Around the country Nazis celebrated through the night. Bonfires burned in the countryside, columns of SA men tramped through village streets; swastika banners fluttered on public buildings. Germany, the National Socialist press proclaimed, had reached a “historic turning point,” and January 30, 1933, was “an event like nothing that has come before in Germany’s post-war evolution. With a strong National Socialist advance guard our leaders have moved into the government to clear the road to freedom for the German people.” The discredited Weimar Republic had been dispatched; the new Germany had ridden to the rescue of a country long mired in confusion and despair. This, at any rate, was the National Socialist version of January 30—a glorious new chapter in the official Nazi narrative of events. Reality, as usual, was more prosaic, and more complicated. While the Nazis hyperventilated over the new cabinet, most Germans greeted the announcement of the Hitler government with something of a wait-and-see shrug. There were a few outbreaks of violence, but bloody confrontations were far fewer than had been anticipated. As The New York Timesreported, “everything is going on much as usual in the country.” So many cabinets had come and gone; so little had changed.
Most informed opinion, both in Germany and abroad, assumed that Hitler had been outfoxed by Papen. The wily ex-chancellor had lured the Nazi leader into heading a coalition government in which he would be outnumbered by Conservatives and overshadowed by his own vice chancellor. All agreed that Hitler had little room for maneuver. “The composition of the cabinet leaves Herr Hitler no scope for gratification of any dictatorial ambition,” The New York Times confidently proclaimed. “Nationalists to Dominate in Government Led by National Socialist” was a typical headline. Hitler had “merely been taken in tow . . .” It was generally felt that “the government is Colonel von Papen’s show . . .” He was expected “to be a buffer to National Socialist influence in the Cabinet. . . . There is also a very definite impression in political circles that the Vice Chancellor has received a certain vetoing authority that he can oppose to any radical action Herr Hitler may attempt to undertake.”
Others claimed to be gratified that Hitler had at last been enticed into a position of responsibility and that his days of savaging the government from the safety of the sidelines were over. And, of course, behind this view was the plausible assumption that he would be no more capable of dealing with Germany’s colossal economic problems than his predecessors. While conceding that the appointment of Hitler was “a severe blow to Social Democracy,” France’s Le Temps suggested that “it is possible that the new Chancellor will be quickly exhausted by this exposure and his reputation as a worker of miracles will vanish.” The editors of Le Temps were also convinced that “it will be impossible for the new Chancellor to make good the madly demagogic program that succeeded in attracting the support of the German people.”
The German papers were more ambivalent. The liberal Frankfurter Zeitung sounded the alarm, calling on the public to rally “to the defense of the rights of the working population, fundamentals of democracy, freedom of thought and justice and social economic rationality.” The leftist press anticipated a crackdown, but tended to see Hitler as a mere figurehead. Hewing to the Comintern line from Moscow, the Communists held that Hitler was nothing more than a tool of monopoly capitalism, and that the real power in the new government was that representative of big business and big agriculture Alfred Hugenberg. More common was the view of the left-liberal Berliner Tageblatt that the Nazis for all their fanatical zeal posed little cause for concern. “There is the Socialist Hitler under the business supervision of the foxy capitalist Hugenberg and an ex-corporal amidst a Count and four Barons.” But at least this cabinet was better than Papen’s because of “the disenchantment that will now come to Hitler’s followers.”
For his part, Hitler was content to encourage this public perception. In cabinet meetings he was cooperative, even deferential, eager to indulge his conservative partners. Publicly, the Nazi propaganda machine was careful not to describe the events of January 30 as a National Socialist revolution but a “national uprising” of all anti-Marxist, nationalist forces, a term intended to reassure. Such illusions did not last long.
Hitler had promised Hindenburg that he would conduct negotiations with the Zentrum, whose votes in the Reichstag would give the government a parliamentary majority, and, apparently true to his word, he began talks with the Zentrum leadership on the morning of his first full working day in the Chancellery. Hindenburg had grown weary of issuing repeated emergency decrees to keep minority cabinets afloat—a burden that had weighed heavily on him since 1930, but especially in 1932. Hitler went dutifully through the motions, but he had no intention of coaxing the Catholic party into “the Government of National Concentration,” as it was now being called. After only a brief meeting with Prelate Ludwig Kaas, the Zentrum leader, Hitler reported to Hindenburg and the cabinet that unfortunately no progress in the talks was possible. The Zentrum was not prepared to join the government. No one was more surprised to learn this than Kaas, who was, in fact, open to entering the coalition and believed that his conversation with Hitler was only the beginning of negotiations. Hitler was misrepresenting his position, he protested to Hindenburg, but it was too late. The Reich President had already signed a decree dissolving the Reichstag and calling for new elections to be held on March 5. It was exactly what Hitler wanted.
Hitler was hopeful that with the power of the state behind him, the elections of March 5 would yield a Nazi majority, freeing the party from Hindenburg and its conservative coalition partners. With a working majority in place, he would pass an “enabling law,” granting the government the power to act independently for a period of time—four years is what he had in mind—without interference from the Reichstag and its quagmire of wrangling parties. It was an idea Hitler—and also Papen—had put forward in November, and which Hindenburg had rebuffed, but the Old Gentleman had softened, and this “Government of National Concentration,” he realized, seemed to offer the last best chance for a workable, meaning right-wing, parliamentary government.
On the night of February 1, Hitler addressed the nation for the first time as Reich chancellor. For many who had never actually heard him speak but knew his reputation as a blustering firebrand and fanatic, the national radio address must have come as something of a surprise. It was a different Hitler whose voice crackled over the airwaves that winter night. Missing was the usual bombast, the bellicose tirades, the fanatical anti-Semitic rants. Instead, a surprisingly measured, statesmanlike Hitler pleaded for national unity, mouthing platitudes about national self-reliance, German greatness, and world peace. He called for the restoration of Germany’s right to defend itself, a reference to the international disarmament conference under way in Geneva, but rather than excoriating the victorious Allies, as he had routinely done for more than a decade, he expressed his “most sincere wish for the welfare of Europe, and more, for the welfare of the whole world.” He was committed to the “preservation and maintenance of a peace which the world needs now more than ever before.” He even invoked the Almighty, piously pledging that his government would “extend its strong, protecting hand over Christianity as the basis of our entire morality and the family as the germ cell of the body of our people and state.”
Turning to the most pressing issue of the day, he announced a four-year plan to rebuild the economy, which would put the jobless back to work, rescue the peasantry from poverty, and restore middle-class prosperity, but he offered no specifics. There was a glancing reference to “a compulsory labor service” and a commitment to “the performance of social duties for the sick and aged,” but little else. To a nation battered by a progression of economic calamities—the hyperinflation, harsh stabilization, and the Great Depression—he sought to assure the public and the business community that there would be no radical experiments that would destabilize the currency or hurl Germany into even greater economic despair.
None of this could be achieved, however, until the scourge of Marxism was expunged from German life. If the Communists were to seize power, Hitler warned, it would be “a catastrophe of unfathomable dimensions. . . . Beginning with the family and ranging through all of the concepts of honor and loyalty, Volk und Vaterland, culture and economy, all the way to the eternal foundation of our morality and our faith, nothing has been spared by this negating, all destroying dogma.” Fourteen years of Marxism had ruined Germany; one year of Bolshevism would destroy it. Alarming signs of Communist subversion were everywhere. “In a single gigantic offensive of willpower and violence, the Communist method of madness is attempting to poison and disrupt the Volk.” The Communists represented a clear and present danger to the political, economic, and moral health of the people, and cleansing Germany of this toxic pollutant would be the first priority of the new government. “Now, German people,” he concluded, “give us four years, and then pass judgment upon us! True to the order of the Field Marshal, we shall begin. May Almighty God look mercifully on our work, lead our will on the right path, bless our wisdom, and reward us with the confidence of our people. We are not fighting for ourselves, but for Germany!”
In a revealing reflection of his priorities, Hitler, on the next day, moved to win the support—or at the very least the benevolent neutrality—of the army. It was arranged for General Blomberg, the new minister of defense, to invite Hitler to address a group of generals at the home of General Hammerstein, commander of the army. Blomberg was sympathetic to the Nazis; Hammerstein was not, and as long as Hindenburg was alive, the army was a potential threat to the new government. Hitler began by reassuring the generals that the army would remain the only armed force in Germany; he had no intention of transforming the SA into a people’s army—a concern that had grown steadily throughout 1932 thanks to provocative remarks by Röhm and other SA commanders. They were also relieved to hear that Hitler intended to keep the army out of politics and that it would not be expected to intervene in the event of domestic unrest, a possibility that in February 1933 seemed quite likely. Perhaps most importantly, Hitler announced that rearmament would be the government’s highest priority. The army would be vastly expanded and would be well equipped not only to defend Germany’s frontiers but to be prepared for an expansion to the east, which, Hitler declared, was essential for the future health of the German people. Despite the initially cool reception he received and lingering reservations privately expressed by some of those present, Hitler’s remarks met with general approval. Few were enthusiastic supporters of Hitler, but for most the political alternatives in Germany seemed to be either the Nazis or the Reds, and for them that was no choice at all.
With the army apparently pacified, the Government of National Concentration wasted little time in translating Hitler’s words into action. Many Germans worried that Hitler’s assumption of power would push the country into civil war, a fear vigorously stoked by the Nazi press, which filled its pages with alleged leftist plots to overthrow the government. After all, the Social Democrats and Communists, implacable foes of the Nazis, were a force to be reckoned with. Together the two parties continued to draw an electorate larger than that of the NSDAP, and both commanded powerful street organizations. Surely the showdown would now come.
That anxiety was heightened when on January 31 the Communists called for a general strike to protest Hitler’s appointment as chancellor. It was, the Nazis claimed, the opening salvo of the expected Communist assault. Under the circumstances, it took little effort to convince Hindenburg—and much of the public—that the nation was in peril, and on February 2 the Reich President issued an emergency decree, “For the Protection of the German People.” The decree empowered the government to ban all public meetings, newspapers, leaflets, and pamphlets that brought the new government and its officials “into contempt.” In effect, it permitted the government to suppress Communist and Social Democratic campaign events, harass and arrest their functionaries, and to close any publication that offered even a hint of criticism of the Government of National Concentration. With a Reichstag election looming, the decree dealt a crippling blow to the Social Democratic and Communist campaigns, made criticism of the government a crime, and opened the door to “legal” harassment of opposing parties.
That decree was immediately followed by another that dissolved all elected bodies in Prussia, the country’s largest state and a stronghold of pro-democratic forces, and transferred all power to the national government. Both measures were blatantly unconstitutional, but aside from a protest to the Reichstag Rules Committee by the Social Democrats and their initiation of legal proceedings against the government in the Supreme Court, these actions provoked little public outcry and no sustained resistance.
The critical question was who would enforce these measures and how. The answer was not long in coming. Although still technically subordinate to Papen, Göring, acting in his capacity as Reich commissar for the Prussian Ministry of the Interior, immediately assumed control over all police forces in three fifths of Germany. Göring had played an important role in the frantic backdoor negotiations in the months leading to Hitler’s appointment as chancellor, but held no formal position in the party hierarchy nor had he built up a cohort of followers within the ranks. Yet in the first crucial weeks of the Hitler government, it was Göring, with his boundless energy and naked ambition, who drove events, and it was his ruthless will to power that set the tone of cold-blooded brutality and utter contempt for law that would define Nazi rule.
He did not wait for orders from Papen or even from Hitler. In his first days in office, he detached the section of the Berlin Police Presidium that had dealt with political matters during the Weimar years and created a separate entity that would report directly to him. It would be a secret state police or Gestapo, short for Geheime Staatspolizei, to gather information and conduct investigations of political events and personalities that might have criminal implications. To head the Gestapo he turned not to a fellow Nazi but to Rudolf Diels, a conservative, high-ranking career official in the Interior Ministry. Then, acting on his own, he immediately initiated a massive purge of the Prussian civil government at all levels, dismissing hundreds of officials—Social Democrats, liberals, Jews—anyone whose loyalty to the new Reich government was in question. Most important, he purged top police officials in fourteen major Prussian cities, replacing them with Nazis and hard-line conservatives. That was only the beginning. On February 17 he issued an order demanding that “the police must in all circumstances avoid even the appearance of a hostile attitude, still less the impression of persecution, against the patriotic associations”—the SA and Stahlhelm. “I expect from all police authorities that they maintain the best relations with these organizations which comprise the most important state-constructive forces. Patriotic activities and propaganda are to be supported by every means.” Furthermore, it was to be “the business of the police to abet every form of national propaganda.”
The activities of “subversive organizations,” on the other hand, were “to be combated with the most drastic methods.” The police were to move against “Communist terrorist acts” with “all severity.” When necessary, “weapons must be ruthlessly used.” To emphasize the point, Göring explained that “police officers who make use of firearms in the execution of their duties will, without regard to the consequences of such use, benefit by my protection. . . . Every official must bear in mind that failure to act will be regarded more seriously than an error due to taking action.” A few days later, at a closed meeting with police officials who were sworn to secrecy, he informed them that he knew that many of his instructions “conflicted with the present rights and laws of the Reich and its member states,” but he assured them that “every official who follows my instructions may be sure of my absolute protection.” Police officials need not worry that they might afterward be found guilty of violating the constitution. “There will be no attorney and no judge to punish an official for following the new course.”
On February 20, Göring summoned some two dozen leading industrialists to join him at his official residence to discuss economic matters with Hitler. Many of those leaders arrived at Göring’s offices expecting a discussion such as they had had with previous chancellors, a give-and-take about economic issues. Gustav Krupp von Bohlen, president of the powerful Reich Association of German Industrialists, had prepared a statement, listing business concerns about Nazi economic policy as well as a series of questions for the new government. Krupp and the assembled leaders of industry were in for a rude shock. First, Göring kept these influential gentlemen waiting for a quarter hour, and Hitler, true to form, arrived later still. After perfunctory handshakes all around, he launched into a rambling monologue of an hour and a half that betrayed little understanding of or interest in economic matters. Hitler assured his listeners that the new government would undertake no economic experiments and recapitulated his well-known views about the primacy of politics over economics, his support for the fundamentals of capitalism, and the crucial importance of the upcoming election. He warned of the looming danger of Communism and his determination to smash it once and for all. “Now we stand before the final election,” he declared. “Whatever the outcome, there will be no retreat. One way or another, if the election does not decide, the decision will be brought about by other means.” No questions were invited, no opinions sought, but as Hitler exited the room, no one was in any doubt about the ominous meaning of his words.
Göring then took the floor and spoke more bluntly, explaining to the assembled businessmen their role in the “national uprising.” He did not mince words. Underscoring the importance of the ongoing campaign, he indicated that the government needed money for this crucial showdown and darkly suggested that those who were not on the front lines of the conflict had an obligation to make financial sacrifices for the cause. This might be easier for them to bear, he added, if the gentlemen understood that the March 5 election would be “the last for the next five years, probably even for the next hundred years.” (The Nazis were inordinately fond of predictions that this or that would last for one hundred years or maybe even a thousand.) When he finished his remarks, he departed the meeting as abruptly as Hitler.
At Göring’s departure, Hjalmar Schacht, the highly respected former president of the Reichsbank, who had long been a Nazi sympathizer and had helped organize the meeting, rose to speak. Whereas Göring had been aggressive but vague, Schacht presented the assembled gentlemen with the tab. The government expected a contribution of three million marks for the campaign. This, his listeners realized, had been the hidden agenda of the meeting all along. There was some grousing. Some still labored under the assumption that Papen, a favorite of the business community, was an equal partner in the cabinet, and insisted that a portion of their contributions go to the Battle Front Black-White-Red, an electoral alliance formed by Papen, Hugenberg, and Seldte of the Stahlhelm. The meeting, as one historian aptly described it, amounted to nothing more than a shakedown. The industrialists did their duty. That evening and in subsequent days Schacht was able to collect pledges of the full three million marks. In March Hitler would reward him by reinstalling him as president of the Reichsbank and a year later naming him Reich minister of economics.
After Göring’s meeting with the industrialists, funds began pouring into the party’s war chest. “Money is there,” Goebbels reported on February 22. “Now we can get going.” With the necessary cash at last on hand and the Brown Shirts conducting a campaign of intimidation and terror against the party’s enemies, a National Socialist landslide did not seem at all far-fetched.
Still, the party wanted to leave nothing to chance. On February 22, claiming that the Communist threat was so menacing that the police lacked the manpower to meet the challenge, Göring announced the creation of an auxiliary police force to be staffed by “volunteers.” Where would the state find these volunteers? Almost overnight, some fifty thousand SA, SS, and Stahlhelm men “volunteered” and were sworn in as “Hilfspolizei,” or auxiliary police. They immediately appeared on the streets all across Prussia wearing their brown Nazi uniforms with the swastika on the left arm, and on the right a white armband signifying auxiliary police. Technically they were under the authority of the regular police, but this was an obvious fiction. These volunteers were the same thugs who for years had clashed with the police, fought pitched battles with the Communists, committed murder and arson, and harassed ordinary citizens on the streets. Now they were the law. Less than a month after Hitler assumed the chancellorship, a state-sanctioned reign of terror had begun.
Among the new and most potent weapons Goebbels wielded in the campaign was the radio. In previous campaigns the government parties had denied Hitler access to the radio; now the tables would be turned. “We make no bones about it,” Goebbels told a group of radio general managers and directors he had summoned to Berlin, “the radio belongs to us, to no one else! And we will place the radio at the service of our idea, no other idea shall be expressed through it.” Virtually every night throughout the campaign, Goebbels flooded the airwaves with speeches by Nazi leaders, monopolizing evening programming. He arranged for Hitler to speak in every town that had its own broadcasting station, and his speeches would be carried nationwide. Loudspeakers were to be strategically placed so that Hitler’s voice would blare through every street and square, reverberating in the shops and restaurants and bars. Goebbels provided a dramatic introduction to Hitler’s appearances, setting the scene in a breathless tone intended to “convey . . . the magical atmosphere of our huge demonstrations.”
In one radio broadcast Goebbels also issued a chilling warning to the party’s opponents. “If the Jewish press”—in the Nazi lexicon any non-Nazi newspaper was “Jewish” or “Marxist” or both—“complains that the National Socialist movement is broadcasting Hitler’s speeches nationwide, then I say to them, ‘what you’ve shown us how to do, we are now doing ourselves.’ ” Then, in a voice literally brimming with menace, he added: “If the Jewish newspapers try to get around our emergency decrees or think that they can intimidate our movement, then I say to them: ‘You should beware. One day our patience will come to an end, and then we will stuff shut your lying Jewish mouths.’ ”
The Nazis wove two major motifs into their campaign. One was a positive message: Hitler was rebuilding the nation, putting things right after fourteen years of democratic misrule, cowardice, and corruption. He called on patriotic Germans to join him in his fight to overcome the religious, regional, and class cleavages that had sapped German strength and eroded its resolve. He needed their help. Second and far more prominent was his determination to eradicate Marxism. Both themes were on display in Hitler’s first public appearance as chancellor on February 10 at the Berlin Sportpalast. It was also his first campaign speech for the March 5 election, and on this occasion Hitler the reserved statesman, the conciliatory chancellor, retreated to the wings, while Hitler the demagogic leader of the National Socialist movement strode boldly onto center stage. Gone were the dark blue business suit, black tie, and patent leather shoes; he marched through the wildly cheering crowd in his brown party uniform, the red swastika armband in place; his polished jack boots gleaming in the bright lights. All around the great oval auditorium a stream of swastika banners proclaimed anti-Marxist slogans.
As was so often the case, Hitler began haltingly but picked up steam as he rumbled onto familiar tracks. He recounted his spectacular rise from obscurity; he recapitulated the obligatory broadsides against the men of November 1918; condemned the corrosive system that for fourteen years had produced nothing but misery and despair, leaving millions without work and thousands with bankrupt businesses and family farms lost to the banks. He lamented the degradation of the culture and the loss of pride in being German. It was time to save the nation, and just as he had built a party of twelve million from a tiny group of seven, he would rebuild Germany, restore its faith and self-respect. These efforts would be guided by one realization, one conviction: “We shall never believe in foreign help, never in help which lies outside our own nation, outside our own Volk. The future of the German Volk lies in itself alone.
“Our opponents are asking about our program,” he thundered. “They say ‘Show us the details of your program. . . . ’ ” Well, he might well ask the worthy gentlemen, “ ‘Where was your program over the past fourteen years?’ ” Surely, he said mockingly, you don’t “intend to now suddenly recall that you bear the responsibility for [these] fourteen years.” After the endless string of calamities they had inflicted on Germany, “the German people must be rebuilt from top to bottom, just as you destroyed it from top to bottom! That is our program!”
In order to rebuild the nation “we must eliminate the causes of our own disintegration and thus bring about the reconciliation of the German classes. . . . The parties which support this division can . . . be certain that as long as the Almighty keeps me alive, my resolve and my will to destroy them will know no bounds. Never, never,” Hitler bellowed, his rasping voice ramping ever higher, “will I stray from the task of stamping out Marxism and its side effects in Germany, and never will I be willing to make any compromise on this point. There can be only one victor: either Marxism or the German Volk! And Germany will triumph.”
As the campaign began, a wave of intimidation and terror broke over the country. SA gangs roamed the streets; the police were co-opted, the courts paralyzed; legal norms turned upside down; the very meaning of law in flux. Storm Troopers disrupted political gatherings, arrested Social Democratic and Communist officials, and assaulted Jews. Leftist newspapers were banned for a few days here and there, their offices raided, their campaign rallies broken up. “It is a disgrace which gets worse with every day that passes,” Viktor Klemperer, a Jewish professor of philology in Dresden, confided to his diary on February 21. “And there’s not a sound from anyone and everyone’s keeping his head down, Jewry most of all and their democratic press. . . . What is strangest of all is how one is blind in the face of events, how no one has a clue to the real balance of power.”
On February 24 the SA auxiliary police raided the Karl Liebknecht House, the Communist headquarters in Berlin. Only a few clerks and low-level functionaries were in the building and almost all of the party’s documents had already been removed. This did not prevent Göring from claiming to have found “tons of seditious material,” clearly revealing that a Communist coup was in the works. None of these incriminating documents were produced in the following days (or ever), even for the Nazi press, which did nothing to tamp down the party’s hysteria about an imminent Communist uprising.
Then, in the night of February 27–28, with the campaign going as the Nazis planned and the election only one week away, an event occurred that dramatically altered the pace of events. Hitler was enjoying an evening of relaxation with Goebbels and his wife, Magda, at their home when shortly after 9:30 Putzi Hanfstaengl telephoned with startling news: from the window of his quarters in the Wilhelmstrasse he could see rippling sheets of flame rising from the Reichstag. Goebbels was skeptical—was this another of Putzi’s bad jokes? Come see for yourself, Hanfstaengl told him brusquely and hung up. Stepping outside into the darkness, Hitler could see an ominous crimson glow beyond the black treetops of the Tiergarten. Within minutes Hitler and Goebbels arrived on the scene. Climbing out of their black limousines, they found the area cordoned off, fire brigades and police units swarming everywhere. Swollen fire hoses tessellated the pavement, sirens wailed, and through the tumult of soot and flying grit the sound of crackling flames, breaking glass, and falling timbers. The imposing glass dome of the building had shattered. The wood-paneled plenary chamber, with its ancient benches and cushioned chairs, its heavy curtains and dry-as-a-bone flooring, had gone up like a tinderbox.
Göring, dressed in an expensive camel-hair coat and wearing a brown hat turned up in front in the stylish Potsdam manner, was already on the scene, bustling about, bellowing commands. The fire was largely under control, he reported, as Hitler and his party approached. He had initially been worried about the Gobelin tapestries, but they had been saved. “It’s the Communists,” he declared. There was no doubt about it. A number of Communist deputies had been seen in the building only twenty minutes before the fire broke out. Surely this was the beginning of the long-anticipated Communist uprising. “God grant that this may be the Communists,” Hitler remarked to Sefton Delmer, an English journalist who managed to accompany Hitler and his party as they toured the still-burning Reichstag. “If the Communists got hold of Europe and had control of it six months—what am I saying!—two months—the whole continent would be aflame like this building.” To an impeccably dressed Papen, who arrived fresh from a formal dinner party in Hindenburg’s honor, Hitler added, “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!”
Moments later Rudolf Diels, the career police official whom Göring had promoted to head the new Prussian secret state police (Gestapo), reported that a suspect had been apprehended in the building—a young, soot-covered Dutchman with strong anti-Fascist sentiments and vague ties to the Dutch Communist Party. The man, twenty-four-year-old Marinus van der Lubbe, defiantly admitted to starting the fire and steadfastly claimed to have acted alone. Over the past week he had set fires in other government buildings, he boasted, though not as successfully as the Reichstag conflagration. His actions were intended as a cry of protest against the new government. His confession, Diels thought, had the ring of truth to it and expressed skepticism that this was the signal for a Communist insurrection. From his numerous interrogations of arrested KPD officials and his review of confiscated Communist documents, he had come to the conclusion that the Communists were in disarray and were simply incapable of organizing a mass action to overthrow the government. The call for a general strike, the threats of a popular uprising, were all talk, his sources told him, intended above all to embarrass the Social Democrats and reveal their timidity.
When Diels tried to explain this, Hitler, his face flaming red with heat and excitement, wasn’t having it. In an outburst of rage that bordered on hysteria, he shrieked, “Now we’ll show them! Anyone who stands in our way will be mown down! The German people have been soft too long. Every Communist official must be shot. All Communist deputies must be hanged this very night. All friends of the Communists must be locked up. And that goes for the Social Democrats and the Reichsbanner as well!” After listening to this unbridled rant, Diels turned to the Reichstag building inspector standing beside him and muttered, “This is a madhouse.”
The little group adjourned to the Reichstag President’s office in the building, where Hitler continued his tirade. Still in a fury, Hitler ordered Göring to take all necessary measures to crush the Communist uprising, and Göring, himself highly agitated, quickly obeyed. He hurriedly issued a flood of sweeping and confusing instructions to Diels, ordering him to put all police on emergency footing with instructions for the mass arrest of Communists and Social Democrats, and a “shoot to kill” order in the event of resistance. Later a directive was sent by police radio to all law enforcement officials to arrest not only all Communist delegates in the Reichstag, but in all provincial legislatures and town councils as well. All Communist functionaries were to be rounded up, all Communist newspapers were to be suppressed. Some seven thousand Communist functionaries, legislative deputies, journalists, and fellow travelers were arrested.
Hitler and Goebbels left the still-burning Reichstag, convinced that they had witnessed the first shot in the Communist insurrection. They rushed to the Prussian Ministry of the Interior, where they convened an impromptu conference of police and government officials. Hitler repeated his order for the mass arrest of Communists, and one official suggested that a new emergency decree against arson and terroristic attacks be issued to give legal cover for the arrests to follow. Hitler agreed but decided that it should be discussed at a meeting of the cabinet he would call for the next morning. From there Hitler and Goebbels rushed to the offices of the Völkischer Beobachter where they supervised the paper’s coverage of the crime. So far there had been no discussion of more sweeping measures.
The next morning, the Reich cabinet met in emergency session. The first item on the agenda was Hitler’s insistence that despite the expected Communist uprising, the March 5 elections must go forward. Papen favored declaring martial law, handing power over to the army (and Hindenburg), which Hitler was not about to do. Besides, no election could be held under martial law, and Hitler was convinced that after the Reichstag fire and the ensuing anti-Communist hysteria, the Nazis would prevail in the election, perhaps winning a majority. Wilhelm Frick then produced a short draft of a measure he had drawn up in preparation for the meeting. The gist of the document was that the regime would impose a form of martial law to be enforced not by the army but by the civilian government. The model was Papen’s July 20 seizure of power in Prussia during the previous year. The draft suspended freedom of the press, freedom of expression, freedom of association, freedom of assembly, and arrogated to the government the authority to open private mail and to place wiretaps on telephones. It also gave the regime the right to make arrests without warrant or judicial review and to detain persons for an unlimited amount of time. The police would be empowered to conduct warrantless searches and confiscate property “beyond the legal limits otherwise proscribed.”
The draft was accepted with little discussion or demur, and that same day Reich President Hindenburg was prevailed upon to issue an emergency decree, “For the Protection of People and State.” Hitler was careful to frame the decree as a purely defensive measure, intended as “a ruthless settling of accounts” with the Communists, something the conservative cabinet majority could certainly endorse, and, he insisted, the execution of the decree “must not be dependent on legal considerations.” The blanket suspension of civil rights embodied in the decree provoked no opposition. Under the circumstances, it did not seem so ominous. After all, it was to be only a temporary measure, the conservatives still held a majority in the cabinet, and, they complacently believed, still held the real power in the new government. To further allay fears of an emerging Nazi dictatorship, Hitler solemnly declared that the suspension of civil rights was only temporary. As he declared to Sefton Delmer, “I myself am only too anxious for the normal state of affairs to be restored as quickly as possible. . . . First, however, we must crush Communism out of existence.”
Although it is not clear that Hitler at first perceived the full implications of the hastily drafted edict, the Reichstag Fire Decree, as it came to be known, put an end to all civil rights guaranteed by the Weimar constitution and provided the legal basis for Nazi suppression of all opposition by “enemies of the state.” In four short paragraphs it sounded the death knell of democracy in Germany and served as the founding document of the Third Reich.
The Communists meanwhile vehemently denied any responsibility for the fire, claiming instead that the Nazis had set the blaze, and international opinion tended to agree. After all, the Nazis were the obvious beneficiaries of the fire, and the swift Nazi response seemed less a spontaneous reaction than an act of premeditation. Virtually no one believed that the enormous conflagration had been the work of one man, least of all van der Lubbe, whose police photographs seemed to offer pictorial evidence that the young man was mentally defective. (He was not.) So either the Communists had torched the building or the Nazis. Variations on exactly how and by whom were myriad, but in this view the Nazi reaction was so rapid and radical that it had to be a Nazi plot, planned and executed as justification for a severe crackdown on the left.
No definitive evidence of responsibility for the fire has ever emerged, but much hangs on the interpretation. Some historians have claimed that the Reichstag fire was part of a Nazi plan to establish the regime’s total domination over state and society, a calculated pretext for the oppressive measures that followed. Among other suggestive evidence, they point to the fact that a tunnel ran from Göring’s office directly to the speaker’s podium in the Reichstag, where, they hypothesize, the blaze began. They also note suspicious comments attributed to various SA men and other party leaders, especially Göring, in the preceding days, as they loudly claimed that the Communists were planning a campaign of public unrest and arson against government buildings. It remains a plausible case.
But the most compelling evidence to date strongly suggests that neither the Nazis nor the Communists set the fire, but that, unlikely as it might seem, Marinus van der Lubbe acted alone. But if the Nazis had not planned it, Hitler and the Nazi leadership saw in the Reichstag fire an unanticipated opportunity for decisive action against the Communists. It was exactly the sort of improvisation that would characterize the first months of Nazi rule—indeed, for much of the Third Reich. The Nazis certainly made every effort to link the Communists to the crime, arresting hundreds of Communist functionaries and formally charging Ernst Torgler, head of the Communist Reichstag delegation, and Georgi Dimitrov, a representative of the Communist International living in Berlin, and two other Bulgarian Communists who happened to be in the city. These actions were not simply for propaganda purposes; Hitler’s fear and rage were not feigned. Göring, Hitler, and the Nazi leadership were convinced that the long anticipated Communist revolution had finally come. There could be no doubt, Goebbels recorded in his diary on February 27, that the Reichstag fire represented “a final Communist attempt to use arson and terror to create disorder and in the resultant general panic to seize power. The decisive moment has come. Göring has set everything in motion.” Despite an utter lack of evidence, the Nazis had for years so demonized the Communists, had so stoked their own imagination with fantastic charges of devilish Bolshevik plots that they came to believe it themselves. They had expected a Communist uprising; now it had come. Nazi actions around the Reichstag fire were driven less by clever design than their own feverish fantasies.
Göring boasted publicly about the incriminating documents he had discovered in the Karl Liebknecht House—documents that revealed that the Communists were hatching a vast plot to overthrow the government. They intended to spread terror by setting fire to public buildings in Berlin and elsewhere; they planned to disrupt the nation’s electrical grid, murder public figures, and kidnap their wives and children; they even intended to poison the water supply. Despite Diels’s plea not to do so, Göring insisted that there should be a trial before the German Supreme Court in Leipzig, in which he would act as special prosecutor. It was to be a show trial of the first order. But the damning evidence Göring claimed to have found did not materialize in the Nazi press or at the trial. Publishing in exile, the left-leaning journal Die Weltbühne claimed that the cabinet, upon examining the documents, had insisted that they were such clumsy forgeries that they could not be presented to the court. In a humiliating blow to Göring, the court found no firm evidence of a Communist conspiracy and acquitted Torgler, Dimitrov, and the Bulgarian Communists. Van der Lubbe alone was convicted in September and beheaded in January 1934.
Regardless of who started the fire, the Nazis wasted no time in exploiting it. On March 2, Göring made the regime’s intentions brutally clear: “It will be my chief objective to expunge the pestilence of Communism. . . . I don’t need the Reichstag fire to move against Communism, and I’m not betraying any secret when I say that if it were left to Hitler and me, the perpetrators would already be swinging on the gallows.” In a directive to police officials across Germany, he made clear that they were to interpret the Reichstag Fire Decree broadly. The police and their auxiliaries were to move against the Communists “but also those who work with Communists, or support or further, even indirectly, their criminal goals.” It was open season not only on the left but on anyone suspected of opposition, no matter how insignificant, to the regime.
The enactment of the Reichstag Fire Decree removed the last gossamer restraints on the SA. All across Germany the Brown Shirts unleashed a campaign of unrestrained terror. Storm Troopers and party radicals, acting on their own initiative, seized city halls, purged police departments, schools, and cultural institutions. Jails and prisons overflowed with political prisoners taken into “protective custody”; Jews, Social Democrats, Communists, troublesome clergy, anyone who had crossed them, found themselves under assault. Grudges were settled, revenge taken. Ali Höhler, the convicted killer of Horst Wessel, was torn from his prison cell and murdered in a forest near Berlin. The police made some formal arrests and filed charges, but the SA acted as a law unto itself—as, indeed, it was. Storm Troopers dragged their victims to old warehouses, empty factories and schools, into cellars, where they were beaten and tortured. These makeshift prisons, or camps as they were called, sprouted like poisonous weeds all across the country—there were more than one hundred in Berlin alone. They followed no order from above; there was no coordinated plan of action for these spontaneous prison camps. As Rudolf Diels remarked, these hellholes “weren’t established; one day they were just there.”
Formal charges were rarely filed; few records kept; prisoners were tortured, beaten to death, hanged, or shot, their battered bodies dumped in vacant lots, alleyways, forest paths, or left floating in ponds and canals. Some “committed suicide” by leaping from a high window; others were “shot while trying to escape.” There was no public outcry. “No one dares to say anything more,” Viktor Klemperer wrote in his diary, “everyone is afraid. . . . It is shocking how day after day naked acts of violence, breaches of the law, barbaric opinions appear quite undisguised as official decree. . . . I can no longer get rid of the feeling of disgust and shame. And no one stirs; everyone trembles, keeps out of sight.”
Attention was now focused on the March 5 election. The Communist press was suppressed indefinitely and Social Democratic newspapers were prohibited for two weeks—until after the election. Neither party held campaign rallies or other public events. Many of their leaders and functionaries were arrested by the police—the entire KPD Reichstag delegation was in jail—or held in makeshift SA prisons. Some had gone underground; others escaped abroad. Gangs of Brown Shirts roamed the cities, pounding on doors, “getting out the vote”; truckloads of Storm Troopers cruised through the streets, whipping up enthusiasm—and fear. On election day voters faced widespread intimidation. In some smaller towns the Nazis themselves manned the polling places; in others the secret ballot was discarded altogether, and, with SA men looking on, voters were “encouraged” to cast their ballots publicly. Many people felt so threatened, so afraid that the Nazis were listening to their phone calls, reading their mail, and opening their ballots that they complied without complaint.
The election of March 1933 was not the last free election of the Weimar era; it was the first sham election of the Third Reich. Under the circumstances, the Nazis were expected to prevail, and it came as no surprise that the party rebounded from its dismal November performance, its vote jumping from 11,737,821 to 17,200,000. Goebbels hailed the outcome as an overwhelming victory, a crowning achievement to his years of work. “We are the masters of the Reich and in Prussia. Everything else shrinks to insignificance.” Yet despite all the intimidation, coercion, and outright violence, the Nazis were still unable to attain the majority they sought. Prevented from mounting anything like a full-fledged campaign, the Social Democrats still drew a remarkable 7,100,000 votes, the Communists 4,800,000, the Catholic Zentrum and its Bavarian sister party, 5,400,000. The Conservatives, despite being Hitler’s coalition partners, insisted on running an independent campaign and captured another 3,100,000 votes. Altogether these parties received roughly 56 percent of the vote, leading journalist Konrad Heiden to observe that “a majority did not want Hitler, but it wanted nothing else. There was no united will to confront the united will of the National Socialists.” The Nazis had captured 43.9 percent of the vote, and with the 8 percent garnered by their Conservative partners polled, the Government of National Concentration now held a majority of seats in the new Reichstag. Hitler felt it something of a disappointment that he would still be dependent on the Conservatives and ultimately on Hindenburg, but he acted immediately to take advantage of the situation.
The first priority of the new regime was to sweep away all organized opposition and to assume control of the civil administration at every level of government. The Nazis referred to this policy as “Gleichschaltung,” a term derived from electrical usage, meaning all switches were put onto the same circuit so that all could be activated by throwing a single master switch. The term is usually translated as “coordination,” but is more aptly rendered as “bringing onto line.” Initially it referred to bringing all governmental departments and agencies under Nazi control, dismissing unreliable personnel, especially Jews, Social Democrats, and other political “undesirables,” and installing Nazis in their positions. Göring had begun the process in Prussia in February, and within a week of the March 5 election the Nazis seized control of all the German states. Between March 5 and March 9, Hitler dispatched Reich commissars—Nazi governors—to all the German states not already headed by National Socialists. Their ostensible mission was to curb unrest and restore order, although the only civil unrest being stirred up in Germany was the work of Storm Troopers and other Nazi militants. The initial impetus came from Berlin, but the Nazi seizure of power was to a surprising extent an exercise in grassroots politics, as fanatical local Nazis, acting without explicit orders from above, took matters into their own hands. Everywhere they bullied local authorities into submission, pushing aside city councils and state governments. In fact, Hitler appointed the Reich commissars not so much to deal with threats from the left, recalcitrant clergy, or other enemies of the regime but to ride herd on party radicals whose violent excesses and calls for a “revolution from below” were a growing source of concern.
Bavaria, which had historically resisted every threat to its independence, was the last state government to succumb to Nazi pressure. Munich’s possible resistance had worried the party leadership, but on March 9 the Bavarian government meekly ceded power to Hitler’s appointee, General Ritter von Epp, who appeared in Munich backed by a phalanx of armed Storm Troopers. Epp was well known and respected in Bavaria. He had commanded Bavarian troops in the Great War and had led the Free Corps’s bloody suppression of the Bavarian Communist Republic in 1919. Foremost among the many Nazi stalwarts who assumed powerful positions in the new Bavarian government were SA commander Ernst Röhm as minister without portfolio and SS leader Heinrich Himmler, who assumed leadership of the Munich police. Himmler quickly appointed his SS deputy Reinhard Heydrich to take charge of the Bavarian Political Police. Since 1930 Heydrich had led the party’s Security Service (Sicherheitsdienst or SD), gathering intelligence on the NSDAP’s enemies, real and imagined. Although it had hardly seemed so at the time, these appointments proved to be the first stepping-stone to ultimate power for Himmler, Heydrich, and the SS.
The dispatch of the Reich commissars, however, did little to restrain the SA. Storm Troopers attacked German citizens on the streets for failing to give the Hitler salute to passing SA formations or join in the singing of the Nazi Party anthem; they roughed up—sometimes severely—foreign businessmen, tourists, and even diplomats and their families. Formal complaints from foreign governments flooded into the Foreign Office, and on March 10 Hitler made an effort to bring the SA under control. Disingenuously claiming that these excesses were mostly the work of Communist spies who had infiltrated the SA, he nonetheless made an appeal to the Storm Troopers and other radicals to show restraint. “Unprincipled characters . . . are attempting to compromise the Party with individual actions (Einzelaktionen) which are not in any way related to the great task of the national uprising and can only damage and belittle the accomplishments of our Movement. . . . Men of the SA and SS! You must apprehend such creatures yourselves . . . and call them to account for their actions; you must turn them over to the police without delay, regardless of who they may be.” He reminded them that “as of today, the National Government has the executive power in Germany in its hands” and reassured them that “the national uprising will continue to be carried out methodically,” but “under control from above. . . . From this moment on all individual actions must cease. From now on, whoever attempts to disrupt our administrative and social life through Einzelaktionen, is acting consciously against the national regime.” These admonitions were largely ignored at the grass roots, where beatings, murder, and unauthorized arrests continued. The response of SA leaders was “That’s what the Führer must say for foreign consumption. We know he wants the opposite.” Some of the more egregious excesses subsided, but despite Hitler’s order, few practical steps were taken to rein in the SA. The radicals had read him correctly.
Insubordination by radical SA troops bent on exacting revenge against all opponents, real and imagined, was a potential problem but one Hitler was willing to tolerate in the first critical months of the regime. He needed them as enforcers, as threats to potential opponents. At this point, the most disturbing threat to the Nazi consolidation of power was the Reich President, and behind him the army. What would happen, Nazi leaders worried, if Hindenburg awoke one morning and decided that the “national revolution” had gone too far? Might he push the recently installed Hitler government aside and install a military dictatorship as a prelude to a restoration of the monarchy?
In a bow to the traditional fixtures of the old right, the Nazis decided to use the occasion of the opening session of the new Reichstag to stage an extravagant display of reverence for the venerable field marshal and the Prussian military tradition. The time and place for the ceremony were intended to project a compelling symbolic meaning. It was to be held in Potsdam, the historic residence of the Hohenzollern monarchy, in the storied Potsdam Garrison Church, which held the tombs of Frederick William I, “the Soldier King,” and his son, Frederick the Great. It was hallowed ground, steeped in Prussian dynastic and military history, and the date, March 21, was the anniversary of Bismarck’s convening of the first Reichstag in the newly united Germany in 1871.
The day began with religious services at the St. Nicholai Church for the Protestant dignitaries and in St. Peter and Paul for Catholics. Hitler and Goebbels chose not to attend either and instead visited the graves of fallen Nazi “martyrs” in a Berlin cemetery before motoring to Potsdam. It was a telling choice. On March 21, the streets of Potsdam were draped in the black, white, and red of the Empire, interspersed with brilliant swastika banners. Reichswehr troops in their steel helmets and field gray uniforms lined the route. Hitler, incongruously sporting a top hat and cutaway, and Hindenburg, in the uniform of an Imperial field marshal, spiked helmet, and the grand cordon of the Black Eagle, arrived together, cheered along their way by a multitude of enthusiastic well-wishers. Prominent among the guests of honor were generals of the Reichswehr, the crown prince in his army regalia, and military notables from past wars, all resplendent in their antediluvian dress uniforms—this, the setting proclaimed, was Potsdam, not Weimar.
Assembled in the crowded interior of the church were the Imperial family, foreign dignitaries, ambassadors, the ministers of the Hitler cabinet, and the newly elected Reichstag deputies. The Communists, of course, were nowhere to be seen—they were locked away in jail—and the Social Democrats refused to attend such a shameless paean to Hitler and the faded grandees of the old order. All rose when Hindenburg, accompanied by a respectful Hitler, entered. “Hitler,” French ambassador François-Poncet observed, “looked like a timid newcomer being introduced by an important protector into a company to which he does not belong. Who could have believed that this wan man with such vulgar features, dressed in an ill-fitting coat and in appearance so respectful and so modest, was the more powerful of the two personages.” An awed hush fell upon the guests as Hindenburg turned to the gallery where was seated the Imperial family and raised his field marshal’s baton in a solemn salute to the empty chair of his exiled Kaiser Wilhelm II.
In his brief opening address, Hindenburg praised the new legally elected majority cabinet and exhorted it to be guided, in its exuberant youth, by the virtues and values of old Prussia—honor, duty, loyalty, and hard work. Hitler then took his position at the ornate rostrum, and, facing Hindenburg seated just a few feet away, gave an abbreviated recapitulation of his standard stump speech—Weimar’s failures, the ignominy of Versailles, the calumny of the Allies in assigning guilt for the war to the German state and its people, all well-worn themes. Notably absent, however, was the usual stormy rhetoric, the angry bombast. On this occasion a solemn Hitler reached for the inspirational, summoning the nation to join with him in his struggle to restore Germany’s prosperity, patriotism, and standing in a peaceful world.
After the shameful end to the Great War, he declared, “while the German people and the German Reich . . . became mired in internal political conflict and discord and the economy drifted into ruin, a new group of Germans gathered, Germans who with faithful trust in their own people, wished to form it into a new community. It was to this young Germany that you, Herr Generalfeldmarschall, entrusted the leadership of the Reich.” On March 5, the people had given the new government a majority and in so doing had “restored the national honor within a few short weeks and, thanks to your understanding, Herr Reich President, consummated the marriage between the symbols of old glory and young strength.” At the conclusion of these two sober declarations, Hindenburg rose and stepped stiffly down into the crypt, where, head bowed, he communed in silence with the two long dead Prussian kings.
The festivities inside over, the party adjourned to the steps of the church where they reviewed marching columns of Storm Troopers, SS men, Stahlhelm, and Reichswehr troops. Cannons fired in salute; military bands played. During the military review Hitler was content to remain in the background, yielding center stage to Hindenburg, who must have thought himself transported back to the glories of the old empire. In such a scene it was easy to imagine that Hitler was preparing the ground for a restoration of the monarchy. For weeks he had hinted to conservatives that he was at least open to such a move. Certainly the crown prince seemed to think so, watching the passing troops as if they were marching in review for him. The most compelling image of the day came when Hitler, in a studied display of deference, bowed low and offered his hand to the field marshal who towered above him like a stone pillar. It was, in today’s political idiom, a staged photo op, and that image, captured in a photograph, appeared on postcards and in newspapers throughout the country. It was the message of the day, and it proved wildly popular. That night, torchlight parades were held in cities around the country, each with this same theme of fusion between the glories of the old and the revivifying energies of the new. The Day of Potsdam had been a triumph.
That same day, some three hundred miles away in a small Bavarian village, another side of the “national revolution” was on display. While national radio gave minute-by-minute coverage of the events in Potsdam, Heinrich Himmler, in his capacity as police president of Munich, announced the opening of “a concentration camp for political prisoners” at Dachau. This new institution, he explained, would hold some five thousand prisoners, primarily Communists, who were too dangerous to be released from the already clogged jails. Contrary to the widely circulating rumors, he reassured the public that the prisoners would be well treated and would be held only as long as necessary for their “reeducation.” Press releases, some with accompanying photographs, emphasized that the camp, and others that were being built around the country, were necessary to preserve law and order, to keep hardened “enemies of the Reich” under lock and key, and to relieve overcrowding in the prisons.
The first of these installations, called concentration camps, was located at the edge of the village of Dachau, about fifteen miles from Munich. It was hardly a secret. The camp was given extensive publicity in the press, always emphasizing the humane treatment of prisoners, always stressing that the inmates were primarily Communist subversives who were being reeducated so that they could rejoin society as loyal, productive “people’s comrades.” The prisoners would learn the virtues of honest labor and discipline while enjoying the fresh air of a clean rural environment. This motif ran through news stories about all the camps (Oranienburg near Berlin, the Emsland camps in Baden) established in the early days of the regime. At first, the city fathers of Dachau were excited about the prospect of much needed business coming to the town; some even speculated that it would be something of a tourist attraction, though the locals were warned to keep their distance from the camp. Local boosters were soon calling it “the most famous town in the Fatherland.” This benevolent glow vanished soon enough. Within a year, Dachau would become an internationally reviled synonym for suffering, sadism, and oppression, a name that produced revulsion and dread in all who heard it.
A day after the camp at Dachau opened, the first working session of the Reichstag got under way in the Kroll Opera House, close by the ruined Reichstag building. SA and SS troops cordoned off the building, and inside the main chamber Nazi deputies in their brown party uniforms took their places, and armed SA and SS men loitered ominously in the corridors. Behind the speaker’s podium loomed a gigantic swastika banner. Hitler had already announced that he would demand the passage of an “enabling act,” which would amend the constitution to allow the Reich government to rule without legislative or presidential interference for a period of four years. The passage of such a measure, however, would require a two-thirds majority in the Reichstag. The Communists were not a worry—the KPD’s elected representatives were either dead, in jail, or in hiding—but the Social Democrats had already proclaimed their opposition to such a measure. Crucial to attaining the necessary two-thirds majority was the Zentrum, and its leader, Prelate Ludwig Kaas, insisted on assurances that the rights and institutions of the Church would be unaffected by the act. Hitler eagerly provided such guarantees, but Kaas demanded that his promise be put in writing. Hitler agreed but then evaded producing such a document. To the surprise of no one, perhaps even Kaas, the written document never materialized. Fearing that the Nazis would simply outlaw the party if it defied the regime, the Zentrum dropped its opposition to the proposal, leaving the Social Democrats alone to resist the “Law for Removing the Distress of People and Reich.”
During his prepared remarks, Hitler’s demeanor was moderate; his message, restrained. He reiterated Germany’s deep desire for peace and equality in international affairs, affirmed the government’s regard for “Christianity as the unshakeable foundation of the ethics and morality of the people,” and stated his determination to establish friendly relations with the Vatican. He also pledged that the government would make use of “this authorization” only if it was necessary “for the implementation of vital measures.” It would “always be the first and foremost task of the Government to bring about inner consensus with its aims.” Neither the Reichstag nor the Reichsrat (where the individual states were represented) was endangered. The position of the Reich President would remain inviolate. The states would not be abolished; “the rights of the Churches” would “not be curtailed and their position vis-à-vis the State will not be altered.” Furthermore, he assured his audience that “the number of cases in which there is an internal necessity for taking refuge in such a law is, in and of itself, limited.”
The Enabling Act tightened the Nazi grip on the state, and its passage also removed the few remaining restraints on the SA, whose brutal “excesses” went far beyond all that had come before. The extent of the violence was stunning. The primary targets continued to be Communists and Social Democrats, from the top leaders to midlevel functionaries to the rank and file, but the Storm Troopers and party militants also conducted an escalating campaign of harassment against the Jews. Although the regime occasionally admonished the radicals, these uncoordinated “independent actions” (Einzelaktionen) continued to be tolerated and even encouraged by the regime. Since January 30 and with mounting intensity, Jews were daily being subjected to beatings, arrests, public humiliations, ransacked shops and homes, and, occasionally, murder. But with the passage of the Enabling Act, the floodgates of persecution burst wide open. On March 9, SA squads moved into a Jewish neighborhood in Berlin, rounded up dozens of Eastern European Jews, and packed them off to a concentration camp; four days later Brown Shirts in Mannheim invaded Jewish businesses, roughed up their owners, and shut down the shops; later that same day in a small Hessian town, Storm Troopers, “in search of weapons,” forced their way into the homes of local Jews, ransacked the rooms, and brutalized the terrified inhabitants; in Breslau, SA men stormed brazenly into a courtroom, attacked Jewish lawyers and judges, and drove them out of the building. Such “independent actions” were not authorized or directed from above, and they were not coordinated as part of an organized campaign, but in the spring of 1933 such outrageous breaches of the law were occurring throughout the Reich on an almost daily basis.
The unprecedented scope of the violence drew international attention. While domestic criticism of the regime had been effectively stifled, the foreign press, especially in the United States, condemned Nazi outrages against the Jews. In the early spring Jewish organizations in the United States and Western Europe began an intense media campaign to raise public awareness of Nazi atrocities against Germany’s Jews, and on March 27 the American Jewish Congress issued a call for an international boycott of German goods. The Nazis reacted with predictable fury. They threatened to initiate a boycott of their own against Jewish businesses in the Reich. In a bow to party radicals, Hitler appointed Julius Streicher, the party’s most notorious anti-Semite, to organize a nationwide boycott. The tentative start date was set for April 1 and was intended to go on indefinitely.
As preparation for the boycott proceeded, Hitler came under pressure from within his own government, especially from Foreign Minister Constantin von Neurath, Hjalmar Schacht, president of the Reichsbank, and even Hindenburg, who feared that a boycott would seriously damage the weak German economy and undermine the country’s reputation in the international community. Caught between the pragmatists and the extremists, Hitler found himself in a familiar dilemma. He was not inclined to retreat, especially since he was under pressure from party radicals to live up to his own anti-Semitic rhetoric, but he also understood the pragmatists’ plea for restraint. In private he heartily embraced the boycott, even encouraged it, but in public he posed as the sensible man of moderation, trying to restrain the justifiable outrage of the German people at the vile calumny of international Jewry.
On the morning of April 1, the boycott went forward as planned. Storm Troopers stationed themselves in front of Jewish shops, department stores, and professional offices, menacing anyone who wanted to go inside. They carried anti-Semitic placards and scrawled slogans on Jewish shop windows: “Germans, defend yourselves. Don’t buy from Jews.” Goebbels, an enthusiastic promoter of the boycott, launched a propaganda barrage aimed at “enlightening” the public about world Jewry’s “declaration of economic warfare” against Germany.
“The boycott against the world atrocity propaganda has broken out in full force in Berlin and across the entire Reich,” Goebbels enthused in his diary notes. To see for himself, he drove down Tauentzienstrasse, a fashionable street with many Jewish businesses. “All the Jewish shops are closed,” he beamed. “SA guards stand before the entries. Everywhere the public has declared its solidarity [with us]. Exemplary discipline dominates.” All in all, it was “an impressive play.” Yet, for all the furious bluster, the boycott did not produce the enthusiastic burst of public support that Goebbels desired. Some Jewish businesses simply stayed closed on that Saturday morning, and many customers ignored the boycott, brushing past the SA pickets to shop at Jewish businesses and department stores. Germans still visited their Jewish doctors and lawyers. The Völkischer Beobachter of April 3 reported that in Hanover some shoppers had even tried to enter a Jewish business by force, while in Munich customers had been feverishly stocking up on merchandise from Jewish shops for days prior to the boycott. Exasperated, the Völkischer Beobachter condemned “the lack of sense among that part of the population which forced its hard-earned money into the hands of enemies of the people and cunning slanderers.” Some store windows were smashed and some proprietors and even a few customers were roughed up, but instances of outright violence were surprisingly rare. The boycott had been orderly, and the day passed in relative calm. After twenty-four hours, the Nazis, declaring victory, suspended the boycott. It would never be revived.
The April boycott was only the beginning, an ominous prelude. To pacify the disappointed radicals and to assert the state’s control of Jewish policy, the regime initiated a series of anti-Jewish measures in the weeks that followed. On April 7, a hastily drafted Law for the Protection of a Professional Civil Service was enacted. Drafted by Minister of the Interior Wilhelm Frick, the law allowed the government to dismiss tenured civil servants who were known to be “politically unreliable”—leftists, liberals, and others “whose previous political activities afford no assurance that they will at all times give their fullest support to the national state.” Beyond that, the law also contained an “Aryan Paragraph,” as it came to be called, ordering that all “non Aryans” be dismissed immediately from the national, state, and municipal civil service. Jews were no longer allowed to serve as schoolteachers, university professors, judges, or in any other government post. For the law’s purposes, anyone with one Jewish grandparent was classified a Jew. Shortly thereafter (April 11) an ordinance, also emanating from the Ministry of the Interior, denied Jews admission to the bar, and another edict later in the month banned Jews from practicing medicine through the state-run insurance programs where most Germans received their health care. Both measures encountered opposition from an unexpected source. The Reich President was distressed by the law as originally written and pressured Hitler to grant some exceptions, which he did. The law’s restrictions were not to apply to combat veterans of the Great War, civil servants who had served continuously since August 1914, and those whose father or son had been killed in the war.
Draconian as these laws and ordinances were, their initial impact was not as extensive as the regime intended. With the exceptions granted, 3,167 of the country’s 4,585 Jewish lawyers were allowed to continue their work; of the 717 Jewish judges and state prosecutors, 336 remained in place. Even fewer Jewish physicians, who made up 11 percent of all doctors in Germany, were affected by the laws. Here the regime trod carefully, not willing at this early stage to insert itself between those Jewish physicians and their thousands of patients. Later in the year additional edicts placed further restrictions on Jewish life in Germany—regulating, among other measures, the number of Jewish students in schools (Law to Prevent the Overcrowding of German Schools, April 29) and forbidding Jews from acquiring agricultural property (The Hereditary Farm Law, September 1933). The ideological message in these early measures was chillingly clear, sending an ominous signal about Nazi intentions regarding Germany’s increasingly beleaguered Jewish community.
Hitler was coming under mounting international criticism for the violence of the SA, and on April 6 he spoke to the foreign press, defending the course of the revolution under way in Germany. During his speech introducing the Enabling Law, he had claimed that “hardly ever has a revolution on such a large scale been carried out in so disciplined and bloodless a fashion as this renaissance of the German people.” Addressing the foreign journalists, he returned to that theme. In contrast to “the intolerable terrorization” of the National Socialists by the Weimar parties, “the victorious revolution” was carried out with “unheard of discipline and incomparable self-control. . . . Not only did the retaliation bear no relation to the sufferings which had been endured [by the Nazis] but even where there was retaliation it was always given rein only through the necessity to break the opposition of the November system.”
The politically unreliable and racially unacceptable were driven from state offices, but the Gleichschaltung was far from complete. Two other groups from outside the formal power structure remained: workers and Catholics, two elements of the population that had proven most resistant to the Nazis before 1933. The Communist threat had been squashed, but millions of workers, with their traditional alliance to the parties of the left, were hostile or at least highly suspicious of the new regime. In an attempt to woo them, the Nazis, with their usual fanfare, declared May 1 “The Day of German Labor.” If the Day of Potsdam was a reassuring bow to the reactionary right, May Day would be a national celebration of the German worker. The Nazis declared it a national holiday, something even the Social Democratic governments of Weimar had been unable to accomplish, and Goebbels organized a massive day-long demonstration in Berlin that would show the new regime’s determination to integrate the working class into the new national community. It would be staged on the “grandest scale” and would “for the first time draw the entire Volk together,” Goebbels noted in his diary, but “from that point onward, the final showdown with the unions will begin. We will never rest easy until they are completely in our hands.”
The day began with nationwide celebrations and speeches lauding the German worker. At nine in the morning Hitler and Hindenburg addressed a mammoth youth rally at the Lustgarten in central Berlin; in the early afternoon Hitler received a delegation of workers from around the country in the Chancellery, and then, as an acknowledgment of their elevated status in the new national community, introduced them to the Reich President himself. Despite all the repression and brutality, some labor leaders clung to a desperate hope that a show of cooperation with the new regime might secure their continued existence. In what struck many disillusioned Social Democrats as sheer cowardice, the labor unions joined in the parades on May Day, some even marching behind swastika banners and offering speeches pledging cooperation with the new government. Not all was voluntary. Some factory owners required their workers to participate in the festivities; Storm Troopers, going house to house, bullied others into the streets, handing out small swastika pendants to all. The climax of the festivities came in the evening when a crowd of more than a million gathered on the vast field adjacent to the Tempelhof aerodrome. Searchlights raked the sky and swept across the assembled masses, until at last, as the drama built, only one glaring white spotlight cut the darkness, directed to the platform where Hitler made his appearance.
Speaking beneath billowing swastika banners, his voice carried nationwide over the radio, Hitler briefly reiterated his determination to end unemployment in Germany and announced the introduction of compulsory labor service to put the jobless back to work. But the theme for the evening was not policy but unity. Overcoming generations of class warfare would be a struggle, but the National Socialists had “the resolution to lead the German people back together, and, if necessary,” Hitler added menacingly, “to force them back together.” The meaning of May Day was to break down class barriers and to “honor the work, and respect the worker.” The German people are strong when they are united, Hitler declared, when “you banish from your heart the spirit of class conflict and . . . discord.” He summoned the people to join with the regime in this struggle, “to go forth into the cities to proclaim . . . the importance of the German peasant and go out into the country and to our thinkers and teach them the significance of the German working class.
“The fact that the world is so against us is all the more reason why we must become a unified whole,” he continued. The world must be shown that it could “never break us, never force us to submit to any yoke.” One day, when the work of the National Socialist regime was completed, the German people would “be able to face the Almighty and say ‘You can see that we have changed. The German people is no longer a Volk of infamy, shame, self-degradation, faintheartedness, and faithlessness. No, Lord, the German Volk is once again strong in its will, strong in its persistence, strong in bearing any sacrifice. Lord, we will not give you up! Now bless our fight for our freedom and thus our German Volk und Vaterland.” The spectacle ended with the surprisingly enthusiastic multitude singing the German national anthem and the “Horst Wessel Song” while a dazzling display of fireworks burst over the scene. Celebrations continued on into the night.
At just after nine the next morning, SA men appeared at union halls all across the country. They arrested union functionaries, plundered union offices, confiscated records, office equipment, and even furniture; they shut down union newspapers, closed union banks, and seized their assets. They encountered no resistance. Since the working men of Germany were now integrated into the National Socialist people’s community, unions, the Nazis declared, were no longer necessary. They were, in fact, impediments to the national unity proclaimed by the Führer. German workers would now be represented, along with management, in a National Socialist Labor Front headed by Nazi organization leader Robert Ley. The action had been planned well in advance of the May Day celebrations. As Goebbels recorded in his diary on April 17, Hitler had discussed the operation with him, and they agreed on its essentials. First the celebration, then the seizure of the union halls. “There may be a few days of trouble, but then they will belong to us. One can’t show any scruples or have any reservations.” After all, the regime was only doing the worker a service by “liberating him from the parasitic [union] leadership, which has only turned his life sour. If the unions are in our hands, then the other parties and organizations won’t be able to hold out for long.”
And just like that they were gone. The most highly organized, well-established, and powerful socialist organization in Europe was brushed aside with hardly a whimper of resistance. No strikes, no demonstrations, no protests. Even the Nazis were surprised. Within a few weeks’ time, the labor movement had been rendered leaderless; many functionaries were behind bars, while others were keeping their head down, intimidated into silence. Tens of thousands of Social Democratic and Communist operatives were locked away in jails and in unauthorized SA prisons, and more would come. Already by the end of March, the Prussian police reported that roughly twenty thousand Communists had been arrested and thrown in jail; in Bavaria, ten thousand Communists and Social Democrats were arrested in March and April; by June the number had doubled.
Nor were party activists the only targets. In the Ruhr, almost half the entire Communist membership was taken into custody. By the end of the year the total number of political arrests in Germany ran to more than 100,000 and the number of deaths while in custody reached nearly six hundred. These numbers were almost certainly understated, for many arrests and murders simply went unrecorded, as victims seized by the SA disappeared into their makeshift prisons, never to be heard from again. With their organizations demolished, their newspapers banned, their leaders imprisoned or in exile, many of the rank and file were demoralized. They were dismayed by the party leadership, disgusted with its supine surrender to the Nazis. But what were their options? Under the circumstances, some were reluctantly resigned to an uneasy coexistence with the Nazis. Few thought the Nazi regime would last longer than a few months, and the labor movement had survived Bismarck’s suppression from 1878 to 1890 and emerged even stronger. Social democracy and organized labor would survive Hitler and the Nazis as well. The inevitable coup de grâce came on June 22, when the regime formally outlawed the already ravaged SPD. A Social Democratic underground would develop, dodging the Gestapo, smuggling reports on life in the Third Reich out to the SPD’s Prague headquarters in exile, but labor’s organized resistance in German political life was effectively over.
Disbanding the SPD was merely the first rumble of an avalanche that would soon bury the remaining parties. On June 26, Alfred Hugenberg, once thought to be the real power in the new government, was forced out of the cabinet, ostensibly for his aggressive, undiplomatic behavior at the World Economic Conference in London, where without consultation with the Foreign Office or the cabinet he had belligerently demanded, among other things, the return of Germany’s colonies. With his departure, the conservative coalition that he led chose to disband itself. Its members were given the option of joining the NSDAP, and Stahlhelm troopers were offered a spot in the SA. Papen remained in the cabinet but was isolated and without influence. On June 28 and 29, the two liberal parties, long reduced to irrelevance, caved in and voluntarily dissolved themselves. For their followers there was no offer of membership in the NSDAP. By the end of June, only the Catholic Zentrum and its partner the BVP remained.
The Zentrum, with its deep reservations about National Socialism, had long been a source of trouble for the Nazis, but by the summer of 1933 it was under mounting pressure to reach an accommodation with the “national revolution.” The pressure came not only from the regime, which had vividly demonstrated the unhappy fate of opposition parties, but from the Church hierarchy as well. Since January the Nazis had been attempting to find a modus vivendi with the Catholic Church, which was the spiritual home of roughly one third of the population. For its part, the Church wanted to secure a safe position within the new order and pressed Hitler for formal guarantees that Catholic institutions, organizations, and practices would be left intact. Momentum for an understanding had accelerated since Hitler’s Enabling Act speech on March 23, in which he had made a point of promising that the Church would remain unmolested. In response, the Catholic hierarchy in Germany reversed course, reluctantly dropping its previous opposition to the Nazis and calling for loyalty to the new regime, actions that went a long way toward alleviating the fears of ordinary Catholics who had for years been told at mass that they could not support National Socialism and remain in good standing with the Church.
While the Nazis were wary of organized Catholicism, they anticipated little trouble from the Protestant churches, of which there were twenty-eight. The Protestant churches had a strong nationalist tradition and a history of respect for the authority of the state, and they had not displayed the same hostility toward National Socialism as had the Catholic Church. One particularly vocal minority, the German Christians, was formed in 1932 and had gone beyond a generally supportive view of National Socialism, becoming open advocates for Hitler and his movement. Some pastors among the German Christians proclaimed their desire to be “the storm troopers of Jesus Christ.” They espoused what they called “positive Christianity” and hoped to establish a unified national Protestant church under the slogan “One Volk, One Reich, One Church”—an echo of the Nazi slogan “One Volk, One Reich, One Führer.”
Hitler liked the idea of a united national church, and with the enthusiastic support of the German Christians, a Nazi-controlled Reich Church was established in the spring of 1933. Hitler appointed Ludwig Müller, a former naval chaplain and an ardent Nazi, to the new post of Reich bishop. Backed by the vigorous support of the Propaganda Ministry, the German Christians, numbering perhaps 600,000 adherents, prevailed in the church elections of July 1933 and assumed control of church offices.
Protestants were generally positive about the new regime, and by summer 1933 the regime seemed to have cemented their support. Since the new Reich Church was technically a government entity, Müller insisted that it was subject to the Civil Service Law, with its Aryan Paragraph. Pressure from German Christian pastors to dismiss all Jews employed by the Church mounted. Among the more radical pastors there was even a move to push Jesus aside and elevate Hitler to the role of national savior who would return Germany to the true, un-Judaized Christianity of the traditional evangelical church. They rejected the Old Testament as a Jewish book and demanded that it be deleted from the German Bible; they argued that the Cross was a Jewish symbol and should be replaced, presumably by the swastika, though that remained unspoken. The Reich Church, in short, was to be a Nazi church.
Meanwhile, negotiations with the Vatican began in earnest in late March following the passage of the Enabling Act, with Papen serving as the lead negotiator for the Reich. Reflecting the high priority Hitler placed on an agreement, Göring, too, was dispatched to Rome for an audience with the pope. After a series of highly publicized talks, the Reich announced on July 8 that a Concordat had been signed with the Vatican. In it, the Nazis pledged to respect the rights of the Church and its lay organizations, while the Church promised to halt its relentless assaults on “heathen” National Socialism and to withdraw from politics. The Zentrum, which was little more than a bystander to the talks, found its position undermined by the Church hierarchy, and on July 6 voted itself out of existence. The BVP disbanded on the following day, prodded no doubt by Himmler’s arrest of some two thousand of its functionaries. The Concordat and the disappearance of the Zentrum/BVP marked the end of political Catholicism in Germany and slammed the final nail into the coffin of Germany’s moribund party system. Two weeks later, with a malicious sense of historical irony, a new edict formally outlawed all political parties and organizations, except for the NSDAP. It was July 14, Bastille Day.
Having successfully seized the state apparatus, smashed the labor movement, abolished the parties, neutralized the churches, seduced the army, and intimidated the business community, the Nazis had been successful beyond their wildest dreams. The Nazi revolution, as Hitler had often told the impatient Storm Troopers, had come after the assumption of power, not before it, and it had achieved its astonishing victory with a rapidity that was little short of breathtaking. Perhaps most surprising to the Nazi leadership, they had managed it without plunging the country into chaos or civil war. All across the board, Germany was falling into line. The time had come for consolidation.