Unlike Mussolini, Hitler gained power through democratic means. It was only after he became chancellor of Germany that he showed his true colors, and in the space of a few weeks established an authoritarian regime that would brook no political opposition.

In March 1930 Germany’s coalition government, lead by the Social Democrats, resigned, unable to agree upon a coherent policy for dealing with the country’s worsening economic situation. The president, the venerable wartime hero, Field Marshall Paul von Hindenberg, appointed the conservative financial expert, Heinrich Brüning, as chancellor. This was in response to political lobbying by the army. Brüning’s government did not enjoy a majority in the Reichstag and could not get a bill to reform the national finances passed. Brüning therefore had it enacted as an emergency decree, which was allowed by the Constitution, but the Reichstag still blocked it and Brüning felt forced to go to the country.

Changed Political Climate

The situation in Germany was now very different from what it had been in 1928. Both Communists and Nazis were vociferous in their efforts to drum up popular support and there were frequent street fights between the two. The upshot was that the two extremist parties radically increased their share of the votes, with the Communists gaining 77 seats and the Nazis 107. This meant that the more moderate parties were no longer able to form a parliamentary majority and Brüning increasingly had to rule by decree. His severe financial measures, which included drastically cutting public expenditure, made him incredibly unpopular. True, in 1932 at the Lausanne Conference, he did manage to negotiate an end to the reparations payments and also tried to establish an economic union with Austria – although the International Court at The Hague ruled that this was against the Versailles Treaty – but it was all too late to raise his popularity.

In the spring of 1932 Hindenburg’s term as president came to an end.

Brüning saw the Field Marshal as his best protection against the Nazis and other extremists and wanted him to remain in office. The Nazis and other nationalists objected and so Hindenburg had to stand for re-election. This time Hitler – who had finally gained German citizenship – and the Communist leader, Ernst Thälmann, stood against him. After a re-run Hindenburg was re-elected, winning 53% of the vote, with Hitler runner-up after gaining over one third. His star was clearly rising.

We have become once more true Germans…

Adolf Hitler, March 1933

Jockeying For Power

Hindenburg wanted Brüning to form a more right-wing cabinet to reflect the changing political face of Germany, but the latter refused and resigned. He was succeeded by Franz von Papen, who was rejected by all shades of political opinion. And so, in July 1932 another general election was called. Street brawls were even more widespread than in 1930. The Nazis, with 209 seats, became the largest party in the Reichstag, but Hitler refused to join any coalition and so another election was held that November. The Nazis won slightly fewer seats, partly because Papen had been taking a tough stand at the International Disarmament Conference and also because the economic situation had improved.

This was not enough to save Papen, however. The army refused to support him, so to counter this Hindenburg made its spokesman, General Kurt von Schleicher, chancellor.

This was not what Hitler wanted at all. He moved to isolate Schleicher by allying himself to Papen, thus preventing the general from forming a government. Accepting the inevitable, of January 30th, 1933, Hindenburg appointed Hitler chancellor, with Papen as vice-chancellor. With only two other Nazis in the cabinet, Papen believed that Hitler could be controlled, but he was soon proved wrong.

The star of Germany will rise and yours will sink… I do not want your vote. Germany will be free, but not through you!

Hitler, to the Social Democrats in the Enabling Act Debate, March 23rd, 1933

Hitler’s first step was to call another general election for March 5th. Then, on February 27th there was a fire at the Reichstag. In the election that followed the Nazis gained only 44% of the vote, but it was enough. Building on the restrictions he had persuaded Hindenburg to put in place after the Reichstag fire, Hitler succeeded in getting his Enabling Act into the statute book on March 23rd. This gave him the right to rule by decree and effectively banned all political parties other than the Nazis. Within weeks overt opposition to Hitler had been crushed. Germany was now a dictatorship in all but name.

17,277,180 Germans voted for the Nazi Party in the democratic elections of March 1933, the last to be held in the country until after 1945.

The final end to democratic Germany came with Hindenburg’s death on August 2nd, 1934. Hitler was now head of state and free to realize his dreams of a new Greater Germany.

From World War II: The Definitive Visual History, by Richard Holmes

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