There now appeared briefly on the center of the stage an unexpected and ludicrous figure. The man whom General von Schleicher foisted upon the octogenarian President and who on June 1, 1932, was named Chancellor of Germany was the fifty-three-year-old Franz von Papen, scion of an impoverished family of the Westphalian nobility, a former General Staff officer, a crack gentleman rider, an unsuccessful and amateurish Catholic Centrist politician, a wealthy industrialist by marriage and little known to the public except as a former military attaché in Washington who had been expelled during the war for complicity in the planning of such sabotage as blowing up bridges and railroad lines while the United States was neutral.
“The President’s choice met with incredulity,” wrote the French ambassador in Berlin. “No one but smiled or tittered or laughed because Papen enjoyed the peculiarity of being taken seriously by neither his friends nor his enemies … He was reputed to be superficial, blundering, untrue, ambitious, vain, crafty and an intriguer.”7 To such a man—and M. François-Poncet was not exaggerating—Hindenburg, at Schleicher’s prompting, had entrusted the fate of the floundering Republic.
Papen had no political backing whatsoever. He was not even a member of the Reichstag. The furthest he had got in politics was a seat in the Prussian Landtag. On his appointment as Chancellor his own Center Party, indignant at the treachery of Papen toward its leader, Bruening, unanimously expelled him from the party. But the President had told him to form a government above parties, and this he was able to do at once because Schleicher already had a list of ministers at hand. It comprised what became known as the “barons’ cabinet.” Five members were of the nobility, two were corporation directors, and one, Franz Guertner, named Minister of Justice, had been Hitler’s protector in the Bavarian government during the troubled days before and after the Beer Hall Putsch. General von Schleicher was smoked out by Hindenburg from his preferred position behind the scenes and made Minister of Defense. The “barons’ cabinet” was received by much of the country as a joke, though the stamina of a number of its members, Baron von Neurath, Baron von Eltz-Ru-benach, Count Schwerin von Krosigk and Dr. Guertner, was such that they lingered on at their posts far into the era of the Third Reich.
Papen’s first act was to honor Schleicher’s pact with Hitler. On June 4 he dissolved the Reichstag and convoked new elections for July 31, and after some prodding from the suspicious Nazis, he lifted the ban on the S.A. on June 15. A wave of political violence and murder such as even Germany had not previously seen immediately followed. The storm troopers swarmed the streets seeking battle and blood and their challenge was often met, especially by the Communists. In Prussia alone between June 1 and 20 there were 461 pitched battles in the streets which cost eighty-two lives and seriously wounded four hundred men. In July, thirty-eight Nazis and thirty Communists were listed among the eighty-six persons killed in riots. On Sunday, July 10, eighteen persons were done to death in the streets, and on the following Sunday, when the Nazis, under police escort, staged a march through Altona, a working-class suburb of Hamburg, nineteen persons were shot dead and 285 wounded. The civil war which the barons’ cabinet had been called in to halt was growing steadily worse. All the parties save the Nazis and the Communists demanded that the government take action to restore order.
Papen responded by doing two things. He banned all political parades for the fortnight prior to the July 31 elections. And he took a step which was aimed not only at placating the Nazis but at destroying one of the few remaining pillars of the democratic Republic. On July 20 he deposed the Prussian government and appointed himself Reich Commissioner for Prussia. This was a daring move toward the kind of authoritarian government he was seeking for the whole of Germany. Papen’s excuse was that the Altona riots had shown the Prussian government could not maintain law and order. He also charged, on “evidence” hastily produced by Schleicher, that the Prussian authorities were in cahoots with the Communists. When the Socialist ministers refused to be deposed except by force, Papen obligingly supplied it.
Martial law was proclaimed in Berlin and General von Rundstedt, the local Reichswehr commander, sent a lieutenant and a dozen men to make the necessary arrests. This was a development which was not lost on the men of the Right who had taken over the federal power, nor did it escape Hitler’s notice. There was no need to worry any longer that the forces of the Left or even of the democratic center would put up serious resistance to the overthrow of the democratic system. In 1920 a general strike had saved the Republic from being overthrown. Such a measure was debated now among the trade-union leaders and the Socialists and rejected as too dangerous. Thus by deposing the constitutional Prussian government Papen had driven another nail into the coffin of the Weimar Republic. It had taken, as he boasted, only a squad of soldiers to do it.
For their part, Hitler and his lieutenants were determined to bring down not only the Republic but Papen and his barons too. Goebbels expressed the aim in his diary on June 5: “We must disassociate ourselves at the earliest possible moment from this transitional bourgeois cabinet.” When Papen saw Hitler for the first time on June 9, the Nazi leader told him, “I regard your cabinet only as a temporary solution and will continue my efforts to make my party the strongest in the country. The chancellorship will then devolve on me.”8
The Reichstag elections of July 31 were the third national elections held in Germany within five months, but, far from being weary from so much electioneering, the Nazis threw themselves into the campaign with more fanaticism and force than ever before. Despite Hitler’s promise toHindenburg that the Nazis would support the Papen government, Goebbels unleashed bitter attacks on the Minister of the Interior and as early as July 9 Hitler went to Schleicher and complained bitterly of the government’s policies. From the size of the crowds that turned out to see Hitler it was evident that the Nazis were gaining ground. In one day, July 27, he spoke to 60,000 persons in Brandenburg, to nearly as many in Potsdam, and that evening to 120,000 massed in the giant Grunewald Stadium in Berlin while outside an additional 100,000 heard his voice by loudspeaker.
The polling on July 31 brought a resounding victory for the National Socialist Party. With 13,745,000 votes, the Nazis won 230 seats in the Reichstag, making them easily the largest party in Parliament though still far short of a majority in a house of 608 members. The Social Democrats, no doubt because of the timidity shown by their leaders in Prussia, lost ten seats and were reduced to 133. The working class was swinging over to the Communists, who gained 12 seats and became the third largest party, with 89 members in the Reichstag. The Catholic Center increased its strength somewhat, from 68 to 73 seats, but the other middle-class parties and even Hugenberg’s German National Party, the only one which had supported Papen in the election, were overwhelmed. Except for the Catholics, the middle and upper classes, it was evident, had gone over to the Nazis.
On August 2 Hitler took stock of his triumph at Tegernsee, near Munich, where he conferred with his party leaders. Since the last Reichstag elections two years before, the National Socialists had gained over seven million votes and increased their representation in Parliament from 107 to 230. In the four years since the 1928 elections, the Nazis had won some thirteen million new votes. Yet the majority which would sweep the party into power still eluded Hitler. He had won only 37 per cent of the total vote. The majority of Germans was still against him.
Far into the night he deliberated with his lieutenants. Goebbels recorded the results in his diary entry of August 2: “The Fuehrer faces difficult decisions. Legal? With the Center?” With the Center the Nazis could form a majority in the Reichstag. But to Goebbels this is “unthinkable.” Still, he notes, “the Fuehrer comes to no final decision. The situation will take a little time to ripen.”
But not much. Hitler, flushed with his victory, though it was less than decisive, was impatient. On August 4 he hurried to Berlin to see not Chancellor von Papan, but General von Schleicher, and, as Goebbels noted, “to present his demands. They will not be too moderate,” he added. On August 5, at the Fuerstenberg barracks near Berlin, Hitler outlined his terms to General von Schleicher: the chancellorship for himself; and for his party, the premiership of Prussia, the Reich and Prussian Ministries of Interior, the Reich Ministries of Justice, Economy, and Aviation, and a new ministry for Goebbels, that of Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda. As a sop to Schleicher, Hitler promised him the Defense Ministry. Furthermore, Hitler said he would demand an enabling act from the Reichstag authorizing him to rule by decree for a specified period; if it were refused, the Reichstag would be “sent home.”
Hitler left the meeting convinced that he had won over Schleicher to his program and hurried south in good spirits to his mountain retreat on the Obersalzberg. Goebbels, always cynical in regard to the opposition and always distrustful of the political General, was not so sure. “It is well to be skeptical about further developments,” he confided to his diary on August 6 after he had listened to the Leader’s optimistic report of his meeting with Schleicher. Goebbels was sure of one thing, though: “Once we have the power we will never give it up. They will have to carry our dead bodies out of the ministries.”
All was not as well as Hitler seemed to think. On August 8 Goebbels wrote: “Telephone call from Berlin. It is full of rumors. The whole party is ready to take over power. The S.A. men are leaving their places of work in order to make themselves ready. The party leaders are preparing for the great hour. If all goes well, fine. If things go badly there will be a terrible setback.” The next day Strasser, Frick and Funk arrived at Obersalzberg with news that was not exactly encouraging. Schleicher was turning again, like a worm. He was now insisting that if Hitler got the chancellorship he must rule with the consent of the Reichstag. Funk reported that his business friends were worried about the prospects of a Nazi government. He had a message from Schacht confirming it. Finally, the Wilhelmstrasse, the trio told Hitler, was worried about a Nazi putsch.
This worry was not without foundation. Next day, August 10, Goebbels learned that in Berlin the S.A. was “in a state of armed readiness … The S.A. is throwing an ever stronger ring around Berlin … The Wilhelmstrasse is very nervous about it. But that is the point of our mobilization.” On the following day the Fuehrer could stand the waiting no longer. He set out by motorcar for Berlin. He would make himself “scarce” there, Goebbels says, but on the other hand he would be ready when he was called. When the call did not come he himself requested to see the President. But first he had to see Schleicher and Papen.
This interview took place at noon on August 13. It was a stormy one. Schleicher had slid away from his position of a week before. He supported Papen in insisting that the most Hitler could hope for was the vice-chancellorship. Hitler was outraged. He must be Chancellor or nothing. Papen terminated the interview by saying he would leave the “final decision” up to Hindenburg.*
Hitler retired in a huff to the nearby Kaiserhof. There at 3 P.M. a phone call came from the President’s office. Someone—probably Goebbels, judging from his diary—asked, “Has a decision already been made? If so, there is no point in Hitler’s coming over.” The President, the Nazis were told, “wishes first to speak to Hitler.”
The aging Field Marshal received the Nazi leader standing up and leaning on his cane in his study, thus setting the icy tone for the interview. For a man in his eighty-fifth year who only ten months before had suffered a complete mental relapse lasting more than a week, Hindenburg was in a surprisingly lucid frame of mind. He listened patiently while Hitler reiterated his demand for the chancellorship and full power. Otto von Meissner, chief of the Presidential Chancellery, and Goering, who had accompanied Hitler, were the only witnesses to the conversation, and though Meissner is not a completely dependable source, his affidavit at Nuremberg is the only firsthand testimony in existence of what followed. It has a ring of truth.
Hindenburg replied that because of the tense situation he could not in good conscience risk transferring the power of government to a new party such as the National Socialists, which did not command a majority and which was intolerant, noisy and undisciplined.
At this point, Hindenburg, with a certain show of excitement, referred to several recent occurrences—clashes between the Nazis and the police, acts of violence committed by Hitler’s followers against those who were of a different opinion, excesses against Jews and other illegal acts. All these incidents had strengthened him in his conviction that there were numerous wild elements in the Party beyond control … After extended discussion Hindenburg proposed to Hitler that he should declare himself ready to co-operate with the other parties, in particular with the Right and Center, and that he should give up the one-sided idea that he must have complete power. In co-operating with other parties, Hindenburg declared, he would be able to show what he could achieve and improve upon. If he could show positive results, he would acquire increasing and even dominating influence even in a coalition government. Hindenburg stated that this also would be the best way to eliminate the widespread fear that a National Socialist government would make ill use of its power and would suppress all other viewpoints and gradually eliminate them. Hindenburg stated that he was ready to accept Hitler and the representatives of his movement in a coalition government, the precise combination to be a matter of negotiation, but that he could not take the responsibility of giving exclusive power to Hitler alone … Hitler was adamant, however, in refusing to put himself in the position of bargaining with the leaders of the other parties and in such manner to form a coalition government.9
The discussion, then, ended without agreement, but not before the old President, still standing, had delivered a stern lecture to the Nazi leader. In the words of the official communiqué issued immediately afterward, Hindenburg “regretted that Herr Hitler did not see himself in a position to support a national government appointed with the confidence of the Reich President, as he had agreed to do before the Reichstag elections.” In the view of the venerable President, Hitler had broken his word, but let him beware of the future. “The President,” the communiqué stated further, “gravely exhorted Herr Hitler to conduct the opposition on the part of the N.S. Party in a chivalrous manner, and to bear in mind his responsibility to the Fatherland and to the German people.”
The communiqué giving Hindenburg’s version of the meeting and insisting that Hitler had demanded “complete control of the State” was published in such a hurry that it caught Goebbels’ propaganda machine napping and did much harm to Hitler’s cause, not only among the general public but among the Nazis themselves. In vain did Hitler respond that he had not asked for “complete power” but only for the chancellorship and a few ministries. Hindenburg’s word was generally accepted.
In the meantime, the mobilized storm troopers were chafing at the bit. Hitler called in their leaders and spoke to them that same evening. “It’s a difficult task,” Goebbels noted. “Who knows if their formations can be held together? Nothing is more difficult than to tell victory-flushed troops that victory has been snatched out of their hand.” Late that night the little Doktor sought consolation in the reading of the letters of Frederick the Great. Next day he raced off for a vacation on the beaches of the Baltic. “Great hopelessness reigns among the party comrades,” he wrote. He declined to leave his room even to speak with them. “I don’t want to hear about politics for at least a week. I want only sun, fight, air and peace.”
Hitler retired to the Obersalzberg to imbibe the same elements and ponder the immediate future. As Goebbels said, “the first big chance has been missed.” Hermann Rauschning, the then Nazi leader in Danzig, found the Fuehrer brooding sullenly on his mountaintop. “We must be ruthless,” Hitler told him, and launched into a tirade against Papen. But he had not lost hope. At times he spoke as if he were already Chancellor. “My task is more difficult than Bismarck’s,” he said. “I must first create the nation before even beginning to tackle the national tasks before us.” But supposing the Nazis were suppressed by a military dictatorship under Papen and Schleicher? Hitler abruptly asked Rauschning whether Danzig, an independent city-state then under the protection of the League of Nations, had an extradition agreement with Germany. Rauschning did not at first understand the question, but it later became evident that Hitler was looking for a place that might serve as an asylum.10 In his diary Goebbels noted “rumors that the Fuehrer is to be arrested.” Yet even now, after his rebuff by the Reich President and the government of Papen and Schleicher, and despite his fears that his party might be outlawed, he was determined to stick to his path of “legality.” He squelched all talk of a putsch by the S.A. Except for occasional spells of depression he remained confident that he would achieve his goal—not by force and scarcely by winning a parliamentary majority, but by the means which had carried Schleicher and Papen to the top: by backstairs intrigue, a game that two could play.
It was not long before he gave an example. On August 25 Goebbels conferred with Hitler at Berchtesgaden and noted: “We have got into touch with the Center Party, if only to bring pressure on our opponents.” Next day Goebbels was back in Berlin, where he found that Schleicher had already found out “about our feelers to the Center.” On the following day he went to see the General just to make sure. He thought Schleicher appeared worried at the prospect of Hitler and the Catholic Center getting together, for between them they commanded an absolute majority in the Reichstag. As to Schleicher, Goebbels wrote: “I don’t know what is genuine or false in him.”
The contacts with the Center Party, though never intended, as Goebbels said, to be much more than a means of applying pressure on the Papen government, paid off in a farcical event which now occurred in the Reichstag and which marked the beginning of the end for the cavalryman Chancellor. When the chamber convened on August 30 the Centrists joined the Nazis in electing Goering President of the Reichstag. For the first time, then, a National Socialist was in the chair when the Reichstag reconvened on September 12 to begin its working session. Goering made the most of his opportunity. Chancellor von Papen had obtained in advance from the President a decree for the dissolution of the chamber—the first time that the death warrant of the Reichstag had been signed before it met to transact business. But for this first working session he neglected to bring it along. He had with him instead a speech outlining the program of his government, having been assured that one of the Nationalist deputies, in agreement with most of the other parties, would object to a vote on the expected Communist motion for censure of the government. In this case a single objection from any one of the 600-odd members was enough to postpone a vote.
When Ernst Torgler, the Communist leader, introduced his motion as an amendment to the order of the day, however, neither a Nationalist deputy nor any other rose to object. Finally Frick asked for a half hour’s adjournment on behalf of the Nazis.
“The situation was now serious,” Papen says in his memoirs, “and I had been caught unawares.” He sent a messenger posthaste to the Chancellery to fetch the dissolution order.
In the meantime Hitler conferred with his parliamentary party group in the Reichstag President’s Palace across the street. The Nazis were in a dilemma, and they were embarrassed. The Nationalists, they felt, had double-crossed them by not moving to postpone the vote. Now Hitler’s party, in order to bring down the Papen government, would have to vote with the Communists on a Communist motion. Hitler decided to swallow the pill of such an unsavory association. He ordered his deputies to vote for the Communist amendment and overthrow Papen before the Chancellor could dissolve the Reichstag. To accomplish this, of course, Goering, as presiding officer, would have to pull some fast and neat tricks of parliamentary procedure. The former air ace, a man of daring and of many abilities, as he was to prove on a larger stage later, was equal to the occasion.
When the session reconvened Papen appeared with the familiar red dispatch case which, by tradition, carried the dissolution order he had so hastily retrieved. But when he requested the floor to read it, the President of the Reichstag managed not to see him, though Papen, by now red-faced, was on his feet brandishing the paper for all in the assembly to see. All but Goering. His smiling face was turned the other way. He called for an immediate vote. By now Papen’s countenance, according to eyewitnesses, had turned from red to white with anger. He strode up to the President’s rostrum and plunked the dissolution order on his desk. Goering took no notice of it and ordered the vote to proceed. Papen, followed by his ministers, none of whom were members of the chamber, stalked out. The deputies voted: 513 to 32 against the government. Only then did Goering notice the piece of paper which had been thrust so angrily on his desk. He read it to the assembly and ruled that since it had been countersigned by a Chancellor who already had been voted out of office by a constitutional majority it had no validity.
Which elements in Germany gained and which lost by this farcical incident, and how much, was not immediately clear. That the dandy, Papen, had been made a joke of there was no doubt; but then he had always been somewhat of a joke, even, as Ambassador François-Poncet said, to his friends. That the Reichstag had shown that the overwhelming majority of Germans opposed Hindenburg’s hand-picked presidential government was clear enough. But in the process had it not further sapped public confidence in the parliamentary system? As for the Nazis, had they not again shown themselves to be not only irresponsible but ready to connive even with the Communists to achieve their ends? Moreover, were the citizens not weary of elections and did the Nazis not face losing votes in the inevitable new election, the fourth within the year? Gregor Strasser and even Frick thought that they did, and that such a loss might be disastrous to the party.
Hitler, however, Goebbels reported that same evening, “was beside himself with joy. Again he has made a clear, unmistakable decision.”
The Reichstag quickly recognized its dissolution, and new elections were set for November 6. For the Nazis they presented certain difficulties. For one thing, as Goebbels noted, the people were tired of political speeches and propaganda. Even the party workers, as he admitted in his diary of October 15, had “become very nervous as the result of these everlasting elections. They are overworked …” Also there were financial difficulties. Big business and big finance were swinging behind Papen, who had given them certain concessions. They were becoming increasingly distrustful, as Funk had warned, of Hitler’s refusal to cooperate with Hindenburg and with what seemed to them his growing radicalism and his tendency to work even with the Communists, as the Reichstag episode had shown. Goebbels took notice of this in his diary of October 15: “Money is extraordinarily hard to obtain. All the gentlemen of ‘Property and Education’ are standing by the government.”
A few days before the election the Nazis had joined the Communists in staging a strike of the transport workers in Berlin, a strike disavowed by the trade unions and the Socialists. This brought a further drying up of financial sources among the businessmen just when the Nazi Party needed funds most to make a whirlwind finish in the campaign. Goebbels noted lugubriously on November 1: “Scarcity of money has become a chronic illness with us. We lack enough to really carry out a big campaign. Many bourgeois circles have been frightened off by our participation in the strike. Even many of our party comrades are beginning to have their doubts.” On November 5, the eve of the elections: “Last attack. Desperate drive of the party against defeat. We succeed in getting 10,000 marks at the last minute. This will be thrown into the campaign Saturday afternoon. We have done everything that could be done. Now let fate decide.”
Fate, and the German electorate, decided on November 6 a number of things, none of them conclusive for the future of the crumbling Republic. The Nazis lost two million votes and 34 seats in the Reichstag, reducing them to 196 deputies. The Communists gained three quarters of a million votes and the Social Democrats lost the same number, with the result that the Communist seats rose from 89 to 100 and the Socialist seats dropped from 133 to 121. The German National Party, the sole one which had backed the government, won nearly a million additional votes—obviously from the Nazis—and now had 52 seats instead of 37. Though the National Socialists were still the largest party in the country, the loss of two million votes was a severe setback. For the first time the great Nazi tide was ebbing, and from a point far short of a majority. The legend of invincibility had been shattered. Hitler was in a weaker position to bargain for power than he had been since July.
Realizing this, Papen put aside what he calls his “personal distaste” for Hitler and wrote him a letter on November 13 inviting him to “discuss the situation.” But Hitler made so many conditions in his reply that Papen abandoned all hope of obtaining an understanding with him. The Nazi leader’s intransigence did not surprise the breezy, incompetent Chancellor, but a new course which his friend and mentor, Schleicher, now proposed did surprise him. For the slippery kingmaker had come to the conclusion that Papen’s usefulness, like that of Bruening before him, had come to an end. New plans were sprouting in his fertile mind. His good friend Papen must go. The President must be left completely free to deal with the political parties, especially with the largest. He urged Papen’s resignation, and on November 17 Papen and his cabinet resigned. Hindenburg sent immediately for Hitler.
Their meeting on November 19 was less frigid than that of August 13. This time the President offered chairs and allowed his caller to remain for over an hour. Hindenburg presented Hitler with two choices: the chancellorship if he could secure a workable majority in the Reichstag for a definite program, or the vice-chancellorship under Papen in another presidential cabinet that would rule by emergency decrees. Hitler saw the President again on the twenty-first and he also exchanged several letters with Meissner. But there was no agreement. Hitler could not get a workable majority in Parliament. Though the Center Party agreed to support him on condition that he would not aspire to dictatorship, Hugenberg withheld the co-operation of the Nationalists. Hitler therefore resumed his demand for the chancellorship of a presidential government, but this the President would not give him. If there was to be a cabinet governing by decree Hindenburg preferred his friend Papen to head it. Hitler, he said in a letter on his behalf dispatched by Meissner, could not be given such a post “because such a cabinet is bound to develop into a party dictatorship…. I cannot take the responsibility for this before my oath and my conscience.”11
The old Field Marshal was more prophetic on the first point than on the second. As for Hitler, once more he had knocked on the door of the Chancellery, had seen it open a crack only to be slammed shut in his face.
This was just what Papen had expected, and when he and Schleicher went to see Hindenburg on the evening of December 1 he was sure that he would be reappointed Chancellor. Little did he suspect what the scheming General had been up to. Schleicher had been in touch with Strasser and had suggested that if the Nazis would not come into a Papen government perhaps they would join a cabinet in which he himself were Chancellor. Hitler was asked to come to Berlin for consultations with the General, and according to one version widely publicized in the German press and later accepted by most historians, the Fuehrer actually took the night train to Berlin from Munich but was hauled off in the dead of the night by Goering at Jena and spirited away to Weimar for a meeting of the top Nazi leaders. Actually the Nazi version of this incident is, surprisingly, probably the more accurate. Goebbels’ diary for November 30 recounts that a telegram came for Hitler asking him to hurry to Berlin, but that he decided to let Schleicher wait while he conferred with his comrades at Weimar, where he was scheduled to open the campaign for the Thuringianelections. At this conference, attended by the Big Five leaders, Goering, Goebbels, Strasser, Frick and Hitler, on December 1, there was considerable disagreement. Strasser, supported by Frick, urged at least Nazi toleration of a Schleicher government, though he himself preferred joining it. Goering and Goebbels argued strenuously against such a course and Hitler sided with them. Next day Hitler advised a certain Major Ott, whom Schleicher had sent to him, to counsel the General not to take the chancellorship, but it was too late.
Papen had been blandly unaware of the intrigue which Schleicher was weaving behind his back. At the beginning of the meeting with the President on December 1 he had confidently outlined his plans for the future. He should continue as Chancellor, rule by decree and let the Reichstag go hang for a while until he could “amend the constitution.” In effect, Papen wanted “amendments” which would take the country back to the days of the empire and re-establish the rule of the conservative classes. At his Nuremberg trial and in his memoirs he admitted, as indeed he did to the Field Marshal, that his proposals involved “a breach of the present constitution by the President,” but he assured Hindenburg that “he might be justified in placing the welfare of the nation above his oath to the constitution,” as, he added, Bismarck once had done “for the sake of the country.”13
To Papen’s great surprise, Schleicher broke in to object. He played upon the aged President’s obvious reluctance to violate his oath to uphold the constitution, if it could be avoided—and the General thought it could. He believed a government which could command a majority in theReichstag was possible if he himself headed it. He was sure he could detach Strasser and at least sixty Nazi deputies from Hitler. To this Nazi fraction he could add the middle-class parties and the Social Democrats. He even thought the trade unions would support him.
Hindenburg was shocked at such an idea and, turning to Papen, asked him then and there to go ahead with the forming of a new government. “Schleicher,” says Papen, “appeared dumfounded.” They had a long argument after they had left the President but could reach no agreement. As they parted, Schleicher, in the famous words addressed to Luther as he set out for the fateful Diet of Worms, said to Papen, “Little Monk, you have chosen a difficult path.”
How difficult it was Papen learned the next morning at nine o’clock at a cabinet meeting which he had called.
Schleicher rose [Papen says] and declared that there was no possibility of carrying out the directive that the President had given me. Any attempt to do so would reduce the country to chaos. The police and the armed services could not guarantee to maintain transport and supply services in the event of a general strike, nor would they be able to ensure law and order in the event of a civil war. The General Staff had made a study in this respect and he had arranged for Major Ott [its author] to place himself at the Cabinet’s disposal and present a report.13
Whereupon the General produced the major. If Schleicher’s remarks had shaken’ Papen, the conveniently timed report of Major Eugen Ott (who would later be Hitler’s ambassador to Tokyo) demolished him. Ott simply stated that “the defense of the frontiers and the maintenance of order against both Nazis and Communists was beyond the strength of the forces at the disposal of the federal and state governments. It is therefore recommended that the Reich government should abstain from declaring a state of emergency.”14
To Papen’s pained surprise, the German Army which had once sent the Kaiser packing and which more recently, at Schleicher’s instigation, had eliminated General Groener and Chancellor Bruening, was now cashiering him. He went immediately to Hindenburg with the news, hoping that the President would fire Schleicher as Minister of Defense and retain Chancellor Papen—and indeed proposing that he do so.
“My dear Papen,” the stout old President replied, “you will not think much of me if I change my mind. But I am too old and have been through too much to accept the responsibility for a civil war. Our only hope is to let Schleicher try his luck.”
“Two great tears,” Papen swears, rolled down Hindenburg’s cheeks. A few hours later, as the deposed Chancellor was clearing his desk, a photograph of the President arrived for him with the inscription, “Ich hatt’ einen Kameraden!” The next day the President wrote him in his own handwriting of the “heavy heart” he felt in relieving him of his post and reiterating that his confidence in him “remains unshaken.” That was true and would shortly be proved.
On December 2 Kurt von Schleicher became Chancellor, the first general to occupy that post since General Count Georg Leo von Caprivi de Caprara de Montecuccoli, who had succeeded Bismarck in 1890. Schleicher’s tortuous intrigues had at last brought him to the highest office at a moment when the depression, which he little understood, was at its height; when the Weimar Republic, which he had done so much to undermine, was already crumbling; when no one any longer trusted him, not even the President, whom he had manipulated so long. His days on the heights, it seemed obvious to almost everyone but himself, were strictly numbered. The Nazis were sure of it. Goebbels’ diary for December 2 included this entry: “Schleicher is named Chancellor. He won’t last long.”
Papen thought so too. He was smarting from wounded vanity and thirsting for revenge against his “friend and successor,” as he calls him in his memoirs. To get Papen out of the way Schleicher offered him the Paris embassy, but he declined. The President, Papen says, wanted him to remain in Berlin “within reach.” That was the most strategic place to weave his own web of intrigues against the archintriguer. Busy and agile as a spider, Papen set to work. As the strife-ridden year of 1932 approached its end, Berlin was full of cabals, and of cabals within cabals. Besides those of Papen and Schleicher, there was one at the President’s Palace, where Hindenburg’s son, Oskar, and his State Secretary, Meissner, held sway behind the throne. There was one at the Kaiserhof hotel, where Hitler and the men around him were plotting not only for power but against each other. Soon the webs of intrigue became so enmeshed that by New Year’s, 1933, none of the cabalists was sure who was double-crossing whom. But it would not take long for them to find out.