It’s July 1921, and in Germany the small National Socialist German Workers’ Party meets in to select a new Führer – and his name is Adolf Hitler: https://youtu.be/vpScjaYzwoA
More than two years after the 1918 armistice, the post-war German republic was still politically unstable after numerous uprisings and coup attempts from right and left-wing groups. The failure of the Kapp-Putsch in March 1920 had shattered the hopes of right-wingers to overthrow the democratic system and re-establish autocratic rule for the time being. Some joined underground terrorist networks, and one would rise to lead the rapidly growing radical party. So today we’ll take a look at Adolf Hitler, the Nazi Party, and political violence in Germany in summer 1921 – and it all happened 100 years ago.
When the Kapp Putsch took place in early 1920 Adolf Hitler was an-up-and-coming member of the future National Socialist German Workers’ Party, or NSDAP. He and his political mentor Dietrich Eckart rushed to Berlin, but they arrived just as the coup was collapsing. This actually saved Hitler’s political reputation in the fallout after the fact.
The main lesson that Hitler and Eckhart took from Kapp’s failure was that they could not overcome the united power of the workers who had stopped the Kapp Putsch with a general strike. So they decided to try to win over working-class Germans to the Nazi Party using their concept of “Volksgemeinschaft,” a kind of ethnic national community, to lure workers away from the appeal of Marxist class struggle.
Rudolf Hess, who was one of Hitler’s closest confidants and admirers, described the party’s new strategy:
“Over half of all [party] members are manual workers, which is a far higher share than in all other non-Marxist parties. Germany’s future primarily depends on whether we can return the worker to the National ideal. In this regard, I see the most success in this movement - that is why I fight among their ranks.” (Weber 227)
One important tool in winning over German workers to the tiny party was the acquisition of a newspaper. The problem was, the party had attracted relatively few wealthy donors and was constantly short of cash. In December 1920, Eckhardt used his own funds to top up party fundraising, and the Nazi party bought the Völkischer Beobachter newspaper for 120,000 marks.
The party had increased membership from 200 to 2000 in 1920, and with the newspaper, membership increased from 2000 to 3200 in the first half of 1921. The rapid increase in popularity allowed the NSDAP to host more and more political events in Bavaria. On December 13, 1920, they organised 10 major events on a single evening, each of which was attended by hundreds of people. Hitler’s speeches were the main draw for these events, and he spoke at all of them. On February 3, 1921, Hitler gave his most significant speech yet, and a crowd of 6500 listeners gave him a standing ovation before singing the national anthem.
Under Eckhart’s guidance and financial support, Hitler had developed his political and antisemitic ideas, and he had also improved his skills as a speaker. He knew how to work a crowd and always emphasized what he saw as the harshness of the Versailles Treaty, the threat of International Jewry, and the deceitfulness of Marxism.
"[…] We were the first to declare that this peace treaty was a crime. Then people abused us as 'agitators.' […] we called on the people not to surrender their arms, for the surrender of one's arms would be nothing less than the beginning of enslavement. We were called, no, we were shouted down as 'agitators.' We were the first to say that this meant the loss of Upper Silesia. So it was, and still they called us 'agitators.' […] And because we opposed the mad financial policy which today will lead to our collapse, what was it that we were called repeatedly once more? 'Agitators.’” (Hitler, weblink)
Hitler became the party’s main attraction, and he went on speaking tours in Southern Germany and Austria with the party’s second-best speaker Hermann Esser. In these early performances, Hitler always presented himself not as the leader of the party, which he wasn’t, but the voice of the party paving the way for its future leader.
In May 1921, Hitler, Hess, and the Nazi Party Committee were invited to meet with Bavarian Prime Minister von Kahr and Munich police chief Ernst Pöhner. The government officials wanted to get a better idea of the NSDAP’s political agenda, and it became clear that they had much in common. Chief Pöhner was a radical nationalist and anti-Marxist and expressed sympathy with Hitler’s views, though the meeting stopped short of any formal cooperation.
So by May 1921 the NSDAP had gotten noticed by local authorities, but the party was still tiny. Inside the party, Esser and first chairman Anton Drexler began to ask tough questions about how to take the next step. And the party committee debated about how they could consolidate the fragmented political right and other Voelkisch, or social nationalist, groups under one banner. Drexler wanted to advance the cause within the parliamentary system, and merge with like-minded groups in Germany, Austria, and the German-speaking parts of Czechoslovakia.
But one influential member opposed these ideas: Adolf Hitler. He saw violent revolution as the party’s path to success, and he firmly opposed any compromises with other parties:
“The struggle will not be led by the majorities won by parties in parliamentary elections, but by the only majority that, as long as it has existed on this earth, has shaped the fortunes of states and peoples: the majority of force, greater will, and energy. This force is to be unleashed without concern for the number of people killed as a consequence. To be a true German today does not mean being a dreamer, but a revolutionary, it means not being satisfied with mere scientific conclusions, but to take up those conclusions with a passionate will to turn words into actions.” (Weber 224)
So in early 1921 the Nazi Party was growing thanks to Hitler’s speeches and its new newspaper. But while Hitler’s uncompromising approach won him admirers and followers, it also made him some enemies.
In July 1921, Hitler travelled to Berlin to speak in nationalist clubs and meet other right-wing radicals. He met Freikorps officers, politicians, some sympathetic aristocrats, and he met with General Erich Ludendorff for the first time. But his visit was cut short by a call from Esser, who told that there was treachery within the party.
On July 10th, first party-chairman Drexler took advantage of Hitler’s absence. He invited several social nationalist party leaders to NSDAP headquarters for merger. Among them was Deutsche Werkgemeinschaft leader Otto Dickel, a talented speaker who advocated economic socialism and antisemitism.
Hitler rushed back to Munich to stop the meeting, which led to the culmination of an internal Nazi power struggle that had been brewing for months. Drexler and others worried that Hitler was too extreme and were fed up with his egomaniacal character. Now that they had Dickel with them, the committee decided on a confrontation. In front of the entire committee, Dickel criticized Hitler and condemned the party program as deceiving. Hitler tried to interrupt but Dickel got the better of him in the ensuing shouting match. Hitler stormed out of the meeting and quit the party the next day.
It’s not clear if Hitler actually wanted to leave the party for good, or if this was one of his all-or-nothing gambles. Whatever the reason, his exit triggered a massive crisis in the party.
Hitler allies Dietrich Eckhart and Rudolf Hess sprang into action to rally donors and the party base in Hitler’s favor. Pressure from party membership was so intense that the leadership reversed its position within days. Drexler knew that Hitler was the main reason for the party’s growth, and asked him what it would take for him to come back. Hitler had a long list of demands. He had to become 1st chairman with dictatorial powers; the party’s headquarters were to stay in Munich and the name could not be changed; and all talks with other parties were to stop at once.
Once more Hitler was able to turn a power struggle to his advantage, but he also showed a willingness to risk everything even after his success. His extreme demands and behavior upset Drexler so much he asked the Munich police to arrest Hitler for inciting revolution and violence. But Chief Poehner simply sent him away. Then an anonymous flyer appeared at party headquarters calling Hitler a power-hungry traitor. The flyer also portrayed him as a madman, a Jewish conspirator, and a British spy who spent party money on drugs and prostitutes.
But when it came time to vote on Hitler’s demands on July 29, 553 of the 554 members present voted to accept them. The party committee had this to say to Hitler:
“In recognition of your immense knowledge, your sacrifice and voluntary service for the flourishing of the movement, your rare talent as a speaker, the committee is ready to grant you dictatorial powers.” (Fest 206)
Hitler’s popularity had silenced his critiques within the party. Senior members were even ready to expel Drexler, though in the end he was symbolically named honorary chairman. Hitler rejoined the party as Member number 3680, and was appointed Fuehrer of the party on July 29, 1921. He now exercised near total control, which previous chairmen did not. This was an important change, because from then on the Nazi Party actively struggled against parliamentary democracy in Germany. That very same evening Hitler celebrated with his supporters at the Krone Circus building in Munich. For the first time, the crowd shouted “unser Führer”, our leader, to Hitler for the first time.
With Drexler and the party committee sidelined, Hitler began to promote his loyal followers within the NSDAP, and bring in cronies from outside. Max Amann, Hitler’s superior from his army days in the Great War, became party manager. He implemented a strict hierarchy modelled on the military. Eckhart became the editor-in-chief of the party newspaper, which began to indirectly present Hitler as a messiah-like Fuehrer-in-waiting for Germany. Hitler, according to the paper, would reveal conspiracies against the German people and knew who their true enemies really were.
Rudolf Hess summed up the party’s vision of its ideal leader:
“And so we have the image of a dictator: a sharp mind, clear and true, passionate but then controlled, cold and audacious, goal-oriented and firm, without restraint in taking rapid action, ruthless with himself and others, merciless and hard but tender in his love for his people, tireless in his work, with an iron first in a velvet glove. And capable in the end of self-mastery. We don’t yet know when this man will come. But millions feel that he will.” (Fest 208)
So Hitler had won the power struggle inside the Nazi Party and set it on an even more radical path. The next step on that path was the formation of a paramilitary organization.
The first step towards a paramilitary wing of the Nazi Party in 1921 came in August. Hitler and party militant Ernst Röhm created the Sport-Abteilung, or SA, the party’s official gymnastics and sports section. Unofficially, it was the armed wing of the party – which was a common thing in post-war Germany. Among the most famous political paramilitary groups was the Social Democratic Party’s Erhard-Auer-Garde, named after Bavarian politician Erhard Auer, and which had repeatedly attacked NSDAP members. Hitler never left his residence unarmed and always had bodyguards around him, but the SA would be far more than a bodyguard. It was to be an offensive weapon to conquer the streets of Munich, and it was soon renamed Sturmabteilung, or attack section. Hitler called it the battering ram of the party:
“[The SA] should unite our young members in an iron organization to give their strength to the movement as a battering ram. It should be the standard-bearer of the defensive spirit of a free people. It should provide protection for the Führer work of enlightenment.” (Bruppacher 97)
In the Germany of 1921, there were many willing hands for political street violence. Back in June, the government had ordered paramilitary groups like the Freikorps to be disbanded, so former Freikorpsmen formed a pool of former soldiers, adventurers, outlaws and radical youth. The SA’s military-style culture, uniforms, and ranks were familiar to the men, most of whom were not workers. Most of the SA members were from the middle and lower middle class: clerks, shopkeepers, or lower-ranking officials. In pre-war Germany, these kinds of people had no chance for advancement in the social system, but the war suddenly gave them meaningful positions in the army. Now that the war was over, there was no place for them in a German army reduced by the Treaty of Versailles. Once the Freikorps were forbidden, their resentment, experience with violence, and need for hierarchy were a perfect match for the SA.
The SA started out with armbands but son moved on to grey jackets before adopting the infamous brown shirts later on. It also didn’t start out as the disciplined ideological legion Hitler envisioned. They marched through villages and towns singing songs, put up propaganda posters, and tore down republican and socialist banners. They also clashed with their political enemies like the Communists and Social Democrats, and broke up public events like concerts.
Hitler planned an even greater role for the SA in the future. He thought that Marxism was successful because it combined violence and ideology, whereas moderate conservative politics separated the two. Hitler didn’t just want the SA to be violent, he wanted it to embody terror and inspire fear:
“People need a healthy dose of terror. They want to fear something. They want someone to scare them so they can tremble and throw themselves under someone else’s protection. Haven’t you noticed that after fights it’s those who got beaten up that are the first to become new party members? Why are you blathering away about cruelty and suffering? The masses want that. They need something horrible.” (Fest 210)
So the Nazi Party had established the SA as its new paramilitary wing to spread violence and fear – but they were not the only group on the far-right using political terror in the summer of 1921.
Bavaria in 1921 was not only the home of the growing Nazi Party, it was also a safe haven for many of the plotters in the failed Kapp Putsch of 1920. They saw Bavaria as a counter to Berlin and the socialist strongholds in central and western Germany, especially because the Kapp Putsch had a partial success in forcing out the Social Democratic government in Munich. The new conservative government under state president and monarchist Gustav Ritter von Kahr turned a blind eye to the conspirators hiding out in the state.
One of the fugitives was Hermann Ehrhardt, who had led the Freikorps Marine-Brigade in the Berlin coup. Now he was wanted for high treason, but escaped to Munich, where he and other ex-Freikorps extremists formed a terrorist group called Organisation Consul. In remote castles and monasteries in the Bavarian countryside, they stashed weapons and planned to continue the fight against the democratic republic by assassinating political enemies.
By August 1921 they had extended their underground network throughout Germany, gained about 5000 members, and had sleeper cells in most major cities. The “Consul” considered itself one the most radical anti-marxist, anti-republican, and antisemitic groups in Germany. All members had to prove they were of ethnic German origin and, as they saw it, free of Jewish blood. Members started fake businesses through which they laundered money they made selling weapons to the Irish Republican Army and German militias in Upper Silesia. They were hiding in plain sight.
The leaders of the Consul were somewhat ambivalent towards Hitler and his party. Hitler had considered Hermann Ehrhardt for the leadership of the SA, but privately Ehrhardt referred to Hitler as an idiot. But many other Consul members and affiliates, like Julius Schreck and Joseph Berchtold, did join the Nazi Party, the SA, and Hitler’s bodyguard. Despite the ties between the two organizations, the Consul had plans of its own – to shake Germany with terrorist assassinations.
One of its first targets was former Finance Minister Matthias Erzberger of the Catholic Centre Party, a longtime enemy of the nationalist right. Back in 1917 he had pushed for a negotiated peace to end the war, and in 1918 he signed the armistice that stopped the fighting on behalf of the German government. As Finance Minister, Erzberger was also involved in making war reparations payments to the Allies, which he partially funded by tax raises for wealthy Germans. The Consul and other radicals viewed him as personally responsible for Germany’s post-armistice suffering.
Erzberger had already survived an assassination attempt against him in Berlin in January 1920, when a former army-officer had shot at him twice. He was wounded in the shoulder and psychologically traumatized. Afterwards he told his daughter that the bullet that would eventually kill him had already been cast, and he was right.
In August 1921, Kapitänleutnant Manfred von Killinger of “Organisation Consul” ordered Erzberger’s murder. Two former navy officers who had served with Freikorps Oberland were selected to carry out the assassination. On August 26, they ambushed Erzberger while he was walking in the Black Forest, shooting him 6 times. After he collapsed, the assassins shot him twice more in the head.
So in summer 1921 there were more troubling signs for the future of republican democracy in Germany. The Nazi Party was still small but growing, and was now under the leadership of the radical and violent Adolf Hitler. At the same time, the terrorists of the Organization Consul were strengthening their network and had assassinated a public figure in cold blood. The radical right was on the rise in Germany, and the streetfighting of the Nazi SA and the assassinations of the Consul were ominous signs of things to come.
- Bruppacher, Paul: Adolf Hitler und die Geschichte der NSDAP. Teil 1: 1889 bis 1937. 2009.
- Fest, Joachim: Hitler. Eine Biographie. 1973.
- Ullrich, Volker: Adolf Hitler. Band 1: Die Jahre des Aufstiegs 1889-1939. 2013.
- Weber, Thomas: Becoming Hitler. The making of a Nazi. 2017.
- Hitler, Adolf. Speech of April 12, 1921 https://history.hanover.edu/courses/excerpts/111hit1.html