Modern history



The Nazi movement as it had developed by the late 1920s was dependent on the energy and fanaticism of its active members. Without them, it would have been just another political party. The Third Reich was created not least by the ordinary, street-level members of the brownshirts and the Nazi Party. What was it, then, that bound young men to the Nazi movement with such a terrifyingly single-minded sense of commitment? Where did the wellsprings of brownshirt violence lie? Hitler’s charisma obviously played a part; yet much of the Party, especially in north Germany, came into being virtually without him. The dynamism of the movement had deeper roots. The autobiographies and diaries of a variety of leading Nazis provide some clues. And there is an excellent contemporary source that allows us some unique insights into the mindset of the Nazi activist. In 1934 the sociologist Theodore Abel, a professor at New York’s Columbia University, obtained the co-operation of the Nazi Party for an essay competition in which people who had joined the Party or the brownshirts before 1 March 1933 were asked to write brief testimonies. Several hundred were sent in, and although both the Party and the respondents saw this as an opportunity to impress Americans with the sincerity and commitment of their movement, Abel’s insistence that the prize would go to the most honest and trustworthy account seems to have ensured a reasonable degree of accuracy, at least as far as the testimonies could be checked.130

For the grass-roots Party activist, the elaborate theories of men like Rosenberg, Chamberlain, Spengler and other intellectuals were a closed book. Even popular writers such as Lagarde and Langbehn appealed mainly to the educated middle classes. Far more important were durable popular antisemitic propagandists such as Theodor Fritsch, whose Handbook on the Jewish Question, published in 1888, reached its fortieth edition in 1933. Fritsch’s publishing house, the Hammer Verlag, survived the First World War, and continued to produce a lot of popular pamphlets and tracts which were quite widely read amongst rank-and-file Nazis.131 As one stormtrooper wrote in 1934:

After the war, I became very much interested in politics, and eagerly studied newspapers of all political shadings. In 1920 for the first time I read in a right-wing newspaper an advertisement for an antisemitic periodical and became a subscriber of the Hammer of Theodor Fritsch. With the help of this periodical, I got to know the devastating influence of the Jews on people, state and economy. I must still admit today that this periodical was for me really the bridge to the great movement of Adolf Hitler.132

More significant still, however, was the inspiration provided by the basic elements of Nazi propaganda - the speeches by Hitler and Goebbels, the marches, the banners, the parades. At this level, ideas were more likely to be acquired through organs such as the Nazi press, election pamphlets and wall-posters than through serious ideological tracts. Among ordinary Party activists in the 1920s and early 1930s, the most important aspect of Nazi ideology was its emphasis on social solidarity - the concept of the organic racial community of all Germans - followed at some distance by extreme nationalism and the cult of Hitler. Antisemitism, by contrast, was of significance only for a minority, and for a good proportion of these it was only incidental. The younger they were, the less important ideology was at all, and the more significant were features such as the emphasis on Germanic culture and the leadership role of Hitler. By contrast, ideological antisemitism was strongest amongst the older generation of Nazis, testifying to the latent influence of antisemitic groups active before the war, and the nationalistic families in which many of them had grown up.133

Men often came to the paramilitary wing of the Nazi Party after serving at the front in 1914-18, then becoming involved in far-right organizations such as the Thule Society or the Free Corps.134 Young Rudolf Höss, for example, the future commandant of Auschwitz, came to the Party this way. Born in 1901 in Baden-Baden, he grew up in south-west Germany in a Catholic family. His father, a salesman, intended him for the priesthood, and, according to Höss, instilled in him a strong sense of duty and obedience; but he also intoxicated him with tales of his own past days as a soldier in Africa and the selflessness and heroism of the missionaries. Höss lost his faith as the result, he later wrote, of the betrayal of a secret he had confided in his confessor. When the war broke out, he enrolled in the Red Cross and then in his father’s old regiment in 1916, serving in the Middle East. At the end of the war, his parents both dead, he enlisted in a Free Corps unit in the Baltic, where he experienced the brutality of civil war at first hand.

Back in Germany, Höss enrolled in a clandestine successor organization to his Free Corps, and in 1922 he joined in the brutal murder of a man he and his comrades believed was a Communist spy in their ranks, beating him into a bloody mess with clubs, slitting his throat with a knife, and finishing him off with a revolver. Höss was arrested and imprisoned in the Brandenburg penitentiary, where he learned, he later reported, the incorrigible nature of the criminal mind. He was shocked by the ‘filthy, insolent language’ of his fellow-prisoners, and appalled at the way in which the prison had become a school for criminals instead of a place to reform them. Clean, neat and tidy, and accustomed to discipline, Hoss quickly became a model prisoner. The crude bullying and corruption of some of the warders suggested to him that a more honest and more humane approach towards the prisoners might have had a good effect. But quite a few of his fellow-inmates were, he concluded, absolutely beyond redemption.135 A few months before his arrest, he had become a member of the Nazi Party. He was to spend most of the rest of the 1920s in gaol, though, like many such men, he was released well before completing his sentence as a result of an agreement between the far left and far right deputies in the Reichstag to vote through a general amnesty for political prisoners.136 Clearly, however, when he was not in prison, the Nazi Party provided him with the discipline, order and commitment he so obviously needed in life.

One of Höss’s associates in the murder was another member of the Rossbach Free Corps, Martin Bormann, born in 1900, son of a post office clerk and trained as a farm manager. During the war he enrolled in the army but was assigned to a garrison and saw no active service. However, like Hoss, he found it impossible to fit into civilian life. He came into contact with the Free Corps through providing them with a base on the estate where he worked in Mecklenburg. As well as joining the Free Corps, he also enrolled in an ‘Association Against the Arrogance of the Jews’, another tiny and otherwise insignificant fringe group on the far right. Bormann was not as closely involved in the murder as Höss, and only had to serve a year in gaol. In February 1925 he was released, and by the end of 1926 he had become a full-time employee of the Nazi Party, carrying out myriad administrative tasks, first in Weimar, then in Munich. A hopelessly incompetent speaker and, unlike Höss, not constitutionally inclined to physical violence, Bormann became an expert on insurance for the Party and its members, organized financial and other kinds of relief for brownshirts in distress and slowly began to make himself indispensable to the movement. But the fact that he was above all an administrator cannot disguise the fanatical nature of his political commitment. Like Hoss and so many others, he reacted to the defeat of Germany in the First World War by turning to the most extreme forms of resentful nationalism, rabid antisemitism and hatred of parliamentary democracy. Quickly coming into contact with Hitler, he fell totally under his spell, and soon began to impress the Nazi leader with his boundless, unconditional admiration and loyalty. To others in the Party hierarchy, especially lower down the ranks, he could show an entirely different side, revealing in the process a brutal ambition that was eventually to make him one of the key figures in the Third Reich, above all in its later stages during the war.137

With men such as these, even more with slightly older figures who had gained their military experience through active service in the central battlefields of the war, it was clear that the Free Corps were indeed, as has been said, the ‘vanguard of Nazism’, providing a good part of the leadership cadre of the Party in the mid-1920s.138 Yet already by this time a younger generation was entering the Party, the postwar generation, eager to emulate the now legendary exploits of the front-line soldiers. A few drifted over from the Communists, attracted by political extremism, activism and violence irrespective of ideology. ‘I quit the party in 1929’, reported one, ‘because I could no longer agree with the orders from the Soviet Union.’ For this particular activist, however, violence was a way of life. He continued to attend Party rallies of all descriptions and to throw himself into street fighting alongside his old comrades until a local Nazi leader offered him a position.139 Violence was like a drug for such men, as it clearly was for Rudolf Höss, too. Often, they had only the haziest notion of what they were fighting for. One young Nazi reported that witnessing opponents trying to break up a Nazi meeting ‘made me instinctively a National Socialist’ even before he became acquainted with the Party’s goals.140 Another, joining the Nazi movement in 1923, lived a life of almost incessantly violent activism, suffering beatings, stabbings and arrests for the best part of a decade, as he recounted in detail in his autobiographical essay; these clashes, rather than the actual ideas of the movement, were what gave his life significance. For one young man, born in 1906 into a Social Democratic family, hostility to the Communists was at the core of his commitment. The times he experienced in the unit of the stormtroopers known as the ‘murderers’ storm’ were, he later said, ‘too wonderful and perhaps also too hard to write about’.141

A particularly graphic, though by no means untypical account of stormtrooper activities was provided by a schoolteacher, born in 1898, who had fought in the war and, after far-right activities in the early 1920s, joined the Nazis in 1929. He was called up one evening with his brownshirt group to defend a Nazi rally in a nearby town against the ‘reds’:

We all gathered at the entrance of the town and put on white armbands, and then you could hear the thundering marching of our column of about 250 men. Without weapons, without sticks, but with clenched fists, we marched in strict order and iron discipline into the catcalls and screaming of the crowds before the meeting-hall. They had sticks and fence-boards in their hands. It was 10 o‘clock at night. With a few manoeuvres in the middle of the street, we pushed the crowd against the walls to clear the street. Just at that moment, a carpenter drove through with a small truck and a black coffin in it. As he went by, one of us said: ‘Well, let’s see whom we can put in there.’ The screams, cries, whistles and howls grew ever more intense.

The two rows of our column stood still, charged up with energy. A signal, and we go marching into the hall, where a few hundred rioters are trying to shut up our speaker. We came just in time, marching in step along the walls until we had closed the ring around them, leaving an opening only at the entrance. A whistle sounds. We tighten the ring. Ten minutes later ... we had put them out into the fresh air. The meeting goes on while outside all hell breaks loose. We then escorted the speaker back out, cutting once more through the swirling mob in closed formation.

For this stormtrooper, the ‘Marxists’ were the enemy, as they were for many ex-soldiers fighting in what he called ‘the spirit of the frontline comradeship, risen from the smoke of the sacrificial vessels of the war, and finding its way into the hearts of the awakened German people’.142


‘Old fighters’ such as these proudly listed the injuries and insults they had received at the hands of their opponents. The ‘persecution, harassment, scorn and ridicule’ they had to suffer only stiffened their resolve.143 At one meeting, in Idar-Oberstein, according to a Party activist, born in 1905, four hundred stormtroopers turned up, including himself:

One after the other, our four speakers had their say, interrupted by furious howling and catcalls. But when, in the ensuing discussion, an interlocutor was reprimanded for saying, ‘We don’t want the brown plague in our beautiful town’, tumult broke out. There followed a battle with beer steins, chairs, and the like, and in two minutes the hall was demolished and everyone cleared out. We had to take back seven heavily injured comrades that day and there were rocks thrown at us and occasional assaults in spite of the police protection.144

Yet the depth of hatred and resentment which Nazi stormtroopers felt against the Social Democrats as well as the Communists can only be understood in terms of their feeling that they were under constant attack not just from the Social Democrats’ paramilitary affiliate, the Reichsbanner, but also in many areas from the police, who in Prussia at least were controlled by Social Democratic ministers such as Carl Severing and Albert Grzesinski. ‘The terror of police and government against us’, as one stormtrooper put it, was another source of resentment against the Republic.145

Such men were outraged that they should be arrested for beating up or killing people they considered to be Germany’s enemies, and blamed the prison sentences they sometimes had to suffer on the ‘Marxist judicial authorities’ and the ‘corruption’ of the Weimar Republic.146 Their hatred for the ‘reds’ was almost without measure. One young Nazi still inveighed in 1934 against ’the red flood ... hordes of red mercenaries, lurking in the dark‘, or as another brownshirt put it, the ‘red murder mob ... the screaming, screeching hordes ... hate-filled, furious faces worthy of study by a criminologist’.147 Their hatred was fuelled by countless clashes, all the way up to terrifying incidents such as a notorious gun battle between Communists and brownshirts that broke out on a train in Berlin-Lichtenfels on 27 March 1927. The brownshirts contrasted Communist criminality with what they saw as their own selfless idealism. One stormtrooper reported with pride that the struggle of the late 1920s ’demanded financial as well as psychological sacrifices of every comrade. Night after night, leaflets for which we ourselves had to pay had to be distributed. Every month there was a rally ... which always gave our little local branch of 5-10 members 60 marks of debts since no innkeeper would rent us a hall without advance payment.’148 The oft-repeated claim that many brownshirts only joined the organization because it offered them free food, drink, clothing and accommodation, not to mention exciting and brutal kinds of entertainment, does scant justice to the fanaticism which motivated many of them. Only the oldest activists joined in the expectation of getting a job or receiving financial support. For the young, it did not matter so much.149 Nazi student leaders often got themselves deeply into debt by paying personally for posters and pamphlets.150 With many others it must have been the same.

Of course, testimonies such as these, addressed to an American sociologist, were bound to emphasize the self-sacrifice and dedication of their writers.151 Nevertheless, it is difficult to grasp the full extent of the stormtroopers’ fanaticism and hatred unless we accept that they often did feel they were making sacrifices for their cause. Hitler himself drew attention to this when he told an audience in January 1932 not to

forget that it is a sacrifice when today many hundreds of thousands of men of the National Socialist movement climb onto trucks every day, protect meetings, put on marches, sacrifice night after night and return only at daybreak - and then either back to the workshop and factory, or out to collect their pittance as unemployed; when they buy their uniforms, their shirts, their badges, and even pay their own transportation from what little they have - believe me, that is already a sign of the power of an ideal, a great ideal!152

The Nazi Party depended on such commitment; much of its power and dynamism came from the fact that it was not dependent on big business or bureaucratic institutions such as trade unions for its financial support, as the ‘bourgeois’ parties and the Social Democrats to varying degrees were, still less on the secret subsidies of a foreign power, along the lines of the Moscow-financed Communists.153

Many people were won over to Nazism by Hitler’s demagogy. Now presented in dramatically staged mass rallies and huge open-air meetings, Hitler’s speeches at the end of the 1920s had a power greater than ever before. One young nationalist, born in 1908, had attended meetings addressed by such luminaries of the extreme right as Hugenberg and Ludendorff before he finally found inspiration when he

heard the Leader Adolf Hitler speak in person. After this, there was only one thing for me, either to win with Adolf Hitler or to die for him. The personality of the Leader had me totally in its spell. He who gets to know Adolf Hitler with a pure and true heart will love him with all his heart. He will love him not for the sake of materialism, but for Germany.154

There are many other such testimonies, from an antisemitic metalworker, born in 1903, who discovered at a Hitler meeting in 1927 that ‘our Leader radiates a power which makes us all strong’, to another stormtrooper, born in 1907, who declared that he fell under Hitler’s spell in 1929 in Nuremberg: ‘How his blue eyes sparkled when his stormtroopers marched past him in the light of the torches, an endless sea of flames rippling through the streets of the ancient Reich capital.’155

Much of the Nazis’ appeal lay in their promise to end the political divisions that had plagued Germany throughout the Weimar Republic. One 18-year-old clerk, attending rallies at a regional election in 1929, was impressed by the Nazi speaker’s

sincere commitment to the German people as a whole, whose greatest misfortune was being divided into so many parties and classes. Finally a practical proposal for the renewal of the people! Destroy the parties! Do away with classes! True national community! These were goals to which I could commit myself, without reservation.156

Relatively few, in the end, were converted to active participation in the movement by reading political or ideological tracts. Word of mouth was what counted. Yet not everyone was mesmerized by Hitler’s speaking. A serious and idealistic young middle-class Nazi like Melita Maschmann, for example, admired him as a ‘man of the people’ who had risen from obscurity, but even at the annual Party rally she was so busy, as she wrote later, that ‘I could not permit myself the “debauchery” of ecstatic rapture’. Parades and shows she found boring and pointless. For her, Nazism was more a patriotic ideal than a cult of the individual leader.157 For Nazism’s middle-class supporters, especially perhaps women, street violence was often something to be grudgingly tolerated or studiously ignored.

Many such people came only hesitatingly to Nazism. Even joining the Party often denoted a level of commitment far lower than that of the young brownshirts interviewed by Theodore Abel. A substantial proportion of the Party’s members left after only a relatively short time in its ranks. Nevertheless, by the early 1930s it was beginning to extend its appeal beyond the lower middle class that had provided its backbone since its foundation. Always anxious to claim working-class support, Party officials frequently classified members as workers when in reality they were something else. Detailed local investigations have shown that the standard accounts of Party membership, based on an internal Party census of 1935, have portrayed the working-class element as anything up to twice what it actually was, namely about 10 per cent in Germany’s second city, Hamburg, ten years earlier, in 1925.158 Wage-earners also seem to have been the social group most prone to leave the Party and therefore the least likely to show up in the 1935 figures on which most calculations are based. But Hamburg was a traditional centre of the labour movement, whose strength made it difficult for the Nazis to make any inroads. In parts of Saxony, where the labour movement was weaker, and traditional, small-scale industries gave the economy a very different shape to the modern, highly rationalized industrial centres such as Berlin or the Ruhr, manual wage labourers accounted for a higher proportion of Party members. Younger workers, who had not joined a union because they had never had a job, were particularly susceptible to the appeal of the Nazi Party in Saxony. As many as a third of Nazi Party members in the province may have belonged to the working class in a basic economic sense in the late 1920s. The lower middle class in town and country remained heavily over-represented in comparison to its numbers in the population as a whole. By the early 1930s, however, the proportion of middle- and upper-class Party members in the Saxon Nazi Party was increasing, as the Party became more respectable. Slowly, the Nazis were escaping their modest and humble roots and beginning to attract members of Germany’s social elites.159


Among the new generation of leading Nazis who entered the movement in the mid-1920s, one man was to play a particularly prominent role in the Third Reich. At first sight, few would have considered that Heinrich Himmler, born in Munich on 7 October 1900, was destined to reach any kind of prominence at all. His father was a Catholic schoolteacher of sufficiently conservative views to have been considered fit to give private tuition to a young member of the Bavarian royal family for a time in the 1890s. Coming from a respectable background in the educated middle class, Heinrich, a sickly child with poor eyesight, went through several different schools, but received what appeared to be a solid academic education at grammar schools in Munich and Landshut. A school friend, Georg Hallgarten, who later became a well-known left-wing historian, testified to Himmler’s intelligence and ability. School reports described Himmler as a conscientious, hard-working, ambitious, able and well-mannered student, a model pupil in every way. His patriotic father, however, made strenuous efforts to get him into the army, even declaring himself willing to cut short his son’s education in order to do this. Young Heinrich’s diaries and reading notes show how strongly he imbibed the mythology of 1914, the idea of war as the summit of human achievement and the concept of struggle as the moving force of human history and human existence. But he only got as far as training in the cadets, and never saw action on the front line. Here was a particularly clear example of a man of the post-front generation who bitterly regretted not having been able to fight in the war and spent much of his later life trying to make good this crucial absence in his early life.160

After passing the school-leaving examination with flying colours, Himmler, following his father’s advice, went on to study agriculture at the Technical High School in Munich, and here, too, he excelled, graduating with a mark of ‘very good’ in 1922. He also joined a duelling fraternity, and after some trouble in finding a swordsman who took him seriously enough to accept a challenge, duly acquired the obligatory facial scars. In the meantime, however, he joined Kahr’s Denizens’ Defence Force, and then fell under the influence of Ernst Röhm, who impressed him with his military zeal. The far-right milieu into which he had now plunged directed him towards revolutionary antisemitism, and by 1924 he was inveighing ‘against the hydra of the black and red International, of Jews and Ultramontanism, of freemasons and Jesuits, of the spirit of commerce and cowardly bourgeoisie’.161 With his large head, his short-back-and-sides, his pudding-basin haircut, round glasses, receding chin and pencil moustache, Himmler looked very much like the school-master his father had been, not at all like a fanatical nationalist street-fighter. A few months later, he brandished a standard rather than a pistol when he joined a unit of Rohm’s Reich War Flag group that briefly occupied the Bavarian War Ministry in the first phase of the abortive Munich putsch on 8-9 November.162

Himmler got away from the putsch without being arrested, and so had his opportunity to rise in the movement at a time when Hitler was in prison or banned from speaking and the Nazi Party was in disarray. He hitched his wagon, wisely at this date, to Gregor Strasser’s rising star, becoming first his secretary, then deputy Regional Leader in two different districts, and deputy Reich Propaganda Leader. But he was not Strasser’s disciple. For by this time he had fallen under Hitler’s spell, less through a reading of MyStruggle, on which he recorded some critical notes (‘the first chapters on his own youth contain many weak points’) than through personal contact in his various official capacities, which included of course attending Hitler’s speeches. To the young Himmler, still only in his mid-twenties, and hopelessly adrift in the choppy seas of post-putsch paramilitary politics, Hitler offered certainty, a leader to admire, a cause to follow. From 1925 onwards, when he joined the newly reconstituted Nazi Party, Himmler developed a boundless hero-worship of the Nazi leader; he kept a portrait of Hitler on his office wall and is even on occasion said to have engaged it in conversation.163

In 1926 he married, and his wife, seven years older than he was, influenced him strongly in the direction of occultism, herbalism, homeopathy and other unconventional beliefs, some of which he was later to try and force on his subordinates. Although Himmler’s marriage did not prosper, these ideas did. Gradually abandoning the conventional Catholic piety of his youth, he became an enthusiast for ‘blood and soil’, joining the Artamans, a nationalist settlement group to which Rudolf Hoss also belonged. Here Himmler came under the influence of Richard Walther Darré, an enthusiast for ‘Nordic’ racial ideas. Darré, born in Argentina in 1895 and educated, somewhat incongruously, in Wimbledon, England, had served in the German army during the war. Then he had become a specialist in selective animal breeding, which led him into the politics of ‘blood and soil’, though not immediately into the Nazi Party. Himmler imbibed from Darré a fixed belief in the destiny of the Nordic race, the superiority of its blood over that of the Slavs, the need to keep its blood pure, and the central role of a solid German peasantry in ensuring the future of the Germanic race. Driven by this obsession with the peasantry, Himmler for a while himself took up farming, but he did not do well, since he spent too much time in political campaigning, and the times were in any case bad for agricultural business.164

On 6 January 1929 Hitler appointed the faithful Himmler as head of his personal Protection Formation - Schutzstaffel, quickly known by its initials as the SS. This had its origins in a small unit formed early in 1923 to act as Hitler’s bodyguard and protect the Party headquarters. It was refounded in 1925, when Hitler realized that the brownshirts under Röhm would never show him the unconditional loyalty which he required. Its initial commander was Julius Schreck, commander of the brownshirt ‘Assault Squad’ before Hitler’s imprisonment, and from the first it was conceived as an elite formation, in contrast to the catch-all mass paramilitary movement of the brownshirts. In the intra-party intrigues of the mid-1920s the SS went through a number of leaders, all of whom failed to assert its independence from the growing power of the brownshirts, though they did manage to build it up as a closely disciplined, tightly knit corps of men. Himmler succeeded where they had failed.

Despising the rough elements who had formed its first group of recruits, he self-consciously set out to create it as a real elite, bringing in former army officers like the Pomeranian aristocrat Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski, and Free Corps veterans such as Friedrich Karl, Baron von Eberstein. Inheriting a formation of just 290 men, Himmler had increased the strength of the SS to a thousand by the end of 1929 and nearly three thousand a year later. Over the objections of the brownshirt leadership, he persuaded Hitler to make the SS fully independent in 1930, giving it a new uniform, black instead of brown, and a new, strictly hierarchical, quasi-military structure. As discontent and impatience rose within the brownshirt organization, and the threat of independent action grew, Hitler turned the SS into a kind of internal party police. It became more secretive, and began collecting confidential information not only on the Party’s enemies but on leading members of the brownshirts as well.165

With the creation of the SS, the basic structure of the Nazi movement was complete. By the end of the 1920s Hitler had emerged, partly through circumstances, partly through his own speaking ability and his own ruthlessness, partly through the desperate need of the extreme right for a strong leader, as the unquestioned dictator of the movement, the object of a rapidly growing cult of personality. There were still tensions within the movement; these were to surface dramatically in the following few years up to 1934. There were still people in leading positions, such as Strasser and Röhm, who were prepared to criticize Hitler and take a different line from his if they thought it necessary. But Hitler had built up around him a crucial group of men whose devotion to him was wholly unconditional - men like Goebbels, Goring, Hess, Himmler, Rosenberg, Schirach and Streicher. Under their leadership, and thanks to Strasser’s organizational talent, the Nazi movement by the middle of 1929 had become an elaborate, well-organized political body whose appeal was directed to virtually every sector of the population. Its propaganda was becoming rapidly more sophisticated. Its paramilitary wing was taking on the Communist Red Front-Fighters and Social Democratic Reichsbanner in the streets. Its internal police force, the SS, was poised to take action against the dissident and the disobedient in its own ranks. It had acquired, modified and elaborated a crude, largely unoriginal, but fanatically held ideology centred on extreme nationalism, hate-filled antisemitism and contempt for Weimar democracy. It was determined to gain power on the basis of popular support at the polls and rampaging violence on the streets, then tear up the Peace Treaties of 1919, rearm, reconquer the lost territories in East and West and create ‘living-space’ for ethnic German colonization of East-Central and Eastern Europe.

The cult of violence, derived not least from the Free Corps, was at the heart of the movement. By 1929 it could be seen in operation on a daily basis on the streets. The Nazi movement despised the law, and made no secret of its belief that might was right. It had also evolved a way of diverting legal responsibility from the Party leadership for acts of violence and lawlessness committed by brownshirts and other elements within the movement. For Hitler, Goebbels, the Regional Leaders and the rest only gave orders couched in rhetoric that, while violent, was also vague: their subordinates would understand clearly what was being hinted at and go into action straight away. This tactic helped persuade a growing number of middle- and even some upper-class Germans that Hitler and his immediate subordinates were not really responsible for the blood shed by the brownshirts on the streets, in bar-room brawls and in rowdy meetings, an impression strengthened by the repeated insistence of the brownshirt leaders that they were acting independently of the Nazi Party bosses. By 1929 Hitler had attracted the support, sympathy and to some extent even the financial backing of some well-connected people, especially in Bavaria. And his movement had extended its operations across the whole country, attracting significant electoral support, above all among crisis-racked small farmers in Protestant areas of north Germany and Franconia.

None of this could disguise the fact, however, that in the autumn of 1929, the Nazi Party was still very much on the fringes of politics. With only a handful of deputies in the Reichstag, it had to compete with a number of other fringe organizations of the right, some of which, for example the self-styled Economy Party, were larger and better supported than it was itself; and all of these still paled into insignificance in comparison to mainstream organizations of the right such as the Nationalist Party and the Steel Helmets. Moreover, although they did not command the support of a majority of the electorate any more, the three parties that were the mainstay of Weimar democracy, the Social Democrats, the Centre Party and the Democrats, were still in government, in a ‘Grand Coalition’ that also included the party of Germany’s long-serving, moderate and highly successful Foreign Minister, Gustav Stresemann. The Republic seemed to have weathered the storms of the early 1920s—the inflation, the French occupation, the armed conflicts, the social dislocation - and to have entered calmer waters. It would need a catastrophe of major dimensions if an extremist party like the Nazis was to gain mass support. In 1929, with the sudden collapse of the economy in the wake of the Stock Exchange crash in New York, it came.

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