Monthly Fragebogen: The National Socialist political breakthrough

While visiting friends in the Wurtemburg countryside, nationalist writer Ernst von Salomon is treated to a grass-roots view of the NSDAP’s 1930 electoral triumph

In this month’s excerpt from his post-WWII best-seller Der Fragebogen, conservative-revolutionary writer Ernst von Salomon recounts his experience in Wurtemberg of the infamous German Reichstag elections of September 1930. In the previous elections of 1928 the National Socialists had won a mere 12 seats; the sudden explosive growth of the NSDAP to 107 seats a mere two years later was a triumphal shock for both the Party and for Germany, representing the dramatic political changes which had beset the country over such a short expanse of time, particularly since the onset of the Great Depression in October 1929. von Salomon’s description of the peasant regions of Swabia provide a lively account of this transformed German countryside in this period: a countryside which “was, beyond any question of doubt, National-Socialist”; a countryside where elderly women, Church-goers, and peasant girls had already begun using the ‘Hitler-greeting’ in recognition of their shared adoption of völkisch-socialist values. The political landslide of 1930, in von Salomon’s account, is thus unsurprising, a reflection of the successful permeation and normalization of National Socialist ideology into day-to-day German life at the local level.

It was during the summer of 1930, when Berlin was first beginning to feel the effects of what happened on October 23rd, 1929, that I went for a few weeks to Calw, a small, South German town in Wurtemberg, to visit the painter Rudolf Schlichter. I had read thoroughly the works of Hermann Hesse, who was also born in Calw, and the exactness of his descriptions allowed me to recognise many details of the place with great delight. The most fortunate province of Germany, solid, hard-working, industrious, middle-class Wurtemberg, was reflected in the good city of Calw as in a convex glass. The little district capital, situated in the smiling valley of the Nagold, struck me as a very picture of comely arrangement. A little industry, a certain amount of wood trade, all happily mingled together and backed by an industrious farming community, a solid Catholic minority living side by side with a quantity of Protestant sects, good roads and railways to the most delightful parts of the Black Forest and the Swabian Alps, to Pforzheim in Baden and the provincial capital, Stuttgart, all this combined to give the district capital its own specific character. If anywhere, then surely here the economic and social life drew its sustenance from a soil that would be fruitful to all seed save only that which aspired aggressively to drastic change. Here every man could, with energy and care, look after his own affairs. And when, in the evenings, the local dignitaries sat over a good, neighbourly bottle of wine, these worthies did not allow political differences of opinion to interfere with personal friendships, while their mutual interdependence in matters of trade and their frequent blood relationships both served as strong deterrents to fanaticism of any sort.

On the market place was a first-class delicatessen shop, which saw to it that the products of distant lands as well as those of an active home industry found their way into the kitchens of the Calw households. Its proprietor was to be seen at all times, enveloped in a spotlessly white coat, standing among his sacks of raisins and his prettily coloured boxes of dried fruit. In his spotlessly clean shop his ruddy, healthy face radiated confidence and politeness, while his pleasant smile promised all comers that here they could expect good, reliable service. I praised his shop heartily, and he said, in his strong Wurtemberg accent:

“You know, I worked like a black to get this business going…” and he said: “You know, I still need another ten thousand marks to get out of debt…”

He had been born in the village of Altburg, at no great distance from Calw. After the war he had not immediately returned home, and I had run across him in many a post-war theatre of military operations. Finally he had become involved in the Küstrin Putsch, and after serving a prison sentence had gone home at last, determined to take up a civilian career.

Anyone who saw him in the market, buying and selling his lemons in their handsomely coloured boxes, must have realised that here was a man performing his proper job in life; indeed only those who have long been deprived of security can truly prize it. But curiously enough the more his business seemed to flourish, the less progress it actually made. He was very far from being well informed concerning the true nature of those events that had taken place in New York on October 23rd, 1929. As a result this harassed man, observing the inexplicable economic developments that deprived him of the fruit of his labours despite all his hard work and all the great industriousness that everyone admitted he displayed, began to ascribe his misfortune to some secret world-wide conspiracy which for many years had been at work with the deliberate intention of ruining the German Reich inclusive of the province of Wurtemberg, the district capital of Calw, and the delicatessen shop on the market place. The head of the privately owned trade school, a man much thought of in his own field and with whom our friend often drank a glass of beer, doubted, it is true, the existence of any such conspiracy, but then he was unfortunately incapable of producing any alternative satisfactory explanation for the unfortunate state of affairs – as indeed was I, being far too conscientious to commit myself on so concrete a point. So every Saturday afternoon regularly, as soon as he had closed his shop, our friend would doff his white coat and don a freshly laundered brown shirt and a pair of highly polished boots; and soon this excellent man could be seen, his left hand correctly clasped about his belt buckle, marching with steady tread at the head of a similarly attired body of men through the streets  of the town, all hoarsely singing their dully booming songs. The townsmen observed this new activity on the part of their respected fellow-citizen with a certain anxiety; this derived less from the novelty of his appearance than from an unjustified fear lest disorder result. There was no disorder. Even the head of the trade school greeted the platoon of marching men; he did not go so far as to extend his right arm at shoulder level, but he did wave his hat in a friendly gesture. For the head of the trade school was known as a solid supporter of the German-National party.

“You know,” my good friend said of him, “you know what he thinks, the fine fellow? He thinks I should go right ahead and then when the time comes the German-Nationals will run the country and me and my men, we’ll just do what the German-Nationals tell us to do! To hell with that! Pulling chestnuts out of the fire for that lot…”

In September began the campaign for those elections which were later to be described as “historic.” None of the old parties showed much enthusiasm in its canvassing. Only the National-Socialists held one meeting after another. Their meetings were packed. They also took place in a hitherto unusual atmosphere of calm. This was partly because there was no sort of discussion after the ‘national speaker’ had finished his speech, and partly because any heckler found himself immediately flanked by two scowling men in uniform who, by the deliberate assuredness of their demeanour, seemed to show their determination that no judge should later be in a position to find them guilty of starting a riot. The ‘national speakers’ were men of all ages who had passed through the National-Socialist school of public speaking; with the experience of a thousand such meetings behind them they knew exactly what they should say and they said it. They travelled from place to place, not omitting the smallest villages, and if they were to speak at a place where there was as yet no Party organisation, they would arrive accompanied by a platoon of SA men; so that their appearance in the sleepy, peaceful village was in itself the cause of certain pleasurable excitement. On Sundays all the brown shirts sallied forth. Early in the morning they drove out of the little town in trucks, and when they returned, late at night, their marching songs re-echoed through the streets.

My friend the delicatessen man saw with disappointment that I was by no means as fiery a supporter of his cause as he had hoped. I expressed skepticism concerning the effect that these Sunday joy-rides might have on the peasant population – I believed I knew the peasant mentality – and as a result he invited me to accompany him on one such outing. First, of course, we drove to Altburg, an extremely agreeable little peasants’ village, and it seemed to me no surprise that the inhabitants should come out of their houses and cheer the passing truck; after all my good friend, now seated beside me at the wheel, was brought up in Altburg. But at the very next service station that we passed I had an opportunity of seeing how the people really felt. Two employees, spending their Sunday in hosing down the yard in front of the pumps, immediately raised their right arm. Of course the men in the truck sang at the top of their voices whenever we passed through a village or hamlet. They did not even stop on the highroad. They sang, a few bars at least, whenever we met a human being, whether it was a single bicyclist or a bus or a child or a solitary old woman – and all, all returned the Hitler greeting. When they passed the country policeman they sang with redoubled vehemence, and he greeted them by touching his cap.

“It’s a dirty trick,” I said. “You’re gambling on the people’s politeness.”

“Oh no,” said my friends. “Besides, what do you want us to gamble on? Their wickedness?”

A halt was made at every inn, and what landlord is not delighted by the sudden arrival of forty thirsty guests?

We were not the only group on the roads. We met a truck with a Baden licence plate, also filled with SA men. This was the Pforzheim group. In Baden there was a law against the wearing of uniforms, and these men had to set out in civilian clothes, but as soon as they reached the Wurtemberg border they changed into uniforms that they had brought with them. The two group leaders fixed on the route that each would follow, and when this had been done the columns set off in different directions.

This was something I had never seen before: the countryside was, beyond any question of doubt, National-Socialist. No peasant failed to greet the SA men – the churchgoers greeted them and even the pastor raised his hat and said: “Good day!” –the men working on the railways greeted them, the police, the guards at the gate of the cotton mill and the blanket factory, now deserted on Sunday, the men at the sawmill. The truck drove up and down the countryside, through villages and little towns and workers’ settlements and spas, and nowhere was there any sign of hostility or any gesture of displeasure, but everywhere the same cheerful greetings.

That evening again we met the Pforzheim group. They looked considerably the worse for wear and their expressions were somewhat sheepish. Something had, indeed, gone wrong. The truckload of gaily singing men had driven casually through Butenhausen. But for many centuries the successive squires of Butenhausen had peopled their land with Jewish settlers. Butenhausen had become a Jewish peasant village, the only one in Germany. In the valley of the quietly flowing Lauter the young peasants had seized their scythes and their pitchforks when they heard the battle songs of the SA, and they were muscular men who knew how to wield those weapons. I could not conceal my satisfaction when I heard this.

“You know,” my good friend said, “next time I’ll drive through Butenhausen.”

I said:

“Brawling is the one thing you’re good at, isn’t it?”

“Oh, no,” said he. “Nobody’s ever started anything with me.”

“You people can brawl all right,” I said, “but why don’t you allow any argument, any discussion? Whom do you actually want to convince – the fools and the cowards?”

“You know,” said my unshakeable friend, “you’re one of these intellectuals who know all the answers. Tell you what we’ll do. Next time we have a meeting you can get up and yap, yap as much as ever you want. I’ll fix it.”

Before the next meeting I worked out what I should say. I planned to pounce on some silly, flowery remark by the principle speaker and thus, when the time came, all I should need to think up would be a few transitional remarks. My good friend led the meeting. He had never attended any school of public speaking, and he talked straight from the shoulder. He said that anyone reading the papers must see that they were full of their Frick, their first minister-president in Germany, Minister-President Dr. Frick of Thuringia. Everyone knew our Dr. Frick, but who had ever given Thuringia a thought before? Who even knew the name of his predecessor as Minister-President of Thuringia? Suddenly he turned and pointed at me:

“Here’s a man says he knows all the answers. Now’s your chance to talk! Do you know the name of the last Minister-President of Thuringia?”

I sat there and felt my ears go red. I had no idea who it had been. The whole of the hall cheered delightedly. I was discredited for the rest of the evening. Later I said to my good friend:

“Suppose I’d just said any name, Müller or Schneider or something, what would you have done then?”

“I’d have laughed,” said my good friend heartily. “You imagine had any idea what the clown’s name was?”

“That’s demagogy,” I said.

“That’s propaganda,” said he.

I was very curious to see what the results of the election would be. The head of the trade school explained to me:

“We Swabians, we’re not radicals. It’s just that the young men like to have their bit of fun…”

The Swabians, in his opinion, were a sensible people, sensible and tolerant. The radical parties had never had any luck in Swabia. In Swabia the good, old, democratic traditions prevailed. The men of Baden were proud of their ‘model province,’ but the real model province was Wurtemberg with its balanced economy. Then he gave me encouraging figures concerning the happy proportion of industry to agriculture in Swabia, not omitting the healthily rising birth-rate. He spoke of the distribution of wealth, too, and the solid middle-class.

“With us,” he said, “age and experience and authority are still in control.”

As for the activities of our mutual friend, they were just a Punch-and-Judy show. How would it all end? Why, the old, experienced German-Nationals would give the orders and the National-Socialists would provide the troops to carry them out.

My good friend sent an SA man on a bicycle to inform me of the election results as they came in over the radio. Every half-hour the cyclist arrived with the latest figures. The success of the National-Socialists was beyond dispute. Beside the new figures my friend always noted down those of the last election. It seemed clear that the increased poll for the National-Socialists was drawn from those sectors of the electorate that had hitherto abstained from voting – this was particularly apparent in the case of Berlin. Then came Hamburg, then Leipzig, Cologne, Munich, Hanover, and each time he arrived the cyclist was slightly more intoxicated. To begin with I had just glanced at my good friend’s notes and thrown them away, but now they lay spread out in front of Rudolf Schlichter and myself and we studied them. A ‘political landslide’ had taken place, to use the phrase that was to appear throughout the national and international Press on the following day. Not only had Swabia with its well-balanced economy swung that way, but also purely industrial areas, solidly Catholic provinces, Schleswig-Holstein was National-Socialist, East Prussia, Saxony – Thuringia no longer stood alone.

Once again my cyclist appeared. He was having a hard time riding his machine by now. Instead of a little note he carried a huge placard. On it was written ALTBURG near CALW, 101 VOTES CAST, 100 NATIONAL-SOCIALIST. Beneath this my good friend had scribbled:

“The one for the Socialists was my father’s. He only did it to annoy me.”

When, in the first light of dawn, I walked through the market place I saw that there was a light still burning in the delicatessen. I went in. My good friend was seated on the counter, a glass in his hand. On the floor and on the sacks sat the SA men. When my good friend saw me, he raised his glass and said thickly:

“Hundred and ten deputies! One hundred and ten!”

I said:

“Well, good health!”

He stared into his glass. Then he raised his head, grinned so broadly that his eyes almost disappeared into his pink cheeks, and gurgled happily:

“You know, I’m going to be district leader. District leader, that’s me!”

So he was back, this man Hitler, very much back…


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