Organized Will of the Nation

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"Organized Will of the Nation"

Nazi Terrorism during Hitler's Rise to Power


By: Hans Schweitzer

Date: c. 1932

Source: Poster entitled "National Socialism: The Organized Will of the Nation," provided by Bridgeman Art Library.

About the Artist: Hans Schweitzer (1901–1980), who worked under the name Mjölnir at the time, was hired by Joseph Goebbels, Adolf Hitler's chief propagandist, to create numerous election posters for the Nazi Party. Schweitzer survived World War II and went on to a successful career as a graphic artist.


In a presidential runoff election in Germany on April 19, 1932, the incumbent, Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, won with 53 percent of the vote. His chief opponent, Hitler, won 36.8 percent of the vote. On June 1 Hindenburg appointed Franz von Papen as chancellor. Papen immediately dissolved the Reichstag, the German parliament, and called for new legislative elections.

For over a decade Hitler's party, the National Socialists, or Nazis, had been a fringe political party. In the early 1920s they had risen to some prominence during the economic collapse following the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I. Hitler's manifesto, Mein Kampf (My Struggle), written while he was in prison after his attempt to seize power in Bavaria in the Beer Hall Putsch in 1924, had become something of a best-seller. With the return of relative prosperity in the late 1920s, the party returned to obscurity. But the worldwide economic collapse that began in 1929, the Great Depression, breathed new life into the party, which fixed the blame for all of Germany's troubles—unemployment, labor union agitation, political instability, military weakness, the humiliations of the Treaty of Versailles—on Jews and communists.

The Nazis exploited Germany's insecurity by creating unrest in the streets. The Nazi Party's muscle was the SA (Sturmabteilung), otherwise known as the storm troopers or Brownshirts, whose membership rose to between 2.5 million to 4 million by 1934. Functioning like an army, it carried out a campaign of terror against the party's political opponents and anyone who opposed the Nazis' desire to suspend the political liberties of the Weimar Republic in favor of a militarized, anticommunist dictatorship. Through beatings, murder, harassment, vandalism, robbery, and voter intimidation, they created chaos, causing martial law to be declared in Berlin.

The SA's tactics, though, proved to be effective. On July 31, 1932, the Nazis won 230 out of 608 seats in the Reichstag, making it the nation's largest political party. But because no one party held a clear majority, the Reichstag remained deadlocked, so new elections were called for November 6, 1932. The Nazi Party lost thirty-four seats in the new election, but that was a temporary setback. Hindenburg's appointee as chancellor, Kurt von Schleicher, also proved ineffective and resigned after just fifty-seven days. On January 30, 1933, Hindenburg, eager to put an end to the political instability, appointed Hitler chancellor; Hitler controlled a major voting bloc in the Reichstag.

Germans followed these events with rapt interest. Hitler was a gifted public speaker who was able to attract large crowds during the election campaigns. On a single day in July 1932, he spoke to an audience of 60,000 in Brandenburg, nearly 60,000 in Potsdam, and 120,000 in Berlin, while an additional 100,000 listened outside the stadium where he spoke on loudspeakers. He and his propagandist, Joseph Goebbels, seized every opportunity to manipulate the opinions of voters. The Nazi party produced brochures, pamphlets, and striking posters (such as the one shown) depicting determined-looking and vaguely threatening SA members. The caption identifies the SA and National Socialism as "The Organized Will of the Nation."



See primary source image.


Hitler consolidated power through additional terrorist acts. The first such act attributed to Hitler's group was a fire at the Reichstag building on February 27, 1933. Hitler received a telephone call informing him of the fire, and when he arrived at the scene, Hermann Goering, who would later become Hitler's air minister, was shouting to onlookers: "This is the beginning of the Communist revolution! We must not wait a minute. We will show no mercy. Every Communist official must be shot, where he is found. Every Communist deputy must this very day be strung up."

Found cowering behind the building was a known Communist agitator, a Dutchman named Marinus van der Luube, who was arrested on the spot for starting the fire and later convicted and beheaded. The sense of crisis increased the following day, when authorities in Prussia announced that they had unearthed a Communist publication that said: "Government buildings, museums, mansions and essential plants were to be burned down. . . . Women and children were to be sent in front of terrorist groups. . . . The burning of the Reichstag was to be the signal for a bloody insurrection and civil war. . . . It has been ascertained that today was to have seen throughout Germany terrorist acts against individual persons, against private property, and against the life and limb of the peaceful population, and also the beginning of general civil war."

Historians widely debate whether Hitler or his allies actually started the Reichstag fire. However, Hitler certainly seized upon the event to manipulate media and public opinion. The next day, Hitler, fanning the fear of communism, persuaded Hindenburg to issue a decree called "For the Protection of the People and the State," suspending civil liberties. Two weeks later he persuaded the Reichstag to suspend the German constitution and grant him sweeping powers to deal with the crisis. In one final terrorist act designed to consolidate his power, the "Night of the Long Knives" on June 29–30, 1934, Hitler, eager to secure the loyalty of the regular German army, purged the SA, ordering the arrest and execution of up to 1,000 SA leaders.

On August 2, 1934, Hindenburg died. The office of president was abolished, and Hitler became Reich Chancellor and Führer of the Third Reich.



Bessell, Richard. Political Violence and the Rise of Nazism: The Storm Troopers in Eastern Germany, 1925–1934. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1984.

Oberfohren, Ernst. The Oberfohren Memorandum: What German Conservatives Thought about the Reichstag Fire; Full Text, with an Introduction and the Findings of the Legal Commission of Inquiry on Its Authenticity. German Information Bureau, 1933.

Web sites

Bytwerk, Randall. Calvin College German Propaganda Archive. <> (accessed May 16, 2005).

The History Place. "World War II in Europe: The Night of the Long Knives." <> (accessed May 16, 2005).