The National Socialist German Workers’ Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei), abbreviated NSDAP, commonly referred to in English as the Nazi Party, was a political party in Germany active between 1920 and 1945 that practised Nazism. Its predecessor, the German Workers’ Party (DAP), existed from 1919 to 1920.
The party emerged from the German nationalist, racist and populist Freikorps paramilitary culture, which fought against the communist uprisings in post-World War I Germany. The party was created as a means to draw workers away from communism and into völkisch nationalism.
Initially, Nazi political strategy focused on anti-big business, anti-bourgeois, and anti-capitalist rhetoric, although such aspects were later downplayed in order to gain the support of industrial entities, and in the 1930s the party’s focus shifted to anti-Semitic and anti-Marxist themes.
Racism was central to Nazism. The Nazis propagated the idea of a “people’s community” (Volksgemeinschaft) with the aim of uniting “racially desirable” Germans as national comrades, whilst excluding those deemed either to be political dissidents, physically or intellectually inferior, or of a foreign race (Fremdvölkische).
The Nazis sought to improve the stock of the Germanic people through racial purity and eugenics, broad social welfare programs, and a disregard for the value of individual life, which could be sacrificed for the good of the Nazi state and the “Aryan master race”.
To maintain the supposed purity and strength of the Aryan race, the Nazis sought to exterminate Jews, Romani, and the physically and mentally handicapped. They imposed exclusionary segregation on homosexuals, Africans, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and political opponents. The persecution reached its climax when the party-controlled German state organized the systematic murder of approximately six million Jews and five million people from the other targeted groups, in what has become known as the Holocaust.
The party’s leader since 1921, Adolf Hitler, was appointed Chancellor of Germany by President Paul von Hindenburg in 1933. Hitler rapidly established a totalitarian regime known as the Third Reich. Following the defeat of the Third Reich at the conclusion of World War II in Europe, the party was “declared to be illegal” by the Allied powers, who performed denazification in the years after the war.
The term “Nazi”, commonly used in English, derives from the first two syllables of Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (NSDAP), as national is pronounced /ˌnatsi̯oˈnaːl/ in German.It parallels the German term Sozi (pronounced /zoːtsi/), an abbreviation of Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (Social Democratic Party of Germany).
Members of the party referred to themselves as Nationalsozialisten (National Socialists), rarely as Nazis. The term Parteigenosse (party member) was commonly used among Nazis, with the feminine form Parteigenossin added when it was appropriate.
The term was in use before the rise of the party as a colloquial and derogatory word for a backwards peasant, characterising an awkward and clumsy person. It derived from Ignaz, being a shortened version of Ignatius, a common name in Bavaria, the area from which the Nazis emerged. Opponents seized on this and shortened the first word of the party’s name to the dismissive “Nazi”.
In 1933, when Adolf Hitler assumed power of the German government, usage of the designation “Nazi” diminished in Germany, although Austrian anti-Nazis continued to use the term as an insult.
The use of “Nazi Germany,” and “Nazi regime,” was popularised by anti-Nazis and German exiles abroad. Thereafter, the term spread into other languages and eventually was brought back to Germany after the Second World War.
Origins and early existence: 1918–1923
The party grew out of smaller political groups with a nationalist orientation that formed in the last years of World War I. In 1918, a league called the Freien Arbeiterausschuss für einen guten Frieden (Free Workers’ Committee for a good Peace) was created in Bremen, Germany.
On 7 March 1918, Anton Drexler, an avid German nationalist, formed a branch of this league in Munich. Drexler was a local locksmith who had been a member of the militarist Fatherland Party during World War I, and was bitterly opposed to the armistice of November 1918 and the revolutionary upheavals which followed.
Drexler followed the typical views of militant nationalists of the day, such as opposing the Treaty of Versailles, having antisemitic, anti-monarchist and anti-Marxist views, as well as believing in the superiority of Germans whom nationalists claimed to be part of the Aryan “master race” (Herrenvolk), but he also accused international capitalism of being a Jewish-dominated movement and denounced capitalists for war profiteering in World War I.
Drexler saw the situation of political violence and instability in Germany as the result of the new Weimar Republic being out-of-touch with the masses, especially the lower classes.
Drexler emphasized the need for a synthesis of völkisch nationalism with a form of economic socialism, in order to create a popular nationalist-oriented workers’ movement that could challenge the rise of Communism and internationalist politics. These were all well-known themes popular with various Weimar paramilitary groups such as the Freikorps.
Though very small, Drexler’s movement did receive attention and support from some influential figures. Supporter Dietrich Eckhart brought military figure Count Felix Graf von Bothmer, a prominent supporter of the concept of “national socialism”, to address the movement.
Later in 1918, Karl Harrer (a journalist and member of the Thule Society), convinced Drexler and several others to form the Politischer Arbeiterzirkel (Political Workers’ Circle).
The members met periodically for discussions with themes of nationalism and racism directed against the Jews.
In December 1918, Drexler decided a new political party should be formed based on the political principles which he endorsed by combining his branch of the Workers’ Committee for a good Peace with the Political Workers’ Circle.
On 5 January 1919, Drexler created a new political party and proposed it be named the “German Socialist Worker’s Party”, but Harrer objected to the term “socialist”; the issue was settled by removing the term and the party was named the German Workers’ Party (Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, DAP).
To ease concerns among potential middle-class supporters, Drexler made clear that unlike Marxists, the party supported the middle-class, and that the party’s socialist policy was meant to give social welfare to German citizens deemed part of the Aryan race.
They became one of many völkisch movements that existed in Germany at the time. Like other völkisch groups, the DAP advocated the belief that through profit-sharing instead of socialisation Germany should become a unified “people’s community” (Volksgemeinschaft) rather than a society divided along class and party lines. This ideology was explicitly antisemitic. As early as 1920, the party was raising money by selling a tobacco called Anti-Semit.
From the outset, the DAP was opposed to non-nationalist political movements, especially on the left, including the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) and the Communist Party of Germany (KPD). Members of the DAP saw themselves as fighting against “Bolshevism” and anyone considered a part of or aiding so-called “international Jewry”.
The DAP was also deeply opposed to the Versailles Treaty. The DAP did not attempt to make itself public, and meetings were kept in relative secrecy, with public speakers discussing what they thought of Germany’s present state of affairs, or writing to like-minded societies in Northern Germany.
The DAP was a comparatively small group with fewer than 60 members. Nevertheless, it attracted the attention of the German authorities, who were suspicious of any organisation that appeared to have subversive tendencies.
In July 1919 while stationed in Munich, army Gefreiter Adolf Hitler was appointed a Verbindungsmann (intelligence agent) of the Reichswehr (army) by the head of the Education and Propaganda Department (Dept Ib/P) in Bavaria, Captain Mayr. Hitler’s assignment was to influence other soldiers and to infiltrate the DAP.
While attending a party meeting on 12 September 1919, Hitler became involved in a heated argument with a visitor, Professor Baumann, who questioned the soundness of Gottfried Feder’s arguments against capitalism and proposed that Bavaria should break away from Prussia and found a new South German nation with Austria.
In vehemently attacking the man’s arguments, he made an impression on the other party members with his oratory skills and, according to Hitler, the “professor” left the hall acknowledging unequivocal defeat.
Impressed with Hitler’s oratorical skills, Drexler invited him to join the DAP and Hitler accepted. In less than a week, Hitler received a postcard from Drexler stating he had officially been accepted as a DAP member.
Hitler became DAP member 555 (the party began counting membership at 500 to give the impression they were much larger than they actually were).
Among the party’s earlier members were Ernst Röhm of the Army’s District Command VII; well-to-do journalist Dietrich Eckart; then University of Munich student Rudolf Hess; Freikorps soldier Hans Frank; and Alfred Rosenberg, often credited as the philosopher of the movement. All were later prominent in the Nazi regime.
Hitler later claimed to be the seventh party member (he was in fact the seventh executive member of the party’s central committee; he would later wear the Golden Party Badge number one).
Hitler’s first speech was held in the Hofbräukeller, where he spoke in front of 111 people as the second speaker of the evening. Hitler later declared that this was when he realised he could really “make a good speech”.
At first Hitler only spoke to relatively small groups, but his considerable oratory and propaganda skills were appreciated by the party leadership.
With the support of Anton Drexler, Hitler became chief of propaganda for the party in early 1920. Hitler began to make the party more public, and he organised their biggest meeting yet of 2,000 people, on 24 February 1920 in the Staatliches Hofbräuhaus in München.
Such was the significance of this particular move in publicity that Harrer resigned from the party in disagreement.
It was in this speech that Hitler, for the first time, enunciated the twenty-five points of the German Worker’s Party’s manifesto that had been drawn up by Drexler, Feder, and Hitler.
Through these points he gave the organisation a much bolder stratagem with a clear foreign policy (abrogation of The Treaty of Versailles, a Greater Germany, Eastern expansion, exclusion of Jews from citizenship), and among his specific points were: confiscation of war profits, abolition of unearned incomes, the State to share profits of land, and land for national needs to be taken away without compensation.
In general, the manifesto was antisemitic, anti-capitalist, anti-democratic, anti-Marxist, and anti-liberal.
To increase its appeal to larger segments of the population, on 24 February 1920, the same day as Hitler’s Hofbräuhaus speech, the DAP changed its name to the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (National Socialist German Workers Party).
That year, the Nazi Party officially announced that only persons of “pure Aryan descent (rein arischer abkunft)” could become party members; if the person had a spouse, they also had to be a “racially pure” Aryan.
Party members could not be related either directly or indirectly to a so-called “non-Aryan”. Even before it became legally forbidden at the Nuremberg Laws in 1935, the Nazis banned sexual relations and marriages between party members and Jews.
Party members found guilty of Rassenschande (racial defilement) were persecuted heavily, some members were even sentenced to death.
Hitler quickly became the party’s most active orator, appearing in public as a speaker thirty-one times within the first year after his self-discovery.
Hitler’s considerable oratory and propaganda skills were appreciated by the party leadership as crowds began to flock to hear his speeches. Hitler always spoke about the same subjects: the Treaty of Versailles and the Jewish question.
This deliberate technique and effective publicising of the party contributed significantly to his early success, about which a contemporary poster wrote ‘Since Herr Hitler is a brilliant speaker, we can hold out the prospect of an extremely exciting evening’.
Over the following months, the party continued to attract new members, while remaining too small to have any real significance in German politics.
By the end of the year, party membership was recorded at 2,000. Many of whom Hitler and Röhm had brought into the party personally, or for whom Hitler’s oratory had been their reason for joining.
Hitler’s talent as an orator, and his ability to draw new members, combined with his characteristic ruthlessness, soon made him the dominant figure. However, while Hitler was on a fundraising trip to Berlin in June 1921, a mutiny broke out within the Nazi Party in Munich.
Members of its executive committee, some of whom considered Hitler to be too overbearing, wanted to merge with the rival German Socialist Party (DSP). Hitler returned to Munich on 11 July and angrily tendered his resignation.
The committee members realised that his resignation would mean the end of the party. Hitler announced he would rejoin on the condition that he would replace Drexler as party chairman, and that the party headquarters would remain in Munich.
The committee agreed, and he rejoined the party on 26 July as member 3,680. He still faced some opposition from other members: Opponents of Hitler had Hermann Esser expelled from the party and they printed 3,000 copies of a pamphlet attacking Hitler as a traitor to the party.
In the following days, Hitler spoke to several packed houses and defended himself and Esser, to thunderous applause.
Hitler was formally elected party chairman on 28 July 1921, with only one opposing vote. The committee was dissolved, and Hitler was granted nearly absolute powers as the party’s sole leader.
This was a post he would hold for the remainder of his life. Hitler soon acquired the title Führer (“leader”) and, after a series of sharp internal conflicts, it was accepted that the party would be governed by the Führerprinzip (“leader principle”). Under this principle, the party was a highly centralized entity that functioned strictly from the top down, with Hitler at the apex as the party’s absolute leader.
Hitler at this time saw the party as a revolutionary organization, whose aim was the overthrow of the Weimar Republic, which he saw as controlled by the socialists, Jews and the “November criminals” who had betrayed the German soldiers in 1918.
The SA (“storm troopers”, also known as “Brownshirts”) were founded as a party militia in 1921, and began violent attacks on other parties.
For Hitler, the twin goals of the party were always German nationalist expansionism and antisemitism. These two goals were fused in his mind by his belief that Germany’s external enemies – Britain, France and the Soviet Union – were controlled by the Jews, and that Germany’s future wars of national expansion would necessarily entail a war against the Jews.
For Hitler and his principal lieutenants, national and racial issues were always dominant. This was symbolised by the adoption as the party emblem of the swastika or Hakenkreuz, at the time widely used in the western world. In German nationalist circles, the swastika was considered a symbol of an “Aryan race”; it symbolized the replacement of the Christian Cross with allegiance to a National Socialist State.
During 1921 and 1922, the Nazi Party grew significantly, partly through Hitler’s oratorical skills, partly through the SA’s appeal to unemployed young men, and partly because there was a backlash against socialist and liberal politics in Bavaria as Germany’s economic problems deepened and the weakness of the Weimar regime became apparent.
The party recruited former World War I soldiers, to whom Hitler as a decorated frontline veteran could particularly appeal, as well as small businessmen and disaffected former members of rival parties.
Nazi rallies were often held in beer halls, where downtrodden men could get free beer. The Hitler Youth was formed for the children of party members, although it remained small until the late 1920s.
The party also formed groups in other parts of Germany. Julius Streicher in Nuremberg was an early recruit, and became editor of the racist magazine Der Stürmer.
Others to join the party around this time were WW I flying ace Hermann Göring and Heinrich Himmler. In December 1920 the Nazi Party acquired a newspaper, the Völkischer Beobachter, of which its leading ideologist Alfred Rosenberg became editor.
In 1922, a party with remarkably similar policies and objectives came into power in Italy, the National Fascist Party under the leadership of the charismatic Benito Mussolini.
The Fascists, like the Nazis, promoted a national rebirth of their country; opposed communism and liberalism; appealed to the working-class; opposed the Treaty of Versailles; and advocated the territorial expansion of their country.
The Italian Fascists used a straight-armed Roman salute and wore black-shirted uniforms. Hitler was inspired by Mussolini and the Fascists, borrowing their use of the straight-armed salute as a Nazi salute. When the Fascists came to power in 1922 in Italy through their coup attempt called the “March on Rome”, Hitler began planning his own coup.
In January 1923, France occupied the Ruhr industrial region as a result of Germany’s failure to meet its reparations payments. This led to economic chaos, the resignation of Wilhelm Cuno’s government, and an attempt by the German Communist Party (KPD) to stage a revolution. The reaction to these events was an upsurge of nationalist sentiment. Nazi Party membership grew sharply, to about 20,000.
By November, Hitler had decided that the time was right for an attempt to seize power in Munich, in the hope that the Reichswehr (the post-war German military) would mutiny against the Berlin government and join his revolt. In this he was influenced by former General Erich Ludendorff, who had become a supporter—though not a member—of the Nazis.
On the night of 8 November, the Nazis used a patriotic rally in a Munich beer hall to launch an attempted putsch (coup d’état). This so-called Beer Hall Putsch attempt failed almost at once when the local Reichswehr commanders refused to support it.
On the morning of 9 November the Nazis staged a march of about 2,000 supporters through Munich in an attempt to rally support. Troops opened fire, and 16 Nazis were killed. Hitler, Ludendorff and a number of others were arrested, and were tried for treason in March 1924.
Hitler and his associates were given very lenient prison sentences. While Hitler was in prison, he wrote his semi-autobiographical political manifesto Mein Kampf (“My Struggle”).
The Nazi Party was banned, though with support of the nationalist Völkisch-Social Bloc (Völkisch-Sozialer Block), continued to operate under the name of the “German Party” (Deutsche Partei or DP) from 1924 to 1925.
The Nazis failed to remain unified in the German Party, as in the north, the right-wing Volkish nationalist supporters of the Nazis moved to the new German Völkisch Freedom Party, leaving the north’s left-wing Nazi members, such as Joseph Goebbels retaining support for the party.
Rise to power: 1925–1933
Adolf Hitler was released from prison on 20 December 1924. In the following year he re-founded and reorganized the Nazi Party, with himself as its undisputed Leader.
The new Nazi Party was no longer a paramilitary organization, and disavowed any intention of taking power by force.
In any case, the economic and political situation had stabilized and the extremist upsurge of 1923 had faded, so there was no prospect of further revolutionary adventures.
The Nazi Party of 1925 was divided into the “Leadership Corps” (Korps der politischen Leiter), appointed by Hitler, and the general membership (Parteimitglieder). The party and the SA were kept separate, and the legal aspect of the party’s work was emphasized. In a sign of this, the party began to admit women. The SA and the SS members (the latter founded in 1925 as Hitler’s bodyguard, and known originally as the Schutzkommando) had to all be regular party members.
In the 1920s the Nazi party expanded beyond its Bavarian base. Catholic Bavaria maintained its right-wing nostalgia for a Catholic monarch; and Westphalia, along with working-class “Red Berlin”, were always the Nazis’ weakest areas electorally, even during the Third Reich itself.
The areas of strongest Nazi support were in rural Protestant areas such as Schleswig-Holstein, Mecklenburg, Pomerania, and East Prussia.
Depressed working-class areas such as Thuringia also produced a strong Nazi vote, while the workers of the Ruhr and Hamburg largely remained loyal to the Social Democratics, the Communist Party of Germany, or the Catholic Centre Party. Nuremberg remained a Nazi Party stronghold, and the first Nuremberg Rally was held there in 1927.
These rallies soon became massive displays of Nazi paramilitary power and attracted many recruits. The Nazis’ strongest appeal was to the lower middle-classes – farmers, public servants, teachers, small businessmen – who had suffered most from the inflation of the 1920s, so who feared Bolshevism more than anything else.
The small business class was receptive to Hitler’s antisemitism, since it blamed Jewish big business for its economic problems. University students, disappointed at being too young to have served in the War of 1914–1918, and attracted by the Nazis’ radical rhetoric, also became a strong Nazi constituency. By 1929, the party had 130,000 members.
The party’s nominal Deputy Leader was Rudolf Hess, but he had no real power in the party. By the early 1930s the senior leaders of the party after Hitler were Himmler, Goebbels and Göring. Beneath the Leadership Corps were the party’s regional leaders, the Gauleiters, each of whom commanded the party in his Gau (“region”).
Joseph Goebbels began his ascent through the party hierarchy as Gauleiter of Berlin-Brandenburg in 1926. Streicher was Gauleiter of Franconia, where he published his antisemitic newspaper Der Stürmer.
Beneath the Gauleiter were lower-level officials, the Kreisleiter (“county leaders”), Zellenleiter (“cell leaders”) and Blockleiter (“block leaders”). This was a strictly hierarchical structure in which orders flowed from the top, and unquestioning loyalty was given to superiors.
Only the SA retained some autonomy. Being composed largely of unemployed workers, many SA men took the Nazis’ socialist rhetoric seriously. At this time, the Hitler salute (borrowed from the Italian fascists) and the greeting “Heil Hitler!” were adopted throughout the party.
The Nazis contested elections to the national parliament, the Reichstag, and to the state legislatures, the Landtags, from 1924, although at first with little success. The “National-Socialist Freedom Movement” polled 3% of the vote in the December 1924 Reichstag elections, and this fell to 2.6% in 1928.
State elections produced similar results. Despite these poor results, and despite Germany’s relative political stability and prosperity during the later 1920s, the Nazi Party continued to grow.
This was partly because Hitler, who had no administrative ability, left the party organization to the head of the secretariat, Philipp Bouhler, the party treasurer Franz Xaver Schwarz, and business manager Max Amann.
The party had a capable propaganda head in Gregor Strasser, who was promoted to national organizational leader in January 1928. These men gave the party efficient recruitment and organizational structures. The party also owed its growth to the gradual fading away of competitor nationalist groups, such as the German National People’s Party (DNVP).
As Hitler became the recognized head of the German nationalists, other groups declined or were absorbed.
Despite these strengths, the Nazi Party might never have come to power had it not been for the Great Depression and its effects on Germany. By 1930 the German economy was beset with mass unemployment and widespread business failures.
The Social Democrats and Communists were bitterly divided and unable to formulate an effective solution: this gave the Nazis their opportunity, and Hitler’s message, blaming the crisis on the Jewish financiers and the Bolsheviks, resonated with wide sections of the electorate.
At the September 1930 Reichstag elections, the Nazis won 18.3% of the votes and became the second-largest party in the Reichstag after the SPD.
Hitler proved to be a highly effective campaigner, pioneering the use of radio and aircraft for this purpose.
His dismissal of Strasser and his appointment of Goebbels as the party’s propaganda chief were major factors.
While Strasser had used his position to promote his own leftish version of national socialism, Goebbels was totally loyal to Hitler and worked only to improve Hitler’s image.
The 1930 elections changed the German political landscape by weakening the traditional nationalist parties, the DNVP and the DVP, leaving the Nazis as the chief alternative to the discredited SPD and the Zentrum, whose leader, Heinrich Brüning, headed a weak minority government.
The inability of the democratic parties to form a united front, the self-imposed isolation of the Communists, and the continued decline of the economy, all played into Hitler’s hands.
He now came to be seen as de facto leader of the opposition, and donations poured into the Nazi Party’s coffers.
Some major business figures, such as Fritz Thyssen, were Nazi supporters and gave generously, and some Wall Street figures were allegedly involved, but many other businessmen were suspicious of the extreme nationalist tendencies of the Nazis and preferred to support the traditional conservative parties instead.
During 1931 and into 1932, Germany’s political crisis deepened. In March 1932 Hitler ran for President against the incumbent President Paul von Hindenburg, polling 30.1% in the first round and 36.8% in the second against Hindenburg’s 49 and 53%.
By now the SA had 400,000 members, and its running street battles with the SPD and Communist paramilitaries (who also fought each other) reduced some German cities to combat zones.
Paradoxically, although the Nazis were among the main instigators of this disorder, part of Hitler’s appeal to a frightened and demoralised middle class was his promise to restore law and order.
Overt antisemitism was played down in official Nazi rhetoric, but was never far from the surface. Germans voted for Hitler primarily because of his promises to revive the economy (by unspecified means), to restore German greatness and overturn the Treaty of Versailles, and to save Germany from communism.
On 20 July 1932, the Prussian government was ousted by a coup, the Preussenschlag, and a few days later at the July 1932 Reichstag election the Nazis made another leap forward, polling 37.4% and becoming the largest party in parliament by a wide margin.
Furthermore, the Nazis and the Communists between them won 52% of the vote and a majority of seats. Since both parties opposed the established political system, and neither would join or support any ministry, this made the formation of a majority government impossible.
The result was weak ministries governing by decree. Under Comintern directives, the Communists maintained their policy of treating the SPD as the main enemy, calling them “social fascists”, thereby splintering opposition to the Nazis.
Later, both the SPD and the Communists accused each other of having facilitated Hitler’s rise to power by their unwillingness to compromise.
Chancellor Franz von Papen called another Reichstag election in November, hoping to find a way out of this impasse.
The electoral result was the same, with the Nazis and the Communists winning 50% of the vote between them and more than half the seats, rendering this Reichstag no more workable than its predecessor.
But support for the Nazis had fallen to 33.1%, suggesting that the Nazi surge had passed its peak – possibly because the worst of the Depression had passed, possibly because some middle-class voters had supported Hitler in July as a protest, but had now drawn back from the prospect of actually putting him into power.
The Nazis interpreted the result as a warning that they must seize power before their moment passed. Had the other parties united, this could have been prevented, but their shortsightedness made a united front impossible.
Papen, his successor Kurt von Schleicher, and the nationalist press magnate Alfred Hugenberg spent December and January in political intrigues that eventually persuaded President Hindenburg that it was safe to appoint Hitler as Reich Chancellor, at the head of a cabinet including only a minority of Nazi ministers—which he did on 30 January 1933.
Ascension & Consolidation
Hitler in Mein Kampf directly attacked both left-wing and right-wing politics in Germany. However, a majority of scholars identify Nazism in practice as being a far-right form of politics. When asked in an interview whether he and the Nazis were “bourgeois right-wing” as alleged by their opponents, Hitler responded that Nazism was not exclusively for any class, and indicated that it favoured neither the left nor the right, but preserved “pure” elements from both “camps”, stating: “From the camp of bourgeois tradition, it takes national resolve, and from the materialism of the Marxist dogma, living, creative Socialism.”
The votes that the Nazis received in the 1932 elections established the Nazi Party as the largest parliamentary faction of the Weimar Republic government. Adolf Hitler was appointed as Chancellor of Germany on 30 January 1933.
The Reichstag fire on 27 February 1933 gave Hitler a pretext for suppressing his political opponents. The following day, 28 February, he persuaded Reich’s President Paul von Hindenburg to issue the Reichstag Fire Decree, which suspended most civil liberties.
The NSDAP won the parliamentary election on 5 March 1933 with 43.9 percent of votes, but failed to win an absolute majority. After the election, hundreds of thousands of new members joined the party for opportunistic reasons, most of them civil servants and white-collar workers. They were nicknamed the Märzgefallenen (“March victims”).
To protect the party from too many non-ideological turncoats who were viewed by the so-called “old fighters” (alte Kämpfer) with some mistrust, the party issued a freeze on admissions that remained in force from May 1933 to 1937.
On 23 March, the parliament passed the Enabling Act of 1933, which gave the cabinet the right to enact laws without the consent of parliament.
In effect, this gave Hitler dictatorial powers. Now possessing virtually absolute power, the Nazis established totalitarian control; they abolished labour unions and other political parties and imprisoned their political opponents, first at wilde Lager, improvised camps, then in concentration camps. Nazism had been established, yet the Reichswehr remained impartial: Nazi power over Germany remained virtual, not absolute.
After taking power: intertwining of party and state
During June and July 1933 all competing parties were either outlawed or dissolved themselves. Subsequently, the Law against the founding of new parties of 14 July 1933 legally established the Nazi Party’s monopoly.
On 1 December 1933, the Law to secure the unity of party and state entered into force which was the base for a progressive intertwining of party structures and state apparatus.
By this law, the SA – actually a party division – was given quasi-governmental authority and their leader was co-opted as an ex officio cabinet member. By virtue of the 30 January 1934 Law about the reorganisation of the Reich, the Länder (states) lost their state quality and were demoted to administrative divisions of the Reich’s government (Gleichschaltung). Effectively, they lost most of their power to the Gaue, that were originally just regional divisions of the party, but took over most competencies of the state administration in their respective sectors.
During the Röhm Purge of 30 June to 2 July 1934 (also known as the “Night of the Long Knives”), Hitler disempowered the SA’s leadership, most of whom belonged to the Strasserist (national revolutionary) faction within the NSDAP, and ordered to kill them.
He accused them of having conspired to stage a coup d’état, but it is believed that this was only a pretence to justify the suppression of any intraparty opposition.
The purge was executed by the SS, assisted by the Gestapo and Reichswehr units. Aside from Strasserist Nazis, they also murdered anti-Nazi conservative figures like former chancellor Kurt von Schleicher.
After this, the SA continued to exist, but lost much of its importance, while the role of the SS grew significantly. Formerly only a sub-organisation of the SA, it was created a separate organisation of the NSDAP in July 1934.
After the death of President Hindenburg on 2 August 1934, Hitler merged the offices of party leader, head of state and chief of government in one, taking the title of Führer und Reichskanzler.
The Chancellery of the Führer, officially an organisation of the Nazi Party, took over the functions of the Office of the President (a government agency), blurring the distinction between structures of party and state even further.
The SS increasingly exerted police functions, a development which was formally documented by the merger of the offices of Reichsführer-SS and Chief of the German Police on 17 June 1936; the position was held by Heinrich Himmler who derived his authority directly from Hitler.
The Sicherheitsdienst (SD, formally the “Security Service of the Reichsführer-SS”) that had been created in 1931 as an intraparty intelligence became the de facto intelligence agency of Nazi Germany. It was put under the Reich Main Security Office (RSHA) in 1939, which then coordinated SD, Gestapo and criminal police; therefore functioning as a hybrid organisation of state and party structures.
Defeat & Abolition
Officially, the Third Reich lasted only 12 years. The first Instrument of Surrender was signed by representatives of Nazi Germany at Reims, France on 7 May 1945. The war in Europe had come to an end.
The defeat of Germany in World War II marked the end of the Nazi Germany era.
The party was abolished and denazification began, along with trials of major war criminals before the International Military Tribunal (IMT) in Nuremberg.
At the top of the Nazi Party was the party chairman (“Der Führer”), who held absolute power and full command over the party. All other party offices were subordinate to his position and had to depend on his instructions. In 1934, Hitler founded a separate body for the chairman, Chancellery of the Führer, with its own sub-units.
Below the Führer’s chancellery was first the “Staff of the Deputy Führer”, headed by Rudolf Hess from 21 April 1933 to 10 May 1941, and then the “Party Chancellery” (Parteikanzlei) headed by Martin Bormann.
Directly subjected to the Führer were the Reichsleiter (“Reich Leader(s)”—the singular and plural forms are identical in German), whose number was gradually increased to eighteen.
They held power and influence comparable to the Reich Ministers’ in Hitler’s Cabinet. The eighteen Reichsleiter formed the “Reich Leadership of the Nazi Party” (Reichsleitung der NSDAP), which was established at the so-called Brown House, in Munich. Unlike a Gauleiter, a Reichsleiter did not have individual geographic areas under their command, but were responsible for specific spheres of interest.
Political Leadership Corps
The political leadership corps of the Nazi Party were those persons who were most often associated as being “Nazis” in the stereotypical sense of the word, as it was these individuals who wore brown paramilitary Nazi uniforms, enforced Nazi doctrine, and ran local government affairs in accordance with instructions from the Nazi Party.
The political leadership corps encompassed a vast array of paramilitary titles at the top of which were Gauleiter, who were Party leaders of large geographical areas. From the Gauleiters extended downwards through Nazi positions encompassing county, city, and town leaders, all of whom were unquestioned rulers in their particular areas and regions.
To the very end of its existence, the Nazi Party claimed to respect the traditional government of Germany and, to that end, local and state governments were allowed to exist side-by-side with regional Nazi leaders.
However, by 1936, the local governments had lost nearly all power to their Nazi counterparts or were now controlled by persons who held both government and Nazi titles alike.
This led to the continued existence of German titles such as Bürgermeister, as well as the existence of German state legislatures (Landesrat), though without any real power to speak of.
The general Nazi Party membership were known by the title of Parteimitglieder. This generic term applied to any member of the Party who did not otherwise hold a political leadership position. Translated simply as “Party Member”, the Parteimitglieder could (and did) hold positions in other Nazi groups, such as the SS or Sturmabteilung. The only insignia for the Parteimitglieder was a Nazi Party lapel-pin; Nazi Party members who held no leadership posts had no specific designated uniform.
Such persons, however, often wore uniforms of other Nazi groups, uniforms of German government agencies, and could also serve in the German armed forces.
Nazi Party Offices
he Nazi Party had a number of party offices dealing with various political and other matters. These included:
Rassenpolitisches Amt der NSDAP (RPA): “NSDAP Office of Racial Policy”
Außenpolitische Amt der NSDAP (APA): “NSDAP Office of Foreign Affairs”
Kolonialpolitisches Amt der NSDAP (KPA): “NSDAP Office of Colonial Policy”
Wehrpolitisches Amt der NSDAP (WPA): “NSDAP Office of Military Policy”
Amt Rosenberg (ARo): “Rosenberg Office”
In addition to the Nazi Party proper, several paramilitary groups existed which “supported” Nazi aims. All members of these paramilitary organizations were required to become regular Nazi Party members first and could then enlist in the group of their choice. A vast system of Nazi party paramilitary ranks developed for each of the various paramilitary groups.
The major Nazi Party paramilitary groups were as follows:
Schutzstaffel (SS): “Protection Squadron” (both Allgemeine SS and Waffen-SS)
Sturmabteilung (SA): “Storm Division”
Nationalsozialistisches Fliegerkorps (NSFK): “National Socialist Flyers Corps”
Nationalsozialistisches Kraftfahrerkorps (NSKK): “National Socialist Motor Corps”
The Hitler Youth was a paramilitary group divided into an adult leadership corps and a general membership open to boys aged fourteen to eighteen. The League of German Girls was the equivalent group for girls.
Certain nominally independent organizations had their own legal representation and own property, but were supported by the Nazi Party. Many of these associated organizations were labor unions of various professions. Some were older organizations that were nazified according to the Gleichschaltung policy after the 1933 takeover.
Reich League of German Officials (union of civil servants, predecessor to German Civil Service Federation)
German Labor Front (DAF)
National Socialist German Physicians’ League (NSDÄB)
National Socialist League for the Maintenance of the Law (NSRB, 1936–1945, earlier National Socialist German Lawyers’ League)
National Socialist War Victim’s Care (NSKOV)
National Socialist Teachers League (NSLB)
National Socialist People’s Welfare (NSV)
Reich Labor Service (RAD)
German Faith Movement
German Colonial League (RKB)
German Red Cross
Technical Emergency Relief (TENO)
Reich’s Union of Large Families
Bund Deutscher Osten (BDO)
German American Bund
For the purpose of centralization in the Gleichschaltung process a rigidly hierarchal structure was established in the Nazi Party, which it later carried through in the whole of Germany in order consolidate total power under the person of Hitler (Führerstaat). It was regionally sub-divided into a number of Gaue (singular: Gau) headed by a Gauleiter, who received their orders directly from Hitler. The name (originally a term for sub-regions of the Holy Roman Empire headed by a Gaugraf) for these new provincial structures was deliberately chosen because of its mediaeval connotations. The term is approximately equivalent to the English shire.
After the Anschluss a new type of administrative unit was introduced called a Reichsgau. In these territories the Gauleiters also held the position of Reichsstatthalter, thereby formally combining the spheres of both party and state offices. The establishment of this type of district was subsequently carried out for any further territorial annexations of Germany both before and during World War II.
The Gaue and Reichsgaue (state or province) were further sub-divided into Kreise (counties) headed by a Kreisleiter, which were in turn sub-divided into Zellen (cells) and Blocken (blocks), headed by a Zellenleiter and Blockleiter respectively.
A reorganization of the Gaue was enacted on 1 October 1928. The given numbers were the official ordering numbers.
By 1941, there were 42 territorial Gaue for Germany, 7 of them for Austria, the Sudetenland (in Czechoslovakia), Danzig, and the Territory of the Saar Basin, along with the unincorporated regions under German control known as the Protectorate of Bohemia-Moravia and the General Government of Poland.
Getting the leadership of the individual Gaue to cooperate with one another proved difficult at times since there was constant administrative and financial jockeying for control going on between them.
Gaue in Switzerland
The irregular Swiss branch of the Nazi Party also established a number of Party Gaue in that country, most of them named after their regional capitals. These included Gau Basel-Solothurn, Gau Schaffhausen, Gau Luzern, Gau Bern and Gau Zürich.
The cantons of St. Gallen, Thurgau und Appenzell were administered under Gau Ostschweiz (East Switzerland).
The general membership of the Nazi Party mainly consisted of the urban and rural lower middle classes. 7% belonged to the upper class, another 7% were peasants, 35% were industrial workers and 51% were what can be described as middle class. In early 1933, just before Hitler’s appointment to the chancellorship, the party showed an under-representation of “workers”, who made up 29.7% of the membership but 46.3% of German society.
Conversely, white-collar employees (18.6% of members and 12% of Germans), the self-employed (19.8% of members and 9.6% of Germans), and civil servants (15.2% of members and 4.8% of the German population) had joined in proportions greater than their share of the general population.
These members were affiliated with local branches of the party, of which there were 1,378 throughout the country in 1928. In 1932, the number had risen to 11,845, reflecting the party’s growth in this period.
When it came to power in 1933, the Nazi Party had over 2 million members. In 1939, the membership total rose to 5.3 million with 81% being male and 19% being female. It continued to attract many more and by 1945 the party reached its peak of 8 million with 63% being male and 37% being female (about 10% of the 80 million German population).
Nazi members with military ambitions were encouraged to join the Waffen-SS, but a great number enlisted in the Wehrmacht and even more were drafted for service after World War II began. Early regulations required that all Wehrmacht members be non-political, and therefore any Nazi member joining in the 1930s was required to resign from the Nazi Party.
This regulation was soon waived, however, and there is ample evidence that full Nazi Party members served in the Wehrmacht in particular after the outbreak of World War II. The Wehrmacht Reserves also saw a high number of senior Nazis enlisting, with Reinhard Heydrich and Fritz Todt joining the Luftwaffe, as well as Karl Hanke who served in the army.
In 1926, the party formed a special division to engage the student population, known as the National Socialist German Students’ League (NSDStB). A group for university lecturers, the National Socialist German University Lecturers’ League (NSDDB), also existed until July 1944.
The National Socialist Women’s League was the women’s organization of the party. By 1938 it had approximately 2 million members.
Membership outside of Germany
Party members who lived outside of Germany were pooled into the Auslands-Organisation (NSDAP/AO, “Foreign Organization”). The organization was limited only to so-called “Imperial Germans”; “Ethnic Germans” (Volksdeutsche) who did not hold German citizenship were not permitted to join.
Under Beneš decree No. 16/1945 Coll., in case of citizens of Czechoslovakia, membership of the Nazi Party was punishable by between five and twenty years of imprisonment.
Deutsche Gemeinschaft was a branch of the Nazi Party founded in 1919, created for Germans with Volksdeutsche status.
It is not to be confused with the post-war right-wing Deutsche Gemeinschaft party founded in 1949.
Notable members included:
Oswald Menghin (Vienna)
Herbert Czaja (Province of Silesia inside Prussia)
Hermann Neubacher who was responsible for invading Yugoslavia.
Rudolf Much (Vienna)
Arthur Seyß-Inquart (Vienna)
The Nazi party used a right-facing swastika as their symbol and the red and black colours were said to represent Blut und Boden (“blood and soil”).
Another definition of the flag describes the colours as representing the ideology of National Socialism, the swastika representing the Aryan race and the Aryan nationalist agenda of the movement; white representing Aryan racial purity; and red representing the socialist agenda of the movement.
Black, white and red were in fact the colours of the old North German Confederation flag (invented by Otto von Bismarck, based on the Prussian colours black and white and the red used by northern German states).
In 1871, with the foundation of the German Reich, the flag of the North German Confederation became the German Reichsflagge (“Reich’s flag”). Black, white and red became the colours of the nationalists through the following history (for example World War I and the Weimar Republic).
The Parteiflagge design, with the centered swastika disc, served as the party flag since 1920. Between 1933 (when the Nazi Party came to power) and 1935, it was used as the National flag (Nationalflagge) and Merchant flag (Handelsflagge), but interchangeably with the black-white-red horizontal tricolour.
In 1935, the black-white-red horizontal tricolour was scrapped (again), and the flag with the off-center swastika and disc was instituted as the only national flag, and was to remain as such until 1945.
The flag with the centered disk continued to be used after 1935, but exclusively as the Parteiflagge, the flag of the party.
The Nazi party used the traditional German eagle, standing atop of a swastika inside a wreath of oak leaves.
It is also known as the Iron Eagle. When the eagle is looking to its left shoulder, it symbolises the Nazi party, and was called the Parteiadler.
In contrast, when the eagle is looking to its right shoulder, it symbolises the country (Reich), and was therefore called the Reichsadler.
After the Nazi party came to power in Germany, they replaced the traditional version of the German eagle with the modified party symbol throughout the country and all its institutions.