On July 29, 1921, the relatively small and largely ineffective Munich-based National Socialist German Workers Party experienced the culmination of a sharp power play when it appointed its new chairman, Adolf Hitler. It was a decision that fundamentally changed the course of history.
Shortly after the end of World War I, Corporal Hitler, not yet demobilized, had been assigned to spy on political parties in Munich for the German army. With permission from his superiors, he joined the NSDAP, or Nazi Party, in September 1919. Hitler had been attracted to the party's extreme nationalism, anti-Semitism, anti-Capitalism and anti-Bolshevism.
Hitler proved quite the catch for early NSDAP leaders. Anton Drexler, the founder of the party, said of the new member, “Goodness, he's got a gob. We could use him!” A fellow soldier remarked around this time: “Herr Hitler especially is, I might say, a born popular speaker who, through his fanaticism and his populist style in a meeting, absolutely compels his audience to take note and share his views.”
His magnetic personality and dynamic speaking presentation wowed Munich audiences and soon NSDAP venues filled up with those wishing to hear the former army corporal. Because of his ability to draw a crowd, Hitler joined the party's central committee and was put in charge of propaganda. His influence within the party continued to grow, but he was not yet its leader.
In a biography, “Hitler: 1889-1936, Hubris,” Sir Ian Kershaw writes, “To the Munich public by 1921, Hitler was the NSDAP. He was its voice, its representative figure, its embodiment. Asked to name the party's chairman, perhaps even politically informed citizens might have guessed wrongly. But Hitler did not want the chairmanship. Drexler offered it him on a number of occasions. But Hitler refused.”
The fact was that Hitler enjoyed and saw value in his propaganda work. He was already the virtual leader of the party at this point, and the party chairmanship would only mean more organizational responsibility and paperwork — things he'd rather leave to others. Even years later, as führer and chancellor of the Third Reich, Hitler had little love for paperwork.
A crisis in the party emerged in the summer of 1921 which changed Hitler's views. The NSDAP leadership, always short of funds, contemplated merging with the German Socialist Party, another far-right nationalist German party. Hitler, fearful of losing his power and position with the merger, threatened to resign if it went through. He took his ultimatum to the party's membership:
“I make these demands not because I am power-hungry, but because recent events have more than convinced me that without an iron leadership the party ... will within a short time cease to be what it was supposed to be: a national socialist German Worker's Party..."
Biographer John Toland writes in his book “Adolf Hitler”: “It was the first manifest appearance of the concept Adolf Hitler had brought from the war — the führerprinzip, the leadership principal, absolute obedience to the commander.”
Fearing that the loss of Hitler would lead to the demise of the NSDAP, Hitler's allies successfully persuaded Drexler and the other party leaders to compromise. The party leadership named Hitler chairman and the former army corporal assumed total control of the NSDAP for himself. His power within the party was now absolute.
From a prison cell three years later, Hitler wrote of the moment in his book, “Mein Kampf”: “Immediately a new bylaw was passed, transferring full responsibility to the first chairman of the party, eliminating committee decisions as a matter of principle...”
The führerprinzip had succeeded, and Hitler's word was now law within the party. In 1933 German President Paul von Hindenberg appointed Hitler chancellor and the leadership principle soon ruled in the German nation as a whole.
One wonders just how differently history would have turned out if Drexler and the other leading Nazis had called Hitler's bluff in that summer of 1921.
Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at Salt Lake Community College. He is also the codeveloper of the History Challenge iPhone/iPad apps. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org