Military history


The plan was deceptively simple and had the advantage of cloaking the seizure of absolute power in legality. The Reichstag would be asked to pass an “enabling act” conferring on Hitler’s cabinet exclusive legislative powers for four years. Put even more simply, the German Parliament would be requested to turn over its constitutional functions to Hitler and take a long vacation. But since this necessitated a change in the constitution, a two-thirds majority was needed to approve it.

How to obtain that majority was the main order of business at a cabinet meeting on March 15, 1933, the minutes of which were produced at Nuremberg.10 Part of the problem would be solved by the “absence” of the eighty-one Communist members of the Reichstag. Goering felt sure that the rest of the problem could be easily disposed of “by refusing admittance to a few Social Democrats.” Hitler was in a breezy, confident mood. After all, by the decree of February 28, which he had induced Hindenburg to sign the day after the Reichstag fire, he could arrest as many opposition deputies as was necessary to assure his two-thirds majority. There was some question about the Catholic Center, which was demanding guarantees, but the Chancellor was certain that this party would go along with him. Hugenberg, the Nationalist leader, who had no desire to put all the power in Hitler’s hands, demanded that the President be authorized to participate in preparing laws decreed by the cabinet under the enabling act. Dr. Meissner, the State Secretary in the Presidential Chancellery, who had already committed his future to the Nazis, replied that “the collaboration of the Reich President would not be necessary.” He was quick to realize that Hitler had no wish to be tied down by the stubborn old President, as the republican chancellors had been.

But Hitler wished, at this stage, to make a grandiose gesture to the aged Field Marshal and to the Army and the nationalist conservatives as well, and in so doing link his rowdy, revolutionary regime with Hindenburg’s venerable name and with all the past military glories of Prussia. To accomplish this he and Goebbels, who on March 13 became Minister of Propaganda, conceived a master stroke. Hitler would open the new Reichstag, which he was about to destroy, in the Garrison Church at Potsdam, the great shrine of Prussianism, which aroused in so many Germans memories of imperial glories and grandeur, for here lay buried the bones of Frederick the Great, here the Hohenzollern kings had worshiped, here Hindenburg had first come in 1866 on a pilgrimage when he returned as a young Guards officer from the Austro-Prussian War, a war which had given Germany its first unification.

The date chosen for the ceremonial opening of the first Reichstag of the Third Reich, March 21, was significant too, for it fell on the anniversary of the day on which Bismarck had opened the first Reichstag of the Second Reich in 1871. As the old field marshals, generals and admirals from imperial times gathered in their resplendent uniforms in the Garrison Church, led by the former Crown Prince and Field Marshal von Mackensen in the imposing dress and headgear of the Death’s-Head Hussars, the shades of Frederick the Great and the Iron Chancellor hovered over the assembly.

Hindenburg was visibly moved, and at one point in the ceremony Goebbels, who was staging the performance and directing the broadcasting of it to the nation, observed—and noted in his diary—that the old Field Marshal had tears in his eyes. Flanked by Hitler, who appeared ill at ease in his formal cutaway morning coat, the President, attired in field-gray uniform with the grand cordon of the Black Eagle, and carrying a spiked helmet in one hand and his marshal’s baton in the other, had marched slowly down the aisle, paused to salute the empty seat of Kaiser Wilhelm II in the imperial gallery, and then in front of the altar had read a brief speech giving his blessings to the new Hitler government.

May the old spirit of this celebrated shrine permeate the generation of today, may it liberate us from selfishness and party strife and bring us together in national self-consciousness to bless a proud and free Germany, united in herself.

   Hitler’s reply was shrewdly designed to play on the sympathies and enlist the confidence of the Old Order so glitteringly represented.

Neither the Kaiser nor the government nor the nation wanted the war. It was only the collapse of the nation which compelled a weakened race to take upon itself, against its most sacred convictions, the guilt for this war.

   And then, turning to Hindenburg, who sat stiffly in his chair a few feet in front of him:

By a unique unheaval in the last few weeks our national honor has been restored and, thanks to your understanding, Herr Generalfeldmarschall, the union between the symbols of the old greatness and the new strength has been celebrated. We pay you homage. A protective Providence places you over the new forces of our nation.11

Hitler, with a show of deep humility toward the President he intended to rob of his political power before the week was up, stepped down, bowed low to Hindenburg and gripped his hand. There in the flashing lights of camera bulbs and amid the clicking of movie cameras, which Goebbels had placed along with microphones at strategic spots, was recorded for the nation and the world to see, and to hear described, the solemn handclasp of the German Field Marshal and the Austrian corporal uniting the new Germany with the old.

“After the dazzling pledge made by Hitler at Potsdam,” the French ambassador, who was present at the scene, later wrote, “how could such men—Hindenburg and his friends, the Junkers and monarchist barons, Hugenberg and his German Nationalists, the officers of the Reichswehr—how could they fail to dismiss the apprehension with which they had begun to view the excesses and abuses of his party? Could they now hesitate to grant him their entire confidence, to meet all his requests, to concede the full powers he claimed?”12

The answer was given two days later, on March 23, in the Kroll Opera House in Berlin, where the Reichstag convened. Before the house was the so-called Enabling Act—the “Law for Removing the Distress of People and Reich (Gesetz zur Behebung der Not von Volk und Reich),” as it was officially called. Its five brief paragraphs took the power of legislation, including control of the Reich budget, approval of treaties with foreign states and the initiating of constitutional amendments, away from Parliament and handed it over to the Reich cabinet for a period of four years. Moreover, the act stipulated that the laws enacted by the cabinet were to be drafted by the Chancellor and “might deviate from the constitution.” No laws were to “affect the position of the Reichstag”—surely the cruelest joke of all—and the powers of the President remained “undisturbed.”13

Hitler reiterated these last two points in a speech of unexpected restraint to the deputies assembled in the ornate opera house, which had long specialized in the lighter operatic works and whose aisles were now lined with brown-shirted storm troopers, whose scarred bully faces indicated that no nonsense would be tolerated from the representatives of the people.

The government [Hitler promised] will make use of these powers only insofar as they are essential for carrying out vitally necessary measures. Neither the existence of the Reichstag nor that of the Reichsrat is menaced. The position and rights of the President remain unaltered … The separate existence of the federal states will not be done away with. The rights of the churches will not be diminished and their relationship to the State will not be modified. The number of cases in which an internal necessity exists for having recourse to such a law is in itself a limited one.

The fiery Nazi leader sounded quite moderate and almost modest; it was too early in the life of the Third Reich for even the opposition members to know full well the value of Hitler’s promises. Yet one of them, Otto Wells, leader of the Social Democrats, a dozen of whose deputies hadbeen “detained” by the police, rose—amid the roar of the storm troopers outside yelling, “Full powers, or else!”—to defy the would-be dictator. Speaking quietly and with great dignity, Wells declared that the government might strip the Socialists of their power but it could never strip them of their honor.

We German Social Democrats pledge ourselves solemnly in this historic hour to the principles of humanity and justice, of freedom and socialism. No enabling act can give you the power to destroy ideas which are eternal and indestructible.

   Furious, Hitler jumped to his feet, and now the assembly received a real taste of the man.

You come late, but yet you come! [he shouted] … You are no longer needed … The star of Germany will rise and yours will sink. Your death knell has sounded…. I do not want your votes. Germany will be free, but not through you! [Stormy applause.]

   The Social Democrats, who bore a heavy responsibility for the weakening of the Republic, would at least stick to their principles and go down—this one time—defiantly. But not the Center Party, which once had successfully defied the Iron Chancellor in the Kulturkampf. Monsignor Kaas, the party leader, had demanded a written promise from Hitler that he would respect the President’s power of veto. But though promised before the voting, it was never given. Nevertheless the Center leader rose to announce that his party would vote for the bill. Bruening remained silent. The vote was soon taken: 441 for, and 84 (all Social Democrats) against. The Nazi deputies sprang to their feet shouting and stamping deliriously and then, joined by the storm troopers, burst into the Horst Wessel song, which soon would take its place alongside “Deutschland ueber Alles” as one of the two national anthems:

Raise high the flags! Stand rank on rank together. Storm troopers march with steady, quiet tread….

Thus was parliamentary democracy finally interred in Germany. Except for the arrests of the Communists and some of the Social Democratic deputies, it was all done quite legally, though accompanied by terror. Parliament had turned over its constitutional authority to Hitler and thereby committed suicide, though its body lingered on in an embalmed state to the very end of the Third Reich, serving infrequently as a sounding board for some of Hitler’s thunderous pronunciamentos, its members henceforth hand-picked by the Nazi Party, for there were to be no more real elections. It was this Enabling Act alone which formed the legal basis for Hitler’s dictatorship. From March 23, 1933, on, Hitler was the dictator of the Reich, freed of any restraint by Parliament or, for all practical purposes, by the weary old President. To be sure, much remained to be done to bring the entire nation and all its institutions completely under the Nazi heel, though, as we shall see, this also was accomplished with breathless speed and with crudeness, trickery and brutality.

“The street gangs,” in the words of Alan Bullock, “had seized control of the resources of a great modern State, the gutter had come to power.” But—as Hitler never ceased to boast—“legally,” by an overwhelming vote of Parliament. The Germans had no one to blame but themselves.

   One by one, Germany’s most powerful institutions now began to surrender to Hitler and to pass quietly, unprotestingly out of existence.

The states, which had stubbornly maintained their separate powers throughout German history, were the first to fall. On the evening of March 9, two weeks before the passage of the Enabling Act, General von Epp, on orders from Hitler and Frick and with the help of a few storm troopers, turned out the government of Bavaria and set up a Nazi regime. Within a week Reich Commissars were appointed to take over in the other states, with the exception of Prussia, where Goering was already firmly in the saddle. On March 31, Hitler and Frick, using the Enabling Act for the first time, promulgated a law dissolving the diets of all states except Prussia and ordering them reconstituted on the basis of the votes cast in the last Reichstag election. Communist seats were not to be filled. But this solution lasted only a week. The Chancellor, working at feverish haste, issued a new law on April 7, appointing Reich Governors (Reichs-staathaelter) in all the states and empowering them to appoint and remove local governments, dissolve the diets, and appoint and dismiss state officials and judges. Each of the new governors was a Nazi and they were “required” to carry out “the general policy laid down by the Reich Chancellor.”

Thus, within a fortnight of receiving full powers from the Reichstag, Hitler had achieved what Bismarck, Wilhelm II and the Weimar Republic had never dared to attempt: he had abolished the separate powers of the historic states and made them subject to the central authority of the Reich, which was in his hands. He had, for the first time in German history, really unified the Reich by destroying its age-old federal character. On January 30, 1934, the first anniversary of his becoming Chancellor, Hitler would formally complete the task by means of a Law for the Reconstruction of the Reich. “Popular assemblies” of the states were abolished, the sovereign powers of the states were transferred to the Reich, all state governments were placed under the Reich government and the state governors put under the administration of the Reich Minister of the Interior.14 As this Minister, Frick, explained it, “The state governments from now on are merely administrative bodies of the Reich.”

The preamble to the law of January 30, 1934, proclaimed that it was “promulgated with the unanimous vote of the Reichstag.” This was true, for by this time all the political parties of Germany except the Nazis had been quickly eliminated.

It cannot be said that they went down fighting. On May 19, 1933, the Social Democrats—those who were not in jail or in exile—voted in the Reichstag without a dissenting voice to approve Hitler’s foreign policy. Nine days before, Goering’s police had seized the party’s buildings and newspapers and confiscated its property. Nevertheless, the Socialists still tried to appease Hitler. They denounced their comrades abroad who were attacking the Fuehrer. On June 19 they elected a new party committee, but three days later Frick put an end to their attempts to compromise by dissolving the Social Democratic Party as “subversive and inimical to the State.” Paul Lobe, the surviving leader, and several of his party members in the Reichstag were arrested. The Communists, of course, had already been suppressed.

This left the middle-class parties, but not for long. The Catholic Bavarian People’s Party, whose government had been kicked out of office by the Nazi coup on March 9, announced its own dissolution on July 4, and its ally, the Center Party, which had defied Bismarck so strenuously and been a bulwark of the Republic, followed suit the next day, leaving Germany for the first time in the modern era without a Catholic political party—a fact which did not discourage the Vatican from signing a concordat with Hitler’s government a fortnight later. Stresemann’s old party, the People’s Party, committed hara-kiri on the Fourth of July; the Democrats (Staatspartei) had already done so a week before.

And what of Hitler’s partner in government, the German National Party, without whose support the former Austrian corporal could never have come legally to power? Despite its closeness to Hindenburg, the Army, the Junkers and big business and the debt owed to it by Hitler, it went the way of all other parties and with the same meekness. On June 21 the police and the storm troopers took over its offices throughout the country, and on June 29 Hugenberg, the bristling party leader, who had helped boost Hitler into the Chancellery but six months before, resigned from the government and his aides “voluntarily” dissolved the party.

The Nazi Party alone remained, and on July 14 a law decreed:

The National Socialist German Workers’ Party constitutes the only political party in Germany.

Whoever undertakes to maintain the organizational structure of another political party or to form a new political party will be punished with penal servitude up to three years or with imprisonment of from six months to three years, if the deed is not subject to a greater penalty according to other regulations.15

The one-party totalitarian State had been achieved with scarcely a ripple of opposition or defiance, and within four months after the Reichstag had abdicated its democratic responsibilities.

The free trade unions, which, as we have seen, once had crushed the fascist Kapp putsch by the simple means of declaring a general strike, were disposed of as easily as the political parties and the states—though not until an elaborate piece, of trickery had been practiced on them. For half a century May Day had been the traditional day of celebration for the German—and European—worker. To lull the workers and their leaders before it struck, the Nazi government proclaimed May Day, 1933, as a national holiday, officially named it the “Day of National Labor” and prepared to celebrate it as it had never been celebrated before. The trade-union leaders were taken in by this surprising display of friendliness toward the working class by the Nazis and enthusiastically co-operated with the government and the party in making the day a success. Labor leaders were flown to Berlin from all parts of Germany, thousands of banners were unfurled acclaiming the Nazi regime’s solidarity with the worker, and out at Tempelhof Field Goebbels prepared to stage the greatest mass demonstration Germany had ever seen. Before the massive rally, Hitler himself received the workers’ delegates, declaring, “You will see how untrue and unjust is the statement that the revolution is directed against the German workers. On the contrary.” Later in his speech to more than 100,000 workers at the airfield Hitler pronounced the motto, “Honor work and respect the worker!” and promised that May Day would be celebrated in honor of German labor “throughout the centuries.”

Late that night Goebbels, after describing in his most purple prose the tremendous enthusiasm of the workers for this May Day celebration which he had so brilliantly staged, added a curious sentence in his diary: “Tomorrow we shall occupy the trade-union buildings. There will be little resistance.”*16

That is what happened. On May 2 the trade-union headquarters throughout the country were occupied, union funds confiscated, the unions dissolved and the leaders arrested. Many were beaten and lodged in concentration camps. Theodor Leipart and Peter Grassmann, the chairmen of the Trade Union Confederation, had openly pledged themselves to cooperate with the Nazi regime. No matter, they were arrested. “The Lei-parts and Grassmanns,” said Dr. Robert Ley, the alcoholic Cologne party boss who was assigned by Hitler to take over the unions and establish the GermanLabor Front, “may hypocritically declare their devotion to the Fuehrer as much as they like—but it is better that they should be in prison.” And that is where they were put.

At first, though, both Hitler and Ley tried to assure the workers that their rights would be protected. Said Ley in his first proclamation: “Workers! Your institutions are sacred to us National Socialists. I myself am a poor peasant’s son and understand poverty … I know the exploitation of anonymous capitalism. Workers! I swear to you, we will not only keep everything that exists, we will build up the protection and the rights of the workers still further.”

Within three weeks the hollowness of another Nazi promise was exposed when Hitler decreed a law bringing an end to collective bargaining and providing that henceforth “labor trustees,” appointed by him, would “regulate labor contracts” and maintain “labor peace.”18 Since the decisions of the trustees were to be legally binding, the law, in effect, outlawed strikes. Ley promised “to restore absolute leadership to the natural leader of a factory—that is, the employer … Only the employer can decide. Many employers have for years had to call for the ‘master in the house.’ Now they are once again to be the ‘master in the house.’”

For the time being, business management was pleased. The generous contributions which so many employers had made to the National Socialist German Workers’ Party were paying off. Yet for business to prosper a certain stability of society is necessary, and all through the spring and early summer law and order were crumbling in Germany as the frenzied brown-shirted gangs roamed the streets, arresting and beating up and sometimes murdering whomever they pleased while the police looked on without lifting a nightstick. The terror in the streets was not the result of the breakdown of the State’s authority, as it had been in the French Revolution, but on the contrary was carried out with the encouragement and often on the orders of the State, whose authority in Germany had never been greater or more concentrated. Judges were intimidated; they were afraid for their lives if they convicted and sentenced a storm trooper even for cold-blooded murder. Hitler was now the law, as Goering said, and as late as May and June 1933 the Fuehrer was declaiming that “the National Socialist Revolution has not yet run its course” and that “it will be victoriously completed only if a new German people is educated.” In Nazi parlance, “educated” meant “intimidated”—to a point where all would accept docilely the Nazi dictatorship and its barbarism. To Hitler, as he had publicly declared a thousand times, the Jews were not Germans, and though he did not exterminate them at once (only a relative few—a few thousand, that is—were robbed, beaten or murdered during the first months), he issued laws excluding them from public service, the universities and the professions. And on April 1, 1933, he proclaimed a national boycott of Jewish shops.

The businessmen, who had been so enthusiastic over the smashing of the troublesome labor unions, now found that left-wing Nazis, who really believed in the party’s socialism, were trying to take over the employers’ associations, destroy the big department stores and nationalize industry. Thousands of ragged Nazi Party officials descended on the business houses of those who had not supported Hitler, threatening to seize them in some cases, and in others demanding well-paying jobs in the management. Dr. Gottfried Feder, the economic crank, now insisted that the party program be carried out—nationalization of big business, profit sharing and the abolition of unearned incomes and “interest slavery.” As if this were not enough to frighten the businessmen, Walther Darré, who had just been named Minister of Agriculture, threw the bankers into jitters by promising a big reduction in the capital debts of the farmers and a cut in the interest rate on what remained to 2 per cent.

Why not? Hitler was, by midsummer of 1933, the master of Germany. He could now carry out his program. Papen, for all his cunning, had been left high and dry, and all his calculations that he and Hugenberg and the other defenders of the Old Order, with their 8-to-3 majority in the cabinet against the Nazis, could control Hitler and indeed use him for their own conservative ends, had exploded in his face. He himself had been booted out of his post as Prime Minister of Prussia and replaced by Goering. Papen remained Vice-Chancellor in the Reich cabinet but, as he ruefully admitted later, “this position turned out to be anomalous.” Hugenberg, the apostle of business and finance, was gone, his party dissolved. Goebbels, the third most important man in the Nazi Party, had been brought into the cabinet on March 13 as Minister of Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda. Darré, regarded as a “radical,” as was Goebbels, was Minister of Agriculture.

Dr. Hans Luther, the conservative president of the Reichsbank, the key post in the German economic system, was fired by Hitler and packed off to Washington as ambassador. Into his place, on March 17, 1933, stepped the jaunty Dr. Schacht, the former head of the Reichsbank and devoted follower of Hitler, who had seen the “truth and necessity” of Nazism. No single man in all of Germany would be more helpful to Hitler in building up the economic strength of the Third Reich and in furthering its rearmament for the Second World War than Schacht, who later became also Minister of Economics and Plenipotentiary-General for War Economy. It is true that shortly before the second war began he turned against his idol, eventually relinquished or was fired from all his offices and even joined those who were conspiring to assassinate Hitler. But by then it was too late to stay the course of the Nazi leader to whom he had for so long given his loyalty and lent his prestige and his manifest talents.

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