An Assembly of the Discontented

“It is just a well-organized, semi-hysterical assembly of the discontented.”

Thus did the New York Times’s Frederick Birchall dismiss the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei in late March 1932. But the Nazi Party’s power was growing.

The Great Depression in Germany triggered extremist campaigns to revive both economy and society, the most important being the Nazis.

Their leader, Adolf Hitler, had just received 11 million votes (30 percent) in Germany’s presidential election, versus 18 million (49 percent) for the incumbent, World War I General Paul von Hindenburg, forcing a second round of voting.

The Nazi Party, which had repudiated both the Weimar Republic and the Versailles Treaty’s punishing reparations, while denouncing Jews and bankers with equal vehemence, was successfully using propaganda to gain support.

After a two-week Easter break, propagandizing resumed, both for the April 10 presidential runoff and for state-assembly elections in Prussia and elsewhere on April 24. The latter was especially important in German politics, as Prussia accounted for almost 55 percent of the nation’s voters.

This made Nazi control of Prussia even more dangerous, as the New York Times wrote, for “whoever holds Prussia has the Reich.”

Both state and national governments tried to limit Hitler’s reach, barring him (but not von Hindenburg) from giving radio addresses and forbidding Nazi storm-trooper assemblies.

Keeping the Fuehrer off the airwaves was important, Richard von Kuehlmann, a former German foreign minister, told the New York Times. Hitler’s movement had gained influence due to his “appreciation of the importance of the human voice as the best advertising medium.”

“If you hear reports of the astounding success of Hitler’s movement,” he said, “it is because of his theory of working by means of constant spoken appeal addressed to the masses.”

As expected in the runoff, von Hindenburg outpaced both Hitler and Ernst Thaelmann, the Communist Party standard bearer, securing re-election.

But the vote totals showed troubling patterns. Von Hindenburg recorded 700,000 new votes, but Hitler added 1.8 million, gaining almost three-quarters of the ballots released by smaller parties dropping out.

This apparent momentum encouraged Hitler’s militancy, and the Nazis took up the slogan "Now for Prussia."

“On April 24, we will again try conclusions with the enemy," Hitler said."Some time the day must and will come when we will carry our flag in a final victory.”

As the election neared, the Prussian assembly amended election laws to require an absolute majority of delegates’ votes to select a premier, expecting that all other parties would rally to obstruct a Nazi-dominated state government.

The Nazi Party had held only nine seats in the retiring legislature; voters sent 162 Nazis into the new assembly, which, although well below the majority of its 422 seats, all but wiped out rival right-wing parties.

Hitler’s allies also advanced substantially in the four other state elections, but the new rules brought a months-long deadlock over Prussia’s leadership.

Nonetheless, Time magazine reported: “Orderly Germans marched on toward a Fascist form of government last week.”

The New York Times wrote: “A wave of Hitlerism is sweeping Austria,” which was “on the brink of bankruptcy” and desperately needed foreign help. This, some extremists argued, could readily be achieved through Anschluss -- merging Austria into the German Reich.

Hitler may have been promising only “unworkable utopias,” as the Times reported, but his “ultranationalist gospel” was winning millions of new supporters.

(Philip Scranton is a Board of Governors professor of the history of industry and technology at the University of Rutgers at Camden and the editor-in-chief of Enterprise and Society. He writes "This Week in the Great Depression" for the Echoes blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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