The peasant revolt movement that shook Schleswig-Holstein between 1928 and 1932 arose from an unprecedented agricultural crisis. It was initiated by Claus Heim, “the peasant general,” who took leadership of it and staged many demonstrations and explosive attacks. However the questions he posed largely surpassed the framework of Schleswig-Holstein’s economic history. Its development actually coincided with period of the National Socialist party’s formidable progress in the rural milieus of this province, which would be, in July 1932, the first region in Germany to vote with an absolute majority for the NSDAP. What historic originality can this farmer’s revolt represent?
After the first world war, the majority of German peasants were confronted with enormous economic difficulties. In order to be able to somehow supply the population with food, German agriculture, from the start of the Weimar Republic and until 1922, had been forced to accept a constraining, managed policy, willingly or not. This policy aroused a general rejection of the young Republic in the large strata of the peasantry who traditionally voted for liberal or conservative groupings.
This negative tendency was further accentuated during the years of heavy inflation (1922 and 1923). At first, the peasants, as owners of land and tangible goods, profited from the devaluation of Germany currency. Later however, with the introduction of the “Rentenmark” in 1923, they were forced to endure heavy economic sacrifices. Above all when it became necessary to back the new currency through mortgages imposed by public authorities on landholdings in the agricultural sector the rejection of the Republic became widespread: this policy was perceived as a terrible injustice, as a special sacrifice demanded from the peasantry alone.
Towards the middle of the 1920s, the peasants had to confront a dilemma: buy agricultural machinery in order to consolidate their hitherto little mechanized enterprises, in order to be able to produce more and compensate for the deficits caused by the increase in the prices of industrial goods. During the years of inflation, the peasants practically had nothing to capitalize on: they consequently saw themselves forced to take out credit on very disadvantageous conditions in order to finance the necessary new investments. But, from 1927, they could foresee the global economic crisis where prices, in agricultural markets, fell on the international scale; moreover, disastrous harvests in 1927, due to deplorable climactic conditions, lead many peasants to bankruptcy.
It was especially in rural Schleswig-Holstein, with a sector largely dominated by livestock and livestock speculation, that numerous peasants were threatened. They could no longer pay taxes or interest. Bankruptcy was waiting for them. This critical situation lead the peasants of the region to rally in a protest movement because traditional peasant associations, the government of the Reich (rendered incapable of acting because of its heterogeneous composition) or the established parties couldn’t help them. This protest movement didn’t present clear organizational structures but instead was characterized by a sort of spontaneity, where some determined peasants rapidly mobilized their counterparts in order to organize formidable mass demonstrations.
In January 1928, Schleswig-Holstein was the theater of numerous peaceful mass demonstrations, where sometimes more than 100,000 peasants descended into the streets. The representatives of the peasantry then asked the government of the Reich to establish an emergency aid program. The peasantry radicalized and within it ever more numerous voices rose to demand the dissolution of the “Weimar sytem.” The leaders of the movement had always been moderate: they limited themselves to demanding timely measures in the domains of agriculture and livestock alone. Faced with incomprehension by the Reich’s authorities, these moderate men were quickly replaced by more politicized activists who henceforth demanded that the entire “Weimar system” be abolished and destroyed in order to replace it with a form of popular (folkish) state, whose contours were poorly defined by its advocates, but which could essentially be qualified as agrarian.
At the end of the year 1928, the movement took the name Landvolkbewegung (Rural People’s Movment), under the direction of Claus Heim, from the countryside of Dithmarschen, and Wilhelm Hamkens, from Eiderstedt. Together they financed and published a journal, Das Landvolk, together with “guard associations” (Wachvereiningungen), a type of paramilitary unit lead by former Freikorps combatants. The movement thus acquired a form of organization that it didn’t posses before.
In 1928, Heim launched an appeal to boycott taxes. Suddenly, public protests were no longer passive: they were followed by strong armed actions and even terrorist attacks. The bailiffs who came to seize the property of bankrupt peasants were set upon and driven out with violence. The small city of Neumünster was subjected to a boycott on the part of peasants who refused to go there to buy commodities and materials. The opponents of the movement fell victim to explosive attacks, designed to intimidate them. Following these explosive attacks, the agitators where pursued by justice and condemned to prison. The movement was broken.