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.


The best and most detailed account of exactly how Hitler came to power is still the late Martin Broszat's study, reproduced in a slightly edited version below:

I. The Meeting of 4 January 1933

According to press reports, Hitler was on his way to Detmold on 4 January 1933 to open the campaign for the elections in the tiny state of Lippe-Detmold. Election day was on 15 January, and the entire top brass of the Nazi movement had been mobilized in order to demonstrate that the party had come out of its November depression and was about to surpass its earlier victories. The NSDAP had indeed experienced many trials and tribulations recently. After the great successes of the summer of 1932 it had lost some 15 per cent of its voters mainly to the DNVP and KPD. The local elections in Thuringia on 4 December 1932 had resulted in losses which were in some cases catastrophic. Membership cards were being returned; intra-party criticism was mounting and party finances were in a parlous state. These developments merely exacerbated the mounting tensions inside the Nazi movement.

Further setbacks followed. First there was the renewed refusal of Hindenburg to consider Hitler as Papen's successor. Hitler's stubbornness in demanding the chancellorship for himself had also resulted in the breakdown of the talks with Papen's eventual successor, Kurt von Schleicher. Worse was to comes to come: Gregor Strasser, the NSDAP's second man and its best organizer who was the member of the top leadership to have the highest reputation among the parties of the middle and moderate Right and whom they saw as the main potential coalition partner, had a bitter disagreement with Hitler over the latter's uncompromising stance. On 8 December Strasser resigned from all his positions in the party unleashing a wave of great anxiety, particularly among the regional and local party leaders and among the Nazi deputies in the Reichstag.

Given the depressed state in which the NSDAP found itself at the beginning of the New Year, few people noticed that Hitler stopped over in Cologne on his way to Detmold. Arriving at Cologne at 11 a.m. Hitler got into a rented car and, camouflaged in this way, drove to the residence of Kurt Freiherr von Schröder, a banker, who lived in the affluent Stadtwaldgürtel district of the city. Having made his way from Düsseldorf thirty miles further north, Papen arrived at about the same time. Neither of the two men noticed that a newspaper photographer, who had taken up position nearby, took a photo of their arrival.

Among the small group of Hitler's advisers was Wilhelm Keppler, the owner of a small factory producing gelatine. Keppler was an NSDAP member of long standing. Acting as one of the Führer's advisers on economic affairs he had been active during the past ten months establishing contacts with industry through his Keppler Circle. Keppler and Schröder had arranged the meeting between Hitler and Papen after the ex-Chancellor had given a lecture before the Berlin Herrenklub just before Christmas. The Cologne banker, a sympathizer and patron of the NSDAP, had acted as a particularly active mediator for his Nazi friends before. In the middle of November 1932, he and Schacht above all had initiated a submission to the Reich President which had been signed by fifteen industrialists. They had asked though without success, that following Papen's dismissal the new Cabinet should contain members of the Nazi movement in leading positions. Apart from Schacht, there were now a number of prominent representatives of heavy industry in the Ruhr, among them Fritz Thyssen, Paul Reusch and Albert Vogler, as well as some other influential bankers and businessmen which, like Schröder, belonged to a growing minority in big business.

This minority advised that, in order to stabilize the presidential regime and to put the economy back on an even keel, the leadership in the Cabinet should be left to the Nazis. They had been driven to this position all the more strongly, when the Communists emerged much strengthened from the November elections. Their fear was that a further crumbling of Nazi support would benefit the KPD. There was also the fact that Schleicher, in his radio address of 15 December in which he presented his government's programme, had, in contradistinction to Papen, presented himself as a "socially-minded general" and had advocated a broadening of the government base not just towards the Right. Rather he spoke of an inclusion of the Left reaching as far as the Christian and Social Democratic trade unions. This posture had been received with a sigh of relief among the forces of the democratic Left and Center. But it had been noted with considerable disquiet within the ranks of the conservative Right. This was therefore one of the reasons why Schleicher quickly lost the backing of heavy industry and agriculture which Papen had enjoyed during his chancellorship.

The discussion at the Schröders began with an attempt to deal with the legacy of past conflicts. After the traumatic events of 13 August and the conviction of the Potempa murderers on 22 August, the Nazis had trained their heavy artillery on Papen for several months. Feigning his unabated anger, Hitler came back to these events while Papen tried to mollify him. Not he, the ex-Chancellor protested, but Schleicher had had a hand in the events of 13 August. In order to gain Hitler's full confidence, he then informed him of Schleicher's intrigues in connection with his own dismissal on l-2 December. He also told him how annoyed Hindenburg had been by Schleicher's behavior.

Subsequently, even the Völkischer Beobachter hinted that in the course of the talks on 4 January "Herr von Papen" had "felt the urge" to provide "the leader of the strongest party [with] certain interesting details concerning the prehistory of his downfall".1 He had also told him of "the methods with which it is possible to become Chancellor these days". It is not less significant that, when the Cologne meeting was prepared, Hitler had learned via Keppler that Schleicher was persona non grata with the Reich President because of his role in the fall of Papen. This was a crucial point which Papen reinforced on 4 January. The rest of the Papen-Hitler talks proceeded almost automatically from there. Papen indicated that it was by no means out of the question that Hitler might be given a leading position in the government if he - Papen - exerted his still considerable influence with Hindenburg and if the two of them combined in a kind of duumvirate.

The discussions, later corroborated, though not without contradictions, by statements and the memoirs of the participants, appear to have moved along these or similar lines. Probably Hitler also repeated what he had assured the Reich President in November: he did not wish to gain total power. All he desired was the chancellorship. He was quite agreeable to Hindenburg appointing a foreign minister and a Reichswehr minister of his own choice. Nor was he averse to taking over the conservative "expert" ministers serving in the existing government.

Hitler and Papen left the Schröder residence at about 3 p.m. after agreeing to continue the talks. They thought that it would be possible to keep their renewed contact secret. However, on the following day the Berlin Tägliche Rundschau, which was close to Schleicher, carried the news of the meeting in big letters and included the photographic evidence. The item had the effect of a bomb explosion. Papen, Hitler and Schröder were forced to play down the meeting in public. The press began to speculate as to whether this was an intrigue by Papen against Schleicher, his former protector and friend, or was it no more than a noncommittal exchange of views?

Pretty much at the same time when the Hitler Papen meeting was adjourned in the afternoon of 4 January 1933, Hindenburg received Gregor Strasser. The audience had been recommended to the Reich President by the Chancellor. The latter had still not abandoned his plan to gain, with Strasser's help, the support of parts of the NSDAP for his government. This hope persisted, notwithstanding the fact that Strasser had retreated to South Tyrol after his break with Hitler. Nor had Strasser done anything to foster an active opposition movement within the party so that Hitler was given ample opportunity of more or less reconsolidating the party's position by means of a quick redistribution of Strasser's powers as head of the NSDAP's national organization (Reichsorganisationsleiter). When Strasser had left, Hindenburg is reported to have said: "This man is cutting a very different figure than this Hitler. I like Strasser much better."

The President was in principle also quite happy with Strasser's appointment to the vice-chancellorship which Schleicher had envisaged. But the Chancellor did not press his case. He had come to realize that such a move could no longer have the same effect which it would have at the end of November or in early December. At that point he had told Hindenburg that, unlike Papen, he would be able to engineer, with Strasser's help, a participation of the Nazis in the Cabinet which did not include Hitler. Based largely on this argument, he had strongly advised the Reich President against Papen's plan to send the Reichstag "home, for a longer period and to appoint an emergency government, thereby breaching the Constitution. Schleicher warned that this solution to the crisis would result in a civil-war-like escalation of the ruthless opposition of Nazis and Communists against the Papen Cabinet, which was supported by no more than a small minority of conservatives.

When on 1 December Hindenburg nevertheless decided to hold on to Papen to whom he had developed a certain attachment, Schleicher laid the results of a Reichswehr staff exercise before him. This document contained a very pessimistic prognosis of the future, if the Papen Cabinet were allowed to continue. Faced with this evidence Hindenburg had very reluctantly agreed to Papen's dismissal and Schleicher's nomination as Chancellor on 2 December. This had been the "intrigue" which Papen refused to forgive his successor.

Hitler's refusal to cooperate with the Schleicher Cabinet and the resigned attitude of Strasser, following his break with Hitler, had led to a deterioration of Schleicher's position very soon after his assumption of power. This deterioration was a major prerequisite of the Papen-Hitler rapprochement. Above all, Schleicher had failed to prevent Hindenburg from including his erstwhile favorite chancellor in his circle of advisers. The ephemeral character of Schleicher's chancellorship was symbolized by the fact that Papen continued to live in the official Reich Chancellor's residence directly adjacent to the Reich President's palace. Schleicher meanwhile continued to work from his old office at the Reichswehr Ministry which was situated in the Bendlerstrasse.

After Schleicher had obtained incontrovertible proof of the secret meeting between Hitler and Papen, he lodged a complaint about his predecessor with Hindenburg. He asked "the old gentleman" only to conduct conversations with Papen in future if he, the Chancellor, was present. However, the 85-year-old President had become used since the days of Brüning to talk with unofficial advisers about the fate of a particular chancellor behind the latter's back. Of course, for a long time it had been Schleicher, above all, who had exploited to the full this opportunity of wielding influence behind the scenes. Even if Hindenburg had had a better appreciation of the meaning of loyalty, he was unlikely to be convinced by these reproaches against Papen coming, as they did, from Schleicher's mouth. It was only on 9 January that Papen paid the Chancellor a visit to inform him of his meeting with Hitler. He then immediately, and without Schleicher, proceeded to the President's palace. He gave Hindenburg a much more detailed report. Schleicher's complaints notwithstanding, Papen learned "with satisfaction that the old gentleman had no criticism to make of the new activities of his old Chancellor".2 Otto Meissner, Hindenburg's State Secretary, later gave the following description of the meeting:

No other person was present on 9 January when Papen reported to Reich President von Hindenburg about the attitude which Hitler had displayed at the Cologne meeting. However, the President [later] informed me that Hitler, in the course of this discussion with Papen" had backed away from his earlier demand that he should be given total power and would now be prepared in principle to participate in a coalition government. He, Hindenburg, had agreed that Papen should personally and on his basis keep in touch with Hitler; since Hitler was not prepared to support or tolerate the present Schleicher government, a new cabinet was the only alternative whose head he envisaged Papen to be.3

Papen has time and again after 1945 tried to give the impression that his talks with Hitler at Cologne had not been directed against Schleicher. Nor allegedly did they serve to produce a counter-government containing Hitler and Papen. Meissner's memoirs and a number of other sources clearly contradict this view. Above all, there is Goebbels's diary in which he recorded on 8 January in connection with "Hitler's talks in Cologne":4 "Papen wants to topple Schleicher." Other works have frequently quoted the version which Goebbels published in 1934 in his Vom Kaiserhof zur Reichskanzlei: "If this coup succeeds, we shan't be too distant from [gaining] power." However, since the discovery of the original diary, this latter sentence is now known to be a retrospective stylization.

II. The Mobilization of the Reichslandbund

Among the lobbyists who moved around the "court" of the Reich President, Hindenburg's noble peers and estate-owning friends had long been particularly successful. It was thanks to these friends that the Hindenburg had been given back as a gift the Neudeck family estate in the East Prussian Rosenberg district which had been irredeemably lost because of over-indebtedness. On the initiative of Elard von Oldenburg-Januschau, Hindenburg's East Prussian neighbor and political adviser, a committee had been constituted soon after Hindenburg had been elected President in 1925. Largely through donations from industry it became possible to purchase the estate and to put it back into viability with the help of the state-funded Osthilfe, an aid program to support Prussia's ailing landowners. Neudeck was officially given to Hindenburg on the occasion of his eightieth birthday in 1927. In order to keep it in the family and to avoid death duty, the son and adjutant of the old Field Marshal, Colonel Oskar von Hindenburg, had been registered as the legal owner of the land-title.

The Osthilfe aid for Neudeck became the subject of renewed discussion in the Berlin press at the beginning of January. This discussion had been triggered by an article by Erich Ludendorff, Hindenburg's arch-enemy.5 The topic became even more explosive when on 10 January Social Democratic and Center Party members of the Reichstag Budget committee began to scrutinize the use of Osthilfe funds by East Elbian landowners. Various serious frauds had already come to light. The allegations included charges that the funds had been used to pay for gambling debts, the acquisition of race horses, for holiday trips to the Riviera and the keeping of mistresses. Members of the oldest noble families appeared to be involved in the scandal. There was even a rumor that 'relatives of the Reich President had profited from the irregularities'.6

These developments were accompanied by massive attacks by the Reichslandbund (RLB) and its regional organizations against the Schleicher Cabinet. On 6 January, Goebbels's Angriff, had published no less than eighteen protest letters submitted by agrarian associations to the government. Moreover, in December 1931 Werner Willikens, one of the leading men in the agrarian organization of the NSDAP, had been made one of the four RLB presidents. During the 1932 election campaigns the Nazis had also succeeded in gaining a foothold in the agrarian associations of the Protestant north and east. These shifts increasingly colored the style of RLB agitation against the Schleicher government. At the instigation of the Nazis, the Pomeranian Chamber of Agriculture, in a letter dated s January 1933, even went so far as to reproach the Reich Chancellor that he was behind a campaign of vilification by the "anti-agrarian Jewish press in Berlin" against the agricultural policies which "the Herr Reich President had approved".7

On 15 December 1932, in his government statement, Schleicher had hinted that he would prove a bit more resistant to agrarian lobbyism than his predecessor Papen. He also used the occasion to reopen the question of agricultural resettlement in the East which was embarrassing for the estate-owners. These moves were sufficient for the agrarian interest groups to suspect Schleicher, as they had done in the case of Brüning, of being an "agrarian Bolshevik". As the Frankfurter Zeitung put it on 12 January 1933: "Pampered by the generosity with which Herr von Papen helped agriculture,, it had not taken more than a few mild indications of "increased resistance, on the part of the Reich Chancellor for the RLB to resort to shameful threats. The paper referred to a resolution by the RLB presidium of 11 January which attacked,in demagogic fashion, "the pillaging of agriculture in favour of the almighty pecuniary interests of the internationally-minded export industries and its satellites". The presidium asserted that the impoverishment of agriculture, "tolerated by the present government as it is", had assumed proportions "which were not even deemed possible under a Marxist government".8

In the morning of that day the RLB leadership had been received by Hindenburg. The audience had probably been arranged by Oskar von Hindenburg, as State Secretary Meissner was on holiday at this time. The RLB leaders put their demands and sharply criticized the Schleicher Cabinet. The six-man delegation was headed by the executive president, Eberhard Count von Kalckreuth, who had played a leading role in Brüning's fall in May 1932 and who, in November 1932, had signed the open letter to Hindenburg which prominent industrialists had initiated, urging the Reich President to take the Nazis into the government. The delegation also included Willikens, the Nazi member in the RLB presidium.

Schleicher was most put off that Hindenburg first received the delegation on its own. The Chancellor and his Ministers of Agriculture and Economics were asked to join them only in the second half. It was even more embarrassing to see how Hindenburg digressed from the main issue on the agenda" i.e. the demand of the RLB to protect estates against the receiver if mortgage facilities were withdrawn. The President rejected the Chancellor's point in the presence of the RLB leaders, demanded in what sounded almost like a military command "that the Cabinet be convened this evening to ratify the bills as desired [by the President] and to submit them to me for signature tomorrow morning".9 The above mentioned RLB resolution was made public only after the meeting. Schleicher reacted furiously. "This resolution,, he informed the press, "was not given to either the Reich President or the Reich government before the meeting. Had this been the case, the Herr Reich President would have cancelled the reception of the Reichslandbund., The government, at any rate, would refuse "to enter into negotiations with members of the Reichslandbund executives forthwith".10

The dissension between the government and the agrarians was welcome to, above all, the Nazis. As Goebbels noted in his diary:11 "This suits us nicely at the moment." But it also suited Papen in his endeavors to include Hugenberg's DNVP in a new government to be formed in collaboration with Hitler. The Nationalists were in basic agreement with the demands of the agrarians. But since the days of the Harzburg Front meeting in October 1931 their relationship with the NSDAP had become increasingly precarious and competitive.

Schleicher met Hugenberg three days after the conflict with the RLB. He wanted to find out under what conditions the DNVP might be prepared to enter his Cabinet. Hugenberg insisted that he should be given both the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Economics. Schleicher indicated that this was not acceptable to him, if only out of regard for the Center Party and the trade unions who, he hoped, he could win over to 'tolerate' his government.12

III. Hectic Activity at Ribbentrop's House

For the last six months, Hitler had gained another intermediary with Papen in Berlin. This was Joachim von Ribbentrop, an importer with overseas experience, who had been to Turkey on a military mission with Papen during the First World War and who had since kept in touch with him. Ribbentrop's weekend cottage in the Berlin suburb of Dahlem was to become the focus of hectic political negotiations. According to Ribbentrop's notes, Papen and Hitler met again at his cottage on the night of 10-11 January, less than a week after their Cologne encounter. After this came polling day in Lippe-Detmold on 15 January when the Nazis succeeded in recovering some of the voters lost on 6 November 1932, but failed to reach the level of support achieved on 31 July. This was a success which helped to strengthen Hitler's self-confidence. It looked as if the Strasser crisis had been overcome. Hitler returned to Berlin on the evening of 17 January to hold a meeting with Hugenberg later that night. But the atmosphere between the DNVP leader and him remained frosty. A further meeting between Papen and the "Führer" took place on the following day at Ribbentrop's cottage in the presence of Göring, Röhm and Himmler, the leader of the SS. According to Ribbentrop's records: 'Hitler insisted on [being given the] chancellorship; Papen again thinks this impossible. It went beyond his influence with Hindenburg to get this accepted.'13

On 20 January the Reichstag's Council of Elders resolved that the next session was to begin on 31 January. This date provided a clearer time scale for the calculations of the divergent political focus and accelerated the decision-making process. It was generally assumed that this Reichstag meeting would culminate in a no-confidence motion against the Schleicher Cabinet, following Schleicher's failure to broaden its basis of political support. On 31 January at the latest it would become clear whether the Chancellor had the Reich President's authority to dissolve parliament and to announce fresh elections or whether he had even been given powers to form an unconstitutional emergency cabinet and to send the Reichstag "home" for a longer period.

In the face of the hectic activity in the Papen-Hitler camp, Schleicher displayed an "Olympic calm", as the Frankurter Zeitung put it on 23 January. This stance was commented upon by the pro-Schleicher press in a tone of growing irritation. Papen had resumed contact with Hindenburg on 19-20 January. For the first time he now promoted the idea of handing the Chancellorship to Hitler, arguing that sufficient safeguards could be built in against a one-party dictatorship by the Nazis. In putting forward this proposal, Papen quickly found that Hindenburg's instinctive aversion against Hitler was undiminished. In particular Oskar von Hindenburg backed up his father on this point. Oskar's qualms were based not so much on political insight than on an arrogant sense of superiority vis-a-vis the demagogic upstart Hitler which was widespread among the nobility and the officer corps. This is why Papen first tried to change Oskar's mind by arranging a personal encounter between him and the Nazi leader. The President agreed, and Oskar insisted for his part that State Secretary Meissner should accompany him to the meeting which had been arranged at Ribbentrop's for 22 January.

All participants were trying hard to keep this meeting secret. Oskar von Hindenburg and Meissner first went to an opera performance together. During the intermission they circulated among the other visitors in the foyer. But shortly after the beginning of the last act they quietly left their box and took a taxi to Dahlem. Meanwhile Hitler had made a public appearance at an SA rally in the Berlin Sportpalast to commemorate the third anniversary of the death of Horst Wessel. After this meeting he proceeded to Ribbentrop's cottage together with Göring. Papen reached the meeting-place after he had been to a rally of the Stahlhelm ex-Servicemen's Association.

For the following hours Hitler talked to Oskar von Hindenburg on his own. His arguments were the old ones: he alone would be able to rescue Germany from the threat of Communism. No government would be able to survive without his support. Were he to become Chancellor, he would strictly ob serve the prerogatives of the Reich President under Article 49 and his supreme command of the armed forces. He would also adhere to the constitution. Supported by his own party which commanded one third of the Reichstag seats and by other "patriotic" forces on the Right and in the Center, he, through the passage of a parliamentary enabling act, would be able to achieve a constitutional prorogation of the Reichstag, etc. etc. However, it appears that Hitler blended such arguments, which were designed to win Oskar von Hindenburg over to his side, with open threats: if, he added, he were not made Chancellor, a criminal investigation might have to be reckoned with against the President concerning his role in the Osthilfe transactions.

As Oskar confessed to Meissner on their way home, he was very impressed by Hitler's arguments and had now himself gained the conviction that Hitler should be given the post of Chancellor. However, at first he merely succeeded in weakening the resistance of his father to this idea" but failed to remove the President's qualms altogether, as Papen was to learn when he met the old Field Marshal for another conversation on the following morning. At this point Schleicher inadvertently helped his opponent Papen to overcome the deadlock. The Chancellor had learned of the meeting between Oskar and Hitler through his own Reichswehr intelligence network. Highly alarmed by this news, he asked for an audience with Hindenburg on the morning of 23 January. The meeting ended rather disastrously for Schleicher.

To begin with, he had to admit to Hindenburg that his attempts to obtain the support of the Nazis and other political forces for a stabilization of his government had failed and that he might have to face a vote of no-confidence in the Reichstag on 31 January. Schleicher now proposed that parliament should be dissolved and that fresh elections be postponed beyond the sixty-day period prescribed by the Constitution by invoking an emergency. Hindenburg now reminded Schleicher that he had opposed this solution only two months ago when the then Chancellor Papen submitted it to him and that he had done so by reference to the threat of a civil war which would put the Reichswehr into an awkward position. Schleicher tried to explain that the situation was now much more favorable than eight weeks earlier. He could count on trade union passivity. Moreover, this time he combined the political and the military power in his own hands. Hindenburg refused to accept this reasoning. The President replied: "He would think about the question of a dissolution of the Reichstag;" however he would find it impossible "at the present moment [!] to take responsibility for a postponement of the elections beyond the date laid down in the Constitution". Such a move would be interpreted "by all sides as a breach of the Constitution' on his part.14

The minutes of the meeting clearly demonstrate one thing: Hindenburg was not willing to concede to Schleicher what he had been prepared to grant Papen two months earlier. It is noticeable how much he stressed his concern over a breach of the Constitution, and it is possible that these worries had grown since the problem of his role in the Osthilfe scandal had begun to loom larger. More probably, however, his constitutional qualms were merely a pretext. After all, the encounter confirmed that, although Hindenburg was still opposed to Hitler's chancellorship, he expected quite firmly that Papen would succeed in his moves to offer an alternative to the Schleicher Cabinet. No doubt he was also hoping that Papen would be able to 'incorporate' the Nazis and thus create the preconditions of the passage of an enabling bill by which the Reichstag voted for its own prorogation. However, Papen had already made clear that such a result could not be achieved without Hitler's nomination as Chancellor. Consequently, the tracks were practically laid in the direction of this outcome, even if Hindenburg took a few days to get used to the idea of a Hitler Cabinet.

Hindenburg indicated in his talks with Schleicher on 23 January and in a subsequent discussion with Hammerstein-Equord, the chief of the Heeresleitung, that he continued to be unwilling to give the chancellorship to Hitler. In the confusion of intrigue and counter-intrigue of the following days, the Chancellor and his confidants in the Reichswehr Ministry therefore started from the erroneous assumption that Papen was still trying to form a new cabinet led by himself, and this they thought was the worst of all possible solutions. Above all, Schleicher and Hammerstein did not know that, in further talks between Hitler, Papen and Hindenburg, a new Reichswehr Minister had meanwhile been found. This was General Werner von Blomberg, the commander of the East Prussian military district, who had come to hold very positive views of the NSDAP and also of the auxiliary military role of the SA in the context of the border protection measures in the east against Poland. Blomberg had moreover spoken up against an emergency dictatorship by the President, fearing that this would lead to a confrontation between the Reichswehr and the Hitler movement. This stance made him an ideal successor to Schleicher in the eyes of both Hindenburg and Hitler.

IV. The Removal of Last-Minute Qualms

Papen was particularly keen to include in the proposed new government both the DNVP and the Stahlhelm ex-Servicemen's Association which had several hundred thousand members and was close to Hindenburg. His hope was that this would make the planned containment of Hitler by conservative ministers to look very convincing and thus remove Hindenburg's objections. When Papen held talks to this effect with the two Stahlhelm leaders, Franz Seldte and Theodor Duesterberg, the latter proved intractable. However, Papen obtained the consent of Seldte, an opportunist who was to become Hitler's Minister of Labour. Remembering his many painful disappointments with Hitler, Hugenberg, the DNVP leader, was even more negative than Duesterberg. Not only did he make the same demand as he had put to Schleicher, i.e. that he be given dictatorial powers over the economy through a combination of the ministries of economics and of agriculture in both Prussia and the Reich; he also categorically opposed the idea of handling the post of Prussian Reich Commissar to the Nazis and thereby giving them control of the Prussian police.

Finally, on 27 January, Hitler held personal talks with Hugenberg. The conversation ended in acrimony. As Ribbentrop recorded it, the meeting broke up in a huff "because of the impossible demands of the Nationalists". Hitler, who thought once more that all plans had collapsed, wanted to leave for Munich without delay. Again he was seized by the old trauma that he was to be conned into a solution which was unacceptable to him. He was correct in the sense that Papen was secretly also negotiating about a new government, which would be composed exclusively of conservative, non-Nazi ministers. Göring had great trouble persuading the Führer to stay in Berlin. In the end he succeeded and it proved worthwhile: the decisive turn of events occurred on the following day.

As Ribbentrop had written in the evening on 27 January:15 "Papen now has no doubt whatsoever that he must push through Hitler's chancellorship at all costs and that he cannot go on believing that in any case he must keep himself at Hindenburg's disposal." In fact, when Papen met the President on the morning of 28 January, he told him in more unambiguous terms than ever before that the success of his solution to the government crisis depended on Hitler being nominated Chancellor. Now the "softening-up" of the President which had occurred in the days prior to 28 January was beginning to bear fruit. Shortly before Papen's arrival the old Field Marshal had been seen b; his friend Oldenburg-Januschau.

When Hindenburg voiced hi;s qualms about the robust methods of the Nazis, Oldenburg-Januschau calmed him down by remarking jovially that one would know how to deal with those "young chaps who are basically quite nice'.16 It may also have had a reassuring effect on Hindenburg that Göring had played an increasingly, prominent part in the negotiations. Göring was a highly decorated fighter pilot of the First World War, and he and Frick were to be the only two Nazis in a proposed Hitler Cabinet surrounded by a majority of conservative ministers. In his conversation on 28 January Papen for the first time gained the impression that the President was now prepared to accept Hitler's chancellorship.

At Schleicher's urgent request, Hindenburg received the sitting Chancellor, who had just held a meeting of his Cabinet, immediately after his discussion with Papen. Schleicher had told his Cabinet colleagues that he did not expect to be given presidential authority to dissolve the Reichstag and to send the deputies on an indefinite leave. In view of this, he had obtained their approval that he would announce the resignation of the entire Cabinet, if his assumption proved correct. However, Schleicher had also gained his colleagues' support for his plan to warn Hindenburg explicitly against approving the formation of an ultra-right-wing Papen-Hugenberg government which Schleicher still thought to be in the offing.

According to Meissner's minutes, the meeting between Hindenburg and his Chancellor began a little after midday. Schleicher started off by outlining the different possibilities open to the President to resolve the government crisis:

  • a majority Cabinet [led by] Hitler; this would be one solution, but he does not think its emergence possible.
  • a minority Cabinet [led by Hitler], but this would not conform to the position which the Reich President had taken up hitherto.
  • retention of the present presidential government provided it had the confidence and the authorization of the Reich President.

Nine-tenths of the German people would be opposed to a government constituted on the narrow basis of the Nationalists etc., but without the National Socialists; this would lead to revolutionary disturbances and to a constitutional crisis (Staatskrise). If the present government was to face the Reichstag, he would have to ask to be riven a dissolution order. The Reich President replied: "I cannot do this in the given situation. I gratefully acknowledge that you have tried to win over the National Socialists to your side. This has unfortunately failed, and now the search for other solutions would have to be attempted".

After this clear rebuke, the minutes merely registered the following appeal by Schleicher: "When the new Reich government is formed, he asks the Herr Reich President particularly not to nominate a supporter of Hitler for the post of Reichswehr Minister. Otherwise the Reichswehr would be facing great danger. The Herr Reich President would be facing great danger. The Herr Reich President replied that he absolutely rejected such an idea himself".17 Schleicher went away to announce the resignation of his Cabinet. Meanwhile Papen was called to see Hindenburg for a second time. In the course of this meeting, at which his son and Meissner were present, the President finally said it was now his duty to install Hitler as Chancellor. He did so with an air of resignation and not without deliberately pointing to the responsibility which his advisers shared in this matter. Then he asked Papen to explore the possibility of forming a Hitler Cabinet "within the framework of the Constitution" and supported by the relevant parties in the Reichstag.

He also stipulated that Papen should take over the post of vice-Chancellor and of Prussian Reich Commissar. This stipulation confronted Papen with his most difficult task. Laborious negotiations ensued with Göring and Hitler at the end of which Papen agreed to a pseudo-compromise: Göring was to be the Reich Commissar's deputy in charge of the Prussian Ministry of the Interior. On this basis Hugenberg also agreed to join in. It took Hitler and his advisers a lot to swallow Hugenberg,s demand that he should be given all government departments concerned with economic affairs. Papen saw Hindenburg again on 29 January to report these results to him. In the afternoon of that day Göring had happy news for Hitler who was staying in Goebbels,s flat: the deal had been sown up; Hindenburg was ready to receive Hitler and his future cabinet colleagues at 11 a.m. on 30 January for the swearing-in ceremony.

Later that night Hindenburg and Papen received news of an irritating rumor: Schleicher was said to be wanting to mobilize the Reichswehr and to declare a state of siege. Papen now suggested to the President that he should immediately put Blomberg in charge of the Reichswehr and before the official constitution of the new Cabinet. Blomberg by this time was on his way back from the disarmament talks at Geneva, and when he arrived early next morning at Anhalter Station he was met there by Oskar von Hindenburg. The other person to meet Blomberg at the station was Hammerstein's adjutant. But the general did not follow the request of his immediate superior, Hammerstein; he accepted the invitation of his ultimate superior, Hindenburg, and went to the Reich President's palace in the company of Oskar. Hindenburg immediately made Blomberg Reichswehr Minister and asked him to take the oath.

A few hours later Hitler, Papen and the other nominees for the new Cabinet gathered in Meissner's office. There are four members of the Schleicher Cabinet who were supposed to be included in the new government: Constantin von Neurath, the Foreign Minister, Lutz Count Schwerin von Krosigk as Finance Minister, Franz Gürtner, the Minister of Justice, and Transport Minister Paul von Eltz-Rübenach.

When reporting back to Hindenburg on the previous day that a consensus had been achieved by all concerned on all essential points, Papen had omitted one important issue: Hugenberg was opposed to Hitler's idea to hold Reichstag elections for one last time in order to provide the new government with an absolute majority. The DNVP leader rightly feared that his party would be knuckled under in the process. At 11.15 a.m. Hitler and Hugenberg could still be seen haggling over this point. They were interrupted by Meissner who asked the two men sternly not to keep the President waiting any longer. Barely uttering a word, Hindenburg administered the oath. Hitler had been made Chancellor. He gave a solemn pledge that he would abide by the Constitution and respect the rights of the President. His words sounded hollow and disappeared in the reception hall without echo.

V. Postscript

At first glance the intrigues which paved Hitler's way to the Reich Chancellery leave the impression that the collapse of the Weimar Republic was, above all, the result of personal vanities, ambitions and interests, propelling the conservative-nationalist power-elites around Hindenburg. On closer examination we can see that there was, behind these coincidences, a certain logic which, from Brüning's fall onwards, became increasingly inescapable.

When Papen took office and the Social Democrat-led Prussian government was unseated, an irreversible decision had been made to rule through an authoritarian right-wing regime which was not supported by parliament and, in particular, did not take any notice of the political Left, i.e. the SPD and the trade unions. Schleicher made a belated attempt to return to a better balanced system supported by a combination of forces reaching from the Nazis and Nationalists to the unions. But this attempt foundered on the interests and ambitions of industry, large-scale agriculture and other conservative-nationalist forces. These forces had been strengthened by the Papen regime, and they were more determined than they had been during the Brüning period that no attempt should be made to overcome the crisis of Weimar parliamentarianism and its welfare system with the help of a temporary application of authoritarian policies. Rather what they envisaged was to exploit the crisis in order to deliberately bring about a permanent change of the constitution in an authoritarian direction.

Some even considered the possibility of a restoration of the monarchy. Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution and the powerful position of the Reich President as a kind of "substitute monarch, offered constitutional levers to achieve this effect. More importantly, Hindenburg and his advisers had begun to use these presidential prerogatives well beyond the spirit of the Constitution and with the aim of purposeful constitutional change very much in mind. The special role of the Reichswehr in this process also pointed to an attempt to revive the military structures of the Prusso-German monarchy. This development had set in under Brüning and was embodied above all by Schleicher and his policy to gain a dominant influence on government formation and government policy through direct army links with the President outside the sphere not only of parliament, but also of Cabinet decision-making.

However, the conservativ-nationalist forces that aimed at a restoration of this kind were incapable of providing a popular backing for it. And yet without a plebiscitarian base a stabilization of the situation which industry and commerce, crisis-stricken as they were, were also calling for more and more impatiently, proved ultimately impossible. In this respect the authoritarian presidential governments of Papen and Schleicher remained dependent on the support of the NSDAP and this, in turn, made them vulnerable to blackmail by the Hitler movement.

Lack of popularity was the reproach which Brüning had to face many times towards the end of his term of office; this weakness decisively weakened the prestige and the power base of his government. The absence of a popular basis condemned the Papen Cabinet even more strikingly to an ephemeral existence. It was no more than a transitional government on the way to a Nazi seizure of power. Hindenburg refused to hand power to Hitler for a long time. But when he finally and at the last minute changed his mind he was also motivated by a desire to restore the popularity of his presidential regime. Schleicher proposed the risky establishment of a military dictatorship; Papen promised to deliver a popular base, and, faced with this choice, Hindenburg opted for the latter solution.

What increased the dependence of the old anti-republican and conservative-nationalist elites on Hitler was that nationalist and völkische ideologies had begun to corrode established traditional principles of government and legality well before 1933. The boundaries between Papen's Young Conservatism and the varied elements of the "Conservative Revolution" that had rallied within the broad framework of Nazism had become fluid long ago.

What provided the glue for the "fateful" and never harmonious alliance between the conservative elites and the Nazi mass movement which made Hitler's chancellorship possible, was the aggressive rejection of Weimar parliamentarianism and of the forces that had shaped the Republic. These latter forces-Social Democrats, left liberals and Center Party Catholics had been decried as "Reich enemies" as early as the Bismarckian Empire. The Weimar Republic, in its more stable days and represented by politicians like Gustav Stresemann, was on its way to bring about the political reconciliation and alliance of Right and Left, i.e. of the conservative or national-liberal bourgeoisie and of the democratic-socialist and Christian-social popular movements. The Nazis addressed the desire of large sections of the population for political and social emancipation, but they did so not in a rational and responsible manner, but by appealing to emotions, aggressions and utopian longings. They thereby made a radical break with the slow evolution towards a more democratic society, which had set in during the late Wilhelmine period and had continued under the Weimar Republic.

The Nazis disenfranchised, persecuted and exiled the spokesmen of these democratizing currents. They did so in the name of a vague notion of a future state based on the principles of leadership and Volksgemeinschaft. No more than a bare half of the population had voted for the establishment of this type of regime in free elections even at the height of the crisis. Mobilizing their dreams and their deeply-felt sense of humiliation which, following the Versailles Treaty, had turned these groups against the Weimar Republic as the symbol of the defeat of 1918-19, Hitler embarked upon an experiment in plebiscitarian dictatorship which was at first tremendously successful. These successes, which were carried forward by feelings of elation and by the lure of participating in a social and patriotic Erhebung (uprising) misled many Germans into overlooking the manifestations of terror which accompanied the Hitler "experiment" from the start. The extent to which this indifference to injustice and brutality occurred is nevertheless staggering.


Source: Martin Broszat, Hitler and the Collapse of the Weimar Republic (New York: St. Martin Press, 1987).

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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