In Germany in 1923, a typical workingman carted his weekly salary home in a wheelbarrow. Housewives used the nearly worthless government currency to light household fires. An armload of banknotes might buy a loaf of bread. These absurdities were some of the more visible results of the economic inflation that wiped out people's savings and crippled Germany's Weimar government during the interwar years before Hitler.
From its inception in 1919, the democratic Weimar Republic faced serious economic problems, foremost among them staggering reparations payments demanded by the victorious Entente powers after the Great War of 1914-1918, and set forth in the Treaty of Versailles. Because German financial manipulators became fabulously wealthy by taking advantage of middle-class misfortune, those who had been ruined became receptive to right-wing political extremists who blamed the nation's ills on the Weimar government and, frequently, on Jews.
Although inflation came to a halt in 1924, the German recovery was fragile. The New York stock-market crash of October 1929 set off an international economic crisis that devastated Germany. Business failures and unemployment reached unprecedented levels. Argument in the Reichstag led to virtual paralysis of Germany's political decision-making process.
Throughout these years Adolf Hitler campaigned tirelessly, vowing to repudiate Versailles and restore Germany's pride and prosperity. A desperate electorate responded. In the 1930 elections, the NSDAP scored a dramatic political breakthrough, winning 18.3 percent of the vote and increasing its Reichstag representation from 12 delegates to 107--the second largest in parliament.
Nazi rhetoric encouraged the middle class to remember the awful inflation of 1923, and to resent the indignities of the Versailles Treaty. Nazis blamed Germany's calamitous situation on "November criminals" (a reference to Social Democrats deemed responsible for Germany's prostrate position in 1919), on Marxists, on economic profiteers, and on the Jews, who supposedly were behind it all.
The shouting matches in parliament found increasingly more violent expression on Germany's streets, where pitched battles were fought by competing political armies. Youthful Nazi thugs relished clashes with Social Democrats and other political opponents. The summer of 1932 was particularly bloody, as Nazi Storm Troopers made good on their promises to "break skulls" and "smash up the goddamned Jewish republic." In June in the state of Prussia alone, nearly 500 skirmishes left more than 80 people dead.
As the Depression deepened, vigorous Nazi propaganda efforts paid even more dramatic dividends. The July 1932 elections gave the Nazis a stunning 37 percent of the vote. Now, with 230 Reichstag members, they became Germany's largest political party. Emboldened by this ballot-box success and apparent public approval of his grandiose economic plans, Hitler intensified his demand to be named chancellor.