Jan. 30, 1933 The Story behind Hitler's Rise to Power
Part 2: Exploiting Social Frustration
It was a brief window of hope. In 1924, Adolf Hitler was in jail for treason. On November 8, 1923, he and his rabble-rousing mob had descended on the Bürgerbräukeller beer hall, located just up a short rise from the Isar River in Munich. The city of Munich in the early 1920s was awash with right-wing political groups and swirling with intrigue -- rumours of an impending putsch abounded. Indeed, Hitler made his poorly planned move when he did because he thought other local leaders might be planning a revolution without him.
Hitler visiting members of his NSDAP party in Munich.
The decisive moment took place the next day. Having spent most of the night drinking their fill in the beer hall, with few ideas on how to make their rebellion a reality, Hitler and his supporters emerged into the morning of November 9, intent on parading through the streets of Munich to amass support. The parade, however, ended in a shootout, with 14 NSDAP members and four policemen killed. Hitler, jerked to the pavement hard enough to dislocate his shoulder, was later arrested hiding in the home of a friend in a small town south of Munich.
Massive public dissatisfaction with Germany's economy and political leadership had led to widespread support for Hitler prior to the putsch. Indeed, by the time he took to the streets for his planned march on Berlin (à la Mussolini in Italy), hyperinflation had devastated the economy, with one dollar buying billions of reichsmarks, the German currency of the time. The country was likewise reeling under the weight of World War I reparations payments, which France refused to renegotiate. The image of the Weimar Republic could not have been worse.
But when Hitler emerged from jail, after a scandalously short stay of just over a year, hyperinflation had been brought under control through the introduction of the new "rentenmark." In addition, the US had pressured the allies into accepting the Dawes Plan, which reduced Germany's Treaty of Versailles burden. The carpet of social frustration had been pulled out from under Hitler's feet. In May 1928 elections, the NSDAP only managed 2.6 percent of the vote nationwide.
From its very beginnings, however, the Weimar Republic seemed unlucky. Not only were Germans unused to democracy, with many pining for the predictable order of the monarchy, a number of those charismatic leaders who were deeply committed to popular rule, especially those from the Social Democrats, died before the going got rough. And just when things seemed to be improving, with German industry humming along at levels not seen since prior to World War I, the floor dropped out of the US economy. With the Americans immediately calling in foreign loans, the German economy also quickly ran into trouble, and by the beginning of 1930, 15 percent of all German workers were unemployed. That number would soon double.
Given the paltry size to which the Nazis had shrunk, it comes as something of a surprise that Hitler was still around to benefit from the Depression at all: Thousands had jumped the NSDAP ship during the late 1920s and party coffers were empty. But Hitler and his cronies had not been wasting their time, and by the end of the decade the NSDAP was well organized and -- though small -- was no longer just a fringe party in Munich. Indeed, during the worst of the economic crisis, the Nazis even handed out propaganda at job centers and set up soup kitchens to feed the hungry.
And Hitler continued hammering away at his favorite issues. The Jews were to be blamed for Germany's plight, he said, as were the leftists. In fact, the Weimar Republic itself was nothing but a Jewish-leftist conspiracy of destruction. And he, Adolf Hitler, would save the nation.