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9-08-2015, 21:44

THE FAILURE OF PARLIAMENTARY DEMOCRACY IN GERMANY AND THE RISE OF HITLER, 1920–34

In retrospect there can be no minimising the importance of one historical date – 30 January 1933, when Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany by President von Hindenburg. Within eight years of his coming to power, Germany had conquered continental Europe from the Channel coast to the gates of Moscow. It was not a conquest and occupation such as had occurred in the Great War. In German-occupied Europe some 10 million people, including 2 million children, were deliberately murdered. Hitler’s Reich was a reversion into barbarism. Racism as such was nothing new, nor was it confined to Germany. These doctrines attracted groups of supporters in most of Europe, including France and Britain, in South America and in the US. But it was in Germany that the resources of a modern industrial state enabled criminal leaders to murder and enslave millions. Until the concentration camps revealed their victims the world was inclined to believe that a country once in the forefront of Western culture, the Germany of Goethe, could not so regress. This faith in civilisation was misplaced. How was it possible? For just one of the more easily discernible parts of the explanation we must turn to the politics of Weimar Germany, which failed to provide stable governments until political democracy ceased to function altogether after the onset of the economic crisis of 1929. From 1920 to 1930 no party was strong enough on its own to form a government and enjoy the necessary majority in parliament. But until 1928 a majority in parliament either favoured or at least tolerated the continuation of the parliamentary system of government. The Communist Party was too weak in its parliamentary representation to endanger the Republic during the middle years of Weimar prosperity from 1924 to 1928; its strength was appreciably smaller than that of the deputies of the moderate Socialist Party. Indeed, the Socialists steadily gained votes and deputies in the Reichstag. From 100 in May 1924 their representation increased to 153 in 1928. Significantly, the Communist Party fell in the same period from 62 to 54 Reichstag deputies. On the extreme anti-democratic right the Nazis did even worse in parliamentary elections; in May 1924 there were 32 Nazis elected to the Reichstag and in 1928 only 12. Even the conservatives, the Nationalist Party, who formed the opposition for most of the time from 1918 to 1930, declined in number from 95 to 73. Weimar Germany appeared to gain in strength. This was not really so. The Nazis were winning adherents wherever there was distress. Even during the years of comparative prosperity, many of the farmers did not share the benefits of industrial expansion. Then governments were discredited by their short life-spans – on average only eight months. Parties appeared to be locked in purely selfish battles of personal advantage. The Social Democratic Party must share in the blame for the instability of the Weimar coalition governments. It preferred to stay in opposition and not to participate in the business of ruling the country. The difficulties of any party with socialist aspirations joining a coalition were genuinely great. Coalition meant compromise on policy. In any coalition with the centre and moderate right the Social Democrats could not hope to pass socialist measures and they were afraid that cooperation with the ‘bourgeois’ parties would discredit them with their electoral base, which consisted mainly of urban workers and trade unionists. From an electoral party point of view these tactics appeared to pay off as their increasing representation in the Reichstag shows. But the price paid was the discrediting of parliamentary government, for the exclusion from government of both the Nationalists and the Communists and the absence of the Socialists meant that the coalitions of the centre and mainly moderate right were minority governments at the mercy of the Socialists. In government there was thus a permanent sense of crisis, the coalition partners who formed the governments, especially the smaller parties, becoming more concerned about how the unpopularity of a particular government policy might affect their own supporters than about the stability of government as a whole. This situation imperilled the standing of the whole parliamentary democratic system. After 1925 there seemed to be only one method by which the parties of the centre and moderate right, saddled with the responsibility of government, could logically attain stability and a majority, and that was to move further to the right. So its right wing came to predominate the Centre Party, enabling the conservatives, the Nationalist Party, to join coalition cabinets with them. The coalition cabinets were also very much cabinets of ‘personalities’ relying on presidential backing and only loosely connected with, and dependent on, the backing of the Reichstag parties. When in 1928 the Socialists at last joined a broad coalition excluding the more extreme right they seemed to be remedying their earlier mistaken policy; but it was very late in the history of the parliamentary Republic. The coalition partners, especially the Centre Party, had already moved so far to the right that they now felt ill at ease working with the Socialists under a Socialist chancellor. This so-called grand coalition had the utmost difficulty holding together for the two years (1928–30) the government lasted, plunging from one internal crisis to the next. The influence of the brilliantly successful foreign minister, Gustav Stresemann, just managed to keep the right wing of the coalition in government. To carry through his diplomacy of persuading the Allies to relax their grip on Germany, he needed a stable government behind him. But the coalition did not survive his death in October 1929. The three years from 1928 to 1930 were critical in the decline of Weimar Germany. Economic distress was becoming severe among the small farmers. Then followed the Wall Street Crash and its chain reaction in Europe. Industrial output contracted and unemployment soared. The Nazis were able to capitalise on the grievances of the small farmers and then as the depression widened and deepened they exploited the resentments of the lower-middle classes, the shopkeepers and white-collar workers who were facing uncertainties and financial hardships and who feared a Bolshevik revolution from the unemployed industrial workers. On the political scene, the conservative Nationalist Party was excluded from power by the ‘grand coalition’ which in 1928 supported a broader-based government. The Nationalists in that year had fallen under the leadership of a wealthy industrialist and publisher, Alfred Hugenberg, who hated Weimar democracy and socialism equally. The Nationalists had not done well in the elections of 1928. The effect of their setback was to encourage Hugenberg to look to the more extreme right for votes. In the wings, the small, violent and racialist Nazi Party stood on the threshold of achieving mass support. The first opportunity for the Nazis to make a significant electoral impact in the Reichstag elections came in 1930. The economic crisis had broken up the Socialist-led grand coalition. The partners of that coalition could not agree whether employers or the workers should suffer from the government’s only remedy to the crisis, the cutting back of expenditure. Like the majority of the Labour Party in Britain, the Social Democrats could not remain in a government that reduced unemployment benefits. President von Hindenburg now called on the leader of the Centre Party, Heinrich Brüning, to lead a new government. There were threats that the president would dispense with the Reichstag’s approval and resort to emergency decrees provided for in the constitution if it rejected Brüning’s savage deflation. This happened within a few weeks and Brüning now staked his future on dissolving the Reichstag and on a new election. Its unexpected result and its political consequences ushered in the final phase of Weimar democracy. The vote of the Nazis increased from some 810,000 in 1928 to nearly 6.5 million in the September 1930 election. They increased their representation from 12 to 107, just behind the Socialists, who had 143, and nudged ahead of the Communists, who had 77, to become the secondlargest party. The conservative Nationalists lost half their support. It would still, perhaps, have been just possible to stabilise the political fortunes of Weimar, but Brüning’s financial ‘cures’ killed any chance of this happening. Confidence throughout the country in the ability of the politicians to solve the crisis ebbed away. Economists of the Keynesian school of thought met with complete rejection in the Brüning era. (The Nazis lent them a more ready ear.) There was an alternative policy of expansion and of credit and of state help to put the unemployed to work. Financially the country was sliding into a position where administrators felt that something had to be done. In parliament, the Social Democrats, under the great shock of the National Socialist landslide, backed the minority Brüning government from the benches of the opposition as far as they could. Brüning’s preference was for authoritarian, austere government, and with Hindenburg’s backing he governed by emergency presidential decrees. Hindenburg did not want Hitler to come to power. He felt a strong antipathy for the ‘Bohemian corporal’ (he was actually a Bavarian corporal), a violent uncouth Austrian who shared none of Hindenburg’s own Prussian Junker qualities. When Hindenburg was elected president in 1925 by a narrow margin over the candidate of the Socialists and Centre, the spectacle of an avowed monarchist and legendary war hero, the most decorated and honoured of the kaiser’s field marshals, heading a republic seemed incongruous indeed. But the 77-year-old symbol of past glories did his job decently enough, even raising the respectability of the Republic by consenting to serve as its head. But all his life he had been trained to believe in command and leadership, and the spectacle of parliamentary bickering and the musical chairs the politicians were playing in and out of government appeared to him a travesty of what Germany needed. Nevertheless, the field marshal could be relied on to honour his oath to the republican constitution. This gave him the constitutional right to act in an emergency, and he believed, not without justification, that the destructive behaviour of the political parties during the economic crisis of 1929 to 1930 had created a crisis of government. The Young Plan, which fixed the total amount of reparations at 121 thousand million marks to be paid in instalments over fifty-nine years, was assailed by the Nazis and the right. In 1932, however, at Lausanne, the amount was reduced to 3,000 million marks. Brüning’s attempt to court Nationalist opinion and aid the stricken economy by announcing an Austro-German customs union in 1931 failed because the Allies declared that it broke the Versailles Treaty, which prohibited the union of Austria and Germany. Thus, dissatisfied, German nationalism was further increased. The army now enjoyed great influence and the attention of historians has been especially focused on the few men, including Hindenburg’s son, who increasingly gained the old gentleman’s confidence and influenced his decisions. Brüning governed with austere authority, integrity and disastrous results. Raising taxes and reducing salaries was naturally unpopular, all the more so as the economic crisis deepened. Unemployment rose from 2.25 million in 1930 to over 6 million in 1932. Brüning in April 1932 tried to curb street violence by banning all the private armies such as the SA, the SS and the Stahlhelm. His intentions were good but this measure, too, was largely ineffectual as the organisations survived without openly wearing uniforms. At the depth of the crisis in 1932 the presidential term of office expired. Hindenburg was deeply chagrined not to be re-elected unopposed. Hitler chose to stand against him and lost, but more significant than his failure was the fact that more than 13 million had voted for him. Hindenburg had secured over 19 million votes but was so old that he could not last much longer. Shortly after the presidential elections in May 1932 Hindenburg dropped Brüning. Franz von Papen became chancellor, enjoying no support in the Reichstag or the country. Less than a year was left before Hitler assumed power over Germany. How had he, a complete unknown only eleven years earlier, achieved this transformation? Fewer than three out of every hundred Germans voted for the Nazis at the national election of 1928 and that was after seven years of unceasing Nazi propaganda. But the Nazis had built an organisational base and increased the party’s membership significantly. Nazi ideology was no consistent or logically developed theory such as Marxism claimed to be. There was nothing original about any of its aspects. It incorporated the arrogant nationalistic and race ideas of the nineteenth century, specifically the anti- Semitic doctrines and the belief in German uniqueness and Germany’s world mission, together with elements of fascism and socialism, for in its early days the National Socialist Workers’ Party wooed the urban worker. The National Socialists, or Nazis for short, had grown out of one of the many small racialist and nationalist groups already flourishing in Germany – one organised in Munich by a man called Anton Drexler. His name would have remained insignificant but for Hitler’s association with the group. Under Hitler’s leadership from July 1921 onwards, the party was opportunistic, seeking to grow strong on all the resentments felt by differ- ent sections of the German people: the small farmers, who suffered from the agricultural depression and, later, inflation; the middle class, whose status was threatened and whose savings had been wiped out; unemployed workers; those industrialists at the other end of the scale who were the declared enemies of socialism even in its mildest form; theologians, mainly Protestant, who saw in Nazism a spiritual revival against Weimar materialism. The extreme nationalism of the Nazis made a strong appeal. Few of those who were early supporters accepted all the disparate objectives that Nazism purported to stand for, but every group of supporters was prepared to discount, overlook or accept as the ‘lesser evil’ those things it inwardly disapproved of. They saw in Hitler and his movement what they wished to see. This same attitude also accounts for the view that there was a ‘good Hitler’ who cured unemployment and unified Germany, and a ‘bad Hitler’ who persecuted the Jews, made war and ignored justice when dealing with individuals and minority groups. That attitude assumes that one does not have to judge the ‘whole’ but can accept the evils for the sake of the benefits. Nazism exploited the backward-looking conservatism that flourished in Germany after the disillusionment of defeat in 1918. Paradoxically Hitler imposed a revolution of values and attitudes that plunged German society into accelerating change after 1933. But what some of those Germans who supported him saw in Hitler in the 1920s was a return to an old virtuous Germany, a simpler Germany that had never existed. Hitler’s emphasis on the need for a healthy people to live close to the land has a history dating back to well before 1914. It was erroneously argued that modern Germany lacked land and space for a ‘healthy’ expansion of the people. Hence the obsession with gaining Lebensraum, and Hitler’s plans for satisfying these ‘needs’ in the east. Hitler, too, dwelt obsessively on the medieval image of the Jew as an alien, a parasite, who produced nothing but lived off the work of others. ‘Work’ was ploughing the land, the sweat of the brow, not sitting in banks and lending money. Yet, he also had sound instincts which led him to accept some modern economic concepts as a way out of the miseries of the last Weimar years. The discredited race doctrines of the nineteenth century were reinforced and amplified in the study of a new race biology. The ideology of race lent a spurious cohesion to Nazi policies. This was a turning back on the age of reason. Numerous organisations from the large veteran association, the Stahlhelm, to small so-called völkisch groups embraced strident nationalism and a mystical Teutonic secular faith. None saw in Weimar’s parliamentary democracy anything but a shameful subordination of the German nation to alien foreign domination. It was identified also with the Jews, who played a small but distinguished role in its constitutional, administrative, economic and artistic life, although they formed only 1 per cent of the nation’s population. They were besmirched by Nazi calumnies that they were war profiteers and corrupters. More significant than the slanders themselves is the wide credence that these lies won in Germany. The counterpart to this support for right-wing extremism in its various forms was the lack of positive support and understanding by the majority of Germans for the spirit of parliamentary democracy. In the 1920s anti-democratic ideas were not only propagated by the communists and by the ignorant and ill-educated, but found strong support among the better-off, middle-class youth, especially within the student unions and universities. Stresemann’s success in dismantling the punitive aspects of Versailles won no acclaim because his methods were peaceful and conciliatory, as they had to be if they were to succeed in the years immediately after the war. The notion that a democracy tolerates different ideas and different approaches to solving problems was, instead, condemned as disunity, as the strife and chaos of parties. The parties themselves – apart from the totalitarian-oriented Nazi and Communist Parties – rarely understood that they had to place the well-being of the whole nation before narrow party interests, that even while they attacked each other they had to acknowledge a common framework and defend above all parliamentary democracy itself. Democracy was regarded as representing the lowest common denominator of politics, the rule of the masses. Fascism and Nazism also appealed to the elitists, who saw themselves as leading the masses. The educated and better-off followers feared above everything ‘social revolution’; they preferred the Nazi promise of ‘national revolution’ which would, they thought, enhance their career opportunities. What made the Nazis so successful was precisely the combination of physical force in the streets, which was welcomed by anticommunists, and the support of the ‘professionals’ in the army, civil service, the churches and education. They, the supposedly educated elite, had helped to undermine Weimar democracy even in the years of prosperity, and made Nazism respectable. In the absence of strong positive support, democracy – and with it the rule of law – is dangerously exposed. It could not survive the economic blizzard of 1929 to 1932, which was not the root cause of its downfall but more the final blow. Nevertheless, there were regions of Germany that did not succumb to the tidal wave of Nazism even in 1933; this is true of the strongly Catholic Rhineland and Bavaria. In the big industrial cities, too, such as Berlin and Hamburg, most factory workers in the beginning continued to support the Social Democrats and the Communists. The rise of the Nazis to power was not the inevitable consequence of the lost war, of inflation and depression. It was not automatic, the result of the inexorable working out of the disadvantages besetting Germany after 1918. Hitler succeeded because a sufficient mass of German people, including many in leading positions of society, chose to support what he stood for. While he did not reveal all his aims, he did reveal enough to be rejected by anyone believing in democracy and basic human rights. Among mainly young Nazi thugs there were many political and warped idealists. Other supporters were opportunists joining a bandwagon for reasons of personal gain. Many saw in Hitler a saviour who would end Germany’s ‘humiliation’ and the ‘injustices’ of Versailles. No preparation for power was stranger or more unlikely than Adolf Hitler’s. He lived for fifty-six years, from his birth in the small Austrian town of Braunau on 20 April 1889 until his suicide on 30 April 1945 in his bunker under the Reich chancellery in Berlin. During the last twelve years of his life he dominated first Germany and then most of continental Europe. His impact on the lives of millions was immense, responsible as he was for immeasurable human misery. He believed mankind to be engaged in a colossal struggle between good and evil and he made this hysterical fantasy come true more nearly than any single man had done before. Yet nothing in the first thirty years of his life pointed to the terrible impact he would make on history. Mein Kampf, ‘My Struggle’, which Hitler wrote during his short spell of imprisonment in 1924, glamorised his past. Hitler suffered no hardship other than the consequences of his own early restless way of life. His father was a conscientious customs official who died when he was fourteen years old; his mother was devoted and did her best for her son, whose attachment to her was deep. But Hitler could not accustom himself to regular work, even during his secondary school days. Supported financially by his mother, he drifted into a lonely way of life, avoiding all regular work, aspiring to be an artist. He attempted to gain entrance to the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna but was rejected, as were the majority of applicants. Nevertheless, in his nineteenth year he moved to the Habsburg capital. His mother had recently died from cancer; Hitler had cared for her during the final traumatic phase, aided by a Jewish doctor to whom he expressed his gratitude and presented one of his watercolours. For the next two years the money left to him by his parents and an orphan’s pension provided him with an adequate income. He could indulge his fancies; he read a great deal and impractically designed grandiose buildings in the backroom of his lodgings. He continued in this lonely and irregular lifestyle; soon all the money he had inherited was spent. There is little reliable information about his next two years. He disappeared from view, living in poverty without attempting regular work, relying on charity and boarding in cheap hostels. It would seem probable that he still dreamt of becoming an architect and, more importantly, imbibed the crude anti-Semitic and racialist ideas current in Vienna at that time. In May 1913, in his twentyfourth year, he moved to Munich, Bavaria’s artistic capital. He lived there by selling sketches and watercolours, executed with care and photographic accuracy, pleasing pictures of no great artistic merit. He could, then, be fairly described as self-educated but without discipline, with sufficient artistic skill to have earned his living as an engraver or poster designer had he desired regular work. He was essentially a loner, who had established no deep relationships, and he was already filled with resentments and hatreds which came to be centred more and more on the Jews. He later regarded the outbreak of the Great War as the turning point in his life. He volunteered for the Bavarian army with enthusiasm. He already saw himself as a pan-German, and not a loyal subject of the multinational Habsburgs, whom he detested. During the war he was wounded and awarded the Iron Cross First Class; he served as a dispatch messenger, though in those days communications were passed mainly on foot along the small distances from trench to trench or from one command post to another. It is notable that he was never promoted beyond the rank of corporal, despite the desperate need for NCOs, a reflection of his superior’s view that Corporal Hitler was not a suitable leader of men. When he returned to Munich after the war at the age of twenty-nine, his lack of formal qualification and education was typical of millions for whom the future looked grim. But it is from this point on that his hitherto insignificant and unsuccessful life took a fantastic new turn. For a start, his interest in politics and loyalty commended him to the new Reichswehr. The army retained him in a division for ‘military education’. One of his tasks was to investigate and infiltrate dubious, possibly left-wing, political groups. In this way he came to join Drexler’s small German Workers’ Party, more a beer hall debating society than a genuine party. The transformation of Hitler now began. As a political agitator and an orator who could move his audiences to emotion and hysteria with the violence of his language, Hitler discovered a new vocation. He did not of course see himself as the leader of Germany at this stage, but rather as the propagandist who would help to power the extreme nationalists – men like Ludendorff who would rescue Germany from ‘Bolshevism’ and the Jews and who would break the shackles of Versailles. Hitler fulminated against the world Jewish conspiracy, Wall Street and ‘Bolshevism’, and against the injustices of Versailles, until out of Drexler’s debating club a real party emerged with 55,000 supporters by 1923. From 1921 Hitler led that party, renamed the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (or by its German initials NSDAP). Hitler the rabid rabble-rousing politician had arrived, a fact made possible only by the totally chaotic political condition of Bavaria where a disparate right had bloodily defeated an equally disparate left. In November 1923 Hitler misjudged the situation and sought to seize power for the forces of the right in much the same way as Lenin had seized control of Petrograd with a few devoted revolutionaries. His attempted Munich Putsch ended ignominiously, Hitler fleeing when the police opened fire. Ludendorff alone, with more courage than good sense, marched through the cordon of police. Hitler had expected that he would seize power without bloodshed and that the police and army would rally to the Ludendorff–Hitler alliance. Later he recognised that failure had saved him. Had he succeeded in gaining control and marched on ‘Red Berlin’ as he intended, the government would not have capitulated to a fanatic and extremist. Nor, as the army high command knew, would the French, who had entered the Ruhr, have tolerated for a moment a coup led by a man who so stridently denounced the Versailles Treaty; the French, moreover, still possessed the strength and determination to prevent such a coup. Hitler would then have been finished for good. Hitler turned his trial for treason, conducted in Bavaria by judges who sympathised with his cause, into a personal propaganda triumph. Sentenced to the minimum term of five years’ imprisonment, he actually only served a few months. While in prison he started writing Mein Kampf and after his release he began to rebuild the party that was to carry him to power. The Munich Putsch had convinced him that the Nationalist right could not be trusted and was too feeble. He would be the leader, not they. From 1925 to 1928 there were two important developments: a steady but slow growth of membership of the Nazi Party and continuing bitter internal disputes among the leaders, notably Joseph Goebbels, Julius Streicher and the Strasser brothers, Gregor and Otto. Hitler was handicapped by a ban on his making public speeches until May 1928, and he did not dare defy it for fear of being deported from Germany as an Austrian citizen. He nevertheless sought to create a tight, national Nazi organisation, insisting on absolute obedience to himself. Right up to the final triumph of 30 January 1933, when he became chancellor, there was a real threat of defections from the Nazi Party he led. In 1925 Hitler judged that the established government was too strong to be seized by force. He changed his tactics. He would follow the legal, constitutional road by entering Reichstag elections to gain a majority, and only then establish his dictatorship. He never showed anything but contempt for the Reichstag and, though leader of the party, would never himself take part in its proceedings. He advised his followers ‘to hold their nose’ when in the Reichstag. During the period from 1925 to 1928 he built up his party as a virulent propaganda machine, insisted that he alone should lead it, without requiring the advice of leading party personalities, for it was an essential element of his plans to cultivate the cult of the Führer or Leader. The party membership reached 97,000 in 1929. Was the economic crisis then not the real cause of this sudden success? The economic crisis which overtook the world is usually dated from the time of the Wall Street Crash in 1929. But this is misleading. By the winter of 1927–8 distress was already felt in Germany among the small agricultural farmers and workers in north-west Germany and by artisans and small shopkeepers especially. The Nazi party made considerable headway in rural districts in local and state elections in 1929 at the expense of the traditional Conservative and Nationalist Parties. In that same year with the economic crisis deepening, the conservative Nationalist, Hugenberg, hoped to gain power by forming a broad alliance of the right and using Hitler to win the support of those masses which the conservatives had failed to attract. A vicious campaign was launched against the Young reparations plan of 1929. The reparations and the politicians of Weimar were blamed for Germany’s economic ills. The economic and Nationalist assault proved explosive. But the German electorate’s reaction in the Reichstag election of September 1930 was not what Hugenberg expected: the Nationalists lost heavily and the Nazis made their first breakthrough at the level of national elections, winning 107 seats to become the second-largest party after the Socialists. In a little more than two years their electoral support had increased from 810,000 to 6.5 million. The period from 1930 to the end of January 1933 was in many ways the most testing for Hitler. Industrialists, however, began to hedge their bets and substantial financial contributions began flowing into Nazi funds. The propaganda campaign against Weimar became ever more vicious. Support among the industrial workers in the big cities could not be won over; the Catholic south remained largely immune too. Although originating in Bavaria, the Nazis gained the greatest following in rural northern Germany. The white-collar workers, the rural voters and elements of what is rather unsatisfactorily labelled the middle class, especially those threatened by Brüning’s financial measures with a drop in their standard of living, were the new Nazi voters. The Nazis and Nationalists did all in their power to discredit Weimar democracy. Papen, the new chancellor in June 1932, hoped to gain Hitler’s sympathetic support by lifting the ban on the SA (Sturm Abteilung, or storm troopers) and, in July, by illegally ousting the socialist government of Prussia. Papen’s Cabinet of ‘Barons’, as it became known from the titled nonentities of which it was composed, enjoyed no support in the Reichstag. The effect of the two elections that Papen induced Hindenburg to call in July and November 1932 in an unsuccessful attempt to secure some support in the country and parliament were the coffin nails of democracy, for those parties that were determined to destroy the Weimar Republic between them won a comfortable majority in the Reichstag. The Nazis in July won 230 seats and 37 per cent of the vote, becoming the largest single party; in the election of November 1932 they held on to 33 per cent of the electorate, saw their seats drop to 196, but remained the largest party; the Nationalists secured almost 9 per cent, and the Communists 17 per cent (100 seats) – nor did the three antidemocratic parties have any scruples about acting together. The Socialists slipped from 133 seats to 121. Papen had gambled on making the Nazis more amenable by inflicting an electoral defeat on them. The Nazis did indeed suffer a setback in November 1932. Papen was pleased, but Hitler had lost only a battle, not a war. On 17 November Papen resigned. Hitler thought his moment had come. Summoned to Hindenburg, he was told by the field marshal that he would be considered as chancellor only if he could show that a parliamentary majority backed him and that, unlike Papen, he could govern without special presidential decrees. Such conditions, Hindenburg and Hitler perfectly well knew, could not be met. They amounted to a rejection of Hitler. Hindenburg wanted his favourite, Papen, back. Papen planned to prorogue the Reichstag and change the constitution. However, General Kurt von Schleicher, who represented the right of the army high command and who had played an influential political role behind the scenes, persuaded Hindenburg that Papen’s plans would lead to civil war and that the army had lost confidence in Papen’s ability to control the situation. With obvious reluctance Hindenburg appointed Schleicher on 2 December 1932 to head the last pre-Hitler government. Schleicher’s own solution was to try to split the Nazi Party and to win the support of Gregor Strasser and his more left-wing section of the party. Strasser, who was very influential as the head of the party’s political organisation, had become disillusioned with Hitler’s tactics of demanding total power and his adamant refusal to share power with coalition partners. Despite evidence of falling Nazi support in the November 1932 election, Hitler won. Strasser made the task easier for him by resigning from the party in early December 1932 after bitterly quarrelling with Hitler, who accused him of treachery. Hindenburg’s opposition and internal disputes made many Nazis feel that their chance of gaining power was ebbing away. But Hitler was proved right only a few weeks later. Schleicher announced his government’s programme for relieving unemployment and distress; wages and benefits were raised, but even so the divided Reichstag was united on one issue alone – to refuse Schleicher their backing. Papen, meanwhile, ensured that the only outcome of Schleicher’s failure would be a new coalition ostensibly led by Hitler but which Papen expected to control. Hindenburg was cajoled into concluding that the parliamentary crisis could be ended only by offering the chancellorship to Hitler, the leader of the largest party, even though Hitler had not set foot in the Reichstag as a parliamentary leader. The ins and outs of the final intrigues that overcame Hindenburg’s obvious reluctance are still debated by historians. Papen and the conservative and nationalist right totally misjudged and underestimated Hitler. They believed they could tame him, that he would have to rely on their skills of government. Instead, Hitler ended the parliamentary crisis in short order by doing what he said he would do, that is by crushing the spirit of the Weimar constitution and setting up a totalitarian state. But Papen’s intrigues were merely the final blow to the already undermined structure of Weimar’s democracy; it cannot be overlooked that Hitler, whose party had openly proclaimed that it stood for the destruction of Weimar, had won onethird of the votes in November 1932; this meant a higher proportion of electors supported the Nazi Party than had supported any other single party at previous post-1920 Reichstag elections. Given the multiplicity of parties and the system of proportional representation, a greater electoral victory than the Nazis achieved is difficult to conceive. It was not backstairs diplomacy alone then that brought Hitler to power, but the votes of millions of people which made his party the largest in the Reichstag by far. In November 1932 the Nazis had polled 11,737,000 votes against 7,248,000 of the second-largest party, the Social Democrats. There is a strong contrast between the long wait for power and the speed with which Hitler silenced and neutralised all opposition to establish a totalitarian regime. The destruction of Weimar democracy, and the civic rights that were guaranteed to all German citizens was accomplished behind a legal façade which stilled consciences of all those in the state who should have resisted. The reasons for the lack of opposition had their roots in the past. The elites who led the German state – the majority of administrators, civil servants, the army, the churches too – had followed a long tradition of defaming democracy; Hitler’s anti-Semitism and his attacks on minorities were nothing new in their thinking. All the more honour to the minority who refused to accept the changes and actively resisted or left the country. Almost half the German electorate was prepared to support Hitler in the hope of better times, to be brought about by a ‘national revolution’ and an end to Weimar and disunity. The Nazis occupied only three posts in the coalition Cabinet. Hitler was chancellor; Hermann Göring was placed in charge of Prussia as minister without portfolio and Prussian minister of the interior under vice-chancellor Papen; and Wilhelm Frick was minister of the interior. The government posts had been carefully arranged so that the army and the Foreign Ministry, as well as other key ministries, were not under Nazi control. Papen and the Nationalists soon discovered that Hitler was not inhibited from exercising control by the constitutional niceties that had been devised to restrain him. This was no Weimar coalition government! The easy, almost effortless path to total dictatorial power makes melancholy reading. The setting alight of the Reichstag on 27 February 1933, probably by the unbalanced Dutchman van der Lubbe alone – though there can be no certainty – became the pretext for an emergency decree signed by Hindenburg suspending personal liberties and political rights. Hitler had insisted on new elections as a condition of accepting office, intending to gain an absolute majority, and he meant to make sure of it. Accordingly, despite Papen’s supposed seniority, Göring seized control of Prussia, which comprised two-thirds of Germany, and under cover of the emergency decree terrorised the opponents of the Nazis. After an electoral campaign of unparalleled violence and intimidation, with Joseph Goebbels manipulating press and radio to help secure a Nazi victory, the Nazis just failed to gain the expected overall majority. Their votes rose to over 17 million; the Socialists held on to over 7 million votes and the Communists, despite the Nazi campaign, polled 4.8 million votes; the Centre Party secured nearly 4.5 million and the Nationalists (DNVP) a disappointing 3.1 million. But, together with the Nationalists, the Nazis could muster a majority against all other parties, sufficient to govern with the support of the Reichstag. This was obviously not Hitler’s aim. He sought dictatorial power and a change of the constitution, but this required a two-thirds majority and shrewdly he wished to proceed in a pseudo-legal way to assure himself of the support of the country afterwards. Not a single communist deputy of the 81 elected could take his seat. All were already in the hands of the Gestapo or being hunted down. More than twenty of the Socialists also were under arrest or prevented from attending. Still Hitler needed the support of the Nationalists and so to reassure them and the army and the president, he staged an opening ceremony of the Reichstag in the shrine of monarchical Junkerdom, the old garrison church of Potsdam where Frederick the Great lay buried. But even with the communists prevented from voting and the Nationalists voting on his side, Hitler still lacked the two-thirds majority he needed. It will always be to the shame of the members of the once great Centre Party that they tempered their principles and threw in their lot with Hitler, and agreed to vote for his dictatorial law. They lost the will to resist, and the leadership later came to an agreement to secure Catholic interests. It was left to the Socialist Party alone to vote against Hitler’s so-called Enabling Law, which acquired its two-thirds majority on 23 March 1933 with the storm troopers howling vengeance outside the Reichstag on anyone who dared to oppose Hitler’s will. Now Hitler was able to put his aims into practice with far less restraint. Under the sinister application of the term Gleischaltung (coordination or, literally, a switch used to bring one current in line with another), a vague all-embracing aim was set out forcibly to subordinate all the activities of German society – government, administration, the free press and trade unions – to Nazi bodies set up specially to supervise them. Thus while in some cases the old institutions remained, they were subject to new Nazi controls. The whole process was haphazard and new Nazi organisations proliferated, frequently in rivalry with each other as well. Hitler in the final resort would decide between conflicting authorities. Until he did so there was the inevitable chaos and infighting. For a time he might decide it best not to interfere too much in a particular administrative branch or, for example, leave the high command of the army intact. The complete process of Gleischaltung would be applied later to the army also. Hitler insisted on his own final say, on maintaining some of the traditional structures as long as he thought this tactically necessary to overcome misgivings among broad sections of the German people or powerful groups such as the army. His revolution would be complete but gradual. The Nazi state was thus no efficient monolith. Within the overall framework of acceptance of the Führer as leader, rivalries flourished and independent policies were still pursued for short periods. During the early years there were even islands of legality and normality to confuse opinion at home and abroad. Among the first steps that Hitler took was to abolish the independent powers of the federal states in March 1933. In April a decree purged the civil service of Jews and those of Jewish descent, and of anyone whom the Nazis deemed to oppose the regime’s aims. In Prussia a quarter of the higher civil service was dismissed, including judges who were supposed to be irremovable. The Supreme Court in Leipzig secretly debated whether they should make a protest at this unconstitutional act, and decided on discretion. No wonder the German public was misled by the seeming legality of these new ‘laws’. During the course of the summer of 1933, the remaining independent parties were disbanded. The communist leaders were already in the new concentration camps. The Vatican now decided to conclude a treaty – the Concordat – with Hitler in a misguided effort to protect Catholic interests. The independent trade unions were quickly brought to heel and suppressed, and the workers enrolled in the Nazi Labour Front. The press and broadcasting were placed under Goebbels’ direction. The universities did not put up any real resistance either. There were famous professors such as the philosopher Martin Heidegger who, at least for a short time, gave public support to the Nazi movement. Some became ardent Nazis out of conviction; many, for the sake of their careers. Academics participated in the famous burning of the books by Jewish and anti-Nazi authors. Many of Germany’s internationally known scientists, writers and artists joined the ‘national revolution’ of the Nazis. Nor were theologians immune from the Nazi corruption: Christ became an Aryan. The dismissed Jews, such as Albert Einstein, began to leave the country. So did a few Christian Germans, including the Nobel Prizewinning writer Thomas Mann. Germany’s other literary giant, who had also won the Nobel Prize for literature, Gerhart Hauptmann, remained in Nazi Germany, adorning the new regime. Hitler was sensitive to German public opinion. The German people, he understood, would need to be ‘educated’ to accept the harshness and final brutality in stages. So, when Jews were dismissed from the civil service, some were granted their state pensions provided they had completed at least ten years of service. Those Jews who had fought in the First World War or whose sons or fathers had died in the war were temporarily exempted from dismissal at Hindenburg’s request. Terror was exercised against specific opponents. Dachau was the first concentration camp, established near Munich in 1933 by Heinrich Himmler, head of the Bavarian Political Police. It became the model for others, and by the summer of 1933 some 30,000 Germans were held in concentration camps. Himmler soon advanced to become the Reichsführer of the SS (Schutzstaffel) and head of the police throughout the Reich. The courts and police also continued to function. Germany was left as a mosaic where the normal process of law and administration continued to function fairly in some instances. In other areas the Nazis or the terror arm of the SS were supreme, and no appeal to the courts was possible. Jewish students were for a time permitted to continue their university studies on a quota system. Until 1938, some Jewish businesses continued to trade, a few even later, though many went bankrupt. ‘I always go as far as I dare and never farther’, Hitler told a meeting of party leaders in April 1937. So Hitler, at the same time as he breached the vital principles of basic civic rights, gave the outward appearance of acting mildly and reasonably, and always in conformity with proper ‘laws’. And did not the person of President Hindenburg guarantee decency? The German people did not realise how the president was losing power to Hitler. But knowledge of the concentration camps was a deterrent to any thought of opposition from all except the most courageous. Hitler was especially careful to appease the army. He assured it of an independent status and of its position as the sole armed force in the state. The army wished to draw on the young storm troopers whom it would train as a large armed force that could quickly augment the regular army in time of crisis. This meant the subordination of the SA to the needs of the army. The head of the storm troopers, Ernst Röhm, had entirely different ideas. The storm troopers were not only a separate army in the state, but he saw them under his command as the untainted force which would carry through the complete Nazi revolution in opposition to Hitler, who appeared willing to compromise with the old elements of power, the army and industrialists. Hitler reacted ruthlessly and, with the help of the Reichswehr during what became known as the Night of the Long Knives on 30 June 1934, had Röhm and many senior officers of the SA murdered. The same opportunity was taken to murder General von Schleicher, Gregor Strasser and two of Papen’s close associates, as a warning to Papen’s nationalist ‘allies’. Hitler, with the connivance of the army, had now openly set himself above the law. On 2 August 1934, Hindenburg, the one man more revered than Hitler, died. He was buried at an impressive funeral ceremony and for the last time Hitler took a back seat. With Hindenburg were laid to rest symbolically the last vestiges of the Prussian Junker and military traditions of honour and service. The moment Hindenburg died Hitler took another important step towards supreme power. A plebiscite merged the offices of president and chancellor: Hitler, who now became the Führer and Reich chancellor. The Reichswehr generals, believing that they would still control all military decisions, did not oppose Hitler’s demand that the army should swear a personal oath of loyalty to him as head of state. Enormous power was now concentrated in Hitler’s hands. But still he moved with caution, step by step, accepting that he would need time to achieve his goals. The year 1934 also witnessed the belated small beginnings of protest against the implications of Nazi anti-Semitism though only as far as it affected the Church’s own administration, and the largely unsuccessful attempts by Hitler to subordinate the Protestant Church. That Hitler did not choose immediately to crush the opposition of the Confessional Protestant Church movement and other protests, however, was due not to moderation, as people mistakenly thought, but to his caution, his wish to dominate only gradually all spheres of German life. He bided his time. Hitler had a clear view of priorities. At home the most important issue was unemployment. If he could get the out-of-work back into factories and construction, enable the small businesses to become sufficiently profitable again, and provide security and promotion opportunities for civil servants and army officers, their support for him would be sure. If he failed on the economic front, he would be likely to fail all along the line. That is why Hitler was prepared to tolerate the continuation of Jewish businesses, to allow Jewish salesmen to remain prominent in the export trade until 1938, and to make use of unorthodox financial management to achieve a rapid reduction of the unemployed; real incomes would cease to fall. Between March 1933 and March 1934 unemployment fell by over 2 million in part but not wholly due to the ending of recession. Able men served Hitler, including the brilliant financial expert, Hjalmar Schacht, whom the Führer appointed president of the Reichsbank. Plans worked out in advance by Hitler’s economic advisers were now put into action. With guaranteed prices for their produce, farmers recovered during the first three years of the regime; small businesses were helped with state spending; taxes were reduced; grants were made to industry to install new machinery; work was created in slum clearance and housing and Autobahn construction. The economy was stimulated out of recession. Though wages did not rise in real terms, security of employment was a greater benefit for the wage-earners. The pursuit of autarky or selfsufficiency helped the construction, chemical, coal and iron and steel industries. The industrialists welcomed the opportunities for expansion and increased profit and applauded the destruction of free trade unions. But industry lost its independence as its barons became dependent on state orders and state allocation of resources. The First and Second Four-Year Plans imposed state controls severely limiting the capitalist economy. Armament expenditure remained relatively low from 1933 to 1935, but from then on was rapidly increased, putting Germany on a war footing and eliminating unemployment. Belts had to be tightened, – ‘guns before butter’ – but it was too late for any opposition to loosen the Nazi hold on power; there was in any case no opposition that could any longer command a mass following. By 1934 Hitler’s regime had established a sufficient base of power and secured enough willing cooperation of ‘experts’ in the administration, business and industry, as well as the army, for his Nazi state to function, though often with much confusion. The Nazi ideologues and fanatics had formed an alliance with the educated and skilled who served them. Without them the Nazis could not have ruled Germany. What German history of this period shows is that parliamentary democracy and the rule of law, once established, will not inevitably continue. If they are not defended, they can be destroyed – not only by violent revolution, but more subtly by determined and ruthless men adopting pseudo-legal tactics. And what of the outside world – they, too, not only gave Hitler the concessions he demanded or unilaterally took by breaking treaties but in 1936 handed him the spectacular triumph of holding the Olympic Games, dedicated to freedom and democracy, in Berlin.

 

 

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