Who Voted for the Nazis? - The Nazi Electorate and the Collapse of Weimar Germany's Parliamentary System
In the elections of May 20, 1928, the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, NSDAP) led by Adolf Hitler received 2.6 percent of the vote, obtaining 12 seats in Germany's parliament. The NSDAP appeared to be nothing but a tiny fringe party with an extremist ideology and very little prospect of playing a major role in German politics.
But only four years later, in the elections of 31 July, 1932, the NSDAP received a staggering 37.4 percent of the vote, becoming by far the largest party in parliament with 230 seats.
|Hitler saluting stormtroopers at a parade in Weimar, 1930. Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-10541 / Georg Pahl / CC-BY-SA 3.0
Who were the people who turned their back on the German Republic and voted for a party that campaigned on the promise of doing away with democracy altogether? Why did the NSDAP manage to do what other parties could not: build a broad coalition that included different segments of the upper, middle and working classes? And how did the parties in post-war West Germany succeed in building broad, pro-democracy electoral coalitions?
These are the questions that I am going to explore in this series about the fall and rise of German democracy from 1928 to the 1980s.
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•The Electoral Rise of the NSDAP and the Collapse of Germany's Pro-Democracy Coalition
In 1928, the German Republic (official name: Deutsches Reich; commonly known as the Weimar Republic) seemed to have regained some stability after the turmoil of the immediate post-World War I period.
In the elections held on May 20 of that year, the Social Democratic Party of Germany (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, SPD) won 29.8 percent of the vote and 153 seats, retaining its status as the largest party in the German parliament (Reichstag).
Under the Republic's proportional electoral system, several parties succeeded in gaining seats in parliament. The most important of them were:
•the Centre Party (Zentrumspartei) with 12.1 percent of the vote;
•the German Democratic Party (Deutsche Demokratische Partei, DDP) with 4.9 percent;
•the German People's Party (Deutsche Volkspartei, DVP) with 8.7 percent;
•the Bavarian People's Party (Bayerische Volkspartei, BVP) with 3.1 percent;
•the German National People's Party (Deutschnationale Volkspartei, DNVP) with 24.2 percent;
•the Communist Party of Germany (Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands, KPD) with 10.6 percent;
•the National Socialist German Workers’ Party with 2.6 percent.
After the election, the SPD formed a grand coalition with the Centre Party, the DDP, the DVP, and the BVP. These parties constituted Weimar Germany's pro-democracy bloc. However, they were an uneasy and unstable alliance with quite diverging ideologies and constituencies.
Despite the apparent stabilisation of the political system, there were signs of growing dissatisfaction with the existing order. This was manifested in the rise of several minor parties that focused on specific issues, such as the German Farmers’ Party (Deutsche Bauernpartei, DBP) and the Economic Party (Wirtschaftspartei, WP). These parties collectively garnered 14.7 percent of the vote.
The list of names and abbreviations may sound confusing. Indeed, the large number of parties shows how the fledgeling German Republic was unable to develop a stable parliamentary system. In particular, no single party managed to build a broad coalition representative of the interests of a cross-section of German society.
Paradoxically, this role would be played by the theretofore insignificant fringe party led by Adolf Hitler. In 1928, the NSDAP still appeared to be just one of a myriad of small extremist groups that made a lot of noise but had no chance of ever coming to power. But it would soon rise to become the largest party in the country.
In 1929-1930, Germany was hit hard by the economic crisis caused by the Wall Street Crash and the subsequent worldwide depression. When the US recalled its loans, on which Germany was heavily reliant, the economy collapsed. From 1929 to 1932, Germany's exports fell from 13.5 to 5.7 billion Reichsmark, and its industrial production plummeted by about 40 percent. Unemployment rose to three million in 1930 and continued to increase, reaching six million by the winter of 1932.
On 27 March 1930, the grand coalition of SPD, DPP, DVP, and Centre Party broke up after it failed to reach an agreement on the increase of unemployment benefits. Chancellor Hermann Müller of the SPD resigned, thus creating a power vacuum that the authoritarian right was eager to exploit (see Emmerich et al. 2016, p. 223; Lee 2013, Chapter 10).
According to Kolb (2012), it was at this juncture that the German Republic shifted from a parliamentary system to a presidential system. He argued that this process had been set in motion even before the failure of the grand coalition. The instigators of the autocratic turn were President Paul von Hindenburg and his inner circle, as well as General Kurt von Schleicher.
Their purpose was to shift the country to the right, shut out the SPD from the government, and institute some form of authoritarian system. They enjoyed the support of the right-wing parties, influential corporations and various economic interest groups (Kolb 2012, pp. 187-188).
The fact that parliament was no longer capable of forming a majority gave authoritarian groups the opportunity and the justification to deprive parliament of its powers. President von Hindenburg had extensive prerogatives under the Constitution: he could appoint and dismiss the Chancellor, dissolve parliament, declare a state of emergency and enact emergency decrees in case of a threat to public order and security (ibid. pp. 188-189). The President's powers were so broadly defined that they could be easily abused.
Between 1930 and 1933, the Republic was governed by “presidential cabinets”, executives appointed by President Paul von Hindenburg without the support of a parliamentary majority. They relied on the President's power to issue emergency decrees and dissolve the parliament.
The first presidential cabinet was the Brüning Cabinet (30 March 1930 - 30 May 1932). Led by Heinrich Brüning of the Centre Party, it tried to cope with the economic crisis and the burden of World War I reparations by implementing austerity measures and seeking international negotiations.
Brüning’s priority was to free Germany from the crushing weight of the reparations imposed by the victorious allies after World War I. To achieve this, he pursued a deflationary policy, i.e. a policy of austerity. He wanted to slash government expenses and increase taxes, while continuing to service the debt. By showing Germany's fiscal responsibility and pointing at the economic downturn, he believed that he could convince its creditors to cancel Germany's war debt.
Brüning's ultimate aim, as he claimed in his memoirs published in 1970, was not only to get rid of the reparations, but also to restore the monarchy that had been overthrown by the Weimar Republic. He intended to carry out a radical constitutional reform, and once the economy had improved, hand over the government to a cabinet of right-wing parties. Whether Brüning truly had such a clear plan from the onset, or crafted a coherent narrative retrospectively, has been a matter of debate for decades (Kolb 2012, pp. 195-196).
Brüning faced immediate opposition from parliament, which defeated his proposal to increase taxes on high incomes and cut salaries for the civil service. The Chancellor then circumvented parliament and enacted his bill as an emergency decree under Article 48 with the cooperation of President von Hindenburg, who also dissolved parliament on July 18.
In the elections held on 14 September 1930, the NSDAP won 18.3 percent of the vote, while the KPD rose to 13.1 percent. Both were anti-democratic parties whose aim was to overthrow the Republic in order to establish an authoritarian regime.
The SPD decreased its share to 24.5 percent, and the Centre to 11.8 percent. Both the DDP and the DVP lost votes (3.8 and 4.7 percent respectively). The far right DNVP collapsed from 24.2 percent to just 5.9 percent.
As unemployment increased and tax revenues shrank, public spending on unemployment benefits began to soar. In 1930-32, Brüning passed a series of decrees that reduced wages, prices, rents, pensions, and social services, while raising taxes and introducing new ones. His policies did not solve the economic crisis, which continued to exacerbate, leading to unemployment, poverty, and widespread public resentment.
Brüning found an unlikely ally in the SPD, which adopted a policy of “toleration” (Tolerierung) towards Brüning's cabinet. This meant that the SPD opposed motions to repeal the emergency decrees filed by NSDAP, DNVP and KPD, thus enabling the Chancellor to govern even though he did not command a majority in parliament.
The tactical reason for the SPD to do so was that its leaders did not want to endanger their alliance with Brüning's Centre Party. After the electoral debacles of 1930-32, one of the last bastions of the SPD’s power was the federal state of Prussia, where they governed alongside the Centre Party. Brüning’s policies also reflected the economic orthodoxy at the time, and a wing of the SPD agreed with them (Childers 2020, Chapter IV; Emmerich 2016, pp. 223-224).
By tolerating the Brüning cabinet, the SPD sought to preserve some order and stave off the tide of extremism, but in the process they took part of the blame for the enduring economic depression.
The complete breakdown of the Weimar system became evident in the elections of July 31, 1932, when the NSDAP received 37.4 percent of the vote, becoming by far the largest party. The KPD won 14.6 percent.
The SPD’s support continued to shrink, slipping to 21.6 percent. The Centre Party grew slightly to 12.5 percent. The DNVP remained stable at 5.9 percent. On the other hand, the DDP and the DVP plummeted to about 1 percent of the vote each. The smaller interest parties also dwindled, dropping to 5.4 percent. The old pro-democracy alliance of the 1920s was therefore crushed.
It was a triumph for the NSDAP, which reached its highest share of the vote in a free election. The NSDAP’s best ever result would be in March 1933 with 43.9 percent of the vote, but by that time the Nazis were already in control of the government and had initiated a campaign of terror and suppression against political opponents, particularly the SPD and the KPD.
•The NSDAP Constituency
The NSDAP managed to appeal to voters from a variety of social and ideological groups. Thus, it became a “Volkspartei” (lit. people's party), i.e. a party that comprised a broad coalition.
This may seem counterintuitive. The NSDAP is known for its radical and antisemitic policies. How could an extremist organisation appeal to such a broad spectrum of the electorate?
Thomas Childers (2010) analyses five different segments of the German electorate:
•The old middle class: a segment of the middle class that consisted of handicrafts and commercial small businesses, such as artisans, shopkeepers and independent farmers (ibid., Chapter I).
•The “Rentnermittelstand”: a segment of the middle class that consisted of pensioners or retirees, veterans and small investors who relied on fixed incomes. The term comes from the German words “Rentner” (“pensioner” or “retiree”) and “Mittelstand” (middle class) (ibid., Chapter II).
•The new middle class: white-collar salaried employees as well as the professional civil service (Berufsbeantentum). The new middle class grew from roughly 500,000 in 1881, to over 2 million in 1907, and to over 5 million in 1925. This group comprised 17 percent of the German workforce in the Weimar Republic. Over a quarter of the white-collar labour force were women.
The professional civil service was an important subgroup of the new middle class. Its members continued to enjoy the prestige traditionally attached to civil servants in pre-war imperial Germany. Their salaries, while not very high, were competitive with the private sector, and after 1907, they were supplemented by additional benefits.
Civil servants were granted a secure pension plan, paid vacations, sick pay, and other special privileges of office (Amtsrechte). Yet, the most coveted perk was the promise of job security. Unlike all other professional categories, civil servants were guaranteed lifetime tenure, an envied rarity in the volatile world of white-collar employment (ibid., Chapter I, II).
•The working class: blue collar workers, including both the industrial workers in modern factories, as well as manufacturers in small businesses and rural areas.
•Religion: Germany was divided between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, a legacy of the Reformation initiated by Martin Luther in 1517.
The Peace of Augsburg of 1555 established the principle that the inhabitants of each German state should follow the religion of their ruler. In the southern and western states, Roman Catholicism prevailed, while the northern and eastern states became mostly Protestant.
Religious affiliation was politically relevant in the Weimar Republic, as it was a predictor of voting behaviour. For example, Roman Catholics overwhelmingly identified with the Centre Party.
The NSDAP managed to make inroads into all of these segments of the electorate, while other parties tended to have a much narrower constituency.
What were the reasons for the growing support of these groups for the NSDAP?
Childers argues that Nazi supporters came from different backgrounds and social statuses, that many of them felt the threat of the economic crisis and were ideologically hostile to the Marxist left. However, poverty alone was not a decisive factor in determining their electoral choices. Indeed, the industrial working class and the unemployed largely voted for the SPD and the KPD.
What Nazi voters had in common was their deep distrust of modernity and of industrial society, and a corporatist, exclusivist view of their social status. That is why the NSDAP was popular among civil servants who felt that their privileges were under attack; small shopkeepers, independent farmers, and other small businesses that feared big corporations and cheap agricultural imports; pensioners and veterans whose incomes were being cut; people who had a conservative and traditional worldview. We shall now take a closer look at these groups.
•Old middle class: As retail trade plummeted and bankruptcies skyrocketed by 20 percent between 1930 and 1931, the old middle class became increasingly radicalised.
An example of this process is the experience of a middle-aged shopkeeper who after years of apprenticeship had opened his own store in 1927, but was forced to shut it down in 1929 due to the economic depression. He was unemployed for almost two years, found a job as a municipal gardener but was dismissed in 1931. He later explained:
"As the misery in Germany... grew worse and my wife had to earn our living while I, the real breadwinner of the family, sat idly at home … Because of everything I had experienced … I became sympathetic to the [National Socialist] movement and voted for the NSDAP” (quoted in: Childers 2010, Chapter IV).
It is noteworthy that part of the humiliation this NSDAP voter felt stemmed from his failure to live up to the traditional gender role of the man as “the real breadwinner”, which suggests that the loss of his perceived social status and the elevation of his wife's were decisive factors in his radicalisation.
The NSDAP vigorously campaigned to gain the votes of the old middle class. They denounced the “traitorous bourgeois parties” that had “forgotten the rights of their middle-class constituents and delivered the handicrafts and retail commerce... to the liberals and Marxists,” who had ”destroyed the German economy.”
The Nazis blamed “the system and the parties” which had “brought the ruin of the Mittelstand.... the department stores and chains, creations of... Jewish international finance capital, had ruined thousands of retail merchants and.. condemned even more retail employees to joblessness” (quoted in: ibid.).
In rural areas, too, discontent mounted as agricultural income shrank, while indebtedness and foreclosures soared. This presented a huge opportunity for the NSDAP to expand its appeal to the rural electorate.
The man tasked with this endeavour was Richard-Walther Darré (1895–1953), the ideologist who promoted the concept of “blood and soil” (Blut und Boden), which linked racial purity with farming and rural life.
Darré published books such as “The Peasantry as the Life Source of the Nordic Race” (Das Bauerntum als Lebensquell der nordischen Rasse, 1928), and the “New Nobility from Blood and Soil” (Neuadel aus Blut und Boden, 1930). He believed that the countryside was the true source of the “Nordic race” and of European civilisation as opposed to the “nomadic” Jewish race. He denounced modern industrial society, and advocated for the creation of a new corporatist state (Ständestaat) ruled by a “Germanic aristocracy of the soil” (see Wistrich 2013).
As the head of the “Agricultural Political Apparatus” (agrarpolitischer Apparat, aA),
Darré sought to win the support of German farmers, as well as infiltrate and dominate influential agricultural interest organisations.
Darré instructed local branches to avoid talking about the details of the NSDAP's policy proposals. Instead, they were to focus on denouncing liberalism, Marxism, the corruption of the parliamentary system, and the Jews who were portrayed as the real force behind the Republic.
The Nazis attacked both US-style “big capitalism” (Hochkapitalismus) and Marxist socialism. The first, they argued, “enslaves human beings under the slogan of progress, technology, rationalization, standardization, etc.,” while “recognizing only profits and dividends...and placing the machine above man.” The latter, on the other hand, "recognizes only one class, the proletariat, while institutionalizing the controlled economy [Zwangswirtschaft]. It creates the domination of the tractor, bureaucratizes farm work, destroys the family, faith, morality, and the sacred traditions of a people.”
The NSDAP made broad promises, such as reducing agricultural imports and directing funds to farmers “for soil improvement, creation of excellent seed-corn, the purchase of necessary machinery, and the payment of better wages” (Childers 2010, Chapter IV).
The NSDAP's propaganda efforts paid off. Support for the party was much greater in rural areas than in the large urban centres.
•The Rentnermittelstand: This segment of the middle class had generally been hostile to the Weimar Republic from the very beginning. The origin of this group's disaffection with the state dated back to the hyperinflation crisis of the early 1920s.
During World War I, the German government had financed its expenses by issuing bonds and running deficits. The authorities assumed that Germany would win the war, impose reparations on the enemy, and thus meet their financial obligations. But the exact opposite happened. Germany lost, found itself indebted and additionally burdened with war reparations.
After the monarchy collapsed and the Republic was established in November 1918, the new government continued to print money to fund its expenses, such as the demobilisation of the army and payments to veterans.
This situation was compounded by the occupation of Germany's Ruhr region by French and Belgian troops in January 1923. The German government called for “passive resistance”, which resulted in a large-scale strike. The government promised to pay the salaries of striking workers, which it could only do by printing more money. Inflation spiralled out of control, turning into hyperinflation. Here are some examples of price increases:
On June 9, 1923, in Berlin:
•1 egg cost 800 marks
•1 litre of milk 1440 marks
•1 kilo of potatoes 5000 marks
•1 tram ride 600 marks
•1 dollar was equivalent to 100,000 marks.
On December 2, 1923:
•1 egg cost 320 billion marks
•1 litre of milk 360 billion marks
•1 kilo of potatoes 90 billion marks
•1 tram ride 50 billion marks
•1 dollar was equivalent to 4.21 trillion marks.
Hyperinflation wiped out the savings of the middle and upper classes, as well as the incomes of workers, war veterans and retirees. The Rentnermittelstand therefore associated the Weimar Republic with their economic ruin.
The trauma of hyperinflation was still fresh in people's minds when the 1929 depression hit. As the economy plunged, so did the Rentnermittelstand’s stocks, rents, and dividends. By 1932, nearly one in six of them had lost their taxable income, and their savings had shrunk by almost a quarter. The threat of bank collapses, especially in 1931, added to their anxiety. To make matters worse, the austerity policies of Brüning and Papen cut their pensions and benefits.
These voters were a prime target for the Nazis. The party courted them with promises of restoring their wealth and protecting them from economic turmoil.
The strategy worked. The Rentnermittelstand had originally backed the DNVP, but they began to shift to the NSDAP in 1928 and had become their most reliable supporters by July 1932 (Childers 2010, Chapter IV).
•The new middle class: In 1932, as Germany faced economic and political turmoil, the NSDAP made a concerted effort to win over the civil service, a traditional social elite that had seen its status and income eroded by the Weimar Republic. The Nazis promised to restore the dignity and security of the Berufsbeamtentum, the professional civil service.
Like the Rentnermittelstand, the civil service had been hostile to the new Republic early on. As I mentioned earlier, a job in the civil service was attractive because of its lifetime tenure. Whoever succeeded in entering the civil service could be certain to have a stable and safe livelihood. That was a particularly important advantage during the turmoil of World War I and its aftermath.
But the sense of security of the civil service was shaken in October 1924, when the government issued the “Decree for the Reduction of Personnel Expenses of the Reich” (Verordnung zur Herabminderung der Personalausgaben des Reichs, abbr. Personal-Abbau-Verordnung).
The Decree aimed at reducing the size of the civil service personnel by 25 percent in order to save money. About half a million civil servants and other junior office workers, particularly women, were dismissed.
Among the civil servants who lost their jobs were young war veterans who had begun their career shortly before the conflict broke out and were drafted into the army.
Those who were dismissed felt betrayed and denied a right that the government had guaranteed them. Even senior civil servants who kept their posts could be transferred to lower status jobs, causing further resentment.
Moreover, hyperinflation ate away at civil servants’ savings and incomes. As the mathematician and writer Emil Julius Gumbel commented, the civil servants, who should have been one of the pillars of the Republican order, instead “became enemies of the Reich” (see Hachtmann 2023, pp. 192-200).
After 1929, the civil service suffered greatly under the austerity measures of the Brüning and von Papen governments, which cut their pay by about 20 percent in less than three years and increased their taxes. They also faced the risk of layoffs as the government's finances worsened. The Nazis exploited this discontent, attacking the government's deflationary policy and the “system parties” that supported it. They vowed to protect the civil service from further cuts and to uphold its traditional rights and privileges. Civil servants were receptive to the NSDAP's message and became one of its core constituencies.
By contrast, white-collar employees in the private sector were much less likely to vote for the NSDAP. The party was more successful in appealing to the disgruntled elitist civil service than to the socially heterogeneous and lower middle class white-collar labour. Moreover, the NSDAP's ultraconservative stance on the social role of women alienated female employees, who comprised one quarter of the white-collar workforce (Childers 2010, Chapter IV).
•The working class: The Great Depression favoured the rise of anti-democratic extremism, but it did not lead to a break-through of the NSDAP among the urban industrial working class and the unemployed. Both of these groups mostly voted either for the SPD or the KPD. The percentage of the vote for the two left-wing parties remained stable throughout the crisis years, hovering between 36 and 38 percent.
The NSDAP, however, appealed to a segment of the blue-collar workforce that was attracted by the party's rhetoric against “big capitalism” and Marxism.
These workers were employed in traditional handicrafts jobs, such as carpenters, plumbers, gardeners and locksmiths, as well as workers from rural areas.
By contrast, National Socialists in modern industrial and unionised labour were few and far between. One Nazi industrial worker stated that when his fellow workers found out about his political views, “their hate knew no bounds”. One electrician employed in a municipal utility remarked that “the tremendous resistance from the employers as well as from the workers, ninety percent of whom were infected with Marxism, ... made it extremely difficult for the small group of National Socialists to achieve success” (see Childers 2010, Chapter IV).
•Religion: In terms of confession, the NSDAP performed far better in Protestant communities than in Catholic ones.
Catholic voters largely remained loyal to the Centre Party and the BVP. The Centre Party benefited from the fact that the Catholic Church was a well-established social and ideological organisation that the NSDAP struggled to displace or infiltrate. The Catholic community therefore seemed to remain more sceptical of the Nazis than Protestant voters.
The Centre Party’s warnings not to vote for either the Nazis or the Communists, who were depicted as enemies of religion, had the desired effect. Indeed, the two Catholic parties maintained about the same share of the vote throughout this period (ibid., Chapter III).
The Nazis’ electoral success was mostly concentrated in Protestant districts. In those districts where votes were tabulated by sex, the share of female voters for the first time outnumbered men in 1932 (ibid., Chapter IV).
•Why Was There No Anti-NSDAP Front?
In July 1932 the NSDAP only gained 37.4 percent of the vote. The two major leftist parties, the SPD and the KPD, received a combined 36.2 percent of the vote, while the Centre Party gained 12.5 percent. However, they and other parties failed to form a united front against Hitler.
The Centre Party had supported the democratic system, but already in 1928 it began to move further to the right (Wirsching 2008, p. 31). In the 1930s, it participated in the right-wing plot to abolish the parliamentary system, and two of its prominent members, Brüning and von Papen, formed presidential cabinets which initiated Germany's transition into an authoritarian state even before Hitler came to power. In January 1933, the Centre Party formed a coalition with the NSDAP, and in March it voted for the Enabling Act, which gave the NSDAP government the power to pass laws without consulting parliament.
Meanwhile, the SPD and the KPD were so bitterly opposed to each other that they were unwilling to build anti-fascist alliance. The origin of their enmity went back to the early years of the Republic.
The SPD had ceased to be a revolutionary party by the autumn of 1918. While still using Marxist language, it re-evaluated concepts like class struggle and revolution, focusing on the gradual, non-violent transformation of the existing system. The party aimed for parliamentary democracy, improved working conditions, and an expanded welfare state.
The SPD's shift away from revolutionary ideals was evident in its support for a parliamentary system of government and its emphasis on evolutionary development rather than radical change. The party's focus on democratic transformation and social reforms reflected a departure from orthodox Marxism and a move towards a more moderate and pragmatic approach to governance (Wirsching 2008, p. 31).
The day after the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II on November 10, 1918, SPD leader and German Chancellor Friedrich Ebert reached an agreement with Wilhelm Groener, who was Quartermaster General – the Army's second-highest rank below the Chief of Staff. In a telephone conversation, Groener pledged loyalty to the new government and assured military support against left-wing revolutionaries, while Ebert guaranteed that the sole command of the troops would remain with the senior officers (the so-called Ebert-Groener pact).
Both the SPD and the army wanted to maintain stability and prevent a Bolshevik-inspired revolution. When the far left Spartacus League launched an uprising on January 5, 1919, the SPD-led government deployed the military. During the crackdown, the Communist revolutionaries Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were murdered.
On April 7, a Soviet Republic was proclaimed in the federal state of Bavaria. Once again, the authorities sent the army to suppress the revolt (Emmerich 2016, pp. 208-209).
The SPD's alliance with the old military elites and its staunch opposition to the Bolshevik model alienated a segment of its base, some of whom turned to the radical KPD.
The SPD rejected violent revolution and Soviet policies, while the KPD rejected the Weimar Republic and promoted the creation of “Soviet Germany” (Sowjetdeutschland).
At the 12th National Congress of the KPD in Berlin-Wedding in June 1929, the party vowed to fight what it called the “social fascism” of the SPD.
The Communists continued to pursue their anti-SPD strategy during the Great Depression. KPD chairman Ernst Thälmann argued that his party should appeal to working-class SPD supporters and win them over to the Communist cause. He stated:
“As long as they are not emancipated from the influence of the social-fascist leaders, these millions of workers are lost to the antifascist struggle. The isolation of the SPD and ADGB [the General German Trade Union Federation] leaders within the working class, remains our most important strategic objective … The battle against the chief enemy, the bourgeoisie, the Papen government, and its National Socialist lackeys cannot be waged successfully without... the primary offensive against Social Democracy” (quoted in: Childers 2010, Chapter IV).
On July 20, 1932, President von Hindenburg issued a decree to dismiss the SPD government of the state of Prussia and nominated Chancellor von Papen as its “commissar”. This coup, known as the “Prussian coup” (Preußenschlag), deprived the SPD of its last power base.
The SPD leadership refused to mobilise pro-democracy paramilitary units such as the Reichsbanner and Iron Front. Instead, it placed its trust in the ballot box and the legal system. The party condemned the KPD’s radicalism for providing fuel for the NSDAP and the Papen government. The SPD newspaper Vorwärts noted that it was easier to lure voters “with tempting calls for the Third Reich or a soviet Germany” rather than to engage in difficult, constructive legislative work (ibid.).
Thus, the Nazis could easily conquer their divided political opponents. On January 30, 1933, President von Hindenburg appointed Hitler Chancellor of the Reich.
On February 27, the NSDAP cracked down on the KPD, arresting thousands of its members, including high-ranking functionaries and lawmakers. On March 3rd, KPD chairman Ernst Thälmann was also arrested. He spent the entire Nazi era in captivity, until he was executed in 1944 in the Buchenwald concentration camp (Galkin et al. 2013, p. 102).
On June 22, the SPD was officially outlawed. Around 3,000 Social Democrats were arrested and taken to concentration camps in the following months. Others went into exile.
All other remaining parties were forced to disband through terror, intimidation and decrees. The last party to do so was the Centre Party, which after the arrest of some of its members and Goebbels's warnings that it was time to “close down the shop”, decided to disband on July 5.
In the next article, I will discuss the development of the parliamentary and the party system in West Germany after World War II.
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Referenced books (affiliate links)
Childers, T. (2010). The Nazi Voter: The Social Foundations of Fascism in Germany, 1919-1933.
Galkin, A. et al. (Eds.). Deutschland, Russland, Komintern. Überblicke, Analysen, Diskussionen.
Emmerich, A. et al. (2016). Deutsche Geschichte. Menschen. Ereignisse. Epochen.
Hachtmann, R. (2023). Vom Wilhelminismus zur Neuen Staatlichkeit des Nationalsozialismus.
Kolb, E. (2012). Deutschland 1918-1933.
Lee, S. (2013). The Weimar Republic.
Wirsching, A. (2008). Die Weimarer Republik.
Wistrich, R. (2013). Who’s Who in Nazi Germany.