Subversion: The Role of Politics and Pressure in the Nazi Rise to Power
Following the end of World War I, the people of Germany felt the consequences of their loss coupled with the reverberations of the American stock market crash. The effects of the Great Depression only trickled down slowly to the small German town of "Thalburg," the fictitious name of a real town whose privacy William Sheridan Allen wishes to protect throughout his work, The Nazi Seizure of Power. Attempting a democratic state in early twentieth century Germany was difficult at best, futile at worst. Using Thalburg as a microcosmic example of German social and political realities, Allen describes the Nazi rise to power as a function and result of divisions among the general populace. "In the wake of defeat came a revolution led by the working class which overthrew the Kaiser and established a republic in Germany," (p. 8). However, Allen soon points out that "the town (of Thalburg) soon became a relatively strong center for the violently rightist organization, Jung deutsche Orden...As in the Thirty Years War the town was rent by strife and inner cleavage," (p. 8). This "inner cleavage" was clearly represented by election statistics in 1925.
Thalburg symbolizes, for Allen, "all the conflicting loyalties and tensions of Weimar Germany," (p. 9). The town was religiously monotonous, being 86% Lutheran, but sharply divided along class lines. Although Thalburg was a "remarkably complex community for its size," Allen notes, "there were political divisions between left and right; there were class lines between worker and bourgeois; there were occupational lines between the stable and the insecure; there were areas of exclusion between the relative newcomers and the old families; there were religious and social divisions," (p. 10). Even the social clubs which served to unify community members from diverse backgrounds and economic strata began to develop political tendencies and became "infused with nationalism" by 1930. Because few of these clubs "cut across class lines" (p. 19), the town was deceptively uniform. On the surface the community exhibited an exceptional balance, but class divisions were evident in "almost every sphere of activity. This disunifying factor grew to be politically important, and under the impact of steadily declining economic conditions, politics became radicalized. In the years after 1930 this situation split Thalburg wide open, led to bloody riots and the deterioration of the democratic mood, and culminated in the Nazi seizure of power. The Nazi answer to the problem of class division was to abolish its expression by force," (p. 22). By the early 1930s the stage was set in Thalburg as in the whole of Germany for the rise to power of a radical group that promised rescue from economic uncertainty. The Great Depression provided a springboard from which the Nazis could capitalize on the fears of the populace.
The fabric of democracy in early Germany was weakly woven at best, tattered and throwaway at worst. As the town of Thalburg began to feel the effects of the world's economic depression, even as it was substantially isolated from it due to its lack of dependence on industry, the residents of the town fell pray to irrational fear. Irrational fear breeds radicalism, and it is through this phobic response that "the voice of the Nazi began to be heard," (p. 24). Gaining an image as hardworking, loyal, and steadfast, the Nazi political party (NSDAP) appealed to townspeople eager to embrace false promises. "To the average Thalburger the Nazis appeared vigorous, dedicated, and young," (p. 25). The Nazis succeeded in promoting themselves as genuine and honest. One prominent Thalburg resident, Walther Timmerlah, who was "exceedingly well liked in Thalburg," (p. 26) served as a tangible representative of Nazi values and morality. A prominent Lutheran, Timmerlah exemplified Nazi ideals and appealed to Thalburgers as an alternative to "the dominant political force in Thalburg," (p. 26), the Socialists (SPD). The Socialists came to represent the preservation of status quo, which by now was an unpopular idea. The Nazis painted the SPD red, labelling them as "Marxist," even though in practice the SPD was "Marxist' only in rhetoric," (p. 26). Thus began the Nazi's vigorous and vehement propaganda campaign.
The NSDAP would continue profit by demonizing extant political groups, especially the SPD. As early as March 1930, the Nazis sought opportunities to embarrass the Socialists: the staging of a parade "geared to conflict directly with the SPD's," (p. 27) was one of the NSDAP's greatest early successes. Rallying rural support, the Nazis managed to bring over two thousand people to a nearby village. This effort at gaining public support culminated in the distribution of leaflets by Stormtroopers (p. 28). After these demonstrations of intent, Thalburgers "recognized clearly...(the Nazi) claim to fervent patriotism and avid militarism," (p. 28). This garnered significant respect, a quality that would launch the Nazis into a position of favoritism. The Nazis also continued to plug their views on unemployment and economic stability, appealing to the general public as a viable alternative to the status quo, represented by the Socialists. The Nazis continued to take advantage of any opportunity to demonstrate their views in public, via rally, speech, or print media. The Nazis appealed to a fairly wide cross-section of Thalburg, including nationalists and the religious. By the 1930 local elections, the Nazis had gradually gained votes "from those who had previously voted for another party," (p. 34). Thus began the efficient Nazi political campaign.
Opposing the SPD was in vogue and served as a boon for the NSDAP. The Nazis portrayed themselves as "effective opponents of 'Marxism'" (p. 39) whenever possible and stepped on the weak fingers of the SPD. Via "perpetual campaigning" (p. 40), the Nazis garnered even more votes in late 1930. "The September election campaign taught Thalburg's Nazis that their best drawing cards were religion and nationalism, preferably combined," (p. 40). The Nazis had a clear political map with which to navigate their way to power. Continuing to portray the Socialists as the enemy of the people and relying still on the economic fears engendered by the Depression, the Nazi party could develop even more powerful propaganda. The Nazis skilfully manipulated the fears and ideals of the community. As politics became more radical and polarized, increasing levels of violence and street clashes ensued. "New Year's Day, 1930 saw the first incident of violence," (p. 42) and the Socialists grasped at straws to prevent the Nazis from gaining power. But the SPD "could not hope to win, for they lacked the brutality and irrationality of their opponents. Furthermore, every move in the game simply added to the troubled spirit of Thalburg's middle classes, making them more vulnerable to extremist appeals," (p. 46). Fuelling the fire of fears already gripping Thalburg, the Nazis drove the town's residents to accept radical political moves. But at this point the Nazis did not pose an actual armed threat or coup d'etat. Known as "real radicals," (p. 48), the Nazis offered a disillusioned and desperate public a panacea. And "no matter how hard they tried, Thalburg's Socialists did not provide effective opposition to the Nazis," (p. 49). Furthermore, the Nazis seemed to embrace the town's businessmen, the bourgeois. The workers, on the other hand, continued their Socialist sentiments. However, it was again the divisions within in the community and the lack of concerted effort that matched the Nazis in power and scope, which led the SPD to its demise. The SPD failed to offer the radical, revolutionary alternative to the status quo like the Nazis did. Nazi propaganda was beginning to work: by inciting discontent and unrest, the Nazis eased their way into Thalburg consciousness. They maintained their political and symbolic foothold through increasing a sense of pressure and by scapegoating and threatening certain members of society.
For a while the Nazis relied less on actual physical force (which they were as yet incapable of carrying out) and more on perceived threat and subtle subversion. By 1931 the Nazi condemnation of the Jews began by their "almost comical" attempt to criticize kosher slaughterhouses. This criticism, of course, only veiled an underlying and more insipid Nazi "discourtesy," (p. 52) scapegoating, and eventual violence. It was apparent that the Nazis were growing used to their increased levels of political participation through elections. The Nazis employed "pressure tactics," (p. 54) and "intimidation," resorting on a national level, even to political assassinations (p. 54). Tension between political parties finally led to actual outbreaks of violence in April 1931. But still the acts of violence were not officially instigated by the party but were lucky breaks that the Nazis could use to further establish themselves as the dominant political force. The Nazis did continue to exert political and psychic pressure by boycotting local businessmen into submission (p. 57).
The Nazis continued to "exploit the depression" (p. 70) in late 1931 and by opening a soup kitchen gained favor with the unemployed. Soon the Nazis would learn the power of symbols and the swastika would serve…