FOR those interested in the war-torn history of the 20th century, anniversaries abound. But one perhaps has gone unnoticed – Adolf Hitler’s first step on the road to power, 100 years ago today.
It was on July 29, 1921, that he took to himself the title that would give worldwide infamy to an everyday word: Führer, meaning leader.
The 32-year-old ex-soldier adopted it after becoming head of the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (National Socialist German Workers’ Party) known as the NSDAP, or the Nazis.
Hitler, who had remained in the army after serving in the Great War, first became involved with what was originally known as the German Workers’ Party (Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, DAP) in 1919 as a spy, to report back to the military on any subversive activities. But that September, after impressing its then leader Anton Drexler with his passion and oratory, he became a member.
Hitler had found his calling in politics and by 1921, he was the Nazis’ star propagandist, publicist and speechmaking rabble-rouser, rallying support for the little-known Munich-based party, which had only around 2,000 members.
In July 1921 came a crisis when the executive of the cash-strapped NSDAP proposed merging with the German Socialist Party to pool resources. At the time, Hitler was in Berlin on a fund-raising tour.
Learning of the move, he dramatically resigned. Horrified at losing their greatest asset, party members – as Hitler had anticipated – persuaded him to stay on and take over, giving him absolute control of the NSDAP as its Führer.
From there on, his growing band of followers invariably referred to him as Der Führer, as the rest of Germany eventually would. However, among themselves his personal staff called him Der Chef – the chief.
In January 1933, Hitler became Chancellor of Germany and the slogan Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Führer (One People, One Empire, One Leader) was drilled into the public consciousness – seen everywhere on posters and chanted by his massed acolytes. After also taking over as president, he was undisputed ruler of the 70million population and his word was law.
Hitler’s idea of power was based on what he called the Führerprinzip (the leadership principle), a fancy name for a dictator demanding absolute obedience. Eventually, he subsumed the offices of chancellor and president into the all-embracing nomenclature of Führer.
Henceforth, the armed forces and civil service had to pledge allegiance to Hitler personally, rather than to the State or an office of State. As Germany rearmed in the countdown to the Second World War in September 1939, one Waffen-SS panzer grenadier regiment bore the honorary title Der Führer.
However, on April 29, 1945, it was all over for the leader of the 1,000-year Reich, having led Germany to defeat and destruction.
Besieged in his Berlin bunker, Hitler dictated his political testament, saying he had decided ‘to choose death at the moment when I believe the position of the Führer and Chancellor itself can no longer be held’. Next day, he committed suicide.
Today, the word Führer remains in use in Germany in its original meaning of leader, but – understandably – is said to be avoided in a political context.