“I stayed in power only fifty-seven days,” Schleicher remarked once in the hearing of the attentive French ambassador, “and on each and every one of them I was betrayed fifty-seven times. Don’t ever speak to me of ‘German loyalty’!”15 His own career and doings had certainly made him an authority on the subject.
He began his chancellorship by making Gregor Strasser an offer to become Vice-Chancellor of Germany and Premier of Prussia. Having failed to get Hitler to join his government, Schleicher now tried to split the Nazis by this bait to Strasser. There was some reason to believe he might succeed. Strasser was the Number Two man in the party, and among the left-wing element, which really believed in a national socialism, he was more popular than Hitler. As leader of the Party Organization he was in direct touch with all the provincial and local leaders and seemingly had earned their loyalty. He was now convinced that Hitler had brought the movement to a dead end. The more radical followers were going over to the Communists. The party itself was financially bankrupt. In November Fritz Thyssen had warned that he could make no further contributions to the movement. There were simply no funds to meet the payroll of thousands of party functionaries or to maintain the S.A., which alone cost two and a half million marks a week. The printers of the extensive Nazi press were threatening to stop the presses unless they received payment on overdue bills. Goebbels had touched on this in his diary on November 11: “The financial situation of the Berlin organization is hopeless. Nothing but debts and obligations.” And in December he was regretting that party salaries would have to be cut. Finally, the provincial elections inThuringia on December 3, the day Schleicher called in Strasser, revealed a loss of 40 per cent in the Nazi vote. It had become obvious, at least to Strasser, that the Nazis would never obtain office through the ballot.
He therefore urged Hitler to abandon his “all or nothing” policy and take what power he could by joining in a coalition with Schleicher. Otherwise, he feared, the party would fall to pieces. He had been pressing this line for some months, and Goebbels’ diary from midsummer to December is full of bitter references to Strasser’s “disloyalty” to Hitler.
The showdown came on December 5 at a meeting of the party leaders at the Kaiserhof in Berlin. Strasser demanded that the Nazis at least “tolerate” the Schleicher government, and he was backed by Frick, who headed the Nazi bloc in the Reichstag, many of whose members feared losing their seats and their deputy’s salary if Hitler provoked any more elections. Goering and Goebbels strenuously opposed Strasser and won Hitler to their side. Hitler would not “tolerate” the Schleicher regime, but, it developed, he was still ready to “negotiate” with it. For this task, however, he appointed Goering—he had already heard, Goebbels reveals, of Strasser’s private talk with the Chancellor two days before. On the seventh, Hitler and Strasser had a conversation at the Kaiserhof that degenerated into a bitter quarrel. Hitler accused his chief lieutenant of trying to stab him in the back, oust him from his leadership of the party and break up the Nazi movement. Strasser heatedly denied this, swore that he had been loyal but accused Hitler of leading the party to destruction. Apparently he left unsaid a number of things that had been swelling within him since 1925. Back at his room in the Excelsior Hotel he put them all in writing in a letter to Hitler which ended with his resignation of all his offices in the party.
The letter, which reached Hitler on the eighth, fell, as Goebbels’ diary says, “like a bombshell.” The atmosphere in the Kaiserhof was that of a graveyard. “We are all dejected and depressed,” Goebbels noted. It was the greatest blow Hitler had suffered since he rebuilt the party in 1925. Now, on the threshold of power, his principal follower had deserted him and threatened to smash all he had built up in seven years.
In the evening [Goebbels wrote], the Fuehrer comes to our home. It is difficult to be cheerful. We are all depressed, above all because of the danger of the whole party falling apart, and all our work having been in vain … Telephone call from Dr. Ley. The situation in the party worsens from hour to hour. The Fuehrer must return immediately to the Kaiserhof.
Goebbels was called to join him there at two o’clock in the morning. Strasser had given his story to the morning newspapers, which were just then appearing on the streets. Hitler’s reaction was described by Goebbels:
Treason! Treason! Treason!
For hours the Fuehrer paces up and down in the hotel room. He is embittered and deeply wounded by this treachery. Finally he stops and says: If the party once falls to pieces I’ll put an end to it all in three minutes with a pistol shot.
The party did not fall apart and Hitler did not shoot himself. Strasser might have achieved both these ends, which would have radically altered the course of history, but at the crucial moment he himself gave up. Frick, with Hitler’s permission, had been searching all Berlin for him, it having been agreed that the quarrel must somehow be patched over to rescue the party from disaster. But Strasser, fed up with it all, had taken a train south for a vacation in sunny Italy. Hitler, always at his best when he detected weakness in an opponent, struck swiftly and hard. The Political Organization which Strasser had built up was taken over by the Fuehrer himself, with Dr. Ley, the Gauleiter from Cologne, as his staff chief. Strasser’s friends were purged and all party leaders convoked to Berlin to sign a new declaration of loyalty to Adolf Hitler, which they did.
The wily Austrian had once more extricated himself from a tight fix that might easily have proved disastrous. Gregor Strasser, whom so many had thought to be a greater man than Hitler, was quickly destroyed. “A dead man,” Goebbels called him in his diary notation of December 9. This was to become literally true within two years when Hitler decided to settle accounts.
On December 10, a week after he had been tripped by General von Schleicher, Franz von Papen began to spin his own web of intrigues. Following a speech that evening to the exclusive Herrenklub, from whose aristocratic and wealthy members he had recruited his short-lived cabinet, he had a private talk with Baron Kurt von Schroeder, the Cologne banker who had contributed funds to the National Socialist Party. He suggested that the financier arrange for him to see Hitler on the sly. In his memoirs Papen claims that it was Schroeder who made the suggestion but admits that he agreed. By a strange coincidence, Wilhelm Keppler, Hitler’s economic adviser and one of his contact men with business circles, made the same suggestion on behalf of the Nazi leader.
The two men, who had been at such odds only a few weeks before, met in what they hoped was the greatest of secrecy at the home of Schroeder in Cologne on the morning of January 4. Papen was surprised when a photographer snapped him at the entrance, but gave it little thought until the next day. Hitler was accompanied by Hess, Himmler and Keppler, but he left his aides in the parlor and retired to Schroeder’s study, where he was closeted for two hours with Papen and their host. Though the conversation started badly, with Hitler complaining bitterly of the way Papen had treated the Nazis while Chancellor, it soon developed to a point that was to prove fateful for both men and their country. This was a crucial moment for the Nazi chief. By a superhuman effort he had kept the party intact after Strasser’s defection. He had traveled up and down the country addressing three and four meetings a day, exhorting the party leaders to keep together behind him. But Nazi spirits remained at a low ebb, and the party was financially bankrupt. Many were saying it was finished. Goebbels had reflected the general feeling in his diary the last week of the year: “1932 has brought us eternal bad luck … The past was difficult and the future looks dark and gloomy; all prospects and hopes have quite disappeared.”
Hitler therefore was not nearly in so favorable a position to bargain for power as he had been during the previous summer and autumn. But neither was Papen; he was out of office. In their adversity, their minds met.
The terms on which they met are a matter of dispute. In his trial at Nuremberg and in his memoirs Papen blandly maintained that, ever loyal to Schleicher, he merely suggested to Hitler that he join the General’s government. In view, however, of Papen’s long record of deceit, of his quite natural desire to present himself in the most favorable light at Nuremberg and in his book, and of subsequent events, it seems certain that Schroeder’s quite different account, which was given at Nuremberg, is the more truthful one. The banker maintained that what Papen suggested was the replacement of the Schleicher government by a Hitler-Papen government in which the two of them would be coequal. But:
Hitler … said if he were made Chancellor it would be necessary for him to be the head of the government but that supporters of Papen could go into his government as ministers when they were willing to go along with him in his policy of changing many things. These changes included elimination of Social Democrats, Communists and Jews from leading positions in Germany and the restoration of order in public life. Von Papen and Hitler reached agreement in principle … They agreed that further details would have to be worked out and that this could be done in Berlin or some other convenient place.16
And in the greatest secrecy, of course. But, to the consternation of Papen and Hitler, the newspapers in Berlin came out with flaming headlines on the morning of January 5 over accounts of the Cologne meeting, accompanied by editorial blasts against Papen for his disloyalty to Schleicher. The wily General had placed his spies with his usual acumen; one of them, Papen later learned, had been that photographer who had snapped his picture as he entered Schroeder’s home.
Besides his deal with Papen, Hitler got two other things out of the Cologne meeting which were of great value to him. He learned from the ex-Chancellor that Hindenburg had not given Schleicher power to dissolve the Reichstag. This meant that the Nazis, with the help of the Communists, could overthrow the General any time they wished. Secondly, out of the meeting came an understanding that West German business interests would take over the debts of the Nazi Party. Two days after the Cologne talks Goebbels noted “pleasing progress in political developments” but still complained of the “bad financial situation.” Ten days later, on January 16, he reported that the financial position of the party had “fundamentally improved overnight.”
In the meantime Chancellor Schleicher went about—with an optimism that was myopic, to say the least—trying to establish a stable government. On December 15 he made a fireside broadcast to the nation begging his listeners to forget that he was a general and assuring them that he was a supporter “neither of capitalism nor of socialism” and that to him “concepts such as private economy or planned economy have lost their terrors.” His principal task, he said, was to provide work for the unemployed and get the country back on its economic feet. There would be no tax increase, no more wage cuts. In fact, he was canceling the last cut in wages and relief which Papen had made. Furthermore, he was ending the agricultural quotas which Papen had established for the benefit of the large landowners and instead was launching a scheme to take 800,000 acres from the bankrupt Junker estates in the East and give them to 25,000 peasant families. Also prices of such essentials as coal and meat would be kept down by rigid control.
This was a bid for the support of the very masses which he had hitherto opposed or disregarded, and Schleicher followed it up with conversations with the trade unions, to whose leaders he gave the impression that he envisaged a future in which organized labor and the Army would be twin pillars of the nation. But labor was not to be taken in by a man whom it profoundly mistrusted, and it declined its co-operation.
The industrialists and the big landowners, on the other hand, rose up in arms against the new Chancellor’s program, which they clamored was nothing less than Bolshevism. The businessmen were aghast at Schleicher’s sudden friendliness to the unions. The owners of large estates were infuriated at his reduction of agricultural protection and livid at the prospect of his breaking up the bankrupt estates in the East. On January 12 the Landbund, the association of the larger farmers, bitterly attacked the government, and its leaders, two of whom were Nazis, called on the President with their protests. Hindenburg, now a Junker landowner himself, called his Chancellor to account. Schleicher’s answer was to threaten to publish a secret Reichstag report on the Osthilfe (Eastern Relief) loans—a scandal which, as everyone knew, implicated hundreds of the oldest Junker families, who had waxed fat on unredeemed government “loans,” and which indirectly involved even the President himself, since the East Prussian estate which had been presented to him had been illegally deeded to his son to escape inheritance taxes.
Despite the uproar among the industrialists and landowners and the coolness of the trade unions, Schleicher remained unaccountably confident that all was going well. On New Year’s Day, 1933, he and his cabinet called on the aged President, who proceeded to express his gratitude that “the gravest hardships are overcome and the upward path is now open to us.” On January 4, the day Papen and Hitler were conferring in Cologne, the Chancellor arranged for Strasser, who had returned from his holiday in the Italian sun, to see Hindenburg. The former Number Two Nazi, when he saw the President a few days later, expressed willingness to join the Schleicher cabinet. This move threw consternation into the Nazi camp, which at the moment was pitched in the tiny state of Lippe, where Hitler and all his principal aides were fighting furiously to score a local election success in order to improve the Fuehrer’s bargaining position with Papen. Goebbels recounts the arrival of Goering at midnight of January 13 with the bad news of Strasser and of how the party chiefs had sat up all night discussing it, agreeing that if he took office it would be a grave setback to the party.
Schleicher thought so too, and on January 15 when Kurt von Schuschnigg, then the Austrian Minister of Justice, visited him he assured him that “Herr Hitler was no longer a problem, his movement had ceased to be a political danger, and the whole problem had been solved, it was a thing of the past.”17
But Strasser did not come into the cabinet, nor did the leader of the Nationalist Party, Hugenberg, who on the day before, the fourteenth, had assured Hindenburg that he would. Both men soon turned to Hitler, Strasser to be turned down cold and Hugenberg with more success. On January 15, at the very moment when Schleicher was gloating to Schusch-nigg about the end of Hitler, the Nazis scored a local success in the elections of little Lippe. It was not much of an achievement. The total vote was only 90,000, of which the Nazis obtained 38,000, or 39 per cent, an increase of some 17 per cent over their previous poll. But, led by Goebbels, the Nazi leaders beat the drums over their “victory,” and strangely enough it seems to have impressed a number of conservatives, including the men behind Hindenburg, of whom the principal ones were State Secretary Meissner and the President’s son, Oskar.
On the evening of January 22, these two gentlemen stole out of the presidential quarters, grabbed a taxi, as Meissner says, to avoid being noticed and drove to the suburban home of a hitherto unknown Nazi by the name of Joachim von Ribbentrop, who was a friend of Papen—they had served together on the Turkish front during the war. There they met Papen, Hitler, Goering and Frick. According to Meissner, Oskar von Hindenburg had been opposed to any truck with the Nazis up to this fateful evening. Hitler may have known this; at any rate he insisted on having a talk with him “under four eyes,” and to Meissner’s astonishment young Hindenburg assented and withdrew with Hitler to another room, where they were closeted together for an hour. What Hitler said to the President’s son, who was not noted for a brilliant mind or a strong character, has never been revealed. It was generally believed in Nazi circles that Hitler made both offers and threats, the latter consisting of hints to disclose to the public Oskar’s involvement in the Osthilfe scandal and the tax evasion on the Hindenburg estate. One can only judge the offers by the fact that a few months later five thousand tax-free acres were added to the Hindenburg family property at Neudeck and that in August 1934 Oskar was jumped from colonel to major general in the Army.
At any rate there is no doubt that Hitler made a strong impression on the President’s son. “In the taxi on the way back,” Meissner later recounted in his affidavit at Nuremberg, “Oskar von Hindenburg was extremely silent, and the only remark which he made was that it could not be helped—the Nazis had to be taken into the government. My impression was that Hitler had succeeded in getting him under his spell.”
It only remained for Hitler to cast the spell over the father. This admittedly was more difficult, for whatever the old Field Marshal’s deficiencies of mind, age had not softened his granite character. More difficult, but not impossible. Papen, busy as a beaver, was working daily on the old man. And it was easy to see that, for all his cunning, Schleicher was fast stumbling to a fall. He had failed to win over the Nazis or to split them. He could get no backing from the Nationalists, the Center or the Social Democrats.
On January 23, therefore, Schleicher went to see Hindenburg, admitted that he could not find a majority in the Reichstag and demanded its dissolution and emergency powers to rule by decree under Article 48 of the constitution. According to Meissner, the General also asked for the “temporary elimination” of the Reichstag and frankly acknowledged that he would have to transform his government into “a military dictatorship.”18 Despite all his devious plotting, Schleicher was back where Papen had been early in December, but their roles were now reversed. Then Papen had demanded emergency powers and Schleicher had opposed him and proposed that he himself form a majority government with the backing of the Nazis. Now the General was insisting on dictatorial rule, and the sly fox Papen was assuring the Field Marshal that he himself could corral Hitler for a government that would have a majority in the Reichstag. Such are the ups and downs of rogues and intriguers!
Hindenburg, reminding Schleicher of the reasons he had given on December 2 for upsetting Papen, informed him that they still held good. He bade him return to his task of finding a Reichstag majority. Schleicher was finished, and he knew it. So did everyone else who was in on the secret. Goebbels, one of the few in on it, commented the next day: “Schleicher will fall any moment, he who brought down so many others.”
His end came finally and officially on January 28, when he called on the President and tendered the resignation of his government. “I have already one foot in the grave, and I am not sure that I shall not regret this action in heaven later on,” Hindenburg told the disillusioned General. “After this breach of trust, sir, I am not sure that you will go to heaven,” Schleicher replied, and quickly faded out of German history.19
At noon of the same day Papen was entrusted by the President to explore the possibilities of forming a government under Hitler “within the terms of the constitution.” For a week this sly, ambitious man had been flirting with the idea of double-crossing Hitler after all and becoming Chancellor again of a presidential government backed by Hugenberg. On January 27 Goebbels noted: “There is still the possibility that Papen will again be made Chancellor.” The day before, Schleicher had sent the Commander in Chief of the Army, General von Hammerstein, to the President to warn him against selecting Papen. In the maze of intrigues with which Berlin was filled, Schleicher was at the last minute plumping for Hitler to replace him. Hindenburg assured the Army commander he had no intention of appointing “that Austrian corporal.”
The next day, Sunday, January 29, was a crucial one, with the conspirators playing their last desperate hands and filling the capital with the most alarming and conflicting rumors, not all of them groundless by any means. Once more Schleicher dispatched the faithful Hammerstein to stir up the brew. The Army chief sought out Hitler to warn him once again that Papen might leave him out in the cold and that it might be wise for the Nazi leader to ally himself with the fallen Chancellor and the Army. Hitler was not much interested. He returned to the Kaiserhof to have cakes and coffee with his aides and it was at this repast that Goering appeared with the tidings that the Fuehrer would be named Chancellor on the morrow.
That night the Nazi chieftains were celebrating the momentous news at Goebbels’ home on the Reichskanzlerplatz when another emissary from Schleicher arrived with startling news. This was Werner von Alvensleben, a man so given to conspiracy that when one did not exist he invented one. He informed the jubilant party that Schleicher and Hammerstein had put the Potsdam garrison on an alarm footing and were preparing to bundle the old President off to Neudeck and establish a military dictatorship. This was a gross exaggeration. It is possible that the two generals were playing with the idea but most certain that they had not taken any action. The Nazis, however, became hysterical with alarm. Goering hastened as fast as his bulk allowed across the square to alert the President and Papen. What Hitler did he later described himself.
My immediate counteraction to this planned [military] putsch was to send for the Commander of the Berlin S.A., Count von Helldorf, and through him to alert the whole S.A. of Berlin. At the same time I instructed Major Wecke of the Police, whom I knew I could trust, to prepare for a sudden seizure of the Wilhelmstrasse by six police battalions … Finally I instructed General von Blomberg (who had been selected as Reichswehr Minister-elect) to proceed at once, on arrival in Berlin at 8 A.M. on January 30, direct to the Old Gentleman to be sworn in, and thus to be in a position, as Commander in Chief of the Reichswehr, to suppress any possible attempts at a coup d’état.20
Behind the backs of Schleicher and the Commander in Chief of the Army—everything in this frenzied period was being done behind someone’s back—General Werner von Blomberg had been summoned, not by Hitler, who was not yet in power, but by Hindenburg and Papen from Geneva, where he was representing Germany at the Disarmament Conference, to become the new Minister of Defense in the Hitler-Papen cabinet. He was a man who, as Hitler later said, already enjoyed his confidence and who had come under the spell of his chief of staff in East Prussia, Colonel Walter von Reichenau, an outspoken Nazi sympathizer. When Blomberg arrived in Berlin, early on the morning of January 30, he was met at the station by two Army officers with conflicting orders for him. A Major von Kuntzen, Hammerstein’s adjutant, commanded him to report to the Commander in Chief of the Army. Colonel Oskar von Hindenburg, adjutant to his father, ordered the bewildered Blomberg to report to the President of the Republic. Blomberg went to the President, was immediately sworn in as Defense Minister, and thus was given the authority not only to put down any attempted coup by the Army but to see that the military supported the new government, which a few hours later would be named. Hitler was always grateful to the Army for accepting him at that crucial moment. Not long afterward he told a party rally, “If in the days of our revolution the Army had not stood on our side, then we would not be standing here today.” It was a responsibility which would weigh heavily on the officer corps in the days to come and which, in the end, they would more than regret.
On this wintry morning of January 30, 1933, the tragedy of the Weimar Republic, of the bungling attempt for fourteen frustrating years of the Germans to make democracy work, had come to an end—but not before, at the very last moment, as the final curtain fell, a minor farce took place among the motley group of conspirators gathered to bury the republican regime. Papen later described it.
At about half-past ten the members of the proposed Cabinet met in my house and walked across the garden to the Presidential palace, where we waited in Meissner’s office. Hitler immediately renewed his complaints about not being appointed Commissioner for Prussia. He felt that this severely restricted his power. I told him … the Prussian appointment could be left until later. To this, Hitler replied that if his powers were to be thus limited, he must insist on new Reichstag elections.
This produced a completely new situation and the debate became heated. Hugenberg, in particular, objected to the idea, and Hitler tried to pacify him by stating that he would make no changes in the Cabinet, whatever the result might be … By this time it was long past eleven o’clock, the time that had been appointed for our interview with the President, and Meissner asked me to end our discussion, as Hindenburg was not prepared to wait any longer.
We had had such a sudden clash of opinions that I was afraid our new coalition would break up before it was born … At last we were shown in to the President and I made the necessary formal introductions. Hindenburg made a short speech about the necessity of full co-operation in the interests of the nation, and we were then sworn in. The Hitler cabinet had been formed.21
In this way, by way of the back door, by means of a shabby political deal with the old-school reactionaries he privately detested, the former tramp from Vienna, the derelict of the First World War, the violent revolutionary, became Chancellor of the great nation.
To be sure, the National Socialists were in a decided minority in the government; they had only three of the eleven posts in the cabinet and except for the chancellorship these were not-key positions. Frick was Minister of the Interior but he did not control the police as this minister did in most European countries—the police in Germany were in the hands of the individual states. The third Nazi cabinet member was Goering, but no specific office could be found for him; he was named Minister without Portfolio, with the understanding that he would become Minister of Aviation as soon as Germany had an air force. Little noticed was the naming of Goering to be also Minister of the Interior of Prussia, an office that controlled the Prussian police; for the moment public attention was focused on the Reich cabinet. Goebbels’ name, to the surprise of many, did not appear in it; momentarily he was left out in the cold.
The important ministries went to the conservatives, who were sure they had lassoed the Nazis for their own ends: Neurath continued as Minister of Foreign Affairs; Blomberg was Minister of Defense; Hugenberg took over the combined Ministries of Economy and Agriculture; Seldte, the Stahlhelm leader, was made Minister of Labor; the other ministries were left in the hands of nonparty “experts” whom Papen had appointed eight months before. Papen himself was Vice-Chancellor of the Reich and Premier of Prussia, and Hindenburg had promised him that he would not receive the Chancellor except in the company of the Vice-Chancellor. This unique position, he was sure, would enable him to put a brake on the radical Nazi leader. But even more: This government was Papen’s conception, his creation, and he was confident that with the help of the staunch old President, who was his friend, admirer and protector, and with the knowing support of his conservative colleagues, who outnumbered the obstreperous Nazis eight to three, he would dominate it.
But this frivolous, conniving politician did not know Hitler—no one really knew Hitler—nor did he comprehend the strength of the forces which had spewed him up. Nor did Papen, or anyone else except Hitler, quite realize the inexplicable weakness, that now bordered on paralysis, of existing institutions—the Army, the churches, the trade unions, the political parties—or of the vast non-Nazi middle class and the highly organized proletariat all of which, as Papen mournfully observed much later, would “give up without a fight.”
No class or group or party in Germany could escape its share of responsibility for the abandonment of the democratic Republic and the advent of Adolf Hitler. The cardinal error of the Germans who opposed Nazism was their failure to unite against it. At the crest of their popular strength, in July 1932, the National Socialists had attained but 37 per cent of the vote. But the 63 per cent of the German people who expressed their opposition to Hitler were much too divided and shortsighted to combine against a common danger which they must have known would overwhelm them unless they united, however temporarily, to stamp it out. The Communists, at the behest of Moscow, were committed to the last to the silly idea of first destroying the Social Democrats, the Socialist trade unions and what middle-class democratic forces there were, on the dubious theory that although this would lead to a Nazi regime it would be only temporary and would bring inevitably the collapse of capitalism, after which the Communists would take over and establish the dictatorship of the proletariat. Fascism, in the Bolshevik Marxist view, represented the last stage of a dying capitalism; after that, the Communist deluge!
Fourteen years of sharing political power in the Republic, of making all the compromises that were necessary to maintain coalition governments, had sapped the strength and the zeal of the Social Democrats until their party had become little more than an opportunist pressure organization, determined to bargain for concessions for the trade unions on which their strength largely rested. It might be true, as some Socialists said, that fortune had not smiled on them: the Communists, unscrupulous and undemocratic, had split the working class; the depression had further hurt the Social Democrats, weakening the trade unions and losing the party the support of millions of unemployed, who in their desperation turned either to the Communists or the Nazis. But the tragedy of the Social Democrats could not be explained fully by bad luck. They had had their chance to take over Germany in November 1918 and to found a state based on what they had always preached: social democracy. But they lacked the decisiveness to do so. Now at the dawn of the third decade they were a tired, defeatist party, dominated by old, well-meaning but mostly mediocre men. Loyal to the Republic they were to the last, but in the end too confused, too timid to take the great risks which alone could have preserved it, as they had shown by their failure to act when Papen turned out a squad of soldiers to destroy constitutional government in Prussia.
Between the Left and the Right, Germany lacked a politically powerful middle class, which in other countries—in France, in England, in the United States—had proved to be the backbone of democracy. In the first year of the Republic the middle-class parties, the Democrats, the People’s Party, the Center, had polled a total of twelve million votes, only two million less than the two Socialist groups. But thereafter their strength had waned as their supporters gravitated toward Hitler and the Nationalists. In 1919, the Democrats had elected 74 members to the Reichstag; by 1932 they held just 2 seats. The strength of the People’s Party fell from 62 seats in 1920 to 11 seats in 1932. Only the Catholic Center retained its voting strength to the end. In the first republican elections in 1919 the Center had 71 deputies in the Reichstag; in 1932 it had 70. But even more than the Social Democrats, the Center Party since Bismarck’s time had been largely opportunist, supporting whatever government made concessions to its special interests. And though it seemed to be loyal to the Republic and to subscribe to its democracy, its leaders, as we have seen, were negotiating with the Nazis to give Hitler the chancellorship before they were outbid by Papen and the Nationalists.
If the German Republic was bereft of a middle-of-the-road political class, it also lacked that stability provided in many other countries by a truly conservative party. The German Nationalists at their peak in 1924 had polled six million votes and sent 103 deputies to the Reichstag, in which they formed the second largest party. But then, as at almost all times during the Weimar regime, they refused to take a responsible position either in the government or in opposition, the only exception being their participation in two short-lived cabinets in the Twenties. What the German Right, whose vote went largely to the Nationalists, wanted was an end to the Republic and a return to an imperialist Germany in which all of their old privileges would be restored. Actually the Republic had treated the Right both as individuals and as classes with the utmost generosity and, considering their aim, with exceptional tolerance. It had, as we have seen, allowed the Army to maintain a state within a state, the businessmen and bankers to make large profits, the Junkers to keep their uneconomic estates by means of government loans that were never repaid-and seldom used to improve their land. Yet this generosity had won neither their gratitude nor their loyalty to the Republic. With a narrowness, a prejudice, a blindness which in retrospect seem inconceivable to this chronicler, they hammered away at the foundations of the Republic until, in alliance with Hitler, they brought it down.
In the former Austrian vagabond the conservative classes thought they had found a man who, while remaining their prisoner, would help them attain their goals. The destruction of the Republic was only the first step. What they then wanted was an authoritarian Germany which at home would put an end to democratic “nonsense” and the power of the trade unions and in foreign affairs undo the verdict of 1918, tear off the shackles of Versailles, rebuild a great Army and with its military power restore the country to its place in the sun. These were Hitler’s aims too. And though he brought what the conservatives had lacked, a mass following, the Right was sure that he would remain in its pocket—was he not outnumbered eight to three in the Reich cabinet? Such a commanding position also would allow the conservatives, or so they thought, to achieve their ends without the barbarism of unadulterated Nazism. Admittedly they were decent, God-fearing men, according to their lights.
The Hohenzollern Empire had been built on the armed triumphs of Prussia, the German Republic on the defeat by the Allies after a great war. But the Third Reich owed nothing to the fortunes of war or to foreign influence. It was inaugurated in peacetime, and peacefully, by the Germans themselves, out of both their weaknesses and their strengths. The Germans imposed the Nazi tyranny on themselves. Many of them, perhaps a majority, did not quite realize it at that noon hour of January 30, 1933, when President Hindenburg, acting in a perfectly constitutional manner, entrusted the chancellorship to Adolf Hitler.
But they were soon to learn.
* Equivalent to a major general in the U.S. Army.
* “Scorn and rage boil within me,” Groener wrote Schleicher a few months later (November 29), “because I have been deceived in you, my old friend, disciple, adopted son.” (See Gordon A. Craig, “Reichswehr and National Socialism: The Policy of Wilhelm Groener,” Political Science Quarterly, June 1948.)
* Papen, in his memoirs, does not mention Schleicher’s presence at this meeting, but it is clear from other sources that he was there. It is an important point, in view of subsequent events.