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Nazi Party

The leaders of the Beer Hall Putsch, 1923, awaiting trial (left to right): Heinz Pernet, Friedrich Weber, Wilhelm Frick, Hermann Kriebel, Erich Ludendorff, Adolf Hitler, Wilhelm Brückner, Ernst Röehm, Robert Wagner
The leaders of the Beer Hall Putsch, 1923, awaiting trial (left to right): Heinz Pernet, Friedrich Weber, Wilhelm Frick, Hermann Kriebel, Erich Ludendorff, Adolf Hitler, Wilhelm Brückner, Ernst Röehm, Robert Wagner.

The Nazi Party or The National Socialist German Workers Party (German: Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, or NSDAP,), was a political party in Germany between 1920 and 1945 that was known as the German Workers Party before the name was changed in 1920.

The party's leader, Adolf Hitler, was appointed Chancellor of Germany by president Paul von Hindenburg in 1933. After Hindenburg's death, Hitler rapidly established a totalitarian regime known as the Third Reich, under which the party gained almost unlimited power.

Nazi ideology stressed the racial purity of the German people and persecuted those it perceived either as enemies or Lebensunwertes Leben, that is "life unworthy of life". (This included Jews, Roma, Slavs and homosexuals, along with Catholic clergy and religious people, Jehovah's Witnesses, the mentally and/or physically disabled, socialists, and communists.) The practical application of these beliefs led directly to the deaths of approximately 11 million people in what has become known as the Holocaust. Additionally, the Nazi concept of Lebensraum ("living space"), and the pursuit of the creation of "Greater Germany" to achieve it, was one of the major causes of World War II, in which more than 60 million people died.

Origins of the Nazi party

Adolf Hitler with Nazi Party members in 1930.
Adolf Hitler with Nazi Party members in 1930.

The NSDAP grew out of smaller political groups with a nationalist orientation that formed in the last years of World War I. In the early months of 1918, a party called the Freier Ausschuss für einen deutschen Arbeiterfrieden (Free Committee for a German Workers' Peace) was created in Bremen, Germany. Anton Drexler, an avid German nationalist, formed a branch of this league on March 7, 1918, in Munich. Drexler had been a member of the militarist Fatherland Party during World War I, and was bitterly opposed to the armistice of November 1918 and to the revolutionary upheavals that followed in its wake. In 1919, Drexler, together with Gottfried Feder, Dietrich Eckart and Karl Harrer, established the Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (German Workers' Party, abbreviated DAP). This party was the formal forerunner of the NSDAP, and became one of many völkisch movements that existed in Germany at the time.

The völkisch movements were a collection of political groups formed in the wake of Germany’s defeat in World War I which believed that the sole cause of defeat was the collapse of the home front and the alleged failure of many Germans to support the war effort. This became known as the Dolchstosslegende ("stab in the back myth"), and was an important factor in the rise of the Nazi Party.

Like other völkisch groups, the DAP advocated the belief that Germany should become a unified "national community" (Volksgemeinschaft) rather than a society divided along class and party lines. This ideology was explicitly anti-Semitic from the start - the "national community" would be "judenfrei" (free of Jews). The DAP was violently opposed to the SPD, and particularly to the newly-formed Communist Party of Germany (KPD). Members of the DAP saw themselves as fighting against "Bolshevism", though they also claimed to be a working-class party.

The flag of the NSDAP
The flag of the NSDAP "Old Guard", which was used by members of the NSDAP

Although officially called a political party, the DAP was a tiny group with less than 60 members. Nevertheless, it attracted the attention of the German authorities, who were suspicious of any organization that appeared to have subversive tendencies. A young corporal, Adolf Hitler, was sent by German army intelligence to investigate the DAP. While attending a party meeting, Hitler got involved in a heated political argument and made an impression on the other party members with his oratory skills. He was invited to join, and, after some deliberation, chose to accept. Among the party’s earlier members were Rudolf Hess, Hans Frank and Alfred Rosenberg, all later prominent in the Nazi regime.

Early years of the Nazi party: 1920-1925

Hitler became the 55th member of the DAP, but he later claimed to be member number seven (he was in fact the seventh executive member of the party’s central committee). Over the following months, the DAP continued to attract new members, while remaining too small to have any real significance in German politics. On 24 February 1920, the party added "National Socialist" to its official name, becoming the National Socialist German Workers' Party (NSDAP), although Hitler earlier suggested the party to be renamed the "Social Revolutionary Party"; it was Rudolf Jung who persuaded Hitler to follow the NSDAP naming.

Hitler soon discovered that he had talent as an orator, and his ability to draw new members, combined with his characteristic ruthlessness, soon made him the dominant figure in a small party. This was recognised by Drexler, and Hitler became party chairman on 28 July 1921. When the party had been first established, it consisted of a Leadership Board elected by the members, which in turn elected a Board Chairman. Hitler soon scrapped this arrangement. He 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): Hitler was the sole leader of the party and he alone decided its policies and strategy. Hitler at this time saw the party as a revolutionary organisation, whose aim was the violent 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 (also known as Brownshirts and storm troopers) were founded as a party militia in 1921 and began violent attacks on other parties.

Unlike some other party members, Hitler was less interested in the "socialist" aspect of "national socialism". Himself of provincial lower-middle-class origins, he disliked the mass working class of the big cities, and had no sympathy with the notions of attacking private property or the business class (which some early Nazis espoused). For Hitler the twin goals of the party were always German nationalist expansionism and anti-Semitism. 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. Although the party’s 1925 program made some rhetorical concessions to the socialist element, this was never central to the party’s policies. 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, of Indian origin and supposedly a symbol of the "Aryan" race.

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, small businessmen and disaffected former members of rival parties. 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. Others to join the party at this time were former army officer Ernst Röhm, who became head of the SA, World War I flying ace Hermann Göring, and Heinrich Himmler. In December 1920 the party acquired a newspaper, the Völkischer Beobachter.

In 1922, a party with similar policies and objectives came into power in Italy, the National Fascist Party under the leadership of the charismatic Benito Mussolini. The Italian Fascists used a straight-armed Roman salute and wore blackshirted uniforms. Hitler was inspired by Mussolini and the Fascists and borrowed 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 which would materialize one year later.

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 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 postwar German army) 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). The 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. Hess, 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"). Meanwhile the Nazi Party effectively ceased to exist without his leadership, something he made no effort to prevent.

Rise to power of the Nazi party: 1925-1933

Hitler was released in December 1924. In the following year he effectively refounded 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 emphasised. In a sign of this, the party began to admit women. The SA and the SS (founded in April 1925 as Hitler’s bodyguard, commanded by Himmler) were described as "support groups," and all members of these groups had first to become regular party 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, Göring and Röhm. Beneath the Leadership Corps were the party’s regional leaders, the Gauleiters, each of whom commanded the party in his Gau (region). There were 34 Gaue for Germany and an additional seven for Austria, the Sudetenland (in Czechoslovakia), Danzig and the Saarland (then under French occupation). 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 anti-Semitic newspaper Der Stürmer. Beneath the Gauleiters were lower-level officials, the Kreisleiter (County Leader), Zellenleiter (Cell Leader) and Blockleiter (Block Leader). 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. The SA was composed largely of unemployed workers, and many SA men took the Nazis’ socialist rhetoric seriously. At this time the Nazi salute (borrowed from the Italian fascists) and the greeting "Heil Hitler!" were adopted throughout the party.

NSDAP election poster in Vienna in 1930. Translation: We demand freedom and bread.
NSDAP election poster in Vienna in 1930. Translation: We demand freedom and bread.

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 percent of the vote in the December 1924 Reichstag elections, and this fell to 2.6 percent 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 organisation to the head of the secretariat, Philipp Bouhler, the party treasurer Franz Xaver Schwarz and business manager Max Amann. The party also had a very capable propaganda head in Gregor Strasser, who was promoted to national organisational leader in January 1928. These men gave the party efficient recruitment and organisational structures. The party also owed its growth to the gradual fading away of competitor nationalist groups, such as the DNVP. As Hitler became the recognised head of the German nationalists, other groups declined or were absorbed.

1932 election poster: Labourers awake! Vote for the National Socialist German Workers' Party!
1932 election poster: "Labourers awake! Vote for the National Socialist German Workers' Party!"

The party also expanded successfully in the 1920s beyond its Bavarian base. In fact Catholic Bavaria and Westphalia, along with working-class "Red Berlin," were always the Nazis’ weakest areas electorally, and 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 gave a strong Nazi vote, while the workers of the Ruhr and Hamburg largely remained loyal to the SPD, the KPD or the Catholic Centre Party. Nuremberg remained a 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-class - farmers, public servants, teachers, small businessmen - who had suffered most from the inflation of the 1920s and who feared Bolshevism more than anything else. The small business class were receptive to Hitler’s anti-Semitism, since they blamed Jewish big business for their economic problems. University students, disappointed at being too young to have served in World War I and attracted by the Nazis’ radical rhetoric, also became a strong Nazi constituency. By 1929 the party had 130,000 members.

Despite these strengths, the Nazi Party might never have come to power had it not been for the Great Depression: By 1930 the German economy was beset with mass unemployment and widespread business failures. The SPD and the KPD parties 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 (also controlled by the Jews) resonated with wide sections of the electorate. At the September 1930 Reichstag elections the Nazis won 18.3 percent of the vote 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 appointment of Goebbels as the party’s propaganda chief was a major factor. While Strasser had used his position to promote his own version of national socialism, Goebbels was totally loyal to Hitler and worked only to burnish 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 KPD 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, 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 percent in the first round and 36.8 percent in the second. By now the SA had 400,000 members and its running street battles with the SPD and KPD 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 anti-Semitism 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.

At the July 1932 Reichstag election the Nazis made another leap forward, polling 37.4 percent and becoming the largest party in the Reichstag by a wide margin. Furthermore, the Nazis and the KPD between them won 52 percent 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 Stalin’s directives, the KPD maintained its 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 KPD accused each other of having facilitated Hitler’s rise to power by their unwillingness to compromise.

5-Reichsmark coins before (1936) and after adding the Nazi swastika (1938)
5-Reichsmark coins before (1936) and after adding the Nazi swastika (1938)
The Reichsadler during the time of Nazi rule, representing Nazi Germany as a national insignia (Hoheitszeichen)
The Reichsadler during the time of Nazi rule, representing Nazi Germany as a national insignia (Hoheitszeichen)

Chancellor Franz von Papen called another Reichstag election in November, hoping to find a way out of this impasse. The result was the same, with the Nazis and the KPD winning 50 percent 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 fell to 33.1 percent, 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 which eventually persuaded President Hindenburg that it was safe to appoint Hitler Reich Chancellor at the head of a cabinet which included only a minority of Nazi ministers, which he did on January 30, 1933.

Nazi Party Election Results
Date Votes (in thousands) Percentage Seats in Reichstag Background
May 1924 1,918.3 6.5 32 Hitler in prison
December 1924 907.3 3.0 14 Hitler is released from prison
May 1928 810.1 2.6 12  
September 1930 6,409.6 18.3 107 After the financial crisis
July 1932 13,745.8 37.4 230 After Hitler was candidate for presidency
November 1932 11,737.0 33.1 196  
March 1933 17,277.0 43.9 288 During Hitler's term as Chancellor of Germany

On February 27, 1933, the Reichstag building was set on fire. This Reichstag fire was promptly blamed on a communist conspiracy, and used as an excuse by the Nazis to close the KPD's offices, ban its press and arrest its leaders. Furthermore, Hitler convinced President von Hindenburg to sign the Reichstag Fire Decree, suspending most of the human rights provided for by the 1919 constitution of the Weimar Republic. A further decree enabled preventive detention of all communist leaders, amongst many thousands of others.

Since the new government lacked a majority in parliament, Hitler held a new election in March of 1933. With the communists eliminated, the Nazis dominated the election with 43.9%, and with their Nationalist (DNVP) allies, achieved a parliamentary majority (51.8%).

A further decisive step in the Nazi seizure of power (Gleichschaltung) was the so called "Enabling Act", which granted the cabinet - and therefore Hitler - legislative powers. The Enabling Act effectively abolished the separation of powers, which was a basic principle enshrined in the German Constitution. As such, the Act represented an amendment to the Constitution and required a two-thirds majority in parliament in order to pass. Hitler needed the votes of the Centre Party, which he obtained after promising certain guarantees to the Centre's chairman (Ludwig Kaas). The Centre Party's thirty-one votes, added to the votes of the fragmented middle-class parties, the Nationalists, and the NSDAP itself, gave Hitler the right to rule by decree and to further suspend many civil liberties. The communists were naturally opposed to the Enabling Act; but the KPD could not vote against it, since it had been banned. This left the SPD as the sole party in the Reichstag who stood against the Act, but their votes were not sufficient to block the Act's passing. As punishment for their dissent, the Social Democrats became the second party banned by the Nazis (on 22 June), following the move of their leadership to Prague.

The Enabling Act, termed for four years, gave the government the power to enact laws without parliamentary approval, to enact foreign treaties abroad and even to make changes to the Constitution. The Nazis did not keep their promises to their political allies, quickly banning all other parties just as they had banned the communists and socialists. Following this, the Nazi government banned the formation of new parties on July 14, 1933, turning Germany into a one-party state. Hitler kept the Reichstag as a rubber stamp parliament, while the Reichsrat, though never abolished, was stripped of any effective power. The legislative bodies of the German states soon followed in the same manner, with the German federal government taking over most state and local legislative powers.

Hitler also tried to incorporate the Churches into his new regime. On March 23, 1933 he had called them "most important factors" for the maintenance of German well-being. In regard to the Roman Catholic Church, he proposed a Reichskonkordat between Germany and the Holy See, that was signed in July. In regard to the Protestant Church, he used church elections to push the Nazi-inspired "German Christians" to power. This, however, provoked the internal opposition of the "Confessing Church".

Membership of the Hitler Youth was made compulsory for German teenagers, and served as a conveyor belt to party membership. But the Nazi Party did not immediately purge the state administration of all opponents. The career civil service was left in place, and only gradually were its senior levels taken over by Nazis. In some places people who were opposed to the Nazi regime retained their positions for a long time. Examples included Johannes Popitz, finance minister of the largest German state, Prussia, until 1944 and an active oppositionist, and Ernst von Weizsäcker, under-secretary of state at the Foreign Ministry, who protected a resistance network in his ministry. The armed forces banned party membership and retained their independence for some years.

Nevertheless the period 1933-39 saw the gradual fusion of the Nazi Party and the German state, as the party arrogated more and more power to itself at the expense of professional civil servants. This led to increasing inefficiency and confusion in administration, which was compounded by Hitler’s deliberate policy of preventing any of his underlings accumulating too much power, and of dividing responsibility among a plethora of state and party bureaucracies, many of which had overlapping functions. This administrative muddle later had severe consequences. Many party officials also lapsed rapidly into corruption, taking their lead from Göring, who looted and plundered both state property and wealth appropriated from the Jews. By the mid-1930s the party as an institution was increasingly unpopular with the German public, although this did not effect the personal standing of Hitler, who maintained a powerful hold over the great majority of the German people until at least 1943.

The SA under Röhm’s leadership soon became a major problem for the party. Many of the 700,000 members of this well-armed working-class militia took the "socialist" element of "national socialism" seriously, and soon began to demand that the Nazi regime broaden its attack from SPD and KPD activists and Jews to also include the capitalist system. In addition, Röhm and his associates saw the SA as the army of the new revolutionary Nazi state, replacing the old aristocratic officer corps. The army was still outside party control, and Hitler feared that it might stage a putsch if its leaders felt threatened with an SA takeover. The business community was also alarmed by the SA’s socialist rhetoric, with which, as noted earlier, Hitler had no sympathy.

In June 1934, therefore, Hitler, using the SS and Gestapo under Himmler’s command, staged a coup against the SA, having Röhm and about 700 others killed. This Night of the Long Knives broke the power of the SA, while greatly increasing the power of Himmler and the SS, who emerged as the real executive arm of the Nazi Party. The business community was reassured and largely reconciled to Nazi rule. The army leaders were so grateful that the Defence Minister, Werner von Blomberg, who was not a Nazi, on his own initiative had all army members swear a personal oath to Hitler as "führer" of the German state. These events marked a decisive turning point in the Nazi takeover of Germany. The borders between the party and the state became increasingly blurred, and Hitler’s personal will increasingly had the force of law, although the independence of the state bureaucracy was never completely eclipsed.

The flag of the NSDAP
The flag of the NSDAP, which became one of two official German national flags in 1933 (the other being the Imperial black-white-red tricolour). In 1935, the flag became Germany's sole national flag until 1945.

The effect of the purge of the SA was to redirect the energies of the Nazi Party away from social issues and towards racial enemies, namely the Jews, whose civil, economic and political rights were steadily restricted, culminating in the passage of the Nuremberg Laws of September 1935, which stripped them of their citizenship and banned marriage and sexual relations between Jews and "Aryans". After a lull in anti-Semitic agitation during 1936 and 1937 (partly because of the 1936 Olympic Games), the Nazis returned to the attack in November 1938, launching the pogrom known as Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass), in which at least 100 Jews were killed, 30,000 arrested and sent to concentration camps, and thousands of Jewish homes, businesses, synagogues and community facilities were attacked and burned. This satisfied the party radicals for a while, but the regional party bosses remained a persistent lobby for more radical action against the Jews, until they were finally deported to their deaths in 1942 and 1943.

Paradoxically, the more completely the Nazi regime dominated German society, the less relevant the Nazi Party became as an organisation within the regime’s power structure. Hitler’s rule was highly personalised, and the power of his subordinates such as Himmler and Goebbels depended on Hitler’s favour and their success in interpreting his desires rather than on their nominal positions within the party. Unlike the Soviet Communist Party under Stalin, the Nazi Party had no governing body or formal decision-making process - no Politburo, no Central Committee, no Party Congresses. The "party chancellery" headed by Hess theoretically ran the party, but in reality it had no influence because Hess himself was a marginal figure within the regime. It was not until 1941, when Hess flew off on a quixotic "peace mission" to Britain, and was succeeded by Martin Bormann, that the party chancellery regained its power - but this was mainly because Hitler had a high opinion of Bormann and allowed him to act as his political secretary. Real power in the regime was exercised by an axis of Hitler’s office, Himmler’s SS and Goebbels’s Propaganda Ministry.

War and eclipse

With the outbreak of war in 1939, the party to some extent came back into its own, particularly after 1941 as the war dragged on and the military situation began to turn against Germany. As Hitler withdrew from domestic matters to concentrate on military matters, leaving no one in a position to make decisions, civil administration ground to a halt and the German state became steadily more disorganised and ineffective. In these circumstances the Gauleiters, who were nearly all old-guard Nazis and fanatical Hitler loyalists, increasingly took control of rationing, labour direction, the allocation of housing, air-raid protection and the issuing of the multiplicity of permits Germans needed to carry on their lives and businesses. They served to some extent as ombudsmen for the citizenry against a remote and ineffective state. They also agitated for the removal of the remaining Jews from Germany, using the shortage of housing in German cities as a result of Allied bombing as a pretext. As the Allied armies closed in on Germany, the Gauleiters often took charge of last-ditch resistance: Karl Hanke’s prolonged defence of Breslau was an outstanding example. In Berlin the teenagers of the Hitler Youth, under the direction of their fanatical leader Artur Axmann, fought and died in large numbers against the invading Soviet armies.

The army was the last area of the German state to succumb to the Nazi Party, and it never did so entirely. The pre-1933 Reichswehr had banned its members joining political parties, and this was maintained for some time after 1933. Nazis of military age joined the Waffen SS, the military wing of the SS. But in 1938 both Defence Minister Blomberg and the army chief of staff, General Werner von Fritsch, were removed from office after trumped-up scandals. Hitler made himself Defence Minister, and the new army leaders, Generals Franz Halder and Walther von Brauchitsch, were in awe of Hitler and unable to openly oppose his will. Nevertheless Halder actively supported unsuccessful plans to stage a coup and remove Hitler from power during the 1938 crisis over Czechoslovakia, and again in 1939. Brauchitsch knew of these plans but would not support them. Only after 1939 the ban on Nazis joining the German Army - traditionally a stronghold of Protestant monarchist conservatism opposed to any mass political movements - was lifted, and a number of generals, notably Walther von Reichenau and Walter Model, became fanatical Nazis. It was not until 1944 that a group of officers opposed to the Nazi regime staged a serious attempt to overthrow Hitler in the July 20 plot, but they never had the full support of the officer corps. The German Navy however was always firmly loyal to Hitler and its commander, Karl Dönitz, was Hitler's designated successor in 1945.

By 1945 the Nazi Party and the Nazi state were no longer capable of separation. When the German armies surrendered to the Allies in May 1945 and the German state ceased to exist, the Nazi Party, despite its 8.5 million nominal members and its nationwide organisational structure, also ceased to exist. Its most fanatical members either killed themselves, fled Germany or were arrested. The rank-and-file burned their party cards and sought to blend back into German society as quickly as possible. By the end of the war Nazism had been reduced to little more than loyalty to the person of Adolf Hitler, and his death released most Nazis from their oaths and any desire to keep the party alive. In his Political Testament, Hitler appointed Bormann "Party Minister," but nominated no successor as leader of the party - a recognition that a Nazi Party without Hitler had no basis for existence. The Nazi Party was formally banned by the Allied occupation authorities and an extensive process of denazification was carried out to remove former Nazis from the administration, judiciary, universities, schools and press of occupied Germany. There was virtually no resistance or attempt to organise a Nazi underground. By the time normal political life resumed in western Germany in 1949, Nazism was effectively extinct. In eastern Germany, the new Communist authorities took their vengeance on any former high-ranking Nazis that they could find, and the survival of any kind of Nazi movement was out of the question.

Since 1949 there have been several attempts to organise ultra-nationalist parties in Germany, but none of these parties were overtly Nazi or tried to use the symbols and slogans of the Nazi Party - as Germans correctly point out, there are many more Nazis in the United States (and now in Russia) than there are in Germany. The German Reich Party (Deutsche Reichspartei, DRP), containing many former Nazis, had five members in the first Bundestag elected in 1949, but they were defeated in 1953. By the 1960s its chairman Adolf von Thadden realised it had no future and it was wound up in 1964. Thadden (whose half-sister Elisabeth von Thadden was executed by the Nazis for her role in the German Resistance), then formed a new, broader party, the National Democratic Party of Germany (Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands, NPD), which still exists, led today by Udo Voigt. The NPD has survived several attempts to have it banned by the Federal Constitutional Court as a neo-Nazi party. It has occasionally won seats in the Landtags of several German states, primarily in the territories of the former German Democratic Republic, but has never reached the 5 percent threshold needed to win seats in the Bundestag. The NPD had 5,300 registered party members in 2004, and its main platform is opposition to immigration.

Party composition

General membership

The general membership of the Nazi Party, known as the Parteimitglieder, 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. The largest occupational group were medical doctors.

When it came to power in 1933 the Nazi Party had over 2 million members. Once in power, it attracted many more members and by the time of its dissolution it had 8.5 million members. Many of these were nominal members who joined for careerist reasons, but the party nevertheless had an active membership of at least a million, including virtually all the holders of senior positions in the national government.

Military membership

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 such figures as Reinhard Heydrich and Fritz Todt joining the Luftwaffe, and Major Ronald von Brysonstofen of the Waffen SS, as well as Karl Hanke who served in the Army.

Student membership

In 1926 the NSDAP formed a special division to engage the student population, known as the National Socialist German Students' League (NSDtB).

Paramilitary groups

In addition to the NSDAP proper, several paramilitary groups existed which "supported" Nazi aims. All such 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 Service
  • 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.

Nazi party symbols

  • Nazi Flags: The Nazi party used a right-facing swastika as their symbol and the red and black colors were said to represent Blut und Boden (blood and soil). Black, white, and red were in fact the colors of the old North German Confederation flag (invented by Otto von Bismarck, based on the Prussian colors black and white). 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 colors of the nationalists through the following history (for example World War I and the Weimar Republic).
  • Swastika
  • German Eagle: The Nazi party used the traditional German eagle in a martialized Nazi style, standing atop of a swastika inside a wreath of oak leaves. When the eagle is looking to its left shoulder, it symbolizes the Nazi party, and was therefore called the Parteiadler. In contrast, when the eagle is looking to its right shoulder, it symbolizes the country (Reich), and was therefore called the Reichsadler. After the Nazi party came to power in Germany, they forced the replacement of the traditional version of the German eagle with their modified party symbol throughout the country and all its institutions.

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