Modern history





That Hitler’s appointment as Reich Chancellor was no ordinary change of government became immediately clear, as Goebbels organized a torchlit parade of brownshirts, Steel Helmets and SS men through Berlin, beginning at seven in the evening on 30 January 1933 and going on well past midnight. One pro-Nazi newspaper, carried away with enthusiasm, put the number of marchers at 700,000.1 More plausible than this quite fantastic figure was the report of another paper, which described the parades sympathetically as ‘an unforgettable experience’, that 18,000 brownshirts and SS men, 3,000 Steel Helmets and 40,000 non-uniformed civilians, 61,000 in all had taken part; a third estimate from a more hostile source put the number of uniformed marchers at no more than 20,000. Crowds of curious onlookers lined the streets to watch the march. Many cheered as the paramilitaries passed by. The spectacle was typical of the kind of stage-management which Goebbels was to perfect over the coming years. Watching the march in a Berlin street, the young Hans-Joachim Heldenbrand happened to be standing at the spot where the stormtroopers paused to exchange their guttering torches for new, freshly lit ones. Scanning their faces as the evening went on, he began to notice the same men appearing in front of him again and again. ‘There,’ said his father to him, ‘you see the con trick. They’re constantly marching round in a circle as if there were a hundred thousand of them.’2

As the columns of uniformed paramilitaries marched past, the aged Hindenburg came to the first-floor window of his official residence to take the salute. To symbolize the relative positions of Nationalists and Nazis in the new government, Goebbels had arranged for the SA to head up the parade and the Steel Helmets to follow them. After Hindenburg had been standing stiffly for some hours, his attention began to slip and his mind to wander back to the glorious early days of the First World War. One of his entourage later told the British writer John Wheeler-Bennett:

The brownshirts passed at a shambling pace, to be followed by the field-grey ranks of the Steel Helmets, moving with a precision born of discipline. The old Marshal watched them from his window as in a dream, and those behind him saw him beckon over his shoulder. ‘Ludendorff’, the old man said, with a return to its harsh barking, ‘how well your men are marching, and what a lot of prisoners they’ve taken!’3

Befuddled or not, Hindenburg was presented by the Nationalist press as the central figure in the jubilation, and the parades as a ‘tribute to Hindenburg’ by ‘his people’.4 The police did their part, accompanying and, in effect, taking part in the general jubilation, and beaming a searchlight on the window where the President stood, so that everyone could observe him acknowledging the cheers of the marchers.5 Black, white and red flags were everywhere. Over the radio, Hermann Goring compared the crowds to those who had gathered to celebrate the outbreak of the First World War. The ‘mood’, he said, ‘could only be compared with that of August 1914, when a nation also rose up to defend everything it possessed.’ The ‘shame and disgrace of the last fourteen years’ had been wiped out. The spirit of 1914 had been revived.6 These were sentiments with which every Nationalist could agree. Germany, as one Nationalist paper declared, was witnessing a ‘second August-miracle’.7 A few days later, seeing the marchers on the streets amongst the crowds, Louise Solmitz made the same comparison: ‘It was like 1914, everyone could have fallen into everyone else’s arms in the name of Hitler. Intoxication without wine.’8 She may not have recalled at that moment that the spirit of 1914 betokened war: the mobilization of an entire people as the basis for waging armed conflict, the suppression of internal dissent as preparation for international aggression. But this was what the Nazis were now aiming for, as Göring’s statement implied. From 30 January onwards, German society was to be put as quickly as possible on a permanent war footing.9

Goebbels was jubilant at the celebrations. He had already been able to organize a live commentary on the state radio, though as yet he had no official position in the new cabinet. The results more than met his expectations:

Great jubilation. Down there the people are creating an uproar ... The torches come. It starts at 7 o‘clock. Endless. Till 10 o’clock. At the Kaiserhof. Then the Reich Chancellery. Till after 12 o’clock. Unending. A million people on the move. The Old Man takes the salute at the march-past. Hitler in the house next door. Awakening! Spontaneous explosion of the people. Indescribable. Always new masses. Hitler is in raptures. His people are cheering him ... Wild frenzy of enthusiasm. Prepare the election campaign. The last. We’ll win it hands down.10

Choruses of the national anthem alternated with the Horst Wessel Song as the uniformed columns marched on, through the Brandenburg Gate and past the government buildings.11

Many people found themselves caught up in the enthusiastic demonstrations. The torchlit parades were repeated in many other towns and cities outside Berlin on the following evenings.12 In Berlin, on the afternoon of 31 January, the National Socialist German Students’ League staged its own parade, which ended up in front of the Stock Exchange (‘The “Mecca” of German Jewry’, as a right-wing newspaper put it). Emerging stockbrokers were greeted by the students with chants of ‘Judah perish!’13 Watching another torchlit parade in Hamburg on 6 February, Louise Solmitz was ‘drunk with enthusiasm, blinded by the light of the torches right in our faces, and always enveloped in their vapour as in a sweet cloud of incense’. Like many respectable bourgeois families, the Solmitzes took their children to witness the extraordinary scenes: ‘So far, the impressions they had had of politics’, Solmitz remarked, ‘had been so deplorable that they should now have a really strong impression of nationhood, as we had once, and keep it as a memory. And so they did.’ From ten at night onwards, she reported,

20,000 brownshirts followed one another like waves in the sea, their faces shone with enthusiasm in the light of the torches. ‘For our Leader, our Reich Chancellor Adolf Hitler, a threefold Hail!’ They sang ‘The Republic is shit’ ... Next to us a little boy 3 years of age raised his tiny hand again and again: ‘Hail Hitler, Hail Hitler-man!’ ‘Death to the Jews’ was also sometimes called out and they sang of the blood of the Jews which would squirt from their knives.

‘Who took that seriously then?’, she added later to her diary.14

The young Melita Maschmann was taken by her conservative parents to watch the torchlight parade on 30 January, and remembered the scene vividly many years later, recalling not just the enthusiasm but also the threatening undertones of violence and aggression that accompanied the parade, including

the crashing tread of the feet, the sombre pomp of the red and black flags, the flickering light from the torches on the faces and the songs with melodies that were at once inflaming and sentimental.

For hours the columns marched by. Again and again amongst them we saw groups of boys and girls scarcely older than ourselves... At one point somebody suddenly leaped from the ranks of the marchers and struck a man who had been standing only a few paces away from us. Perhaps he had made a hostile remark. I saw him fall to the ground with blood streaming down his face and I heard him cry out. Our parents hurriedly drew us away from the scuffle, but they had not been able to stop us seeing the man bleeding. The image of him haunted me for days.

The horror it inspired in me was almost imperceptibly spiced with an intoxicating joy. ‘We want to die for the flag’, the torch-bearers had sung... I was overcome with a burning desire to belong to these people for whom it was a matter of death and life ... I wanted to escape from my childish, narrow life and I wanted to attach myself to something that was great and fundamental.15

For such respectable middle-class people, the violence that accompanied the marches seemed incidental and not particularly threatening. But for others, Hitler’s appointment already presaged disaster. As the foreign press corps observed the march-past from a window of the Reich Press Office, one journalist was heard to remark that they were witnessing the equivalent of Mussolini’s seizure of power in Italy eleven years before - ‘the march on Rome in German form’.16

Communists, in particular, knew that the Hitler government was likely to crack down hard on their activities. Already on the evening of 30 January, the right-wing press was calling for the party to be banned after shots were fired from a house in Charlottenburg at a marching column of torch-bearing stormtroopers, resulting in the death of a policeman as well as a brownshirt.17 The Red Flag was banned and copies confiscated, and the police made more than sixty arrests as a shooting-match broke out between Nazis and Communists in Spandau.18 There were similar, though less spectacular clashes in Düsseldorf, Halle, Hamburg and Mannheim, while elsewhere the police immediately proscribed all demonstrations by the Communists. In Altona, Chemnitz, Müncheberg, Munich and Worms, and various working-class districts in Berlin, the Communists staged public demonstrations against the new cabinet. Five thousand workers were reported to have marched against the new cabinet in Weissenfels, and there were similar, though smaller demonstrations elsewhere. 19 In one of the most remarkable of these, in the little Württemberg town of Mössingen, where nearly a third of the votes had been cast for the Communists in the 1932 elections, the men staged a general strike. With up to 800 from a total population of no more than 4,000 marching through the streets against the new government, the inhabitants of the small industrial centre soon learned the realities of the situation, as the police moved in and began to arrest those identified as the ringleaders, eventually apprehending over 80 participants, 71 of whom were subsequently convicted of treason. In charge of the police operation was the conservative Catholic government of the Württemberg State President Eugen Bolz, who evidently feared a general Communist uprising. Looking back on these events many years later, one of the participants said proudly that if everyone else had followed the example of Mössingen, the Nazis would never have succeeded. For another, it was an equal source of pride that, as he said with pardonable exaggeration, ‘Nothing happened, not nowhere, except here.’20

In a number of towns and cities there was a good deal of preparedness on the part of rank-and-file members of the labour parties to collaborate in the face of the Nazi threat. But neither the Communists nor the Social Democrats did anything to co-ordinate protest measures on a wider scale. Although the Communist Party did immediately urge a general strike, it knew that the prospects of one occurring were zero without the co-operation of the unions and the Social Democrats, who were unwilling to allow themselves to be manipulated in this way. For the Comintern, the appointment of the Hitler cabinet showed that monopoly capital had succeeded in co-opting the Nazis into its plans to break the proletariat’s resistance to the creation of a fascist dictatorship. The key figure in the cabinet according to this view was thus Hugenberg, the representative of industry and the big estates. Hitler was nothing more than his tool.21 A number of left-wing Social Democrats, including Kurt Schumacher, one of the party’s most prominent Reichstag deputies, shared this view. The Communists also feared that the ‘fascist dictatorship’ would mean a violent crack-down on the labour movement, increased exploitation of the workers, a headlong drive towards an ‘imperialist war’.22 By i February 1933 the Communist press was already reporting a ‘wave of banning orders in the Reich‘, and a ‘storm over Germany’ in which ’Nazi terror bands’ were murdering workers and smashing up trade union premises and Communist Party offices. More would surely come.23

Others were less sure of what the new cabinet meant. So many governments, so many Reich Chancellors, had come and gone over the past few years that a number of people evidently thought the new one would make little difference and be as short-lived as its predecessors. Even the enthusiastic Louise Solmitz noted in her diary:

And what a cabinet!!! As we didn’t dare dream of in July. Hitler, Hugenberg, Seldte, Papen!!! On each of them hangs a large part of my German hope. National Socialist élan, German Nationalist reason, the unpolitical Steel Helmets and Papen, whom we have not forgotten. It is so inexpressibly beautiful that I’m writing it down quickly before the first discordant note is struck ...24

To many readers of the newspapers that reported Hitler’s appointment, the jubilation of the brownshirts must have appeared exaggerated. The key feature of the new government, symbolized by the participation of the Steel Helmets in the march-past, was surely the heavy numerical domination of the conservatives. ‘No nationalistic, no revolutionary government, although it carries Hitler’s name’, confided a Czech diplomat based in Berlin to his diary: ‘No Third Reich, hardly even a 2½.’25 A more alarmist note was sounded by the French ambassador, André François-Poncet. The perceptive diplomat noted that the conservatives were right to expect Hitler to agree to their programme of ‘the crushing of the left, the purging of the bureaucracy, the assimilation of Prussia and the Reich, the reorganization of the army, the re-establishment of military service’. They had put Hitler into the Chancellery in order to discredit him, he observed; ‘they have believed themselves to be very ingenious, ridding themselves of the wolf by introducing him into the sheepfold.’26


The complacent belief of Franz von Papen and his friends that they had Hitler where they wanted him did not last long. The Nazis occupied only three cabinet posts. But the authority that came with Hitler’s position as Reich Chancellor was considerable. Just as important was the fact that the Nazis held both the Reich and the Prussian Ministries of the Interior. With these went extensive powers over law and order. Goring’s occupancy of the Prussian post in particular gave him control over the police in the majority of the Reich’s territory. As Reich Commissioner, Papen might be his nominal superior, but it would not be easy for him to interfere in the day-to-day running of the Ministry in matters such as the maintenance of order. Moreover, the new Minister of Defence, General Werner von Blomberg, appointed at the army’s behest the day before Hitler took office, was far more sympathetic to the Nazis than either Papen or Hindenburg realized. An impulsive, energetic man, Blomberg had won a formidable reputation as a staff planner in the First World War and had later become Chief of the General Staff. He was very much the army’s man in government. But he was also easily influenced by strong impressions. On visiting the Soviet Union to inspect German military installations there, he had been so impressed by the Red Army that he had seriously considered joining the Communist Party, entirely ignoring the hair-raising political implications of such a decision. Narrowly military in his outlook, and almost entirely ignorant of politics, he was putty in the hands of someone like Hitler.27

Blomberg banned officers from joining the Nazi Party, and jealously guarded the independence of the army. His loyalty to Hitler made it seem unnecessary for the Nazis to undermine the army from within. Still, they had to be sure that the army would not interfere in the violence they were now contemplating unleashing on the country. Hitler underlined his respect for the army’s neutrality in an address to senior officers on 3 February 1933. He won their approval with his promises to restore conscription, destroy Marxism and fight the Treaty of Versailles. The officers present made no objection as he held out to them the intoxicating long-term prospect of invading Eastern Europe and ‘Germanizing’ it by expelling scores of millions of native Slav inhabitants. The army’s neutrality meant, of course, its non-interference, and Hitler went out of his way to tell the officers that the ‘internal struggle’ was ‘not your business’. He was helped in his efforts to neutralize the army by the appointment, on Blomberg’s suggestion, of Colonel Walther von Reichenau, a vigorous, ambitious and much-decorated staff officer, as Blomberg’s chief assistant. Reichenau was another admirer of Hitler and was on good personal terms with him. Together with Blomberg he quickly moved to isolate the army’s commander-in-chief, General Kurt von Hammerstein, an aristocratic conservative who never tried to disguise his contempt for the Nazis. In February 1933 Hammerstein banned officers from inviting politicians to social events, as a way of trying to minimize relations with leading Nazis such as Goring, to whom he always referred snobbishly by his actual rank from pre-Nazi days, ‘captain (retired)’, except when he called him by his nickname, the ‘pilot who’s gone round the bend’. Hammerstein was a real potential threat because he reported directly to the President. Within a short space of time, however, Blomberg had succeeded in restricting Hammerstein’s access to Hindenburg to strictly military matters. On 4 April 1933 Blomberg became a member of the newly created Reich Defence Council, a political body which effectively bypassed the army leadership and put military policy in the hands of Hitler, who chaired it, and a small group of leading ministers. Through these moves, Hammerstein and his supporters were effectively neutralized. In any case, Hammerstein was too Olympian, too distant, to engage in serious political intrigue. Now that Schleicher was safely out of the way, neither he nor any of the other army leaders was capable of mobilizing opposition to the Nazis in the first half of 1933.28

With Frick and Goring at the helm, and the army relegated to the sidelines, the prospects of curbing Nazi violence were now worse than ever. Almost immediately, the Nazis capitalized on this carefully engineered situation and unleashed a campaign of political violence and terror that dwarfed anything seen so far. On 30 and 31 January the triumphant parades and processions of the SA and SS had already demonstrated their new-found confidence and power over their opponents on the streets. They had also been accompanied by incidences of violence and antisemitism. Now these quickly began to multiply. Bands of stormtroopers began attacking trade union and Communist offices and the homes of prominent left-wingers. They were helped on 4 February by a decree allowing for the detention for up to three months of those engaged in armed breaches of the peace or acts of treason, a decree that self-evidently was not going to be applied to Hitler’s, stormtroopers.29

The intensity of the violence increased considerably when Goring, acting as Prussian Minister of the Interior, ordered the Prussian police on 15-17 February to cease its surveillance of the Nazis and associated paramilitary organizations and to support what they were doing as far as they were able. On 22 February he went a step further and set up an ‘auxiliary police’ force made up from members of the SA, SS and Steel Helmets, the last-named decidedly the junior partners. This gave the stormtroopers the green light to go on the rampage without any serious interference from the formal state guardians of law and order. While the police, purged of Social Democrats since the Papen coup, pursued Communists and broke up their demonstrations, the new force, with the agreement of the police, broke into party and trade union offices, destroyed documents and expelled the occupants by force. The brunt of this violence was undoubtedly borne by the Communist Party and its members. They had already been under close police surveillance.during the Weimar Republic. The Social Democratic government in Prussia claimed in the early 1930s, for instance, that it was presented with confidential reports on secret sessions of the Communist Party’s Central Committee within a few hours of the sessions taking place. Police spies were active at every.level of the party hierarchy. Frequent clashes with the Red Front-Fighters’.League, involving injuries to police officers, sometimes fatal, had led to police investigations including searches of Communist Party premises. Documents confiscated in 1931-2. included address-lists of party officials and active members. The police were extremely well informed about the party, therefore, regarded it as an enemy after the experience of innumerable armed clashes, and from 30 January onwards put their information at the disposal of the new government. It did not hesitate to use it.30

The Social Democrats and trade unions were almost as hard hit as the Communists in the mounting Nazi repression of the second half of February 1933. The government was able to build on a wide degree of public consensus among middle-class voters in its suppression of the Communists, who had always been regarded as a threat to public order and private property. The fact that the Communists had continually increased their electoral support to a point where, early in 1933, they had 100 seats in the Reichstag, was extremely alarming to many who feared that they would repeat the violence, murder and torture that had been the hallmark of the ‘Red Terror’ in Russia in 1918-21, should they ever achieve power in Germany. But matters were very different where the Social Democrats were concerned. They were, after all, the political force that had been the mainstay of the Weimar Republic for many years. They had 121 seats in the Reichstag to the Nazis’ 196. They had formed a key element in a number of its governments. They had supplied Reich Chancellors and Prussian Minister-Presidents as well as the Republic’s first Head of State, Friedrich Ebert. They had the long-term support of millions of working-class voters, relatively few of whom had deserted them for the Nazis or the Communists, and had enjoyed the support or at least the respect, however grudging and conditional, of many Germans at various times. In 1930 the membership of their party stood at over a million.31

Some units of the Social Democrats and their paramilitary affiliate, the Reichsbanner, were prepared to act; a few had managed to gather weapons and munitions, and others staged demonstrations on 30 January and the next day. Leading Social Democrats and trade unionists met in Berlin on 3 1 January to plan a nationwide general strike. But while local organizations waited, the national leadership dithered, conscious of the difficulties of staging a strike in the middle of the worst unemployment crisis the nation had ever seen. The unions feared that Nazi stormtroopers would occupy the factories in such a situation. And how could the party justify illegal action in defence of legality? ‘The Social Democrats and the entire Iron Front’, declared the party’s daily paper Forwardson 30 January 1933, ‘are placing themselves, in relation to this government and its threat of a putsch, with both feet firmly on the ground of the constitution and of legality. They will not take the first step away from this ground.’ In the following weeks there were some isolated actions. Thousands of socialists staged a rally in the Pleasure Gardens in Berlin on 7 February, while on 19 February a rally of 15,000 workers in Lübeck celebrated the release from custody of a leading local Social Democrat, Julius Leber, after a brief general strike in the city. But no general policy of resistance emerged from the centre.32

With every day that passed, the state-sponsored terror to which Social Democrats were subjected grew steadily worse. By the beginning of February 1933 local and regional authorities, acting under pressure from Wilhelm Frick, the Nazi Reich Minister of the Interior in Berlin, and his counterpart in Prussia, Hermann Goring, had already begun to impose bans on particular issues of Social Democratic newspapers. Characteristically, the Social Democrats’ reaction was to institute legal actions before the Reich Court in Leipzig to compel Frick and Goring to allow the papers to be published, a tactic that met with some success.33 As the month progressed, however, gangs of brownshirts began to break up Social Democratic meetings and beat up the speakers and their audiences. On 24 February Albert Grzesinski, the Social Democrat who had formerly been Prussian Minister of the Interior, was complaining that ‘several of my meetings have been broken up and a substantial number of those present had to be taken away with serious injuries’. The party’s executive committee reacted by cutting back sharply on meetings in order to avoid further casualties. Whatever police protection had been provided for meetings before 30 January had been entirely removed on the orders of the Interior Ministry.34 Nazi stormtroopers could now beat up and murder Communists and Social Democrats with impunity. On 5 February 1933, in one particularly shocking incident, a young Nazi shot dead the Social Democratic mayor of Stassfurt. A few days later, when the Social Democratic official daily Forwards condemned the killing of a Communist by stormtroopers during a street battle in Eisleben, the Police President of Berlin banned the paper for a week.35

Within a few months of Papen’s coup of 20 July 1932, the prospects for a workers’ uprising had dramatically worsened. The failure to resist Papen had deepened the sense of impotence in the labour movement already created by the Social Democrats’ passive support for Brüning and active backing for Hindenburg. The police and the army were no longer trying to hold the ring between paramilitaries of the right and the left. Encouraged by the conservatives around Hugenberg and Seldte, they had swung decisively over to the support of the former. In this situation, an armed uprising by the labour movement would have been suicidal. Moreover, despite a whole variety of local initiatives, grass-roots negotiations and formal and informal approaches at every level, the Social Democrats and the Communists were still not prepared to work together in a last-ditch defence of democracy. And even had they done so, their combined forces could never have hoped to match the numbers, the weaponry and the equipment of the army, the brownshirts, the Steel Helmets and the SS. Had an uprising been attempted, it would doubtless have met the same fate as the workers’ uprising staged in Vienna a year later against the coup d‘état that established the ‘clerico-fascist’ dictatorship of Engelbert Dollfuss, in which the well-equipped and well-armed socialists were crushed by the Austrian army within a few days.36 The last thing the German Social Democratic leadership wanted to do was to shed the workers’ blood, least of all in collaboration with the Communists, who they rightly thought would ruthlessly exploit any violent situation to their own advantage.37 Throughout the early months of 1933, therefore, they stuck rigidly to a legalistic approach and avoided anything that might provoke the Nazis into even more violent action against them.


Once more, in February 1933, Germany was in the grip of election fever. The parties were campaigning furiously for the Reichstag elections that had been one of Hitler’s conditions for accepting the office of Reich Chancellor on 30 January. The date had been fixed for 5 March. Hitler proclaimed on many occasions during the election campaign that the Nazi movement’s main enemy was ‘Marxism’. ‘Never, never will I stray from the task of stamping out Marxism ... There can only be one victor: either Marxism or the German people! And Germany will triumph!’ This referred, of course, to the Communists and the Social Democrats. Hitler’s belligerent language, in the circumstances of early 1933, was an encouragement to his stormtroopers to take the law into their own hands. But its aggressiveness extended well beyond the left to threaten other supporters, or former supporters, of Weimar democracy as well. The movement, he said on 10 February 1933, would be ‘intolerant against anyone who sins against the nation’.38 ‘I repeat’, Hitler declared on 15 February, ‘that our fight against Marxism will be relentless, and that every movement which allies itself to Marxism will come to grief with it.’39

This threat was uttered in Stuttgart in a speech devoted to a furious attack on the Württemberg State President, Eugen Bolz, who had declared the new Reich government to be an enemy of freedom. Bolz, complained Hitler, had not stepped in to defend the Nazi Party’s freedom when it had been persecuted in his state during the 1920s. He went on:

Those who made no mention of our freedom for fourteen years have no right to talk about it today. As Chancellor I need only use one law for the protection of the national state, just as they made a law for the protection of the Republic back then, and then they would realize that not everything they called freedom was worthy of the name.40

The Centre Party, like the Communists and Social Democrats, had proved relatively immune to the electoral advances of the Nazis, and so was another prime target for intimidation in the election campaign. Before long, it was beginning to feel the impact of state terror just as the Social Democrats were. Already in mid-February, twenty Centre Party newspapers had been banned for criticizing the new government, public meetings were forbidden in a number of localities by the authorities, and a wave of dismissals or suspensions of civil servants and administrators known to be Centre Party members had begun, including the police chief of Oberhausen and a Ministerial Director in the Prussian Interior Ministry. A speech by Heinrich Brüning condemning these dismissals sparked violent attacks by stormtroopers on Centre Party election meetings in Westphalia. The former Reich Minister Adam Stegerwald was beaten up by brownshirts at a Centre Party meeting in Krefeld on 22 February. One local party newspaper after another was banned or had its offices trashed by rampaging gangs of brownshirts. Local party premises were attacked, and supplies of election posters seized, not just by SA men but also by the political police. The bishops prayed for peace, while the party appealed to the constitution and, in a pathetic sign of its political bankruptcy, urged the electorate to vote for a restoration of the long-since discredited Brüning government.41

Hitler professed himself alarmed by these incidents, and on 22 February, after the Centre Party had protested vehemently against these events, proclaimed: ‘Provocative elements are attempting, under the guise of the Party, to discredit the National Socialist Movement by disrupting and breaking up Centre Party assemblies in particular. I expect’, he said severely, ‘all National Socialists to distance themselves from these designs with the utmost discipline. The enemy who must be felled on March 5 is Marxism!’ Yet this was also coupled with a threat to ‘attend to the Centre’ if it supported ‘Marxism’ in the elections, and, taken together with Hitler’s savage attack on Bolz less than a fortnight before, it was enough to ensure that the violence continued.42 And, while the brownshirts unfolded this campaign of violence on the ground, Hitler and the leading Nazis were making it clear in their more unguarded moments that the coming election would be the last, and that, whatever happened, Hitler would not resign as Chancellor. ‘If we do one day achieve power,’ he had declared in a public address given on 17 October 1932, ‘we will hold on to it, so help us God. We will not allow them to take it away from us again.’43 The results of the election, he said in February 1933, would have no effect on his government’s programme. ‘It will not deter us should the German people abandon us in this hour. We will adhere to whatever is necessary to keep Germany from degenerating.’44

On other occasions, more circumspectly but less plausibly, Hitler announced that he only wanted four years to put his programme into effect, and then, in 1937, when the next Reichstag elections were due, the German people could judge whether or not it had been a good one. He outlined what that programme was in a lengthy speech delivered to a huge audience in the Berlin Sports Palace on 10 February in an atmosphere of ecstatic adulation. With all the resources of the state now at its disposal, the Party arranged for the hall to be decked out with flags bearing the swastika symbol and banners with anti-Marxist slogans. Radio microphones broadcast Hitler’s words to the entire nation. Choruses of the national anthem, shouts of ‘Hail!’ and enthusiastic cheers and shouts preceded the speech and rose in a crescendo as Hitler entered the arena. As so often in his career, Hitler, beginning slowly and quietly so as to secure the rapt attention of his enormous audience, went over the history of the Nazi Party and the alleged crimes of the Weimar Republic since 1919—the inflation, the impoverishment of the peasantry, the rise of unemployment, the ruin of the nation. What would his government do to change this parlous situation? His answer avoided any specific commitments at all. He said grandly that he was not going to make any ‘cheap promises’. Instead, he declared that his programme was to rebuild the German nation without foreign aid, ‘according to eternal laws valid for all time’, on the basis of the people and the soil, not according to ideas of class. Once more, he held up the intoxicating vision of a Germany united in a new society that would overcome the divisions of class and creed that had racked it over the past fourteen years. The workers, he declared, would be freed from the alien ideology of Marxism and led back to the national community of the entire German race. This was a ‘programme of national resurrection in all areas of life’.

He ended with an almost religious appeal to his audience in the Sports Palace and across the nation:

For fourteen years the parties of disintegration, of the November Revolution, have seduced and abused the German people. For fourteen years they wreaked destruction, infiltration, and dissolution. Considering this, it is not presumptuous of me to stand before the nation today, and plead to it: German people, give us four years’ time and then pass judgment upon us. German people, give us four years, and I swear to you, just as we, just as I have taken this office, so shall I leave it. I have done it neither for salary nor for wages; I have done it for your sake! ... For I cannot divest myself of my faith in my people, cannot dissociate myself from the conviction that this nation will one day rise again, cannot divorce myself from my love for this, my people, and I cherish the firm conviction that the hour will come at last in which the millions who despise us today will stand by us and with us will hail the new, hard-won and painfully acquired German Reich we have created together, the new German kingdom of greatness and power and glory and justice. Amen.45

What Hitler was promising Germany was, therefore, in the first place the suppression of Communism and, beyond that, of the other Weimar parties, principally the Social Democrats and the Centre Party. Other than that he had nothing much concrete to offer. But many saw this as a virtue. ‘I’m delighted at Hitler’s lack of a programme,’ wrote Louise Solmitz in her diary, ‘for a programme is either lies, weakness, or designed to catch silly birds. - The strongman acts from the necessity of a serious situation and can’t allow himself to be bound.’ One of her acquaintances, previously indifferent to Nazism, told her she was voting for Hitler precisely because he had no programme but Germany.46 Hitler’s dramatic and emotional claim that all he needed was four years was designed to heighten the feeling in his listeners that he was engaged in a Christ-like pilgrimage of self-sacrifice. These sentiments were repeated in further speeches at other venues in the following days, to similarly enthusiastic audiences.

Hitler was backed in his election campaign by a fresh, indeed unprecedented flow of funds from industry. On 11 February he opened an international motor show in Berlin, and announced an ambitious programme of road building and tax breaks to help automobile manufacturers. 47 On 20 February a large group of leading industrialists met at Goring’s official residence, and were joined by Hitler, who once more declared that democracy was incompatible with business interests, and Marxism had to be crushed. The forthcoming election was crucial in this struggle. If the government failed to win, it would be compelled to use force to achieve its ends, he threatened. The last thing business wanted was a civil war. The message was clear: they had to do everything in their power to ensure a victory for the coalition - a coalition in which some leading businessmen evidently still thought that Papen and the conservatives were the key players. After Hitler left the meeting, Goring reminded his listeners that the forthcoming election would be the last, not just for the next four years but probably for the next hundred. Hjalmar Schacht, the politically well-connected financier who had been the architect of the post-inflation stabilization programme in 1923-4, then announced that business would be expected to contribute three million Reichsmarks to the government’s election fund. Some of those present still insisted that a portion of the money should go to the conservative coalition partners of the Nazis. But they paid up all the same.48 The new funds made a real difference to the Nazi Party’s ability to fight the election, in contrast to the lack of resources that had so hampered it the previous November. They enabled Goebbels to mount a new kind of campaign, portraying Hitler as the man who was reconstructing Germany and destroying the Marxist menace, as everybody could see on the streets. Fresh resources, notably the radio, were brought to bear on the Nazis’ behalf, and with a fighting fund vastly bigger than before, Goebbels really could saturate the electorate this time.49

Nevertheless, the Nazi campaign was no triumphant procession towards the ratification of power. The party was well aware that its popularity had faded in the second half of 1932, while that of the Communists had been growing. Of all their opponents, the Nazis feared and hated the Communists most. In countless street-battles and meeting-hall clashes the Communists had shown that they could trade punch for punch and exchange shot for shot with their brownshirt counterparts. It was all the more puzzling to the Nazi leadership, therefore, that after the initial Communist demonstrations in the immediate aftermath of 30 January 1933, the Red Front-Fighters’ League had shown no inclination to respond in kind to the massive wave of violence that swept over the Communist party, above all after the brownshirts’ enrolment as auxiliary police on 22 February, as the Nazi stormtroopers took matters into their own hands and vented their pent-up spleen on their hated enemies. Isolated incidents and brawls continued to occur, and the Red Front-Fighters’ League did not take this nationwide assault entirely lying down, but there was no observable escalation of Communist violence, no indication of any kind that a concerted, response was being mounted on the orders of the Community Party’s politburo.

The relative inaction of the Communists reflected above all the party leadership’s belief that the new government - the last, violent, dying gasp of a moribund capitalism - would not last more than a few months before it collapsed. Aware of the risk that the party might be banned, the German Communists had made extensive preparations for a lengthy period of illegal or semi-legal existence, and no doubt stockpiled as substantial a quantity of weapons as they were able. They knew, too, that the Red Front-Fighters’ League would get no support from the Social Democrats’ paramilitary associate, the Reichsbanner, with which it had clashed repeatedly over the previous years. The party’s constantly reiterated demands for a ‘unity front’ with the Social Democrats stood no chance of becoming reality, since it was only willing to enter into it if the ‘social fascists’, as it called them, gave up all their political independence and, in effect, put themselves under Communist Party leadership. The party stuck rigidly to the doctrine that the Hitler government signalled the temporary triumph of big business and ‘monopoly capitalism‘, and insisted that it heralded the imminent arrival of the ’German October’. Even on 1 April 1933, an appropriately symbolic date for such a proclamation, the Executive Committee of the Comintern resolved:

Despite the fascist terror, the revolutionary upturn in Germany will inexorably grow. The masses’ defence against fascism will inexorably grow. The establishment of an openly fascist dictatorship, which has shattered every democratic illusion in the masses and is liberating the masses from the influence of the Social Democrats, is accelerating the tempo of Germany’s development towards a proletarian revolution. 50

As late as June 1933 the Central Committee of the German Communist Party was proclaiming that the Hitler government would soon collapse under the weight of its internal contradictions, to be followed immediately by the victory of Bolshevism in Germany.51Communist inaction, therefore, was the product of Communist over-confidence, and the fatal illusion that the new situation posed no overwhelming threat to the party.

But to the leading Nazis it suggested something more sinister: the Communists were preparing in secret for a nationwide uprising. The fears of civil war that had plagued German politics in late 1932 and early 1933 did not vanish overnight. After all, the Communists were constantly proclaiming that the advent of a fascist government was the prelude to an imminent and unstoppable proletarian revolution that would replace bourgeois democracy with a Soviet Germany. Yet the Communists refused even to react to an obvious provocation such as a massive police raid on their party headquarters at the Karl-Liebknecht-House in Berlin on 23 February and its supposed revelation of plans for a revolutionary uprising. The more they waited, the more nervous the Nazi leaders grew. Surely something must happen soon?52 The aesthete Harry Graf Kessler reported rumours amongst his well-connected friends that the Nazis were planning a fake assassination attempt on Hitler in order to justify a ‘bloodbath’ in which they would mow down their enemies. Similar rumours were rife in the last week of February. The tension was becoming unbearable. Soon, it would find spectacular release.53

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