Hitler as Dictator: How did this happen?
Hitler only had the support of one third of the Germans but in six months he became absolute dictator, ruling by 'executive decree'. How did this happen?
I have been reading the book, the Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, in particular the chapters 6 and 7 which describe how Hitler came to power and within six months had become undisputed dictator of Germany. This is in spite of the fact that Hitler only had the approval of about one third of the Germans, with two thirds opposed to him. How did this happen?|
The following quotes from the book serve as an interesting summation of events. It is fascinating to note certain parallels with events in America and what happened in Germany although there are notable differences. As one example, Hitler had to wait for a terrorist attack to bring in government spying and the suspension of constitutional rights (after the Reichstag fire) while in the United States all these were already in place (after 911) including giving the President the authority to start wars without requiring the approval of Congress, and various powers that may not have been fully exercised during the Obama administration for no reason other than it was choice not to use these powers so as to maintain an allegiance to certain democratic norms.
At the time of the rise of Hitler, German's had become disillusioned with normal parliamentary democracy. The political system was grid locked, and as for the political parties,
they were too much at cross-purposes, too absorbed in looking after the special economic and social interests they represented to be able to bury their differences and form an enduring majority in the Reichstag that could back a stable government capable of coping with the major crisis which confronted the country at the beginning of the Thirties. Parliamentary government had become a matter of what the Germans called Kuhhandel - cattle trading - with the parties bargaining for special advantages for the groups which elected them, and the national interests be damned.
To overcome the political paralysis, the Chancellor began to resort to governing by decree, equivalent to issuing 'executive orders' by the President in the American system, a tactic which attempted to bypass the normal channels of governance altogether.
It made for strong government under the forceful hand of the President, who, after all (Schleicher argued), through his popular election represented the will of the people and was backed by the Army. If the democratically elected Reichstag couldn't provide stable government, then the democratically elected President must.
This was the first serious contact between the Nazis and those who held the political power in the Republic. In just two years its development was to lead Adolf Hitler to his goal.
The government had become the most unpopular one the Republic had ever had.
The Nazi leader did not have his heart in the meeting. He despised the frock-coated, top-hatted, be-medaled relics of the old regime, with whom, he saw, it might be dangerous to associate a "revolutionary" movement like his own too closely.
Hitler had no intention of playing second fiddle to these gentlemen whose minds, he thought, were buried in the past to which he knew there was no return. He might use them for the moment if they helped to undermine the regime.
"The present issuem is whether the internationalist traitors and pacifist swine, with the approval of the President, are to bring about the final ruin of the nation."
All the traditional loyalties of classes and parties were upset in the confusion and heat of the electoral battle. To Hitler, a "national socialist," a leader of the lower-middle-class masses, was rallied, in addition to his own followers, the support of the upper-class Protestants of the north, the conservative Junker agrarians. The confusion was further compounded by the entrance of two other candidates, neither of whom could hope to win but both of whom might poll enough votes to prevent either of the two leading contestants from obtaining the absolute majority needed for election.
Hitler threw himself into the campaign with furious energy, crisscrossing the country, addressing large crowds at scores of mass meetings and whipping them up into a state of frenzy. They directed a propaganda campaign such as Germany had never seen. In a passenger plane, he flew from one end of Germany to the other - a novelty in electioneering at that time - addressing three or four big rallies a day in as many cities. Shrewdly, he altered his tactics to attract more votes. He depicted a happy future for all Germans if he were elected: jobs for the workers, higher prices for the farmers, more business for the businessmen, a big Army for the militarists.
He had not forgotten that to attain power one must win the support of some of the existing "powerful institutions (in practice this meant winning support from the military).
The democratic Republic went down with him, though its death agonies would continue for another eight months before the final coup de grace was administered. Though democratic at heart, (Bruening, the former Chancellor) had allowed himself to be maneuvered into a position where he had to rule much of the time by presidential decree without the consent of Parliament. The provocation to take such a step admittedly had been great; the politicians in their blindness had made it all but inevitable.
The political power in Germany no longer resided, as it had since the birth of the Republic, in the people and in the body which expressed the people's will, the Reichstag. It was now concentrated in the hands of a President. Hitler saw this very clearly, and it suited his purposes.
From the size of the crowds that turned out to see Hitler it was evident that the Nazis were gaining ground. The Social Democrats, no doubt because of the timidity shown by their leaders in Prussia were losing support. Hitler said he would demand to rule by decree for a specified period; if it were refused, the Reichstag would be "sent home." Goebbels was sure of one thing, though: "Once we have the power we will never give it up. They will have to carry our dead bodies out of the ministries."
Big business and big finance were swinging behind the other candidate, who had given them certain concessions. They were becoming increasingly distrustful, as Funk had warned, of Hitler's refusal to cooperate with what seemed to them his growing radicalism. Goebbels noted, "Many bourgeois circles have been frightened off ... Even many of our party comrades are beginning to have their doubts. Last attack. Desperate drive of the party against defeat."
The military supported the new government, which a few hours later would be named. Hitler was always grateful to the Army for accepting him at that crucial moment. Not long afterward he told a party rally, "If in the days of our revolution the Army had not stood on our side, then we would not be standing here today."
No one really knew Hitler - nor did they comprehend the strength of the forces which had spewed him up. Nor did Papen, or anyone else except Hitler, quite realize the inexplicable weakness, that now bordered on paralysis, of existing institutions - the Army, the churches, the trade unions, the political parties - all of which, as Papen mournfully observed much later, would "give up without a fight."
The strength of the Social Democrats had been sapped until their party had become little more than an opportunist pressure organization, determined to bargain for concessions. They had had their chance to take over Germany and to found a state based on what they had always preached: social democracy. But they lacked the decisiveness to do so. Now they were a tired, defeatist party, too timid to take the great risks which along could have preserved the Republic. The Middle class had been the back bone of democracy. The strength of the Democrats had waned as their supporters gravitated towards Hitler.
The conservative classes thought they had found a man in Hitler who, while remaining their prisoner, would help them attain their goals. The destruction of the Republic was only the first step. What they then wanted was an authoritarian Germany which at home would put an end to democratic "nonsense" and the power of the trade unions and in foreign affairs build a great Army. These were Hitler's aims, too.
The Nazi Third Reich was inaugurated in peacetime, and peacefully, by the Germans themselves, out of both their weaknesses and their strengths. The Germans imposed the Nazi tyranny on themselves. Many of them, perhaps a majority, did not quite realize it at that noon hour of January 30, 1933, when Adolf Hitler. became Chancellor. But they were soon to learn.
There remained sources of authority which were outside of and even distrustful of the Nazi Movement. Hitler's first task was to eliminate them from the driver's seat, make his party the master of the State and then with the power an authoritarian dictatorship and the police forces carry out a Nazi revolution. He had only been in office twenty four hours when he began making his decisive moves, springing traps on his gullible conservatives and setting in motion a chain of events which in the end of six months would end with the complete Nazification of the country and Hitler's elevation to dictator of the entire Reich, unified and defederalized for the time in the nation's history.
(Hitler had been forced into an alliance with conservatives). Quickly and adroitly Hitler, aided by the crafty Goering, began to take his conservative colleagues for a ride. We shall stage a masterpiece of propaganda. And this time, naturally, there is no lack of money."169 The big businessmen, pleased with the new government that was going to put the organized workers in their place and leave management to run its businesses as it wished, were asked to cough up. Hitler laid down the line to a couple of dozen of Germany's leading magnates. "Private enterprise," Hitler said, "cannot be maintained in the age of democracy; it is conceivable only if the people have a sound idea of authority and personality . . . All the worldly goods we possess we owe to the struggle of the chosen . . . We must not forget that all the benefits of culture must be introduced more or less with an iron fist." Hitler promised to crush all the leftists. All this was made clear enough to the assembled industrialists and they responded with enthusiasm to the promise of the end of the infernal elections, of democracy and disarmament. Krupp, the munitions king, who, according to Thyssen, had urged Hindenburg on January 29 not to appoint Hitler, jumped up and expressed to the Chancellor the "gratitude" of the businessmen "for having given us such a clear picture."
(A strong left wing vote existed in Germany, and Hitler had managed to prevent their victory by splitting the vote and pretending to be a 'national socialist'. Even so Hitler had only managed to take half of this 'socialist' vote, which was enough to ensure that they did not win the election, but not enough to be rid of them once and for all.) Goebbels wrote in his diary: "In a conference with the Fuehrer we lay down the line for the fight against the Red terror. First we must let them attempt a revolution, which must first burst into flame. At the proper moment we shall strike."
They removed hundreds of republican officials and replaced them with Nazis. The police were ordered to show no mercy to those who were "hostile to the State." He urged the police "to make use of firearms" and warned that those who didn't would be punished. This was an outright call for the shooting down of all who opposed Hitler by the police. It was a rash German who appealed to such a "police" for protection against the Nazi terrorists.
Despite all the Nazi provocations, the leftists did not 'burst into flames'. If it could not be provoked, might it not have to be invented?
(It was at this time that the Reichstag (the German parliament building) was burned to the ground in an act which was then blamed upon left wing terrorists who were opposed to the Nazi regime).
That it was a crime, a Communist crime, they proclaimed at once on arrival at the fire. Goering, sweating and puffing and quite beside himself with excitement, was already there ahead of them declaiming to heaven, as Papen later recalled, that "this is a Communist crime against the new government." To the new Gestapo chief, Rudolf Diels, Goering shouted, "This is the beginning of the Communist revolution! We must not wait a minute. We will show no mercy. Every Communist official must be shot, where he is found. Every Communist deputy must this very night be strung up."173 The whole truth about the Reichstag fire will probably never be known. Nearly all those who knew it are now dead, most of them slain by Hitler in the months that followed. Even at Nuremberg the mystery could not be entirely unraveled, though there is enough evidence to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that it was the Nazis who planned the arson and carried it out for their own political ends.
From Goering's Reichstag President's Palace an underground passage, built to carry the central heating system, ran to the Reichstag building. Through this tunnel Karl Ernst, a former hotel bellhop who had become the Berlin S,A. leader, led a small detachment of storm troopers on the night of February 27 to the Reichstag, where they scattered gasoline and self-igniting chemicals.
The idea for the fire almost certainly originated with Goebbels and Goering. Hans Gisevius, an official in the Prussian Ministry of the Interior at the time, testified at Nuremberg that "it was Goebbels who first thought of setting the Reichstag on fire," and Rudolf Diels, the Gestapo chief, added in an affidavit that "Goering knew exactly how the fire was to be started" and had ordered him "to prepare, prior to the fire, a list of people who were to be arrested immediately after it." General Franz Haider, Chief of the German General Staff during the early part of World War II, recalled at Nuremberg how on one occasion Goering had boasted of his deed.
a decree "for the Protection of the People and the State" suspending the seven sections of the constitution which guaranteed individual and civil liberties. Described as a "defensive measure against Communist acts of violence endangering the state," the decree laid down that: Restrictions on personal liberty, on the right of free expression of opinion, including freedom of the press; on the rights of assembly and association; and violations of the privacy of postal, telegraphic and telephonic communications; and warrants for house searchers, orders for confiscations as well as restrictions on property, are also permissible beyond the legal limits otherwise prescribed. In addition, the decree authorized the Reich government to take over complete power in the federal states when necessary and imposed the death sentence for a number of crimes, including "serious disturbances of the peace" by armed persons.175 Thus with one stroke Hitler was able not only to legally gag his opponents and arrest them at his will.
Truckloads of storm troopers roared through the streets all over Germany, breaking into homes, rounding up victims and carting them off to S.A. barracks, where they were tortured and beaten. The press and political meetings were suppressed; newspapers and many liberal journals were suspended and the meetings of the democratic parties either banned or broken up.
Streets echoed to the tramp of the storm troopers. There were mass rallies, torchlight parades, the din of loudspeakers in the squares. The electorate was in turn cajoled with promises of a German paradise, intimidated by the Nazi terror in the streets and frightened by "revelations" about the left wing "revolution."
The Nazis claimed to have found documents proving that "Government buildings, museums, mansions and essential plants were to be burned down . . . The burning of the Reichstag was to be the signal for a bloody insurrection and civil war . . . It has been ascertained that today was to have seen throughout Germany terrorist acts against individual persons, against private property, and against the life and limb of the peaceful population, and also the beginning of general civil war." (The proof of these documents was said to be 'classified' and 'top secret' but the German people were impressed that the government officials vouched for their authenticity).
(The opposition Democrats) would resist any overthrow of the constitution, demanding an investigation of the suspicious Reichstag fire and calling on (the political institutions) "to protect the oppressed against their oppressors." Vain appea!
Even so the majority of the Germany population continued to oppose Hitler. Hitler needed to carry out a new, bold plan to establish his dictatorship.
The plan was deceptively simple and had the advantage of cloaking the seizure of absolute power in legality. The Reichstag would be asked to pass an "enabling act" conferring on Hitler's cabinet exclusive legislative powers for four years. Put even more simply, the German Parliament would be requested to turn over its constitutional functions to Hitler and take a long vacation. But since this necessitated a change in the constitution, a two-thirds majority was needed to approve it.
Hitler gave a speech of unexpected restraint to the members of the Reichstag. The fiery Nazi leader sounded quite moderate and almost modest; it was too early in the life of the Third Reich for even the opposition members to know full well the value of Hitler's promises.
It was all done quite legally, though accompanied by terror. Parliament had turned over its constitutional authority to Hitler and thereby committed suicide, though its body lingered on in an embalmed state to the very end of the Third Reich, serving infrequently as a sounding board. To be sure, much remained to be done to bring the entire nation and all its institutions completely under the Nazi heel, though, as we shall see, this also was accomplished with breathless speed and with crudeness, trickery and brutality. One by one, Germany's most powerful institutions now began to surrender to Hitler and to pass quietly, unprotestingly out of existence.
HJitler abolished the separate powers of the historic states and made them subject to the central authority of the Reich, which was in his hands. He had, for the first time in German history, really unified the Reich by destroying its age-old federal character. "The state governments from now on are merely administrative bodies of the Reich."
The trade union movement was disposed of as easily as the political parties and the state, but not before an elaborate piece of trickery had been played upon them. The trade-union leaders were taken in by this surprising display of friendliness toward the working class by the Nazis and enthusiastically cooperated with the government and the party, acclaiming the Nazi regime's solidarity with the worker, and out at Tempelhof Field Goebbels prepared to stage the greatest mass demonstration Germany had ever seen. Before the massive rally, Hitler himself received the workers' delegates, declaring, "You will see how untrue and unjust is the statement that the revolution is directed against the German workers. On the contrary." Later in his speech to more than 100,000 workers at the airfield Hitler pronounced the motto, "Honor work and respect the worker!"
A party boss who was assigned by Hitler to take over the unions and establish the German Labor Front, where union leaders could 'hypocritically declare their devotion to the Fuehrer as much as they like - but it is better that they should be in prison." "Labor trustees," appointed by him, would "regulate labor contracts" and maintain "labor peace." Since the decisions of the trustees were to be legally binding, the law, in effect, outlawed strikes.
Hitler had conquered Germany with the greatest of ease, but a number of problems remained to be faced as summer came in 1933: preventing a second revolution; getting the country out of its economic morass and finding jobs for the six million unemployed; and accelerating the Reich's military rearming .
Hitler lost no time in putting an end to the schemes of the National Socialists who had been naive enough to take their party program seriously. The disillusion among the rank-and-file Nazis who formed the large core of Hitler's mass movement, was great. Most of them had belonged to the ragged army of the dispossessed and the unsatisfied. They were anticapitalist through experience and they believed that the revolution which they had fought by brawling in the streets would bring them loot and good jobs, either in business or in the government. Now their hopes, after the heady excesses of the spring, were dashed.
Hitler realized more clearly that he could not have come to power without the support or at least the toleration of the Army generals and that, for the time being at least, his very survival at the helm depended in part on their continued backing, since they still retained the physical power to remove him if they were so minded. Some time before this, Hitler had secretly given the armed forces assurances which had brought many of the higher officers to his side. Hitler freed the military elite from its fears that the armed services might be called upon to take part in a civil war and promised that the Army and Navy could now devote themselves unhindered to the main task of quickly rearming the new Germany. A good many generals and admirals began to see the Nazi revolution in a different and more favorable light.
The Third Reich was diplomatically isolated and militarily impotent. The whole world had been revolted by Nazi excesses. The Third Reich was indeed friendless in a hostile world. Hitler's moderateness and profession of love for peace pleasantly surprised an uneasy world. The warning was forgotten amid the general rejoicing throughout the Western world at Hitler's unexpected reasonableness. The Labor Party, demanded that Hitler be taken at his word. The conservative weekly Spectator of London concluded that Hitler had grasped the hand of Roosevelt and that this gesture provided new hope for a tormented world. From the Nazi firebrand dictator had come not brutal threats, as so many had expected, but sweetness and light. The world was enchanted.
contribute to this article
contribute to this article
add comment to discussion