The popularity of the Nazis

The popularity of the Nazis therefore stemmed from an accurate reading of the public mood; the adoption of a program that combined a rather dissonant assortment of nationalist, socialist, and anti-Semitic slogans; and the fact that, in Adolf Hitler, the party had a charismatic leader.

The beginnings of Hitler’s career did not presage his later success. When he left prison after an unsuccessful coup attempt in Munich (1924), the German economy was just recovering its equilibrium, and the democratic system of the Weimar Republic was showing signs of stabilization. This significantly reduced the susceptibility of the Germans to radical slogans. Hitler therefore concentrated on rebuilding the party structure and enhancing his own image as a politician who was uncompromising yet responsible. Then he waited for his chance.

It came soon enough, with the onset of the worldwide Great Depression in 1929. The economic crisis left millions unemployed and placed many Germans in a truly precarious situation. Since the traditional political partiers were patently incapable of coping with the crisis, voters proved ready to support anyone who could offer a convincing explanation of the causes of the crash, and who could propose a solution. The most desperate among them saw it as a straight choice between the communists and the Nazis. The former placed the blame for the depression on big business, and pointed to the contradictions inherent in the capitalist system; although these explanations convinced some, they were too complicated and abstract to win over the majority of the public. The Nazis, on the other hand, had a simpler answer: it was all the fault of the Jews, who were capitalists and communists at the same time; depriving the Jews of their influence over the economy and the state administration would automatically lead, the Nazis claimed, to increased prosperity and a recovered sense of social safety.

However, it would be a mistake to see the reasons for the Nazi electoral successes of 1930-1933 as limited to the exploitation of antisemitism rooted deep in the national psyche. Besides his call for reducing the role of the Jews, Hitler offered the Germans a relatively coherent vision of national greatness, in which history and geopolitics destined Germany for the leading role in Europe. This vision swept many off their feet. They regarded the recovery of the territory lost during World War I, the integration into Germany of German-populated areas in neighboring states, and an as yet undefined form of hegemony over the other countries of Central and Eastern Europe, populated by racially inferior peoples, as right and just. Some Germans learned with satisfaction that there was a credible, “scientific” justification for their intuitive belief in their superiority not only to the Jews and Roma, but also to the Slavs. To turn this vision into reality, it would suffice to gather together all the strength of the nation and submit to the leadership of Adolf Hitler, who always knew best what needed to be done, and who was always right.