Hitler is Reich Chancellor! And what a cabinet!!! One such as we did not dare to dream of in July. Hitler, Hugenberg, Seldte, Papen!!! A large part of my German hopes are attached to each. National Socialist drive, German National reason, the non-political Stahlhelm, and – not forgotten by us – Papen. It is so unimaginably wonderful … What an achievement by Hindenburg!
This was the ecstatic response of Hamburg schoolteacher Louise Solmitz to the dramatic news of Hitler’s appointment to the Chancellorship on 30 January 1933. Like so many who had found their way to Hitler from middle-class, national-conservative backgrounds, she had wavered the previous autumn when she thought he was slipping under the influence of radical socialist tendencies in the party. Now that Hitler was in office, but surrounded by her trusted champions of the conservative Right, heading a government of ‘national concentration’, her joy was unbounded. The national renewal she longed for could now begin. Many, outside the ranks of diehard Nazi followers, their hopes and ideals invested in the Hitler cabinet, felt the same way.
But millions did not. Fear, anxiety, alarm, implacable hostility, illusory optimism at the regime’s early demise, and bold defiance intermingled with apathy, scepticism, condescension towards the presumed inability of the new Chancellor and his Nazi colleagues in the cabinet – and indifference.
Reactions varied according to political views and personal disposition. Alongside misplaced hopes on the Left in the strength and unity of the labour movement went the crass misapprehension of Hitler as no more than the stooge of the ‘real’ wielders of power, the forces of big capital, as represented by their friends in the cabinet. Influenced by years of warnings from their clergy, the Catholic population were apprehensive and uncertain. Among many Protestant churchgoers there was optimism that national renewal would bring with it inner, moral revitalization. Many ordinary people, after what they had gone through in the Depression, were simply apathetic at the news that Hitler was Chancellor. Those in provincial Germany who were not Nazi fanatics or committed opponents often shrugged their shoulders and carried on with life, doubtful that yet another change of government would bring any improvement. Some thought that Hitler would not even be as long in office as Schleicher, and that his popularity would slump as soon as disillusionment set in on account of the emptiness of Nazi promises. But perceptive critics of Hitler were able to see that, now he enjoyed the prestige of the Chancellorship, he could swifly break down much of the scepticism and win great support by successfully tackling mass unemployment – something which none of his successors had come close to achieving.
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 what many hoped would be opportunities for prosperity, advancement, and power. Wildly cheering crowds accompanied Hitler on his way back to the Kaiserhof after his appointment with Hindenburg. By seven o’clock that evening Goebbels had improvised a torchlight procession of marching SA and SS men through the centre of Berlin that lasted beyond midnight. He wasted no time in exploiting the newly available facilities of state radio to provide a stirring commentary. He claimed a million men had taken part. The Nazi press halved the number. The British Ambassador estimated a maximum figure of some 50,000. His military attaché thought there were around 15,000. Whatever the numbers, the spectacle was an unforgettable one – exhilarating and intoxicating for Nazi followers, menacing for those at home and abroad who feared the consequences of Hitler in power.
Power had not been ‘seized’, as Nazi mythology claimed. It had been handed to Hitler, who had been appointed Chancellor by the Reich President in the same manner as had his immediate predecessors. Even so, the orchestrated ovations, which put Hitler himself and other party bosses into a state of ecstasy, signalled that this was no ordinary transfer of power. And almost overnight, those who had misunderstood or misinterpreted the momentous nature of the day’s events would realize how wrong they had been. After 30 January 1933, Germany would never be the same again.
That historic day was an end and a beginning. It denoted the expiry of the unlamented Weimar Republic and the culminating point of the comprehensive state crisis that had brought its demise. At the same time Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor marked the beginning of the process which was to lead into the abyss of war and genocide, and bring about Germany’s own destruction as a nation-state. It signified the start of that astonishingly swift jettisoning of constraints on inhumane behaviour whose path ended in Auschwitz, Treblinka, Sobibor, Majdanek, and the other death camps whose names are synonymous with the horror of Nazism.
Remarkable in the seismic upheavals of 1933–4 was not how much, but how little, the new Chancellor needed to do to bring about the extension and consolidation of his power. Hitler’s dictatorship was made as much by others as by himself. As the ‘representative figure’ of the ‘national renewal’, Hitler could for the most part function as activator and enabler of the forces he had unleashed, authorizing and legitimating actions taken by others now rushing to implement what they took to be his wishes. ‘Working towards the Führer’ functioned as the underlying maxim of the regime from the outset.
Hitler was, in fact, in no position to act as an outright dictator when he came to office on 30 January 1933. As long as Hindenburg lived, there was a potential rival source of loyalty – not least for the army. But by summer 1934, when he combined the headship of state with the leadership of government, his power had effectively shed formal constraints on its usage. And, by then, the personality cult built around Hitler had reached new levels of idolatry and made millions of new converts as the ‘people’s chancellor’ – as propaganda had styled him – came to be seen as a national, not merely party, leader. Disdain and detestation for a parliamentary system generally perceived to have failed miserably had resulted in willingness to entrust monopoly control over the state to a leader claiming a unique sense of mission and invested by his mass following with heroic, almost messianic, qualities. Conventional forms of government were, as a consequence, increasingly exposed to the arbitrary inroads of personalized power. It was a recipe for disaster.
There were few hints of this at the beginning. Aware that his position was by no means secure, and not wanting to alienate his coalition partners in the government of ‘national concentration’, Hitler was at first cautious in cabinet meetings, open to suggestions, ready to take advice – not least in complex matters of finance and economic policy – and not dismissive of opposing viewpoints. This only started to change in April and May. In the early weeks, Finance Minister Schwerin von Krosigk, who had met Hitler for the first time when the cabinet was sworn in on 30 January, was not alone in finding him ‘polite and calm’ in the conduct of government business, well-briefed, backed by a good memory, and able to ‘grasp the essentials of a problem’, concisely sum up lengthy deliberations, and put a new construction on an issue.
Hitler’s cabinet met for the first time at five o’clock on 30 January 1933. The Reich Chancellor began by pointing out that millions greeted with joy the cabinet now formed under his leadership, and asked his colleagues for their support. The cabinet then discussed the political situation. Hitler commented that postponing the recall of the Reichstag – due to meet on 31 January after a two-month break – would not be possible without the Zentrum’s support. A Reichstag majority could be achieved by banning the KPD, but this would prove impracticable and might provoke a general strike. He was anxious to avoid any involvement of the Reichswehr in suppressing such a strike – a comment favourably received by Defence Minister Blomberg. The best hope, Hitler went on, was to have the Reichstag dissolved and win a majority for the government in new elections. Only Hugenberg – as unwilling as Hitler to have to rely on the Zentrum, but also aware that new elections would be likely to favour the NSDAP – spoke out expressly in favour of banning the KPD in order to pave the way for an Enabling Act. He doubted that a general strike would take place. He was appeased when Hitler vouched for the fact that the cabinet would remain unchanged after the election. Papen favoured proposing an Enabling Act immediately and reconsidering the position once it had been rejected by the Reichstag. Other ministers, anticipating no promises of support from the Zentrum, preferred new elections to the threat of a general strike. The meeting was adjourned without firm decisions. But Hitler had already outflanked Hugenberg, and won support for what he wanted: the earliest possible dissolution of the Reichstag and new elections.
The following evening, Hindenburg was persuaded to grant Hitler that which he had refused Schleicher only four days earlier: the dissolution of the Reichstag. Hitler had argued, backed by Papen and Meissner, that the people must be given the opportunity to confirm its support for the new government. Though it could attain a majority in the Reichstag as it stood, new elections would produce a larger majority, which in turn would allow a general Enabling Act to be passed, giving a platform for measures to bring about a recovery. The dissolution scarcely conformed to the spirit of the Constitution. Elections were turned into a consequence, not a cause, of the formation of a government. The Reichstag had not even been given the opportunity of demonstrating its confidence (or lack of it) in the new government. A decision which was properly parliament’s had been placed directly before the people. In its tendency, it was already a step towards acclamation by plebiscite.
Hitler’s opening gambit stretched no further than new elections, to be followed by an Enabling Act. His conservative partners, as keen as he was to end parliamentarism and eliminate the Marxist parties, had played into his hands. On the morning of 1 February he told the cabinet of Hindenburg’s agreement to dissolve the Reichstag. The elections were set for 5 March. The Reich Chancellor himself provided the government’s slogan: ‘Attack on Marxism.’ That evening, with his cabinet standing behind him in his room in the Reich Chancellery, wearing a dark blue suit with a black and white tie, sweating profusely from nervousness, and speaking – unusually – in a dull monotone, Hitler addressed the German people for the first time on the radio. The ‘Appeal of the Reich Government to the German People’ that he read out was full of rhetoric but vacuous in content – the first propaganda shot in the election campaign rather than a stated programme of political measures. Full of pathos, Hitler appealed on behalf of the government to the people to overcome class divisions, and to sign alongside the government an act of reconciliation to permit Germany’s resurgence. ‘The parties of Marxism and those who went along with them had fourteen years to see what they could do. The result is a heap of ruins. Now, German people, give us four years and then judge and sentence us,’ he declared. He ended, as he often concluded major speeches, in pseudo-religious terms, with an appeal to the Almighty to bless the work of the governent. With that, the election campaign had begun. It was to be a different campaign from the earlier ones, with the government – already enjoying wide backing – clearly separating itself from all that had preceded it in the Weimar Republic.
Towards the end of his proclamation, Hitler had posed for the first time as a man of peace, stating, despite love of the army as the bearer of arms and symbol of Germany’s great past, how happy the government would be ‘if through a restriction of its armaments the world should make an increase of our own weapons never again necessary’. His tone when invited by Blomberg to address military leaders gathered in the home of the head of the army General Kurt Freiherr von Hammerstein-Equord on the evening of 3 February was entirely different.
The atmosphere was cool, the attitude of many of the officers reserved, when Hitler began his lengthy speech. But what he said could not fail to find appeal. The build-up of the armed forces was the most important premiss to the central aim of regaining political power. General conscription had to be brought back. Before that, the state leadership had to see to it that all traces of pacifism, Marxism, and Bolshevism were eradicated from those eligible for military service. The armed forces – the most important institution in the state – must be kept out of politics and above party. The internal struggle was not its concern, and could be left to the organizations of the Nazi movement. Preparations for the build-up of the armed forces had to take place without delay. This period was the most dangerous, and Hitler held out the possibility of a preventive strike from France, probably together with its allies in the east. ‘How should political power, once won, be used?’ he asked. It was still too early to say. Perhaps the attainment of new export possibilities should be the goal, he hinted. But since earlier in the speech he had already dismissed the notion of increasing exports as the solution to Germany’s problems, this could not be taken by his audience as a favoured suggestion. ‘Perhaps – and probably better – conquest of new living space in the east and its ruthless Germanization’ was his alternative. The officers present could have been left in no doubt that this was Hitler’s preference.
Hitler’s sole aim at Hammerstein’s had been to woo the officers and ensure army support. He largely succeeded. There was no opposition to what he had said. And many of those present, as Admiral Erich Raeder later commented, found Hitler’s speech ‘extraordinarily satisfying’. This was hardly surprising. However disdainful they were of the vulgar and loudmouthed social upstart, the prospect he held out of restoring the power of the army as the basis for expansionism and German dominance accorded with aims laid down by the army leadership even in what they had seen as the dark days of ‘fulfilment policy’ in the mid-1920s.
The strong man in Blomberg’s ministry, his Chief of the Ministerial Office, Colonel Walther von Reichenau – bright, ambitious, ‘progressive’ in his contempt for class-ridden aristocratic and bourgeois conservatism, and long a National Socialist sympathizer – was sure of how the army should react to what Hitler offered. ‘It has to be recognized that we are in a revolution,’ he remarked. ‘What is rotten in the state has to go, and that can only happen through terror. The party will ruthlessly proceed against Marxism. Task of the armed forces: stand at ease. No support if those persecuted seek refuge with the troops.’ Though not for the most part as actively sympathetic towards National Socialism as was Reichenau, the leaders of the army which had blocked by force Hitler’s attempt to seize power in 1923 had now, within days of his appointment as Chancellor, placed the most powerful institution in the state at his disposal.
Hitler, for his part, lost no time in making plain to the cabinet that military spending was to be given absolute priority. During a discussion in cabinet on 8 February on the financial implications of building a dam in Upper Silesia, he intervened to tell his cabinet colleagues that ‘the next five years must be devoted to the restoration of the defence capacity of the German people’. Every state-funded work-creation scheme had to be judged with regard to its necessity for this end. ‘This idea must always and everywhere be placed in the foreground.’
These early meetings, within days of Hitler becoming Chancellor, were crucial in determining the primacy of rearmament. They were also typical for the way Hitler operated, and for the way his power was exercised. Keen though Blomberg and the Reichswehr leadership were to profit from the radically different approach of the new Chancellor to armaments spending, there were practical limitations – financial, organizational, and not least those of international restrictions while the disarmament talks continued – preventing the early stages of rearmament being pushed through as rapidly as Hitler wanted. But where Blomberg was content at first to work for expansion within the realms of the possible, Hitler thought in different – initially quite unrealistic – dimensions. He offered no concrete measures. But his dogmatic assertion of absolute primacy for rearmament, opposed or contradicted by not a single minister, set new ground-rules for action. With Hjalmar Schacht succeeding Hans Luther in March as President of the Reichsbank, Hitler found the person he needed to mastermind the secret and unlimited funding of rearmament. Where the Reichswehr budget had on average been 700–800 million RM a year, Schacht, through the device of Mefo-Bills – a disguised discounting of government bills by the Reichsbank – was soon able to guarantee to the Reichswehr the fantastic sum of 35 billion RM over an eight-year period.
Given this backing, after a sluggish start, the rearmament programme took off stratospherically in 1934. The decision to give absolute priority to rearmament was the basis of the pact, resting on mutual benefit, between Hitler and the army which, though frequently troubled, was a key foundation of the Third Reich. Hitler established the parameters in February 1933. But these were no more than the expression of the entente he had entered into with Blomberg on becoming Chancellor. The new policy was possible because Hitler had bound himself to the interests of the most powerful institution in the land. The army leaders, for their part, had their interests served because they had bound themselves, in their eyes, to a political front-man who could nationalize the masses and restore the army to its rightful power-position in the state. What they had not reckoned with was that within five years the traditional power-élite of the officers corps would be transformed into a mere functional élite, serving a political master who was taking it into uncharted territory.
In the first weeks of his Chancellorship, Hitler took steps to bring not just the ‘big battalions’ of the army leadership behind the new regime, but also the major organizations of economic leaders. Landholders needed little persuasion. Their main organization, the Reich Agrarian League (Reichslandbund) – dominated by East Elbian estate-owners – had been strongly pro-Nazi before Hitler became Chancellor. Hitler left agrarian policy in its initial stage to his German National coalition partner Hugenberg. Early measures taken in February to defend indebted farm property against creditors and to protect agricultural produce by imposing higher import duties and provide support for grain prices ensured that the agrarians were not disappointed. With Hugenberg at the Economics Ministry, their interests seemed certain to be well looked after.
The initial scepticism, hesitancy, and misgivings of most business leaders immediately following Hitler’s accession to the Chancellorship were not dispelled overnight. There was still considerable disquiet in the business community when Gustav Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach, head of the mighty Krupp’s iron and steel concern and chairman of the Reich Association of German Industry, and other leading industrialists received invitations to a meeting at Göring’s official residence on 20 February, at which Hitler would outline his economic policy. Krupp, up to then critical of Hitler, went to the meeting prepared, as he had done at meetings with previous Chancellors, to speak up for industry. In particular, he intended to stress the need for export-led growth and to underline the damaging consequences of protectionism in favour of agriculture. In the event, he could make neither point. The businessmen were kept waiting by Göring, and had to wait even longer till Hitler appeared. They were then treated to a classic Hitler monologue. In a speech lasting an hour and a half, he barely touched on economic matters, except in the most general sense. He assuaged his business audience, as he had done on earlier occasions, by upholding private property and individual enterprise, and by denying rumours of planned radical experimentation in the economy. The rest was largely a restatement of his views on the subordination of the economy to politics, the need to eradicate Marxism, restore inner strength and unity, and thus be in a position to face external enemies. The coming election marked a final chance to reject Communism by the ballot-box. If that did not happen, force – he darkly hinted – would be used. It was a fight to the death between the nation and Communism, a struggle that would decide Germany’s fate for the next century. When Hitler had finished, Krupp felt in no position to deliver his prepared speech. He merely improvised a few words of thanks and added some general remarks about a strong state serving the well-being of the country. At this point, Hitler left.
The hidden agenda of the meeting became clear once Göring started speaking. He repeated Hitler’s assurances that economic experiments need not be feared, and that the balance of power would not be altered by the coming election – to be the last for perhaps a hundred years. But the election, he claimed, was nonetheless crucial. And those not in the forefront of the political battle had a responsibility to make financial sacrifices. Once Göring, too, had left, Schacht bade those present to visit the cash-till. Three million marks were pledged, and within weeks delivered. With this donation, big business was helping consolidate Hitler’s rule. But the offering was less one of enthusiastic backing than of political extortion.
Despite their financial support, industrialists continued at first to look with a wary eye at the new regime. But its members were already realizing that their position was also not left untouched by the changes sweeping over Germany. In early April, Krupp capitulated to Nazi pressure to replace the Reich Association by a new, nazified body, for the dismissal of Jewish employees, and the removal of all Jewish businessmen from representative positions in commerce and industry. The following month, the once-mighty Association dissolved itself and was replaced by the nazified Reich Estate of German Industry (Reichsstand der Deutschen Industrie). Alongside such pressure, business recovery, high profits, secure private property (apart from that of Jewish businessmen), the crushing of Marxism, and the subduing of labour saw big business increasingly content to adjust to full collaboration with the new regime, whatever the irksome bureaucratic controls imposed on it.
Hitler’s style, as the industrialists experienced on 20 February, was certainly different from that of his predecessors in the Chancellor’s office. His views on the economy were also unconventional. He was wholly ignorant of any formal understanding of the principles of economics. For him, as he stated to the industrialists, economics was of secondary importance, entirely subordinated to politics. His crude social-Darwinism dictated his approach to the economy, as it did his entire political ‘world-view’. Since struggle among nations would be decisive for future survival, Germany’s economy had to be subordinated to the preparation, then carrying out, of this struggle. That meant that liberal ideas of economic competition had to be replaced by the subjection of the economy to the dictates of the national interest. Similarly, any ‘socialist’ ideas in the Nazi programme had to follow the same dictates. Hitler was never a socialist. But although he upheld private property, individual entrepreneurship, and economic competition, and disapproved of trade unions and workers’ interference in the freedom of owners and managers to run their concerns, the state, not the market, would determine the shape of economic development. Capitalism was, therefore, left in place. But in operation it was turned into an adjunct of the state.
Lacking, as he did, a grasp of even the rudiments of economic theory, Hitler can scarcely be regarded as an economic innovator. The extraordinary economic recovery that rapidly formed an essential component of the Führer myth was not of Hitler’s making. He showed no initial interest in the work-creation plans eagerly developed by civil servants in the Labour Ministry. With Schacht (at this stage) sceptical, Hugenberg opposed, Seldte taking little initiative, and industry hostile, Hitler did nothing to further the work-creation schemes before the end of May. By then, they had been taken up by the State Secretary in the Finance Ministry, Fritz Reinhardt, and put forward as a programme for action. Even at this stage, Hitler remained hesitant, and had to be convinced that the programme would not lead to renewed inflation. Finally, on 31 May, Hitler summoned ministers and economic experts to the Reich Chancellery, and heard that all but Hugenberg were in favour of the Reinhardt Programme. The following day, the ‘Law for Reduction of Unemployment’ was announced. Schacht now conjured up the necessary short-term credits. The rest was largely the work of bankers, civil servants, planners, and industrialists. As public works schemes initially, then increasingly rearmament, began to pull Germany out of recession and wipe away mass unemployment more quickly than any forecasters had dared speculate, Hitler garnered the full propaganda benefit.
But indirectly Hitler did make a significant contribution to the economic recovery by reconstituting the political framework for business activity and by the image of national renewal that he represented. The ruthless assault on Marxism and reordering of industrial relations which he presided over, the work-creation programme that he eventually backed, and the total priority for rearmament laid down at the outset, helped to shape a climate in which economic recovery – already starting as he took office as Chancellor – could gather pace. And in one area, at least, he provided a direct stimulus to recovery in a key branch of industry: motor-car manufacturing.
Hitler’s propaganda instinct, not his economic know-how, led him towards an initiative that both assisted the recovery of the economy and caught the public imagination. On 11 February, a few days before his meeting with the industrialists, Hitler had sought out the opportunity to deliver the opening address at the International Automobile and Motor-Cycle Exhibition in Berlin. That the German Chancellor should make the speech was itself a novelty: this alone caused a stir. The assembled leaders of the car industry were delighted. They were even more delighted when they heard Hitler elevate car manufacture to the position of the most important industry of the future and promise a programme including gradual tax relief for the industry and the implementation of a ‘generous plan for road-building’. If living standards had previously been weighed against kilometres of railway track, they would in future be measured against kilometres of roads; these were ‘great tasks which also belong to the construction programme of the German economy’, Hitler declared. The speech was later stylized by Nazi propaganda as ‘the turning-point in the history of German motorization’. It marked the beginning of the ‘Autobahn-builder’ part of the Führer myth.
Hitler had, in fact, offered no specific programme for the car industry; merely the prospect of one. Even so, the significance of Hitler’s speech on 11 February should not be underrated. It sent positive signals to car manufacturers. They were struck by the new Chancellor, whose long-standing fascination for the motor-car and his memory for detail of construction-types and -figures meant he sounded not only sympathetic but knowledgeable to the car bosses. The Völkischer Beobachter, exploiting the propaganda potential of Hitler’s speech, immediately opened up to its readers the prospect of car-ownership. Not a social élite with its Rolls-Royces, but the mass of the people with their people’s car (Volksauto) was the alluring prospect.
In the weeks following his speech, there were already notable signs that the car industry was picking up. The beginnings of recovery for the automobile industry had spin-off effects for factories producing component parts, and for the metal industry. The recovery was not part of a well-conceived programme on Hitler’s part. Nor can it be wholly, or even mainly, attributed to his speech. Much of it would have happened anyway, once the slump had begun to give way to cyclical recovery. It remains the case, however, that the car manufacturers were still gloomy about their prospects before Hitler spoke.
Hitler, whatever importance he had attached to the propaganda effect of his speech, had given the right signals to the industry. After the ‘gigantic progamme’ of road-building he announced on 1 May had met substantial obstacles in the Transport Ministry, Hitler insisted that the ‘Reich Motorways Enterprise’ be carried through. This was eventually placed at the end of June in the hands of Fritz Todt as General Inspector for German Roadways. In the stimulus to the car trade and the building of the motorways – areas which, inspired by the American model, had great popular appeal and appeared to symbolize both the leap forward into an exciting, technological modern era and the ‘new Germany’, now standing on its own feet again – Hitler had made a decisive contribution.
By the time Hitler addressed the leaders of the automobile industry on 11 February, the Reichstag election campaign was under way. Hitler had opened it the previous evening with his first speech in the Sportpalast since becoming Chancellor. He promised a government that would not lie to and swindle the people as Weimar governments had done. Parties of class division would be destroyed. ‘Never, never will I depart from the task of eradicating from Germany Marxism and its accompaniments,’ he declared. National unity, resting on the German peasant and the German worker – restored to the national community – would be the basis of the future society. It was, he declared, ‘a programme of national revival in all areas of life, intolerant towards anyone who sins against the nation, brother and friend to anyone willing to fight alongside for the resurrection of his people, of our nation’. Hitler reached the rhetorical climax of his speech. ‘German people, give us four years, then judge and sentence us. German people, give us four years, and I swear that as we and I entered into this office, I will then be willing to go.’
It was a powerful piece of rhetoric. But it was little more than that. The ‘programme’ offered nothing concrete – other than the showdown with Marxism. National ‘resurrection’ to be brought about through will, strength, and unity was what it amounted to. For all nationalists – not just for Nazis – the sentiments Hitler expressed could not fail to find appeal.
The accompaniment to the campaign was a wave of unparalleled state-sponsored terror and repression against political opponents in states under Nazi control. Above all, this was the case in the huge state of Prussia, which had already come under Reich control in the Papen takeover of 20 July 1932. The orchestrator here was the commissary Prussian Minister of the Interior Hermann Göring. Under his aegis, heads of the Prussian police and administration were ‘cleansed’ (following the first purges after the Papen coup) of the remainder of those who might prove obstacles in the new wind of change that was blowing. Göring provided their successors with verbal instructions in unmistakably blunt language of what he expected of police and administration during the election campaign. And in a written decree of 17 February, he ordered the police to work together with the ‘national associations’ of SA, SS, and Stahlhelm, support ‘national propaganda with all their strength’, and combat the actions of ‘organizations hostile to the state’ with all the force at their disposal, ‘where necessary making ruthless use of firearms’. He added that policemen using firearms would, whatever the consequences, be backed by him; those failing in their duty out of a ‘false sense of consideration’ had, on the contrary, to expect disciplinary action. Unsurprisingly in such a climate, the violence unleashed by Nazi terror bands against their opponents and against Jewish victims was uncontrolled. This was especially the case once the SA, SS, and Stahlhelm had been brought in on 22 February as ‘auxiliary police’ on the pretext of an alleged increase in ‘left-radical’ violence. Intimidation was massive. Communists were particularly savagely repressed. Individuals were brutally beaten, tortured, seriously wounded, or killed, with total impunity. Communist meetings and demonstrations were banned, in Prussia and in other states under Nazi control, as were their newspapers. Bans, too, on organs of the SPD and restrictions on reporting imposed on other newspapers effectively muzzled the press, even when the bans were successfully challenged in the courts as illegal, and the newspapers reinstated.
During this first orgy of state violence, Hitler played the moderate. His acting ability was undiminished. He gave the cabinet the impression that radical elements in the movement were disobeying his orders but that he would bring them under control, and asked for patience to allow him to discipline the sections of the party that had got out of hand.
Hitler had no need to involve himself in the violence of February 1933. Its deployment could be left safely to Göring, and to leading Nazis in other states. In any case, it needed only the green light to Nazi thugs, sure now of the protection of the state, to unleash their pent-up aggression against those well known to them as long-standing enemies in their neighbourhoods and work-places. The terror-wave in Prussia in February was the first sign that state-imposed constraints on inhumanity were now suddenly lifted. It was an early indicator of the ‘breach of civilization’ that would give the Third Reich its historical character.
But it was not that the brutality and violence damaged Hitler’s reputation in the population. Many who had been initially sceptical or critical were beginning, during February, to think that Hitler was ‘the right man’, and should be given a chance. A slight upturn in the economy helped. But the fervent anti-Marxism of much of the population was more important. The long-standing hatred of Socialism and Communism – both bracketed together as ‘Marxism’ – was played upon by Nazi propaganda and turned into outright anti-Communist paranoia. Pumped up by the Nazis, fear of a Communist rising was in the air. The closer the election came, the shriller grew the hysteria.
The violence and intimidation would probably have continued in much the same vein until the election on 5 March. Nothing suggests the Nazi leadership had anything more spectacular in mind. But on 27 February, Marinus van der Lubbe set fire to the Reichstag.
Marinus van der Lubbe came from a Dutch working-class family, and had formerly belonged to the Communist Party youth organization in Holland. He had eventually broken with the Communist Party in 1931. He arrived in Berlin on 18 February 1933. He was twenty-four years old, intelligent, a solitary individual, unconnected with any political groups, but possessed of a strong sense of injustice at the misery of the working class at the hands of the capitalist system. In particular, he was determined to make a lone and spectacular act of defiant protest at the ‘Government of National Concentration’ in order to galvanize the working class into struggle against their repression. Three attempts at arson on 15 February in different buildings in Berlin failed. Two days later he succeeded in his protest – though the consequences were scarcely those he had envisaged.
On the evening of 27 February, Putzi Hanfstaengl should have been dining at Goebbels’s house, along with Hitler. But, suffering from a heavy cold and high temperature, he had taken to his bed in a room in Göring’s official residence, where he was temporarily accommodated, in the immediate vicinity of the Reichstag building. In mid-evening he was awakened by the cries of the housekeeper: the Reichstag was on fire. He shot out of bed, looked out of the window, saw the building in flames, and immediately rushed to ring up Goebbels, saying, breathlessly , that he urgently had to speak to Hitler. When Goebbels asked what it was about, and whether he could pass on a message, Hanfstaengl said: ‘Tell him the Reichstag is burning.’ ‘Is that meant to be a joke?’ was Goebbels’s reply. Goebbels thought it was ‘a mad fantasy report’ and refused at first to tell Hitler. But his inquiries revealed that the report was true. At that, Hitler and Goebbels raced through Berlin, to find Göring already on the scene and ‘in full flow’. Papen soon joined them. The Nazi leaders were all convinced that the fire was a signal for a Communist uprising – a ‘last attempt’, as Goebbels put it, ‘through fire and terror to sow confusion in order in the general panic to grasp power for themselves’. Fears that the Communists would not remain passive, that they would undertake some major show of force before the election, had been rife among the Nazi leadership – and among non-Nazi members of the national government. A police raid on the KPD’s central offices in Karl-Liebknecht House on 24 February had intensified the anxieties. Though they actually found nothing of note, the police claimed to have found vast amounts of treasonable material, including leaflets summoning the population to armed revolt. Göring added to this with a statement to the press. The police discoveries showed that Germany was about to be cast into the chaos of Bolshevism, he alleged. Assassinations of political leaders, attacks on public buildings, and the murder of wives and families of public figures were among the horrors he evoked. No evidence was ever made public.
The first members of the police to interrogate van der Lubbe, who had been immediately apprehended and had straight away confessed, proclaiming his ‘protest’, had no doubt that he had set fire to the building alone, that no one else was implicated. But Göring took little convincing from officials on the spot that the fire must have been the product of a Communist plot. Hitler, who arrived towards 10.30 p.m., an hour or so after Göring, was rapidly persuaded to draw the same conclusion. He told Papen: ‘This is a God-given signal, Herr Vice-Chancellor! If this fire, as I believe, is the work of the Communists, then we must crush out this murderous pest with an iron fist!’ The Communist deputies were to be hanged that very night, he raged. Nor was any mercy to be shown to the Social Democrats or Reichsbanner.
Hitler then went to an improvised meeting around 11.15 p.m. in the Prussian Ministry of the Interior, dealing mainly with security implications for Prussia, and from there accompanied Goebbels to the Berlin offices of the Völkischer Beobachter, where an inflammatory editorial was rapidly prepared and a new front page of the party newspaper made up.
At the meeting in the Prussian Ministry of the Interior, it was the German National State Secretary Ludwig Grauert, firmly convinced himself that the Communists had set the Reichstag alight, who proposed an emergency decree for the State of Prussia aimed at arson and acts of terror. By the following morning, however, Reich Minister of the Interior Wilhelm Frick had come up with the draft of a decree ‘For the Protection of People and State’ which extended the emergency measures to the whole of the Reich – something attributed by Blomberg to Hitler’s presence of mind – and gave the Reich government powers of intervention in the Länder. The road to dictatorship was now wide open.
The emergency decree ‘For the Protection of People and State’ was the last item dealt with by the cabinet at its meeting on the morning of 28 February. With one brief paragraph, the personal liberties enshrined in the Weimar Constitution – including freedom of speech, of association, and of the press, and privacy of postal and telephone communications – were suspended indefinitely. With another brief paragraph, the autonomy of the Länder was overridden by the right of the Reich government to intervene to restore order. This right would be made ample use of in the immediate aftermath of the election to ensure Nazi control throughout all the German states. The hastily constructed emergency decree amounted to the charter of the Third Reich.
By the time of the cabinet meeting, Hitler’s near-hysterical mood of the previous evening had given way to colder ruthlessness. The ‘psychologically correct moment for the showdown’ with the KPD had arrived. It was pointless to wait longer, he told the cabinet. The struggle against the Communists should not be dependent on ‘juristical considerations’. There was no likelihood that this would be the case. The rounding up of Communist deputies and functionaries had already been set in train by Göring during the night in raids carried out with massive brutality. Communists were the main targets. But Social Democrats, trade unionists, and left-wing intellectuals such as Carl Ossietzky were also among those dragged into improvised prisons, often in the cellars of SA or SS local headquarters, and savagely beaten, tortured, and in some cases murdered. By April, the number taken into ‘protective custody’ in Prussia alone numbered some 25,000.
The violence and repression were widely popular. The ‘emergency decree’ that took away all personal liberties and established the platform for dictatorship was warmly welcomed. Louise Solmitz, like her friends and neighbours, was persuaded to cast her vote for Hitler. ‘Now it’s important to support what he’s doing with every means,’ an acquaintance who had up to then not supported the NSDAP told her. ‘The entire thoughts and feelings of most Germans are dominated by Hitler,’ Frau Solmitz commented. ‘His fame rises to the stars, he is the saviour of a wicked, sad German world.’
On 4 March, Hitler made a final, impassioned plea to the electorate in a speech broadcast from Königsberg. When the results were declared the next day, the Nazis had won 43.9 per cent of the vote, giving them 288 out of 647 seats in the new Reichstag. Their nationalist coalition partners had gained 8.0 per cent. Despite the draconian terror, the KPD had still managed an astonishing 12.3 per cent, and the SPD 18.3 per cent – together the parties of the Left, even now, gaining almost a third of all votes cast. The Zentrum received only a marginally smaller proportion of the vote (11.2 per cent) than it had done the previous November. Support for the remaining parties had dwindled almost to nothing. Goebbels claimed the result as a ‘glorious triumph’. It was rather less than that. Substantial gains had been certain. They had undoubtedly been assisted by a late surge following the Reichstag fire. Hitler had hoped for an absolute majority for the NSDAP. As it was, the absolute majority narrowly attained by the government coalition left him dependent on his conservative allies. He would now not be rid of them at least as long as Hindenburg lived, he was reported as saying on hearing the results. Still, even allowing for the climate of intense repression against the Left, 43.9 per cent of the vote was not easy to attain under the Weimar electoral system. The NSDAP had profited above all from the support of previous non-voters in a record turnout of 88.8 per cent. And though the heaviest support continued to come from Protestant parts of the country, sizeable gains had this time also been made in Catholic areas which the NSDAP had earlier found difficult to penetrate. Not least: leaving aside the Left, not all those who voted for parties other than the NSDAP were opposed to everything that Hitler stood for. Once Hitler, the pluralist system liquidated, was able to transform his public image from party to national leader, a potentially far larger reservoir of support than that given to him in March 1933 would be at his disposal.
The election of 5 March was the trigger to the real ‘seizure of power’ that took place over the following days in those Länder not already under Nazi control. Hitler needed to do little. Party activists needed no encouragement to undertake the ‘spontaneous’ actions that inordinately strengthened his power as Reich Chancellor.
The pattern was in each case similar: pressure on the non-Nazi state governments to place a National Socialist in charge of the police; threatening demonstrations from marching SA and SS troops in the big cities; the symbolic raising of the swastika banner on town halls; the capitulation with scarcely any resistance of the elected governments; the imposition of a Reich Commissar under the pretext of restoring order. The ‘coordination’ process began in Hamburg even before the election had taken place. In Bremen, Lübeck, Schaumburg-Lippe, Hesse, Baden, Württemberg, Saxony, and finally Bavaria – the largest state after Prussia – the process was repeated. Between 5 and 9 March these states, too, were brought in line with the Reich government. In Bavaria, in particular, long-standing acolytes of Hitler were appointed as commissary government ministers: Adolf Wagner in charge of the Ministry of the Interior, Hans Frank as Justice Minister, Hans Schemm as Education Minister. Even more significant were the appointments of Ernst Röhm as State Commissar without Portfolio, Heinrich Himmler as commander of the Munich police, and Reinhard Heydrich – the tall, blond head of the party’s Security Service (Sicherheitsdienst, SD), a cashiered naval officer, still under thirty, in the early stages of his meteoric rise to command over the security police in the SS empire – as head of the Bavarian Political Police. The weakening of Prussia through the Papen coup and the effective Nazi takeover there in February provided the platform and model for the extension of control to the other Länder. These now passed more or less completely into Nazi hands, with little regard for the German Nationalist partners. Despite the semblance of legality, the usurpation of the powers of the Länder by the Reich was a plain breach of the Constitution. Force and pressure by the Nazi organizations themselves – political blackmail – had been solely responsible for creating the ‘unrest’ that had prompted the alleged restoration of ‘order’. The terms of the emergency decree of 28 February provided no justification since there was plainly no need for defence from any ‘communist acts of violence endangering the state’. The only such acts were those of the Nazis themselves.
In the triumphalist atmosphere following the election, the open violence of rampant bands of Nazi thugs prompted protests from high quarters to the Reich President as well as to Hitler himself. Hitler responded in characteristic vein with an aggressive defence of his SA men in response to Papen’s complaints about affronts to foreign diplomats, prompted by an incident where a mob (including SA and SS men) had behaved threateningly towards the wives of prominent diplomats, beating up one of their chauffeurs, and tearing the flag from the car of the Romanian ambassador. He had the impression, he said, that the bourgeoisie had been rescued too early. Had they experienced six weeks of Bolshevism, then they would have ‘learnt the difference between the red revolution and our uprising. I once graphically saw this difference in Bavaria and have never forgotten it. And I will not let myself be taken away by anyone at all from the mission that I repeatedly announced before the election: the annihilation and eradication of Marxism’. Even so, the violence was becoming counter-productive. On 10 March, directly referring to harassment of foreigners but blaming it on Communist provocateurs, Hitler proclaimed that from this day on, the national government controlled executive power in the whole of Germany, and that the future course of the ‘national uprising’ would be ‘directed from above, according to plan’. All molesting of individuals, obstruction of automobiles, and disturbances to business life had to stop as a matter of principle. He repeated the sentiments in a radio address two days later. The exhortations had little effect.
The levels of terror and repression experienced in February in Prussia had by then wracked the rest of the country. Under the aegis of Himmler and Heydrich, the scale of arrests in Bavaria was proportionately even greater than it had been in Prussia. Around 10,000 Communists and Socialists were arrested in March and April. By June, the numbers in ‘protective custody’ – most of them workers – had doubled. A good number of those arrested were the victims of denunciations by neighbours or workmates. So great was the wave of denunciations following the Malicious Practices Act of 21 March 1933 that even the police criticized it. Just outside the town of Dachau, about twelve miles from Munich, the first concentration camp, intended for Marxist functionaries, was set up in a former powder-mill on 22 March. Its dreaded name soon became a byword for the largely unspoken horrifying events known or presumed to take place within its walls.
A day earlier, the regime had showed its other face. If keen to keep at one remove from the shows of terror, Hitler was again in his element at the centre of another propaganda spectacular. This was the ‘Day of Potsdam’, a further masterly concoction of the newly appointed Reich Minister of People’s Enlightenment and Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels. In complete detachment from the sordid bestialities in the brutal showdown with the Left, National Socialism here put on its best clothes, and proclaimed its union with Prussian conservatism.
The ‘Day of Potsdam’ was to represent the start of the new Reich building upon the glories of the old. It was also to denote the forging of the links between the new Germany and the traditions of Prussia. The garrison church in Potsdam, where the main ceremony was to take place, had been founded by the Hohenzollern Kings of Prussia in the early eighteenth century. The church symbolized the bonds between the Prussian military monarchy, the power of the state, and the Protestant religion.
On 21 March 1933, Reich President Hindenburg, in the uniform of a Prussian field-marshal and raising his baton to the empty throne of the exiled Kaiser, represented those bonds: throne, altar, and the military tradition in Prussia’s glory. He was the link between the past and the present. Hitler marked the present and the future. Dressed not in party uniform but in a dark morning-suit, he played the part of the humble servant, bowing deeply before the revered and elderly Reich President and offering him his hand. National renewal through unity was the theme of Hitler’s address. Only with one phrase did he mention those who formed no part of that unity: they were to be rendered ‘unharmful’. Hindenburg was elevated to the protector of the ‘new uprising of our people’. He it was who had ‘entrusted on 30 January the leadership of the Reich to this young Germany’. ‘It can’t be denied,’ wrote one non-Nazi observer, impressed by the ‘moderation’ of Hitler’s speech, ‘he has grown. Out of the demagogue and party leader, the fanatic and agitator, the true statesman seems – for his opponents surprisingly enough – to be developing.’ The blending of Prussian tradition and the National Socialist regime was underlined at the end of the ceremony by the laying of wreaths on the tombs of the Prussian kings.
Two days later, it was a different Hitler, brown-shirted again and imperious, who entered the Kroll Opera House in Berlin, where Reichstag meetings were now to be held, to the jubilant cheers of serried ranks of uniformed Nazi deputies to propose the Enabling Act that he had wanted since the previous November. The atmosphere for their opponents, particularly the SPD deputies, was menacing. A giant swastika dominated the chamber. Armed men from the SA, SS, and Stahlhelm guarded all exits and surrounded the building. They were giving a hint to opposition deputies of what would be the outcome were the Enabling Act not to find the necessary level of support. In the absence of the eighty-one Communist deputies who had been arrested or taken flight, the Nazis were now in a majority in the Reichstag. But to pass the Enabling Act a two-thirds majority was necessary.
To ensure the two-thirds majority, Frick had worked out that if the Communist deputies were simply deducted from the total membership of the Reichstag, only 378, not 432, votes would be needed. Göring added that, if necessary, some Social Democrats could be ejected from the chamber. That is how little the Nazis’ ‘legal revolution’ had to do with legality. But the conservatives present raised no objections. By 20 March, Hitler could confidently report to the cabinet that, following his discussions, the Zentrum had seen the necessity of the Enabling Act. Their request for a small committee to oversee the measures taken under the Act should be accepted. There would then be no reason to doubt the Zentrum’s support. ‘The acceptance of the Enabling Act also by the Zentrum would signify a strengthening of prestige with regard to foreign countries,’ Hitler commented, aware as always of the propaganda implications. Frick then introduced the draft of the bill, which was eventually accepted by the cabinet. The Reich Minister of the Interior also proposed a blatant manipulation of the Reichstag’s procedures to make certain of the two-thirds majority. Deputies absent without excuse should now be counted as present. There would, therefore, be no problem about a quorum. Absenteeism as a form of protest abstention was ruled out. Again the conservatives raised no objections.
The way was clear. On the afternoon of 23 March 1933, Hitler addressed the Reichstag. The programme he outlined in his tactically clever two-and-a-half-hour speech, once he had finished painting the grim picture of the conditions he had inherited, was framed in the broadest of terms. At the end of his speech, Hitler made what appeared to be important concessions. The existence of neither the Reichstag nor the Reichsrat was threatened, he stated. The position and rights of the Reich President remained untouched. The Länder would not be abolished. The rights of the Churches would not be reduced and their relations with the state not altered.
All the promises were soon to be broken. But for the time being they served their purpose. They appeared to give the binding declarations safeguarding the position of the Catholic Church which the Zentrum had demanded in its discussions with Hitler. The SPD leader, Otto Wels, spoke courageously, given the menacing atmosphere, movingly upholding the principles of humanity, justice, freedom, and socialism held dear by Social Democrats. Hitler had made notes as Wels spoke. He now returned to the rostrum, to storms of applause from NSDAP deputies, to make the most savage of replies, every sentence cheered to the rafters. Departing now from the relative moderation of his earlier prepared speech, Hitler showed more of his true colours. A sense of law was alone not enough; possession of power was decisive. There had been no need to put the current bill before the Reichstag: ‘we appeal in this hour to the German Reichstag to grant us that which we could have taken anyway’. With 441 votes to the 94 votes of the Social Democrats, the Reichstag, as a democratic body, voted itself out of existence.
Power was now in the hands of the National Socialists. It was the beginning of the end for political parties other than the NSDAP. The Zentrum’s role had been particularly ignominious. Fearing open terror and repression, it had given in to Hitler’s tactics of pseudo-legality. In so doing, it had helped legitimate the removal of almost all constitutional constraints on his power. He needed in future to rely neither on the Reichstag, nor on the Reich President. Hitler was still far from wielding absolute power. But vital steps towards consolidating his dictatorship now followed in quick succession.
During the spring and summer of 1933, Germany fell into line behind its new rulers. Hardly any spheres of organized activity, political or social, were left untouched by the process of Gleichschaltung – the ‘coordination’ of institutions and organizations now brought under Nazi control. Pressure from below, from Nazi activists, played a major role in forcing the pace of the ‘coordination’. But many organizations showed themselves only too willing to anticipate the process and to ‘coordinate’ themselves in accordance with the expectations of the new era. By the autumn, the Nazi dictatorship – and Hitler’s own power at its head – had been enormously strengthened. Beyond indications that his instinct for the realities of power and the manipulative potential of propaganda were as finely tuned as ever, Hitler needed to take remarkably few initiatives to bring this about.
One initiative that did come from Hitler was, however, the creation of Reich Governors (Reichsstatthalter) to uphold the ‘lines of policy laid down by the Reich Chancellor’ in the Länder. With their hastily contrived establishment in the ‘Second Law for the Coordination of the Länder with the Reich’ of 7 April 1933, the sovereignty of the individual states was decisively undermined. All indications are that Hitler was anxious, with the establishment of the Reich Governors, to have trusted representatives in the Länder who could counter any danger that the grass-roots ‘party revolution’ might run out of control, ultimately even possibly threatening his own position. The position in Bavaria, where the SA and SS had their headquarters and where radicals had effected an actual ‘seizure of power’ in the days since the March election, was especially sensitive. The improvised creation of the Reich Governors was brought about with Bavaria, in particular, in mind, to head off the possibility of a party revolution against Berlin. The former Freikorps ‘hero’ of the crushing of the Räterepublik, Ritter von Epp, was already appointed as Reich Governor on 10 April. A further ten Reich Governors were installed less hurriedly, during May and June, in the remaining Länder, apart from Prussia, and were drawn from the senior and most powerful Gauleiter. Their dependence on Hitler was no less great than his on them. They could be relied upon, therefore, to serve the Reich government in blocking the revolution from below when it was becoming counter-productive.
In Prussia, Hitler reserved the position of Reich Governor for himself. This effectively removed any purpose in retaining Papen as Reich Commissioner for Prussia. Possibly Hitler was contemplating reuniting the position of head of government in Prussia with that of Reich Chancellor, as had been the position under Bismarck. If so, he reckoned without Göring’s own power-ambitions. Since Papen’s coup the previous July, there had been no Minister President in Prussia. Göring had expected the position to become his following the Prussian Landtag elections on 5 March. But Hitler had not appointed him. Göring therefore engineered the placing on the agenda of the newly-elected Prussian Landtag, meeting on 8 April, the election of the Minister President. Though he had only the previous day taken over the rights of Reich Governor in Prussia himself, Hitler now had to bow to the fait accompli. On 11 April, Göring was appointed Prussian Minister President (retaining his powers as Prussian Minister of the Interior), and on 25 April the rights of Reich Governor in Prussia were transferred to him. The ‘Second Coordination Law’ had indirectly but effectively led to the consolidation of Göring’s extensive power-base in Prussia, built initially on his control over the police in the most important of the German states. It was little wonder that Göring responded with publicly effusive statements of loyalty to Hitler, whom he served as his ‘most loyal paladin’. The episode reveals the haste and confusion behind the entire improvised ‘coordination’ of the Länder. But at the price of strengthening the hand of Göring in Prussia, and the most thrusting Gauleiter elsewhere, Hitler’s own power had also been notably reinforced across the Länder.
During the spring and summer of 1933, Hitler stood between countervailing forces. The dilemma would not be resolved until the ‘Night of the Long Knives’. On the one hand, the pressures, dammed up for so long and with such difficulty before Hitler’s takeover of power, had burst loose after the March elections. Hitler not only sympathized with the radical assault from below on opponents, Jews, and anyone else getting in the way of the Nazi revolution; he needed the radicals to push through the upturning of the established political order and to intimidate those obstructing to fall in line. On the other hand, as the creation of the Reich Governors had shown, he was aware of the dangers to his own position if the radical upheaval got out of hand. And he was sensitive to the fact that the traditional national-conservative bastions of power, not least sceptics about National Socialism in the army and important sectors of business, while having no objections to violence as long as it was directed at Communists and Socialists, would look differently upon it as soon as their own vested interests were threatened. Hitler had no choice, therefore, but to steer an uncomfortable course between a party revolution which he could by no means fully control and the support of the army and business which he could by no means do without. Out of these inherently contradictory forces, the showdown with the SA would ultimately emerge. In the meantime, however, there were clear signs of what would become a lasting trait of the Third Reich: pressure from party radicals, encouraged and sanctioned at least in part by Hitler, resulting in the state bureaucracy reflecting the radicalism in legislation and the police channelling it into executive measures. The process of ‘cumulative radicalization’ was recognizable from the earliest weeks of the regime.
Apart from the all-out assault on the Left in the first weeks of Nazi rule, many outrages had been perpetrated by Nazi radicals against Jews. Since antisemitism had been the ‘ideological cement’ of the National Socialist Movement from the beginning, offering at one and the same time a vehicle for actionism and substitute for revolutionary leanings threatening the fabric of society, this was scarcely surprising. The takeover of power by the arch-antisemite Hitler had at one fell swoop removed constraints on violence towards Jews. Without any orders from above, and without any coordination, assaults on Jewish businesses and the beating-up of Jews by Nazi thugs became commonplace. Countless atrocities took place in the weeks following Hitler’s assumption to power.
Many were carried out by members of the so-called Fighting League of the Commercial Middle Class (Kampfbund des gewerblichen Mittelstandes), in which violent antisemitism went hand in hand with equally violent opposition to department stores (many of them Jewish owned). The extent of the anti-Jewish violence prompted Jewish intellectuals and financiers abroad, especially in the USA, to undertake attempts to mobilize public feeling against Germany and to organize a boycott against German goods – a real threat, given the weakness of the German economy. Beginning in mid-March, the boycott gathered pace and was extended to numerous European countries. The reaction in Germany, led by the Fighting League, was predictably aggressive. A ‘counter-boycott’ of Jewish shops and department stores throughout Germany was demanded. The call was taken up by leading antisemites in the party, at their forefront and in his element the Franconian Gauleiter and pathological antisemite Julius Streicher. They argued that the Jews could serve as ‘hostages’ to force a halt to the international boycott.
Hitler’s instincts favoured the party radicals. But he was also under pressure to act. On the ‘Jewish Question’, on which he had preached so loudly and so often, he could scarcely now, once in power, back down in the face of the demands of the activists without serious loss of face within the party. When, on 26 March, it was reported through diplomatic contacts that the American Jewish Congress was planning to call the next day for a world-wide boycott of German goods, Hitler was forced into action. As usual, when pushed into a corner he had no half-measures. Goebbels was summoned to the Obersalzberg. ‘In the loneliness of the mountains,’ he wrote, the Führer had reached the conclusion that the authors, or at least beneficiaries, of the ‘foreign agitation’ – Germany’s Jews – had to be tackled. ‘We must therefore move to a widely framed boycott of all Jewish businesses in Germany.’ Streicher was put in charge of a committee of thirteen party functionaries who were to organize the boycott. The party’s proclamation of 28 March, prompted by the Reich Chancellor himself and bearing his imprint, called for action committees to carry out a boycott of Jewish businesses, goods, doctors, and lawyers, even in the smallest village of the Reich. The boycott was to be of indefinite duration. Goebbels was left to undertake the propaganda preparations. Behind the entire operation stood pressure from the Fighting League of the Commercial Middle Class.
Led by Schacht and Foreign Minister von Neurath, counter-pressures began to be placed on Hitler to halt an action which was likely to have disastrous effects on the German economy and on its standing abroad. Hitler at first refused to consider any retreat. But by 31 March, Neurath was able to report to the cabinet that the British, French, and American governments had declared their opposition to the boycott of German goods in their country. He hoped the boycott in Germany might be called off. It was asking too much of Hitler to back down completely. The activists were by now fired up. Abandonment of the boycott would have brought not only loss of face for Hitler, but the probability that any order cancelling the ‘action’ would have been widely ignored. However, Hitler did indicate that he was now ready to postpone the start of the German boycott from 1 to 4 April in the event of satisfactory declarations opposing the boycott of German goods by the British and American governments. Otherwise, the German boycott would commence on 1 April, but would then be halted until 4 April. A flurry of diplomatic activity resulted in the western governments and, placed under pressure, Jewish lobby groups distancing themselves from the boycott of German goods. Hitler’s demands had largely been met. But by now he had changed his mind, and was again insisting on the German boycott being carried out. Further pressure from Schacht resulted in the boycott being confined to a single day – but under the propaganda fiction that it would be restarted the following Wednesday, 5 April, if the ‘horror agitation’ abroad against Germany had not ceased altogether. There was no intention of that. In fact, already on the afternoon of the boycott day, 1 April, Streicher announced that it would not be resumed the following Wednesday.
The boycott itself was less than the success that Nazi propaganda claimed. Many Jewish shops had closed for the day anyway. In some places, the SA men posted outside ‘Jewish’ department stores holding placards warning against buying in Jewish shops were largely ignored by customers. People behaved in a variety of fashions. There was almost a holiday mood in some busy shopping streets, as crowds gathered to see what was happening. Groups of people discussed the pros and cons of the boycott. Not a few were opposed to it, saying they would again patronize their favourite stores. Others shrugged their shoulders. ‘I think the entire thing is mad, but I’m not bothering myself about it,’ was one, perhaps not untypical, view heard from a non-Jew on the day. Even the SA men seemed at times rather half-hearted about it in some places. In others, however, the boycott was simply a cover for plundering and violence. For the Jewish victims, the day was traumatic – the clearest indication that this was a Germany in which they could no longer feel ‘at home’, in which routine discrimination had been replaced by state-sponsored persecution.
Reactions in the foreign press to the boycott were almost universally condemnatory. A damage-limitation exercise had to be carried out by the new Reichsbank President Schacht to assuage foreign bankers of Germany’s intentions in economic policy. But within Germany – something which would repeat itself in years to come – the dynamic of anti-Jewish pressure from party activists, sanctioned by Hitler and the Nazi leadership, was now taken up by the state bureaucracy and channelled into discriminatory legislation. The exclusion of Jews from state service and from the professions had been aims of Nazi activists before 1933. Now, the possibility of pressing for the implementation of such aims had opened up. Suggestions for anti-Jewish discriminatory measures came from various quarters. Preparations for overhauling civil service rights were given a new anti-Jewish twist at the end of March, possibly (though this is not certain) on Hitler’s intervention. On the basis of the notorious ‘Aryan Paragraph’ – there was no definition of a Jew – in the hastily drafted ‘Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service’ of 7 April, Jews as well as political opponents were dismissed from the civil service. An exception was made, on Hindenburg’s intervention, only for Jews who had served at the front. The three further pieces of anti-Jewish legislation passed in April – discriminating against the admission of Jews to the legal profession, excluding Jewish doctors from treating patients covered by the national insurance scheme, and limiting the number of Jewish schoolchildren permitted in schools – were all hurriedly improvised to meet not simply pressure from below but de facto measures which were already being implemented in various parts of the country. Hitler’s role was largely confined to giving his sanction to the legalization of measures already often illegally introduced by party activists with vested interests in the discrimination running alongside whatever ideological motivation they possessed.
The seismic shift in the political scene which had taken place in the month or so following the Reichstag fire had left the Jews fully exposed to Nazi violence, discrimination, and intimidation. It had also totally undermined the position of Hitler’s political opponents. There was now little fight left in oppositional parties. The readiness to compromise soon became a readiness to capitulate.
Already in March, Theodor Leipart, the chairman of the trade union confederation, the ADGB, had tried to blow with the wind, distancing the unions from the SPD and offering a declaration of loyalty to the new regime. It was to no avail. The planning of the destruction of the unions was undertaken by the boss of the still relatively insignificant Nazi union, the Nationalsozialistische Betriebszellenorganisation (NSBO, National Socialist Factory Cell Organization), Reinhold Muchow and, increasingly, by Robert Ley, the NSDAP’s Organization Leader. Hitler was initially hesitant, until the idea was proposed of coupling it with a propaganda coup. Along the lines of the ‘Day of Potsdam’, Goebbels prepared another huge spectacular for 1 May, when the National Socialists usurped the traditional celebration of the International and turned it into the ‘Day of National Labour’. The ADGB took a full part in the rallies and parades. Over 10 million people altogether turned out – though for many a factory workforce attendance was scarcely voluntary.
The following day, the razzmatazz over, SA and NSBO squads occupied the offices and bank branches of the Social Democratic trade union movement, confiscated its funds, and arrested its functionaries. Within an hour, the ‘action’ was finished. The largest democratic trade union movement in the world had been destroyed. In a matter of days, its members had been incorporated into the massive German Labour Front (Deutsche Arbeitsfront, DAF), founded on 10 May under Robert Ley’s leadership.
The once-mighty Social Democratic Party of Germany, the largest labour movement that Europe had known, was also at an end. It had been forced during the last years of Weimar into one unholy compromise after another in its attempts to uphold its legalistic traditions while at the same time hoping to fend off the worst. When the worst came, it was ill-equipped. The depression years and internal demoralization had taken their toll. Otto Wels’s speech on 23 March had shown courage. But it was far too little, and far too late. Support was haemorrhaging away. During March and April, the SPD’s paramilitary arm, the huge Reichsbanner, was forced into dissolution. Party branches were closing down. Activists were under arrest, or had fled abroad. Some already began preparations for illegality. Alongside the fear, there was wide disillusionment with Social Democracy. The flight into exile of many party leaders – necessary safety measure that it was – enhanced a sense of desertion. The SPD was by now a rudderless ship. Otto Wels and other party leaders left for Prague, where a party headquarters in exile had already been established. All party activities within the Reich were to be banned, the SPD’s parliamentary representation abolished, its assets confiscated.
The remaining parties now rapidly caved in, falling domino-style. The Staatspartei (formerly the DDP, the Deutsche Demokratische Partei) dissolved itself on 28 June, followed a day later by the dissolution of the DVP. The Nazis’ conservative coalition partners, the DNVP – renamed in May the German National Front (Deutschnationale Front, DNF) – also capitulated on 27 June. It had been losing members to the NSDAP at an increasing rate; its grass-roots organizations had been subjected to repression and intimidation; the Stahlhelm – many of whose members supported the DNVP – had been placed under Hitler’s leadership in late April and was taken into the SA in June; and the party’s leader, Hugenberg, had become wholly isolated in cabinet, even from his conservative colleagues. Hugenberg’s resignation from the cabinet (which many had initially thought he would dominate), on 26 June, was inevitable after embarrassing the German government through his behaviour at the World Economic Conference in London earlier in the month. Without consulting Hitler, the cabinet, or Foreign Minister von Neurath, Hugenberg had sent a memorandum to the Economic Committee of the Conference rejecting free trade, demanding the return of German colonies and land for settlement in the east. His departure from the cabinet signified the end for his party. Far from functioning as the ‘real’ leader of Germany, as many had imagined he would do, and far from ensuring with his conservative colleagues in the cabinet that Hitler would be ‘boxed in’, Hugenberg had rapidly become yesterday’s man. Few regretted it. Playing with fire, Hugenberg, along with his party, the DNVP, had been consumed by it.
The Catholic parties held out a little longer. But their position was undermined by the negotiations, led by Papen, for a Reich Concordat with the Holy See, in which the Vatican accepted a ban on the political activities of the clergy in Germany. This meant in effect that, in the attempt to defend the position of the Catholic Church in Germany, political Catholicism had been sacrificed. By that stage, in any case, the Zentrum had been losing its members at an alarming rate, many of them anxious to accommodate themselves to the new times. Catholic bishops had taken over from the Zentrum leaders as the main spokesmen for the Church in dealings with the regime, and were more concerned to preserve the Church’s institutions, organizations, and schools than to sustain the weakened position of the Catholic political parties. Intimidation and pressure did the rest. The arrest of 2,000 functionaries in late June by Himmler’s Bavarian Political Police concentrated minds and brought the swift reading of the last rites for the BVP on 4 July. A day later, the Zentrum, the last-remaining political party outside the NSDAP, dissolved itself. Little over a week later, the ‘Law against the New Construction of Parties’ left the NSDAP as the only legal political party in Germany.
What was happening at the centre of politics was happening also at the grass-roots – not just in political life, but in every organizational form of social activity. Intimidation of those posing any obstacle and opportunism of those now seeking the first opportunity to jump on the bandwagon proved an irresistible combination. In countless small towns and villages, Nazis took over local government. Teachers and civil servants were particularly prominent in the rush to join the party. So swollen did the NSDAP’s membership rolls become with the mass influx of those anxious to cast in their lot with the new regime – the ‘March Fallen’ (Märzgefallene) as the ‘Old Fighters’ cynically dubbed them – that on 1 May a bar was imposed on further entrants. Two and a half million Germans had by now joined the party, 1.6 million of them since Hitler had become Chancellor. Opportunism intermingled with genuine idealism.
Much the same applied also to the broad cultural sphere. Goebbels took up with great energy and enthusiasm his task of ensuring that the press, radio, film production, theatre, music, the visual arts, literature, and all other forms of cultural activity were reorganized. But the most striking feature of the ‘coordination’ of culture was the alacrity and eagerness with which intellectuals, writers, artists, performers, and publicists actively collaborated in moves which not only impoverished and straitjacketed German culture for the next twelve years, but banned and outlawed some of its most glittering exponents.
The hopes long cherished of the coming great leader eradicated the critical faculties of many intellectuals, blinding them to the magnitude of the assault on freedom of thought as well as action that they often welcomed. Many of the neo-conservative intellectuals whose ideas had helped pave the way for the Third Reich were soon to be massively disillusioned. Hitler turned out for them in practice to be not the mystic leader they had longed for in their dreams. But they had helped prepare the ground for the Führer cult that was taken up in its myriad form by so many others.
Hardly a protest was raised at the purges of university professors under the new civil service law in April 1933 as many of Germany’s most distinguished academics were dismissed and forced into exile. The Prussian Academy of Arts had by then already undertaken its own ‘cleansing’, demanding loyalty to the regime from all choosing to remain within its hallowed membership.
The symbolic moment of capitulation of German intellectuals to the ‘new spirit’ of 1933 came with the burning on 10 May of the books of authors unacceptable to the regime. University faculties and senates collaborated. Their members, with few exceptions, attended the bonfires. The poet Heinrich Heine (1797–1856), whose works were among those consumed by the flames, had written: ‘Where books are burnt, in the end people are also burnt.’
Scarcely any of the transformation of Germany during the spring and summer of 1933 had followed direct orders from the Reich Chancellery. Hitler had rarely been personally involved. But he was the main beneficiary. During these months popular adulation of the new Chancellor had reached untold levels. The Führer cult was established, not now just within the party, but throughout state and society, as the very basis of the new Germany. Hitler’s standing and power, at home and increasingly abroad, were thereby immeasurably boosted.
Already in spring 1933, the personality cult surrounding Hitler was burgeoning, and developing extraordinary manifestations. ‘Poems’ – usually unctuous doggerel verse, sometimes with a pseudo-religious tone – were composed in his honour. ‘Hitler-Oaks’ and ‘Hitler-Lindens’, trees whose ancient pagan symbolism gave them special significance to völkisch nationalists and nordic cultists, were planted in towns and villages all over Germany. Towns and cities rushed to confer honorary citizenship on the new Chancellor. Streets and squares were named after him.
The levels of hero-worship had never been witnessed before in Germany. Not even the Bismarck cult in the last years of the founder of the Reich had come remotely near matching it. Hitler’s forty-fourth birthday on 20 April 1933 saw an extraordinary outpouring of adulation as the entire country glutted itself with festivities in honour of the ‘Leader of the New Germany’. However well orchestrated the propaganda, it was able to tap popular sentiments and quasi-religious levels of devotion that could not simply be manufactured. Hitler was on the way to becoming no longer the party leader, but the symbol of national unity.
And it became more and more difficult for bystanders who were less than fanatical worshippers of the new god to avoid at least an outward sign of acquiescence in the boundless adoration. The most banal expression of acquiescence, the ‘Heil Hitler’ greeting, now rapidly spread. For civil servants, it was made compulsory a day before Hitler’s party was established as the only one permissible in Germany. Those unable to raise the right arm through physical disability were ordered to raise their left arm. The ‘German Greeting’ – ‘Heil Hitler!’ – was the outward sign that the country had been turned into a ‘Führer state’.
What of the man at the centre of this astonishing idolization? Putzi Hanfstaengl, by now head of the Foreign Press Section of the Propaganda Ministry, though not part of the ‘inner circle’, still saw Hitler at that time frequently and at close quarters. He later commented how difficult it was to gain access to Hitler, even at this early period of his Chancellorship. Hitler had taken his long-standing Bavarian entourage – the ‘Chauffeureska’ as Hanfstaengl called it – into the Reich Chancellery with him. His adjutants and chauffeur, Brückner, Schaub, Schreck (successor to Emil Maurice, sacked after his flirtation with Geli Raubal), and his court photographer Heinrich Hoffmann were omnipresent, often hindering contact, frequently interfering in a conversation with some form of distraction, invariably listening, later backing Hitler’s own impressions and prejudices. Even Foreign Minister Neurath and Reichsbank President Schacht found it difficult to gain Hitler’s attention for more than a minute or two without some intervention from one or other member of the ‘Chauffeureska’. Only Göring and Himmler, according to Hanfstaengl, could invariably reckon with a brief private audience on request with Hitler, though Goebbels, at least, should be added to Hanfstaengl’s short-list. Hitler’s unpredictability and lack of any form of routine did not help. As had always been the case, he tended to be late in bed – often after relaxing by watching a film (one of his favourites was King Kong) in his private cinema. Sometimes he scarcely appeared during the mornings, except to hear reports from Hans Heinrich Lammers, the head of the Reich Chancellery, and to look over the press with Goebbels’s right-hand man in the Propaganda Ministry, Walther Funk. The high-point of the day was lunch. The chef in the Reich Chancellery, who had been brought from the Brown House in Munich, had a difficult time in preparing a meal ordered for one o’clock but often served as much as two hours later, when Hitler finally appeared. Otto Dietrich, the press chief, took to eating in any case beforehand in the Kaiserhof, turning up at 1.30 p.m. prepared for all eventualities. Hitler’s table guests changed daily but were invariably trusty party comrades. Even during the first months, conservative ministers were seldom present. Given the company, it was obvious that Hitler would hardly, if ever, find himself contradicted. Any sort of remark, however, could prompt a lengthy tirade – usually resembling his earlier propaganda attacks on political opponents or recollections of battles fought and won.
It would have been impossible for Hitler to avoid the effects of the fawning sycophancy which surrounded him daily, sifting the type of information that reached him, and cocooning him from the outside world. His sense of reality was by this very process distorted. His contact with those who saw things in a fundamentally different light was restricted in the main to stage-managed interviews with dignatories, diplomats, or foreign journalists. The German people were little more than a faceless, adoring mass, his only direct relationship to them in now relatively infrequent speeches and radio addresses. But the popular adulation he received was like a drug to him. His own self-confidence was already soaring. Casual disparaging comments about Bismarck indicated that he now plainly saw the founder of the Reich as his inferior. What would turn into a fatal sense of infallibility was more than embryonically present.
How much of the adulation of Hitler that spread so rapidly throughout society in 1933 was genuine, how much contrived or opportunistic, is impossible to know. The result was in any case much the same. The near-deification of Hitler gave the Chancellor a status that left all other cabinet ministers and all other party bosses in the shade. Possibilities of questioning, let alone opposing, measures which Hitler was known to favour were becoming as good as non-existent. Hitler’s authority now opened doors to radical action previously closed, lifted constraints, and removed barriers on measures that before 30 January 1933 had seemed barely conceivable. Without direct transmission of orders, initiatives imagined to be in tune with Hitler’s aims could be undertaken – and have good chances of success.
One such case was the ‘sterilization law’ – the ‘Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring’ – approved by the cabinet on 14 July 1933. Hitler had nothing directly to do with the preparation of the law (which was portrayed as having benefits for the immediate family as well as for society in general). But it was prepared in the knowledge that it accorded with his expressed sentiments. And when it came before the cabinet, it did meet with his outright approval in the face of the objections of Vice-Chancellor Papen, concerned about Catholic feeling regarding the law. Papen’s plea for sterilization only with the willing consent of the person concerned was simply brushed aside by the Chancellor.
Though from a Nazi point of view a modest beginning in racial engineering, the consequences of the law were far from minor: some 400,000 victims would be compulsorily sterilized under the provisions of the Act before the end of the Third Reich.
If Papen was hinting at the cabinet meeting that the Catholic Church might cause difficulties over the sterilization law, he knew better than anyone that this was unlikely to be the case. Less than a week before, he had initialled on behalf of the Reich Goverment the Reich Concordat with the Vatican which he himself had done so much to bring about. The Concordat would be signed among great pomp and circumstance in Rome on 20 July. Despite the continuing molestation of Catholic clergy and other outrages committed by Nazi radicals against the Church and its organizations, the Vatican had been keen to reach agreement with the new government. Even serious continued harassment once the Concordat had been signed did not deter the Vatican from agreeing to its ratification on 10 September. Hitler himself had laid great store on a Concordat from the beginning of his Chancellorship, primarily with a view to eliminating any role for ‘political Catholicism’ in Germany. At the very same cabinet meeting at which the sterilization law was approved, he underlined the triumph which the Concordat marked for his regime. Only a short time earlier, he remarked, he would not have thought it possible ‘that the Church would be ready to commit the bishops to this state. That this had happened, was without doubt an unreserved recognition of the present regime.’ Indeed, it was an unqualified triumph for Hitler. The German episcopacy poured out effusive statements of thanks and congratulations.
Surprisingly, the Protestant Church turned out to be less easy to handle in the first months of Hitler’s Chancellorship. Though nominally supported by some two-thirds of the population, it was divided into twenty-eight separate regional Churches, with different doctrinal emphases. Perhaps Hitler’s scant regard led him to underestimate the minefield of intermingled religion and politics that he entered when he brought his influence to bear in support of attempts to create a unified Reich Church. His own interest, as always in such matters, was purely opportunistic. Hitler’s choice – on whose advice is unclear – as prospective Reich Bishop fell on Ludwig Müller, a fifty-year-old former naval chaplain with no obvious qualifications for the position except a high regard for his own importance and an ardent admiration for the Reich Chancellor and his Movement. Hitler told Müller he wanted speedy unification, without any trouble, and ending with a Church accepting Nazi leadership.
Müller turned out, however, to be a disastrous choice. At the election of the Reich Bishop on 26 May by leaders of the Evangelical Church, he gained the support of the nazified wing, the ‘German Christians’, but was rejected by all other sides. Nazi propaganda supported the German Christians. Hitler himself publicly backed Müller and on the day before the election broadcast his support for the forces within the Church behind the new policies of the state.
The German Christians swept to a convincing victory on 23 July. But it turned out to be a pyrrhic one. By September, Martin Niemöller, the pastor of Dahlem, a well-to-do suburb of Berlin, had received some 2,000 replies to his circular inviting pastors to join him in setting up a ‘Pastors’ Emergency League’, upholding the traditional allegiance to the Holy Scripture and Confessions of the Reformation. It was the beginning of what would eventually turn into the ‘Confessing Church’, which would develop for some pastors into the vehicle for opposition not just to the Church policy of the state, but to the state itself.
Ludwig Muller was finally elected Reich Bishop on 27 September. But by then, Nazi backing for the German Christians – Müller’s chief prop of support – was already on the wane. Hitler was by now keen to distance himself from the German Christians, whose activities were increasingly seen as counter-productive, and to detach himself from the internal Church conflict. A German Christian rally, attended by 20,000 people, in the Sportpalast in Berlin in mid-November caused such scandal following an outrageous speech attacking the Old Testament and the theology of the ‘Rabbi Paul’, and preaching the need for depictions of a more ‘heroic’ Jesus, that Hitler felt compelled to complete his dissociation from Church matters. The ‘Gleichschaltung’ experiment had proved a failure. It was time to abandon it. Hitler promptly lost whatever interest he had had in the Protestant Church. He would in future on more than one occasion again be forced to intervene. But the Church conflict was for him no more than an irritation.
By autumn 1933, the discord in the Protestant Church was in any case a mere side-show in Hitler’s eyes. Of immeasurably greater moment was Germany’s international position. In a dramatic move on 14 October, Hitler took Germany out of the disarmament talks at Geneva, and out of the League of Nations. Overnight, international relations were set on a new footing. The Stresemann era of foreign policy was definitively at an end. The ‘diplomatic revolution’ in Europe had begun.
Hitler had played only a limited role in foreign policy during the first months of the Third Reich. The new, ambitious revisionist course – aimed at reversion to the borders of 1914, re-acquisition of former colonies (and winning of some new ones), incorporation of Austria, and German dominance in eastern and south-eastern Europe – was worked out by foreign ministry professionals and put forward to the cabinet as early as March 1933. By the end of April, Germany’s delegate to the Geneva disarmament talks, Rudolf Nadolny, was already speaking in private about intentions of building a large army of 600,000 men. If Britain and France were to agree to only a far smaller army of 300,000 while minimally reducing their own armed forces, or if they agreed to disarm substantially but refused to allow any German rearmament, Nadolny held out the prospect of Germany walking out of the disarmament negotiations, and perhaps of the League of Nations itself. Meanwhile, the new, hawkish Reichswehr Minister, Blomberg, was impatient to break with Geneva without delay, and to proceed unilaterally to as rapid a rearmament programme as possible. Hitler’s own line at this time was a far more cautious one. He entertained real fears of intervention while German defences were so weak.
The talks at Geneva remained deadlocked. A variety of plans were advanced by the British, French, and Italians offering Germany some concessions beyond the provisions of Versailles, but retaining clear supremacy in armaments for the western powers. None had any prospect of acceptance in Germany, though Hitler was prepared to follow a tactically more moderate line than that pressed by Neurath and Blomberg. In contrast to the army’s impatience for immediate – but unobtainable – equality of armaments, Hitler, the shrewder tactician, was prepared to play the waiting game. At this point, he could only hope that the evident differences between Britain and France on the disarmament question would play into his hands. Eventually, they would do so. Though both major western powers were anxious at the prospect of a rearming Germany, worried by some of the aggressive tones coming from Berlin, and concerned at the Nazi wave of terror activity in Austria, there were significant divisions between them. These meant there was no real prospect of the military intervention that Hitler so feared. Britain was prepared to be more amenable than the French. The hope was that through minor concessions, German rearmament could effectively be retarded. But the British felt tugged along by the French hard line, while fearing that it would force Germany out of the League of Nations.
It was, however, Britain that took the lead, on 28 April, supported by France, in presenting Germany with only the minimal concession of the right to a 200,000-man army, but demanding a ban on all paramilitary organizations. Blomberg and Neurath responded angrily in public. Hitler, worried about the threat of sanctions by the western powers, and Polish sabre-rattling in the east, bowed to superior might. He told the cabinet that the question of rearmament would not be solved around the conference table. A new method was needed. There was no possibility at the present time of rearmament ‘by normal methods’. The unity of the German people in the disarmament question had to be shown ‘to the world’. He picked up a suggestion put to cabinet by Foreign Minister von Neurath of a speech to the Reichstag, which would then find acclamation as government policy.
Hitler seemed to speak, in his address to the Reichstag on 17 May, in the diction of a statesman interested in securing the peace and well-being of his own country, and of the whole of Europe. ‘We respect the national rights also of other peoples,’ he stated, and ‘wish from the innermost heart to live with them in peace and friendship.’ His demands for equal treatment for Germany in the question of disarmament could sound nothing but justified to German ears, and outside Germany, too. Germany was prepared to renounce weapons of aggression, if other countries would do the same, he declared. Any attempt to force a disarmament settlement on Germany could only be dictated by the intention of driving the country from the disarmament negotiations, he claimed. ‘As a continually defamed people, it would be hard for us to stay within the League of Nations,’ ran his scarcely veiled threat. It was a clever piece of rhetoric. He sounded the voice of reason, putting his adversaries in the western democracies on a propaganda defensive.
The stalemated Geneva talks were postponed until June, then until October. During this period there were no concrete plans for Germany to break with the League of Nations. Even later that month, neither Hitler nor his Foreign Minister Neurath were reckoning with an early withdrawal. As late as 4 October, Hitler appears to have been thinking of further negotiations. But on that very day news arrived of a more unyielding British stance on German rearmament, toughened to back the French, and taking no account of demands for equality. That afternoon, Blomberg sought an audience with Hitler in the Reich Chancellery. Neurath later acknowledged that he, too, had advised Hitler at the end of September that there was nothing more to be gained in Geneva. Hitler recognized that the time was now ripe to leave the League in circumstances which looked as if Germany was the wronged party. The propaganda advantage, especially at home where he could be certain of massive popular support, was too good a chance to miss.
The cabinet was finally informed on 13 October. With a sure eye as always on the propaganda value of plebiscitary acclaim, Hitler told his ministers that Germany’s position would be strengthened by the dissolution of the Reichstag, the setting of new elections, and ‘requiring the German people to identify with the peace policy of the Reich government through a plebiscite’.
The following day, the Geneva Conference received official notification of the German withdrawal. The consequences were far-reaching. The disarmament talks now lost their meaning. The League of Nations, which Japan had already left earlier in the year, was fatally weakened. In the decision to leave the League the timing and propaganda exploitation were vintage Hitler. But Blomberg, especially, and Neurath had been pressing for withdrawal long before Hitler became convinced that the moment had arrived for Germany to gain maximum advantage. Hitler had not least been able to benefit from the shaky basis of European diplomacy at the outset of his Chancellorship. The world economic crisis had undermined the ‘fulfilment policy’ on which Stresemann’s strategy, and the basis of European security, had been built. The European diplomatic order was, therefore, already no more stable than a house of cards when Hitler took up office. The German withdrawal from the League of Nations was the first card to be removed from the house. The others would soon come tumbling down.
On the evening of 14 October, in an astutely constructed broadcast sure of a positive resonance among the millions of listeners throughout the country, Hitler announced the dissolution of the Reichstag. New elections, set for 12 November, now provided the opportunity to have a purely National Socialist Reichstag, free of the remnants of the dissolved parties. Even though only one party was contesting the elections, Hitler flew once more throughout Germany holding election addresses. The propaganda campaign directed its energies almost entirely to accomplishing a show of loyalty to Hitler personally – now regularly referred to even in the still existent non-Nazi press as simply ‘the Führer’. Electoral manipulation was still not as refined as it was to become in the 1936 and 1938 plebiscites. But it was far from absent. Various forms of chicanery were commonplace. Secrecy at the ballot-box was far from guaranteed. And pressure to conform was obvious. Even so, the official result – 95.1 per cent in the plebiscite, 92.1 per cent in the ‘Reichstag election’ – marked a genuine triumph for Hitler. Abroad as well as at home, even allowing for manipulation and lack of freedom, it had to be concluded that the vast majority of the German people backed him. His stature as a national leader above party interest was massively enhanced.
Hitler’s conquest of Germany was still, however, incomplete. Behind the euphoria of the plebiscite result, a long-standing problem was now threatening to endanger the regime itself: the problem of the SA.