H. W. D. Smith 28/04/2007
Coursework – Key Question 1, Exercise 1 [i]
c. ‘The most important reason for Nazi success in 1933 was Hitler’s genius as a politician’. How far do you agree with this statement?
It is undoubtedly true that Hitler was a political genius; he was a brilliant orator, ruthlessly efficient, used force as necessary, had a gift for timing, and, perhaps most importantly, exploited the diverse interests of all to whom he appealed. However, there were other factors in the NSDAP’s rise to power, notably the Wall Street Crash and the discredit of the Weimar republic; pure luck also played an important role (for example, the death of Stresemann in late 1929). Whether Hitler’s political genius was the main reason for the Nazi party’s rise to power remains to be seen.
The Wall Street crash, perhaps more than any of the alternative reasons for the Nazi party’s success, was of great importance to the NSDAP on its road to power. It led to American loans, offered under the Dawes and Young plans, being recalled, and thus to a financial collapse in the fledgling democracy. Under this strain, the Weimar system, having been deserted by its principally middle-class supporters, who had been hit the hardest by the financial collapse, lost almost all of its popular backing. The political instability and high unemployment caused by the Wall Street Crash led to the polarization of German politics, and thus led more people to support the right-wing Nazi party, while at the same time depriving its democratic rivals of votes (although it should be remembered that extreme left-wing parties were also beneficiaries of the Crash).
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The discredit of the Weimar republic was partially due to the Wall Street Crash; as people suffered from the economic depression, they blamed the political system. Under the Kaiser, Germans had enjoyed prosperity (despite a humiliating defeat in the First World War), and many were unsatisfied with the new democratic system of government. At the same time as the Wall Street Crash, which led to the removal of middle class support for the system, the government was hit by an extraordinary stroke of bad luck – the death of von Stresemann, the Chancellor, in October 1929. Stresemann was an extremely able politician, and quite possibly could have saved the Weimar system from collapse. His death hastened its demise, and thus helped the Nazis move up another rung on the German political ladder, with the support that they gained from disenchanted former democrats. More importantly, German politics at the time was full of in-party squabbles, and unstable coalition governments (due to the system of proportional representation). In such a climate, what might have otherwise been small splits in coalitions grew into gaping cracks, and it was under these conditions that the Nazi party rose to power. Although possibly not as important as Hitler’s political skill, the collapse of Weimar certainly played a major part in Nazi success.
Another reason for the Nazi party’s success in 1933 was Proportional Representation. Under the German constitution, formed along with the democratic government, the Reichstag deputies were elected according to the total number of votes that their party had achieved, rather than only winning a seat if they achieved the highest number of votes in a certain constituency. This system favoured small political parties, as it meant that they could still represent themselves in the Reichstag without appealing to a larger number of voters in one area than any of the larger parties. It is quite possible that, without proportional representation, the Nazi party would not have gained any seats, as it would not have been able to implant itself in the conscious of the German public – it must therefore be seen as an important reason for Nazi success (although it is more relevant to the early years of the party than in 1933, when it was the largest single political party).
Hitler was, without a shadow of doubt, a political genius. It was only when he joined the NSDAP that he discovered his talent for rhetoric, and it was this same talent which he used to convince millions of Germans to support the Nazis, whether on the wireless or at the huge party rallies. The skill with which he used the SA, the Nazi party’s private army, to maintain order at rallies, to subdue opposition (normally through slightly dubious means), and, more importantly, to attract people to join the party, with its pomp and ceremony, was an important part of his political personality, as was his knack for creating scapegoats (after the 1933 Reichstag fire, for instance, a communist was conveniently blamed; a better example is the blaming of the politicians and Jews in Germany for the ‘stab in the back’ at the end of the first world war). Hitler’s gift for timing was occasionally beyond belief. In 1932, for example, against the advice of many in the NSDAP, he refused to join a coalition and thus secure government, and support for the party seemed to dwindle – as he once remarked, he “(went) the way that providence (dictated) with the confidence of a sleepwalker”. In the 1933 elections, however, he was appointed Chancellor through a coalition deal with von Papen, and then used his two-thirds Reichstag majority to push through an enabling law, meaning that he could dispense with the democratic assembly. He used the media to create an image of himself that would appeal to the public, emphasizing his two iron crosses received in the First World War, and created a personality for himself that was very different to that image of the little man with the silly moustache which one might perceive upon first seeing him. Perhaps most important was his ability to be all things to all people. To farmers in the conservative south, he promised agricultural reform and shared with them his vision of a Germany made up of rural communities; to industrialists, he preached about Nazi beliefs that would favour them and their factories. He was thus able to build for the Nazi party a large and varied base of support, essential for any political party. Without this support, the Nazi party would never have been able to succeed in the elections, whether in 1933 or at any other time.
There were certainly many reasons for the Nazi party’s success in 1935. It is hard to establish if one was more important than the rest, as they were all linked in such a complex web. It is probably possible to say that the most important reason for the Nazi rise to power was Hitler’s genius as a politician, although other factors, such as the collapse of the Weimar republic, which Hitler used to his advantage, and the German political system in general were also extremely important; however, without Hitler’s political genius, it is highly doubtful that the Nazi party could have benefited from these other events, and Hitler’s genius as a politician must thus be deemed the most important reason for the Nazi party’s success in 1933.