In 1920, Hitler’s Nazi party consisted of less than 500 card-carrying members and was totally unknown outside of Munich. Almost singlehandedly, he made this forlorn right-wing band (among innumerable others, at the beginning) into a force in German politics. He succeeded because of his unerring sense of propaganda, his organizational ability, and his mesmerizing oratory. In Weimar Germany, these were the talents sufficient to rally millions to his party, though the party’s program itself was only a 25-point hodgepodge of extreme nationalism, unbending racism (especially brutal anti-Semitism), and a vague appeal to social equality for all true Germans. It was a simple-minded formula; it drew more from ideas that were already common currency than from any original thinking. But it promised to restore order and greatness to Germany.
Hitler, from his early years as a social misfit, possessed the demagogues’s instinct for the gut feelings and resentments of the masses. He knew ― unerringly, instinctively ― that most Germans would not only accept but embrace the rule of one leader (one Konig, one Kaiser, one Führer) if he could inspire them with a sense of mission. To do this, he would have to reinforce and confirm their belief that Germany was a nation of destiny, and that the Germans were superior to all other peoples.
But he would not have to introduce them to the idea. The German tradition already contained the romantic, almost mystical notion of the superiority of Das Volk. Germany’s greatness had been pronounced not only by political figures like the Kaiser and Bismarck, but also by 19th century philosophical giants like Fichte and Hegel. Hitler borrowed and built on this tradition as surely as he borrowed the awesome visions of Wagner, or the narrow and poisonous resentments of 19th-century anti-Semitism.
His was a long struggle, though, and only a fanatic could have persevered through the 14-year march from the shabby beer halls of Munich to the halls of the Reichstag. For most Germans, after all, the worst had seemed over after 1924, especially when the statesmen of Weimar negotiated reductions in the reparations payments. Then the American crash set off a second downward spiral of the world economy.
The new economic stability brought renewed political turmoil. The Nazi Party had stagnated; now its ranks suddenly swelled with men who had lost all trust in a series of ineffectual governments. Their despair ― like the resentment of veterans who had sacrificed their youth to the Kaiser’s failure ― turned into votes for Hitler, who offered the discipline of the storm troopers and the hope of an end to the chaos. The people were tired of demonstrations, tired of the street battles between right-wingers and Communists (in a single month in 1932, 99 men were killed), tired of police raids against black marketeers and speculators. They yearned for some strong hand to restore authority.
By 1932, the very existence of the Republic was at stake. Governments and chancellors followed one another, each as unable as the last to muster an enduring parliamentary majority. Hitler’s party had 196 members in the Reichstag — by far the largest number, though not a majority (the Social Democrats held 129 seats, the Communists 100). Hitler’s hour had come.