In 1919, Hitler joined the German Workers’ Party, becoming only its seventh active member. Two years later he was chairman of what was now called the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, or NSDAP).
Hitler saw the NSDAP as an instrument for gaining power and sought to give it a military caste. He created his own personal army of storm troopers, the Sturmbabteilung or SA. The group wore brown uniforms — the same color as the victorious British army — hence the nickname “Brownshirts.” They eventually had their own marching song, which was named after the Berlin leader of the SA, Horst Wessel, who, according to Nazi legend, was murdered by a Communist in 1930.
The party adopted an ancient religious emblem, the swastika, as its symbol. Its objectives were to impose state control over much of society, but its greater emphasis was on a foreign policy that would bring about the creation of a Greater Germany, an abrogation of Versailles, and an end to the malignant influence of the Jews. Germany, Hitler believed, was threatened by its neighbors and could never become the power it should be so long as the size of its army was restricted.
By the time he took control of the party, Hitler had already displayed his talent as an inspirational orator. Still, when he decided to make his first bid for power, he had only about 3,000 followers.
In the early 1920s, the German economy was in distress and the currency had collapsed by 1923. Hitler saw the public’s discontent as his opportunity to steal power. On November 8, he led his “army” to a beer hall in Bavaria where local government leaders were holding a meeting. The Nazis quickly captured the politicians and Hitler put himself in charge. The group then marched on the former Bavarian War Ministry building when the police opened fire. During the riot that followed, the man beside Hitler was killed as he pulled his leader to the ground.
The failure of the “Beer Hall Putsch” brought the obscure man with the funny moustache his first national publicity. Hitler was arrested and, after a 24-day trial, sentenced to five years in Landsberg fortress. The name is misleading, because the "fortress" was more like one of those country-club type prisons where white-collar criminals are sometimes sent. Hitler received a steady stream of visitors and presents and was treated more like he was on a picnic outing than serving as an inmate.
The most important aspect of Hitler’s incarceration was that it allowed him to dictate his views to his friend and cell-mate, Rudolf Hess. Those views would later be published as the book Mein Kampf (My Struggle), a volume that to this day remains a bible for racists, anti-Semites, and sociopaths. When it was first written, however, Hitler would not permit the book to be published in English.
In Mein Kampf, Hitler laid out his views on the centrality of Aryan purity to historical progress, the mortal danger posed by world Jewry and international communism, the necessity of rebuilding German power, and the importance of expanding Germany’s borders to provide the living space — Lebensraum — the German people require. Hitler did not conceal his intentions; they were in black and white for anyone to read. The hard part, especially in the 1920s, was to take him seriously.
On December 20, 1924, Hitler was released from prison. He served only nine months.
The failure of the “Beer Hall Putsch” taught Hitler valuable lessons that he would use to win and hold power later. One obvious lesson was not to get into any more battles with an enemy that was larger and better armed. Hitler also decided that his best chance to gain power would be through the use of ballots rather than bullets. Hence, the would-be dictator started out as a democrat — of sorts.
Sources: Mitchell G. Bard, The Complete Idiot's Guide to World War II, (NY: MacMillan, 1998), pp. 30-32.