Hermann Esser was one of the Nazi Party’s ‘Old Guard’ (Alte Kämper) – one of the earliest members of the party. Esser was one of Adolf Hitler’s closest comrades in the early days of the party and was effectively deputy leader of the NSDAP up to the Beer Hall Putsch of 1923.
Esser was born in Röhrmoos in Bavaria on July 29th 1900. His father was a civil servant and Esser received his secondary education in the high school at Kempten. He joined the German Army during World War One. When Esser returned from the war, he had developed radical socialist ideas and he created a revolutionary students council. However, this would have been just one of hundreds of new political movements that developed after the Armistice and it would have had little political importance. Esser became a journalist and it was in this capacity that he met Anton Drexler. Esser is given credit with helping to found the new NSADP but the real driving force for the new party came from Drexler, Gottfried Feder and Dietrich Eckart. However, Esser held Party Member Card No 2 and can claim to be one of the original members of the party.
Esser was a very good public speaker and he was skilled at rabble-rousing and encouraging men to attack the political meetings of groups and parties that he frowned upon. His public speeches became the kernel of future Nazi policies – extreme nationalism, a support for the ‘stab-in-the-back’ belief, anti-Semite etc. A fellow Old Guard described Esser as “the arch-type of the National Socialist”.
“Crude, uncultured, of low moral character, Esser was involved in one escapade after another. A brash, arrogant rowdy, he was arrested again and again for unlawful behaviour.” (Louis Snyder)
Scandal seemed to follow Esser. When he got a young lady friend pregnant he refused to marry her and wanted to wash his hands of the whole situation. She appealed directly to Hitler and it is said that the future Führer ordered Esser to marry her as the party could not afford any public scandals. Esser did as he was told “for the honour of the party” and Hitler became the child’s godfather.
But it was not the last of the scandals to hit Esser.
“The scandals in his private life proved to be a liability even for the Nazi Party.” (Snyder)
However, as a party man he was very valuable to Hitler. Esser not only became de facto deputy leader of the Nazi Party, he was also its first head of propaganda. His posters attacking the German Communist Party were visually brutal and advocated violence against them. There is little doubt that his approach brought a fair number of new men to the party. But it does seem that Esser was a political opportunist. On one occasion, having not been paid for his work, Esser threatened to leave the Nazi Party and join the Communist Party. The damage this would have done the fledgling party would have been serious – and Esser knew it. Esser also knew that Hitler was aware that he knew most of the party’s secrets and that as party leader Hilter could not risk these going public. Esser got his way and was paid.
“I know that Hermann Esser is a rascal, but I must use him as long as he is of any use. I must keep him near me so that I can watch him. I can use him as a speaker for a certain type of public. But I shall never give him political responsibility.” (Hitler)
While Esser may have been a “rascal”, Hitler preferred the company of the Old Guard to the new intellectuals who had joined the party – men like Otto and Gregor Strasser. However, Hitler did keep true to his word and refused to give him any meaningful job. In 1920, he had been made editor of the “Volkischer Beobachter”, which was then a relatively unknown newspaper with a limited circulation. From 1923 to 1925, he was head of propaganda.
Curiously for a man associated with a great deal of unlawful behaviour, Esser failed to take part in the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch. He told Hitler that he was ill and stayed in bed while the attempted putsch was taking place. Hitler was furious and called Esser “a conceited coward”. In the immediate aftermath of the failed putsch, Esser fled to Austria. However, he did return and visited Hitler in Landsberg Prison in an effort to rebuild some sort of relationship.
While Hitler was in prison the Nazi Party nearly split in two – those who wanted to cultivate a more urban approach to the party’s support led by the Strasser brothers and those who believed that the party should remain associated with rural life and the purity of the soil. Esser stood with the latter group. When Hitler was released, he had to do all that he could to rebuild the party before it did split into two groups. In this he was successful but he did not eradicate the differences in ideological approach, which came out in the party’s 1926 conference at Bamberg. However, Hitler knew where Esser stood and it was on his side.
Esser then fell out with Julius Streicher. Hitler took the side of Streicher. This prompted Esser to show his true self when he threatened to leave the party and broadcast its deepest secrets – something that Hitler could not allow. Esser was bought off by being made the editor of the new ‘Illustrierter Beobachter’. Esser held this post for six years and it seemed to have satiated his desire for recognition and what he classed as power. The newspaper frequently highlighted social scandals which made it popular with the public. It also made the Nazi hierarchy nervous as they were not keen for any of their scandals to be highlighted in public.
Esser still liked the rabble-rousing side of party membership. In 1928, aged only 28, he led 500 SA men to a speech being made by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Gustav Stressemann, and proceeded to break it up as he shouted anti-Semite obscenities.
From 1928 to 1932, Esser served in both the Munich city council and in the Bavarian Landtag. When Hitler was appointed Chancellor on January 30th 1933, he gave Esser a number of administrative posts in Bavaria. By doing this, it kept Esser away from Berlin.
In March 1935, Esser was removed from these positions as part of “administrative reforms”. However, it was almost certainly as a result of an allegation that Esser had sexually assaulted the underage daughter of an important Munich businessman.
After what was deemed an appropriate amount of time Esser was made Vice President of the Reichstag (December 1939). He already held the unimportant post of Undersecretary for Tourist Traffic – it was hardly likely that many tourists would be expected in Nazi Germany as World War Two had broken out in Europe.
During the war Esser very much faded into the background. This proved lucky for him as after the war the Allies considered that his importance was only “minor”. He was arrested, imprisoned but released in 1947.
Within the new West Germany, there was a great desire that he should stand trial as a “major offender”. He was found guilty and sentenced to five years hard labour with a loss of civil rights for life. He served two years.
Hermann Esser died in Bavaria on February 7th 1981.