Section: The Nazi rise to power

The Nazi rise to power

In the nine years between 1924 and 1933 the Nazi Party transformed from a small, violent, revolutionary party to the largest elected party in the Reichstag.

This topic will explain how Hitler and the Nazi Party rose to power.

Reorganisation and the Bamberg Conference

Whilst Hitler was in prison following the Munich Putsch in 1923, Alfred Rosenberg took over as temporary leader of the Nazi Party. Rosenberg was an ineffective leader and the party became divided over key issues.

The failure of the Munich Putsch had shown Hitler that he would not be able to take power by force. Hitler therefore decided to change tactic and instead focus on winning support for his party democratically and being elected into power.

Following his release from prison on the 20 December 1924, Hitler convinced the Chancellor of Bavaria to remove the ban on the Nazi Party.

In February 1926, Hitler organised the Bamberg Conference. Hitler wanted to reunify the party, and set out a plan for the next few years. Whilst some small differences remained, Hitler was largely successful in reuniting the socialist and nationalist sides of the party.

In the same year, Hitler restructured the Nazi Party to make it more efficient.

Firstly, the Nazi Party adopted a new framework, which divided Germany into regions called Gaue. Each Gaue had its own leader, a Gauleiter. Each Gaue was then divided into subsections, called Kreise. Each Kreise then had its own leader, called a Kreisleiter. Each Kreise was then divided into even smaller sections, each with its own leader, and so on. Each of these sections were responsible to the section above them, with Hitler at the very top of the party with ultimate authority.

The Nazis also established new groups for different professions, from children, to doctors, to lawyers. These aimed to infiltrate already existing social structures, and help the party gain more members and supporters.

These political changes changed the Nazi Party from a paramilitary organisation focused on overthrowing the republic by force, to one focused on gaining power through elections and popular support.

The role of the SA and the SS

The Nazi Party’s paramilitary organisation were the Sturm Abeilung, more commonly known as the SA. The SA were formed in 1921 and were known as ‘brownshirts’ due to their brown uniform. Initially most members were ex-soldiers or unemployed men. Violent and often disorderly, the SA were primarily responsible for the protection of leading Nazis and disrupting other political opponents’ meetings, although they often had a free rein on their activities.

If Hitler was to gain power democratically, he needed to reform the SA. He set out to change their reputation. A new leader, Franz von Salomon, was recruited. Rather than the violent free rein they had previously enjoyed, Salomon was stricter and gave the SA a more defined role.

In 1925, Hitler also established the Schutzstaffel, otherwise known as the SS. The SS were initially created as Hitler’s personal bodyguards, although they would go on to police the entire Third Reich.

The SS were a small sub-division of the SA with approximately 300 members until 1929. In 1929, Heinrich Himmler took over the organisation, and expanded it dramatically.

By 1933, the SS had 35,000 members. Members of the SS were chosen based on their ‘racial purity’, blind obedience and fanatical loyalty to Hitler.

The SS saw themselves as the ultimate defenders of the ‘Aryan’ race and Nazi ideology. They terrorized and aimed to destroy any person or group that threatened this.

The SA and the SS became symbols of terror. The Nazi Party used these two forces to terrify their opposition into subordination, slowly eliminate them entirely, or scare people into supporting them.

Propaganda and the Nazi rise to power

Whilst the SA and the SS played their part, the Nazis primarily focused on increasing their membership through advertising the party legitimately. They did this through simple and effective propaganda .

The Nazis started advocating clear messages tailored to a broad range of people and their problems. The propaganda aimed to exploit people’s fear of uncertainty and instability. These messages varied from ‘Bread and Work’, aimed at the working class and the fear of unemployment, to a ‘Mother and Child’ poster portraying the Nazi ideals regarding woman.  Jews and Communists also featured heavily in the Nazi propaganda as enemies of the German people.

Joseph Goebbels was key to the Nazis use of propaganda to increase their appeal. Goebbels joined the Nazi Party in 1924 and became the Gauleiter for Berlin in 1926. Goebbels used a combination of modern media, such as films and radio, and traditional campaigning tools such as posters and newspapers to reach as many people as possible. It was through this technique that he began to build an image of Hitler as a strong, stable leader that Germany needed to become a great power again.

This image of Hitler became known as ‘The Hitler Myth’. Goebbels success eventually led to him being appointed Reich Minister of Propaganda in 1933.

The role of economic instability in the Nazi rise to power

Whilst the Nazis’ own actions, such as the party restructure and propaganda, certainly played a role in their rise to power, the economic and political failure of the Weimar Republic was also a key factor.

Germany’s economy suffered badly after the Wall Street Crash of 1929.

Germany was particularly badly affected by the Wall Street Crash because of its dependence on American loans from 1924 onwards. As the loans were recalled, the economy in Germany sunk into a deep depression. Investment in business was reduced.

As a result, wages fell by 39% from 1929 to 1932.  People in full time employment fell from twenty million in 1929, to just over eleven million in 1933. In the same period, over 10,000 businesses closed every year. As a result of this, the amount of people in poverty increased sharply.

The Depression associated economic failure and a decline in living standards with the Weimar democracy. When combined with the resulting political instability, it left people feeling disillusioned with the Weimar Republic’s democracy and looking for change.

This enhanced the attractiveness of the Nazis propaganda messages.


Reparations suspended

By 1932, Germany had reached breaking point. The economic crisis, which in turn had led to widespread social and political unrest in Germany, meant that it could no longer afford to pay reparations. At the Lausanne Conference held in Switzerland, from the 16 June 1932 to the 9 July 1932, the Allies conceded and indefinitely suspended Germany’s reparation payments.

This concession helped to give the economy a small boost in confidence. Under Brüning and later von Papen and, briefly, von Schleicher, there was an increase in state intervention in the economy. One example of this was the work creation schemes which began in the summer of 1932. These work creation schemes would later be expanded and reinvested in by the Nazis to combat unemployment.

These small signs started to hint at a positive climb in the economy.

These small improvements, only truly evident with the benefit of hindsight, were still at the time completely overshadowed by the poverty and widespread discontent about the general economic situation.

It was into this bleak situation that the Nazis were elected into power.

The role of political instability in the Nazi rise to power

The political instability in the late 1920s and early 1930s played an important role in helping the Nazis rise to power.

This topic will explain how the political situation escalated from the hope of the ‘Grand Coalition’ in 1928, to the dismissal of von Schleicher and the end of the Weimar Republic in 1933.

The ‘Grand Coalition’

In June 1928, Hermann Müller had created the ‘grand coalition’ to rule Germany. This coalition was made up of the SPD, DDP, DVP and the Centre Party: parties from the left and right. Müller had a secure majority of 301 seats out of a total of 491. Political parties seemed to be putting aside their differences and coming together for the good of Germany.

But this was not how it worked out. The parties could not agree on key policies and Müller struggled to get support for legislation.

As the aftermath of the Wall Street Crash hit Germany and unemployment spiralled, the government struggled to balance its budget. On top of its usual payments, the amount of people claiming unemployment benefits was increasing. As the government struggled to agree on the future of unemployment benefits, Müller asked Hindenburg for the use of Article 48 to try and restore stability.

President Hindenburg was a right-wing conservative politician and therefore disliked having the left-wing SPD in power. He refused Müller‘s request. Müller resigned on the 27 March 1930.

Brüning’s government

Müller’s successor was Heinrich Brüning. Although he did not have a majority of seats in the Reichstag, Brüning was well-respected by Hindenburg. Brüning increasingly relied upon, and was granted, use of Article 48 . This set a precedent of governing by presidential decree and moved the Republic away from parliamentary democracy.

As the economic crisis worsened in 1931, Brüning struggled to rule effectively. Extremism became more popular as people desperately sought a solution.

After a disagreement over provisions for the unemployed in 1932, Hindenburg demanded Brüning’s resignation.

Von Papen and von Schleicher

A new election was called, and von Papen replaced Brüning.

Von Papen agreed with the conservative elite that Germany needed an authoritarian leader to stabilise the country. He called for another election in November 1932, hoping to strengthen the frontier against communism and socialism.

Whilst the left-wing and socialist SPD did lose votes, so did the right-wing Nazi Party. The Communist Party gained votes, winning eleven more seats in the Reichstag. Once again, no one party had a majority. The election was a failure.

Following von Papen’s failure, Hitler was offered the chancellorship, but without the right to rule by presidential decree. He refused, and von Schleicher became chancellor.

However, without a majority of his own in the Reichstag, von Schleicher faced the same problems as von Papen. Hindenburg refused to grant von Schleicher permission to rule by decree.

Von Schleicher lasted just one month.

The role of the conservative elite in the Nazi rise to power

The conservative elite were the old ruling class and new business class in Weimar Germany. Throughout the 1920s they became increasingly frustrated with the Weimar Republic’s continuing economic and political instability, their lack of real power and the rise of communism. They believed that a return to authoritarian rule was the only stable future for Germany which would protect their power and money.

The first move towards this desired authoritarian rule was Hindenburg’s increasing use of Article 48 . Between 1925-1931 Article 48 was used a total of 16 times. In 1931 alone this rose to 42 uses, in comparison to only 35 Reichstag laws being passed in the same year. In 1932, Article 48 was used 58 times.

The conservative elite’s second move towards authoritarian rule was helping the Nazi Party to gain power.  The conservative elite and the Nazi Party had a common enemy – the political left .

As Hitler controlled the masses support for the political right, the conservative elite believed that they could use Hitler and his popular support to ‘democratically’ take power. Once in power, Hitler could destroy the political left.  Destroying the political left would help to remove the majority of political opponents to the ring-wing conservative elite.

Once Hitler had removed the left-wing socialist opposition and destroyed the Weimar Republic, the conservative elite thought they would be able to replace Hitler, and appoint a leader of their choice.

As Hitler’s votes dwindled in the November 1932 elections, the conservative elite knew that if they wanted to use Hitler and the Nazis to destroy the political left, they had to act quickly to get Hitler appointed as chancellor.

Von Papen and Oskar von Hindenburg (President Hindenburg’s son) met secretly and backed Hitler to become chancellor. A group of important industrialists, including Hjalmar Schacht and Gustav Krupp, also wrote outlining their support of Hitler to President Hindenburg.

The support of these figures was vital in Hindenburg’s decision to appoint Hitler as chancellor. Once elected, the conservative elite soon realised that they had miscalculated Hitler and his intentions.

Electoral success

Despite the party restructure, the reorganisation of the SA and the initial development of their propaganda under Goebbels, the Nazi Party gained very little in the 1928 elections. They won just 2.6% of the vote, gaining them 12 seats in the Reichstag.

The following year however, the Wall Street Crash and the resulting economic and political instability swung the conservative elite and electorate in their favour. Goebbels carefully tailored propaganda slowly became considerably more attractive.

In 1930, the Nazis attracted eight times more votes than in 1928. They managed to secure 18.3% of the vote, and 107 seats in the Reichstag. The continuing failure of the government to stabilise the situation only increased the Nazis popularity.

In February 1932, Hitler ran against Hindenburg to become president. Goebbel’s propaganda campaign presented Hitler as a new, dynamic and modern leader for Germany. To emphasise this point, Hitler flew from venue to venue via aeroplane. Hitler lost the election, with 36.8% of the vote to Hindenburg’s 53%. Despite losing, people now viewed Hitler as a credible politician.

Following another Reichstag election in July 1932, the Nazis became the largest party with 230 seats and 37.3% of the vote.

Hitler becomes chancellor

Hitler stands next to President Hindenburg shortly after becoming chancellor on 30 January 1933.
Hitler stands next to President Hindenburg shortly after becoming chancellor on 30 January 1933.

Courtesy of The Wiener Holocaust Library Collections.

Hitler was not immediately appointed chancellor after the success of the July 1932 elections, despite being leader of the largest party in the Reichstag.

It took the economic and political instability (with two more chancellors failing to stabilise the situation) to worsen, and the support of the conservative elite, to convince Hindenburg to appoint Hitler.

Hitler was sworn in as the chancellor of Germany on the 30 January 1933. The Nazis were now in power.

Continue to next topic
The role of political instability in the Nazi rise to power

The role of political instability in the Nazi rise to power

What happened in June