People keep saying: 'Hitler came to power by democratic means.' Well, did he? I'm grounding this blog on a reading of Richard J Evans's impressive book 'The Coming of the Third Reich,' published in 2003. I thought it was time to revisit the 1932-1933 era, and what I find is not what I expected, which shows that it's worth checking facts before rushing into virtual print. I had always understood that left and centre parties failed to grasp the threat Hitler represented, and to unite against him. That was an element in the problem, but the narrative is a good deal more nuanced and complex than that - and contains some frightening resonances with our own times.
The Wall Street crash and subsequent depression hit Germany's fragile economy harder than it hit others, partly because of the withdrawal of US money from Germany business. A fifth of the German male population were out of work: this is probably a conservative estimate, as women weren't included. If you want to read a fictional account of this situation and how hopeless it felt, you can't do better than Hans Fallada's 'Little man, what now?' Or else consider the photograph which I have seen of people queuing up to have their pets put to sleep (by a charity) because they could no longer even afford to feed their children. Consider the men who trudged along Germany's roads from city to city, in a fruitless search for work, sleeping rough, in growing despair.
|Unemployed men, by Walter Maisak|
Many of those workers turned to the Communist party, and the sudden rise of Communism, which saw the situation as a crisis of capitalism which might lead to its ultimate fall, terrified many middle-class Germans. At the same time, Nazism, which had been a small fringe party, also started to grow. The large number of unemployed men with nothing to do, were a reservoir on which the extremist parties could draw. Nazis and Communists clashed in street battles; the Nazis were at least as violent as the Communists, but the Communists often got all the blame. It has to be said, however, that the extreme left were just as keen to destroy the democratic system as the extreme Right were.
The Social Democratic party, the original workers' party, had lost credibility due to their cooption of right-wing forces, when they were in power, to suppress Communists. However, in 1930, when in coalition with the People's Party, the Social Democrats refused to support cuts to unemployment benefit which the People's Party wanted (because the country needed to try and balance the books). That was the end of the coalition, and it meant that the ageing aristocrat President Hindenburg and his political allies saw a chance 'to establish an authoritarian regime through the use of the Presidential power of rule by decree.' The army, which had previously reported to the cabinet, had been given the right to report directly to the President. This meant that Hindenburg, himself a World War 1 military hero, had the troops at his personal disposal. Evans sees 1930 as the beginning of the end of Weimar democracy. 'Rule by decree' meant that legislation could be imposed directly, by the President, without having to go through the Reichstag.
There was still a Chancellor, however, Heinrich Brüning, a monarchist (and not a constitutional one) and allied to the increasingly authoritarian Catholic Centre party. To clarify; he represented those forces in German society who had been hostile to democracy from 1918, when the German revolution unseated the Kaiser.
|Heinrich Brüning: Bundesarchiv|
By 1930, as the extremist representation in the Reichstag grew, proceedings were often unable to go forward because '107 brown-shirted and uniformed Nazi deputies joined 77 disciplined and well-organised Communists, chanting, shouting, interrupting, and demonstrating their total contempt for the legislature at any juncture.' In February, 1931, the Reichstag dissolved itself for six months due to the impossibility of carrying on.
'Power,' Evans says, 'drained from the Reichstag with frightening rapidity.' It shifted to Hindenburg's circle, and to the streets, where violence was escalating. My mother remembered, as a child, mattresses being put into the windows at her grandfather's house, because the bullets were flying in the street. My grandfather, who was a policeman, was regularly deployed to suppress these riots. (One thing Evans doesn't mention is that though in other parts of Germany the police tended to support the Nazis, in Upper Silesia, where my grandparents lived, this was not the case. Given that the Nazi vote was consistently low in that province, this is perhaps not surprising, and my grandfather found himself having to control his men when they wanted to beat up the Nazis. He was a Social Democrat himself, and firmly believed that the role of a policeman was to keep order.)
Meanwhile, Brüning was imposing savage cuts. One of Germany's problems was the payment of reparations under the Treaty of Versailles. However, in 1931, the Hoover Moratorium suspended those payments. This should have given the political leeway for government job-creation schemes, and now the far right couldn't assert that any tax increase would only go towards the reparations. But Brüning, obsessed with fear of inflation, did nothing, and continued with his programme of cuts, saying publicly that the Depression could be expected to last till 1935. He became known as the 'Hunger Chancellor.' Brüning's successor, Von Papen, was equally addicted to austerity.
The Nazi vote continued to grow, helped by an astute propaganda campaign masterminded by the propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels. It had its effect - not surprisingly, when you consider that postwar advertisers studied Goebbels's methods. One can imagine what he would have done with the Internet and social media. 'What the Nazis succeeded in doing' says Evans, 'was to reduce political dialogue to a series of slogans. Voters were confronted 'with a stark choice: either the old forces of betrayal and corruption, or a national rebirth to a glorious future…Visual images, purveyed not only through posters and magazine illustrations, but also through mass demonstrations and marches in the streets, drove out rational discourse and verbal argument in favour of easily assimilated stereotypes that mobilised a whole range of feelings, from resentment and aggression to the need for security and redemption.' (Evans). They yelled about 'November criminals,' 'red bosses,' 'Jewish wire-pullers', the 'red murder pack.'
Perhaps this sounds familiar? I find it deeply worrying, because it demonstrates how easily people can be morally stampeded by snap phrases, and manipulated through their fear of complex understanding and analysis. ''I'm delighted at Hitler's lack of a programme,'' one woman wrote in her diary, ''for a programme is either lies, weakness, or designed to catch silly birds. The strongman acts from the necessity of a serious situation and can't allow himself to be bound.'' At a time when 'strong stable leadership' is being offered to British voters as an inducement, it should give us pause for thought. Of course, Hitler did have a programme, as anyone who could wade through the turgid pages of Mein Kampf could find out, and as the world found out when it was too late.
|ballot paper for Presidential election|
However, when Hitler stood for the Presidency against Hindenburg, he lost (less catastrophically than the Communist, Thälmann, who got 10% in the final vote. Hitler got 37%, and Hindenburg 53%. The Social Democrats supported Hindenburg, because there was no-one else they could support. This did no good either to their morale or their credibility, nor did it help when, in order to support law and order in the country, they withdrew their opposition to the cuts. Meanwhile, the new chancellor was as determined to create an autocracy as Hitler was.
'Papen's self-appointed task,' writes Evans, 'was to roll back history, not just Weimar democracy but everything that had happened in European politics since the French Revolution, and re-create in the place of modern class conflict the hierarchical basis of ancien regime society.' One of his government's first acts, having abolished the guillotine as a means of execution and restored the axe instead, was to ban left-liberal and social democratic newspapers. They lifted a previous ban on the brownshirts, hoping that they would thus be 'tamed' and could be used as an auxiliary army. Instead the street battles quickly reached record new levels. When my grandparents looked at the situation, they must have thought the country was on the verge of civil war.
In 1932, Von Papen's government suspended the Social Democratic government of Prussia on the grounds that it was no longer capable of maintaining law and order (in the face of the brown violence that Papen himself had unleashed). The Social Democrats accepted this, mainly because it was against their principles to use violence. If the leftist Reichsbanner organisation (which the Nazis later accused my grandfather of belonging to; I have no way of knowing if he actually did) had taken up arms - well, they might have been smashed by Rightists. Or there might have been civil war. Easy to condemn the Social Democrats when you have the benefit of hindsight, and when you aren't facing that decision yourself. They tried to use the legal route to protest, and the law supported them in part. But they were restricted to representing Prussia in the Upper Chamber, to the irritation of the Right. In any case, the Social Democrats had suffered severe electoral defeat, and they knew they couldn't mobilise their trades union membership against Papen, because there were so many unemployed men who could have been brought in to break strikes.
'After 20th July 1932, the only realistic alternatives,' writes Evans, 'were a Nazi dictatorship or a conservative, authoritarian regime backed by the army.'
And yet, by election time in November 1932, Nazi support was waning. They had over-extended themselves and run out of funds, and, more dangerously as far as they were concerned, the Depression was bottoming out. Von Papen had resigned and had been replaced by General Kurt von Schleicher. 'By this time, the constitution had in effect reverted to what it had been in the Bismarckian Reich, with governments being appointed by the Head of State, without reference to parliamentary majorities or legislatures… Yet the problem remained that any government which tried to change the constitution in an authoritarian direction without the legitimacy afforded by the backing of a majority in the legislature would run a serious risk of starting a civil war.' And the largest party in the Reichstag were the Nazis.
So: did Hitler came to power by democratic means? I hope that this blog shows that it's a bit more complicated than that. The final decision to offer the chancellorship to Hitler (he had refused to take any lesser role in a coalition government) was driven by the realistic fear of a coup by the paramilitary Steel Helmets organisation (Stahlhelm), supported by landed interests and industrialists who wanted to continue wage and benefit cuts and feared a nationalisation of the steel industry by Schleicher. Some expected Schleicher himself to stage a coup, after he asked President Hindenburg to give him extra-constitutional powers to overcome the crisis, and was refused. Hitler's appointment as Chancellor did at least confer a shred of constitutionality on the decision Hindenburg made.
|Hitler's cabinet. Goering is to his left. Papen standing to his right. Bundesarchiv|
The Nazis did not fill this new government: Hitler was Chancellor, Wilhelm Frick was Minister of the Interior, and Hermann Goering was Reich Minister Without Portfolio and Acting Prussian Minister of the Interior, which gave him control over the police. This meant that the Nazis had control over law and order - or, as it soon turned out, lawlessness and violence. The Right felt that they could control Hitler. History shows they were wrong. But the real seizure of power followed the Reichstag fire, and the wave of terror that was then unleashed on Germany was anything but democratic.
Is there a lesson here for us? Over-simplistic parallels are the kind of things the Nazis dealt in, that Donald Trump, for example, deals in. But I would say this. By the time Hitler took power, Germany was already primed for him.In my lifetime, since Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister of Britain, I have seen politics move steadily to the Right, and the further they move in that direction, the more the mainstream political parties chase them rightwards. Policies which were once the preserve of the National Front are now mainstream conservative discourse. The Nazis' success was partly fuelled by sloganism and rabble-rousing, which also dominate the modern political scene. The other parties tried adopting punchy slogans and visual images, but they couldn't equal the Nazis in this respect.
Perhaps the principal lesson is that economic hardship and austerity bred Nazism; this should definitely serve as a warning to us today.
A footnote: Though the Nazis had a majority of seats in the Reichstag, this did not translate, ever, into a majority of the vote. The best they ever did was in the final election of March 1933, after the Reichstag fire, when voter intimidation was in full swing, and they polled 43.9%. But considering the authoritarian inclinations of some of the other parties, this would hardly indicate any great liberal resistance to Nazism. There were liberals,though, in the political, rather than the economic neo-liberal sense of the word. Many of them were dragged into camps and prisons, and many were murdered there. Some emigrated. A few went undercover to resist as best they could. We may honour their names, but the years leading up to 1933 were catastrophic, for many people who would otherwise have been decent human beings, either out of fear, or persuasion, or apathy, were sucked into supporting a filthy and murderous political system which was to lead to the death of millions. Most human beings are not as heroic as they'd like to believe they could be.
|Social democrats in Oranienburg concentration camp. Bundesarchiv.|