This week in history: Hitler is appointed chancellor of Germany
On Jan. 30, 1933, 81 years ago this week, Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany, inaugurating the era of the Third Reich.
After his failed attempt to overthrow the Bavarian government in 1923 and subsequent imprisonment, Hitler became a marginal figure in German politics. After Germany's currency stabilized in 1924, fewer and fewer Germans were willing to look at fringe parties like the Nazis and the Communists. Instead, Germany appeared to be prospering and most middle class Germans, who had been economically wiped out first by Germany's defeat in World War I and then in the hyper-inflation of 1923, finally felt that their future was secure.
The beginning of the Great Depression in 1929 changed all that. For the third time in a decade, Germany's middle class had been economically devastated. A growing discontentment with Germany's democratic system was brewing, and suddenly those fringe parties appeared to offer real, if radical, solutions to Germany's problems.
Since its foundation, the American republic has vested considerable power in the office of president of the United States. The American president acts as both head of state and head of government. Like most European nations, Germany employed (and still does today) a parliamentary system of government that separates these offices. Under Germany's Weimar constitution, the president acted as Germany's head of state while its chancellor acted as its head of government.
Under a parliamentary system, after a democratic election to the parliamentary body, the leader of the largest single party or leader of a bloc of coalition parties is voted by the parliament to become the chancellor. Then the head of state must formally appoint the new chancellor, and therefore an important check to the parliament's power is in place.
After the 1929 stock market crash, the Nazis gained more and more seats in the Reichstag, Germany's parliament. The German president, Paul von Hindenburg, the aged hero of World War I, found it increasingly difficult to govern effectively with so many Reichstag seats falling to the fringe parties. Written during the 1919 communist revolution in Germany, the Weimar constitution had an important clause that was intended to act as an emergency measure should another communist revolution threaten Germany. Article 48 gave the president power to rule by decree, effectively bypassing the democratically elected Reichstag.
Unable to pass much-needed legislation to combat the economic crisis, due to stonewalling by the Nazi and Communist deputies, Hindenburg and his chancellor, Heinrich Brüning, used Article 48 quite liberally. The effect was that a German dictatorship pre-dated Hitler's rise to power. It also made Hindenburg and his chancellor increasingly less popular as they ignored the people's will as expressed through the political parties. It didn't help the government that both the Nazis and the Communists were able to exploit the situation to their advantage, and even occasionally work together to make things difficult for the government.
In the spring of 1932, Hitler ran unsuccessfully against the incumbent Hindenburg for the presidency. In typical Nazi fashion, Hitler's propaganda painted Hindenburg as being under the power of the Jews who sought to destroy Germany. Though Hitler lost the presidency, in July the Nazi party became the largest single political party in the Reichstag with 230 seats despite gaining less than 50 percent of the electorate. By rights, Hindenburg should have appointed Hitler to the office of chancellor, though the old field marshal stated that it was his “irrevocable will” not to appoint the “Bohemian corporal” to that office.
Whatever Hindenburg's feelings, there was no denying Hitler's popularity and growing influence. His brown-shirted stormtroopers, a private political army, boasted considerable numbers, and many in the government feared that Hitler might attempt another coup or revolution, despite his promise to work within the democratic system after his imprisonment.
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