The Nazi Resurrection
In the German election, May 1928 the Party achieved just 12 seats (2.8% of the vote) in the Reichstag. The highest provincial gain was again in Bavaria (5.11%), though in three areas the NSDAP failed to gain even 1% of the vote. Overall the NSDAP gained 2.63% (810,127) of the vote. At this time the SA began a period of deliberate antagonism to the Rotfront by marching into Communist strongholds and starting violent altercations.
At the end of 1928, party membership was recorded at 130,000. In March 1929, Erich Ludendorff represented the Nazi party in the Presidential elections. He gained 280,000 votes (1.1%), and was the only candidate to poll fewer than a million votes. The battles on the streets grew increasingly violent. After the Rotfront interrupted a speech by Hitler, the SA marched into the streets of Nuremberg and killed two bystanders. In a tit-for-tat action, the SA stormed a Rotfront meeting on August 25 and days later the Berlin headquarters of the KPD itself. In September Goebbels led his men into Neukölln, a KPD stronghold, and the two warring parties exchanged pistol and revolver fire.
On 14 January 1930 Horst Wessel got into an argument with his landlady – the Nazis said it was about rent, but the Communists alleged it was over Wessel’s soliciting of prostitution on her premises – which would have fatal consequences. The landlady happened to be a member of the KPD, and contacted one of her Rotfront friends, Albert Hochter, who shot Wessel in the head at point-blank range. Wessel had penned a song months before his death, which would become Germany’s national anthem for 12 years as the Horst-Wessel-Lied. Goebbels also seized upon the attack (and the two weeks Wessel spent on his deathbed) to premier the song. The funeral was designed to be a propaganda opportunity for the Nazis, however the Rotfront stole Wessel’s wreath and wrote ‘pimp’ onto it. Along with Horst Wessel, the year 1930 resulted in more deaths in political violence than the previous two years combined.
On 1 April Hannover enacted a law banning the Hitlerjugend, and Goebbels was convicted of high treason at the end of May. Bavaria banned all political uniforms on 2 June, and on 11 June Prussia prohibited the wearing of SA brown shirts and associated insignia. The next month Prussia passed a law against its officials holding membership in either the NSDAP or KPD. Later in July, Goebbels was again tried, this time for ‘public insult’, and fined. The government also placed army officers on trial for ‘forming national socialist cells’.
Against this violent backdrop, Hitler’s party gained a shocking victory in the Reichstag, obtaining 107 seats (18.3%, 6,406,397 votes). The Nazis became the second largest party in Germany. In Bavaria the party gained 17.9% of the vote, though for the first time this percentage was exceeded by most other provinces: Oldenburg (27.3%), Braunschweig (26.6%), Waldeck (26.5%), Mecklenburg-Strelitz (22.6%), Lippe (22.3%) Mecklenburg-Schwerin (20.1%), Anhalt (19.8%), Thuringen (19.5%), Baden (19.2%), Hamburg (19.2%), Prussia (18.4%), Hessen (18.4%), Sachsen (18.3%), Lubeck (18.3%) and Schaumburg-Lippe (18.1%).
An unprecedented amount of money was thrown behind the campaign. Well over one million pamphlets were produced and distributed; sixty trucks were commandeered for use in Berlin alone. In areas where NSDAP campaigning was less rigorous, the total was as low as 9%. The Great Depression was also a factor in Hitler’s electoral success. Against this legal backdrop, the SA began its first major anti-Jewish action on 13 October 1930 when groups of brownshirts smashed the windows of Jewish-owned stores at Potsdamer Platz.
In March 10 1931, with street violence between the Rotfront and SA spiraling out of control, breaking all previous barriers and expectations, Prussia re-enacted its ban on brown shirts. Days after the ban SA-men shot dead two communists in a street fight, which led to a ban being placed on the public speaking of Goebbels, who side-stepped the prohibition by recording speeches and playing them to an audience in his absence.
Ernst Röhm, in charge of the SA, put Count Micah von Helldorff, a convicted murderer and vehement anti-Semite, in charge of the Berlin SA. The deaths mounted up, with many more on the Rotfront side, and by the end of 1931 the SA had 47 men killed, and the Rotfront recorded losses of approximately 80. Street fights and beer hall battles resulting in deaths occurred throughout February and April 1932, all against the backdrop of Adolf Hitler’s competition in the presidential election which pitted him against the monumentally popular Hindenburg. In the first round on 13 March, Hitler had polled over 11 million votes but was still behind Hindenburg. The second and final round took place on 10 April: Hitler (36.8% 13,418,547) lost out to Paul von Hindenburg (53.0% 19,359,983) whilst KPD candidate Thälmann gained a meager percentage of the vote (10.2% 3,706,759).
At this time, the Nazi party had just over 800,000 card-carrying members. Three days after the presidential elections, the German government passed the Law for the Maintenance of State Authority, which banned the NSDAP and its paramilitaries. This action was largely prompted by details which emerged at a trial of SA men for assaulting unarmed Jews in Berlin. But after less than a month the law was repealed by Franz von Papen, Chancellor of Germany, on 30 May. Such ambivalence about the fate of Jews was supported by the culture of anti-Semitism that pervaded the German public at the time.
Dwarfed by Hitler’s electoral gains, the KPD turned away from legal means and increasingly towards violence. One resulting battle in Silesia resulted in the army being dispatched, each shot sending Germany further into a potential all-out civil war. By this time both sides marched into each other’s strongholds hoping to spark rivalry. Hermann Göring, as speaker of the Reichstag, asked the Papen government to prosecute shooters. Laws were then passed which made political violence a capital crime.
The attacks continued, and reached fever pitch when SA storm leader Axel Schaffeld was assassinated. At the end of July, the Nazi party gained almost 14,000,000 votes, securing 230 seats in the Reichstag. Energised by the incredible results, Hitler asked to be made Chancellor. Papen offered the position of Vice Chancellor but Hitler refused.
Hermann Göring, in his position of Reichstag president, asked that decisive measures to be taken by the government over the spate in murders of national socialists. On 9 August, amendments were made to the Reichstrafgesetzbuch statute on ‘acts of political violence’, increasing the penalty to ‘lifetime imprisonment, 20 years hard labor or death’. Special courts were announced to try such offences, when in power less than half a year later, Hitler would use this legislation against his opponents with devastating effect.
The law was applied almost immediately but did not bring the perpetrators behind the recent massacres to trial as expected. Instead, five SA men who were alleged to have murdered a KPD member in Potempa (Upper Silesia) were tried. Adolf Hitler appeared at the trial as a defense witness, but on 22 August the five were convicted and sentenced to death. On appeal, this sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in early September. They would serve just over four months before Hitler freed all imprisoned Nazis in a 1933 amnesty.
The Nazi party lost 34 seats in the November 1932 election but remained the Reichstag’s largest party. The most shocking move of the early election campaign was to send the SA to support a Rotfront action against the transport agency and in support of a strike.
After Chancellor Papen left office, he secretly told Hitler that he still held considerable sway with President Hindenburg and that he would make Hitler chancellor as long as he, Papen, could be the vice chancellor. On 30 January 1933, Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor of a coalition government of the NSDAP-DNVP-Centre Party. The SA and SS led torchlight parades throughout Berlin. In the coalition government, three members of the cabinet were Nazis: Hitler, Wilhelm Frick (Minister of the Interior) and Hermann Göring (Minister Without Portfolio).
With Germans who opposed Nazism failing to unite against it, Hitler soon moved to consolidate absolute power.