Military history

6. THE LAST DAYS OF THE REPUBLIC: 1931–33

OUT OF THE TURMOIL and chaos of German life there now emerged a curious and devious figure who, more than any other single individual, was destined to dig the grave of the Republic—one who would serve briefly as its last Chancellor and, ironically, in one of the final twists of his astonishing career desperately try to save it, when it was too late. This was Kurt von Schleicher, whose name in German means “intriguer” or “sneak.”

In 1931 he was a lieutenant general in the Army.* Born in 1882, he had entered military service at eighteen as a subaltern in Hindenburg’s old regiment, the 3rd Foot Guards, where he became a close friend of Oskar von Hindenburg, the son of the Field Marshal and President. His second friendship proved almost as valuable. This was with General Groener, who was impressed by his brilliance as a student at the War Academy, and who, when he replaced Ludendorff at Supreme Headquarters in 1918, brought along the young officer as his adjutant. Primarily a “desk officer”—he had seen but a short period of service on the Russian front—Schleicher remained thereafter close to the sources of power in the Army and in the Weimar Republic, where his nimble mind, affable manners and flair for politics impressed both the generals and the politicians. Under General von Seeckt he played an increasingly important role in helping to organize the illegal free corps and the equally illegal and highly secret “Black Reichswehr,” and he was a key figure in the confidential negotiations with Moscow which led to the camouflaged training of German tank and air officers in Soviet Russia and in the establishment of German-run arms factories there. A gifted manipulator, with a passion for intrigue, Schleicher worked best under cover in the dark. Until the beginning of the Thirties his name was unknown to the general public, but for some time previously it had been attracting increasing notice in the Bendlerstrasse, where the War Ministry was, and in the Wilhelmstrasse, where the government ministries were situated.

In January 1928 he had used his growing influence with President Hindenburg, with whom he had become close through his friendship with Oskar, to have his old chief, General Groener, appointed as Minister of Defense, the first military man to hold that post during the Republic. Groener made Schleicher his right-hand man in the ministry, putting him in charge of a new office, the Ministry Bureau (Ministeramt), where he handled the political and press affairs of the Army and Navy. “My cardinal in politics,” Groener called his assistant and entrusted him with the Army’s relations with the other ministries and the political leaders. In this position Schleicher not only was a power in the officer corps but began to be a power in politics. In the Army he could make and break the higher officers and began to do so, getting rid of General von Blomberg, the second-in-command of the Army, in 1930 by a piece of trickery and replacing him with an old friend from the 3rd Foot Guards, General von Hammerstein. In the spring of the same year, as we have seen, he made his first effort to select the Chancellor himself and, with the backing of the Army, talked Hindenburg into appointing Heinrich Bruening to that post.

In achieving this political triumph Schleicher carried out what he thought would be the first step in a grandiose scheme to make over the Republic, an idea which had been forming for some time in his agile mind. He saw clearly enough—as who didn’t?—the causes of the weakness of the Weimar regime. There were too many political parties (in 1930 ten of them each polled over a million votes) and they were too much at cross-purposes, too absorbed in looking after the special economic and social interests they represented to be able to bury their differences and form an enduring majority in the Reichstag that could back a stable government capable of coping with the major crisis which confronted the country at the beginning of the Thirties. Parliamentary government had become a matter of what the Germans called Kuhhandel—cattle trading—with the parties bargaining for special advantages for the groups which elected them, and the national interests be damned. No wonder that when Bruening took over as Chancellor on March 28, 1930, it had become impossible to achieve a majority in the Reichstag for any policy—of the Left, the Center or the Right—and that merely to carry on the business of government and do something about the economic paralysis he had to resort to Article 48 of the constitution, which permitted him in an emergency, if the President approved, to govern by decree.

This was exactly the way Schleicher wished the Chancellor to govern. It made for strong government under the forceful hand of the President, who, after all (Schleicher argued), through his popular election represented the will of the people and was backed by the Army. If the democratically elected Reichstag couldn’t provide stable government, then the democratically elected President must. What the majority of Germans wanted, Schleicher was sure, was a government that would take a firm stand and lead them out of their hopeless plight. Actually, as the elections which Bruening called in September showed, that was not what the majority of Germans wanted. Or at least they did not want to be led out of the wilderness by the kind of government which Schleicher and his friends in the Army and in the Presidential Palace had chosen.

In truth, Schleicher had committed two disastrous mistakes. By putting up Bruening as Chancellor and encouraging him to rule by presidential decree, he had cracked the foundation of the Army’s strength in the nation—its position above politics, the abandonment of which would lead to its own and Germany’s ruin. And he had made a bad miscalculation about the voters. When six and a half million of them, against 810,000 two years before, voted for the Nazi Party on September 14, 1930, the political General realized that he must take a new tack. By the end of the year he was in touch with Roehm, who had just returned from Bolivia, and with Gregor Strasser. This was the first serious contact between the Nazis and those who held the political power in the Republic. In just two years its development was to lead Adolf Hitler to his goal and General von Schleicher to his fall and ultimate murder.

   On October 10, 1931, three weeks after the suicide of his niece and sweetheart, Geli Raubal, Hitler was received by President Hindenburg for the first time. Schleicher, busy weaving a new web of intrigue, had made the appointment. Earlier that autumn he had conferred with Hitler and arranged for him to see both the Chancellor and the President. In the back of his mind, as well as that of Bruening, was the question of what to do when Hindenburg’s seven-year term of office came to an end in the spring of 1932. The Field Marshal would be eighty-five then, and the periods when his mind was lucid were diminishing. Still, as everyone realized, if he were not a candidate to succeed himself, Hitler, though he was not legally a German citizen, might contrive to become one, run for the office, win the election and become President.

During the summer the scholarly Chancellor had pondered long hours over the desperate plight of Germany. He quite realized that his government had become the most unpopular one the Republic had ever had. To cope with the depression he had decreed lower wages and salaries as well as lower prices and had clamped down severe restrictions on business, finance and the social services. The “Hunger Chancellor” he had been called by both the Nazis and the Communists. Yet he thought he saw a way out that in the end would re-establish a stable, free, prosperous Germany. He would try to negotiate with the Allies a cancellation of reparations, whose payment had been temporarily stopped by the Hoover moratorium. In the disarmament conference scheduled to begin the following year he would try either to get the Allies to honor their pledge in the Versailles Treaty to disarm to the level of Germany or to allow Germany to embark openly on a modest program of rearmament, which in fact, with his connivance, and in secret, it had already started to do. Thus the last shackle of the peace treaty would be thrown off and Germany would emerge as an equal among the big powers. This would be not only a boon to the Republic but might launch, Bruening thought, a new era of confidence in the Western world that would put an end to the economic depression which had brought the German people such misery. And it would take the wind out of the Nazi sails.

Bruening planned to move boldly on the home front too and to bring about by agreement of all the major parties save the Communists a fundamental change in the German constitution. He meant to restore the Hohenzollern monarchy. Even if Hindenburg could be persuaded to run again, he could not be expected at his age to live out another full term of seven years. Should he die in another year or two, the way would still be open to Hitler to be elected President. To forestall that, to assure permanency and stability in the office of head of state, Bruening broached the following plan: The 1932 presidential elections would be called off and Hindenburg’s term of office simply extended, as it could be, by a two-thirds vote in the two houses of Parliament, the Reichstag and the Reichsrat. As soon as that was achieved, he would propose that Parliament proclaim a monarchy with the President as regent. On his death one of the sons of the Crown Prince would be put on the Hohenzollern throne. This act too would take the wind out of the Nazis; in fact Bruening was confident that it would mean their end as a political force.

But the aged President was not interested. He, whose duty it had been as Commander of the Imperial Army to tell the Kaiser on that dark fall day of November 1918 at Spa that he must go, that the monarchy was at an end, would not consider any Hohenzollern’s resuming the throne except the Emperor himself, who still lived in exile at Doom, in Holland. When Bruening explained to him that the Social Democrats and the trade unions, which with the greatest reluctance had given some encouragement to his plan if only because it might afford the last desperate chance of stopping Hitler, would not stand for the return of either Wilhelm II or his eldest son and that moreover if the monarchy were restored it must be a constitutional and democratic one on the lines of the British model, the grizzly old Field Marshal was so outraged he summarily dismissed his Chancellor from his presence. A week later he recalled him to inform him that he would not stand for re-election.

In the meantime first Bruening and then Hindenburg had had their first meeting with Adolf Hitler. Both talks went badly for the Nazi leader. He had not yet recovered from the blow of Geli Raubal’s suicide; his mind wandered and he was unsure of himself. To Bruening’s request for Nazi support for the continuance in office of Hindenburg Hitler answered with a long tirade against the Republic which left little doubt that he would not go along with the Chancellor’s plans. With Hindenburg, Hitler was ill at ease. He tried to impress the old gentleman with a long harangue but it fell flat. The President, at this first meeting, was not impressed by the “Bohemian corporal,” as he called him, and told Schleicher that such a man might become Minister of Posts but never Chancellor—words which the Field Marshal would later have to eat.

Hitler, in a huff, hastened off to Bad Harzburg, where on the next day, October 11, he joined a massive demonstration of the “National Opposition” against the governments of Germany and Prussia. This was an assembly not so much of the radical Right, represented by the National Socialists, as of the older, conservative forces of reaction: Hugenberg’s German National Party, the right-wing veterans’ private army, the Stahlhelm, the so-called Bismarck Youth, the Junkers’ Agrarian League, and an odd assortment of old generals. But the Nazi leader did not have his heart in the meeting. He despised the frock-coated, top-hatted, be-medaled relics of the old regime, with whom, he saw, it might be dangerous to associate a “revolutionary” movement like his own too closely. He raced through his speech in a perfunctory manner and left the field before the parade of the Stahlhelm, which, to his annoyance, had shown up in larger numbers than the S.A. The Harzburg Front which was formed that day and which represented an effort of the old-line conservatives to bring the Nazis into a united front to begin a final assault on the Republic (it demanded the immediate resignation of Bruening) was thus stillborn. Hitler had no intention of playing second fiddle to these gentlemen whose minds, he thought, were buried in the past to which he knew there was no return. He might use them for the moment if they helped to undermine the Weimar regime and made available to him, as they did, new financial sources. But he would not, in turn, be used by them. Within a few days the Harzburg Front was facing collapse; the various elements of it were once more at each other’s throats.

Except on one issue. Both Hugenberg and Hitler refused to agree to Bruening’s proposal that Hindenburg’s term of office be prolonged. At the beginning of 1932 the Chancellor renewed his effort to get them to change their minds. With great difficulty he had prevailed on the President to agree to serving further if Parliament prolonged his term and thus made it unnecessary for him to have to shoulder the burden of a bitter election campaign. Now Bruening invited Hitler to come to Berlin for fresh discussions. The telegram arrived while the Fuehrer was conferring with Hessand Rosenberg in the editorial offices of the Voelkischer Beobachter in Munich. Thrusting the paper into their faces, Hitler cried, “Now I have them in my pocket! They have recognized me as a partner in their negotiations.”1

On January 7 Hitler conferred with Bruening and Schleicher, and there was a further meeting on January 10. Bruening repeated his proposal that the Nazi Party agree to prolonging Hindenburg’s term. If this were done, and as soon as he had settled the problem of cancellation of reparations and equality of armaments, he himself would retire. According to some sources—it is a disputed point—Bruening held out a further bait: he offered to suggest Hitler’s name to the President as his successor.2

Hitler did not immediately give a definite reply. He adjourned to the Kaiserhof hotel and took counsel with his advisers. Gregor Strasser was in favor of accepting Bruening’s plan, arguing that if the Nazis forced an election Hindenburg would win it. Goebbels and Roehm were for an outright rejection. In his diary for January 7, Goebbels wrote: “The Presidency is not the issue. Bruening merely wants to strengthen his own position indefinitely … The chess game for power begins…. The chief thing is that we remain strong and make no compromises.” The night before, he had written: “There is a man in the organization that no one trusts … This is Gregor Strasser.”3

Hitler himself saw no reason to strengthen Bruening’s hand and thus give the Republic a further lease on life. But unlike the thickheaded Hugenberg, who rejected the plan outright on January 12, Hitler was more subtle. He replied not to the Chancellor but over his head to the President, declaring that he regarded Bruening’s proposal as unconstitutional but that he would support Hindenburg’s re-election if the Field Marshal would reject Bruening’s plan. To Otto von Meissner, the nimble Secretary of State at the Presidential Chancellery, who had zealously served in that capacity first the Socialist Ebert and then the conservative Hindenburg and who was beginning to think of a third term in office for himself with whoever the President might be—perhaps even Hitler?—the Nazi leader, in a secret conversation at the Kaiserhof, offered to support Hindenburg in the elections if he would first get rid of Bruening, name a “National” government and decree new elections for the Reichstag and the Prussian Diet.

To this Hindenburg would not agree. Nettled by the refusal of the Nazis and the Nationalists, the latter his friends and supposed supporters, to agree to spare him the strain of an election battle, Hindenburg agreed to run again. But to his resentment against the nationalist parties was added a curious spleen against Bruening, who he felt had handled the whole matter badly and who was now forcing him into bitter conflict with the very nationalist forces which had elected him President in 1925 against the liberal–Marxist candidates. Now he could win only with the support of the Socialists and the trade unions, for whom he had always had an undisguised contempt. A marked coolness sprang up in his dealings with his Chancellor—“the best,” he had said not so long ago, “since Bismarck.”

A coolness toward Bruening also came over the General who had propelled him into the chancellorship. To Schleicher the austere Catholic leader had been a disappointment after all. He had become the most unpopular Chancellor the Republic had ever had. He had been unable to obtain a majority in the country; he had failed to curb the Nazis or to win them over; he had bungled the problem of keeping Hindenburg on. Therefore he must go—and perhaps with him General Groener, Schleicher’s revered chief, who did not seem to grasp the ideas for the future which he, Schleicher, had in mind. The scheming General was not exactly in a hurry. Bruening and Groener, the two strong men of the government, must remain in power until Hindenburg was re-elected; without their support the old Field Marshal might not make it. After the elections their usefulness would be over.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!