Prof Rempel lecture: road to power

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Nazi Road to Power

This is a reprint of an article by
Professor Gerhard Rempel, who was Professor of History at Western New England College, Springfield, Massachusetts. The lecture is provided here as it would seem to be no longer available online.

By the end of 1931 the center of gravity of German political life was rapidly moving away from the Reichstag (the German parliament) and chancellery to the streets, where the Nazis and their opponents came into frequent collision. Quasi-military formations and uniforms were back in fashion in the early 1930s. The Nazis had enrolled over 400,000 men in the SA, a huge private army which protected party meetings and intimidated political opponents. The Stahlhelm (largest veterans' organization) representing the more conservative nationalities, had also become a considerable political force.

On the left Reichsbanner Schwarz-Rot-Gold, trade unions and workers' athletic clubs formed the Eiserne republikanische Front zur Abwehr des Faschismus (Iron Republican Front for the Defeat of Fascism) in December 1931. Against this back-cloth of mounting tension and violence, which the Reichstag was powerless to stop, the presidency emerged as the stable point in a fluid political situation. Effective power resided partly in the presidential palace, partly on the streets, but less and less in the Reichstag or in the chancellery.


I. Presidential Election of 1932

The crucial importance of the presidency was emphasized in the spring of 1932, when Hindenburg's term of office expired. The old man, now in a state of mental and physical decline, wanted to retire to Neudeck, his country estate, to end his days in peace. Brüning insisted that he remain at the head of affairs, firmly convince that Hindenburg was the only alternative to Hitler. Naturally Brüning wished to avoid the excitement of a presidential election at a time of nationalist ferment when the Nazi vote was increasing at every Land election, so he tried to obtain the agreement oft he parties to a constitutional amendment extending Hindenburg's term of office to 1934.

Neither Hitler nor Hugenberg would agree to this expedient, and reluctantly Hindenburg agreed to stand for re-election. That the Socialists and Center supported him, while the German Nationalists ran a candidate against him, greatly upset the old man, whose sympathies lay completely on the right. After some initial hesitation Hitler agreed to stand. On the eve of the election he hastily assumed German citizenship by accepting the post of Regierungsrat (government advisor) in the little Nazi-controlled Land of Brunswick. A bitter and frenzied campaign ensued, marked by further street violence. In effect it was a plebiscite for or against National Socialism, a contest between the power of the streets and the magic of an old warrior's name backed by the power of the Reichswehr. On the second ballot in April 1932 Hindenburg received 19,359,000 votes, Hitler 13,418,000, and the Communist Thälmann, 3,706,000.

Though defeated, the Nazis had won a great moral victory. Since 1930 their vote had nearly doubled, and between the first and second ballots Hitler succeeded in capturing an extra two million votes. Nor had those republicans who reluctantly supported Hindenburg, as the only alternative to a reign of lawlessness under Hitler, much cause for congratulation. They had no guarantee that the weary octogenarian would respect the spirit of the constitution or display sound judgement in affairs of state. Within a matter of weeks there was proof of his lack of political insight when he dispensed with the services of his faithful and devoted chancellor who had worked zealously to secure his re-election.

The resignation of Brüning in May was very largely the work of Schleicher. In the course of 1931 Schleicher changed his mind about Brüning, once it was clear that the latter had failed to rally moderate opinion in defense of the presidential system. As radical nationalism grew in strength, Schleicher concluded that the only certain way of avoiding a Nazi uprising, likely to strain the loyalties of the Reichswehr, was to come to terms with Hitler and include him in a presidential cabinet under a more right-wing chancellor. Immediately after the election Brüning had yielded to pressure from several Länder, notably Prussia, and banned the SA and SS as a serious danger to state security. Schleicher was alarmed, not out of any respect for these ill-disciplined rowdies, but simply because he feared the reaction of the right wing to a ban on a nationalist organization. The time had come, he decided, to end "the drift to the left" and appoint a new chancellor who would show no favour to Socialists but would do his best to prepare the ground for a rapprochement with Hitler.

Looking back over the years, it is only too apparent that Schleicher was a vain and self-confident intriguer, who grossly underestimated the nature of the Nazi party, lightly assuming that it was a healthy nationalist movement which he could tame and exploit by adroit political manipulation. The general was digging his own grave as he intrigued first against Groener, whom he forced to reign, and then against Brüning. The president was already out of sympathy with Brüning's policies and lent a ready ear tot he advice of Schleicher, eagerly reinforced by his son Oskar von Hindenburg. Early in May 1932 Schleicher overcame the president's lingering doubts by informing him that Hitler had now agreed not to oppose a new chancellor, on condition that the ban on SA and SS was lifted and new elections were ordered.

The scene was set for Brüning's dismissal. Ironically enough, the chancellor was confident that the tide was turning at last, both at home and abroad. Well aware that his deflationary policies had failed to cure unemployment, now topping the six million mark, he was preparing cautiously to reflate the economy and had drafted a program of public works, including proposals for the break-up of some inefficient East Prussian estates and the resettlement of 600,000 unemployed on them. Landowning circles got wind of this and their spokesman, Oldenburg-Januschau, visited Hindenburg at Neudeck and easily persuaded the disgruntled president that Brüning was an "agrarian bolshevik" bent on socializing agriculture. When Brüning appeared with new emergency decrees the old man refused to sign, and insisted on the formation of a more right-wing cabinet. Brüning was deeply offended by Hindenburg's ingratitude when the government was allegedly "only a hundred meters from the goal," with reparations and disarmament likely to be resolved in Germany's favor. Characteristically, he made only a half-hearted attempt to justify himself, meekly tendering his resignation and that of his cabinet, which was at once accepted.

The fall of Brüning was a turning-point in these critical years. His dependence on Hindenburg hardly compensated for his lack of tactical ability and mass appeal. And though his deflationary policies contributed materially tot he abolition of reparations, they did so only by deepening the domestic crisis. Still, Brüning was a man of integrity and a deeply patriotic German who won the respect of foreign statesmen. And once he had departed the prospects for the survival of even a mildly authoritarian regime suddenly looked much bleaker.

The eight months which came between the resignation of Brüning and the appointment of Hitler as chancellor were full of feverish political activity and complex political maneuvering. There could be no clearer sign of the bankruptcy of the political system than the appointment of Franz von Papen as chancellor. A charming and accomplished socialite and close friend of Schleicher, Papen was a Westphalian aristocrat with industrial connections, a former general-staff officer in the old Prussian army, a Catholic with authoritarian views, a crafty intriguer certainly, but a man of little political insight or stature.

A storm of disapproval greeted his government of "national concentration," which represented the interests of business men and landowners so blatantly that contemporaries dubbed it "the cabinet of barons." The left was automatically against Papen. The center bitterly hostile to the man who had ousted Brüning. Event he nationalists were annoyed because Papen had been preferred to Hugenberg. And much to his surprise Schleicher discovered that Hitler was not a man of his word. Despite Hitler's promise, the Nazis attacked Papen as they had attacked Brüning before him. Clearly there was no hope of the Reichstag's "tolerating" Papen as it "tolerated" Brüning. So fresh elections were ordered at once and, in accordance with Schleicher's promise to Hitler, the ban on the SA was lifted, a step which resulted in a new wave of street violence sweeping through Germany in the high summer of 1932.

II. The Prussian Coup

To curry favor with the right wing before going to the polls, and also to strengthen the government's hand vis-a-vis Hitler by securing control of the police in the largest German state, Schleicher and Papen decided on a coup d'état to unseat the Prussian government. For years the extreme right had resented the Socialist-Center government which had made Prussia a bulwark of the Weimar system. In April 1932 local elections destroyed the "red-black" majority, but as Nazis, Communists and Nationalists were not likely to reach agreement, the Braun-Severing government remained in office on a caretaker basis.

On 20 July 1932 Papen declared a state of emergency in Prussia, appointed himself Reichskommissar, and dismissed the Prussian ministers on the grounds that they had favored the Communists and had failed to prevent fresh street violence (for which Papen's raising of the ban on the SA was to blame). Neither Centrists nor Socialists were prepared to resist Papen. The Socialists acquiesced in the situation, as their predecessors had done when Stresemann struck at Saxony in 1923. One police captain and five men sufficed to remove Socialist ministers from office in the most industrialized and powerful Land in Germany.

Of course they made out a compelling case for inaction. Resistance would have led to useless bloodshed because the Reichswehr, the Stahlhelm and the Nazis would have been thrown into battle against them, and the SA might well have seized power in the general confusion. There were legal doubts whether a mere caretaker government would be justified in offering resistance at all. Nor did it make sense to call a general strike with six million men unemployed. Instead the Socialists turned to the Supreme Court and sought an injunction against Papen. "I have been a democrat for forty years and I am not going to become a condottiere now" remarked Minister-president Braun, as he rejected suggestions that he lead the resistance to Papen. An understandable attitude perhaps, in the light of the party's traditions of non-violence, rational discussion and peaceful evolution.

But whatever may be said for or against the decision of Braun and Severing and their trade-union colleagues, one thing is quite certain. The cause of democracy suffered a mortal blow when the Prussian government capitulated without a struggle. Papen followed up the coup d'état with a thorough purge of the Prussian civil service. Many loyal republican officials were retired and the Land completely integrated with the Reich.

III. The Reichstag Elections of 1932

The Prussian coup d'état pleased the right wing, but it did not enable Papen to woo nationalist support away from Hitler at the elections on July 31, 1932. The Populists lost over one million votes, the German nationalists nearly 300,000, whereas the Nazi vote actually showed a slight increase on that of the presidential election. With 13,745,000 votes the Nazis held 230 seats in the Reichstag. As leader of what was by far the largest party, Hitler had a constitutional right to try and form a government. Schleicher and Papen agreed that he must come into their cabinet. The difficulty was Hitler, who was in a thoroughly intransigent mood, confident (as he had every reason to be) of ultimate victory in the near future. Called to the palace for consultations, he bluntly demanded full powers for his party.

The president was unimpressed by "the Bohemian corporal," refused to offer him more than inclusion in a presidential cabinet and warned him to exercise more control over lawless elements in the Nazi party - shortly after the election Papen had been obliged to impose the death penalty for political murders and to set up special courts to deal with political offences. Hitler rejected Hindenburg's offer out of hand, but as he had no intention of seizing power, despite much wild talk, the political deadlock was complete.

When the Reichstag met in September 1932 Papen, well aware that he had no hope of success, promptly dissolved it, but not before Goering, newly elected Reichstag president, had humiliated him by allowing the deputies to carry a motion of no confidence in the Papen government by 512 votes to 42, a sufficient comment on Papen's unpopularity in the Reichstag and in the country as a whole.

The election on November 6, 1932 did not resolve the deadlock. But it revealed a significant fall in the Nazi vote. This time they polled only 11,730,000 votes - a loss of two millions - and returned with 196 seats. The decline, which was confirmed at subsequent Land elections, was due at least in part tot he fact that Papen's withdrawal from the Disarmament conference, until Germany was conceded equality in armaments, had impressed nationalist opinion - for the first time since 1924 the German nationalists increased their vote by almost 800,000 and returned with fifty-two instead of thirty-seven seats.

This time Hitler was desperately short of funds and fighting hard for every vote. Some of the more restless supporters were undoubtedly disillusioned by the leader's failure to seize power in August and drifted over to the extreme left - this was partly the reason why the Communist vote increased by 700,000 to a total of nearly six millions, giving them 100 seats in the Reichstag. Some middle-class supporters were probably scared away by Hitler's vain attempts to capture the working-class vote. The Nazis reviled the Papen cabinet as "a class government of reactionaries" and actually collaborated with the Communists during the Berlin transport strike which paralyzed the great city in early November.

What Papen might have made of this changing political situation will never be known, for in November he fell victim to another Schleicher intrigue. As Papen had no support in the Reichstag, apart from nationalists and Populists, he tendered his resignation, a purely tactical maneuver, for he assumed that Hitler would not be able to form a government and that Hindenburg would then reinstate his old friend in office. As expected, Hitler still insisted on plenary powers which the president refused to give him. So Papen re-emerged from the wings, this time with a new plan. he proposed to declare martial law, dissolve the Reichstag, postpone elections and rule by decree until the constitution had been amended along authoritarian lines and the reflationary program given time to work.

Hindenburg was willing enough to support Papen in this but Schleicher was not. He believed that he could divide the Nazi party and cut off a section of some sixty deputies led by the left-wing National Socialist Gregor Strasser. With their support and the backing of sympathetic trade-union elements in the Socialist and Center parties, where he had been taking soundings, Schleicher hoped to build a Reichstag majority for a progressive social program within the framework of the constitution. While Hindenburg hesitated, Schleicher played an ace. He informed the cabinet that Papen's policy would lead to civil war, a general strike and probably a Polish invasion. To defend Germany against several perils simultaneously was simply beyond the Reichswehr's capacity. When Papen now tried to have Schleicher dismissed, Hindenburg refused and with tears rolling down his cheeks allowed "little Franz" to depart.

IV. Schleicher Becomes Chancellor

On December 2, 1932 Schleicher became German chancellor, rather reluctantly, as he would have much preferred to continue his intrigues behind cover. Nothing went right for him in office. It was soon apparent that he had grossly over-estimated his ability to divide the Nazis. Strasser was easily outmaneuvered by Hitler, who reasserted his control over the party and nipped signs of rebellion in the bud. Then Schleicher approached the left with a program of public works, price-fixing, restoration of wage- and relief-cuts, and land resettlement in East Prussia, measures which naturally turned the right wing against him. But he could not overcome the mistrust of Socialists and Centrists and had finally to return tot he presidential palace to take up where Papen left off. Admitting that he could not obtain a majority in the Reichstag, Schleicher proposed to dissolve it, declare a state of emergency, ban the Nazis and Communists and postpone elections indefinitely.

The role of industry in the winter of 1932-3 in ousting Schleicher and helping Hitler to power has been the subject of much controversy. In the boom years German industry had been uninterested in the Nazis. What support Hitler received before 1932 came from mavericks such as Fritz Thyssen and Emil Kirdorf. Industry was deeply suspicious of the anti-capitalist veneer of Nazism. In October 1930 just after their spectacular electoral victory the newly arrived Nazi deputies introduced a bill to nationalize banks and control interest rates which Hitler obliged them to withdraw. Over the next two years as the crisis deepened Hitler - who had no interest whatsoever in socialism - redoubled his efforts to win industrial support but without success. Industrialists preferred Brüning and Papen to Hitler. Consequently, far from being in the "pocket of big business," the Nazis were desperately short of funds from June 1932 to January 1933, as Goebbels lamented in his diary.

Certainly some (but not all) leading figures in the cartelized coal and steel industries, which were in dire trouble, sympathized with the Nazis. for the latter promised to destroy parliamentary government, smash the trade unions (ensuring that wage-levels remained low) and dismantle the welfare system (lowering the employers' social contributions). Possibly Schleicher's willingness to cooperate with the trade unions, introduce labor legislation and public works program putting money in the hands of municipalities not big business worried industrialists. But this turned them not to Hitler but back to Papen. Recent research suggests that although much of industry was ready enough to tolerate a Hitler cabinet and had little love for Weimar, nevertheless, heavy industry exerted only marginal influence on Hitler's appointment.

More important in this deadlocked political situation caused by the Reichstag's unwillingness to assume responsibility and by the unwillingness of both Nazis and Communists to seize power was the influence exerted by the president's political advisers. "Little Franz" was working assiduously to encompass Schleicher's downfall. Hugenberg's decision to support a Hitler cabinet was equally crucial. When Hitler, worried by signs of disaffection in his own ranks, decided to accept office in a Nationalist-Nazi cabinet provided he became chancellor the intrigue moved forward. Papen, a frequent and welcome visitor to Hindenburg's house, persuaded the old man that a viable alternative to Schleicher now existed. The Nazis and Nationalists would have a reasonable chance of obtaining a majority in the Reichstag. And the fact that Hitler seemed prepared to share power and had broken with the "left wing" Nazi Otto Strasser reassured Hindenburg. On top of Papen's promptings came pressure from landowners alarmed by the plans of the "socialist general."

The Landbund went into action accusing Schleicher, like Brüning, of "agrarian bolshevism," a serious charge in Hindenburg's mind. Disturbing rumor were circulating that the budget committee of the Reichstag had uncovered evidence of misuse of public money given to inefficient landowners under the Osthilfe. It was even alleged that relatives of the president were implicated, although whether this influenced Oskar von Hindenburg's decision to press Hitler's candidature on his father is uncertain. The Reichswehr inclined to Hitler's side. General von Hammerstein, the commander-in-chief, thought Hitler preferable to another Papen government whilst General von Blomberg, commander in East Prussia and the soldier earmarked for minister of defense in the new cabinet, reflected the views of younger officers in his enthusiastic advocacy oft he Nazi cause.

Whatever the decisive factor may have been, the old man determined to be rid of Schleicher. So when the general requested emergency powers at the end of January, Hindenburg turned him down. had not the chancellor argued seven weeks before that a military dictatorship meant civil war? There was nothing left for Schleicher but resignation on January 28, 1933.

V. Hitler's Accession

On January 30, 1933 Hindenburg received Hitler in audience and appointed him chancellor. That night and into the early morning Hitler stood on the chancellery balcony in salute as a huge torchlight procession of 100,000 excited supporters marched past in triumph, singing the Horst Wessel song. This was a great hour for the rank and file. All the efforts of a handful of reactionary advisers in the presidential palace had failed to keep the leader from power. At last the long-awaited "National Revolution" would begin.

In fact Hitler did not stand alone. A hundred meters away a slightly bewildered Hindenburg stood at an open window oft he presidential palace as the precession passed. It was a timely reminder that Hitler had not seized power. He had come to office by a sordid backstairs intrigue and with the president's consent. he was chancellor, but in a government of "national concentration," surrounded by such orthodox reactionaries as Hugenburg and Seldte of the Stahlhelm. There were in fact only two Nazis in the cabinet, Frick, minister of the interior, and Goering, minister without portfolio and Prussian minister of the interior. Papen, vice-chancellor in the new cabinet, was elated by the success of his intrigue, believing that he had taken Hitler prisoner and succeeded where Brüning and Schleicher failed. "In two months we'll have pushed Hitler into a corner so hard that he'll be squeaking," Papen boasted to a friend.

This is a reprint of an article by
Professor Gerhard Rempel, who was Professor of History at Western New England College, Springfield, Massachusetts. The lecture is provided here as it would seem to be no longer available online.


Related casahistoria sites on this topic:

  Collapse of Weimar & Hitler's Rise   
  Hitler Home & Structure of the Hitler State
Background | Ideas | The Nazi State: Leadership & Party | Control,
Propaganda & Art |Economics
  Living in the Nazi State:
Social Policy (KDF |Youth |Education )
Persecution (Antisocials, Jewish Attacks, 1933-39|Final solution)
  Women & Family in Nazi Germany
Role of Women | Women & Art | Eugenics & sterilisation |Women & Concentration Camps |Women & War
  The End of the Reich

Resistance | The Impact of Bombing |Death of Hitler | Collapse of the Reich



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