Rise of a dictator: how did Hitler gain power and become the führer of Germany?

Adolf Hitler was a failed painter on the fringes of local politics, so how did he manage to amass so much influence that he had a dictatorship bestowed on him? Writing for BBC History Revealed, Roger Moorhouse charts how Hitler stage-managed his way to power – transforming from feckless would-be artist into a suave politician

Photo of Adolf Hitler

In October 1922, Munich photographer Heinrich Hoffmann received an intriguing telegram. He was used to getting picture commissions, but the request – from an American photographic agency – was remarkable, because it offered the (then) huge fee of $100 for a picture of a little-known Munich politician. That politician’s name was Adolf Hitler.

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Hitler was a relative newcomer to the Munich political scene. He had first emerged late in 1919, as an impassioned speaker for the nationalist German Workers’ Party (DAP), a small clique of disgruntled right-wing misfits. By the following spring, however, he had effectively engineered a takeover of the party, giving it the direction he felt it had lacked and renaming it the NSDAP – adding ‘National Socialist’ to the title.

By 1922, though Hitler’s Nazi Party (as it was known) was making some political progress, it was still largely a Munich phenomenon. Hitler was barely known outside of Bavaria.

In such circumstances, Hoffmann’s interest was piqued, and when he began to make enquiries about fulfilling the request, he discovered the reason for the high price. Keen to raise funds for his party, Hitler was severely rationing his own image to that end, creating a mystique around himself and using his bodyguards to prevent unauthorised photographers from taking his picture. It was a canny move.

Hitler is often viewed as someone slightly otherworldly; a man so obsessed with his odious political mission that he cared little for the daily business of politics and resolutely aloof from frivolous concerns about his image or his public profile.

Hitler rehearsing his stage performance
By capturing his rehearsals on camera, Hitler and Hoffmann could decide on which gestures
to use during public speaking (Photo by Heinrich Hoffmann/Keystone Features/Getty Images)

Yet, as this example clearly demonstrates, that assumption is wholly incorrect. Though Hitler was certainly a political obsessive, that did not imply a lack of concern for what we would now call public relations – the art of the political sell. At a time when few politicians were conscious of such matters, Hitler, conversely, paid great attention to them.

How did Hitler build his image?

While Hitler was busy building that public profile, his first opportunity to grasp for power presented itself. In November 1923, with the country reeling from runaway hyperinflation, communist risings and a Franco-Belgian occupation of the Ruhr, it appeared for a season that Germany itself would scarcely survive.

Hitler sought to exploit the crisis by engineering a coup – the so-called Beer Hall Putsch – in which he and his supporters attempted to seize political power in Munich, as a prelude to a takeover in Berlin.

The Beer Hall Putsch

When Hitler was arraigned for trial in Munich in the spring of 1924, many contemporary commentators imagined that it would spell the end for the aspiring demagogue. Hitler had been arrested the previous November, a few days after leading his Nazi movement in a daytime march through central Munich, which was intended as a show of force, aiming at seizing power in Bavaria and then in Berlin; a reprise of Mussolini’s March on Rome, which had brought the Fascist leader to power the previous year.

But, after sweeping aside a number of police pickets, Hitler’s marchers finally met their match by the Feldherrnhalle on the Odeonsplatz, where a detachment of Bavarian police refused to back down and fired on the column. In the mêlée, 15 Nazis were killed along with one unlucky waiter nearby, who was caught in the cross-fire. Hitler, wrenched to the ground by the dying man beside him and shielded by his loyal bodyguard Ulrich Graf, escaped with only a dislocated shoulder. Despite its failure, the Putsch would become the founding legend of the Nazi movement.

The subsequent trial was a complex affair. Hitler probably should have been sent for trial to the constitutional court at Leipzig, but Munich’s political establishment was keen to keep the matter ‘in house’, for fear of giving oxygen to the rumours of official complicity with the Nazis. So, with a tame, sympathetic judge – Georg Neithardt – presiding, the trial opened in the Munich infantry school on 26 February.

Those hoping for Hitler’s political demise were to be disappointed. He expertly played the court, assisted by Neithardt, and so reached a much wider audience than he had ever reached before. By the end of the trial, he had a national following for the first time, and had emerged as the undisputed leader of the German radical right.

However, when Hitler and his followers met the guns of the Bavarian state police, on the Odeonsplatz in central Munich, the coup attempt collapsed in chaos. Arrested in the aftermath, Hitler was charged with treason and arraigned for trial, and many contemporaries speculated that it was the end of his political career. Hitler, however, had other ideas.

Though he briefly contemplated suicide, he resolved to use the platform provided to him by his trial to proselytise for the Nazi cause. Shamelessly playing to the press gallery, and indulged by a sympathetic judge, Hitler was able to exploit the trial as a public relations opportunity, pouring scorn on Germany’s political leaders and gaining a name for himself nationwide.

At the close of proceedings, he even goaded the court, ridiculing the insignificance of its deliberations: “It is not you, gentlemen, who pass judgement,” he said. “You may pronounce us guilty a thousand times over, but the goddess of the eternal court of history will smile and tear to tatters the sentence of this court. For she acquits us.”

Hitler had been arraigned for trial alongside eight other ‘leaders’ of the coup attempt, yet such was his performance that by the end, he had become the senior partner. Though he was sentenced to five years detention, he had emerged as the leader of the German radical right.

How did Hitler gain power?

In the years that followed, Germany recovered from the crisis of 1923, and Hitler – though released from imprisonment after only nine months – sank into relative obscurity, subjected as he was to a nationwide public-speaking ban. However, despite his enforced silence, he was far from inactive. He continued speaking to private audiences, and he worked hard to polish both his speaking skills and his public image. In this, the photographer Heinrich Hoffmann would play a crucial role, forging in the process a lasting and lucrative relationship with Hitler – one that history has often overlooked.

Lederhosen and SA caps were out, sober suits and ties were in

Throughout the 1920s, Hoffman assisted Hitler in honing his public image, photographing him in a variety of outfits to establish those ‘looks’ that worked to Hitler’s advantage, and those that didn’t. Lederhosen and SA caps were out, sober suits and ties were in. He also helped Hitler finesse the often elaborate gestures that he employed while speaking, photographing his subject in his Munich studio, before meticulously going through the images with Hitler to weed out those gestures and actions that appeared too ridiculous or overblown, and identify those that might be used again.

A photo of Hitler after his release from prison
Hitler is released after spending nine months in jail. (Photo by Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

In this capacity, Hitler also engaged a former actor and self-styled mystic, Erik Jan Hanussen, who advised him on his presentation skills. Hanussen told him that, though his delivery was persuasive, he should employ a more expansive use of gesture and body language to enhance the effect that he had with his audience.

The results were impressive. As a speaker, Hitler quickly gained a formidable reputation, and his delivery was often described as inspirational, even as a quasi-religious experience. Though he spoke with only cursory notes, he was meticulous in his preparation, paying close attention to what he wore, the lighting and layout of the stage.

He would customarily pause for a few moments before speaking, allowing a tense silence to ramp up the expectation. Then he would begin in a rather quiet, even hesitant manner, forcing his audience to listen intently to his words. In due course, he would begin to raise his voice, stressing certain words and syllables, elaborately rolling his ‘r’s, becoming more expressive and impassioned, and employing the gestures that he had so diligently rehearsed with Hanussen and Hoffmann.

Over two hours or so, Hitler would range widely – at times angry, scornful, even darkly funny – expertly channelling the hopes, fears and prejudices of his audience. By the end, he would be physically exhausted, bathed in sweat and emotionally drained. His audience, more often than not, were spellbound.

Hitler gesticulates while delivering a speech
Hitler’s impassioned speeches – delivered with such vitriol they often left him foaming at the mouth – were a core part of his persona (Photo by Getty Images)

In private, too, Hitler developed a persona. He could often be socially awkward. He found ordinary conversation difficult and had a predisposition to rant and preach. And, as his secretary Christa Schroeder recalled, he had the habit of holding eye-contact when meeting someone for the first time, as if to mesmerise them, or peer into their soul. Much of this, too, was part of the act – fostering a sense that he was a man apart, not like other politicians, not entirely of this world.

The result, by around 1930, was a carefully constructed public profile. From the zealous fervour of his speeches to his simple dress sense and social awkwardness, Hitler was selling a novel vision to his followers and to the wider German public, offering national redemption, a ‘new Germany’, a ‘new man’, a ‘new Jerusalem’.

He had no equals and no mentors, only followers. He was not a politician – he was a messiah

That religious analogy is not misplaced. There was much in the ceremony of Nazism – and in the central role of Hitler himself – that strongly echoed religious ritual. The Nazi movement had its ‘martyrs’ – those killed in the Beer Hall Putsch. It had its ‘relics’, most important among them the ‘Blood Flag’, a swastika soaked in the blood of those same martyrs from 1923. It also had a ‘bible’ in the shape of Hitler’s Mein Kampf – a rambling, pretentious autobiography-cum-manifesto, which he wrote while imprisoned for treason in 1924.

At the centre of it all, of course, was Hitler himself – a lapsed Catholic who understood all too well the lure of the sacred. His public persona proclaimed him to be unlike his contemporaries; he was a genius, plucked from obscurity by providence to pursue his vital mission. He had no equals and no mentors, only followers. He had emerged, fully formed, beholden to no-one, a man apart. He was not a politician – he was a messiah.

Mein Kampf

Hitler wrote Mein Kampf (or My Struggle) during his nine months imprisoned in Landsberg Prison in 1924.

It was a curious book – part Nazi manifesto, part rose-tinted autobiography, with excursions into Hitler’s theories on race, antisemitism, anti-Bolshevism, anti-capitalism, the uses of propaganda and the failings of democracy. It is famously turgid in style, so crammed with Hitler’s verbose musings that one reviewer dubbed it “Sein Krampf” (“His Cramp”).

Understandably, perhaps, sales were initially rather sluggish after the book was published in 1925, but they picked up as Hitler’s political stock rose.

By 1933, it had already sold some 300,000 copies, and would sell some 12 million more in the years that followed, providing Hitler with a handsome personal income, which – among other things – funded his purchase of the Berghof above Berchtesgaden.

Remarkably perhaps, this public image – carefully crafted though it was – was not particularly successful by itself. Hitler’s Nazis languished in the polls through the 1920s, hampered not only by the speaking ban imposed upon their leader between 1925 and 1927, but also by the improvements in the German economy and stabilisation in domestic and international politics, all of which made Hitler’s radical vision less attractive.

In 1928, for instance, the Nazi Party polled just 2.6 per cent of the vote nationally, coming a poor ninth in the election with barely 800,000 votes, just ahead of the German Farmers’ Party. For all his messianic pretensions, Hitler was scarcely getting his message across. His party was flirting with insignificance.

What changed, of course, was the Great Depression – the world economic crisis that resulted from the Wall Street Crash of October 1929. As foreign capital investment dried up in the aftermath, the German economic recovery stalled and was tipped into recession. Within months, German businesses were closing, staff were being laid off and wages were falling. By the end of 1930, German unemployment had already more than doubled to three million; by 1932, it would double again, totalling 30 per cent of the working population.

Why was the Wall Street Crash an opportunity for Hitler?

When the American stock market crashed in October 1929, the consequences were felt across the world, but perhaps most spectacularly in Germany. There, where the economic recovery of the 1920s had been largely funded by American loans and investments, the resulting removal of those funds tipped the German economy into a catastrophic deflationary spiral, with wages shrinking, businesses folding and a huge growth in unemployment.

This would have been difficult enough for the German people, but additionally their economy had only recently recovered from the hyperinflation crisis of 1923, in which the money-printing policy of World War I, and its aftermath, caused the total collapse of the German currency.

These two economic crises in tandem would have profound political consequences, weakening the already fragile public faith in capitalism and contributing to a paralysis in government, which in turn undermined the German political system.

The primary beneficiary of all this upheaval was Hitler’s Nazi Party, which duly rose to become the largest party in the parliament by 1932. In January of the following year, Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany.

In such circumstances, Hitler’s message of a radical reshaping of the economy and society found a ready echo. The German electorate, steeled perhaps against a single crisis, had endured two debilitating economic agonies in six years – the hyperinflation of 1923, and the Great Depression of 1929 – so it was little wonder, perhaps, that their faith in capitalism and democracy was evaporating. It would primarily be Hitler’s Nazis who reaped the electoral rewards, benefiting from a flight from the political centre that saw them rise from 2.6 per cent of the vote in 1928 to 37 per cent in 1932.

The problem of Hitler’s niece

However, just as the stars appeared to be aligning for Hitler, a new crisis erupted that threatened to derail his career and dent that polished public image. In September 1931, Hitler’s 23-year-old niece, Angela ‘Geli’ Raubal, committed suicide in his Munich apartment, using his pistol.

Raubal had been living with Hitler for some time, and the relationship appears – despite countless rumours to the contrary – to have been purely platonic. Vivacious and quick-witted, Raubal was Hitler’s regular companion to cultural and political events, referring to him as Uncle Alf.

Photo of a young girl giving a gift to Hitler
A young girl hands Hitler a gift. Images like these were widely shared in an attempt to portray him
as a family man. (Photo by Imagno/Getty Images)

The reason for her suicide is not clear. There had been difficulties between the two in the months leading up to her death, with Raubal keen to move to Vienna to pursue a singing career, and Hitler adamant she should stay in Munich to complete her studies. She had also had a brief relationship with Hitler’s chauffeur, Emil Maurice, which Hitler had disapproved of, and put an end to. It is perhaps most likely that Raubal, in a fit of melancholy, was looking for a way to give voice to her unhappiness. Her suicide may have been a cry for help gone tragically wrong.

In the aftermath, no speculation was too lurid for the German press, spurred – quite naturally – by Hitler’s political opponents. The nature of the relationship between Raubal and her ‘Uncle Alf’ was an obvious focus, and the tabloids of the day conjectured wildly whether Hitler might be a masochist engaged in an incestuous affair, or that Raubal might have been pregnant with his child, or that she was murdered on his orders.

In response, the Nazi Party was forced into an urgent damage-limitation exercise, as their leader and their recent electoral gains risked being swept away by a rising tide of sordid innuendo. Hitler, for his part, issued a formal rebuttal of the rumours and demanded a retraction from the press. The party machine, meanwhile, mounted an attempt to repackage its leader.

The oddball, otherworldly messiah-figure had now, overnight, become something of an electoral liability

The oddball, otherworldly messiah-figure had now, overnight, become something of an electoral liability, so Hitler would be recast as a chaste, cultured aesthete; more statesman than prophet.

As so often, it was Heinrich Hoffmann who led the propaganda charge. In 1932, six months after Raubal’s death, he published a glossy picture volume entitled Hitler, wie ihn keiner kennt (The Hitler Nobody Knows), which showcased Hitler’s domesticity, portraying him as a man of simple pleasures, most at home in the Bavarian mountains or alone with his dog.

For the first time, Hitler’s private life, or at least a sanitised facsimile of it, became a weapon in the public relations fight. Where previously what he did away from the political stage was kept deliberately opaque – messiahs, after all, did not have private lives – now it was harnessed to the political cause.

Hitler’s private life, or at least a sanitised facsimile of it, became a weapon in the public relations fight

Hitler would be actively portrayed as an ordinary citizen; an educated and cultured bachelor; a man of old-fashioned Viennese manners; a kisser of ladies’ hands; a gracious patron who enjoyed the open air, was kind to children and animals, and was above all passionately devoted to the German people. It was a fabricated image, of course, just as much as his earlier incarnation as a messiah had been, but it worked. The political fall-out from Raubal’s death was restricted, and the Nazi bandwagon rolled on.

In late January 1933, Hitler was appointed German Chancellor. Barely two months later, on 24 March, he forced the Enabling Act through the Reichstag using intimidation and coercion to secure votes. The act allowed Hitler to pass laws without scrutiny – elevating him to the position of dictator.

Was Hitler the first modern politician?

When examining Hitler’s rise, it is conventional – and perfectly correct – to look primarily at those factors that were most directly influential: the economic crisis of 1929, the resulting collapse of the political centre, and the toxic sense of grievance and humiliation that had so poisoned German society in the 1920s.

Yet, alongside those headline contributors, it is important also to examine the influence of less well-known factors. The invention, maintenance and metamorphosis behind Hitler’s public image is one such element, and one that rarely receives the attention that it deserves.

In the modern day, every political figure is required, to some degree, to manufacture a public image. We regard it as essential. But what is remarkable here is that Hitler was doing it – and the extent to which he was doing it – in the 1920s, when few of his contemporaries were even aware of the dark arts of spin-doctoring and image management. In this respect, therefore, it is appropriate to regard Hitler as one of the first truly modern politicians.

Roger Moorhouse is a historian and author specialising in modern German and Central European history, with particular interest in Nazi Germany, the Holocaust and World War II in Europe

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This content first appeared in the June 2018 issue of BBC History Revealed