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Becoming Führer

In December 1924, Adolf Hitler had just been released from prison after his failed coup attempt, the Munich Beer Hall Putsch of 1923. A decade later, on August 19, 1934, he was officially named Führer und Reichskanzler ("Leader and Chancellor"), becoming the head of both state and government in one person, with practically unlimited power. Within ten years, he went from an ex-convict with extremist political views to a dictator with the power to plunge the entire world into war in the name of his hateful ideology. But how could a man, even one as fanatical and driven as Hitler, achieve all that in such a short time?

Hitler with his first cabinet as Chancellor of Germany (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
Hitler with his first cabinet as Chancellor of Germany (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

The Nazi Party was ravaged by the Beer Hall Putsch. Its leaders were arrested and the organization was banned in Bavaria. Meanwhile, an economic upswing made more and more German citizens content with their lives, and thus brought about a decrease in extremist politics. (It should be noted that personal hardship, when spread to a wide enough segment of the population, had always been fertile breeding ground for extremist and hateful political views in history. After all, if you're struggling to survive and have no hope of a better life, the one thing that can make you feel better and spur you to action is an enemy, real or imagined, who caused all your troubles. And as long as there are voters, there will always be immoral politicians ready to provide the desperate masses with an enemy.)

Defendants arrested after the Beer Hall Putsch, Hitler is fourth from right (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
Defendants arrested after the Beer Hall Putsch, Hitler is fourth from right (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

Hitler was born in Austria, and in 1925, the year after his release from prison, he still had Austrian citizenship. Being a foreigner invalidated his nationalist rhetoric for many people, and Hitler renounced his Austrian citizenship in that year to become more politically credible. However, he did not receive a German citizenship until 1932. For seven years, he lived as a stateless person. This meant he could have been deported from Germany at any time, and he was ineligible for election to any public office - a major hurdle to his political ambition.
 
The situation changed with the Wall Street Crash of 1929, which plunged first the United States, then the rest of the world into economic recession. With millions losing their jobs and banks collapsing, desperate people became susceptible to extremist politics again. Hitler's promises to repudiate the humiliating Versailles Treaty (and the extensive war reparations prescribed by it) and strengthen the country suddenly started to sound much more appealing to a lot of people.

Unemployed men at the Berlin Employment Office in 1933 (Photo: Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz)
Unemployed men at the Berlin Employment Office in 1933 (Photo: Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz)

Here's a brief overview of the German political landscape at the time: power was split between a strong President (the head of state), chosen by election, and a weak Chancellor (head of government), really just a glorified chairman of the cabinet, appointed by the president. Cabinet decisions were not made by the chancellor, but by a majority vote. Though normally it would make sense for the president to appoint someone from whichever party had won the last parliamentary elections, this was not an actual law, and the president could pick someone else if he deemed it appropriate. From 1925 onwards, the president was Paul von Hindenburg, a popular World War I Field Marshal who had no interest in politics but wanted to "save Germany."

President Paul von Hindenburg in the 1920s (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
President Paul von Hindenburg in the 1920s (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

Before the economic crash, there were four significant parties in parliament. The largest was the moderate left Social Democratic Party (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands - SPD), followed by the conservative German National People's Party (Deutschnationale Volkspartei - DNVP). Third was the Centre Party (Deutsche Zentrumspartei), which strongly identified as Catholic, and, true to its name, took a centrist position on most matters. The smallest of the four was the Communist Party (Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands - KPD), which was obviously far left. Though the Communist Party shared some ideological points with the Social Democrats, they were nevertheless bitter enemies: the Soviet Union considered social democracy a direct rival to communism, and instructed German communists to consider the SPD an even greater threat than right-wing extremism. Hitler's National Socialist German Workers' Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei – NSDAP, the Nazis) trailed far behind all, with less than half the popularity of even the Communists. (Note that quite a few other minor parties also existed.) Parliamentary elections were nominally held every four years, but the volatile politics of the Weimar Republic meant that the governing party often found itself without enough support to govern effectively. On such occasions, the parliament was dissolved and new elections were held ahead of time. Presidential elections were separate events, nominally held every seven years; due to the aforementioned volatile politics, however, Hindenburg was the only man to actually fill out a whole presidential term.
 
The economic crisis proved a fertile soil for the resurgent Nazi Party's message of strength, pride, recovery, unity and blaming others for people's problems. In 1928, they got 2.6% of the votes; in 1930, 18.25%; in July, 1932, 37.27%. At the same time, the Communists increased their support from 10% to 14% (times of hardship are good for the popularity of all extremist parties, after all), while moderates such as the SPD and the DNVP slid backwards.

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Election results of the major parties in the Weimar Republic, percentage of votes rounded to nearest percent (Chart: Author's own)
Election results of the major parties in the Weimar Republic, percentage of votes rounded to nearest percent (Chart: Author's own)

In 1932, Hitler finally got his German citizenship and became eligible to public office. With his new citizenship and rapidly increasing popular support for his party, he aimed high and ran for president against Hindenburg at the March 1932 presidential election. During his campaign, Hitler became the first politician in history to recognize the utility of campaigning by aircraft. By travelling with plane, he could visit more places in the same time period, and more personal appearances in public meant higher support all over the country.

"Hitler over Germany," cover of a Nazi pamphlet about Hitler's election campaign (Photo: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)
"Hitler over Germany," cover of a Nazi pamphlet about Hitler's election campaign (Photo: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

Hitler lost the election. Hindenburg ran as an independent presidential candidate, but most parties still united behind him in support, specifically to foil Hitler. In the end, Hindenburg received 53% of the votes, Hitler 36.8%, and Communist candidate Ernst Thälmann, who was later executed in Buchenwald concentration camp, got 10.2%.
 
While Hitler lost, his almost 37% support still established him as a major figure in German politics. Seeing his popularity, two conservative politicians, Franz von Papen and Alfred Hugenberg, wrote to Hindenburg and advised him to appoint Hitler as a chancellor. Papen and Hugenberg hoped that by helping Hitler into some position of power, they might be able to exert control over him in the future, "defanging" his more loathsome ideas.

Franz von Papen making an address on American radio, 1932 (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
Franz von Papen making an address on American radio, 1932 (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

The next general election, held in July of the same year, established the Nazi Party as the second strongest in parliament behind the Social Democrats, but no political block was strong enough to form a government. A second election was held in November to break the deadlock; it ended with a Nazi victory, but still without sufficient majority to govern.

Alfred Hugenberg (left, in civilian attire) (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
Alfred Hugenberg (left, in civilian attire) (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

The deadlock caused a rash of violence across Germany. Street clashes between the Rotfront ("Red Front", officially Roter Frontkämpferbund, "Alliance of Red Front-Fighters") and the Sturmabteilung ("Assault Detachment"), the paramilitary arms of the Communist and the Nazi party, spiraled out of control. The Communists saw they had no chance to keep up with Hitler's political rise in parliament, and desperately started escalating the conflict with street fights and shootouts, which the Nazis returned with gusto.

Rotfront members in Berlin, 1927 (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
Rotfront members in Berlin, 1927 (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

Desperate to bring about some sort of political unity and stop the spreading chaos, President Hindenburg reluctantly followed Papen's and Hugenberg's advice and appointed Hitler to the position of Chancellor. At this point, German political thinkers, including many Jews, still believed that Hitler only represented a minor threat to the inherently diverse and democratic German people. While they knew that giving Hitler a position in the government was not a good thing, they still hoped it would at least de-escalate the street violence and finally bring some stability to the country.

Hugenberg (standing, right) and von Papen (sitting), right in Hitler's first cabinet (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
Hugenberg (standing, right) and von Papen (sitting), right in Hitler's first cabinet (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

On the night of February 27, 1933, the Reichstag building (the home of the parliament) was burned down by parties that have never been identified with full certainty. Historians are divided on whether it was a false flag operation by the Nazis or the act of the Communists. One known fact is that Marinus van der Lubbe, a known Dutch communist with a criminal history of arson was found on the site and later pleaded guilty. Yet another theory is that while Lubbe was goaded into setting fire to the Reichstag, the Nazis have also set a separate, much more effective fire on the same night, and it was the second one that destroyed the building.

The Reichstag on fire (Photo: Unknown photographer)
The Reichstag on fire (Photo: Unknown photographer)

Whatever the truth might be, the Nazis blamed the arson on the Communist Party. The next day, at Hitler's urging, President Hindenburg issued the Reichstag Fire Decree, officially titled the Decree of the Reich President for the Protection of People and State, which suspended basic rights and allowed detention without trial. Note that this was legal, since the German constitution gave the president such emergency powers to protect public safety and order. In the shadow of the rampant street violence between the paramilitaries of extremist parties, and right after the parliament of the nation was torched, a lot of people even felt that such an emergency measure was quite reasonable. With the decree in hand, the government (which was at Hitler's beck and call) suppressed the Communist Party, arresting 4,000 members, though the party itself was not officially banned just yet.

Hitler and Hindenburg at the opening ceremony of the new Reichstag after the fire (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
Hitler and Hindenburg at the opening ceremony of the new Reichstag after the fire (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

The next strike against democracy was the Law to Remedy the Distress of People and Reich, commonly called the Enabling Act, passed on March 23. The act, ostensibly only valid for four years (and later renewed twice in sham referendums), gave the cabinet (in practice, Hitler) the power to pass laws without the normal legislative process in parliament. On the day the law was passed, the Kroll Opera House, where the Reichstag convened after the fire, was surrounded by threatening members of the Sturmabteilung and the Schutzstaffel (SS, "Protection Squad", another Nazi paramilitary force) to intimidate the members of parliament as they entered. With the Communist Party suppressed, the only major opponents to the Enabling Act were the Social Democrats. Other parties went along with it, either out of fear of the Nazis or out of a weariness of the chaos and a wish to finally have order at any cost. The last major faction to oppose the bill was the Centre Party, but Hitler bought them off with a promise to respect the Church's independence – a promise he later broke without hesitation.

Hitler speaking about the Enabling Act the day before it was voted into effect (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
Hitler speaking about the Enabling Act the day before it was voted into effect (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

Since the bill was a constitutional amendment, two-thirds of all Reichstag members had to be present to reach the necessary quorum just to bring up the bill. As it happened, the President of the Reichstag was Hermann Göring, one of Hitler's most important followers and future chief of the Luftwaffe, the German air force. Unsurprisingly, Göring made sure that the Nazis had the needed quorum by changing the rules of procedure. He declared that Communist MPs under arrest will not be counted toward the total membership, which lowered the "effective" number of Reichstag members, and made it easier both to reach quorum and to pass the bill. He also declared that anyone "absent without excuse" was to be counted as present. Using the Reichstag Fire Decree, the Nazis quickly detained several representatives of the Social Democrats, prompting a few others to flee into exile. Thanks to Göring's procedural changes, these people counted towards the quorum (since they were absent "without excuse"), but they could not vote against the bill, since they were physically not present. Thanks to these tricks, the act was passed with 83% support; it also passed the Reichsrat (the Weimar parliament's upper house) on the evening of the same day, and was signed into law by President Hindenburg.

Reichstag President Göring (in the back) looks on as Hitler (front) delivers a speech about the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria, March 18, 1938 (Photo: Blaine Taylor)
Reichstag President Göring (in the back) looks on as Hitler (front) delivers a speech about the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria, March 18, 1938 (Photo: Blaine Taylor)

At this point, Hitler and the Nazi Party had full dictatorial power, all acquired through technically legal steps, with a single possible counter: Paul von Hindenburg. As President of the Weimar Republic, he still had the authority to remove Hitler from power. Unfortunately, Hindenburg was 86 years old and in failing health. Despite being massively popular and a widely respected soldier, he was also unsuitable for a political career: he had always been rather slow of thinking and indecisive without his advisors, and he allowed events to proceed. On August 2, 1934, Hindenburg died of lung cancer. Knowing that the president was on his death bed, Hitler waited until the day just before Hindenburg's death then quickly made sure that no new president was going to remove him from power. He had his cabinet pass the "Law Concerning the Highest State Office of the Reich" (which, thanks to the Enabling Act, didn't have to go through parliament). The law declared that in the case of the president's death, the offices of President and Chancellor would be merged, making the new "Leader and Chancellor" (in German, Führer und Reichskanzler) the head of government and state in one. The next day, Hindenburg died, leaving Hitler as the all-powerful leader of the nation he was going to lead into a ruinous war.

Memorial ceremony for Hindenburg. Hitler can be seen making a speech on the lectern near the bottom center of the picture. (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
Memorial ceremony for Hindenburg. Hitler can be seen making a speech on the lectern near the bottom center of the picture. (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
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