Hitler’s Power: Iconic Authority Part II

Hitler’s rise to power and the mass movement behind the Nazi party were counter-revolutionary in nature, springing from frustration with the ineffective and splintered Wiemar government in the 1920s. Ian Kershaw has shown from research in German newspaper records of the time, that right wing groups’ desires for a common leader were not always shared by the leftists or the mainstream.1 However, for many Germans, the desire for an authoritative system and single, clear leader became heightened during the chaos of the Weimar Republic.

In Sebastian Haffner’s memoir of the Weimar Republic, he notes that the building blocks of the Nazis power were already in place. He talks of the Freikorps, noting that they were the military power while the Social Democrats ruled. They could have easily pulled off a coup détat, but lacked a central leader to follow. He asks the question of why they never attempted an overthrow of the government, and further explains that such a notion was not an acceptable line of thought for the majority of German soldiers, paraphrasing a famous remark by Bismarck:

…moral courage is, in any case, a rare virtue in Germany, but it deserts a German completely the moment he puts on a uniform. As soldier and officer, he is indisputably and outstandingly courageous on the field of battle. He is usually even prepared to open fire on his own compatriots if ordered to do so. Yet he is as timid as a lamb at the thought of opposing authority. The suggestion of such a confrontation always conjures up the nightmare of a firing squad and he is immediately paralyzed. It is not death he fears, but this particular death, which scares him out of his wits. That makes any idea impossible for the German military—whoever happens to be in power.2

This need for authoritarian rule is further corroborated by David Bankier’s analysis in Germans and the Final solution: Public Opinion Under Nazism. He notes that the German population of 1935, was frustrated with an unclear expectation of how they were to behave toward the Jews. The Nazi government had made it clear that the Jews were supposed enemies of Germany, but the population were not expressing anti-Semitism unhesitatingly. Instead, they sought direction from their leaders. While there was an obvious social disconnect from the Jewish population, the tendency shown here is one of comparitively blind obedience. These people were asking what they should do—and they were not asking their own consciences; they were seeking an external authoritative answer. At this point, if anti-Semitism was the banner behind which the populace had rallied to Hitler, then it should have been an equal or superior force to German authoritarian tendencies, but truly it paled in comparison.3

The Hitler Youth were yet another building block of the Nazi regime, and while such did not exist in 1919, there were indirect precursors that did.4 Haffner, mentioned above, was one of the members of a youth group in 1919, called the Rennbund Altpreussen (Old Prussia Athletics Club). He calls the group’s activities ‘beneficent’, and ‘patriotic’. Their motto was “Anti-Spartacus, for Sport and Politics”—but as he says, their ‘politics’ consisted of occasionally beating up other boys their age who supported the Social Democrats and the revolution that had established the Weimar Republic. The various groups like his, he notes, were anti-revolutionary, but not yet anti-Semitic in any sense—he notes their best runner was Jewish.5

Intermingled with these authoritarian dependencies was not only a right-wing, but eventually a strong mainstream longing for an iconic leader. The Weimar Constitution itself is evidence of monarchical leanings. In sections 41 through 59 of the document, extensive powers are granted to the President. Of particular note are two articles:

Article 47.
The President of the Reich shall have supreme command over the entire military forces of the Reich.
Article 48.

If a state fails to carry out the duties imposed upon it by the national constitution or national laws, the President of the Reich may compel performance with the aid of armed force.

If public safety and order be seriously disturbed or threatened within the German Reich, the President of the Reich may take the necessary measures to restore public safety and order; if necessary, with the aid of armed force. For this purpose he may temporarily suspend in whole or in part the fundamental rights enumerated in Articles 114, 115, 117, 118, 123, 124 and 153.6

These indicate the clear dictatorial powers that the President had, and a distinctly militaristic Germany. The articles mentioned in article 48 are largely similar to the U.S. Bill of Rights, being individual liberties. To note that these can be suspended by simple edict of the president is a foreshadowing of the disappearance of civil liberties in the mid 1930s. Indeed, Germany did not have a deeply ingrained tradition of democratic government, as Germany had only been united for roughly 50 years, and had remained a monarchy through to end of WWI.7 In comparison with the US democratic government, or even Britain’s, they had had little time in comparison to adjust to the idea.

Further illustrating these authoritarian leanings, the New York Times ran an article in 1927 with the headline: “Deferred Monarchist Hopes.” The article mentioned the patchwork alliance of the German Nationalists (monarchists) and the centrist party then in power under Hindenburg and Stresseman. “The Nationalists insist that the marriage is one of convenience and temporary in nature.”8They were determined to seek strong leadership and bring about a grand German monarchy once again.

Hitler himself discusses the need for leadership in Mein Kampf. “As worthless as an army in all its organisational forms is without officers, equally worthless is a political organization without the suitable leader,” he writes. There is no mention of true democratic process in the surrounding material, and his choice of language suggests the belief in the singular nature of central leadership.9 At this point in his book, he does not seem to indicate a belief in himself as said singular leader, although his trial after the Beer Hall Putsch had made it unequivocally clear that he saw no reason why he could not be the one to lead Germany to greatness.10 Ian Kershaw notes that this change came slowly, as members of his party became increasingly supportive of him, and as the press mentioned him more and more frequently.11

Movement from the ignored radical fringes into the spotlight for both the party and Hitler himself was dependent on two things. The first is the radicalization of the average German. The second is the opposite approach. Further acceptance of him as a leader by the political center and the apolitical German would require changing his image to a less radical one. Both Hitler and later his right hand man Goebbels sought this creation of an image for the Führer. He needed to become not only popular, but seen as a veritable avatar of the German spirit. The political base of the Nazi party was scattered, and its ideology a hodgepodge ofideas. These could not account for its continued success, although they certainly contributed to its popularity. The party needed a focus, otherwise it would continue to flounder at the edges of the political scene. Hitler was the answer.

In the 1920s Hitler gained the support of the Stahlhelm, Germany’s then largest veterans’ organization. The group denounced parliamentiarism as a ‘plague’ and promoted a dictatorship.12 Hitler’s support within the Nazi Party solidified, the Party itself became the largest collection of right-wing politicals in the nation.13 During this time, Goebbels became a devoted follower of Hitler. Goebbels himself was quite the spokesman, and eventually the two were twins of oratory might. Hitler acquired other supporters in the early 1920s, including Rudolph Hess and Hermann Göring.14

After the crash of the runaway inflation of 1923, were 6 years of relative peace during which the masses began their shift in thinking. Haffner writes, “A generation of young Germans had become accustomed to the entire content of their lives delivered gratis … by the public sphere … all their sensations and thrills—accompanied though they might be by poverty, hunger, death, chaos, and peril … they regarded the end of the political tension and the return of private liberty not as a gift, but as a deprivation.”15 This generation’s decided emotional dependence on the war is markedly evident throughout Haffner’s account—it was the central focus of their lives. The first world war had cut them adrift from their social institutions and traditions by destroying the normality of life—Haffner’s account cannot easily be summed up. This generation sought salvation through many things, but Haffner says, the most important was a “vast, overpowering, cheap mass intoxication.”16 The masses sought salvation in a leader, and Hitler was beginning to take advantage of this.

While Hitler had been markedly successful in the early 1920s, up until the Beer Hall Putsch, party growth slowed after his imprisonment, and remained steady until a low point, politically, from about 1928-1930.17 Hitler became the uncontested leader of the party during the late 20s, pulling supporters from within the party that had hitherto been unconvinced, or had had conflicting aspirations themselves. Gregor Strasser was head of the party in 1927. He had been unconvinced despite Hitler’s popularity, but that year he remarked, “Friends, raise your right arm and cry out with me proudly, eager for the struggle, and loyal unto death, ‘Heil Hitler!’”18

Hitler’s speeches held listeners enthralled. A schoolteacher remarks on one of Hitler’s presentations in 1932, as quoted in Kershaw’s work:

There stood Hitler in a simple black coat and looked over the crowd, waiting—a forest of swastika pennants swished up, the jubilation of this moment was given vent in a roaring salute. Main theme: out of parties shall grow a nation, a German nation. … His voice was hoarse after all his speaking during the previous days. When the speech was over, there was roaring enthusiasm and applause. … Hitler was helped into his coat. Then he went. How many look up to him as their helper, their saviour, their deliverer from unbearable distress—to him who rescues the Prussian prince, the scholar, the clergyman, the farmer, the worker, the unemployed who rescues them from the parties back into the nation.19

Oratory was Hitler’s greatest gift, and it served him well. Many accounts of party members and others express similar feelings of adulation.20 Hitler words were often uncompromising, and Nazi party members articulated this absolutism as necessary.21

1Ian Kershaw, The ‘Hitler Myth’: Image and Reality in the Third Reich (New York, NY: The Oxford University Press, Inc., 2001), 18-21.

2Sebastian Haffner, Defying Hitler: A Memoir. Trans. Oliver Pretzel (New York, NY: Picador, 2000), 39-40.

3Bankier, 39.

4Kershaw, 16; Haffner, 35-38.


6Wikisource. Weimar constitution. http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Weimar_constitution (accessed December 1, 2010)

7Shirer, 94.

8Andreas Dorpalen, Hindenburg and the Weimar Republic (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1964), 124-126; “Deferred Monarchist Hopes,” New York Times, Feb 6, 1927.

9Hitler’s construction of central leadership claims to be non-monarchical, but is still highly authoritarian. Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampftrans. Ralph Manheim (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1999), 345-353.

10Samuel W. Mitcham Jr.,Why Hitler: The Genesis of the Nazi Reich (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1996), 107-109.

11Kershaw, 31-38.

12Mitcham, 133; Kershaw, 20-21.

13Kershaw, 22-25.

14Mitcham, 83, 87.

15Haffner, 68-69.

16Ibid., 10-15, 20-21, 27-28, 68-70.

17Kershaw, 28, 31.

18J. Noakes and G. Pridham (eds.), Documents on Nazism, (London, 1974), 84-85, quoted in Kershaw, 26-27.

19J. Noakes and G. Pridham (eds.), Documents on Nazism, (London, 1974), 104, quoted in Kershaw, 42.

20Kershaw, 30, 39-40; Johnson and Reuband, 149.

21Kershaw, 27.


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Filed under History, Leadership, Nazism, Philosophy, Politics, Socialism, Sociology, WWII

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