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.
Hindenburg's government, now headed by chancellor Franz von Papen, considered the idea of bringing Hitler into the government as vice chancellor. In his book “Hitler: 1889-1936 Hubris,” biographer Sir Ian Kershaw wrote: “The Papen government was divided on whether Hitler should be given power. Finance Minister Krosigk thought the best way to avoid a civil war was to turn the poacher into a gamekeeper. The minister of the interior, Freiherr von Gayl, vehemently opposed any such ideas.”
The deadlock continued.
Frustrated at being denied their place in the government, the Nazis decided to demonstrate their popular power in November 1932. Despite the fact their party was already the largest, the Nazis called for new elections in the belief they would gain a larger majority of the vote, forcing Hindenburg into naming Hitler as chancellor. The plan backfired. Though the Nazis remained the largest single party in the Reichstag, the Nazis lost 34 seats. After overplaying their hand, many believed that the Nazis were on their way out.
Though the Nazis lost face, the November 1932 election did little to change the deadlock in government. By rights, Hitler still should have been appointed chancellor, but Hindenburg and his cabinet still refused to do so. Papen's resolve began to waiver, however, and Hindenburg dismissed him. In his place, he appointed Kurt von Schleicher, previously minister of defense and a serving general in the German army. Schleicher had convinced Hindenburg that he could lead a successful government by splitting support for Hitler within the Nazi party.
Papen wasn't done plotting, however. As Schleicher struggled to stabilize his government, Papen decided to meet with Hitler and feel him out on the idea of a joint chancellorship. In his book “Adolf Hitler,” biographer John Toland wrote:
“Hitler's meeting with Papen at Baron von Schröder's home in Cologne took place as scheduled on Jan. 4 (1933). At the outset of the two-hour conference (Papen) suggested that the Schleicher regime be replaced by a Hitler-Papen government in which both would be equal. Hitler replied to this startling proposition at length: If he were made Chancellor he would have to be the actual head of government; he would accept some Papen men as ministers but only if they agreed to his policy of eliminating Social Democrats, Communists and Jews from leading positions in the nation. The two men, according to Schröder, 'reached agreement in principal' and while leaving the house cordially shook hands.”
Papen, always a trusted member of Hindenburg's circle even if out of power, convinced the increasingly senile field marshal that Schleicher's government was a failure, and that he could indeed tame Hitler with power. After all, Hitler's agenda couldn't possibly be as radical as he made it out to be, surely most of it must be simply to appease the radical wing of the Nazi party. Hitler would be so overwhelmed by the trappings of power, Papen argued, that Hindenburg, Papen and the cabinet could control him.
After more negotiations in January, it was decided that Hindenburg would indeed appoint Hitler chancellor, though the government would be constituted primarily of Papen supporters. Hitler would only be allowed to bring two Nazis into his cabinet: Wilhelm Frick for minister of the interior and Hermann Goering as a minister without portfolio. Kershaw wrote:
“For the Nazis themselves, of course, 30 January 1933 was the day they had dreamed about, the triumph they had fought for, the opening of the portals to the brave new world — and the start of the what many hoped would be opportunities for prosperity, advancement, and power. Wildly cheering crowds accompanied Hitler on his way back to the Kaiserhof (Hotel) after his appointment with Hindenburg.”
Thousands of Nazi stormtroopers and supporters paraded through Berlin in a torchlight procession that night, impressing Hindenburg and Papen, as well as foreigners in the city. During the next few months, Hitler consolidated his hold on power, the Reichstag being reduced to little more than a rubber stamp. In March, 1933, the last German elections of the Nazi era were held, and pro-Nazi voter fraud, intimidation and corruption were rampant. Even in this rigged election, however, the Nazis never gained more that 50 percent of the German vote.
Despite continued tension with Hitler, Papen continued to serve Hitler throughout the Third Reich. He was tried at Nuremberg for war crimes in 1946, though he was acquitted. Though he later served time for charges brought by a West German court, he was ultimately paroled doueto his age. He died in 1969.
Von Schleicher, the last chancellor of the Weimar period, was assassinated by Hitler's cronies in the summer of 1934, during the infamous “Night of the Long Knives,” where Hitler eliminated many of his political rivals. One month later, von Hindenburg died at the age of 86 from natural causes. Hitler used the field marshal's death to consolidate the offices of chancellor and president into one new office, that of führer. Hermann Goering would later claim at Nuremberg that the inspiration for this move was the office of president of the United States.
Hitler's Third Reich, intended to last for 1,000 years, survived only 12. Hitler committed suicide in 1945 as Nazi Germany was in its death throes, leaving an unimaginable level of death and destruction in his wake.
Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at SLCC. Cody has also appeared on many local stages including Hale Centre Theatre and Off Broadway Theatre. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org