The Rise of Adolf Hitler

In my last post, I described how this internet meme was particularly ignorant because Donald Trump is not anything like Adolf Hitler and the social and political circumstances of Weimar Germany is nothing like contemporary America.

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It is also ignorant because the creator seems to know next to nothing about the rise of Adolf Hitler. The conventional idea about the rise of Hitler is that he was swept into office by a tidal wave of popular enthusiasm. That is certainly the story told by Nazi propagandists who were eager to cast Hitler as the embodiment of the Aryan racial will. The truth is somewhat different. Hitler gained power in Germany by taking advantage of certain features of the Weimar constitution which made it possible for someone like him to seize power and of the foolishness and timidity of his opponents who consistently underestimated him.

For most of the 1920’s the Nazis were very much a fringe party in German politics. Although a great many Germans essentially agreed with Hitler’s ideas about Jews, Aryans, the Versailles Treaty, and other matters, the Nazis seemed to be too lawless, violent, and, well, extreme, to appeal to the German middle class, especially after the hyper-inflation of the early Weimar years had ended and Germany shared in the general prosperity of the roaring 20’s. The Nazis were lucky to get 3% of the vote, when they were allowed to run at all. The Nazi Party was actually banned in many parts of Germany after the Beer Hall Putsch and because of the violent antics of the SA Stormtroopers.

This changed after the stock market crash of October, 1929 and the onset of the Great Depression. Germany was as hard hit by the Depression as every other industrialized country and as the German people became increasingly desperate, they were more willing to listen to people thought extreme only a year before. In addition, the increasing strength of the German Communist Party among the working class frightened many members of the middle class, who feared that a Communist victory would lead to a Soviet style dictatorship. Many Germans came to believe, perhaps rightly, that Hitler was the lesser evil.

In the September, 1930 Reichstag election the Nazis won 18.25% of the vote, going from 12 to 107 of the 577 seats, making them the second largest party in the Reichstag. The third largest party was the German Communist Party which had won 77 seats. Germany was in the peculiar position of having two of the largest political parties in its parliament dedicated to overthrowing the government and unwilling to join any coalition or participate in the cabinet. Both the Nazis and the Communists tried their best to disrupt the functioning of the government both in the Reichstag and in battles in the streets. Curiously, this policy of disruption helped rather than hurt the Nazis. With the quasi-military discipline of the SA and their well organized rallies, the Nazis were able to give the impression that they were the only people who had their act together in a nation that was falling apart.

The incumbent Chancellor, Heinrich Bruning, had the support of President Hindenburg and was able to put together a coalition composed of his Catholic Center Party and some other conservative parties. Bruning did not have a majority, however, and it became increasingly necessary for the president to use his emergency powers to permit the government to continue to function.

Hindenburg’s seven year term was set to end in 1932. Hindenburg was 84 years old and did not really want to serve a second term as president. He only decided to run for reelection because he feared that Hitler, who he detested, might be able to defeat any other candidate. The first round of the presidential election was held on March 13, and Hindenburg won, but with only 49.6% of the vote, necessitating a second round which was held on April 10. This time, Hindenburg won with 53% of the vote. Hitler was second with 36.8%.

Bruning’s government fell on May 30 and Hindenburg appointed Franz von Papen to be Chancellor. Papen had almost no support in the Reichstag, even from his own Catholic Center Party which regarded him as a traitor, but he did have the full support of President Hindenburg and using Article 48, was able to rule as a virtual dictator. Papen lifted Bruning’s ban on the SS and SA and indicated that he was willing to work with Hitler and the Nazis. This appeasement worked about as well for Papen as it later would at Munich, Hitler would not cooperate or join in any coalition unless he were named Chancellor. New elections were called for July 31.

In the July 31, 1932 election, the Nazis got 37.27% of the popular vote, the most the Nazis would ever get in a fair and free election. This was enough to get them 230 seats in the Reichstag, out of the total 608, making the Nazis the largest single party. The Communists were third with 89 seats, so the majority of the members of the Reichstag now belonged to parties dedicated to overthrowing the Weimar Republic. This made forming any coalition impossible and Papen continued to govern with the use of presidential decrees. Papen was not popular either in the Reichstag or with the German public and in September 1932, he was obliged to have Hindenburg dissolve the Reichstag and call for new elections on November 6.

The Nazis lost seats in this election. They got only 33.09% of the popular vote and dropped to 196 seats in the Reichstag. The Nazis were still the largest party, but it seemed as though they were beginning to lose momentum to the Communists who now held 100 seats. The party treasury was depleted and it is possible that if another election had been called within the next few months, the Nazis would have lacked the resources to maintain their position. However, the Nazis were to be saved by good fortune and the weakness of their opposition.

Papen resigned as Chancellor and was replaced by his defense minister, Kurt von Schleicher on December 3. Schleicher proved to be incapable of governing and resigned on January 23. Meanwhile, Papen had approached Hitler, proposing to convince President Hindenburg to make Hitler Chancellor in return for Papen being Vice-Chancellor. Hitler agreed and Papen was eventually able to persuade a reluctant Hindenburg to appoint Hitler Chancellor on January 30, 1933.It might seem to unwise for Papen to allow a dangerous demagogue like Hitler to have any position of power and Papen may be justly condemned for enabling Hitler’s rise to power, but Papen believed that Hitler would be in a weak position as Chancellor. The Nazis did not have a majority in the Reichstag and only held only three posts in the eleven member cabinet, the Chancellorship and two relatively unimportant posts. Hitler did not possess, as Papen did, the confidence of President Hindenburg. Hitler would be a figurehead, useful for rallying the masses behind the government’s policies, but contained, while Vice-Chancellor Papen would be the real power, or so he thought.

Hitler had no intention of being contained. What Papen and others did not understand was that Hitler did not wish to become Chancellor only to work within the system. He planned to overthrow the Weimar Republic. Hitler’s experience in the Beerhall Putsch had taught him that it was useless to fight a revolution against the power of a modern state. Instead, Hitler planned to use the German state to make his revolution.

The Reichstag had been dissolved when Hindenburg had appointed Hitler Chancellor so new elections were called for March 5, 1933. These latest elections were held in the wake of the Reichstag fire on February 27. Although the Nazis probably didn’t start the fire, as many suspected, the Nazis quickly made use of the arrest of a deranged Dutch Communist to instigate a national panic of an imminent Communist revolution. The next day, President Hindenburg issued the Decree for the Protection of the People and State, granting Hitler emergency powers to deal with the supposed insurrection. Hitler did not ban the Communist Party and any other opposition to the Nazis but they were harassed and their leaders arrested. The Nazis and their allies were backed by the full power of the state by the next election and the Nazis got 43.91% of the popular vote giving them 288 out of 647 seats in the Reichstag. The Nazis still did not have a majority, even though they were in control of the electoral process and had used the Brownshirts to provoke violence on the streets and at opposing parties’ meetings. The Nazis formed a coalition with the German National People’s Party and with the support of the Catholic Center Party was able to pass the Enabling Act, giving all legislative power to the Chancellor on March 24, 1933.

Hitler quickly established a totalitarian dictatorship over Germany, outlawing all political parties except for the Nazis and imprisoning anyone who dared to oppose the new order. By the next elections in November 1933, the Nazis won in a landslide 92.11% of the vote gaining all 661 seats in the Reichstag. Considering that the Nazis were the only party permitted to run and it was hinted that voting against the Nazis, or refusing to vote at all might have unpleasant repercussions, the surprising thing is that 7.89% of the German voters actually submitted blank ballots in protest.

The 86-year President Hindenburg died on August 2, 1934 and Hitler arranged to abolish the office of President and assume its power in his own person as Führer and Reich Chancellor. The Weimar Republic was over and the Third Reich had begun.

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