There are more ways of destroying a democracy than sending troops into the streets, storming the radio stations, and arresting the politicians, as Adolf Hitler discovered after the failure of his beer-hall putsch in 1923. Ten years later, on January 30, 1933, when he was appointed head of the German government, Hitler was the leader of the country’s largest political party, the National Socialists. Even five years earlier, in May of 1928, he’d been a political nobody, with the Nazis gaining less than 3 percent of the vote in national elections. But in the elections held in July 1932, they won 37 percent of the vote—and six months later, Hitler was in power. He seemed to have come from nowhere.
As the German historian and journalist Volker Ullrich shows in the first part of his highly readable and well-researched new biography, Hitler: Ascent, even if Hitler wasn’t directly elected to power, his appointment as Reich chancellor was legal and constitutional, the result of political intrigue surrounding Germany’s aging conservative president, Paul von Hindenburg. Many people in Germany thought that Hitler would be a normal head of government. Some, like the conservative politician Franz von Papen and the leaders of the German National People’s Party, thought that they’d be able to control him, because they were more experienced and formed the majority in the coalition government that Hitler headed. Others thought that the responsibilities of office would tame and steer him in a more conventional direction. They were all wrong.
Hitler won mass support between 1928 and 1930 because a major economic crisis had driven Germany into a deep depression: Banks crashed, businesses folded, and millions lost their jobs. Hitler offered voters a vision of a better future, one he contrasted with the policies of the parties that had plunged the country into crisis in the first place. The poorest people in Germany voted for his opponents, notably the Communist Party and the moderate left-wing Social Democrats, but the lower-middle classes, the bourgeoisie, the unorganized workers, the rural masses, and the older traditionalists—Protestants and evangelicals who wanted a moral restoration of the nation—switched their votes from the mainstream centrist and right-wing parties (save for the Catholic Center Party) and gave them to Hitler instead.
Whereas other politicians seemed to dither or to act as mere administrators, Hitler projected purpose and dynamism. They remained trapped within the existing conventions of political life; he proved a master at denouncing those conventions and manipulating the media. The first politician to tour the country by air during an election campaign, Hitler issued an endless stream of slogans to win potential supporters over. He would make Germany great again. He would give Germans work once more. He would put Germany first. He would revive the nation’s rusting industries, laid to waste by the economic depression. He would crush the alien ideologies—socialism, liberalism, communism—that were undermining the nation’s will to survive and destroying its core values.
Ullrich quotes a police report on one of Hitler’s early speeches, in which he “used vulgar comparisons” and “did not shy away from the cheapest allusions.” Hitler’s language was never measured or careful, but “like something merely expulsed.” Yet, revising earlier opinions, Ullrich shows how carefully Hitler prepared his speeches. Seemingly spontaneous, they were in fact calculated. Full of base allegations and vile stereotypes, they were precisely designed to gain maximum attention from the media and maximum reaction from the crowds he addressed. When he declared that fines were of no use against those he called Jewish criminals, his listeners interrupted him with chants of “Beatings! Hangings!”