Modern history



The Papen coup took place in the midst of Germany’s most frenetic and most violent election campaign yet, fought in an atmosphere even less rational and more vicious than that of two years before. Hitler once more flew across Germany from venue to venue, speaking before huge crowds at more than fifty major meetings, denouncing the divisions, humiliations and failures of Weimar and offering a vague but potent promise of a better, more united nation in the future. Meanwhile, the Communists preached revolution and announced the imminent collapse of the capitalist order, the Social Democrats called on the electors to rise up against the threat of fascism, and the bourgeois parties advocated a restorative unity they were patently unable to deliver.138 The decay of parliamentary politics was graphically illustrated by the increasingly emotive propaganda style of the parties, including even the Social Democrats. Surrounded by increasingly violent street clashes and demonstrations, the political struggle became reduced to what the Social Democrats called - without the slightest hint of criticism - a war of symbols. Engaging a psychologist - Sergei Chakhotin, a radical Russian pupil of Pavlov, the discoverer of the conditioned response - to help them fight elections in the course of 1931, the Social Democrats realized that an appeal to reason was not enough. ‘We have to work on feelings, souls and emotions so that reason wins the victory.’ In practice, reason got left far behind. In the elections of July 1932 the Social Democrats ordered all their local groups to ensure that party members wore a party badge, used the clenched-fist greeting when encountering each other, and shouted the slogan ‘Freedom!’ at appropriate opportunities. In the same spirit, the Communists had long since been using the symbol of the hammer and sickle and a variety of slogans and greetings. In adopting this style, the parties were placing themselves on the same ground as the Nazis, with whose swastika symbol, ‘Hail Hitler!’ greeting and simple, powerful slogans they found it very difficult to compete.139

Seeking for an image that would be dynamic enough to counter the appeal of the Nazis, the Social Democrats, the Reichsbanner, the trade unions, and a number of other working-class organizations connected with the socialists came together on 16 December 1931 to form the ‘Iron Front’ to fight the ‘fascist’ menace. The new movement borrowed heavily from the arsenal of propaganda methods developed by the Communists and the National Socialists. Long, boring speeches were to be replaced by short, sharp slogans. The labour movement’s traditional emphasis on education, reason and science was to yield to a new stress on the rousing of mass emotions through street processions, uniformed marches and collective demonstrations of will. The new propaganda style of the Social Democrats even extended to the invention of a symbol to counter that of the swastika and the hammer and sickle: three parallel arrows, expressing the three major arms of the Iron Front. None of this did much to help the traditional labour movement, many of whose members, not least those who occupied leading positions in the Reichstag, remained sceptical, or proved unable to adapt to the new way of presenting their policies. The new propaganda style placed the Social Democrats on the same ground as the Nazis; but they lacked the dynamism, the youthful vigour or the extremism to offer them effective competition. The symbols, the marches and the uniforms failed to rally new supporters to the Iron Front, since the entrenched organizational apparatus of the Social Democrats remained in control. On the other hand, it did not allay the fears of middle-class voters about the intentions of the labour movement.140

Even more revealing were the election posters used by the parties in the campaigns of the early 1930s. A common feature to almost all of them was their domination by the figure of a giant, half-naked worker who had come by the late 1920s to symbolize the German people, replacing the ironically modest little figure of the ‘German Michel’ in his sleeping-cap or the more rarified female personification of Germania that had previously stood for the nation. Nazi posters showed the giant worker towering above a bank labelled ‘International High Finance’, destroying it with massive blows from a swastika-bedaubed compressor; the Social Democrats’ posters portrayed the giant worker elbowing aside Nazis and Communists; the Centre Party’s posters carried a cartoon of the giant worker, less scantily clad perhaps, but still with his sleeves rolled up, forcibly removing tiny Nazis and Communists from the parliament building; the People’s Party depicted the giant worker, dressed only in a loincloth, sweeping aside the soberly dressed politicians of all the other warring factions in July 1932, in an almost exact reversal of what was actually to happen in the elections; even the staid Nationalist Party used a giant worker in its posters, though only to wave the black-white-red flag of the old Bismarckian Reich.141 All over Germany, electors were confronted with violent images of giant workers smashing their opponents to pieces, kicking them aside, yanking them out of parliament, or looming over frock-coated and top-hatted politicians who were almost universally portrayed as insignificant and quarrelsome pygmies. Rampant masculinity was sweeping aside the squabbling, ineffective and feminized political factions. Whatever the intention, the subliminal message was that it was time for parliamentary politics to come to an end: a message made explicit in the daily clashes of paramilitary groups on the streets, the ubiquity of uniforms at the hustings, and the non-stop violence and mayhem at electoral meetings.

None of the other parties could compete with the Nazis on this territory. Goebbels might have complained that ‘they are now stealing our methods from us’, but the three arrows had no deep symbolic resonance, unlike the familiar swastika. If the Social Democrats were to have stood any chance of beating the Nazis at their own game, they should have started earlier.142 Goebbels fought the election not on the performance of the Papen cabinet but on the performance of the Weimar Republic. The main objects of Nazi propaganda this time, therefore, were the voters of the Centre Party and the Social Democrats. In apocalyptic terms, a flood of posters, placards, leaflets, films and speeches delivered to vast open-air assemblies, purveyed a drastic picture of the ‘red civil war over Germany’ in which voters were confronted with a stark choice: either the old forces of betrayal and corruption, or a national rebirth to a glorious future. Goebbels and his propaganda team aimed to overwhelm the electorate with an unremitting barrage of assaults on their senses. Saturation coverage was to be achieved not only by mass publicity but also by a concerted campaign of door-knocking and leafleting. Microphones and loudspeakers blasted out Nazi speeches over every public space that could be found. Visual images, purveyed not only through posters and magazine illustrations but also through mass demonstrations and marches in the streets, drove out rational discourse and verbal argument in favour of easily assimilated stereotypes that mobilized a whole range of feelings, from resentment and aggression to the need for security and redemption. The marching columns of the brownshirts, the stiff salutes and military poses of the Nazi leaders conveyed order and dependability as well as ruthless determination. Banners and flags projected the impression of ceaseless activism and idealism. The aggressive language of Nazi propaganda created endlessly repeated stereotypical images of their opponents - the ‘November criminals’, the ‘red bosses’, the ‘Jewish wire-pullers’, the ‘red murder-pack’. Yet, given the Nazis’ need to reassure the middle classes, the giant worker was now in some instances portrayed in a benevolent pose, no longer wild and aggressive, but wearing a shirt and handing tools of work to the unemployed instead of wielding them as weapons to destroy his opponents; the Nazis were prepared for responsible government.143


Map 14. The nazis in the Reichstag Election of july 1932

This unprecedentedly intense electoral propaganda soon brought its desired results. On 31 July 1932, the Reichstag election revealed the folly of Papen’s tactics. Far from rendering Hitler and the Nazis more amenable, the election brought them a further massive boost in power, more than doubling their vote from 6.4 million to 13.1 million and making them by far the largest party in the Reichstag, with 230 seats, nearly a hundred more than the next biggest group, the Social Democrats, who managed to limit their losses to 10 more seats and sent 133 deputies to the new legislature. The 18.3 per cent of the vote the Nazis had obtained in September 1930 was also more than doubled, to 37.4 per cent. The continued polarization of the political scene was marked by another increase for the Communists, who now sent 89 deputies to the Reichstag instead of 77. And while the Centre Party also managed to increase its vote and gain 75 mandates in the new parliament, its highest ever number, the Nationalists registered further losses, going down from 41 seats to 37, reducing them almost to the status of a fringe party. Most striking of all, however, was the almost total annihilation of the parties of the centre. The People’s Party lost 24 out of its 31 seats, the Economy Party 21 out of its 23, and the State Party, formerly the Democrats, 16 out of its 20. The congeries of far-right splinter-groups that had attracted such strong middle-class support in 1930 now also collapsed, retaining only 9 out of their previous 55 mandates. Left and right now faced each other in the Reichstag across a centre shrunken to insignificance: a combined Social Democrat/Communist vote of 13.4 million confronted a Nazi vote of 13.8 million, with all the other parties combined picking up a mere 9.8 million of the votes cast.144

The reasons for the Nazis’ success at the polls in July 1932 were much the same as they had been in September 1930; nearly two more years of sharply deepening crisis in society, politics and the economy had rendered these factors even more powerful than they had been before. The election confirmed the Nazis’ status as a rainbow coalition of the discontented, with, this time, a greatly increased appeal to the middle classes, who had evidently overcome the hesitation they had displayed two years earlier, when they had turned to the splinter-groups of the right. Electors from the middle-class parties had by now almost all found their way into the ranks of Nazi Party voters. One in two voters who had supported the splinter-parties in September 1930 now switched to the Nazis, and one in three of those who had voted for the Nationalists, the People’s Party and the State Party in the previous Reichstag election. One previous non-voter in five now went to the polls to cast his or (especially) her vote for the Nazis. Even one in seven of those who had previously voted Social Democrat now voted Nazi. Thirty per cent of the Party’s gains came from the splinter-parties. These voters included many who had supported the Nationalists in 1924 and 1928. Even a few Communist and Catholic Centre Party voters switched, though this was roughly balanced out by those who switched back the other way. The Nazi Party continued to be attractive mainly to Protestants, with only 14 per cent of Catholic voters supporting it as against 40 per cent of non-Catholics. Sixty per cent of Nazi voters on this occasion were from the middle classes, broadly defined; 40 per cent were wage-earning manual workers and their dependants, though, as before, these were overwhelmingly workers whose connection with the labour movement, for a variety of reasons, had always been weak. The negative correlation between the size of the Nazi vote in any constituency, and the level of unemployment, was as strong as ever. The Nazis continued to be a catch-all party of social protest, with particularly strong support from the middle classes, and relatively weak support in the traditional industrial working class and the Catholic community, above all where there was a strong economic and institutional underpinning of the labour movement or Catholic voluntary associations.145

Yet while July 1932 gave the Nazi Party a massive boost in the Reichstag, it was none the less something of a disappointment to its leaders. For them, the key factor in the result was not that they had improved on the previous Reichstag poll, but that they had not improved on their performance in the second round of the Presidential elections the previous March or the Prussian elections the previous April. There was a feeling, therefore, that the Nazi vote had finally peaked. In particular, despite a massive effort, the Party had only enjoyed limited success in its primary objective of breaking into the Social Democratic and Centre Party vote. So there was no repeat of the jubilation with which the Nazis had greeted their election victory of September 1930. Goebbels confided to his diary his feeling that ‘we have won a tiny bit’, no more. ‘We won’t get to an absolute majority this way,’ he concluded. The election therefore lent a fresh sense of urgency to the feeling that, as Goebbels put it, ‘something must happen. The time for opposition is over. Now deeds!’146 The moment to grasp for power had arrived, he added the following day, and he noted that Hitler agreed with his view. Otherwise, if they stuck to the parliamentary route to power, the stagnation of their voting strength suggested that the situation might start to slip out of their grasp. Yet Hitler ruled out entering a coalition government led by another party, as indeed he was entitled to do, given the fact that his own Party now held by far the largest number of seats in the national legislature. Immediately after the election, therefore, Hitler insisted that he would only enter a government as Reich Chancellor. This was the only position that would preserve the mystique of his charisma amongst his followers. Unlike a subordinate cabinet position, it would also give him a good chance of turning dominance of the cabinet into a national dictatorship by using the full forces of the state that would then be at his disposal.


How those forces might be employed was graphically illustrated by an incident that occurred early in August 1932. In an attempt to master the situation, Papen had imposed a ban on public political meetings on 29 July. This merely had the effect of depriving activists of legitimate political outlets for their inflamed political passions. So it fuelled the violence on the streets. still further. On 9 August, therefore, he promulgated another emergency Presidential decree imposing the death penalty on anyone who killed an opponent in the political struggle out of rage or hatred. He intended this to apply above all to the Communists. But in the small hours of the following morning, a group of drunken brownshirts, armed with rubber truncheons, pistols and broken-off billiard cues, broke into a farm in the Upper Silesian village of Potempa and attacked one of the inhabitants, a Communist sympathizer, Konrad Pietzuch. The brownshirts struck him across the face with a billiard cue, beat him senseless, laid into him with their boots as he lay on the ground, and finished him off with a revolver. Pietzuch was Polish, making this into a racial as well as a political incident, and some of the brownshirts had a personal grudge against him. Nevertheless, it was clearly a political murder under the terms of the decree, and five of the brownshirts were arrested, tried and sentenced to death in the nearby town of Beuthen. As soon as the verdict was announced, brownshirted Nazi stormtroopers rampaged through the streets of Beuthen, wrecking Jewish shops and trashing the offices of liberal and left-wing newspapers. Hitler personally and publicly condemned the injustice of ‘this monstrous blood-verdict’, and Hermann Goring sent an open message of solidarity to the condemned ‘in boundless bitterness and outrage at the terror-judgment that has been served on you.’147

The murder now became an issue in the negotiations between Hitler, Papen and Hindenburg over Nazi participation in the government. Ironically, President Hindenburg was in any case reluctant to accept Hitler as Chancellor because appointing a government led by the leader of the party that had won the elections would now look too much like going back to a parliamentary system of rule. Now he was dismayed by the Potempa murder, too. ‘I have had no doubts about your love for the Fatherland,’ he told Hitler patronizingly on 13 August 1933. ‘Against possible acts of terror and violence,’ he added, however, ‘as have, regrettably, also been committed by members of the SA divisions, I shall intervene with all possible severity.’ Papen, too, was unwilling to allow Hitler to lead the cabinet. After negotiations had broken down, Hitler declared:

German racial comrades! Anyone amongst you who possesses any feeling for the struggle for the nation’s honour and freedom will understand why I am refusing to enter this government. Herr von Papen’s justice will in the end condemn perhaps thousands of National Socialists to death. Did anyone think they could put my name as well to this blindly aggressive action, this challenge to the entire people? The gentlemen are mistaken! Herr von Papen, now I know what your bloodstained ‘objectivity’ is! I want victory for a nationalistic Germany, and annihilation for its Marxist destroyers and corrupters. I am not suited to be the hangman of nationalist freedom fighters of the German people!148

Hitler’s support for the brutal violence of the stormtroopers could not have been clearer. It was enough to intimidate Papen, who had never intended his decree to apply to the Nazis, into commuting the condemned men’s sentences to life imprisonment on 2 September, in the hope of placating the leading Nazis,149 Shortly after the incident, Hitler had sent the brownshirts on leave for a fortnight, fearing another ban. He need not have bothered.150

Nevertheless, the Nazis, who had scented power after the July poll, were bitterly disappointed at the leadership’s failure to join the cabinet. The breakdown of negotiations with Hitler also left Papen and Hindenburg with the problem of gaining popular legitimacy. The moment for destroying the parliamentary system seemed to have arrived, but how were they to do it? Papen, with Hindenburg’s backing, determined to dissolve the new Reichstag as soon as it met. He would then use - or rather, abuse - the President’s power to rule by decree to declare that there would be no more elections. However, when the Reichstag finally met in September, amidst chaotic scenes, Hermann Goring, presiding over the session, according to tradition, as the representative of the largest party, deliberately ignored Papen’s attempts to declare a dissolution and allowed a Communist motion of no-confidence in the government to go ahead. The motion won the support of 512 deputies, with only 42 voting against and 5 abstentions. The vote was so humiliating, and demonstrated Papen’s lack of support in the country so graphically, that the plan to abolish elections was abandoned. Instead, the government saw little alternative but to follow the constitution and call a fresh Reichstag election for November.151

The new election campaign saw Hitler, enraged at Papen’s tactics, launch a furious attack on the government. A cabinet of aristocratic reactionaries would never win the collaboration of a man of the people such as himself, he proclaimed. The Nazi press trumpeted yet another triumphant swing by ‘the Leader’ through the German states; but all its boasts of a massive turnout and wild enthusiasm for Hitler’s oratory could not disguise, from the Party leadership at least, the fact that many of the meeting-halls where Hitler spoke were now half-empty, and that the many campaigns of the year had left the Party in no financial condition to sustain its propaganda effort at the level of the previous election. Moreover, Hitler’s populist attacks on Papen frightened off middle-class voters, who thought they saw the Nazis’ ‘socialist’ character coming out again. Participation in a bitter transport workers’ strike in Berlin alongside the Communists in the run-up to the election did not help the Party’s image in the Berlin proletariat, although this had been Goebbels’ aim, and it also put off rural voters and repelled some middle-class electors, too. The once-novel propaganda methods of the Party had now become familiar to all. Goebbels had nothing left up his sleeve to startle the electorate with. Nazi leaders gloomily resigned themselves to the prospect of severe losses on polling day.152

The mood amongst large parts of the Protestant middle classes was captured in the diary of Louise Solmitz, a former schoolteacher living in Hamburg. Born in 1899, and married to an ex-officer, she had long been an admirer of Hindenburg and Hugenberg, saw Brüning with typical Protestant disdain as a ‘petty Jesuit’, and complained frequently in her diary about Nazi violence.153 But in April 1932 she had gone to hear Hitler speak at a mass meeting in a Hamburg suburb and had been filled with enthusiasm by the atmosphere and the public, drawn from all walks of life, as much as by the speech.154 ‘The Hitler spirit carries you away,’ she wrote, ‘is German, and right.’155 All her family’s middle-class friends were supporting Hitler before long, and there was little doubt that they voted for him in July. But they were repelled both by Goring’s cavalier treatment of the Reichstag when it met, and by what they saw as the Nazis’ move to the left in the November election campaign. They now inclined more towards Papen, though never with much enthusiasm because he was a Catholic. ‘I’ve voted for Hitler twice,’ said an old friend, an ex-soldier, ‘but not any more.’ ‘It’s sad about Hitler,’ said another acquaintance: ‘I can’t go along with him any more.’ Hitler’s backing of the Berlin transport workers’ strike, Louise Solmitz thought, cost him thousands of votes. He was not interested in Germany, she concluded pessimistically, only in power. ‘Why has Hitler abandoned us, after he showed us a future which one could say yes to?’ she asked. In November the Solmitzes voted for the Nationalists.156

Faced with this kind of disillusion, it was not surprising that the Nazis did badly. The election, on a much lower turnout than in July, registered a sharp fall in the Party’s vote, from 13.7 million to 11.7, reducing its representation in the Reichstag from 230 seats to 196. The Nazis were still by a very long way the largest party. But now they had fewer seats than the combined total of the two ‘Marxist’ parties.157 ‘Hitler in Decline’, the Social Democratic Forwards proclaimed.158 ‘We have suffered a set-back,’ confided Joseph Goebbels to his diary.159 By contrast, the election registered some gains for the government. The Nationalists improved their representation from 37 to 51 seats, the People’s Party from 7 to 11. Many of their voters had returned from their temporary exile in the Nazi Party. But these were still miserably low figures, little more than a third of what the two parties had scored in their heyday in 1924. The pathetic decline of the former Democrats, the State Party, continued, as their representation went down from 4 seats to 2. The Social Democrats lost another 12 seats, taking them down to 121, their lowest figure since 1924. On the other hand the Communists, still the third largest party, continued to improve their position, gaining another 11 seats, which gave them a total of 100, not far behind the Social Democrats. For many middle-class Germans, this was a terrifyingly effective performance that threatened the prospect of a Communist revolution in the not-too-distant future. The Centre Party also saw a small decline, down from 75 seats to 70, with some of these votes going to the Nazis, as with their Bavarian wing, the Bavarian People’s Party.160


Map 15. The Nazis in the Reichstag Election of November 1932

Overall, the Reichstag was even less manageable than before. One hundred Communists now confronted 196 Nazis across the chamber, both intent on destroying a parliamentary system they hated and despised. As a result of the government’s rhetorical assault on them during the campaign, the Centre and the Social Democrats were more hostile to Papen than ever. Papen had completely failed to reverse his humiliation in the Reichstag on 12 September. He still faced an overwhelming majority against his cabinet in the new legislature. Papen considered cutting the Gordian knot by banning both Nazis and Communists and using the army to enforce a Presidential regime, bypassing the Reichstag altogether. But this was not a practical possibility, for by this point, fatally, he had lost the confidence of the army and its leading officers, too. Earlier in the year, the army hierarchy had pushed out the Minister of Defence, General Wilhelm Groener, finding his willingness to compromise with the Weimar Republic and its institutions no longer appropriate in the new circumstances. He was replaced by Schleicher, whose views were now more in tune with those of the leading officers. For his part, Schleicher was annoyed that the Chancellor had had the nerve to develop his own ideas and plans for an authoritarian regime instead of following the instructions of the man who had done so much to put him into power in the first place, that is, himself. Papen had also signally failed to deliver the parliamentary majority, made up principally of the Nazis and the Centre Party, that Schleicher and the army had been looking for. It was time for a new initiative. Schleicher quietly informed Papen that the army was unwilling to risk a civil war and would no longer give him its support. The cabinet agreed, and Papen, faced with uncontrollable violence on the streets and lacking any means of preventing its further escalation, was forced to announce his intention to resign.161


Two weeks of complicated negotiations now followed, led by Hindenburg and his entourage. By this time, the constitution had in effect reverted to what it had been in the Bismarckian Reich, with governments being appointed by the head of state, without reference to parliamentary majorities or legislatures. The Reichstag had been pushed completely to the margins as a political factor. It was, in effect, no longer needed, not even to pass laws. Yet the problem remained that any government which tried to change the constitution in an authoritarian direction without the legitimacy afforded by the backing of a majority in the legislature would run a serious risk of starting a civil war. So the search for parliamentary backing continued. Since the Nazis would not play ball, Schleicher was forced to take on the Chancellorship himself on 3 December. His ministry was doomed from the start. Hindenburg resented his overthrow of Papen, whom he liked and trusted, and many of whose ideas he shared. For a few weeks, Schleicher, less hated by the Centre Party and the Social Democrats than Papen had been, earned a respite by avoiding any repetition of Papen’s authoritarian rhetoric. He continued to hope that the Nazis might come round. They had been weakened by the November elections and were divided over what to do next. Moreover, early in December, in local elections held in Thuringia, their vote plummeted by some 40 per cent from the previous July’s national high. A year of strenuous electioneering had also left the Party virtually bankrupt. Things seemed to be playing into Schleicher’s hands.162

Within the Nazi Party, voices now began to be raised criticizing Hitler for his refusal to join a coalition government except at its head. Chief among these was the Party’s Organization Leader, Gregor Strasser, who was only too conscious of the parlous state to which, as he increasingly thought, Hitler had reduced the Party organization so painstakingly built up over the previous years. Strasser began to cultivate both big business, with a view to replenishing Party funds, and trade unions, which he sought to win over to the idea of participating in a broad-based national coalition. Aware of his views, however, his enemies in the Nazi leadership, chief among them Joseph Goebbels, started to intrigue behind his back and to accuse him of trying to sabotage the Party’s drive for power.163Matters came to a head when Schleicher, seeking to put pressure on Hitler to join the cabinet, began separate negotiations with Strasser about a possible post in the government. Hitler, however, was adamant that the Nazis should not join any government of which he was not the head. At a fraught meeting with Hitler, Strasser pleaded in vain for his point of view. Rebuffed once more, he resigned all his Party posts on 8 December in a fit of wounded pride.

Hitler moved swiftly to prevent a Party split, firing known supporters of his former second-in-command and appealing in person to waverers. In a brief, whirlwind tour across the country, Hitler addressed group after group of Party functionaries and convinced them of the rightness of his position, by casting Strasser in the role of traitor, rather as Stalin was casting Trotsky in the role of traitor in the Soviet Union at around the same time. The danger of a split had been real; Hitler and Goebbels certainly took it extremely seriously. But it was based on tactical considerations, not on matters of principle. In no sense did Strasser represent an alternative vision of the future to Hitler’s; his ideological position was very similar to his leader’s, and he had fully supported the expulsion in 1930 of his brother Otto, whose opinions had indeed been well to the left of the Party mainstream. Nor did Gregor Strasser put up any kind of a fight in December 1932. Had he campaigned for his point of view he might well have taken a substantial portion of the Party with him, leaving it fatally damaged. Instead, he did nothing. He went off on holiday in Italy immediately after his resignation, and although he was not actually expelled from the Party, he played no further role in its affairs and effectively withdrew from political life. Hitler appointed himself Party Organization Leader and dismantled Strasser’s centralized structure of Party management just in case someone else should take it over. The crisis in the Party had passed. Hitler and the leadership could breathe again.164

Schleicher’s failure to win over the Nazis was to prove decisive. Superficially, to be sure, his prospects at the turn of the year did not seem too bad. The Nazi Party was in decline, and even its successful performance in the regional election in the small state of Lippe on 15 January, when it won 39.5 per cent of the vote, failed to convince many, given that the total size of the electorate was only 100,000. A massive propaganda effort and a campaign of unprecedented intensity had still failed to improve on the Nazi vote of July 1932. Hitler and Goebbels were able to revive flagging Nazi spirits and strengthen the Party’s resolve by trumpeting the result as a triumph, but most leading figures in the political world knew better.165 In other respects, too, the Nazis seemed to be on the wane. Their share of the vote in student union elections, for instance, declined from 48 per cent in 1932 to 43 per cent at the beginning of 1933.166 Meanwhile, the world economic situation was at last beginning to look up, the Depression seemed to be bottoming out, and Schleicher, recognizing the possibilities offered by Germany’s departure from the Gold Standard eighteen months before, was preparing a massive job-creation programme to relieve unemployment through the state provision of public works. This boded ill for the Nazis, whose rise to electoral predominance had been the product above all of the Depression. They had peaked in regional elections, too, and everyone knew it.


Map 16. Regional Elections, 1931-1933

But the decline of the Nazis and the revival of the economy were only likely to become important factors over a number of months or even years. Schleicher did not have months or years to play with, only weeks. For Hindenburg and his advisers, above all, his son Oskar, State Secretary Meissner, and ex-Chancellor Franz von Papen, it seemed more urgent than ever at this point to tame the Nazis by bringing them into government. The Nazis’ recent losses and divisions seemed to have put them in a position where it would be easier to do this. But if their decline continued, then in the foreseeable future, with an economic upswing on the way, it seemed possible that the old political parties might recover and parliamentary government return, possibly even involving the Social Democrats. Alfred Hugenberg was equally alarmed at such a prospect. Some of Schleicher’s economic schemes, which included a possible nationalization of the steel industry and his repeal, carried out in December, of Papen’s wage and benefit cuts imposed the previous September, also caused concern among elements in the business world whose interests Papen, Hindenburg and Hugenberg took seriously. As the owner of a landed estate, Hindenburg was further alienated by Schleicher’s proposals for land reform in East Elbia, distributing bankrupt Junker estates to the peasantry. A coalition of conservative forces began to form around Hindenburg with the aim of getting rid of Schleicher, whose announcement that he favoured neither capitalism nor socialism they found extremely worrying.167

The conspirators secured the backing of the Steel Helmets and their leaders Franz Seldte and Theodor Duesterberg, for a plan to oust Schleicher and replace him with a Reich Chancellor whom they would find more acceptable. Half a million strong, the Steel Helmets were a potentially formidable fighting force. However, they were deeply divided, their leaders Seldte and Duesterberg were at daggers drawn, and they were chronically unable to decide whether or not to throw in their lot with the Nazis or with the conservatives. Their commitment to be ‘above parties’ was a constant source of internal dispute instead of the unifying slogan it was supposed to be. In this situation, many senior figures in the veterans’ organization pressed with some success for its return to welfare activities, military training, the ‘protection’ of Germany’s eastern borders through a strong paramilitary presence, and similar practical tasks. The Steel Helmets thought of themselves above all as a reserve army, to be called upon if necessary to augment the official military forces, whose numbers were little more than a fifth of their own, thanks to the restrictions imposed by the Treaty of Versailles. Duesterberg’s disastrous showing in the Presidential elections had convinced many that a withdrawal from the political battlefield was advisable. His background as a Prussian officer caused him to mistrust the Nazis and to consider them too vulgar and disorderly to be worthy partners. But Duesterberg’s own position had been weakened by the revelation, shocking to many Steel Helmets, that he had Jewish ancestry. It was Seldte, therefore, who lent the Steel Helmets’ name to the conspiracy to oust Schleicher early in 1933.168

Papen himself, though in the thick of the conspiracy, was clearly out of the running for the Chancellorship, since he had alienated almost everyone outside Hindenburg’s entourage over the previous few months and had no popular backing in the country. Frantic negotiations finally led to a plan to put Hitler in as Chancellor, with a majority of conservative cabinet colleagues to keep him in check. The scheme was lent urgency by rumours that Schleicher, in collaboration with the chief of the army command, General Kurt von Hammerstein, was preparing a counter-coup. He apparently intended to establish an authoritarian corporate state, to eliminate the Reichstag by Presidential decree, to put the army in control, and to suppress the Nazis altogether, as well as the Communists. ‘If a new government is not formed by 11 o’clock,‘ Papen told Hugenberg and the Steel Helmets’ leaders on 30 January, ‘the army will march. A military dictatorship under Schleicher and Hammerstein is looming.’169

The rumour did the rounds because it was known in political circles that Schleicher’s failure to secure parliamentary support left him no option but to ask the President for wide-ranging, effectively extra-constitutional powers to overcome the crisis. When he went to Hindenburg with this request, the aged President and his entourage saw this as their chance to rid themselves of this irritating and untrustworthy intriguer, and refused. After he was rebuffed, some expected Schleicher and the army to take matters into their own hands and seize the powers they wanted anyway. But Schleicher and the army only ever considered a putsch for the eventuality of Papen returning to the Reich Chancellery, and this was only because they thought that Papen’s appointment might well lead to the outbreak of civil war. Keen to avoid this situation arising, however, Schleicher now saw a Hitler Chancellorship as a welcome solution, as far as the army was concerned. ‘If Hitler wants to establish a dictatorship in the Reich,’ he said confidently, ‘then the army will be the dictatorship within the dictatorship.’170 Refused permission by the President to govern unconstitutionally, Schleicher had no option but to tender his resignation. Negotiations had already been in progress for some time in the circle around Hindenburg with a view to appointing Hitler in his stead. Finally, at about half past eleven on the morning of 30 January 1933, Hitler was sworn in as Reich Chancellor. The government of which he was head was dominated numerically by Papen and his fellow conservatives. The radical wing of the much-shrunken Nationalist Party entered the government, with Alfred Hugenberg taking over the Economics Ministry and the Ministry of Food. Konstantin Freiherr von Neurath, already Foreign Minister in the Papen and Schleicher governments, continued in office, as did Lutz Graf Schwerin von Krosigk in the Finance Ministry and, a little later, Franz Gürtner, for the Nationalists, in the Ministry of Justice. The army ministry was taken over by Werner von Blomberg. Franz Seldte, representing the Steel Helmets, moved into the Ministry of Labour.

Only two major offices of state went to the Nazis, but both of them were key positions on which Hitler had insisted as a condition of the deal: the Ministry of the Interior, occupied by Wilhelm Frick, and the Reich Chancellery itself, occupied by Hitler. Hermann Goring was appointed Reich Minister Without Portfolio and Acting Prussian Minister of the Interior, which gave him direct control over the police in the greater part of Germany. The Nazis could thus manipulate the whole domestic law-and-order situation to their advantage. If they moved even with only a modicum of skill, the way would soon be free for the brownshirts to unleash a whole new level of violence against their opponents on the streets. Franz von Papen became Vice-Chancellor and continued to rule Prussia as Reich Commissioner, nominally Göring’s superior. Surrounded by friends of Papen, who had the all-important ear of Reich President Hindenburg, Hitler and the Nazis—vulgar, uneducated, inexperienced in government - would surely be easy enough to control. ‘You are wrong,’ Papen haughtily told a sceptical associate who had voiced his alarm: ‘We’ve engaged him for ourselves.’171 ‘Within two months,’ Papen confidently told a worried conservative acquaintance, ‘we will have pushed Hitler so far into a corner that he’ll squeak.’172

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