By Thomas Childers, Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania
In 1928, the Nazis believed that they needed an issue—something that would thrust them into the mainstream. And the year 1929 turned out to be a game changer for them. Let us take a look at how they were able to mobilize public sentiment in the aftermath of the Great Depression in Germany.
Although the German economy had stabilized after hyperinflation in late 1923, the populace was unhappy with the government’s policies. Taking advantage of this situation, the NSDAP attempted to launch propaganda cells over Germany to know the public sentiment.
Problems for the Nazi Party
The NSDAP was not a big party; it didn’t have financial resources. The lines of communication were not very good; there was no real synchronization of activities. In 1928, the party entered a national election for the first time since 1924. Even with the new emphasis on propaganda, the Nazis were an abysmal failure at the polls; they got 2.6 percent of the vote.
A German FBI agent wrote a report about the NSDAP in 1928 that said, “This party is unable to attract significant attention or strike any sort of spark in the German population, and is something that basically has no political future.” Only time would tell the future of the Nazis.
This is a transcript from the video series A History of Hitler’s Empire, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, Wondrium.
A New Idea of Propaganda
In 1929–1930, one of the leaders of the party, a young man by the name of Joseph Goebbels, who had been in the party around Berlin, became head of Nazi propaganda, and he had his own ideas about what to do.
He wanted to concentrate the party’s resources into “propaganda actions”. He wanted to identify an area that had a good prospect for the party, and then throw everything at it—all the big speakers, pamphlets, and leaflets. He thought that this exercise would be more helpful than the big rallies in cities.
However, even with this idea of propaganda, the Nazis still didn’t have an issue. That issue would be provided by the Great Depression, which hit Germany in great force in 1929–30.
The Great Depression in Germany
The German economy was very closely tied to the one in America, and when the Wall Street collapsed, the German economy followed in tow.
There had already been something of an agricultural recession that had gone on through the mid-20s. That was certainly worsened, but when the great crash hit in 1929–30, the effects were devastating.
German industrial production dropped by 31 percent between 1928 and 1930. Unemployment catapulted by 200 percent in this period.
There was unemployment insurance because of progressive Weimar social legislation. As the unemployment figures went up, the government deficit did, too.
Learn more about the origins of the Nazi movement.
A New Government in Germany
The coalition government that had been in power in Germany through the mid-20s collapsed in 1930. There was a new, moderate government that had come in. There was a new reshuffling in 1928, and no majority could be created.
The policy was turned over and the chancellorship was given to Heinrich Brüning, a Catholic Center politician. Brüning was ramrod stiff, looked like he couldn’t bend at the waist, wore a big celluloid collar, and he was one of these people who basically said to the German public, “We need to balance the budget. It may mean cutting back on these expansive Weimar social welfare programs, and it means we’re probably going to have to raise taxes.”
The Emergency Decree Power
There was a clause in Article 48 in the Weimar Constitution which said in periods or in a moment of grave national crisis, when the security of the society is at risk, the Reich president has the authority to grant to the Chancellor—the real policy maker—emergency decree power.
The president was a kind of figurehead, like the Queen of England, an ersatz monarch. That president in 1930 was the old-time war hero Paul von Hindenburg, who had been elected in 1925. Certainly, he was a conservative, old military man, but a man who took his oath of loyalty to the constitution quite seriously.
He didn’t want to give Brüning an emergency decree power but reluctantly, finally agreed, but in a very, very marginal way. Brüning therefore dissolved the Parliament, and in the fall of 1930, called for new elections. It was a catastrophic mistake on Brüning’s part.
The Ideal Circumstances for the Nazis
Meanwhile the other parties, all of whom had been responsible for different policies, were in disarray. In particular, the middle-class parties—either they had been responsible for the inflation, or the harsh stabilization, or now the Great Depression. The Nazis had never been in power; they weren’t responsible for any failed policy. They were in an ideal position.
The party’s campaign was run by Goebbels for the first time, exercising centralized control. The membership was rising. The party was able to mobilize all over the country, with coordinated events appealing to all across the social spectrum. It was the only party that did this.
When the dust settled on the elections in mid-September, the NSDAP emerged with a vote of 18.3 percent. It made the NSDAP the second largest party in Germany, behind only the Social Democrats.
Learn more about the Nazi breakthrough.
Trouble for the Weimar Republic
In the aftermath of the 1930 election, the already staggering Weimar Republic was in deep trouble. The success of the NSDAP made a return to any kind of coalition government impossible. Brüning, instead of changing his policies, opted to continue them, and he demanded and received from Hindenburg the use of Article 48.
In 1930, Brüning introduced unpopular legislation by emergency decree five times. In 1931, it went up to 40 times. And by mid 1932, rule by emergency decree had become the norm; 37 emergency decrees were issued in the first half of 1933, while the Reichstag met fewer and fewer times.
Brüning had entrusted the German government or the German population to rule by emergency decree, a course that would lead to the end of parliamentary democracy in Germany well before Hitler would take the reins of power.
Common Questions about the Nazis and the Great Depression
During the Great Depression, German industrial production dropped by 31 percent between 1928 and 1930.
The NSDAP was able to mobilize all over the country, with coordinated events appealing to all across the social spectrum. It was the only party that did this. Also, the Nazis had never been in power; they weren’t responsible for any failed policy.
The NSDAP emerged with a vote of 18.3 percent. It made the NSDAP the second largest party in Germany, behind only the Social Democrats.