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Hard Times Return

Compare the party platforms of the Communists, Nazis, and Social Democrats in Germany’s 1932 presidential elections, a time of deep economic crisis.   
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At a Glance

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Language

English — US
Also available in:
French — FR

Subject

  • History
  • Human & Civil Rights
  • The Holocaust

German leaders, like their counterparts in other countries, looked for ways to end the depression. And like other leaders in 1929, they failed. The chancellor of the Weimar Republic that year was Hermann Müller, a Social Democrat. When he was unable to steer the country toward prosperity, President Paul von Hindenburg named a new chancellor a year later. This time, he chose Heinrich Brüning of the Catholic Center Party. 

Brüning convinced President Hindenburg to invoke Article 48 (see reading, Creating a Constitutional Government) to suspend the constitution so that the chancellor would be able to act quickly and decisively, without consulting the Reichstag, to address the severe economic crisis. Even so, Brüning could not pull Germany out of the depression.

To an increasing number of Germans, democracy appeared unable to cope with the economic collapse, and only the most extreme political parties seemed to offer clear solutions to the crisis. The Communist Party won support with their argument that to end the depression, Germany needed a government like the communist one in the Soviet Union. They said that the government should take over all German land and industry from capitalists, who they claimed sought only their own profit. Communists promised to distribute German wealth according to the common good. The Nazis, on the other hand, blamed the Jews, Communists, liberals, and pacifists for the economic crisis in Germany. They promised to restore Germany’s standing in the world and Germans’ pride in their nation. They also promised an end to the depression, campaigning behind slogans such as “Work, Freedom, and Bread!”

Many saw the Nazis as an attractive alternative to democracy and communism. Among them were wealthy industrialists who were alarmed by the growth of the Communist Party. They liked the Nazis’ message: it was patriotic, upbeat, and energetic. Both the Communists and the Nazis made significant gains in the Reichstag elections in 1930.

Number of Deputies in the Reichstag 1928–1932

|  Party                        | 1928 | 1930 | July 1932  | Nov. 1932 |

|  Social Democrat       | 153 | 143 | 133 | 121 |

|  Catholic Center         | 78   |  87  |   98  | 90  |

|  Communist               |  54   |  77  |   89  | 100 |

|  Nazi                            |  12   | 107 |  230 | 196 | 

|  German National     |  73   |  41  |   37  |   52  |

In 1932, Hitler became a German citizen so that he could run for president in that year’s spring election. His opponents were Ernst Thälmann, the Communist candidate, and Paul von Hindenburg, the independent incumbent. In the election, 84% of all eligible voters cast ballots. One observer noted that as voters went to the polls, each saw the war behind him, “in front of him social ruin, to his left he is being pulled by the Communists, to his right by the Nationalists, and all around him there is not a trace of honesty and rationality, and all his good instincts are being distorted into hatred.” 1

Each voter had to figure out which party offered the best solution to the nation’s problems. To understand those choices, compare the platforms of the Social Democratic Party and the Communist Party with that of the Nazi Party, which can be found in reading The Beginning of the Nazi Party.

Social Democratic Party Platform

We are committed to maintaining the Republic and a policy that will allow Germany to take its rightful place among the free governments of Europe.

  • We will support the present German Republic so that freedom, democracy, and justice will live in the hearts of our German countrymen.
  • We will honor all of Germany’s obligations, political and financial, in order that Germany’s honor and respect will not be decreased in the eyes of the world.
  • We plan to create more jobs by undertaking an extensive program of public works.
  • We will provide unemployment compensation for up to six months.
  • We will cut government expenditures to lower taxes.
  • We believe in the right of those who disagree with the party to speak and write on those issues without interference.

Communist Party Platform

We are committed to the overthrow of the presently existing, oppressive Republic and all of its economic and social institutions. We favor:

  • The abolition of private property.
  • The establishment of land reform programs, so that the government can take over the land and distribute it for the common good.
  • Government ownership of all industrial productive forces, so that they can be run for the benefit of the people rather than the capitalists.
  • A foreign policy that regards the Soviet Union as an ally against capitalism.

To the German people: The cause of your misery is the fact that French, British, and American capitalists are exploiting German workers to get rich themselves. Germans, unite to get rid of this terrible burden. 2

The German voters re-elected President Hindenburg, with Hitler finishing second. But in elections for the Reichstag held in the months after the presidential election, the Nazis’ popularity increased even more.

1932 Presidential Election

| Candidate                   | Party             | Votes            | Percentage     |

|Paul von Hindenburg  | Independent | 19,359,983    | 53.0%                |

|Adolf Hitler                    | Nazi                 | 13,418,517    |  36.8%              |

|Ernst Thälmann            | Communist    | 3,706,759      | 10.2%               |

What issues decided the elections? In considering the question, historian Peter Fritzsche focuses on two kinds of lines—one of “anxious men in front of the labor exchange” and one of “storm troopers in parade formation.” In the first three months of 1930, 3.3 million people were unemployed; a year later, the number was nearly 5 million, and it jumped to 6.1 million in early 1932. In 1928, 800,000 voters supported the Nazi Party; the number jumped to 6.4 million in 1930 and then to 13.4 million in 1932. Fritzsche writes: “At the height of the crisis, in the winter of 1932, more than 40 percent of all workers in Germany were unemployed. Most of these had long since exhausted their claims to unemployment compensation and barely subsisted on the dole.” 3

Was it only the depression that led increasing numbers of Germans to support the Nazis? Historian Richard Evans believes the appeal of the Nazis was more than their pledge to end the depression. He writes that German voters in 1930 were 

protesting against the failure of the Weimar Republic. Many of them, too, particularly in rural areas, small towns, small workshops, culturally conservative families, older age groups, or the middle-class nationalist political milieu, may have been registering their alienation from the cultural and political modernity for which the Republic stood. . . . The vagueness of the Nazi programme, its symbolic mixture of old and new, its eclectic, often inconsistent character, to a large extent allowed people to read into it what they wanted to and edit out anything they might have found disturbing. Many middle-class voters coped with Nazi violence and thuggery on the streets by writing it off as a product of excessive youthful ardour and energy. But it was far more than that, as they were soon to discover for themselves.  4

Having studied voting patterns in Germany in the 1920s and early 1930s, historian Dick Geary writes: “The Nazi Party was . . . without doubt a Volkspartei [people’s party]: recruiting its members and its voters across a broad range of social groups, from both sexes and from the older as well as the younger generation.” 5 Yet, Geary notes, the Nazis were never able to win a majority of the seats in the Reichstag.

  • 1Peter Gay, Weimar Culture: The Outsider as Insider (New York: W. W. Norton, 2001), 142.
  • 2Jeremy Noakes and Geoffrey Pridham, eds., Nazism 1919–1945: A Documentary Reader, vol. 1: The Rise to Power 1919–1934 (Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press, 1998), 15–16.
  • 3Peter Fritzsche, Germans into Nazis (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), 155.
  • 4Richard J. Evans, The Coming of the Third Reich (New York: Penguin, 2005), 265. Reproduced by permission from Penguin Press.
  • 5Dick Geary, “Who voted for the Nazis?,” History Today 48, no. 10 (November 1998), accessed March 23, 2016.

National Socialism Election Poster

National Socialism Election Poster

This German election poster from 1930 says, “Work, Freedom, and Bread–Vote National Socialist!"

Credit:
Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy

Connection Questions

  1. Which political parties in Germany gained and lost seats between 1928 and 1932? Why did some parties become more appealing as the depression took hold? 
  2. Was the Weimar Republic a success in 1928? By whose standard? What does it mean to measure the success of a nation or its government?
  3. Is it significant that the Nazis never held a majority of the seats in the Reichstag? How could other parties have worked together to keep the Nazis from controlling the government? Use the data in the charts in this reading to support your answer.

How to Cite This Reading

Facing History and Ourselves, "Hard Times Return," last updated May 12, 2020.

 

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