Military history

HITLER AGAINST HINDENBURG

There were a number of occasions in the career of Adolf Hitler when, faced with a difficult decision, he seemed unable to make up his mind, and this was one of them. The question he faced in January 1932 was: to run or not to run for President? Hindenburg seemed unbeatable. The legendary hero would be supported not only by many elements of the Right but by the democratic parties which had been against him in the election of 1925 but which now saw him as the savior of the Republic. To run against the Field Marshal and be beaten, as he almost certainly would be—was that not to risk the reputation for invincibility which the Nazis had been building up in one provincial election after another since their spectacular triumph in the national poll in 1930? And yet, not to run—was that not a confession of weakness, a demonstration of a lack of confidence that National Socialism was on the threshold of power? There was another consideration. Hitler was at the moment not even eligible to run. He was not a German citizen.

Joseph Goebbels urged him to announce his candidacy. On January 19 they journeyed to Munich together and that evening Goebbels recorded in his diary: “Discussed the question of the presidency with the Fuehrer. No decision has yet been reached. I pleaded strongly for his own candidacy.” For the next month the diary of Goebbels reflected the ups and downs in Hitler’s mind. On January 31: “The Fuehrer’s decision will be made on Wednesday. It can no longer be in doubt.” On February 2 it seemed that he had made it. Goebbels noted: “He decides to be a candidate himself.” But Goebbels adds that the decision will not be made public until it is seen what the Social Democrats do. Next day the party leaders assemble in Munich to hear Hitler’s decision. “They wait in vain,” Goebbels grumbles. “Everyone,” he adds, “is nervous and strained.” That evening the little propaganda chief seeks relief; he steals away to see Greta Garbo in a movie and is “moved and shaken” by this “greatest living actress.” Later that night “a number of old party comrades come to me. They are depressed at the lack of a decision. They fear that the Fuehrer is waiting too long.”

He may be waiting too long, but Hitler’s confidence in his ultimate triumph does not weaken. One night in Munich, the diary records, the Fuehrer has a long discussion with Goebbels on which post the latter will have in the Third Reich. The Leader has in mind for him, Goebbels says, a “Ministry of Popular Education which will deal with films, radio, art, culture and propaganda.” On another evening Hitler has a long discussion with his architect, Professor Troost, over plans for a “grandiose alteration of the national capital.” And Goebbels adds: “The Fuehrer has his plans all finished. He speaks, acts and feels as if we were already in power.”

But he does not speak yet as if he were anxious to run against Hindenburg. On February 9, Goebbels records, “the Fuehrer is back in Berlin. More debates at the Kaiserhof over the presidential election. Everything is left in suspense.” Three days later Goebbels goes over his calculations of votes with the Fuehrer. “It’s a risk,” he says, “but it must be taken.” Hitler goes off to Munich to think it over still further.

In the end his mind is made up for him by Hindenburg. On February 15 the aged President formally announces his candidacy. Goebbels is happy. “Now we have a free hand. Now we need no longer hide our decision.” But Hitler does hide it until February 22. At a meeting that day in the Kaiserhof “the Fuehrer gives me permission,” Goebbels rejoices, “to announce his candidacy at the Sport Palace tonight.”

It was a bitter and confusing campaign. In the Reichstag Goebbels branded Hindenburg as “the candidate of the party of the deserters” and was expelled from the chamber for insulting the President. In Berlin the nationalist Deutsche Zeitung, which had backed Hindenburg’s election in 1925, now turned on him vehemently. “The present issue,” it declared, “is whether the internationalist traitors and pacifist swine, with the approval of Hindenburg, are to bring about the final ruin of Germany.”

All the traditional loyalties of classes and parties were upset in the confusion and heat of the electoral battle. To Hindenburg, a Protestant, a Prussian, a conservative and a monarchist, went the support of the Socialists, the trade unions, the Catholics of Bruening’s Center Party and the remnants of the liberal, democratic middle-class parties. To Hitler, a Catholic, an Austrian, a former tramp, a “national socialist,” a leader of the lower-middle-class masses, was rallied, in addition to his own followers, the support of the upper-class Protestants of the north, the conservative Junker agrarians and a number of monarchists, including, at the last minute, the former Crown Prince himself. The confusion was further compounded by the entrance of two other candidates, neither of whom could hope to win but both of whom might poll enough votes to prevent either of the leading contestants from obtaining the absolute majority needed for election. The Nationalists put up Theodor Duesterberg, second-in-command of the Stahlhelm (of which Hindenburg was the honorary commander), a colorless former lieutenant colonel whom the Nazis, to their glee, soon discovered to be the great-grandson of a Jew. The Communists, shouting that the Social Democrats were “betraying the workers” by supporting Hindenburg, ran their own candidate, Ernst Thaelmann, the party’s leader. It was not the first time, nor the last, that the Communists, on orders from Moscow, risked playing into Nazi hands.

Before the campaign was scarcely under way Hitler solved the problem of his citizenship. On February 25 it was announced that the Nazi Minister of the Interior of the state of Brunswick had named Herr Hitler an attaché of the legation of Brunswick in Berlin. Through this comic-opera maneuver the Nazi leader became automatically a citizen of Brunswick and hence of Germany and was therefore eligible to run for President of the German Reich. Having leaped over this little hurdle with ease, Hitler threw himself into the campaign with furious energy, crisscrossing the country, addressing large crowds at scores of mass meetings and whipping them up into a state of frenzy. Goebbels and Strasser, the other two spellbinders of the party, followed a similar schedule. But this was not all. They directed a propaganda campaign such as Germany had never seen. They plastered the walls of the cities and towns with a million screeching colored posters, distributed eight million pamphlets and twelve million extra copies of their party newspapers, staged three thousand meetings a day and, for the first time in a German election, made good use of films and gramophone records, the latter spouting forth from loudspeakers on trucks.

Bruening also worked tirelessly to win the election for the aged President. For once this fair-minded man was ruthless enough to reserve all radio time on the government-controlled networks for his own side—a tactic which infuriated Hitler. Hindenburg spoke only once, in a recorded broadcast on March 10, on the eve of the polling. It was a dignified utterance, one of the few made during the campaign, and it was effective.

Election of a party man, representing one-sided extremist views, who would consequently have the majority of the people against him, would expose the Fatherland to serious disturbances whose outcome would be incalculable. Duty commanded me to prevent this … If I am defeated, I shall at least not have incurred the reproach that of my own accord I deserted my post in an hour of crisis … I ask for no votes from those who do not wish to vote for me.

   Those who voted for him fell .4 per cent short of the needed absolute majority. When the polls closed on March 13, 1932, the results were:

Hindenburg      

18,651,497      

49.6%      

Hitler      

11,339,446      

30.1%      

Thaelmann      

4,983,341      

13.2%      

Duesterberg      

2,557,729      

6.8%      

The figures were a disappointment to both sides. The old President had led the Nazi demagogue by over seven million votes but had just failed to win the required absolute majority; this necessitated a second election, in which the candidate receiving the most votes would be elected. Hitler had increased the Nazi vote over 1930 by nearly five million—some 86 per cent—but he had been left far behind Hindenburg. Late on the evening of the polling there was deep despair at the Goebbels home in Berlin, where many of the party leaders had gathered to listen to the results over the radio. “We’re beaten; terrible outlook,” Goebbels wrote in his diary that night. “Party circles badly depressed and dejected … We can save ourselves only by a clever stroke.”

But in the Voelkischer Beobachter the next morning Hitler announced: “The first election campaign is over. The second has begun today. I shall lead it.” Indeed, he campaigned as vigorously as before. Chartering a Junkers passenger plane, he flew from one end of Germany to the other—a novelty in electioneering at that time—addressing three or four big rallies a day in as many cities. Shrewdly, he altered his tactics to attract more votes. In the first campaign he had harped on the misery of the people, the impotence of the Republic. Now he depicted a happy future for all Germans if he were elected: jobs for the workers, higher prices for the farmers, more business for the businessmen, a big Army for the militarists, and once in a speech at the Lustgarten in Berlin he promised, “In the Third Reich every German girl will find a husband!”

The Nationalists withdrew Duesterberg from the race and appealed to their followers to vote for Hitler. Again even the dissolute former Crown Prince, Friedrich Wilhelm, fell into line. “I shall vote for Hitler,” he announced.

April 10, 1932, the day of the second election, was dark and rainy, and a million fewer citizens cast their votes. The results announced late that night were:

Hindenburg      

19,359,983      

53%      

Hitler      

13,418,547      

36.8%      

Thaelmann      

3,706,759      

10.2%      

Though Hitler had increased his total vote by two million and Hindenburg had gained only one million, the President was in by a clear, absolute majority. More than half the German people had thus given expression to their belief in the democratic Republic; they had decisively rejected the extremists of both Right and Left. Or so they thought.

Hitler himself had much to ponder. He had made an impressive showing. He had doubled the Nazi vote in two years. And yet a majority still eluded him—and with it the political power he sought. Had he reached the end of this particular road? In the party discussions that followed the April 10 poll, Strasser frankly argued that this was indeed Hitler’s position. Strasser urged a deal with those in power: with the President, with the government of Bruening and General Groener, with the Army. Hitler distrusted his chief lieutenant but he did not dismiss his idea. He had not forgotten one of the lessons of his Vienna days, that to attain power one must win the support of some of the existing “powerful institutions.”

Before he could make up his mind as to the next step, one of these “powerful institutions,” the government of the Republic, struck him a blow.

   For more than a year the Reich government and various state governments had been coming into possession of documents which showed that a number of high Nazi leaders, especially in the S.A., were preparing to take over Germany by force and institute a reign of terror. On the eve of the first presidential elections the S.A., now 400,000 strong, had been fully mobilized and had thrown a cordon around Berlin. Though Captain Roehm, the S.A. chief, assured General von Schleicher that the measure was merely “precautionary,” the Prussian police had seized documents at Nazi headquarters in Berlin which made it pretty clear that the S.A. meant to carry out a coup d’état on the following evening should Hitler be elected President—such was Roehm’s hurry. Goebbels in a diary notation on the night of March 11 had confirmed that something was afoot. “Talked overinstructions with the S.A. and S.S. commanders. Deep uneasiness is rife everywhere. The word Putsch haunts the air.”

Both the national and the state governments were alarmed. On April 5 representatives of several of the states, led by Prussia and Bavaria, the two largest, had demanded that the central government suppress the S.A. or else they would do it themselves in their respective territories. Chancellor Bruening was away from Berlin electioneering, but Groener, who received the delegates in his capacity of Minister of the Interior and of Defense, promised action as soon as Bruening returned, which was on April 10, the day of the second election. Bruening and Groener thought they had good reasons for stamping out the S.A. It would end the threat of civil war and might be a prelude to the end of Hitler as a major factor in German politics. Certain of Hindenburg’s re-election by an absolute majority, they felt that the voters were giving them a mandate to protect the Republic against the threats of the Nazis to forcibly overthrow it. The time had come to use force against force. Also, unless they acted vigorously, the government would lose the support of the Social Democrats and the trade unions, which were providing most of the votes for Hindenburg and the chief backing for the continuance of Bruening’s government.

The cabinet met on April 10, in the midst of the polling, and decided to immediately suppress Hitler’s private armies. There was some difficulty in getting Hindenburg to sign the decree—Schleicher, who had first approved it, began to whisper objections in the President’s ear—but he finally did so on April 13 and it was promulgated on April 14.

This was a stunning blow to the Nazis. Roehm and some of the hotheads in the party urged resistance to the order. But Hitler, shrewder than his lieutenants, ruled that it must be obeyed. This was no moment for armed rebellion. Besides, there was interesting news about Schleicher. Goebbels noted it in his diary on that very day, April 14: “We are informed that Schleicher does not approve Groener’s action …” And later that day: “… a telephone call from a well-known lady who is a close friend of General Schleicher. She says the General wants to resign.”4

Goebbels was interested but skeptical. “Perhaps,” he added, “it is only a maneuver.” Neither he nor Hitler nor anyone else, certainly not Bruening and most certainly not Groener, to whom Schleicher owed his rapid rise in the Army and in the councils of government, had as yet surmised the infinite capacity for treachery of the scheming political General. But they were soon to learn.

Even before the ban on the S.A. was promulgated, Schleicher, who had won over the weak-minded commander of the Reichswehr, General von Hammerstein, confidentially informed the commanders of the seven military districts that the Army opposed the move. Next he persuaded Hindenburg to write a cantankerous letter to Groener, on April 16, asking why the Reichsbanner, the paramilitary organization of the Social Democrats, had not been suppressed along with the S.A. Schleicher took a further step to undermine his chief’s position. He inspired a malicious smearcampaign against General Groener, spreading tales that he was too ill to remain in office, that he had become a convert to Marxism and even to pacifism and proclaiming that the Defense Minister had disgraced the Army by having a child born five months after his recent marriage—the baby, he told Hindenburg, had been nicknamed “Nurmi” in Army circles, after the fleet Finnish runner of Olympic fame.

In the meantime, Schleicher renewed his contacts with the S.A. He held talks with both Roehm, the S.A. chief, and Count von Helldorf, the S.A. leader of Berlin. On April 26, Goebbels noted that Schleicher had informed Helldorff he “wanted to change his course.” Two days later Schleicher saw Hitler, and Goebbels reported that “the talk went off well.”

Even at this stage of the game it is evident that with regard to one question Roehm and Schleicher were conspiring behind Hitler’s back. Both men wanted the S.A. incorporated into the Army as a militia, a step to which the Fuehrer was unalterably opposed. This was a matter over which Hitler had often quarreled with his S.A. chief of staff, who saw the storm troopers as a potential military force to strengthen the country, whereas Hitler regarded them as purely a political force, a band to strike terror in the streets against his political opponents and to keep up political enthusiasm in the Nazi ranks. But in his conversations with the Nazi leaders, Schleicher had another objective in mind. He wanted the S.A. attached to the Army, where he could control it; but he also wanted Hitler, the only conservative nationalist with any mass following, in the government—where he could control him. The Verbot of the S.A. hindered progress toward both objectives.

By the end of the first week of May 1932, Schleicher’s intrigues reached one of their climaxes. Goebbels notes on May 4 that “Hitler’s mines are beginning to go off. First Groener and then Bruening must go.” On May 8, Goebbels reported in his diary, Hitler had a “decisive conference with General Schleicher and with some gentlemen close to the President. Everything goes well. Bruening will fall in a few days. The President will withdraw his confidence in him.” He then outlines the plan which Schleicher and the President’s camarilla had hatched with Hitler: The Reichstag will be dissolved, a presidential cabinet will be installed and all prohibitions against the S.A. and the Nazi Party lifted. To avoid arousing Bruening’s suspicion of what is up, Goebbels adds, Hitler will keep away from Berlin. Late that evening he spirits his chief away to Mecklenburg and into virtual hiding.

For the Nazis, the presidential cabinet is regarded, Goebbels notes the next day, as merely an “interim” affair. Such a “colorless” transitional government, he says, “will clear the way for us. The weaker it is the easier we can do away with it.” This, of course, is not the view of Schleicher, who already is dreaming of a new government which will dispense with Parliament until the constitution can be changed and which he will dominate. Already, it is clear, he and Hitler believe they can each get the best of the other. But for the moment he has an ace to play. He can assure the tired old President that he can offer what Bruening could not: a government supported by Hitler and yet without the inconvenience of having the fanatical demagogue in it.

So all was ready, and on May 10, two days after his meeting with Hitler and the men around Hindenburg, Schleicher struck. The blow was delivered at the Reichstag. General Groener rose to defend the banning of the S.A. and was violently attacked by Goering. Ill with diabetes and sick at heart at the treachery already wrought by Schleicher, the Defense Minister tried to defend himself as best he could but he was overwhelmed by a torrent of abuse from the Nazi benches. Exhausted and humiliated, he started to leave the chamber, only to run into General von Schleicher, who informed him coldly that he “no longer enjoyed the confidence of the Army and must resign.” Groener appealed to Hindenburg, for whom he had loyally fronted—and taken the blame—when the crucial moment had come, first, in 1918, to tell the Kaiser to go, and then, in 1919, to advise the republican government to sign the Versailles Treaty. But the old Field Marshal, who had never ceased resenting his obligation to the younger officer, replied that he “regretted” he could do nothing in the matter. On May 13, bitter and disillusioned,* Groener resigned. That evening Goebbels recorded in his diary: “We have news from General Schleicher. Everything is going according to plan.”

The plan called for Bruening’s head next, and it was not long before the conniving General was able to slip it on the block. Groener’s fall had been a grave setback for the tottering Republic; almost alone among the military men he had served it ably and devotedly, and there was no one else in the Army of his stature and loyalty to replace him. But the stubborn, hard-working Bruening was still a power. He had secured the backing of the majority of Germans for Hindenburg’s re-election and, as he believed, for the continuance of the Republic. He seemed to be on the eve of sensational successes in foreign policy with regard to both the cancellation of reparations and equality of armament for the Reich. But the aging President, as we have seen, had rewarded with a remarkable coolness the Chancellor’s superhuman efforts in winning him a further term of office. His attitude became more frigid when Bruening proposed that the State take over a number of bankrupt Junker estates in East Prussia, after generous compensation, and give them to the landless peasants. When Hindenburg went off for the Easter holidays at the middle of May to Neudeck, the East Prussian estate which the Junkers, with the financial help of the industrialists, had given him as a present on his eightieth birthday, he got an earful from his aristocratic neighbors, who clamored for the dismissal of a Chancellor whom they now called “an agrarian Bolshevist.”

The Nazis, undoubtedly through Schleicher, learned before Bruening that the Chancellor was on his way out. On May 18 Goebbels returned from Munich to Berlin and, noting that the “Easter spirit” was still lingering, wrote in his diary: “For Bruening alone winter seems to have set in. The funny thing is he doesn’t realize it. He can’t find men for his cabinet. The rats are leaving the sinking ship.” It might have been more accurate to say that the leading rat, far from leaving the sinking ship of state, was merely making ready to put in a new captain. The next day Goebbels recorded: “General Schleicher has refused to take over the Ministry of Defense.” This was true but also not quite accurate. Bruening had indeed made the request of Schleicher after upbraiding him for undermining Groener. “I will,” Schleicher had replied, “but not in your government.”5

On May 19 Goebbels’ diary recorded: “Message from Schleicher. The list of ministers is ready. For the transition period it is not so important.” Thus at least a week in advance of Bruening the Nazis knew his goose was cooked. On Sunday, May 29, Hindenburg summoned Bruening to his presence and abruptly asked for his resignation, and on the following day it was given him.

Schleicher had triumphed. But not only Bruening had fallen; the democratic Republic went down with him, though its death agonies would continue for another eight months before the final coup de grâce was administered. Bruening’s responsibility for its demise was not small. Though democratic at heart, he had allowed himself to be maneuvered into a position where he had perforce to rule much of the time by presidential decree without the consent of Parliament. The provocation to take such a step admittedly had been great; the politicians in their blindness had made it all but inevitable. As recently as May 12, though, he had been able to win a vote of confidence in the Reichstag for his finance bill. But where Parliament could not agree he had relied on the authority of the President to govern. Now that authority had been withdrawn. From now on, from June 1932 to January 1933, it would be granted to two lesser men who, though not Nazis, felt no urge to uphold a democratic Republic, at least as it was presently constituted.

The political power in Germany no longer resided, as it had since the birth of the Republic, in the people and in the body which expressed the people’s will, the Reichstag. It was now concentrated in the hands of a senile, eighty-five-year-old President and in those of a few shallow ambitious men around him who shaped his weary, wandering mind. Hitler saw this very clearly, and it suited his purposes. It seemed most unlikely that he would ever win a majority in Parliament. Hindenburg’s new course offered him the only opportunity that was left of coming to power. Not at the moment, to be sure, but soon.

He hurried back to Berlin from Oldenburg, where on May 29 the Nazis had won an absolute majority in the election for the local diet. The next day he was received by Hindenburg, who confirmed the points of the deal which the Nazi leader had secretly worked out with Schleicher on May 8: the lifting of the ban on the S.A., a presidential cabinet of Hindenburg’s own choosing, dissolution of the Reichstag. Would Hitler support the new government? Hindenburg asked. Hitler replied that he would. That evening of May 30, the Goebbels’ diary was brought up to date: “Hitler’s talk with the President went well … V. Papen is spoken of as Chancellor. But that interests us little. The important thing is that the Reichstag is dissolved. Elections! Elections! Direct to the people! We are all very happy.”6

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