Most religious movements and political dynasties throughout history
have had one city that could be called the focal point, or heart, of the
movement – Rome, Jerusalem, Constantinople and so forth. For the Nazis,
the heart of their movement was the magnificent medieval city of Nuremberg,
symbolizing the link between Germany's Gothic past and its Nazi future.
Each September, a pilgrimage was held in which followers gathered from
all over the Reich to participate in torchlight marches and solemn ceremonies
honoring fallen Nazis. There were also big military-style parades, and
most important of all, a chance to see the Führer
In September 1934, American journalist William L. Shirer had just arrived
in Germany to work as a reporter for the Hearst Company. He proceeded to
keep a diary of the entire seven years he spent reporting from inside Hitler's
Shirer thought it would be a good idea to attend the 1934 Nuremberg
Rally to better understand the Nazi phenomenon. On his very first evening
in the old city, he found himself accidentally stuck among a throng of
ten thousand people in front of Hitler's hotel, shouting: "We want
"I was a little shocked at the faces," Shirer wrote in his
diary, "when Hitler finally appeared on the balcony for a moment.
They reminded me of the crazed expressions I once saw in the back country
on the faces of some Holy Rollers...they looked up at him as if he were
a Messiah, their faces transformed into something positively inhuman."
The next morning, Shirer was among the attendees at the Rally's opening
ceremony, held inside a large hall on the outskirts of Nuremberg. It was
Shirer's first experience with Nazi pomp and pageantry.
"I am beginning to comprehend," he wrote, "some
of the reasons for Hitler's astounding success. Borrowing a chapter from
the Roman [Catholic] church, he is restoring pageantry and color and mysticism
to the drab lives of 20th Century Germans. This morning's opening meeting...was
more than a gorgeous show; it also had something of the mysticism and religious
fervor of an Easter or Christmas Mass in a great Gothic cathedral. The
hall was a sea of brightly colored flags. Even Hitler's arrival was made
dramatic. The band stopped playing. There was a hush over the thirty thousand
people packed in the hall. Then the band struck up the Badenweiler March...Hitler
appeared in the back of the auditorium and followed by his aides, Göring,
Goebbels, Hess, Himmler and the others, he slowly strode down the long
center aisle while thirty thousand hands were raised in salute."
To Shirer, the intoxicating atmosphere inside the hall was such that
"every word dropped by Hitler seemed like an inspired word from on
high. Man's – or at least the German's – critical faculty is swept away
at such moments, and every lie pronounced is accepted as high truth itself."
It was during this opening meeting that Hitler's victorious proclamation
was read: "The German form of life is definitely determined for the
next thousand years."
At Hitler's personal request, a 31-year-old actress and movie director
named Leni Riefenstahl was filming the entire week-long Rally. Utilizing
thirty film cameras and 120 technicians, she produced an extraordinary
film record of the festivities, featuring many unique camera angles and
dramatic lighting effects.
finished masterpiece, Triumph of the Will, contains many impressive
scenes, but perhaps none more powerful than the scene in which Hitler,
Himmler, and the new SA leader, Viktor Lutze, walk down a wide aisle in
the center of Nuremberg stadium flanked on either side by gigantic formations
of Nazis in perfectly aligned columns.
In previous years, the three men walking that path would have been Hitler,
Himmler and Röhm. But the troublesome
Röhm was now dead, replaced by the dutiful
and lackluster Lutze. Back in February, it had been Lutze who told Hitler
about Röhm's comments concerning "that
ridiculous corporal." For his steadfast loyalty, Lutze was given command
of the SA with strict orders from Hitler to keep the Brownshirts firmly
On Sunday, September 9th, during the Rally, Hitler faced a mass gathering
of his SA Brownshirts for the first time since the Night of the Long Knives.
In scenes well-documented by Riefenstahl's cameras, about 50,000 Brownshirts
stood in neat formations and listened to a slightly edgy Hitler attempt
to patch things up. Interestingly, the film also shows a huge cordon of
SS guards in attendance.
"Men of the SA and SS," Hitler bellowed from the podium, "a
few months ago a black shadow spread over the movement. Neither the SA,
nor any other institution of the Party, has anything to do with this shadow.
They are all deceived who believe that even one crack has occurred in the
structure of our united movement...Only a lunatic or deliberate liar could
think that I, or anybody, would ever intend to dissolve what we ourselves
have built up over many long years...In the past you have proved your loyalty
to me a thousandfold, and it cannot and will not be different in the future."
Hitler absolved the SA membership from any complicity in the events precipitating
the blood purge. And amid a hearty chorus of 'Sieg Heils,' the Brownshirts
sounded their approval. Any concerns over possible trouble from the SA
during the Rally had been unfounded.
Riefenstahl's film next shows a lengthy sequence featuring the grand
finale parade, and concludes with Hitler's speech at the closing ceremony
in which he labels the Rally "a most impressive display of political
power." Hitler goes on to declare the Nazi Party "will be unchangeable
in its doctrine, hard as steel in its organization, supple and adaptable
in its tactics. In its entity, however, it will be like a religious order..."
For many Germans, a trip to the Nuremberg Rally was indeed a religious-like
experience and they returned home with renewed dedication to the Nazi cause
and increased devotion to their Führer.
Upon the very first screening of Triumph of the Will in 1936
the Nazis knew they had struck propaganda gold. The film played to packed
movie theaters throughout Germany. For her efforts, Riefenstahl received
a Cultural Achievement award from Goebbels' Propaganda Ministry. The film
also won a gold medal for its artistry at the 1937 World Exhibition in
The legacy of Triumph of the Will lives on today in the numerous
TV documentaries concerning the Nazi era which replay portions of
the film in regard to Hitler's early days, or show snippets of euphoric
Hitler Youth, or the SS goose-stepping smartly on parade.
The film's most enduring and dangerous illusion is that Nazi Germany
was a super-organized state that, although evil in nature, was impressive
In reality, Nazi Germany was only well organized to the degree that
it was a murderous police state. The actual Reich government was a tangled
mess of inefficient agencies and overlapping bureaucracies led by ruthless
men who had little, if any, professional administrative abilities. From
the Reich's first hours in January 1933 until the end in May 1945, various
departmental leaders battled each other for power, and would do anything
to curry favor with a superior Nazi authority and especially with Hitler,
the ultimate authority. Hence, they would all become enthusiastic cogs
in the Führer's war and extermination
In 1934, over a million Germans had participated in the hugely successful
Nuremberg Rally. And from this point onward, the rallies got even bigger.
The following year, 1935, is remembered for the special announcements concerning
the status of Jews in Germany. These new rules became known as the Nuremberg
Laws and for the Jews of Europe would one day be a matter of life and death.