The Bamberg Conference (German: Bamberger Führertagung) included some sixty members of the leadership of the Nazi Party, and was specially convened by Adolf Hitler in Bamberg, in Upper Franconia, Germany on Sunday 14 February 1926 during the "wilderness years" of the party.
Hitler's purposes in convening the ad hoc conference embraced at least the following:
- to curtail dissent within the party that had arisen among members of its northern branches and to foster party unity based upon --and only upon--the "leadership principle" (Führerprinzip)
- to establish without controversy his position as the sole, absolute and unquestioned ultimate authority within the party, whose decisions are final and non-appealable
- to eliminate any notion that the party was in any way a democratic or consensus-based institution
- to eradicate bickering between the northern and southern factions of the party over ideology and goals
- to establish the Twenty-Five Point Programme as constituting the party's "immutable" programme
To achieve his objectives, Hitler had to pressure the dissident northern faction to accept the leadership of Munich and to adhere without question to the Führerprinzip. His decision to convene the Bamberg Conference was something of a gamble—it could have provoked an express revolt by the northern faction or otherwise exacerbated the north-south conflict, leading to a rupture—but Hitler of course was a born gambler and he chose to nip a possible nascent rebellion in the bud. He correctly believed that the dissidents lacked both the heart and the stomach to press their dissent, and that their true intent was not to challenge his leadership but to "rescue" him from the "reactionary" forces of the Munich clique, who had by default come to dominate the party whilst Hitler served his 30 month jail term in Landsberg Castle for his role in the Beer hall putsch (during which he also completed Mein Kampf).
Soon after Hitler was banned from public speaking in Bavaria on 9 March 1925, he appointed Gregor Strasser to develop the party in the north. Strasser, a hard-working and gregarious pharmacist of forceful personality who read Homer in the original for relaxation, had exceptional organizational talents and dramatically increased the number of Nazi cells within the north.
Strasser was more idealistic than Hitler and took the notion of "socialist" in the party name with some degree of seriousness. The Communists were a larger factor in the more industrialized north, and Strasser was sensitive to the appeal that "socialism" had to those dissatisfied workers who were tempted by the red flag. He also apparently felt that the Munich clique was ruled by lesser men, and he chafed under their leadership in Hitler's absence.
Strasser was more radical than Hitler on the issue of adherence to the "legal and constitutional" method of obtaining political power through the Weimar Constitution's electoral processes. He had been the SA leader in Lower Bavaria before the Beer Hall Putsch and was not convinced that Hitler's repudiation of force, violence and putsch as a path to political power was correct.
Most serious, perhaps, was the attitude of the northern faction to the party's Twenty-Five Point Programme, which indisputably was intellectually confused and often half-baked. Considering the circumstances in which it was written, it is hard to imagine that it could be otherwise. To Strasser and Goebbels, men with intellectual and ideological bents, warped as those were by scandalous anti-Semitism, the absence of intellectual rigor was a serious defect.
The Hagan meeting
Strasser first convened a meeting of the northern party leaders in Hagan, Westphalia on 10 September 1925. The meeting failed to accomplish much, as Strasser was absent due to his mother's serious illness. Nevertheless, the delegates unanimously rejected the strategy of electoral participation, formed the Working Community of the Northern and Western German Gaue of the NSDAP (the Working Community or the Arbeitsgemeinschaft), enacted statutes to govern the Working Community, which provided for the establishment of its publicity function through the National Socialist Letters (Nationalsozialistische Briefe), to appear bi-monthly with Goebbels as editor, and respectfully notified Hitler in writing of these developments. In no way was this an open revolt against Hitler or an attempted secession from the NSDAP; Hitler gave his approval to the formation of the Community. The members of the Working Community were by statute dedicated to work "in the comradely spirit of National Socialism under the leadership of Adolf Hitler."
Nevertheless, the Community's intent to reshape the programme of National Socialism threatened Hitler's absolute authority. The underlying premise of the Community was, in effect, democratic: neither Munich nor the Führer could have all the answers and the best solution was a comradely, communal and cooperative effort by concerned party members, who would combine their skills and intelligence to formulate a winning programme.
The Hanover meeting
In November 1925 Strasser produced his own draft programme, and circulated it among the dissidents. It basically proposed a corporate state, with peasants tied to their land in a quasi-feudalistic manner and with the means of production under government control, while private property rights were nevertheless respected. The most inflammatory provision was the advocacy of expropriation of princely estates, such as the Hohenzollerns and the Wittelsbachs. The draft was often incoherent and vague, however, and it promoted controversy even among the northerners. In January 1926 a meeting of the dissidents in Hanover became extraordinarily heated when Gottfried Feder appeared (uninvited but as Hitler's representative) and objected strenuously to the proposed programme in any form. The conferees nevertheless voted to accept the draft, with only Feder and Robert Ley dissenting. In particular, they supported the initiative to expropriate, without compensation, the landholdings of the German princes, an issue which would be the subject of an upcoming plebiscite; the expropriation initiative had been sponsored by the Left, including the Communists. The dissidents passed a resolution to start a new publishing house, the Kampfverlag, which would operate a new party newspaper for the north, Der Nationale Sozialist. The proposed newspaper would obviously compete with the party's Völkischer Beobachter. Some Gauleiter were even so bold as to criticize Hitler, although the resolution that was adopted expressly stated that the northerners did not intend to displace the leadership decisions of Munich, and that in any case the expropriation issue was "not one which touches on the fundamental interests of the party."
Feder, fuming at the audacity of the northerners, reported back to Hitler, who in due course called for the conference in Bamberg, to be held on 14 February 1926.
The 14 February conference
Bamberg was chosen as it was situated as close to the northern Gau as possible, while still remaining on Bavarian soil; additionally, a Sunday was probably chosen to make the conference more convenient for all, but in particular for the northerners, who would have longer distances to negotiate.
Streicher had also done a good job in gaining support in the area for the party, and the Bamberg branch was both large and devoted to the authority of Munich. Hitler of course could use the popular support as a further weapon in his propaganda to coerce the rambunctious northerners into line. The local Nazis turned out to demonstrate in favor of Hitler, which must have impressed the northern visitors.
There was no debate; Hitler was not in the habit of debating with his entourage in any event and he had no intention of engaging in any such quasi-democratic practice at Bamberg. The conference was a typical lengthy Hitlerian monologue.
At the conference, Hitler drew from Mein Kampf, the first volume of which was principally written while he served his time in the comforts of Landsberg Prison. And his rejection of the Working Community's programme was complete, oblique and effective.
- Foreign Policy. Alliances were purely pragmatic, according to Hitler. The Community had suggested alliance with Russia. This, Hitler emphasized, was impossible. It would constitute the "bolshevization of Germany" and "national suicide." Germany's salvation would come instead by acquisition of living space in the East: Germany would have Lebensraum, at Russian expense. This colonial policy would be accomplished, as in the Middle Ages, by the sword.
- Expropriation. He stated without equivocation that the uncompensated expropriation of the princes was contrary to the party's aims. "There are for us today no princes, only Germans.... We stand on the basis of law, and we will not give a Jewish system of exploitation a legal excuse for the complete plundering of our people."
- Sectarianism. Furthermore, the objections of the mainly Protestant northerners to the toleration of Catholicism by the Bavarians would be studiously ignored. Religious questions such as this had, according to Hitler, no place in the National Socialist movement. The party aimed to create a people's community, a 'Volksgemeinschaft' in which all true Germans would bond together for national unity.
The Twenty-Five Points would not be changed. It was the foundation of all Nazi ideology. "To tamper with it would be treason to those [principally the "martyrs" of the Beer Hall Putsch] who died believing in our idea."
But Hitler's major thrust was not programmatic. He offered the dissidents an alternative methodology. The party was based not on program, but on the principle of the leader. The party leadership therefore had a simple choice: either accept or reject him as the unquestioned leader. Toland astutely places Hitler's ultimatum in Messianic terms: "National Socialism was a religion and Hitler was its Christ. Crucified at the Feldherrnhalle and risen after Landsberg, he had returned to lead the movement and the nation to salvation."
The dissent evaporated after this. Strasser made a short statement in which accepted the Führer's leadership and Hitler put his arm around Strasser in a show of comradeship. Strasser agreed to have the recipients of the alternative program return their copies to him. Goebbels did not speak at all, dismaying his fellow northern delegates.
Hitler continued his efforts to conciliate with both Strasser and Goebbels. As to Strasser, Hitler approved the establishment of the new publishing house under Strasser's control. He allowed Strasser to merge two Gaue (Westphalia and Rhineland North) into one new and more powerful Gau called the Ruhr Gau, with Goebbels, Pfeffer and Kaufman as a ruling triumvirate. To placate Strasser, he even removed Esser from the party's leadership cadre in April 1926. When Strasser was injured in an automobile accident—his car was hit by a freight train—Hitler visited him in his Landshut home, bearing a large bouquet of flowers and expressions of sympathy.
Hitler wooed Goebbels as well. He invited Goebbels to speak, with Hitler on stage, at the Burgerbraukeller on 8 April 1926, and had the event widely publicized. Hitler's chauffeur, driving the supercharged Mercedes, picked up Goebbels (along with Pfeffer and Kaufman) at the train station and gave them a tour of Munich. Hitler greeted the trio at their hotel and Goebbels confessed to his diary that "his kindness in spite of Bamberg makes us feel ashamed." After Goebbels' speech at the beer hall, the audience responds wildly and Hitler embraces Goebbels, with "tears in his eyes."
The next day Hitler dressed down Goebbels, Pfeffer and Kaufman for their rebelliousness but forgave them, and Goebbels wrote in his journal that "unity follows. Hitler is great." Hitler continued his conversations with Goebbels and invited him to dine in Hitler's apartment, accompanied by Geli, who flirted with the young Goebbels, much to his delight. Later, Hitler took Goebbels on day-long sightseeing tours in Bavaria and when Hitler spoke in Stuttgart, Goebbels was on stage with him.
- These included the would-be dissidents Gregor Strasser, Joseph Goebbels and Franz Pfeffer von Salomon as well as the Munich faction of Wilhelm Frick, Rudolf Hess, Julius Streicher, Hermann Esser, Gottfried Feder, Max Amann and Alfred Rosenberg. Hermann Göring was still in his Beer Hall Putsch-motivated exile in Sweden; Ernst Röhm had left the party and the SA in 1925 before starting his self-imposed exile in South America following his contretemps with Hitler over the proper role of the SA in the Nazi movement.
- After the end of the disastrous hyperinflation in 1922-23 Germany, the economy started a return to prosperity in the mid-1920s. Support for the Nazi party waned due to the relative prosperity the country was experiencing under the Weimar Republic.
- The so-called dissidents were led by Strasser, although he was a Bavarian and had been dispatched to the north by Hitler to expand the party's base there.
- Hitler insisted that the party must be based solely on the Führerprinzip. As was expressed by Hess, in "German democracy", authority flows downward and responsibility flows upward; followers must follow the leader without question and must be completely responsible to him.
- Considerable personal animosity between the northern faction and the Munich clique --represented by Esser and Streicher, who were unnecessarily insensitive to the underlying causes of intraparty factionalism-- also motivated the dissent.
- The statutes of the party were amended soon after Bamberg, at the party's General Members' Meeting in late May 1926, to state expressly that the 1920 Twenty-Five Point Programme that was so hastily established by Hitler and Anton Drexler --during an impromptu all-night meeting of those two that was conducted around Drexler's dining room table-- was "immutable." Hitler realized that ideological controversies were inherently complex, and that they led to thought and debate. More subtly, such controversies inevitably entailed the exposure of both internal inconsistencies within the competing ideologies themselves and external inconsistencies between any ideology and the actual and empirical political realm; and this, in turn, fostered yet other conflicts and engendered attempts at conflict resolution. Hitler's rather astonishing political insight was that, for a party based on the Fuhrerprinzip, this entire dialectic process was simply counter-productive. Such debates, dialectics and disagreements, even though founded in good faith on both sides and even though intended to "improve" the party, contravened the Führerprinzip and diverted energy from the goal of obtaining political power. Ideological "programmes" (if taken seriously) would also tend to limit the Führer's freedom of action in the drive for political power, and Hitler had no intention of subordinating himself to any programmatic expression of an "idea," no matter how central such an idea might be. The personality of the Führer, not the content of an ideology, was the meaning of National Socialism under the Führerprinzip.
- In a private meeting of 4 January 1925, only a fortnight after ending his incarceration in Landsberg, Hitler convinced Bavarian Prime Minister Heinrich Held to lift the Bavarian ban on the NSDAP and its organs (principally the SA and the Völkischer Beobachter). This particular prohibition was removed, effective 16 February 1925, ending the Verbotzeit. Hitler, who apparently could not stand prosperity, promptly delivered a rabble-rousing speech at Munich's Bürgerbräukeller, containing strong suggestions of the need for violent action, and the Bavarian authorities responded in early March 1925 by banning him from speaking in public meetings within the confines of Bavaria. Other states followed suit.
- Goebbels, who had a Ph.D. in German literature and who had at least read Marx in the original, joined Strasser enthusiastically in the emphasis on "socialism." His self-image was that of revolutionary, and he chafed at the notion of the party's becoming an instrument of petty bourgeois politics.
- His approval was not solicited but by giving it, Hitler underlined his ultimate authority over party activities.Read p. 145.
- Goebbels contributed heavily to the draft, which also called for large-scale nationalization of industry, participation by workers in department stores, abolition of "stock exchange capitalism," formation of a European Customs Union led by Germany and eventual alliance with Russia against the "fiendish ... corruption of the West." Read p. 145.
- Ibid. p. 146. At the time the party was receiving contributions from several nobles, and Hitler was personally receiving 1500 marks per month --approximately 75% of his income-- from the divorced Duchess of Sachsen-Anhalt. Furthermore, such an expropriation would not endear the party to the industrialists who were currently contributing and who, Hitler hoped, would become an ever-growing source of party funds.
- Shirer erroneously states that the conference was held on a weekday, for the express purpose of making northern attendance difficult, and that only two dissidents -- Strasser and Goebbels -- attended as a consequence of Hitler's insidious scheduling ploy. Shirer's factual statements are demonstrably false, and his implications are wrong-headed. Hitler did not intend to castigate or humiliate the dissidents in public. His uncanny political sense told him that they were, at bottom, loyal to him, but that they felt that the Munich (principally Streicher and Esser) clique was betraying both the NSDAP and its Führer. Thus, his approach was to be personally respectful to the dissidents, demonstrating his sensitivity to their ideas and his respect for their motives, while nevertheless chastising and correcting them, much as a stern but loving father would do. Hitler was of course capable of the most exaggerated pettiness imaginable, but (contrary to Shirer) he did not exhibit that in scheduling, or in conducting, the conference.
- Hitler arrived in an impressive motorcade. Read p. 147.
- Goebbels' diary entries are quite confused as to the duration of Hitler's presentation. At first he states it took two hours, then states (a page later) that it lasted some four and a half hours. The police report stated five hours, but obviously the police could only know how long the conferees were present in the meeting and could not know how the time was spent.
- Read p. 148.
- "I can't say a word....I've been hit over the head....one of the greatest disappointments of my life. I no longer have complete faith in Hitler....my props have been taken away from me." Diary p. 343.
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