged a large-scale gathering,” Goebbels demanded in an “extraordinary memo” on 23 July. The party’s central election goal was to soften up the “Marxist November state” to the point where it could be taken over. Some 1,500 NSDAP representatives gave speeches, and in the last four weeks of campaigning alone, the party held 34,000 events.27 Hitler was the main attraction. People turned out en masse wherever he made an appearance. Four days before the election, 16,000 people came to hear him speak in Berlin’s Sportpalast auditorium—Goebbels claimed that 100,000 Berliners had tried to get tickets. When Hitler arrived at the venue, the propaganda director noted, he was greeted with a “tempest of jubilation” similar to a “hurricane.”28

Hitler’s campaign speeches followed the same pattern. He began with a polemic against the Weimar “system” which he blamed for Germany’s decline and decay, comparing Western parliamentarianism to a “worn-out tailcoat.” Democracy, Hitler claimed, was fundamentally unable to solve Germany’s problems because it privileged the rule of the majority over “the authority of personality.” Hitler then went after the other political parties, which, he claimed, represented only special interests and never the people as a whole. “Twelve years of unlimited rule by the old parliamentary parties have turned Germany into an object for exploitation and made it the laughing stock of the entire world,” Hitler thundered. The NSDAP, he told his audience, represented a “new popular German movement” that overcame class conflicts and the selfish interests of specific social castes: “There is only one movement that recognises the German people as a whole, rather than individual groups, and that movement is ours.” In this respect, the NSDAP was a model for what Hitler had in store for all of Germany: the creation of a Volksgemeinschaft, a racially defined ethnic-popular community. This Hitler defined as a form of social “organisation that no longer knows proletarians, bourgeois, farmers, artisans, etc. but rather is constituted by people from all parts of Germany and all groups of [its] population.” The idea of the Volksgemeinschaft seems to have particularly fascinated Hitler’s audience. He could count on storms of applause every time he invoked it. The concept was inseparably linked with the promise of national revival, similar to that of the Prussian “uprising” against Napoleon in 1813. “What we’re promising is not an improvement in material conditions for an individual class of people, but rather the multiplication of the strength of the nation since only this will put us on the path to power and to the liberation of the entire people,” Hitler told his listeners in the Sportpalast. He often ended his speeches by appealing to his audience’s religious need for salvation with a vision of “a powerful German empire of honour and liberty, strength and power and majesty” instead of “the current state of decline.”29

Some historians have advanced the thesis that Hitler consciously played down the Jewish question in the 1930 election to avoid putting off potential voters.30 But that is far from the truth. When Hitler opened the campaign in Munich on 18 July, he complained that “the Jew in Germany can get away with anything…and is pretty much above the law.” He promised that he would unmask “the lies of the Marxist party,” which had been fashioned “with true Jewish dexterity.” One week after his Munich speech, Hitler told a crowd in Nuremberg that Marxism was nothing but “a cover for the Jew” whose only aim was “to grab all the money he can for himself.” Hitler then added that the time was already at hand when “the Jew” would be treated as he had been “hundreds of years ago.” A police observer summarised the content of Hitler’s speech in Würzburg on 5 August as follows: “He tried to depict the Jews as a race of foreign blood and described them as parasites on the body of the people.” Five days after that in Kiel, Hitler accused Jews of trying to “completely emasculate” Germany. “But they’re on the wrong track,” he bellowed. “There is still blood in our people, the blood of millennia.” A police report noted that this passage of Hitler’s speech was met with applause and cries of “Out with the Jews in Germany.” Hitler repeatedly referred to Jews as a contaminant that could have no place in the Volksgemeinschaft he envisioned. In early September in Augsburg, he declared: “The so-called Communist International only exists to promote the interests of a certain race that is not part of us and only aims at the destruction of everything national so that it can rule internationally.”31

Hitler was convinced that Jews dominated both the press and the financial markets. Thus everyone in his audience knew who he was referring to when he spoke of “international finance spiders” that were growing fat on the misery of the nation, or when he asserted that “Today international high finance is Germany’s lord and master.” The fact that Hitler omitted the adjective “Jewish” from such statements may indicate that he was trying to moderate his tone without altering his basic message. In any case, the hundreds of thousands of people who drank in Hitler’s words were well aware that Jews in Germany would be in for rough times if the Nazis came to power. Nor could there have been much confusion about Hitler’s foreign-policy aims when he claimed that overcoming “a lack of [living] space” was “the perennial task of every healthy people.” On 18 August, he told an audience in Cologne that “We have 20 million people too many, and our territory is limited”; three days later, in Koblenz, he emphasised, “We want the German people to fight for its living space.”32 The destruction of “Jewish Marxism” and the conquest of “living space” remained Hitler’s two main aims, and he made no secret of either during the 1930 election campaign.

“On 14 September let’s give a sound thrashing to all those who have an interest in deceiving the people,” the NSDAP encouraged voters four days ahead of the poll.33 Hitler repeatedly depicted the election as a day of reckoning that would become a turning point in German history. The leitmotif he chose for his speech in Nuremberg on 7 September was “The people are arising, the storm is breaking loose”—lines cribbed from a poem by Theodor Körner about Germany’s “wars of national liberation” against Napoleon.34 The signs were auspicious, and Hitler expected that the NSDAP would significantly improve its margin of the vote. The “ever-cautious Tribune,” wrote Hess on the eve of the election, anticipated winning 60 to 70 seats.35 In fact the result exceeded even the most wildly optimistic expectations. The NSDAP went from 2.6 to 18.3 per cent of the vote, earning 107 seats in parliament compared to their previous 12. There had never been such a landslide improvement for a party in a German election. “A great victory has been fought for and won,” Hitler declared in the packed Zirkus Krone on 16 September. “The National Socialist movement can say that it has put its most difficult times behind it.”36

While the SPD remained the strongest party with 24.5 per cent, its share of the vote had declined by 5.3 per cent from 1928, while the KPD had gone from 10.6 to 13.1 per cent. All in all, the left-wing parties basically trod water. The Catholic camp also remained stable, with the Centre Party and the BVP taking 11.8 and 3 per cent of the vote respectively, compared with 12.1 and 3.1 in 1928. The election’s big losers were parties of the political centre and the mainstream conservatives. The DNVP only received 7 per cent of the vote, half of its total from the already disastrous 1928 election. The DVP declined from 8.7 to 4.5 per cent, while the DDP, which had changed its name to the German State Party (DSP) in July, went from 4.9 to 3.8 per cent.37 The National Socialists were the main beneficiaries from these parties’ electoral losses, taking increased numbers of votes in all parts of Germany where moderates and traditional conservatives declined. The NSDAP also profited from the high turnout since they received a greater percentage of ballots than the other parties from previous non-voters. The historian Jürgen Falter has shown that a third of all regular DNVP voters, a quarter of all DVP and DDP voters, a seventh of all non-voters and a tenth of all SPD voters cast their ballots with the NSDAP. The conservative and liberal middle classes were thus more susceptible to the Nazi lure than those coming from the Social Democratic milieu. The National Socialists also made their biggest gains in overwhelmingly Protestant northern and eastern Germany, while voters in Catholic areas proved more resistant.

In his contemporary analysis of the election results, the sociologist Theodor Geiger wrote of “a middle-class panic,” but that was only half the story. The NSDAP may have attracted a high number of middle-class voters, but the party also appealed to workers—less to an industrial workforce than to agricultural labourers, artisans and those employed in medium-sized businesses. By contrast, unemployed industrial workers usually preferred the KPD under Ernst Thälmann to Hitler’s party. On the whole, however, the NSDAP was more of a party for the entire German people than any of its competitors, collecting the social protest vote from all sections of society. During the campaign it had presented itself as a dynamic, young movement ready to inherit the future; and indeed, on average, Nazi Party members were much younger than the adherents of other parties, although young voters were not the decisive factor in the NSDAP’s electoral success. Young SA men on the streets may have been an integral part of the National Socialists’ image, but the party received ballots in equal measure from young and old alike.38

“Fantastic…” Goebbels described the reaction in the Sportpalast on the evening of 14 September. “Celebration upon celebration. An entrancing mood of battle. The bourgeois parties of the middle have been crushed.” The following day he wrote: “Joy for us and despair for our enemies. In one fell swoop, 107 seats, Hitler is beside himself with glee.”39 The supporters of Weimar democracy felt crushed by the election results. “A black day for Germany,” Count Harry Kessler commented. “[The country] now faces a crisis of state that can only be overcome if all forces supporting or at least willing to tolerate the republic join together and strictly adhere to the common cause.” Otherwise, Kessler wrote, there was the threat of “a civil war and, in the longer term, a new Great War.”40 In Dresden, the university lecturer Victor Klemperer had the same fears. “107 National Socialists,” he wrote in his diary the morning after the election. “What a humiliation! How near we are to a civil war!”41 The writer Thea Sternheim noted in Berlin: “A move to the right was to be expected, but not such a decisive one. Most people from a Jewish background are fully disoriented” and fear for the worst.42 Bella Fromm, the society columnist writing for the liberal Vossische Zeitung, detected panic after the election. “Should we leave Germany and wait it out abroad?” she asked. Fromm, like many assimilated Jews, could not yet bring herself to think of emigrating but, as she recorded in her diary, “It’s astonishing how many people now think that it might be clever to do this.”43

The Frankfurter Zeitung wrote of an “election of embitterment,” in which the majority of voters had articulated their dissatisfaction with “the methods of governing or rather non-governing, the indecisive parliamentary palaver of the past few years.” The journalist also believed that economic hardship had pushed many desperate Germans into Hitler’s waiting arms.44 A “hazardous adventure” was how Carl von Ossietzky described the NSDAP’s electoral triumph in Die Weltbühne: “This was a Waterloo not just for the bourgeois parties, but for the whole idea of government by the people…Germany’s bourgeoisie has opted for Hitler’s fascism. It has chosen to be stripped of its rights and humiliated.”45 Another Die Weltbühne writer tried to explain Hitler’s success as the result of a “deep depression” that had gripped “the apolitical segments of society” in particular: “The petty bourgeoisie followed in droves the pied piper of Munich and his Berlin disciple Goebbels.”46 Count Harry Kessler, on the other hand, saw the political breakthrough of National Socialism as “the fever outbreak suffered by the mortally ill German lower-middle classes.” These were beyond salvation, Kessler thought, although they could “bring unspeakable misery upon Europe as they resisted their demise.”47 But interpretations of Nazism that viewed the phenomenon as a sociological by-product of the decline of this or that class ignored what was new about the movement: its diffuse character as a populist party enabled it to integrate heterogeneous interests and subordinate them to the charismatic figure of the Führer.

Nazi electoral success also occasioned worries abroad. The British ambassador to France, Ronald Hugh Campbell, wrote from Paris that the Nazi triumph was seen as an “unpleasant surprise” and a turning point that could have significant consequences for international relations.48 French Foreign Minister Aristide Briand felt “personally hurt” and informed his German counterpart Julius Curtius that Paris would be forced to act with “the greatest possible reserve” in its future dealings with Germany.49 In Britain, too, the election results were seen to make normal relations with Germany much more difficult. In his initial analysis on 18 September, the British ambassador in Berlin, Horace Rumbold, attributed Nazi success to the widespread mood of protest against economic misery, which Hitler and his movement in their youthful élan had been able to harness and turn into votes. The Foreign Office feared that Hitler’s radical agitation against the Treaty of Versailles would harden French attitudes towards Germany as well as lead Brüning to adopt a more uncompromising foreign policy. A Foreign Office memo read: “There will be…a stiffening of the German foreign policy for Brüning will surely try to exploit the Nazi bogey.”50

The British press also emphasised that the election had been dominated by protest. The Manchester Guardian wrote that the NSDAP had been able to mobilise a million disgruntled non-voters, while The Times had an alternative explanation for Nazi success: “They have succeeded, momentarily at any rate, in winning a large section of Young Germany.” Controversially, in the Daily Mail on 24 September, the newspaper magnate Viscount Rothermere praised the Nazi triumph as an important milestone in the rebirth of the German nation that would usher in a new epoch in British-German relations; the article was reprinted the following day in the Völkischer Beobachter. For Rothermere, the NSDAP represented a new generation of Germans who would extend a hand of reconciliation towards Britain. A strong Germany was in Britain’s interest as a bulwark against Bolshevism, he argued. “Western civilisation” could only profit if a government inspired by “healthy principles” came to power in Berlin, as it had done eight years ago with Mussolini in Italy.51 Such remarks were a harbinger of efforts made by some in the British Establishment to curry favour with Hitler’s Germany after 1933.

The spectacular results of September opened up the prospect that Hitler could come to power legally. “The constitution only stipulates the means, not the end,” the Führer declared on election night. “And no power in the world can force us from the path of legality.”52 Yet Hitler was unable to reap any immediate benefits of his election triumph. The shock at the NSDAP’s unexpected success led the moderate parties to close ranks. In early October 1930, the SPD faction in the Reichstag decided to tolerate the Brüning government. The Social Democrats would no longer support any vote of no confidence or block the unpopular austerity measures Brüning had instituted via emergency fiat. It was a difficult decision since it opened the SPD up to attacks by their left-wing competitors, the KPD. But there was no alternative if the Social Democrats wanted to maintain their last bastion of power, the government of Prussia under State President Otto Braun, who led a coalition with the Centre Party and the DSP. The policy of tolerance made the SPD a “silent partner” in the Brüning government. But this had not been Hindenburg’s original plan of tactic presidential governance and was the source of potential friction between the president and the chancellor.53

On 5 October 1930, in the course of coalition negotiations with the Reichstag parties, Heinrich Brüning met Hitler for the first time, accompanied by Wilhelm Frick and Gregor Strasser, in the apartment of the minister for the occupied territories, Gottfried Treviranus. The chancellor informed Hitler that the rigorous domestic austerity programme was an attempt to get the Allies to reduce and eventually cancel Germany’s reparations payments, and he appealed to the “former front-line soldier” to support the project with constructive opposition, thereby holding out the “prospect of working together in the future.” Hitler answered with a monologue that went on for an hour. “He began so shyly and hesitantly that Treviranus and I felt sorry for him and began to encourage him with brief interjections,” Brüning later recalled. “After a quarter of an hour we realised that this was the wrong approach. His voice was getting louder and louder.” Hitler slipped into his public-speaking mode. As Brüning remembered:

Ever more frequently he used the word “annihilating,” first directed against the SPD, then against the “reactionaries” and finally against France as our arch-enemy and Russia as the hotbed of Bolshevism. When he was part of the government, he said, he would insist that Germany put down all of these enemies with the help of England, Italy and America.

When Brüning asked Hitler how he intended to keep Germany solvent, given that the mere news of the NSDAP’s electoral triumph had led to a flight of foreign capital from the country, Hitler simply kept on talking. “One thought flashed through my mind: Mussolini,” Brüning recalled. Although Brüning and Hitler parted amicably, it was clear that involving the NSDAP in the government was out of the question, although Brüning refused to categorically rule out a right-wing coalition in the future.54

“Late at night the boss and Frick return from Brüning,” Goebbels confided to his diary. “We’re staying in opposition. Thank God…Hitler seems to have made quite an impression with Br[üning]. He was very happy.”55 But in truth, Hitler had come away wounded from the meeting. The chancellor had made it clear that he did not take Hitler seriously as a politician, thus prodding Hitler’s weak spot, his inferiority complex.56 For the next year, Hitler avoided any further encounter with Brüning, and he set his party on a course of vehement opposition to the government cabinet.

Compensating for the affront was the attention Hitler now received as the rising star of German politics. Electoral triumph had catapulted the Führer into the centre of public interest. “You have no idea how the situation of the movement and H[itler] has literally changed overnight, since the night of the election,” Hess told his parents. “We’ve suddenly become ‘acceptable’ in polite society. People who would previously have given H a wide berth now suddenly have to talk with him. The domestic and foreign press is beating down our doors.”57

Several days after the election, Hitler offered Ernst Hanfstaengl the post of NSDAP foreign press officer. Because of Hanfstaengl’s connections to the Anglo-Saxon world in particular, Hitler told him, he could “provide the party with a valuable service.”58 Hanfstaengl accepted the offer and began building up contacts to representatives of the foreign press. In the latter half of September and the first half of October, Hitler gave a series of interviews to the Daily Mail, The Times and papers belonging to William Randolph Hearst’s U.S. news empire. In them, he sought to dissipate the fears that his party’s electoral success had raised among Germany’s former enemies. Hitler presented himself as a patriotic politician who knew the value of rational argument and whose only goal was to find a peaceful way of relieving Germany of the burdens placed upon it by the Treaty of Versailles and the Young Plan. The alternative to the necessity of revising these agreements, Hitler argued, was the Bolshevisation of Germany, which could not be in the interest of the Western powers. Much like Rothermere, Hitler claimed that his movement represented a “Young Germany” that wanted only to coexist peacefully with other nations. This younger generation, Hitler added, could not be held responsible for the First World War and therefore rejected any further “payment of tributes.” Daily Mail correspondent Rothay Reynolds subsequently wrote of the NSDAP chairman’s great modesty and seriousness, explaining to readers that Hitler’s charisma came not from his eloquence or his ability to hold an audience, as was often proposed, but rather from the depth of his convictions.59

But not everyone was taken in by Hitler’s act. In Germany, too, there were warning voices. To many people’s surprise, on 17 October, Nobel Prize-winning author Thomas Mann issued an impassioned “Appeal to Reason” in Berlin’s Beethoven-Saal auditorium. The call was combined with a complex analysis of the intellectual and social preconditions for National Socialism. The Hitler movement would never have reached such a level of “mass emotional conviction,” Mann asserted, if it had not been preceded by “the sense of the beginning of a new epoch and…a new spiritual situation for humanity.” People had turned away from the fundamental principles of a civil society—“liberty, equality, education, optimism and belief in progress”—and faith in reason to embrace “the forces of the unconscious, of unthinking dynamism and of pernicious creativity,” which rejected everything intellectual. Fed by those tendencies and carried by a “gigantic wave of eccentric barbarism and primitive, populist fairground barking,” National Socialism pursued “a politics of the grotesque…replete with Salvation Army allures, reflexive mass paroxysms, amusement-park chiming, cries of hallelujah and mantra-like repetition of monotonous slogans until everyone foamed at the mouth.” Mann did not just excoriate the NSDAP. He also drew political conclusions. Only the Social Democrats, he said, seemed to be capable of stopping the forward march of the National Socialists. For that reason, he believed, the “political home” of respectable, middle-class German citizens had to be the SPD. Mann’s speech was repeatedly interrupted by hostile interjections, orchestrated by Arnolt Bronnen, a former exponent of literary expressionism and friend of Bertolt Brecht who had converted to Nazism. “Our people spit on the head of Thomas Mann, who shamelessly insulted us in his lecture ‘Appeal to Reason,’ ” noted Goebbels.60

Mann’s speech largely fell on deaf ears. The majority of middle-class Germans treated the National Socialists along the lines described by the historian Friedrich Meinecke in December 1930: “People laugh at their economic demands, and the upper ten thousand dutifully berate their rowdyism on the street, as the conventions of polite society demand; yet these very circles continue, quietly yet unabatedly, to murmur about how useful National Socialism might become.”61 Sebastian Haffner, who came from the educated upper-middle class and was finely attuned to changes in attitude, spoke in 1939 about people’s “fascination with the monster,” that “strange haze and intoxication of should-be opponents who cannot come to terms with the phenomenon” and instead “turn themselves over, increasingly defencelessly, to the magic of the horrible and the thrill of evil.”62 The erosion of the political centre, reflected in the dramatic decline in support for the DDP/DSP and the DVP, was primarily the result of the radicalisation of voters from the middle classes, whose fears of dropping down the social ladder and anti-parliamentarian longings pushed them in droves into the hands of the National Socialists. The comprehensive criticism of the Weimar Republic by intellectual spokesmen of the anti-democratic “conservative revolution”—Oswald Spengler, Arthur Moeller van den Bruck, Ernst Jünger, Edgar Julius Jung and Carl Schmitt—had paved the way for a movement that wanted to do away with German democracy as soon as possible.63

Not all liberal and left-wing intellectuals were as prescient as Thomas Mann. Even an otherwise acute observer of his times like Theodor Wolff, the editor-in-chief of the Berliner Tageblatt, fooled himself about the character of the Nazi movement and its leader. On 14 September 1930, before the first election results were released, Wolff wrote an editorial warning people not to “overestimate the fairground party.” Even if the NSDAP sent a few more deputies to parliament, they remained a “society of incompetents.” Wolff added: “Most probably this will be the National Socialists’ day in the sun, and their fall from grace will follow soon. The crown worn by the kings of the rabble-rousers will slip, and Herr Hitler will fade into the sunset.”64 Carl von Ossietzky, editor-in-chief of the influential cultural magazine Die Weltbühne, was even further off the mark. Shortly before the election, he had reassured his readers: “The National Socialist movement has a noisy present, but no future at all. The rather bizarre notion that Adolf Hitler had been called to save the nation is pure mysticism.” And mysticism, Ossietzky predicted, could intoxicate people, but never satisfy them in the long run.65 When the outcome of the election had proved him wrong, Ossietzky called for the Brüning government to be dismissed. “Brüning has made fascism something big,” Ossietzky wrote. “It’s better to have an openly right-wing government than a prolongation of Brüning’s. This pointy-nosed man with a face like parchment, this caricature of piety with his Iron Cross First Class dangling from his rosary, must simply disappear.”66 Ossietzky was equally insulting towards Hitler, calling him a “half-insane rascal,” a “pathetic dunderhead,” a “nowhere fool” and a “big mouth.”67 But attempts to depict the NSDAP leader as ridiculous could not combat the phenomenon of Adolf Hitler. Nor did they undermine the tendency of his supporters to see him as the national saviour.

It was common in left-wing circles to think that, if the Nazis ever got a share of power, they would soon be undone by their own incompetence. A remarkable exception was the dramatist Ernst Toller, who had served five years in prison for participation in the Munich Soviet Republic. “Reich Chancellor Hitler is waiting just outside the gates of Berlin,” Toller wrote in Die Weltbühne on 7 October 1930, warning against the dangerous illusion that the Nazis would bankrupt themselves if allowed to rule for a brief period. One should not underestimate Hitler’s “will to power and determination to keep it,” Toller cautioned. The dramatist was in no doubt that as chancellor Hitler would eradicate all democratic progress with a stroke of his pen: “Overnight, all republican civil servants, judges and police officers will be fired in favour of a reliable, fascist cadre…Hundreds of thousands of Hitlerites are waiting for jobs!” Toller also predicted that a Hitler regime would brutally terrorise socialists, communists, pacifists and the few surviving democrats, and that once he felt strong enough, the Nazi leader would even go after the trade unions. “For once there is truth to the phrase: it’s one minute to midnight,” Toller wrote.68

A few days after the election, Hitler was given the opportunity to spell out in public how he planned to come to power and what he would do after he did. On 23 September, a Reich court in Leipzig began hearing a case concerning three young Reichswehr officers from the southern German city of Ulm who had violated an order from the Defence Ministry by establishing contact with and promoting the NSDAP. On the third day of the trial, the National Socialist lawyer for the defence called Hitler as a witness. Many people had collected outside the court building, and a number of foreign reporters had also come to see the man who had suddenly become the great hope of millions of people. “The atmosphere positively crackled with excitement,” Hanfstaengl observed, when Hitler appeared before the court and the judge began to question him.69 The judge warned him not to give an “hour-long propaganda speech”—a reference to the 1924 trial at which the Munich judge had allowed Hitler to use the courtroom as a pulpit. After calmly beginning his testimony, however, Hitler began to get excited, earning himself a reprimand. “You’re not here to make political speeches,” the judge told him again. “Calm down and keep your statements objective.”

When asked about the NSDAP’s attitude towards state monopoly on legitimate force, Hitler answered that the Reichswehr was “the most important instrument in the restoration of the German state and the German people.” Any attempt to corrode it, he added, was insanity. If his party came to power, he told the judge, he would ensure the military, which the Treaty of Versailles had restricted to 100,000 men, would once again become a “great German people’s army.” Hitler also reiterated his promise from countless campaign speeches that he would “under no circumstances use illegal means” to achieve his ends. Whenever, as in the case of Otto Strasser, one of his subordinates had violated his instructions, he had “immediately intervened.” The NSDAP did not need to resort to violence, Hitler boasted, because after the next election, it would be Germany’s strongest party. “In this constitutional way,” Hitler said, “we will try to achieve decisive majorities in all legislative bodies so that, if we’re successful, we can remould the state in a form that corresponds to our ideas…If our movement is victorious in its entirely legal battle, there will be a German national court, there will be retribution for November 1918, and heads will roll.”70

Hitler could hardly have stated any more clearly that he was only prepared to renounce violence until he came to power. His adherence to the Weimar constitution was a tactical ploy to gain the NSDAP political room for manoeuvre and legal protection, which it used to undermine stability and ultimately to bring down German democracy. Goebbels belied the NSDAP’s seeming support for law and order when he remarked to one of the officers on trial in Leipzig, Richard Scheringer, that Hitler’s testimony had been a “clever move.” “What do the authorities think they can do to us now?” Goebbels asked. “They were waiting to make their move. But now we’re strictly legal. Legal no matter what.”71

In the summer of 1930, at the request of the Prussian interior minister, Carl Severing of the SPD, the political division of the Berlin police put together a memorandum on the character of the Hitler movement. It considered a wealth of material, concluding that “the NSDAP was an organisation hostile to the state that strives to undermine the constitutionally enshrined republican form of state.” Statements seemingly to the contrary by Hitler only served “to cloak [the movement] in legality so as to avoid problems with the authorities.”72 Nonetheless, in a cabinet meeting on 19 December 1930, the Reich ministers unanimously agreed that there was nothing they could do about the NSDAP. Heinrich Brüning himself warned against using “the same mistaken methods that were applied before the war against the Social Democrats.”73 The Prussian memorandum disappeared in a filing cabinet in the Reich Chancellery.

The military leadership, which had played a decisive role in the transition to rule by presidential decree in March 1930 and which was a key element in the new political constellation, began to revise its stance towards the NSDAP. Impressed by Hitler’s vow in Leipzig to keep things legal, Reich Defence Minister Wilhelm Groener and his closest political adviser, General Kurt von Schleicher, argued that Hitler’s party should no longer be considered a revolutionary movement bent on overthrowing the state but a serious political force that would have to be involved in Germany’s future. The military hoped to co-opt the Nazis’ enthusiasm for the armed forces for their own ends and recruit party members for the national defence. Military leaders also thought that involving the NSDAP would exert a moderating, domesticating influence on the movement.74 For his part Hitler had not forgotten the lesson he had learned from the Beer Hall Putsch: that the path to power depended upon the support or at least the neutrality of the military. The way he presented himself in Leipzig was calculated to bring about a rapprochement with military leaders. In mid-January 1931, he met with the chief of the general staff, General Kurt von Hammerstein. The purpose of the meeting is clear from a short entry in Goebbels’s diary: “We have to get the army on our side.”75

But when the new Reichstag first met on 13 October 1930, it was immediately apparent how hollow Hitler’s promise of legality was. Despite a prohibition on uniforms at parliamentary sessions in Prussia, the 107 NSDAP deputies appeared in their brown shirts and swastika armbands. Nazis also staged a provocative demonstration in Berlin’s city centre. Horrified, Count Kessler wrote: “All afternoon and evening, there were large masses of Nazis who demonstrated and smashed the windows of the [Jewish-owned] department stores Wertheim, Grünfeld, etc., in Leipziger Strasse. In the evening on Potsdamer Platz, crowds chanted ‘Germany awake,’ ‘Death to Judah’ and ‘Heil, heil.’ ” They had to be dispersed by police on horseback and in trucks.76 The fact that this “attack on shop windows” was directed almost exclusively against Jewish businesses suggests that it was a coordinated act, not a spontaneous outburst of public sentiment.77 In interviews with the foreign press, Hitler distanced himself from the unrest, calling it the work of “rowdies, shoplifters, plunderers and Communist provocateurs” and claiming that his movement had nothing to do with it.78 Hitler’s denials were transparent lies. In his response to a speech in the Reichstag by Gregor Strasser, the Bavarian SPD deputy Wilhelm Hoegner said the events of 13 October had belied the Nazis’ promises to stay within the bounds of legality: “We do not believe that yesterday’s wolves have transformed themselves overnight into pious lambs watched over by peaceful shepherds.”79

Although as the second most powerful faction the NSDAP was represented in the Reichstag presidium and on all parliamentary committees, their attitude from the very beginning of the legislative period was one of obstructionism. The party’s only aim was to bring the Reichstag to a standstill by subverting negotiations, filing frivolous motions and submitting nonsensical queries.80 At the same time Goebbels pressed ahead with extra-parliamentary actions. In early December, he organised the disruption of the world premiere of the film All Quiet on the Western Front, based on Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 anti-war novel, in the Mozartsaal cinema on Berlin’s Nollendorfplatz. “After 10 minutes, the cinema already resembled a madhouse,” Goebbels noted in his diary. “The police were powerless, and the embittered crowd turned on the Jews…‘Jews out!’ they cried. ‘Hitler is at the gates.’ The police sympathised with us…The screening was cancelled, as was a second one. We’ve won.” On 12 December, after further protests against the film, authorities banned it from being shown. It was the first act of capitulation in the face of Nazi terror. “The National Socialist street is dictating behaviour to the government,” Goebbels crowed.81

The Reichstag changed its procedural rules in an attempt to break the National Socialists’ policy of obstruction, so on 10 February 1931 the NSDAP faction, along with forty-one delegates from the DNVP and four from the rural protest party, the Landvolk, began boycotting parliamentary sessions. NSDAP faction leader and Reichstag vice-president Franz Stöhr declared that his party would only rejoin the “Young [Plan] Parliament” if it saw a possibility “to flout a particularly pernicious measure by the majority Reichstag, which is hostile to the people.”82 On 26 March, the Reichstag went into recess; it would not reconvene until October.

By early 1931, the growing radicalism of political conflicts created conditions that were akin to a civil war.83 In most cases, it was the SA who started the violence. Packs of SA men tried to create an atmosphere of intimidation and convince their political enemies of their omnipresence by marching through working-class districts or suddenly appearing en masse in smaller “red” towns. Such acts of provocation, which often precipitated brawls, were like invasions of hostile territory. As a rule, public action taken by the German communists and socialists were aimed at defending themselves against the SA’s increasingly aggressive behaviour in working-class areas, which the police frequently refused to prevent and thus tacitly supported.84 Hitler’s oft-repeated contentions that the street fights were “without exception the work of Communists and Social Democratic activists” and that the SA was “mostly outnumbered and only defending itself” were a crass reversal of the facts.85

Nonetheless, SA violence was a double-edged sword for the party leadership. Rowdyism constantly threatened to get out of hand and give the lie to Hitler’s assurances that the party was acting within the bounds of the law. In the midst of the 1930 campaign, this conflict had broken out openly, reflecting an unresolved yet fundamental structural problem running through the entire history of the SA. It was unclear whether the SA was an ancillary apparatus that only existed to help the NSDAP come to power, or whether it was, in parallel to the party, a “self-defence organisation” of equal status which would be given a key military role in the new “Third Reich.” Dissatisfied by a chronic lack of funding and the fact that the organisation had not been consulted about the list of candidates for the Reichstag election, the Berlin chapter of the SA, under its commander, Walter Stennes, refused to provide security for party events. The conflict escalated to the point that in late August 1930, while Goebbels was away campaigning in Breslau, SA men stormed the Gau directorship’s headquarters and caused significant damage.86 Hitler hurried to Berlin to nip the rebellion in the bud. In a Nazi clubhouse in Chausseestrasse, he tried to regain the trust of some 2,000 SA men. The police report noted that his “hoarse voice became an almost hysterical scream.” Hitler’s speech ended with a melodramatic oath of solidarity: “We will use this hour to swear that nothing will drive us apart, if God grants us His assistance against all the devils! May Almighty God bless our struggle.”87

“Stennes seems to want to keep calm,” Goebbels noted on 3 September.88 Yet although the revolt was over for the time being, the underlying conflict continued to percolate. Hitler had relieved the SA leader, Pfeffer von Salomon, of his duties and nominally taken over command himself. Otto Wagener, previously Pfeffer’s chief of staff, was in charge of the day-to-day running of the organisation. Wagener had previously been the managing director of a small industrial company and had only joined the party at the Nuremberg rally in 1929. Then, at the end of November 1930, at a meeting of SA leaders in Munich, Hitler astonished everyone by announcing that Ernst Röhm, who had just returned from Bolivia, would be taking over as SA leader. Röhm, of course, had been rudely pushed aside in 1925 due to disagreements with Hitler about the role of the SA, so this was most likely a concession by Hitler to the still-dissatisfied SA leaders, most of them former military officers and Freikorps fighters, who saw Röhm as one of their own. In early January 1931, Röhm assumed the post of SA chief of staff.

Just as the NSDAP was achieving its great political breakthrough, the SA developed into a mass organisation. In January 1931, it had 77,000 members. One year later that figure had risen to 290,000, and by August 1932, the SA numbered 445,000 men. It recruited from diverse segments of society, although the percentage of working-class members was higher than in the Nazi Party as a whole. The SA particularly appealed to young unemployed men from middle-class backgrounds who worried about falling to the bottom of the social ladder. The organisation offered them not only a social safety net, for instance free food in SA soup kitchens or a place to stay in SA men’s homes, but also a forum for releasing their aggression. The SA “storm pubs,” with their atmosphere of incipient violence, were like outposts for a coming German civil war and greatly shaped the fearsome public image of Hitler’s brown-shirted battalions.89

The SA’s thirst for action, however, threatened to scupper the strategy of legality that the party leadership had chosen to pursue. On 18 February 1931 Hitler had to deny in the Völkischer Beobachter the rumour that the NSDAP was preparing “a coup d’état by means of force.” He also warned SA men be on guard against “spies and provocateurs” trying to tempt them into breaking the law: “Our legality will smash and deflect all measures taken by those currently in possession of state power.”90 Hitler’s appeal was not universally popular. Goebbels noted in his diary: “Great disgruntlement among the SA with Munich.”91 At a meeting of the Munich SA brigade in early March 1931, Hitler had to defend himself against the charge that he was “too cowardly” to fight with illegal means. Hitler told those present that he did not want to send them out to be cut down by machine guns, because he needed them for more important tasks, namely constructing the Third Reich.92 Hitler had even more reason to fear that the SA, and perhaps the party as a whole, could be banned when Hindenburg issued an emergency decree on 28 March giving the Brüning government additional powers to combat political extremism. The NSDAP chairman saw himself forced to intervene again to end the simmering conflict within the Berlin SA. On 30 March, he ordered all party members to strictly observe the emergency decree. Anyone violating that command would be immediately kicked out of the party. At a leadership conference in Weimar on 1 April, he announced that Stennes had been fired. “This has been the greatest but perhaps final crisis of the party—we have to get through it,” Goebbels noted. The Berlin Gauleiter travelled with a “broken-looking” Hitler on the night train back to Munich. “A sad trip,” he recorded. “I feel sorry for Hitler. He’s thin and pale.”93

Stennes and his supporters did not take his dismissal lying down. That very day, 1 April, they occupied the Berlin Gau directorate and the offices of Der Angriff; and the following day, they issued a statement condemning Hitler’s “un-Germanic and uninhibited despotism within the party and [his] irresponsible demagoguery.”94 But the attempt to extend the rebellion beyond Berlin to north-western Germany failed. In Munich Hitler and Goebbels immediately took counter-measures. On 2 April, Hitler entrusted Goebbels as Berlin Gauleiter with unlimited authority to “take the renewed cleansing of the party into his own hands and carry it out.”95 The 4 April edition of the Völkischer Beobachter contained a long article by Hitler, in which he justified the demotion and exclusion of Stennes from the party. For months, Hitler wrote, the “retired policeman…who had never really been a National Socialist…had tried to infuse the poison of disloyalty into the minds of courageous SA men” by depicting the party as “settled, timid and bourgeois.” That conspiracy, Hitler claimed, had been uprooted: “I know that eight million unemployed will breathe more easily now that we have put a stop to the dirty work of those who would destroy Germany’s final hope for the future.”96 Faced with the choice of following the “founder and Führer” Adolf Hitler or a “pack of mutineers,” SA units all over Germany hastened to declare their loyalty to the party leadership. The revolt quickly collapsed. Only a few hundred men supported Stennes. By 16 April, at an event in the Sportpalast, Stennes’s successor could present a Berlin SA that took orders only from Hitler. “Many wept,” Goebbels recorded. “It was a great hour. The game is up for Stennes. The SA Berlin is solidly in the fold.”97 But the events of the spring of 1931 had long-term political consequences as they led to the rise of the SS, which at the time was still subordinate to the SA. During the crisis, the SS had proved absolutely loyal to the party leadership, and the resulting political capital left that group able to rival the SA.

After the September elections, people at the Nazi Party headquarters in Munich had to work through the night to process all the new membership applications. At the end of 1930, the NSDAP had 389,000 members; by the end of 1931, that number had risen to 806,294.98 Space at Schellingstrasse 50 had long been insufficient to meet the demands of the organisation, and the building was not grand enough for a party that aspired to take over power. Hitler therefore decided to purchase the Palais Barlow on elegant Brienner Strasse. Built in 1828, it had been on the market since 1928; the contract of sale was finalised in late May 1930. The price for this prime piece of Munich property was more than 800,000 marks, some of which was raised by Hitler calling upon members to pay special one-off dues.99 The building had to be significantly renovated, and Hitler hired the architect Paul Ludwig Troost, whom he had met in late September 1930 at the Bruckmanns’ salon. Troost was primarily known as an interior designer who specialised in luxury ocean liners like the MS Europa. He had come to Hitler’s attention in the late 1920s, and the NSDAP chairman had furnished his private apartment partly with Troost’s designs. The architect was bowled over by the favour shown to him by the man who had become one of Germany’s leading political lights. “Personally, Hitler is a capital fellow, very educated and modest—it’s moving,” Troost’s wife Gerdy wrote to an acquaintance in November 1930. “So much feeling for and understanding of architecture. My Paulus says he’s never met anyone like him.”100 Troost quickly became Hitler’s preferred architect and received commissions for new party buildings on Arcisstrasse and the “House of Art,” which was completed in 1937.

Hitler closely followed the construction work. Starting in the autumn of 1930, he had regular meetings with Troost, and every time Goebbels was in Munich, he took him to the building site. “A tour of the new party home,” Goebbels noted in July 1930. “Pompous and grand. Hitler is in his element.” Four months later Goebbels recorded: “The boss was at the site. He showed me the latest progress. My room was fabulous. The whole place is a jewel.” At the same time, Goebbels was worried that Hitler’s enthusiasm for architecture might lead him to neglect more pressing political tasks. On 26 February 1931, as the conflict with the Berlin SA was coming to a head, Goebbels noted: “All the boss’s thoughts on the party home. At a time like this. I don’t like that.”101

The new party headquarters opened in March 1931. In the Völkischer Beobachter, Hitler looked back upon the party’s humble origins and praised its new home as “the perfect marriage of functionality and beauty.”102 The former vestibule on the ground floor had become the “Hall of Banners” while the forecourt on the first floor was christened the “Hall of Standards.” It led to an opulent room for gatherings known as the “Hall of Senators.” In the basement there was a canteen. The card catalogue containing the names of party members was housed in an extension to the northern side of the Palais. The first two floors as well as the previously unused top floor were filled with offices. Bursting with pride, Hess wrote to his parents: “The showcase rooms, including the Führer’s office, are so wonderfully beautiful that they could be used to receive any representatives of foreign states…My office is directly next to the Führer’s, and next to his are the people who work for me, my office manager and two typists.”103

Hitler’s office was in a large room in the corner of the first floor. In addition to a bust of Mussolini and a portrait of Friedrich the Great, it contained a painting depicting an attack by the List Regiment in Flanders. But anyone who hoped that the clean lines of his office would inject discipline into Hitler’s working habits was disappointed. Hitler quickly lapsed into his chaotic unpredictability, much to the dismay of those who worked with him. He loathed bureaucracy and did not think much of appointments. The Nazi lawyer Hans Frank remembered Hitler seldom being at the “Brown House,” as the Nazi headquarters became known, and if his underlings brought important documents to their party leader, he might suddenly go to the telephone or have himself driven away, leaving his visitor in limbo. Sometimes Hitler would keep an appointment and quickly dispatch whatever bureaucratic business it concerned, only to subject his unfortunate interlocutor to an hour-long monologue about whatever topic he found particularly fascinating at the moment.104 Hitler preferred to meet up with his old chums in his favourite café, Heck am Hofgarten. Goebbels was horrified by this “bunch of petty bourgeois.” “How can a person like Hitler stand these people for even five minutes?” he repeatedly asked himself as he tried to protect his boss from the corrupting influence of others. “He has to get out of this Munich scene.”105 What Goebbels failed to recognise was that Hitler’s Munich clique helped him wind down. With them he could relax and hold court away from the demands that his rise to a much-loved and much-hated political star had placed upon him.

The Palais Barlow had ample room for the expanding party apparatus. The existing departments of organisation and propaganda were joined by new ones like the economic department under Otto Wagener, the agrarian division under Richard Walter Darré, the legal department under Hans Frank and, in August 1931, the Reich press office run by the business journalist Otto Dietrich, the son-in-law of publisher Theodor Reismann-Grone.106 But the Brown House was much more than an administrative headquarters. For the masses of true believers it was a “temple devoted to the cult of the Führer” and “a site of almost sacred significance.”107 For disgruntled SA men, on the other hand, the luxury villa was the headquarters of the Munich “bigwigs,” and for the Nazis’ political adversaries, it became an object of scorn since the building’s splendour sharply contrasted with the lip service the party paid to socialism. With an eye towards Hitler’s luxury apartment on Prinzregentenstrasse and the party headquarters, the Munich anarchist Erich Mühsam composed a poem:

In Munich the Nazis

Have two fine palazzis

One serves as Hitler’s home

In the other he learns to rule alone

For the Third Reich and its dons

With swastikas made of bronze

Granite and building blocks so brown

Like prison towers over the town

Loom the palaces all around.

The Nazi star gleams shiny

But what’s the source of the money

That’s something kept underground.108

In fact, we do know where the NSDAP got the money to pay for the Palais Barlow: the industrialist Fritz Thyssen personally guaranteed a 300,000-mark bank loan for the party.109 Thyssen, the eldest son of the legendary steel tycoon August Thyssen, was the supervisory board chairman and largest shareholder of the Vereinigte Stahlwerke, the biggest steelworks in Europe. He first heard Hitler speak shortly before the Beer Hall Putsch and then met Hitler and Ludendorff in Max Erwin von Scheubner-Richter’s apartment. The NSDAP leader made a “very good impression,” Thyssen testified in 1948. Initially, Thyssen supported the traditional nationalists and the policy of fundamental opposition which the DNVP began pursuing under Alfred Hugenberg from October 1928. In July 1929, he joined Hugenberg and Hitler in promoting the referendum on the Young Plan. After the September 1930 election, Thyssen advocated a right-wing coalition that included the National Socialists and started supporting the NSDAP financially. Most of his monetary favours went to Göring, Hitler’s personal representative in Berlin whose task it was to establish useful contacts among the wealthy and well-born and make the party suitable for high society. Göring used two donations of at least 50,000 marks apiece for personal purposes, refurbishing his large Berlin apartment to reflect his growing status and financing his extravagant lifestyle. Nonetheless, Thyssen considered the donations money well spent, as Göring was a leader of the NSDAP’s “moderate” wing in contrast to its anti-capitalist faction.110

Thyssen was not the only prominent economic figure who wanted to see the National Socialists claim a share of power. Another was Hjalmar Schacht, who resigned as Reichsbank president in March 1930 when he argued that the conditions of the Young Plan, which he himself had helped negotiate, were being altered to Germany’s detriment.111 Schacht had originally co-founded the left-liberal DDP, but by February 1930 there was no mistaking where his new political sympathies lay. At a social occasion at the home of a banker, Schacht’s wife openly wore a necklace with a swastika pendant. When questioned about this by the society reporter of the Vossische Zeitung, Schacht replied: “Why not give the National Socialists a chance? They seem pretty gutsy to me.”112 After the September election, Schacht made his admiration of the NSDAP known publicly, saying that one “could not govern in the long term against the will of 20 per cent of the electorate.”113 In December, Schacht’s old friend, Deutsche Bank chairman Emil Georg von Stauss, invited him to his villa in Berlin’s exclusive Wannsee district to have dinner with Hermann Göring. Stauss was a deputy in what was left of the DVP faction in the Reichstag, and he had extended his feelers to test the possibility of collaborating with the NSDAP. The dinner seems to have gone swimmingly. Schacht recalled Göring as an “urbane and pleasant man of society,” and on 5 January 1931, Schacht was invited to Göring’s apartment. Thyssen, the NSDAP’s new patron, was also in attendance.114

Goebbels, who was present as well, wrote: “Schacht strikes me as something of an arriviste, whereas Thyssen is one of the old guard. Excellent. He may be a capitalist, but it’s hard to have anything against captains of industry like this.”115 After dinner, Hitler joined the group. “His manner was neither pretentious nor laboured; on the contrary, he acted naturally and modestly,” Schacht recalled in his memoirs. “There was nothing to betray the fact that he was the leader of the second-strongest party in the Reichstag. After all the rumours we had heard and all the public criticisms we had read, we were pleasantly surprised by the whole atmosphere.”116 As was his wont, Hitler held a long monologue, during which the other guests barely got a word in edgeways. Schacht was nevertheless impressed. After that initial meeting, he already recognised “that Hitler’s propagandistic force has excellent prospects among the German populace, as long as the economic crisis is not solved and the masses are not thereby diverted away from radicalism.” Soon afterwards, Schacht claimed, he had encouraged Brüning to invite the National Socialists to join the governing coalition as a way of “directing the movement into orderly channels.”117

Contact with Schacht was also very important for Hitler. Not only was Schacht held in high regard by industrialists and bankers, Hitler also valued his financial expertise, of which he himself possessed none. The former Reichsbank president was “no doubt the leading mind we have in Germany in the money sector and the financial economy,” Hitler told Wagener.118 Schacht would prove eminently useful when the NSDAP came to power.

“The economic sector is increasingly coming our way,” Goebbels rejoiced, while Hess claimed that “extremely prominent representatives of business” were secretly asking for meetings with the party.119 But in fact, the chummy behaviour of a Thyssen, Schacht or Stauss was not typical of Germany’s economic elites. There is little justification for left-wing claims that the National Socialists owed their electoral triumph to financial support from big business or that Hitler was a lap dog of major industrialists.120 The NSDAP financed their election campaigns largely from the party coffers—from membership dues, entry fees and small private donations. Thus the Nazi breakthrough to becoming a mass movement cannot be attributed to support from big business.121 Nonetheless, with their often unbridled polemics against the Weimar system, trade unions and the social welfare state, large-scale business entrepreneurs contributed indirectly to the success of the radical right. It was no coincidence that industrialist circles welcomed the disempowerment of the German parliament and the establishment of rule by Brüning’s cabinet supported by the president.122

After 14 September, the captains of industry could no longer ignore the National Socialists, but the majority still treated the radical right-wing party with caution. The business classes were justifiably skittish since no one was sure what economic course the party would pursue, and fears that the anti-capitalist strains within Nazi propaganda were not just rhetoric were bolstered by a number of parliamentary motions the NSDAP sponsored in October 1930. They included proposals to nationalise large banks, to ban the trading of securities and to restrict interest rates to 5 per cent. Business circles were particularly concerned that the NSDAP nominated Gottfried Feder as its spokesman in the debates about the 1931 budget. Feder’s constant calls for Germany to “break the yoke of interest slavery” had earned him a reputation as an anti-capitalist eccentric.123 At the end of 1930, the Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper published an editorial that voiced the concerns of big business about the nebulous policies of the NSDAP. It predicted that the conflict between the anti-capitalist and more moderate wings of the party would become more intense and that the outcome was “fully uncertain.”124

Hitler was at pains to dispel such fears, knowing that resistance from Germany’s major business figures would make it more difficult for him to achieve his political goals. “You underestimate these men’s political influence…and that of the economy in general,” Hitler reprimanded Otto Wagener. “I have the feeling that we won’t be able to conquer [the chancellor’s office in] Wilhelmstrasse over their heads.”125 In September 1930, Hitler met the chairman of the Hamburg-America ocean line HAPAG, the former chancellor Wilhelm Cuno, to assure him that the NSDAP would support entrepreneurial initiative and private capital, and only intervene in cases of illicitly acquired wealth.126 He made similar remarks the following month in Munich to Theodor Reismann-Grone. The publisher noted down his impressions of Hitler in his diary: “An Austrian officer type…I spoke first, but he quickly interrupted and dominated the conversation. The power of his words lies in his temperament, not in his intellect. He shakes things up. That’s what the German people need. You can only beat speed with more speed. He described the destruction of Marxism as his life’s goal.”127 In early December, Hitler spoke for a second time to Hamburg’s National Club of 1919 in the Hotel Atlantik, but he avoided addressing any current issues, instead offering vague promises that once the “tributes” had been eradicated and Germany had regained its political power, the economy would flourish. “I have pledged myself to a new doctrine,” he said at the end of his speech. “Everything that serves the best interest of my people is good and proper.”128 The well-heeled Hamburg audience, who once again showered Hitler with applause, remained pretty much in the dark as to where the NSDAP stood on economic questions and what it intended to do if it came to power.

Hitler refused to commit himself to an economic programme for the future because he wanted to keep his options regarding German industry open and because he did not want to alienate the “socialist” wing of his own party. In the spring of 1931, Hans Reupke—a lawyer working for the Confederation of German Industry who had secretly joined the NSDAP in May 1930—published a pamphlet entitled “National Socialism and the Economy” in which he assured his readership that the party had refined its anti-capitalist slogans into anti-materialist ones. Goebbels was outraged, writing: “This is a crass betrayal of socialism.” He complained to Hitler and later noted with satisfaction: “Reupke dressed down by the boss.”129 But in truth what bothered the NSDAP chairman was less the content of Reupke’s pamphlet than the idea of a fight being carried out in public. Wagener also bore the brunt of Hitler’s vacillations. In 1932, the director of the NSDAP’s economic-political division wanted to publish a collection of essays under the title “The Economic Programme of the NSDAP,” but Hitler killed the idea of Eher Verlag bringing out the volume. The collection was internally circulated and stamped with the words “For official use only.”130

The industrialists who did donate money to the NSDAP after 14 September regarded it as a kind of political insurance in case the party’s rise continued and it gained a share of power. But as a rule, the donations were made not to the party as a whole, but to individuals thought to exercise “moderating” influence. Along with Göring, the prime recipient was Gregor Strasser, who was considered the second most powerful Nazi after Hitler. Also receiving money was the former business editor of the Börsen-Zeitung in Berlin, Walther Funk, who had given up that post to devote himself to improving relations between the NSDAP and captains of industry. Funk, who officially joined the party in June 1931, quickly advanced to become Hitler’s most important economic adviser, putting himself in direct competition with Wagener.131

As far as we know, Hitler himself did not receive any donations from businessmen, nor did he solicit any. He had no need for them. Since 1930, royalties from Mein Kampf increased dramatically, and he seems to have paid taxes on only a fraction.132 At public events, Hitler liked to brag that he did not receive a salary from the party, but he claimed expenses for his numerous appearances as well as fees for his articles in the Völkischer Beobachter and the Illustrierter Beobachter—significant sources of side income. He also demanded substantial payments for interviews he granted to the foreign press as well as the occasional articles he wrote for the Hearst newspaper empire.133 The party covered the costs for Hitler’s personal staff: his private secretary, chauffeur and bodyguard. Hitler had enough money at his disposal to keep up his large apartment on Prinzregentenstrasse and his holiday home on the Obersalzberg, pursue his passion for expensive Mercedes and, as of February 1931, reside in the elegant Hotel Kaiserhof on Mohrenstrasse, diagonally across from the Reich Chancellery, whenever he was in Berlin.134

The Nazis benefited more from the policies of the Brüning government than from the big-business donations. Despite the fact that the number of unemployed was rising from month to month, the chancellor continued his deflationary economic policies. Brüning was willing to accept mass unemployment and impoverishment in favour of his primary goal of eradicating German reparations payments. “Since the spring of 1931,” the historian Heinrich August Winkler has written, “the thread running through Brüning’s policies was not how to overcome but how to politically exploit the Depression.”135 As hard currency poured out of the country, the government was approaching insolvency. On 20 June 1931, U.S. President Herbert Hoover suggested imposing a one-year moratorium on German reparations payments. Brüning welcomed Hoover’s initiative as an intermediary step towards getting rid of reparations once and for all. After protracted negotiations, France also agreed to the moratorium, but that move failed to have the expected calming influence on the financial markets. On 13 July, one week after the moratorium’s imposition, one of Germany’s largest commercial banks, Danatbank, collapsed. There was a widespread run on banks and savings institutions, forcing the government to suspend all banking operations for two days. “Ominous days for Germany…” the diarist Thea Sternheim wrote. “Panic everywhere.”136

The worsening of the financial crisis in the spring and summer of 1931 was wind in the sails of the NSDAP. In Landtag elections in Oldenburg on 17 May, the Nazis polled 37.2 per cent. For the first time ever they were the largest faction in a regional parliament. They also took 26.2 per cent of the vote in the city parliament election in Hamburg, becoming the second-strongest party in the city after the SPD. In Landtag elections in Hesse on 15 November, the NSDAP captured 37.1 per cent of the vote, which put the party well ahead of the rest of the pack.137 But despite this series of electoral successes, Hitler was no closer to his goal of taking power. As early as January, Goebbels had expressed his fear that “everything is taking too long and the party’s momentum could freeze up.” After the Nazis’ triumph in Oldenburg, Goebbels noted: “Hitler is always a source of strength and optimism. You have to be an optimist to lead our cause to victory.”138

In July 1931, Hitler again enlisted the support of Alfred Hugenberg and Stahlhelm leader Franz Seldte. In a joint telegram to Brüning in the name of “the entire national opposition,” the three men insisted that Germany could no longer bear “the burdens imposed upon it” and therefore should consider any new reparations obligations towards France as non-binding.139 Hitler also decided to support a public referendum put forth by the Stahlhelm to get rid of the ruling coalition in Prussia and replace it with a government “that reflects the popular will unequivocally expressed in the election of 14 September 1930.” On 9 August 1931, the eve of the referendum, Hitler issued a plea to his supporters: “As long as the Social Democrats and the Centre Party are not overcome, Germany will not be able to rise anew. And the position from which the Social Democrats today rule Germany is Prussia.”140 But the referendum was a failure: only 37.1 per cent of voters supported the premature dissolution of the Prussian Landtag. For Goebbels, this was a “grim defeat” into which the Stahlhelm had pulled the NSDAP. “We must get away from the bourgeois mush,” he demanded of Hitler. “We must be more imperious and rigorous. We must be National Socialists. That’s the source of salvation.”141

What Berlin National Socialists considered a “more rigorous” approach was made abundantly clear on the evening of 12 September 1931, the start of the Jewish New Year. Some 500 SA men ran wild on the major shopping boulevard Kurfürstendamm, chanting “Germany awaken—Judah must die,” harassing passers-by and brutally assaulting people they thought were Jewish. During the unrest, the newly appointed head of the Berlin SA, Count Wolf-Heinrich von Helldorf, drove up and down the boulevard in an open-top car with his assistant Karl Ernst issuing instructions. The Central Association of German Citizens of the Jewish Faith later spoke of “pogrom-like rioting,” while the Social Democratic newspaper Vorwärts described what had happened as a “shameful excess” and “an insult to culture.” In subsequent trials, thirty-three of the rioters who had been arrested were given jail sentences of up to a year and nine months. Helldorf and Ernst, however, each got off lightly with six months in jail and a 100-mark fine. They appealed, and in February 1932, they were cleared of charges of disturbing the peace. The sentences of most of the others who had been convicted were also significantly reduced. “What is certain,” wrote the Berliner Tageblatt, “is that with this verdict one of the most serious acts of terror has gone unatoned for, in particular by those who bore the most responsibility for it.”142 Once again, the goddess of German justice had shown that she was blind in her right eye. The SA took the affair as encouragement in their strategy of occupying public spaces and subjecting everyone present to their visible domination.

On 15 September in Munich, Hitler again cautioned his SA Gruppenführer to be “extraordinarily cautious” and “not to get drawn out,” adding that “the legal path is the only secure one at the moment.” But he also suggested that he sympathised with actions like the one taken on Kurfürstendamm. In large cities, Hitler said, the SA faced the necessity “of undertaking something to satisfy the revolutionary mood of the people.” The party would have to publicly distance itself from the SA leaders who had been involved, but Hitler assured his henchmen: “You can be certain that the party will not forget their services and will restore them to their posts as soon as the time is ripe.”143 It was the clearest signal yet that Hitler’s insistence on legality was a purely tactical manoeuvre. Once he had gained political power, he planned to overthrow the democratic state.

Yet although Hitler’s adherence to legal means was transparently hollow, the leaders of the German military and the Reich government redoubled their efforts in the autumn of 1931 to co-opt the NSDAP into the governing coalition. On 9 September, Hess reported that various parties had tried to convince Brüning “to involve Hitler at least partly in the government.” Hess said that as a condition, Hitler had insisted on fresh elections, “which would result in another huge triumph for the movement.”144 The Reich president himself was at the forefront of the move to involve the NSDAP in the government, in the form of a “concentration of national forces” that would span the entire German right wing from Brüning to Hitler. The head of the ministerial office in the Reichswehr Ministry, General Kurt von Schleicher, told Brüning’s secretary Erwin Planck on 20 September that Hindenburg had insisted on a “reconstitution of the cabinet to enable cooperation with the far right.”145 Schleicher had been in contact with the NSDAP via Ernst Röhm since the spring, and on 3 October, he met Hitler. At that meeting, the latter reiterated his willingness to join the Brüning cabinet, but only after fresh elections. “First we will be willing to forgo Prussia, once we’ve achieved a significant position of power in the Reich,” was how Goebbels summarised Hitler after the meeting. “In Prussia, a state commissioner will suffice to force Marxism to its knees.”146Schleicher, who had a follow-up meeting with Hitler a few days later, came away with a positive impression: “An interesting man with an extraordinary speaking talent. In his plans he tends to get above himself, however. One has to tug him back down to reality by his coat-tails.”147 The general-turned-politician Schleicher believed he would be capable of influencing Hitler’s political ambitions, thereby “taming” him. For Schleicher, that mistake would ultimately prove fatal.

On the morning of 10 October, Brüning met Hitler. The chancellor would later recall that the leader of the NSDAP possessed “a far greater aura of self-confidence.” Again, Hitler did not reject the idea of joining the government, but he did refuse to endorse Hindenburg, who was standing for re-election in early 1932. “On the face of it, it was an extremely cordial conversation,” Brüning wrote in his memoirs.148 At the chancellor’s request, Hindenburg met with Hitler and Göring for two hours that very evening. The Reich president was none too pleased that during his appearances in East Prussia young National Socialists had greeted him with cries of “Germany awaken!” But Hitler was able to defuse the situation by slipping into the role of the First World War private full of reverence for the former field marshal.149 Hindenburg made it clear to the two Nazi leaders that he would vigorously oppose any attempt to gain power without his consent. Their meeting ended without yielding any concrete results. Hitler talked a good game, Hindenburg was quoted as saying, but was best suited for the office of postmaster “so that he can lick me from behind—on my stamps.”150 But other sources suggest that Hitler made a more positive impression on Hindenburg than has often been assumed. “Hitler was very appealing,” the Reich president told one of his old comrades, General Karl von Einem. In a letter to his daughter of 14 October, Hindenburg wrote that the “national opposition” had failed to use its first chance. But he did not rule out a second one: “If the right wing had not issued repeated refusals, everything would have been all right.”151 Hitler, too, was satisfied. “The result: we’re fit for good society,” Goebbels noted. “The old man has met us face to face. The boss called him worthy of respect.”152

In the autumn of 1931, Hindenburg approved the reconstitution of the governing cabinet. Brüning agreed to dismiss several ministers, including Interior Minister Joseph Wirth from the left wing of the Centre Party, whom Hindenburg considered insufficiently conservative. Wirth was replaced on an interim basis by Reichswehr Minister Wilhelm Groener, who thereby became the second most powerful man in the cabinet. Chancellor Brüning took over the Foreign Ministry himself. The new cabinet was less tightly connected to political parties than the old one since the DVP was no longer represented. That fact was a sign that the business circles were distancing themselves from Brüning.153 On 16 October, the new Brüning cabinet barely survived a vote of no confidence—thanks only to votes from the SPD faction. A short time before, in a long open letter to the chancellor, Hitler tried to justify why the NSDAP continued to strictly oppose the government. Hitler thought the idea of reviving Germany economically before entering into negotiations with the Western powers to revise the Treaty of Versailles was putting the cart before the horse. Without an end to reparations, he argued, there could be no economic recovery. Brüning’s deflationary economic policies, Hitler scoffed, were like declaring the operation a success after the patient had died. The criticism was not without justification. Hitler failed to mention, however, that the National Socialists were the main beneficiaries of these policies, which had only worsened Germany’s economic crisis.154

On the evening of 10 October, directly after their meeting with Hindenburg, Hitler and Göring, with Goebbels in tow, drove to the central German town of Bad Harzburg, where the “national opposition” was set to stage a joint event the following day. The man behind it was Alfred Hugenberg, and Bad Harzburg had been selected because it was located within Braunschweig, which the National Socialists had governed with the DNVP since October 1930. The entire anti-republican German right wing had gathered there. Along with the leaders of the NSDAP, the DNVP, the Stahlhelm, the Reichslandbund and the Pan-Germanic League, there was Hohenzollern Prince Eitel Friedrich, former chief of the army command and now DVP deputy General von Seeckt, and Hjalmar Schacht, who went public with his political change of heart with a scathing speech about Brüning’s economic policies.155 Large-scale industry was barely represented. Aside from Thyssen and United Steelworks director Ernst Brandi, the representatives of big business were mostly second-rate figures like Ernst Middendorf, the director general of the petroleum company Deutsche Erdöl AG, or the Hamburg shipyard owner Rudolf Blohm. “It was a shame that industry failed to turn up in Harzburg,” Schacht complained in a letter a few days later.156

Hitler had only reluctantly agreed to participate in the event, appearing hours late to a preparatory meeting on 10 October. “Hitler is enraged that people are trying to push us against a wall,” Goebbels noted. “I had to talk to him for another hour. More distance to the right.”157 The NSDAP chairman had not come to Bad Harzburg to show solidarity but to underline his predominance within the German far right and show his potential allies that he was not merely a “drummer boy” they could exploit for their own purposes. The only thing Hitler did on the morning of 11 October was to inspect a parade of SA and SS units; he left as soon as Stahlhelm formations appeared. He also skipped the communal lunch, disingenuously claiming that he could not dine at a table while his SA men’s stomachs were growling.158 After a lengthy and heated quarrel with Hugenberg, he appeared late to the afternoon rally at the local entertainment hall, and his speech and the manifesto he read out left no doubt as to who would have the say in the future. The National Socialists, Hitler proclaimed, “were prepared to take any and all responsibility for forming national governments at both the Reich and Land levels,” and in this spirit they were ready to “extend their hands in loyal cooperation to the other associations of the nationalist opposition.”159

The “Harzburg Front,” as the alliance came to be known, was a fragile construct, characterised by mistrust between the putative partners. Everyone suspected everyone else of pursuing a hidden personal agenda. “Hitler and Hugenberg are in a clinch like two boxers trying to prevent the opponent from drawing back and landing a dangerous blow—that was clear well before the Harzburg conference,” wrote the Vossische Zeitung newspaper.160 The only things the principals truly agreed on were their rejection of the Weimar “system” and their desire to bring down the Brüning government. There was no joint programme for how to overcome Germany’s economic and political crises. Hugenberg, who frequently had himself praised in his newspapers as the leader (Führer) of the right-wing and conservative camp, was forced to acknowledge that Hitler would by no means be content with the role of junior partner. Yet conversely, no matter how brusquely he behaved in Bad Harzburg, Hitler did not want to cause a major rift on the right. He still needed the support of mainstream figures of respectability to pose a credible threat to the Brüning government.161 Nonetheless, he made no secret of his claim to a leading role for himself and his movement. One week after the Harzburg conference, he summoned 100,000 members of the SA, the SS and the Hitler Youth to Braunschweig, urging them to “hold their nerve in the final minute.”162 For Goebbels, this demonstration was “our answer to Harzburg and Brüning.”163

Then, on 25 November 1931, ten days after the Nazis’ electoral triumph in Hesse, a bombshell went off that threatened to destroy all of Hitler’s plans. A Nazi deputy in the Hessian state parliament who had been forced to step down for using a fake doctoral title turned over sensitive documents to the police in Frankfurt. They were the minutes of a meeting held by Gauleiter in early August at the Boxheim vineyard near the town of Lampertsheim. The “Boxheim documents,” as they became known, included a series of proclamations and ordinances to be issued in the event that the National Socialists seized power in the wake of an alleged Communist uprising. In order to restore public security, the Gauleiter had decided, it would be necessary “to take drastic and ruthless measures using armed force.” Every order of the SA and local militias was to be obeyed, and any resistance would be punished by death. Anyone caught possessing a firearm would be “shot on the spot.” Civil servants, employees and workers who refused to go to work were also threatened with execution.164 The author of the documents was the court assessor Werner Best, the head of the Gau legal department and the chairman designate of the Landtag faction in Hesse—an ambitious young lawyer who apparently wanted to show his party comrades how semi-legal tricks could be used to disguise a seizure of power as an act of self-defence.

There was a considerable stir when these plans became public: they seemed to confirm every fear about the National Socialists’ violent intentions. “A Brutal Fascist Regime of Violence—Hesse to be German Fascism’s Experiment,” read the headline of the SPD-affiliated Hessische Volkszeitung.165 The Social Democratic and liberal press called for legal consequences, but the public prosecutor Karl August Werner tried to play down the incident. He was acting on orders from Brüning, who did not want the controversy to affect ongoing negotiations between the Centre Party and the NSDAP about forming a coalition government in Hesse. (Those negotiations would break down in December.) On 30 November, legal proceedings against Best began but the investigation was purposely drawn out, and in October 1932 the fourth senate of the Reich court declared that, owing to lack of evidence, Best could no longer be legally pursued.

The conciliatory attitude of legal authorities towards the National Socialists stood in stark contrast to the rigour with which they went after the political Left. In late November 1931, the left-wing journalist Carl von Ossietzky was sentenced to a year and a half in prison for “betraying military secrets.” After a demonstration by the League for Human Rights, at which journalist Leopold Schwarzschild and author Arnold Zweig spoke, among others, Thea Sternheim noted: “The most horrible thing…is the fact that all the speakers assume that we are on the threshold of the Third Reich, that the grim fantasies of purveyors of violence laid out in the Hessian document will become reality.”166

For Hitler the revelations were extremely embarrassing because they cast a shadow on his pledges to keep the party within the bounds of legality. He immediately dispatched Göring to assure Hindenburg that the party had nothing “in the slightest” to do with the Boxheim documents and was standing by its “standpoint of the strictest legality, which has been expressed often enough in the past.”167 In early December, Ernst Hanfstaengl succeeded in convincing Hitler to hold an international press conference in the Hotel Kaiserhof and reassure the general public about his plans for the future. In front of the foreign correspondents in attendance, the NSDAP chairman dismissed as nonsense the idea that the party would jettison its commitment to legality at the last minute when poised to assume power. On the other hand, Hitler said, he could not forbid fellow party members from playing through the scenario of a Communist uprising. Once again, Hitler over-dramatised the threat posed by the Communists to divert attention away from the danger represented by the National Socialists. The decisive battle against Bolshevism would be fought in Germany, Hitler thundered, and the Nazis saw it as their mission to win this struggle.168 Hanfstaengl was very taken by Hitler’s debut in front of the foreign press. He had spoken “rationally, persuasively and in measured tones,” Hanfstaengl found, and had stuck to “cool irony” in his polemic asides “without seeming crude or overbearing.”169

Hitler’s pose as a moderate politician who kept his emotions strictly in check convinced the sceptics at the press conference, but in interviews with the journalists and diplomats, he made mixed impressions. Hubert R. Knickerbocker, who talked to Hitler in the Brown House in late 1931, was impressed by his winning smile and the fact that Hitler himself had adjusted Knickerbocker’s chair for him. Still, the American journalist was subjected to a monologue in which Hitler seemed to forget the presence of his interlocutor. Knickerbocker described Hitler’s voice getting faster and louder, and his gaze was directed at some indeterminate point in the distance, as if he were speaking to an auditorium.170 To the U.S. ambassador to Germany, Frederick M. Sackett, too, who spoke with Hitler in December 1931, the Nazi chairman seemed “as if he were addressing a large audience.” “While he talked vigorously, he never looked me in the eye,” Sackett noted. When briefing U.S. Secretary of State Henry Stimson, the ambassador predicted that if Hitler came to power he would be unable to hold on to it for very long. “He is certainly not the type from which statesmen evolve,” Sackett sniffed.171

American journalist Dorothy Thompson, the wife of Nobel Prize-winning author Sinclair Lewis, was even harsher in her opinion. Thompson was granted an interview by Hitler in his suite in the Hotel Kaiserhof in November 1931, and she published her account of that conversation in a short book entitled I Saw Hitler in 1932. “I was convinced I was meeting the future dictator of Germany,” Thompson wrote.

In something less than fifty seconds I was quite sure that I was not. It took just about that time to measure the startling insignificance of this man who has set the world agog. He is formless, almost faceless, a man whose countenance is a caricature, a man whose framework seems cartilaginous, without bones. He is inconsequent and voluble, ill-poised, insecure. He is the very prototype of the Little Man. A lock of lank hair falls over an insignificant and slightly retreating forehead. The back head is shallow. The face is broad in the cheek bones. The nose is large but badly shaped and without character. His movements are awkward, almost undignified and most un-martial.

Nonetheless, even Thompson found things to like about the Nazi leader: “And yet, he is not without a certain charm…the soft, almost feminine charm of the Austrian!…The eyes alone are notable. Dark grey and hyperthyroid—they have the peculiar shine which often distinguishes geniuses, alcoholics and hysterics.” Thompson, too, was subjected to a monologue:

The interview was difficult, because one cannot carry on a conversation with Adolf Hitler. He speaks always, as though he was addressing a mass meeting. In personal intercourse he is shy, almost embarrassed. In every question he seeks for a theme that will set him off. Then his eyes focus in [sic] some far corner of the room; a hysterical note creeps into his voice which rises sometimes almost to a scream. He gives the impression of a man in a trance.172

In many respects Thompson’s observations mirror those of the writer Klaus Mann, who witnessed several months later how Hitler ate one strawberry tart after another “with half-infantile, half-predatory greed” in Munich’s Carlton tearoom. Thomas Mann’s eldest son had numerous opportunities to study Hitler, whom he called “an evil philistine with a hysterically opaque gaze in his pale, swollen visage.” In his autobiography, The Turning Point, Klaus Mann wrote:

It was certainly not very pleasant to sit that close to such a creature; but still I could not keep my eyes off this vile mug. I had never found him particularly attractive, neither in pictures nor in person on the illuminated grandstand; but the ugliness I encountered now exceeded all my expectations. The vulgarity of his features was soothing and made me feel better. I looked at him and thought: “You will never win, Schicklhuber, even if you scream your head off. You want to rule Germany? You want to become its dictator—with a nose like that? You must be joking…You will never win power!”173

Mann’s account is an excellent example of how a purely aesthetic reaction to Hitler—in this case, revulsion at his physical appearance—could lead observers to underestimate the man and his political tenacity.

These impressionist observations were not the only efforts to come to terms with Hitler. Various attempts were made in 1931 and 1932 to analyse the phenomenon of Hitler and National Socialism. One of the most impressive was Theodor Heuss’s Hitler’s Way, which the author finished in December 1931 and which quickly ran through eight editions. The future president of the post-war Federal Republic of Germany captured the dual nature of the Nazi movement. On the one hand, Heuss found, it inhabited a world of strong emotions and passions. These were evident in the Führer cult, the pseudo-religious faith followers invested in one man and his world view, and the mass psychosis triggered by his public appearances. On the other hand, though, there was the bureaucratic apparatus, the strongly organised, highly efficient party machinery aimed solely at acquiring political power. “Rationalistic power calculations coexist side by side with unbridled emotions,” wrote Heuss, who identified the same contradiction in Hitler himself. Hitler was, on the one hand, a “master of emotional ecstasy combining the techniques of the trained mass psychologist and someone inspired by the primeval passion that comes from the exuberance of mass emotion.” On the other hand, Heuss regarded Hitler simply as “a politician who wants power.” Heuss saw Hitler’s pledges to respect the law for what they were—tactical manoeuvres to achieve that goal:

Today legality means being formed or confirmed by the will of the majority. The man who mocks democracy subjects himself, vowing legality, to its methods and its very idea. In so doing, he suggests to his followers that this is not the result of a change of heart, but the manifestation of a period of adjustment, an attempt to win time that requires patience. The goal is to gain the majority of votes tomorrow or the day after tomorrow—and the majority means power.

Heuss noted Hitler’s new moderate tone in his speeches: “He curses far less. He does not rip the Jews to shreds any more. He can talk for hours without even using the word Jew.” But Heuss was under no illusions that Hitler had truly reined in his anti-Semitism. On the contrary, moderation was simply a response “to the tactical need not to appear monomaniacal.” Heuss also presciently recognised that “the taking of territory in the European east is the core principle of Hitler’s foreign policy.” The achievement of this end would require war, no matter what Hitler occasionally said to the contrary: “He rejects the notion that he is promoting a new war, but he assumes that there has to be a new war and consequently that the point of German foreign policy is to ensure that the new war ends in victory for Germany.”174 Those who read Heuss’s analysis were well informed not just about the road Hitler had travelled to get to where he was by 1931, but what lay in store should he ever come to power.

Unfortunately, most of Heuss’s contemporaries were a long way from seeing the situation that clearly. Victor Klemperer described the predominant mood at the end of 1931 as one of desperation: “People simply want to keep on living without comprehending how and why. They’re completely numb.” And Count Harry Kessler noted laconically: “It’s a sad New Year, the end of a catastrophic year and the beginning of what looks to be an even more catastrophic one.”175