By the close of 1932, Hitler’s road to power seemed blocked. Nazi popular appeal was waning, its catchall strategy had run aground; its organization was demoralized, its militants disillusioned. The Storm Troopers were once again at the point of revolt, and the party was deeply in debt. Hitler, virtually everyone agreed, had missed his chance. Now he was wandering in the wilderness, his run at power stalled. “The mighty National Socialist assault on the democratic state,” the liberal Frankfurter Zeitung declared in its New Year’s Day edition, “has been repulsed.” The threat of National Socialism seemed to have passed.
But the situation of the Weimar government had hardly improved since Schleicher had become chancellor in December. The Reichstag, the centerpiece of Weimar’s democratic system, had been rendered irrelevant, stymied by almost three years of political polarization and rule by emergency decree. Of the Weimar parties, only the SPD and the Zentrum remained staunch defenders of the democratic constitution and its institutions. Although bitter enemies, together the Nazis and Communists held a majority in the Reichstag and were determined to destroy it. The liberal parties, long in decline, had receded almost to the vanishing point. The moderate center of German politics had dissolved; the margins had become the mainstream. With the political system mired in hopeless paralysis, real power devolved onto a small group of insiders from Germany’s agrarian, industrial, and military elites. They, not the dispirited parties or the disillusioned public, would decide Germany’s destiny.
That fate would be sealed during four intense weeks in January 1933, enacted in a drama played out almost entirely behind the scenes. Occasionally the curtain would lift for a brief moment, offering tantalizing glimpses of the high-stakes drama that was unfolding offstage, but little more. Many—politicians, pundits, diplomats, and journalists—speculated about the possible twists of plot, but few anticipated the fantastic resolution. By the end of the month, the last act of Weimar’s tragedy had been played, and when the house lights went up, Germans were startled to discover that the impossible had happened.
Between 1928 and January 1933, German politics had been driven by large-scale economic and political developments—the Great Depression, mass unemployment, political polarization, institutional paralysis, and a rising tide of violence and chaos. Those wrenching macro-level forces had provided the context and catalyst for the rise of the Nazis and had delivered Hitler to the very threshold of power, but they could not push him across. January 1933 would change all that. It was a month of intrigue, of plots and subplots, more suited to the conspiratorial intricacies of a Renaissance court than the age of mass politics. Ironically it was not Hitler, the presumed protagonist of the piece, who drove the action forward—Hitler played a supporting and surprisingly secondary role—but former chancellor Franz von Papen and a handful of other powerful players whose connivances propelled events. Their motives and ambitions differed, but they shared one overriding and ultimately fatal illusion: all believed that Adolf Hitler and the NSDAP could be “tamed” and used for their political purposes.
Through much of December and into January Schleicher made overtures to the socialist labor unions, to the SPD, the Christian trade unions, the DNVP, and to the National Socialists. He hoped to fashion a broad base of support stretching from the right wing of the SPD and labor unions to the Conservatives and the Nazis. He was convinced that he would succeed where Papen had failed and would lure the more reasonable elements of the NSDAP into some sort of cooperation. Just the threat of that, he thought, might be enough to prompt Hitler into support for a right-wing government.
In an effort to win support from labor, Schleicher repealed Papen’s immensely unpopular emergency decree that had allowed employers to reduce wages below levels set by collective bargaining agreements, and he voided Papen’s decree that mandated a means test for unemployment compensation. Whereas Papen had attempted to stimulate the economy by giving tax breaks and other incentives to business, Schleicher favored a stimulus package to jump-start the economy and proposed a major public works bill that he hoped would make an immediate dent in Germany’s still-astronomical unemployment. Although the unions looked favorably upon these moves, it was not enough to overcome their deep reservations about the “red general,” as Schleicher was sometimes called. In the end, none of these moves met with success. The labor unions distrusted the former general, and the Social Democrats wanted no part of him or his government. The irascible Hugenberg kept his distance, and Hitler, even with his diminished stature, remained intractable. These pro-labor initiatives did, however, succeed in unsettling many in the business community, who interpreted them as populist pandering and yet another example of the profligate government spending that had crippled the German economy. Papen, with his unvarnished pro-business stance, remained the option of choice for the country’s industrial and financial elites.
In a move more damaging than his troubles with business, Schleicher also incurred the wrath of the powerful agrarian lobby. The Reich Agricultural League (Reichslandbund), dominated by large eastern landowners, turned with a fury on Schleicher for his refusal to raise tariffs on agricultural imports, a step, the chancellor correctly believed, that would be vigorously opposed by labor and by consumers. Exacerbating his problems, Schleicher also exhumed Brüning’s ill-fated plan to resettle the unemployed on bankrupt agrarian estates in the east, reviving near-hysterical charges of “agrarian Bolshevism.” Hindenburg, who was proud of his Junker heritage and his status as an estate owner, came under heavy pressure from his friends and turned that pressure on Schleicher. Overstepping the bounds of his constitutional authority, he intervened directly in the dispute and insisted that Schleicher resolve these difficulties immediately.
While Schleicher struggled with these problems, his troubles were greatly exacerbated by a scandal that erupted in mid-January over alleged improprieties in the Eastern Aid (Osthilfe) program. A Reichstag oversight committee claimed that some East Elbian landowners had misused the funds to take luxury vacation trips to the south of France, to purchase expensive automobiles, and indulge in other extravagances. Some of the implicated landowners were friends of the Reich President, and in the course of the hearings it came to light that Hindenburg’s ancestral estate, bought for him in 1928 by industrialist friends, had been registered in his son’s name to avoid inheritance taxes. The Agricultural League was furious that the Schleicher government had let the inquiry go forward, and Hindenburg was incensed that Schleicher had allowed his name to be connected with the scandal.
For all his vaunted political skills, Schleicher found himself increasingly isolated. Without allies in industry, agriculture, or labor he was more than ever dependent on the favor of the Reich President, and to his dismay his relations with Hindenburg had deteriorated perceptibly. Whereas Papen had shown virtually feudal deference to Hindenburg and his son Oskar, Schleicher’s conduct, his imperious manner and overconfident presumption of Hindenburg’s support, grated on the Old Gentleman. The Osthilfe scandal didn’t help.
Above all, Hindenburg resented Schleicher pushing him to dismiss Papen in December. Despite Papen’s utter lack of popular support, Hindenburg preferred him to the Machiavellian general. During Papen’s roughly six months as chancellor, Hindenburg had come to look on him as a close family friend and advisor and wanted to keep him close by. So reluctant to part with him was Hindenburg that he allowed Papen to remain in his apartment in the Ministry of the Interior after his dismissal. That allowed Papen to pass unnoticed through the extensive back gardens that linked the Ministry of Interior, the Foreign Office, and the Chancellery, where Hindenburg resided while the Presidential Palace was undergoing renovations. While Schleicher had infrequent meetings with Hindenburg, Papen had direct and frequent access. The aristocratic and unloved Papen had disappeared from public view in December, but he had not abandoned his political ambitions: he was determined to use his influence with Hindenburg to undermine Schleicher and to return to power.
In early January, Kurt von Schröder, a Rhineland banker with connections to both the Hitler and Papen camps, arranged a clandestine meeting between the two bitter rivals at his home outside Cologne. Long a Nazi sympathizer, Schröder was apparently acting on his own, not as a representative of big business as it seemed to many at the time—and later. The meeting took place on January 4 in Schröder’s lavish townhouse and was intended to be held in complete secrecy. Papen arrived alone by taxi at around noon to find Hitler, Himmler, party secretary Rudolf Hess, and a Nazi economic advisor waiting for him.
When Schröder took the two principals into the next room for a private discussion, the meeting began on an unpromising note. So much bad blood had flowed between them. Hitler began by reciting from his extensive catalogue of grievances against Papen, especially his actions in the previous summer when, he was convinced, Papen had blocked his appointment as chancellor. Papen insisted that it was Schleicher who had poisoned Hindenburg’s mind about that possibility. Whether Hitler accepted this highly creative inversion of events is unknown, but he was impressed by Papen’s obvious antipathy toward Schleicher and his determination to bring him down. Playing on Hitler’s rabid anti-Marxism, Papen expressed his conviction that a rightist coalition government could be formed that would smash the left once and for all. Was Hitler interested in joining forces in this undertaking? Although neither trusted the other, each had something to gain from a bargain. Papen had no popular base; Hitler did. Hitler, on the other hand, had no access to Hindenburg, the gatekeeper to the corridors of power; Papen did. “He has the old man’s ear,” Goebbels wrote hopefully of Papen. It was the basis for a marriage of convenience.
The two men could not, however, agree on the shape of a new government or who should lead it. Papen argued that owing to Hindenburg’s continuing aversion to the Nazi leader, Hitler should, at least for the time being, accept Nazi control over two powerful ministries in the new government—Interior and Defense. Hitler was still unwilling to accept anything less than the chancellorship, but he seemed less dogmatic, more flexible and open to other possibilities than he previously had been. Mulling over the possible combinations, they even discussed ruling jointly as a “duumvirate,” but that had little appeal to either. The meeting ended without any agreement on the thorny question of the chancellorship, but it was a beginning. They agreed to further discussions, but no firm arrangements were made. The Nazis left the meeting encouraged, having learned something of vital importance: “Papen wants to oust Schleicher,” Goebbels offered in summation. “Bravo! We can use him.”
Despite elaborate measures to hold the meeting in complete secrecy, there had been a leak. As soon as Papen had stepped from his taxi upon arriving, a photographer, stationed at Schröder’s door, had snapped his picture. The next day the meeting was national news. Speculation dominated the front pages, usually under such headlines as the Tägliche Rundschau’s “Hitler and Papen Against Schleicher.” The two men promptly issued a joint statement denying any conspiracy against the Schleicher government, with Papen insisting that the meeting was intended merely to explore the possibilities of a broad right-wing coalition that would support the Schleicher cabinet.
No one, except, oddly enough, Schleicher, seemed to buy this disingenuous explanation. Schleicher simply couldn’t believe that his feckless protégé, his Fränzchen, had acted behind his back. To French ambassador François-Poncet he scoffed at the idea that Papen had intended any intrigue. “He is frivolous,” Schleicher commented dismissively. “He imagined that he was going to pull off a master stroke and serve up Hitler to us on a platter. As if Hitler had not shown many times that he was not to be trusted! . . . I won’t scold him. I’ll just say to him: ‘My Fränzchen, you’ve committed another blunder.’ ” He did, however, press the Reich President to order Papen to refrain from such unauthorized initiatives in the future.
For Hitler, the meeting with Papen was of tremendous significance. It put him back in the headlines when he seemed increasingly like yesterday’s news; it revealed the vulnerability of Schleicher’s position; and at a time when the NSDAP’s fortunes were at a low ebb and the path to the Chancellery blocked, new possibilities appeared. Instead of languishing in a political no-man’s-land, the door to Hindenburg—and power—seemed at last to open ever so slightly. But now more than ever, the Nazis desperately needed to demonstrate their political relevance, that their losses in November and December had been merely temporary setbacks, that the party had recovered its balance and was once again on the upswing.
An opportunity beckoned. On January 15 an election would be held in the Lilliputian state of Lippe. Demographically this small political backwater in the northwest was ideally suited for the Nazis—rural, Protestant, a region of small towns, small shopkeepers, small farmers, and a relatively small Social Democratic and Communist presence. With an electorate of only about ninety thousand in a small, compact area, it offered the financially strapped NSDAP an opportunity to concentrate its limited resources for a major propaganda effort. No new Deutschlandflug was necessary, no far-flung speaking engagements. But it was a risk. If the Nazis suffered another defeat, it would confirm their downward spiral, sending the party into a potentially fatal tailspin. Hitler understood the stakes, and he launched the party into the campaign with a vengeance born of desperation. “The electoral contest in Lippe is beginning,” Goebbels recorded in his notes on January 3. “With much effort we have succeeded in scraping together the necessary money for it. We will concentrate all our energy on this small state in order to obtain the prestige of a success. The party must . . . show that it can still be victorious.”
For the first two weeks of January, all the party’s financial and human resources were marshaled and hurled into the campaign. Hitler kept up his usual frenetic pace, speaking seventeen times in ten days. All the party’s top speakers made appearances, addressing modest crowds in chilly tents on cold windswept nights. The audiences, Goebbels recorded, were “only peasants and little people, but that [was] fine and most seem convinced.” For two weeks a blizzard of leaflets, pamphlets, and posters blanketed the countryside; SA men, bused in from the surrounding states, went door-to-door, distributing flyers, inviting residents to party rallies. They marched in parades, and toured the countryside in caravans of trucks carrying loudspeakers that blared out Nazi slogans. No village, no hamlet was bypassed. It was the most concentrated, most intense campaign the Nazis had ever conducted.
The message of the campaign had a by now familiar ring. Hitler offered the usual recapitulations of National Socialist philosophy, its determination to overcome Germany’s social, religious, and regional prejudices, to awaken the dormant powers of the people and turn a divided Germany into a genuine Volksgemeinschaft that would restore Germany’s place in the world—the same shibboleths that had formed the content of Nazi appeals for well over a year.
But if the party’s message was familiar, the targets and the tone shifted. There were fewer harangues against the system parties or even Schleicher. Both were savaged but in a surprisingly perfunctory fashion, as if they were no longer of any relevance. Nazi speeches carried a sharper, more insistent ideological tone and focused on another, more ominous menace: Bolshevism. Jewish Bolshevism. The official slogan of the campaign was “Down with Marxism,” and the linkage of Bolshevism and Jews, a staple of Nazi ideology, came front and center. “The danger of Bolshevism is gigantic,” Hitler warned in his annual New Year’s Declaration to the party faithful, “a threat to all of Europe. . . . The slogan, ‘Proletarians of the world unite,’ has become the rallying cry of sub-humanity [Untermenschentum],” and behind this threat, he claimed darkly, lurked the “international Jew . . . the intellectual inspiration in almost every country of the world in a struggle of the less gifted lower races against higher humanity. . . . Jewish intellectual leadership of world revolution” had already conquered Russia, and its tentacles stretched now into all the countries of Europe.
Other parties might be content to fight for a few ministerial posts in a new cabinet, a few more seats in the Reichstag, but the National Socialist movement was embarked on a world-historical struggle, an ideological crusade for the soul of Germany. The NSDAP, as Hitler rasped in a speech in Detmold before about three thousand shivering spectators, “doesn’t see forming a government as its goal. Its ultimate mission is winning people. Race, Volk and land are the eternal sources from which the life of a people is constructed.” In Berlin, Goebbels, who shuttled back and forth from the capital to Lippe, underscored the sharper ideological tone of the campaign. Speaking to a crowd of 100,000 in Berlin’s Lustgarten, Goebbels delivered “a sharp denunciation of the Jews. The masses,” he wrote afterward, “were delirious.”
But something was amiss. Maybe it was the weather. Bone-chilling cold and freezing rain, frosts and frigid winds buffeted the campaign. Many events were held in large, poorly heated tents, and Hitler, with his usual late arrivals, often appeared hours behind schedule. He seemed tired. So did the message—and the audience. His predictable recitation of the party’s history and his own spectacular rise from obscurity, the betrayal of 1918, and the predatory Allies were refrains his audiences could recite from memory. His appearances always drew a full house, the numbers always grossly inflated in the Nazi press, but while Goebbels hailed them as stunning successes, the public response, as more neutral reports indicated, was often lukewarm. One local newspaper reported that while Hitler’s “remarks sometimes displayed his inner agitation,” his speech in Detmold was “not interrupted by applause until the last part,” when he turned to the political issues of the day. A Hitler speech in Lipperode just three days before the balloting elicited a similar response. Hitler’s lengthy “introduction into the world of National Socialist political thinking . . . brought him no applause. Not until the second part of his speech, when he took up current political questions, did his speech stir interest.”
Adding to Hitler’s sense of crisis, the party continued to be plagued by internal dissension. Throughout December and January the specter of Gregor Strasser haunted the party. Rumors ran riot—Strasser had entered into talks with Schleicher, with Hindenburg, even with Papen, raising the possibility that he would split the party and enter the government, taking other Nazi leaders with him. Some believed that he was planning to found his own party. So concerned was Hitler that since mid-December he traveled the country speaking to party leaders, from the highest to the lowest, to reaffirm their loyalty. Strasser remained a member of the party, and Hitler was reluctant to expel him, but in mid-December he dismissed Strasser loyalists from their positions in the party leadership, dismantled his network of inspectors (the Amtswälter), reshuffled its personnel, and assigned their tasks to men whose fealty was beyond suspicion.
At the same time he issued a memorandum to party leaders that, while not explicitly denouncing Strasser, highlighted the differences in their views and underscored Hitler’s “unalterable” vision of the party’s organization and its mission. “The basis of political organization,” it began, “is loyalty.” Loyalty and obedience could “never be replaced by formal technical measures and structures, no matter what their type.” The victory of the National Socialist idea was “the goal of our struggle,” and the party’s organization was merely “a means to achieve this end.” In an expression of Hitler’s careless approach to organization that would characterize his regime after 1933, he stated that “It is a mistake to assume that the organization would be better, the more extensive and structured its apparatus. The opposite is correct. . . . A Weltanschauung doesn’t need bureaucrats . . . but fanatical apostles.”
Despite these moves to erase Strasser’s influence in the party, the rumors persisted. Goebbels’s diary obsessively recorded each new Strasser sighting, each new bit of Strasser gossip. There was much to report. “The Berlin papers have a new theme,” he wrote on January 3. “Strasser will enter the Schleicher cabinet. . . . They are nattering that he has already had a number of talks with the General . . . and we already have proof of it. This is the most unscrupulous act of treachery that has ever been committed against the party.” Some days later he feared that Strasser was “about to betray us to Schleicher. . . . But he will pay for this.” On the eve of the election in Lippe he learned that Strasser had met with Hindenburg. “That’s just how I imagine a traitor,” Goebbels groused. “I have always seen through him. Hitler is very distressed. Everything hangs in the balance. . . . Everything now hangs on Lippe.”
Strasser wasn’t the only source of trouble. Overtaxed by the exertions of 1932, the party’s organization seemed to be fracturing under the strain. The tensions between the NSDAP’s political leadership and the SA that had plagued the party in 1932 had not subsided following the November election. Bursts of SA violence and acts of criminality (petty larceny, armed robberies, extortion) continued to embarrass the party, and SA resentment against the political leadership continued to smolder. During December an acrimonious dispute between the top SA commander in the Nazi stronghold of Franconia, Wilhelm Stegmann, and the powerful Gauleiter of the area, Julius Streicher, burst into the open. Stegmann accused the Gauleiter of failing to honor a commitment to reimburse the SA for expenses incurred in the November election, and Streicher, in turn, accused Stegmann of embezzling party funds.
Streicher appealed for support to the top leadership of the SA; Stegmann called on local SA leaders in Franconia to back him. After removing several Streicher loyalists from their posts, Stegmann’s men stormed into SA offices in Nuremberg. Fighting broke out, and the police had to be called in to restore order. The opposition press gloried in all the embarrassing details. “Hitler SA smashes SA Heads,” Vorwärts gleefully reported. Röhm initiated an investigation, and relieved Stegmann of his command pending the outcome of the probe. Stegmann did not protest; he did not complain; he simply ignored the order. It was symptomatic of the tenuous control exerted by the party over the SA that Stegmann, relying on grassroots support from the Franconian SA, defied the Munich leadership and continued on in his position. Hitler appeared to have arranged reconciliation between the warring factions, but on the eve of the voting in Lippe, the conflict in Franconia flared again.
So serious was the situation that Röhm, who was enjoying a romantic getaway on Capri, was immediately ordered back to Germany to deal with his recalcitrant Storm Troopers. On election eve Hitler summoned Stegmann to a meeting, where, under considerable duress, Stegmann signed a public statement pledging his loyalty and obedience to the Führer. It was crucial, Hitler insisted, for the party to project an image of unity as voters went to the polls. As events would soon demonstrate, the trouble was far from over.
By the time the polls closed in Lippe on January 15, Hitler, Goebbels, and the high echelons of the party had returned to Berlin to await the results. The party simply could not endure another setback. By late evening it was clear that the NSDAP could lay claim to a victory. “The party is on the march again,” Goebbels sighed with relief. “It has paid off after all.” With 39.6 percent of the vote, the party had surpassed its November figure of 34 percent, and the Nazi press heralded the outcome in Lippe a great triumph, a turning point. But while Goebbels was selling Lippe as a historic victory—in the Nazi lexicon all triumphs were “decisive” and “historic”—few were buying it. True, the Nazis had picked up some five thousand votes over the previous November, mostly at the expense of the Conservatives, whose vote tumbled, but their numbers still fell some 3,500 short of the party’s July figures. Other parties, with far less funding and far less effort, had achieved bigger gains—to the Nazi 17 percent surge, the tiny Democratic Party had gained 60 percent, the liberal DVP 20 percent. These were small parties, but the Social Democrats also registered a gain of 15 percent. Together the Social Democrats and Communists had outpolled the Nazis. Little wonder that so few were impressed with the NSDAP’s “historic triumph.” Typical was a withering editorial assessment in the liberal Berliner Tageblatt: “Hitler has brought home from his heroic struggle in Lippe only a fly impaled on the tip of his sword.”
His confidence revived by the Lippe “victory,” Hitler convened a meeting of all the Gauleiter in Weimar. He would now settle the Strasser problem once and for all; the time had come for “tough intransigence . . . no compromises.” For three hours he harangued the assembled leaders. His remarks were blunt, going into all the sordid details of Strasser’s alleged betrayal. The Gauleiter, according to Goebbels, were shaken. Then one after another they joined in the escalating denunciation. Strasser’s “best friends are deserting him,” Goebbels rejoiced. Martin Mutschmann, Gauleiter of Saxony, “characterized him as a Jew. Judas would be better.” At the end of the day, Hitler had “achieved a complete victory. The Strasser case is done. Finis. Poor Gregor,” Goebbels gloated, “his best friends have slaughtered him.”
The leadership would continue to fret about Strasser—obsessively, it often seemed—but the threat he posed was more phantom than fact. Strasser did meet with Schleicher and with Hindenburg in January, but he was, to the surprise of all, sincere in his determination to leave the squalid world of late Weimar politics and was not angling for a position in the Schleicher government. As he later explained to a friend, he made his decision to leave the party only after much deliberation and after “my view that we had to participate in the running of the state and appeal to the people with deeds rather than words had been utterly rejected.” His goal was “the coming together of all constructive-minded people, no matter where they come from, on the basis of new ideas in government, the economy and the cultural sphere.” He had no desire to split the NSDAP or make a permanent break with Hitler, but he was “convinced that the time of agitation and of parties is fast disappearing and that the immediate future calls for men who are prepared to come into government with courage and a sense of responsibility” and “who . . . attempt finally to draw conclusions from an understanding of the present time, and achieve results.” It was obvious why Schleicher found Strasser such an appealing possibility.
Had Strasser stayed on and fought for his views, he might well have carried many followers with him, dealing Hitler a serious blow and perhaps leading a truncated NSDAP in a different, less radical direction. But for all his energy and organizational talent, Strasser, in the final analysis, lacked the political toughness and the ruthless will to power for a fight with Hitler. He would continue to haunt the party—there was always a phantom Strasser lurking in the wings—but by mid-January he had exited the stage, bringing his role as the organizational mastermind of the NSDAP to a close.
While the Nazis were focused on the electoral contest in Lippe, Papen was working assiduously behind the scenes to undermine Schleicher. As a first step, he hoped to convince Hugenberg to bring his Conservatives into a Papen-Hitler government. Hugenberg loathed Schleicher and was willing to listen, but he was more than a little skeptical about Hitler—he had painful memories of his previous attempts to collaborate with the Nazi leader. Hitler, he felt, was utterly unscrupulous, a view he expressed to both Papen and Hindenburg. Still, in any new government, preferably one headed by Papen, his price for support was the Ministry of Economics and Agriculture in both Prussia and the Reich. Nothing was settled. Hugenberg continued to have reservations, but he was, Papen felt, definitely in play.
Hitler also tried his hand with Hugenberg at a meeting on January 17. The conservative leader voiced reservations about a Hitler chancellorship, though he stopped short of outright opposition. He did, however, express strong objections to a National Socialist being put in charge of the Prussian Ministry of the Interior, a move that would place the fifty-thousand-strong Prussian police force under direct Nazi control. He also strongly disapproved of Hitler’s demand for new Reichstag elections—elections in which the Conservatives could hardly expect to improve their position. For Hitler, new Reichstag elections were essential. He was confident that new elections, conducted while a Hitler-Papen government held the instruments of power—and coercion—would deliver the necessary majority to pass an enabling law. Such a law would allow him to govern without the Reichstag and also without presidential decrees. It would, in other words, free him from any institutional restraints on his exercise of power. Hugenberg, however, would not be moved, and Hitler left the meeting frustrated.
Still scrambling for traction, Hitler arranged for another secret meeting with Papen. On January 18, accompanied by Himmler and Röhm, he met with Papen at the villa of Joachim von Ribbentrop in Dahlem, a fashionable section of Berlin. Ribbentrop, a wealthy Nazi Reichstag deputy who fancied himself possessed of considerable diplomatic skills (he would later rise to be foreign minister in the Third Reich), had served with Papen in Turkey during the World War, and he was eager to act as intermediary between Hitler and the former chancellor. When the two had met earlier in the month in Cologne, Hitler seemed prepared to drop his demand for the chancellorship and the minister presidency of Prussia and to accept a more modest National Socialist role in a Papen cabinet—maybe the ministries of the Interior and Defense. But over lunch on the 18th, buoyed by the party’s showing in Lippe, Hitler renewed his demands for the chancellorship and the minister presidency of Prussia. Papen replied that he did not believe he had enough influence to overcome Hindenburg’s resistance to a Hitler cabinet, and the meeting ended inconclusively.
On the following day another meeting was arranged for the 22nd. Arriving at the Ribbentrop estate at ten in the evening, Hitler, Wilhelm Frick, Hitler’s advisor in legal matters, and later Göring found Papen, Oskar von Hindenburg, and Otto Meissner, the influential state secretary to the Reich President, waiting for them. Hitler was still adamant about the chancellorship but expressed his willingness to have only two other National Socialists in the cabinet. Frick was to be minister of the interior and something should be found for Göring, but the other positions in the cabinet, Hitler magnanimously offered, could be filled by conservatives acceptable to the Reich President. Papen, who would serve as vice chancellor, found these terms more reasonable than Hitler had previously put forward and felt that Hindenburg might finally agree to a Hitler government. The question of Prussia was left open. Oskar von Hindenburg left the meeting still harboring deep reservations about Hitler, but Meissner was surprised by Hitler’s apparent willingness to make concessions and felt that the terms discussed might be acceptable to the Reich President. Papen agreed. Armed with these terms, he felt that he could now approach the Reich President with a reasonable chance of success.
The meetings at the Ribbentrop villa were intended to be secret, but the press quickly uncovered both, and the Berlin papers reveled in speculation. Rumors swarmed through the government quarter like bats from a cave. Hitler and Papen, of course, denied that anything was afoot, and, of course, no one believed them. Schleicher, who was at last beginning to appreciate the danger he was in, appealed to Hindenburg to grant him permission to dissolve the Reichstag before it reconvened on January 31. Without a presidential order to dissolve, Schleicher faced a certain vote of no confidence. If, on the other hand, the Reichstag could be dissolved by presidential order, he could remain in office and buy time. The effects of his reforms might be felt in the near future. The economy, analysts were now saying, had bottomed out in late summer of 1932, and although improvements in unemployment could not yet be felt on the street, expectations were that there would be a significant uptick in the economy by summer.
On January 23 Schleicher pressed Hindenburg not only for the dissolution order but also a promise to delay new elections indefinitely, a move that was a direct violation of the constitution. With no pressure from the Reichstag and governing by emergency decree, Schleicher could put Germany’s political house in order and await improvement in the economic situation. The Nazis might choose to support the government or, if not, simply wither on the vine of fruitless opposition. Anyway, Schleicher was convinced that Hitler was “on the verge of desperation.” Speaking off the record at a dinner for journalists, he was confident that now Hitler realized “that his party is falling apart under him without his ever seeing it attain a position of power.” With a patronizing smile, he waved away the threat of the Nazis. “I’ll take care of them,” he said confidently. “They’ll soon be eating out of my hand.”
Hindenburg was not so confident. Hadn’t he heard all this before? Wasn’t Schleicher’s plan exactly the same course of action Papen had advocated in December and that Schleicher had so effectively demolished that it led to Papen’s fall? Such a blatantly unconstitutional action, Schleicher had argued then, would provoke an uprising of both the radical left and right that would lead to civil war. In such a situation, the army could not gurantee its ability to prevail. Hindenburg was no keener on the plan now than when Papen had proposed it and needed time to consider his options.
With Hitler’s talks with Hugenberg and Papen stalled, a new outbreak of trouble with the SA threatened to plunge the NSDAP once again into crisis. Again it was Stegmann. Back in Franconia after his meeting with Hitler, the SA leader showed no sign of having learned his lesson. He openly renewed his feud with Streicher, leaving a frustrated and angry Hitler no alternative but to expel him from the party. Far from being intimidated, Stegmann responded by founding his own “Free Corps Franconia,” taking some three thousand followers—roughly half the Franconian SA—with him. The new paramilitary organization lashed out at Hitler’s policy of legality and at the party bosses in Munich. At an SA rally in Nuremberg on the 24th, Stegmann declared that the party “had missed its historic opportunity of coming to power through legal means”; now it was time for a “more brutal and revolutionary fight.” Stegmann’s call for rebellion struck a chord among disgruntled SA men around the country. Dissident Storm Troopers formed their own breakaway Free Corps groups in the Ruhr, the Upper Rhine, and Hessen. More mutinies were cropping up elsewhere. There appeared a very real possibility that Stegmann’s revolt might sweep the entire country, rending the NSDAP asunder at a critical juncture.
Adding to Nazi anxiety was the party’s continuing financial desperation. Early in the month Goebbels complained about the “bad financial situation of the organization,” noting that the party would have to find ways to economize. Creditors were demanding payment for loans extended over the past year, and membership dues continued to shrink dramatically as did revenues from poorly attended party events. Hitler’s meeting with Schröder was not about money but about politics, and there is little evidence to suggest a sudden influx of funding from business sources. The party’s financial situation was further strained by the all-out campaign in Lippe. With the sources of domestic financing drying up and the party in desperate need of cash, Göring took the extraordinary step of inquiring of an American diplomat about the possibility of securing a loan for the party in the United States.
With the NSDAP’s fortunes sinking fast, Papen threw Hitler a lifeline. On the morning of the 23rd he met with the Reich President, Meissner, and Oskar von Hindenburg and laid out the case for a Hitler chancellorship. To a reluctant Hindenburg, Meissner argued that Papen’s proposal offered the best way to break the political gridlock. Hitler would at last be saddled with governmental responsibility and would be safely held in check by Papen and the conservative members of the cabinet. Hindenburg listened but remained unconvinced, a skepticism shared by his son. Both still believed if the Schleicher government were to fall, as now seemed inevitable, Papen would be the best alternative.
As late as January 27 Hindenburg was still reassuring associates that he had no intention of naming Hitler chancellor. Many feared—and with good reason—that the Old One would return the dangerously divisive Papen to the Chancellery, a step that virtually everyone from right to left, but especially the anxious army leadership, felt certain would trigger a bloody civil war. So unpopular was the former chancellor that although many in positions of power had deep reservations about the Nazis, a Hitler cabinet actually seemed less dangerous than a second Papen government. The moderate center and right were also dead set against a reprise of the Papen cabinet but took comfort in the belief that Hindenburg would never appoint the “little Bohemian corporal” to head a government. But with Schleicher’s ouster imminent and opposition to Papen (even Papen had come to understand this), Hindenburg discovered that he had little room for maneuver. Perhaps, after all, with the proper precautions and restraints, the time for Hitler had arrived.
Meanwhile, Hitler was in a gloomy frame of mind. Exasperated by his failure to make headway in his various negotiations, he was ready to quit the city and leave for Munich. This sudden change in attitude caught his close confederates by surprise. Those who met him in those tense January days, even those who distrusted or detested him, were often struck by his sense of unwavering confidence, his unshakable conviction that his was the only path to power. Throughout the frenetic campaigning and daily intrigues, Hitler retained an almost preternatural calm. Despite the mounting political pressures, he even insisted on maintaining something of his bohemian style of life. He still rose late, usually around eleven, chatted through the hours, lingered over afternoon tea and cakes at the Kaiserhof café, went to the cinema, and attended the opera.
Through all the ups and downs of the previous years, it had always been Hitler’s unshakable confidence that had boosted the spirits of his lieutenants. Now it was their turn to pick him up. On the 27th Hitler huddled with Göring and Ribbentrop and expressed his soaring frustration with the situation. He was fed up, ready to leave Berlin altogether and return to Munich. Göring insisted that “the situation is far from hopeless” and counseled another meeting with Hindenburg; Ribbentrop offered to arrange another session with Papen. Hitler rejected both out of hand. He had already said “all there is to say to the Field Marshal,” and did “not know what to add.” Only with considerable difficulty were Göring and Ribbentrop able to calm him and prevail upon him to stay in Berlin a bit longer. Finally, and with great reluctance, he agreed to meet that afternoon with Hugenberg. But the interview did not go well. The querulous Conservative leader again raised objections to Hitler’s plans and stated numerous conditions for his support, displaying, in Hitler’s view, “a greed for portfolios out of all proportion to the strength of his party.” The meeting ended with such rancor that “Hitler, very indignant,” announced his intention “to leave for Munich immediately.” Ribbentrop had never seen him in such a state.
That night Ribbentrop met alone with Papen and restated the Nazi position that the only solution that made any political sense was a Hitler chancellorship backed by a strong national front. Hugenberg would be a problem, but perhaps he could be brought around. To his surprise, Papen readily agreed. Papen was “now absolutely in favor of Hitler becoming Chancellor.” This represented, according to Ribbentrop, “the decisive change in Papen’s attitude.” It was, he believed, “the turning point.” Papen was to meet with Hindenburg at ten in the morning. Ribbentrop promised to produce Hitler at eleven.
Papen’s scheme had now reached a crucial stage, and events began to move quickly. On the 28th Hindenburg informed Schleicher that he would not authorize the dissolution of the Reichstag. Knowing that he faced a vote of no confidence when that body reconvened on the 31st, Schleicher submitted his resignation. He had misplayed his hand, assuming until too late that he had Hindenburg’s support, and he had grossly underestimated his erstwhile protégé. It was not until word of the meetings at Ribbentrop’s estate reached him that he fully realized that Papen had hatched a conspiracy to bring him down. By the evening of the 28th, he had tendered his resignation and vacated his office in the Chancellery.
The next morning Papen met with Hindenburg. The Old One at last seemed reconciled to the prospect of a Hitler government, with Papen as vice chancellor and supported by the Conservatives, the Stahlhelm, and other right-of-center groups. Papen then hurried to his appointment with Hitler. But when, just after eleven, he opened his door, he found only Ribbentrop. “Where is Hitler?” he demanded. Ribbentrop feared that Hitler had already departed for Munich. Papen said that he had to be brought back without delay; a breakthrough with Hindenburg had occurred, and a Hitler chancellorship was now definitely possible. Ribbentrop left immediately and discovered from Göring that Hitler had not yet left the Kaiserhof. A quick telephone call, and a meeting with Papen was arranged for the following morning.
At that meeting on January 29, Hitler’s mood improved dramatically when Papen confirmed that he was solidly committed to a Hitler chancellorship and that Hindenburg now seemed prepared to accept a Hitler-Papen government. The two men were able to reach agreement on the composition of the cabinet—all posts but two, the chancellorship and Ministry of the Interior, would be filled by conservatives. Hitler agreed that the Foreign Office, Finance Ministry, and Defense were to be headed by Hindenburg favorites. The important Ministry of Justice would for the time being be left vacant. Hitler also grudgingly dropped his demand for the minister presidency of Prussia, conceding that position to Papen. As compensation, he suggested that Göring be appointed as Papen’s minister of the interior in Prussia.
Later in the day Papen held talks with Hugenberg, who still vigorously objected to Nazi demands for new elections. But when Papen offered him the Ministry of Economics, a position he had long coveted, he tentatively agreed to participate in a Hitler-Papen government. When one conservative whom Papen hoped to entice into the cabinet voiced his concerns about a Hitler government, Papen sought to allay his fears: “What do you want? I have the confidence of Hindenburg. In two months we’ll have pushed Hitler so far into a corner that he’ll squeal.” To another prospective cabinet minister who voiced reservations, worrying that Hitler was untrustworthy and would cause a world of trouble, Papen responded, “You’re wrong. We’ve hired him.”
Hoping to create a firm right-wing base of support for the new government, Papen was convinced he needed the backing of the powerful right-wing veterans organization the Stahlhelm. He invited the two Stahlhelm leaders, Theodor Duesterberg and Franz Seldte, to join him and Hugenberg at Papen’s apartment. There Papen offered Seldte the Labor Ministry, but Duesterberg, who still smarted from vicious Nazi attacks on him during the presidential elections, wanted no part of a Hitler government. Appointing someone as ruthless and dishonest as Hitler was a recipe for disaster, he argued. Hugenberg intervened in an attempt to reassure him, pointing out that Hindenburg would still be in command of the army, that Papen would be vice chancellor, that he would be in charge of the entire economic sphere, and that conservatives would dominate the new cabinet. “We’re boxing Hitler in,” he boasted. Duesterberg was unmoved. “One night,” he warned, “you will find yourself running through the ministerial garden in your underpants to avoid arrest.”
At the Kaiserhof, Hitler and his entourage mulled over the situation. Could they trust Papen? Hindenburg? “Hitler is very skeptical and mistrustful,” Goebbels noted. “With good reason. Those over there [at the Chancellery] are a big band of swindlers. . . . The Old One is unpredictable. . . . At least we are rid of Schleicher. The Old One basically threw him out.” That was “a perfect punishment” for a schemer like Schleicher. “Tomorrow the tug of war [for power] begins.”
Despite all the mutual suspicions and misgivings, by the evening of January 29 Papen had maneuvered all the pieces into place. Hitler was satisfied, Hugenberg was tentatively onboard; all the proposed cabinet officers were in agreement. Even the reluctant Duesterberg grudgingly dropped his opposition to the cabinet, and Seldte agreed to be minister of labor. The Stahlhelm was ready to support the new government. Some potential problems remained to be resolved, especially Hugenberg’s adamant opposition to new elections, which Hitler considered essential. But everything seemed set. Even Hindenburg’s resistance to a Hitler chancellorship had apparently been overcome, at least for the moment, and a Hitler government would be sworn in at the Chancellery at eleven o’clock in the morning.
“One doesn’t dare to believe it yet,” Goebbels wrote that night. “Is Papen honest? Who knows?” And Hindenburg was so unreliable, so changeable. Then, suddenly, a new and more ominous menace appeared. A messenger arrived at Goebbels’s apartment bearing word that Hindenburg had decided, after all, to appoint Papen chancellor. The army was vehemently opposed. Rumors had surfaced that in order to block a return of the Papen cabinet, plans were now under way at army headquarters to arrest Oskar von Hindenburg, while the Reich President would be taken away to his estate at Neudeck and held incommunicado. Army troops would occupy the city. Some believed that Schleicher was behind it; others thought Commander-in-Chief Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord. It was to be a military coup, and the outcome would be a military dictatorship, undoing all Hitler’s calculations just when it seemed that power was within his grasp.
Göring and Hitler, who were also present in Goebbels’s apartment, swung into action. Göring immediately warned Meissner and Papen, and Hindenburg sent word to General Werner von Blomberg. The Reich President ordered the general, who was attending the Disarmament Conference in Geneva, back to Berlin immediately, warning him to proceed directly to the Reich Chancellery to be sworn in as minister of defense—a post that would make him commander-in-chief of the army. Hitler meanwhile telephoned the commander of the Berlin SA, and ordered him to put the SA on alert around the city. The Storm Troopers should be prepared for a showdown with Army troops. “We must not lose our nerve now,” Goebbels wrote. “Who knows if this is a serious threat or just childishness?” At the Kaiserhof, Hitler’s inner circle sat and waited, while he stalked silently through the suite, lost in thought. No new reports reached them. The hours ground slowly by, and as daybreak approached, nothing had happened. No troops from the Potsdam garrison, no arrests. Finally, at five in the morning, the men allowed themselves a brief sleep. The tension was still high—something could still go wrong—Hindenburg might have a change of heart, Papen might yet betray them, the army might march. The anticipation was almost unbearable. Snowflakes were filtering through the weak winter sunlight as the first crowds began to form outside the Chancellery, sensing that something momentous was going to happen. “We have only to wait a few more hours,” Goebbels anxiously noted, “then the great moment will be here.”
Early that morning, as rumors of an impending military Putsch seized the government quarter, Oskar von Hindenburg was dispatched to the Anhalter railway station to fetch General Blomberg. The Reich President’s conviction that something was afoot was reinforced when the younger Hindenburg discovered a staff officer sent by General Hammerstein stationed on the train platform, apparently under orders to bring Blomberg directly to army headquarters in Potsdam. Instead, Blomberg was whisked straightaway to the Reich President. In a tense meeting at the Chancellery, Hindenburg briefed him on the situation, warning him to be prepared to suppress an imminent coup d’état.
An air of anticipation gripped the city. Expectant crowds filled the Wilhelmstrasse, flocking into the square that separated the Kaiserhof from the Chancellery. Around ten, Hitler and Hugenberg slipped through a back garden into Papen’s residence for a last discussion before proceeding to their audience with Hindenburg. When in the course of the conversation, Hugenberg learned for the first time that the issue of new elections had not been settled, he flew into a rage. He had entered into this arrangement with the understanding that there would be no new elections. Hitler, for his part, was taken aback that Papen had not actually secured Hugenberg’s agreement beforehand. Under these circumstances, Hugenberg threatened to back out of the deal, and Hitler’s efforts to reassure him that there would be no changes in the cabinet no matter what the outcome of the elections fell on deaf ears. Finally, Papen, at wits’ end, interjected: “If the new government is not formed by eleven o’clock, the army is going to march. Schleicher may establish a military dictatorship.” It was approaching eleven before the men, still arguing, marched through the snow-dusted back gardens and into presidential secretary Meissner’s office in the Reich Chancellery, where the presumptive ministers of the new cabinet had gathered.
With Hindenburg waiting impatiently in the next room, the row over new elections flared again. Once more Hitler tried to reassure Hugenberg, promising that no matter what might come he would hold his position as economics and agriculture minister—he would be economics czar, a term that greatly appealed to Hugenberg’s vanity. Papen seconded those promises, but Hugenberg could not be mollified. At that point Meissner reminded them that it was already five past eleven, and they were keeping the Reich President waiting. When this warning failed to move the implacable Hugenberg, Papen asked plaintively, “Do you want to risk the national unity which has finally been achieved after so many difficult negotiations? You cannot possibly doubt the solemn word of a German man.” The argument was still sputtering on when Meissner reappeared from Hindenburg’s office, watch in hand, and announced: “The President requests you not to keep him waiting any longer. It is now eleven-fifteen. The Old Gentleman may retire at any moment.”
Meissner’s anxious words seemed to jolt Hugenberg into motion, and, with agreement hanging by a gossamer thread, the triumvirate marched at last into Hindenburg’s presence. So irritated with the situation was Hindenburg that he could not bring himself to offer the cabinet the ceremonial welcoming speech. Unfazed, Hitler, too, broke with protocol and surprised the company by plunging into a short speech of his own. He solemnly promised the Reich President that he would uphold the Weimar constitution, find a majority in the Reichstag so that emergency decrees would no longer be necessary, resolve Germany’s economic crisis, and restore unity to a divided and downtrodden German people. When he finished, a startled and still peeved Hindenburg offered no comment, except to utter a perfunctory “And now, gentlemen, forward with God!”
Across the square at the Kaiserhof, Hitler’s entourage waited anxiously. “The inward excitement almost takes our breath away,” Goebbels wrote. “In the street below the crowd stands silently between the Kaiserhof and the Chancellery. What is happening there? We are torn between doubt, hope, joy and despair. We have been deceived too often to be able wholeheartedly to believe in the great miracle.” Röhm stood at the window, watching the door of the Chancellery from which the Führer would emerge. “We will be able to judge by his face if the interview has gone well,” Goebbels worried. “Torturous hours of waiting! At last a car draws up in front of the entrance. The crowd cheers. They seem to feel that a great change is taking place or has already begun. The Führer is coming.”
A few minutes later, Hitler entered the suite that had served as his headquarters. At first he did not speak. Overwhelmed, he looked at his disciples in silence. “He says nothing, and we all remain silent also,” Goebbels wrote, overflowing with unctuous piety. “His eyes are full of tears. It has come! . . . Germany is at a turning point in its history.” Adolf Hitler, the indifferent student, the failed artist, the tramp, the obscure soldier of the Great War, the vulgar beer hall agitator, was, improbably, chancellor of Germany. “It was,” Goebbels wrote, “like a dream, a fairy tale.”
There was nothing inevitable about that day, about Hitler’s rise to power. He was not voted into office, not swept into power on a tidal wave of public support. At the height of their electoral popularity in July the Nazis had received only 38 percent of the vote, and although they could not know it at the time, it was the largest vote they would ever claim in a free election. Then in November, in the last truly unfettered elections of the Weimar era, the Nazi vote fell to 33 percent and continued to plummet in state and local elections that followed. As they had done through virtually all the elections from 1928 to 1933, more Germans had voted for the tragically divided parties of the left than for the Nazis. These figures do not mean that those who voted for other parties were voting against the NSDAP or that they rejected all that National Socialism stood for. But it does mean that when given a free choice, even in the depths of the Great Depression, two thirds of the German population preferred someone else.
It, therefore, constitutes a monstrous historical irony that Adolf Hitler was inserted into power at a moment when the party’s popularity was rapidly receding, its street organization was in revolt, and its treasury empty. What Hitler and the NSDAP’s sophisticated propaganda apparatus had failed to achieve at the apex of the party’s popular appeal in 1932, a group of highly placed conservative figures managed by engineering a backroom deal to create a Hitler cabinet. They believed, as Papen put it, that the National Socialist demagogue could be “tamed,” that they had “sandbagged Hitler.” But, as they would soon discover, they had made a fatal miscalculation, disastrously underestimating Hitler’s limitless ambition, his capacity for treachery, and his ruthless political acumen. They would not be the last to make such an error. Just a day after Hitler’s appointment, Hugenberg was already experiencing buyer’s regret. “Yesterday,” he is reported to have said, “I committed the greatest stupidity of my life. I joined forces with the greatest demagogue in world history.”
Dusk was settling over the city, the street lamps just springing to life, when the first elements of the vast parade came into view. The streets of the government quarter were thronged with people, the sidewalks packed, young boys perched in the branches of trees, bands playing, impromptu choruses chanting Nazi songs. To a thunderous rumbling of drums, column after column of SA men, Hitler Youth, SS, and Stahlhelm holding torches aloft emerged from the darkness of the Tiergarten and surged onto Unter den Linden. French ambassador François-Poncet watched in awe as the massed columns, “flanked by bands that played martial airs to the muffled beat of their big drums . . . passed under the triumphal arch of the Brandenburg Gate. The torches they brandished formed a river of fire, a river with hastening, unquenchable waves . . . sweeping . . . over the very heart of the city. From these brown-shirted, jack booted men, as they marched by in perfect discipline and alignment, their well-pitched voices bawling warlike songs, there rose an enthusiasm and dynamism that were extraordinary. The onlookers, drawn up on either side of the marching columns, burst into a vast clamor.” For three interminable hours the procession passed beneath the windows of the Reich Chancellery Annex where Hitler, nodding and extending his arm in his abbreviated version of the Nazi salute, beamed down upon them. Just beyond, the ancient Hindenburg stood at his window, “a towering, dignified heroic figure,” Goebbels now gushed, “invested with a touch of old time marvel. Now and then, he beats time to the military marches with his cane,” perhaps wondering at what he had done. For Goebbels it was “the rising of a nation. Germany has awakened.”
Far from the tumultuous scene in the Wilhelmstrasse, Erich Ludendorff penned a note to Hindenburg. Ludendorff had been Hindenburg’s partner in commanding Germany’s military effort in the Great War, and in 1923 had been Hitler’s co-conspirator in the failed Putsch attempt. He was widely considered something of a crank. But he knew a few things about Hitler and on that fateful January day, he sent an ominous warning to the aged Reich President: “I solemnly prophesy,” he wrote, “that this accursed man will cast our Reich into the abyss and bring our nation to inconceivable misery. Future generations will damn you in your grave for what you have done.”