Bids and Bluffs - Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939 - Volker Ullrich

Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939 - Volker Ullrich (2016)

Chapter 11. Bids and Bluffs

“The endgame for power has begun,” Joseph Goebbels wrote on 7 January 1932. “It may continue for the entire year. A game that will be played to the end with tempo, cleverness and a bit of finesse.” These oft-quoted sentences are contained not in Goebbels’s diary, but in his book From the Hotel Kaiserhof to the Reich Chancellery, published by Eher in 1934.1 In substantially altering and stylising his original notes, Goebbels—the chief promoter of the Führer myth—tried to suggest that Hitler’s inspired political instincts alone manoeuvred the NSDAP to power on 30 January 1933. Hitler’s press director took the same line in his essay “With Hitler to Power,” published by Eher Verlag in the autumn of 1933. Otto Dietrich praised the Führer as a “one-of-a-kind and unique personality” blessed with “instinctive anticipation.” Hitler, Dietrich maintained, planned all his steps, maintained “absolute calm,” and “wore down and quashed the opponents facing him with his iron will” until there was no longer anyone denying him his just deserts—the German chancellorship.2

This narrative had little to do with reality. Hitler’s path to power was hardly an inevitable and triumphal march. It was a contest that could have ended either way. The National Socialists had declared 1932 to be “the year of decisions,”3 and in five major elections the party had the opportunity to demonstrate its organisational and propagandistic strength. The NSDAP again achieved major successes, becoming by far the largest party in the Reichstag in the elections of late July 1932. The chancellor’s office on Wilhelmstrasse did indeed seem ripe for the taking. But by inflexibly insisting on all-or-nothing and refusing to share power with anyone else, Hitler also sent his party down a dead-end street. In the elections of early November, the NSDAP suffered significant losses for the first time. Its aura of invincibility was tarnished, and the party’s trust in its leadership shaken. The NSDAP went through its worst crisis since the ban on the party of 1923-4. By the end of 1932, the German economy also showed initial signs of recovery. The depths of the Depression seemed to lie in the past. Thus, there were good reasons to think that the danger posed by the Nazis could have been averted. “The development of this, the German year of 1932, will be an object of most intense study for future historians and politicians,” the left-wing journalist Leopold Schwarzschild wrote in his weekly Das Tage-Buch on 31 December. Only with the benefit of hindsight, Schwarzschild predicted, would humanity be able to understand “what historic miracle deflected the line [of events] at the last minute.”4

At the start of the year, Hitler had encouraged optimism. In his New Year’s address, he contended that Germany was preparing “to go National Socialist with great rapidity.” The party had fifteen million supporters—“a triumph without parallel in the history of our people.”5 In an interview with the Japanese newspaper Tokyo Asahi Shimbum on 3 January, he said he was confident that his party “would soon seize power in Germany…and found a new, Third Reich.”6 Hitler, knew, however, that he was dependent on support from others, including business circles. In the autumn of 1931, as Hess reported, he had already put a lot of effort, “with great success,” into “undermining the remaining pillars of support for the current government in the industrial and banking worlds.”7 In fact, it was Chancellor Brüning’s misguided policy of deflation, which worsened the Depression, that had cost him support from big business, but that did not mean that the NSDAP immediately profited. Many entrepreneurs remained deeply sceptical about a movement whose leading representatives spoke with forked tongues where economic policies were concerned. To improve his party’s image and recommend himself as a future head of government, therefore, Hitler accepted an invitation on 26 January 1932 to speak to the Industrial Club of Düsseldorf, the meeting point for the economic elite of Rhineland-Westphalia.8

Some 700 people packed the large ballroom in Düsseldorf’s Park Hotel. Hitler himself had to enter through a side door because Nazi supporters and opponents were clashing violently in front of the building. To fit in, he had swapped his brown uniform for a dark frock coat and striped trousers. Anyone who expected him to talk about what measures a Hitler government would introduce to end the Depression came away sorely disappointed, however. In his two-and-a-half-hour speech, Hitler merely reiterated what he had said on similar occasions, for instance to Hamburg’s National Club of 1919: that only a strong state could set the parameters for a flourishing economy, and that whoever believed in the concept of private property had to reject the idea of democracy. “It is nonsense to build upon the concept of achievement, the value of personality and thus personal authority in an economic sense,” Hitler told his audience, “while rejecting the authority of personality and replacing it with the law of greater numbers—democracy—in a political sense.” Hitler once again summoned the bogeyman of Bolshevism, which, if it continued to be successful, “would subject the world to a transformation as total as Christianity had in its day.” The National Socialist movement was the only force that could prevent Germany from sinking into “Bolshevist chaos.” Hitler added: “And if people accuse us of being impatient, we proudly embrace that charge. We have made an undying vow to pull out the last roots of Marxism in Germany.” Hitler studiously avoided any openly anti-Semitic pronouncements and only hinted at his ambition of conquering “living space” in Russia. On the contrary, he ended his speech by stressing that a revitalised Germany under his leadership would be prepared to live in “friendship and peace” with its neighbours.9

A number of legends have sprung up around Hitler’s appearance in the Düsseldorf Industrial Club. Most of them originated in Dietrich’s essay “With Hitler to Power.” Dietrich had been present at the speech, and his supposedly authentic account described Hitler whipping an initially cool audience into a frenzy. “Their faces began to blush, their eyes hung on the Führer’s lips and you could feel their hearts warming,” Dietrich wrote. “At the beginning they only put their hands together hesitantly, but soon salvos of applause erupted. When Adolf Hitler was finished, he had won a battle.” For Dietrich, 26 January 1932 was the “memorable day” on which Hitler achieved his “breakthrough” with the western German captains of industry: “The ice was broken—the National Socialist idea had found fertile soil in important and influential circles within the system.”10

But the American historian Henry A. Turner and others following in his footsteps have corrected this outmoded narrative about the relationship between National Socialism and major German industry.11 By no means had the entire economic elite of the Ruhr Valley attended Hitler’s speech. The early Hitler admirer Fritz Thyssen was present of course, as were Ernst Poensgen and Albert Vögler from United Steelworks, Ernst Brandi from the Mining Association and mining magnate Karl Haniel, who was also the Industrial Club’s chairman. But a number of leading representatives remained conspicuously absent, including Gustav Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach, the chairman of the Reich Association of German Industry, as well as the steelworks manager Paul Reusch, Carl Duisberg from IG Farben, Fritz Springorum from Hoesch Steelworks and mining entrepreneur Paul Silverberg.12

The crowd’s reaction to Hitler was also by no means as positive as Dietrich’s report had its readers believe. When Thyssen concluded his short word of thanks with the word’s “Heil, Herr Hitler,” most of those in attendance found the gesture embarrassing.13 Hitler’s speech also did little to increase major industrialists’ generosity when it came to party donations. Even Dietrich himself admitted as much in his far more sober memoirs from 1955: “At the ballroom’s exit, we asked for donations, but all we got were some well-meant but insignificant sums. Above and beyond that there can be no talk of ‘big business’ or ‘heavy industry’ significantly supporting, to say nothing of financing, Hitler’s political struggle.”14 On the contrary, in the spring 1932 Reich presidential elections, prominent representatives of industry like Krupp and Duisberg came out in support of Hindenburg and donated several million marks to his campaign.15

The main political topic in the early months of 1932 was whether Hindenburg would be re-elected. To spare the 85-year-old the strain of a second election, Chancellor Brüning had hit upon the idea of asking the Reichstag to extend his period of office. That, however, required a change in the constitution and a two-thirds majority, which was only possible if the National Socialists and the radical right-wing nationalists were on board.16 On the evening of 6 January, Brüning sent Defence and Interior Minister Wilhelm Groener to meet Hitler in order to persuade the NSDAP chairman to support the idea. “A likeable impression, modest, orderly man who wants the best,” was Groener’s take on Hitler. “External appearance of an ambitious autodidact. Hitler’s intentions and goals are good but he’s an enthusiast, glowing and multifaceted.”17 A series of negotiations commenced. Hitler initially seemed willing to compromise but he made his support for Hindenburg’s candidacy contingent upon the Reichstag being dissolved and fresh elections called. Brüning was having none of that, since in the event of the expected NSDAP election victory he would no longer have a parliamentary majority tolerating him.

On 12 January, Hitler informed Brüning that despite “his great personal respect for the Reich president,” he had no choice but to reject the suggested extension of the term of office. As a reason, he cited constitutional concerns. These were well founded but sounded hollow coming from Hitler’s mouth since the NSDAP chairman had never left any doubt that as soon as possible after taking power, the National Socialists intended to do away with the constitution.18 Hitler’s decision, however, confronted him with a dilemma. If Hindenburg did decide to run for a second term despite his advanced age, Hitler would have to throw his hat in the ring, and the risk of losing a direct duel with the “victor of Tannenberg,” who was very popular among right-wingers, was great. Hitler’s aura as the seemingly invincible Führer rushing from one victory to the next might be damaged. On 19 January, Goebbels discussed the “Reich presidency question” for the first time with Hitler: “I’m pleading for him to run. He alone will take Hindenburg out of the running. We calculate with numbers, but the numbers are deceiving. Hitler has to become Reich president. That’s the only way. That’s our slogan. He hasn’t decided yet. I’ll continue to drill away.”19

Much to Goebbels’s dismay, Hitler put off making a decision for weeks and weeks. Apparently he was more sceptical about his chances than his head of propaganda. “Hitler is waiting too long,” Goebbels complained on 28 January. Two days later, he noted: “When will Hitler decide? Does he not have the nerve? If so, we need to give it to him.”20 It was not until 3 February, when Goebbels had largely concluded preparations for the election in the Brown House, that Hitler signalled his willingness to run against Hindenburg. The announcement of Hitler’s decision was delayed until after Hindenburg had declared his candidacy and the SPD had come out in support of him. The logic behind this was obvious: if the pro-democracy camp supported the man they had so vigorously opposed in 1925, Hitler would be all the better able to claim that only he represented the nationalist right wing. “First Hindenburg has to commit himself, and the SPD has to come out in support,” Goebbels noted. “Only then our decision. Machiavelli. But correct.”21

Similar calculations also led Hindenburg to delay announcing his decision for as long as he could. In late January, he told Brüning that he would only accept a nomination to run for president if it “did not meet with the joint resistance of the entire right wing.”22 It was not enough for the Reich president that a petition in early February calling on him to run, which was sponsored by Berlin Lord Mayor Heinrich Sahm, quickly attracted more than three million signatures. It was only on 15 February, when the Kyffhäuser League, the umbrella association of German veterans’ groups, pledged their loyalty that Hindenburg announced that he would seek re-election. “A day of fateful significance for Germany,” Reich Chancellery State Secretary Hermann Pünder noted in his journal.23 Hitler waited another week before having Goebbels proclaim his candidacy in a speech in Berlin’s Sportpalast on the evening of 22 February. “Ten minutes of enthusiasm, ovations, the people stood up and cheered me,” Goebbels wrote in his diary.24 “The roof almost caved in. It’s fantastic. If this keeps up, we’ll win.”

But one hurdle remained. To run for the office, Hitler had to be a German citizen. In July 1930, Wilhelm Frick—then Thuringian interior minister—had made a misguided attempt to secure Hitler citizenship by nominating him commissioner for gendarmes in the town of Hildburghausen. When this failed bit of foolishness became public knowledge in February 1932, people were baffled. In the meantime, the party leadership believed it had hit on a far more elegant solution. The NSDAP interior minister of Braunschweig, who was part of a coalition government with the DNVP and the DVP, was instructed to have Hitler made a civil servant, which would have been a first step towards German citizenship. The original plan was to appoint him extraordinary professor of “Organic Social Theory and Politics” at Braunschweig’s Technical University.25 But that was too much even for the NSDAP’s coalition partners. Instead, Hitler was appointed government counsel for Braunschweig’s consulate in Berlin. There, on the afternoon of 26 February, Hitler accepted his appointment certificate and swore to “be loyal to the Reich and Land constitutions, obey the law and faithfully fulfil the duties” of his office.26 With that his official “duties” were already over. He immediately applied for a leave of absence, which was granted as a matter of course, until after the Reich presidential elections. The appointment was only a means to a political end. “Just got word that he’s been named Braunschw[eig] counsel—which makes him citizen Hitler,” Goebbels cynically noted in his diary on 26 February. “Congratulations.”27

Alfred Hugenberg’s nationalists were excited by neither Hindenburg nor Hitler and nominated a candidate of their own: Theodor Duesterberg, the vice-chairman of the Stahlhelm veterans’ association. With that the fragile Harzburg Front finally fell apart. The KPD once again put forward their chairman, Ernst Thälmann. The SPD and the Centre Party, however, decided to forgo candidates of their own and support Hindenburg. In the party newspaper Vorwärts the SPD leadership declared:

Hitler in place of Hindenburg means chaos and panic in Germany and the whole of Europe, an extreme worsening of the economic crisis and of unemployment, and the most acute danger of bloodshed within our own people and abroad. Hitler in place of Hindenburg means the triumph of the reactionary part of the bourgeoisie over the progressive middle classes and the working class, the destruction of all civil liberties, of the press and of political, union and cultural organisations, increased exploitation and wage slavery.

The declaration ended with the slogan: “Defeat Hitler! Vote for Hindenburg!”28

The political fronts of 1925 had been reversed. “What a bizarre country,” Thea Sternheim noted in February 1932. “Hindenburg as the pet of the pro-democracy camp. Years ago when I heard of his election…I threw up out of fear and horror. Today, in the face of the fascist threat, a democrat has to anxiously hope for Hindenburg’s re-election.”29 The SPD’s support for Hindenburg was exactly what the NSDAP needed to go on the offensive. In the Reichstag session on 23 February, Goebbels caused a scandal when he declared that Hindenburg had “betrayed the interests of his former voters” and clearly aligned himself with Social Democracy. “Tell me who praises you, and I’ll tell who you are!” Goebbels sneered, adding that Hindenburg was drawing praise from the “gutter press in Berlin and the party of deserters.” In response to this defamation, SPD deputy Kurt Schumacher, who had been badly wounded after volunteering for military service in 1914, spoke up angrily: “If there is one thing we admire about National Socialism it’s the fact that it has succeeded, for the first time in German politics, in the complete mobilisation of human stupidity.”30 Goebbels refused to apologise for his outburst and was sent out of the chamber. Hitler did not conceal his delight, gushing, “Now battle has been declared.”31

Immediately thereafter, the National Socialists kicked off their campaign, making use of the latest technology. Goebbels distributed 50,000 gramophone records of him delivering a campaign speech. A ten-minute sound film, designed to be shown on big-city squares, depicted Hitler as the coming saviour of the German people. Shrill posters reinforced the central message that Nazi propaganda had been advancing since mid-February: “Down with the system! Power to the National Socialists!”32 In his first campaign speech, on 27 February at the Sportpalast, which the Völkischer Beobachter covered in a story headlined “The Signal to Attack,” Hitler told 25,000 listeners that the “gigantic battle ahead” was not just about the presidency but about the “system” created on 9 November 1918, which in its thirteen years of existence had led Germany to the brink of the abyss. This was the tenor of all Hitler’s subsequent speeches: “For thirteen years we’ve been plaintiffs. Now the hour is at hand, my ethnic comrades. On 13 March, after thirteen years, we must become judges over that which has been destroyed by one side and over those internal values of our people which the other side has built up again!”33 Describing the audience’s reaction, Goebbels noted: “The people were beside themselves. An hour of euphoria. Hitler is a true man. I love him.”34

Between 1 and 11 March, Hitler maintained an exhausting schedule, speaking in Hamburg, Stettin (Szczecin), Breslau (Wrocław), Leipzig, Bad Blankenburg, Weimar, Frankfurt am Main, Nuremberg, Stuttgart, Cologne, Dortmund and Hanover. He attracted huge crowds wherever he went. The Hamburger Tageblatt newspaper wrote about his reception in the Sagebielsäle hall, which was packed to the rafters: “A crowd of many thousands—a grey, dull, suffering army—seems to want to wipe away all its tears, anxiety and worry in a communal scream, which is both greeting and homage at once.”35 The Schlesische Zeitung wrote about Hitler’s appearance in Breslau’s Jahrhunderthalle, before which Hitler kept the 50,000 audience members waiting for hours:

They came from far and wide, from Hirschberg, Waldenburg, Sulau and Militsch, from all parts of Silesia. Many endured hours of travel in cramped circumstances or on the roof of an omnibus in order to hear their Führer…The people waited hour upon hour, the mood festive, not impatient. People brought lunch and dinner with them. Ambulant merchants pushed their way through the crowd selling fruit and refreshments. Orderlies and nurses stood at the ready. It was a vivid, lively scene.36

Even more than during the Reichstag elections in September 1930, Hitler’s campaign stops in the spring of 1932 were mass spectacles. For many Germans, even those who had not yet become party members, seeing Hitler was a must. They projected their desires onto him as their national saviour, someone who would release the country from misery and lead it to new prosperity. Hitler knew how to exploit these desires, denouncing the thirteen years of the Weimar Republic in ever-darker terms as a time of unmitigated decay and contrasting it with the bright future of a unified German “ethnic community.”

The chairman of the NSDAP studiously avoided attacking Hindenburg, however, having assured the Reich president in late February that he would do battle in “chivalric fashion.”37 Hitler was well aware that he could not afford to damage his relationship with Hindenburg beyond repair—for he could never come to power without permission from the president, should he fail to win the election. Thus he rarely passed up an opportunity to express his admiration for the former field marshal. At the same time, he indicated that Hindenburg was a man of the past whereas the future belonged to himself and his movement. “Venerable old man,” Hitler rhetorically addressed the president at his appearance in Nuremberg on 7 March, “you no longer bear the weight of Germany’s future on your shoulders. We must bear it on our shoulders. You can no longer assume responsibility for us; we, the war generation—must take it on ourselves. Venerable old man, you can no longer protect those who we want to destroy. Therefore, step aside and clear the way!”38

Hitler’s primary target for attack was the SPD, which he claimed was hiding behind the Hindenburg myth in an attempt to avoid taking responsibility. “Believe me,” he sneered in every one of his campaign speeches, “if I had done nothing in my life other than to lay this party at the field marshal’s feet, it would be a historic achievement. What a lovely transformation this party has undergone! What once was the party of the revolutionary proletariat is now a party of dutiful voters for the 85-year-old field marshal they used to hate so intensely.”39 Hitler was consciously trying to drive a wedge between the Social Democratic leadership and their constituency. He knew that if SPD voters cast their ballots for Hindenburg, his chances of electoral victory were slim.

Nevertheless Nazi propaganda was optimistic. “The current, continually repeated message is: Adolf Hitler is not only our candidate—he is the future president,” Goebbels wrote in a memo to Gau functionaries. “The entire party’s confidence in victory must be elevated into blind faith.”40 Goebbels himself vacillated between hope and anxiety. “The prognoses for Hitler, especially among p[arty] c[omrades], reach the levels of the fantastic,” he noted on 6 March. “I see a danger in this. We shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves and underestimate the enemy.”41 But only a few days later, Goebbels was confident of victory: “Spoke late at night with Hitler. He is in Stuttgart. Going from one triumph to the next. Everything is good. This will be a success.”42 Hitler was also convinced he could beat Hindenburg. In an interview with New York Post correspondent Hubert Knickerbocker on the eve of the election, 12 March, he predicted that he and Hindenburg would both get around 12 million votes and thus fail to secure an absolute majority. But in the run-off election on 10 April, Hindenburg would not have a chance. It had been irresponsible of Brüning, Hitler said, to have convinced the old man to stand for re-election, when his defeat was so easily foreseeable.43

Given such high expectations, the result of the election must have shocked the entire NSDAP: with 18 million votes (49.8 per cent) Hindenburg soundly defeated Hitler, who got just over 11 million (30.1 per cent). Nonetheless, Hindenburg just missed out on an absolute majority so a run-off was required. Thälmann had received 5 million votes (13.2 per cent) and Duesterberg 2.5 million (6.8 per cent).44 The disappointment among Nazi supporters was so great that in many places swastika flags were flown at half mast.45 Goebbels wrote in his diary: “We are beaten. Terrible prospects…The party comrades are depressed and downcast. A major coup is needed. Phoned Hitler. He’s completely disappointed by the result. We set our sights too high.”46 On election night, Hitler was already at work on an announcement to the party that downplayed the disaster. The NSDAP, he pointed out, had doubled their share of the vote compared to September 1930: “Today, we have risen to become the undisputed strongest party in Germany.” Hitler called upon NSDAP members to renew “the attack upon the front of Centrists and Marxists in the sharpest form.” The party could not afford to lose a single day. Every party member had to give “his all and his utmost” if the Nazi movement was to be victorious.47

After 1933, Otto Wagener retroactively described Hitler’s reaction to the March 1932 election result as his “finest hour.” On that “fateful evening,” Wagener opined, “the Führer rose above himself” and restored one’s faith with his “uncompromising, volcanic will.”48 Ernst Hanfstaengl, however, experienced a very different Hitler at home on Prinzregentenstrasse on 13 March. Hitler sat brooding in a darkened room like “a disappointed and discouraged gambler who had wagered beyond his means.”49 In a speech at an NSDAP event in Weimar on 15 March, Hitler was forced to admit that he had “miscalculated,” having been unable to believe that Social Democrats, “down to a man,” would vote for Hindenburg.50 Indeed, SPD followers had adhered to the instructions of their party leadership with remarkable discipline.

Between the initial election and the run-off, the idea briefly arose of Crown Prince Wilhelm running for president. In a letter to Hitler, Wilhelm II’s eldest son asked the Nazi leader for support, and Hitler apparently agreed to stand aside if Hindenburg did likewise. He may have speculated that if he helped the crown prince become president, the crown prince would appoint him German chancellor out of gratitude. This plan was predestined to fail. Hindenburg had no intention of standing aside shortly before he was certain to win re-election, and Wilhelm II vetoed the idea from his Dutch exile in Doorn. Crown Prince Wilhelm then officially endorsed Hitler.51

In an interview with the Berlin correspondent of the Daily Express, Sefton Delmer, on 21 March, Hitler declared that he would run a campaign the likes of which the world had never seen.52 Hindenburg had declared an “Easter truce,” a moratorium on campaigning lasting from 20 March to 3 April, so by that time there was only a week left of activity before the run-off election. The lack of time, as Goebbels noted in his diary, required “completely new” methods of propaganda. The primary innovation was to charter an aeroplane so that Hitler could appear at a number of mass events every day.53 On 3 April, Hitler embarked in a Junkers D-1720 from Munich on his first “flying tour of Germany,” which would take him to more than twenty major campaign stops from the Saxon Nazi strongholds Dresden, Leipzig, Chemnitz and Plauen to Berlin and Potsdam, then via Pomerania to Lauenberg, Elbing and Königsberg in East Prussia. On 6 April, he flew back to southern Germany, appearing in Würzburg, Nuremberg and Regensburg. The following day supporters could see him in Frankfurt am Main, Darmstadt and Ludwigshafen. The day after that, he appeared in Düsseldorf, Essen and Münster, and on 9 April, the last day of campaigning, he spoke in Böblingen, Schwenningen and Stuttgart. “No one was able to avoid this wave of propaganda,” wrote Otto Dietrich, who had helped organise the flying tour. “It awakened sporting interests and spoke to the masses’ need for sensation as much as it addressed people’s political interests…It was a form of political propaganda that left even American methods in its shadow.”54

Indeed, this new strategy would prove to be extraordinarily successful. Hitler was said to have spoken to 1.5 million people within a few days. Between 150,000 and 200,000 people attended Hitler’s speech in Berlin’s Lustgarten on 4 April—the event was also captured on sound film.55 There would be three other flying tours in 1932, and they helped popularise the Führer cult. The slogan “Hitler over Germany,” which party newspapers published in screaming headlines, suggested not only that Hitler was omnipresent: it also symbolised his claim to be above classes and parties and anticipated the coming “ethnic community.” The fact that the Nazis were the only party to follow the American model and use the aeroplane as a campaign tool also lent them an aura of visionary modernity. And the fact that Hitler never cancelled an event, even when the weather made flying risky, solidified the myth that he was a “national saviour” willing to sacrifice himself and unafraid of any danger. The audience at such events was usually kept waiting for hours, after which—in the words of historian Gerhard Paul—Hitler “would descend from the clouds in his plane like a messiah and announce his message of salvation.”56

Hitler drove himself to complete exhaustion. “My God, how this man works himself into the ground,” remarked Winifred Wagner. “Anyone familiar with his antipathy for flying knows what a sacrifice that was for him!”57 Indeed, in contrast to the heroic legends spread, above all, by Otto Dietrich,58 Hitler was very afraid of flying—something his entourage was at pains to conceal. Delmer, the only foreign journalist to accompany Hitler on one of his flying tours, recalled how the others on board the Lufthansa plane captained by Hans Baur fawned over Hitler, trying to distract him. Hitler requited their efforts with irritated disregard. Delmer described him sitting and staring indifferently out of the window, his chin in his right hand and cotton balls in his ears, barely moving except to scratch his neck now and then. “It was an entirely new picture of Hitler for me, and a complete contrast to the glad-hand extrovert who had said goodbye to Magda Goebbels and the others at Tempelhof,” Delmer wrote. “Since that time I have travelled with many of the top statesmen of the world. But never again have I seen such a contrast between the public and the private figure as in Hitler.” As soon as the plane landed, Hitler’s demeanour abruptly changed. He straightened his back and once more assumed his “Führer posture”:

Here he stood bareheaded, erect and unsmiling, his shoulders squared back, his mouth set in martial resolution, his hands raised to the salute. Then as the roars of the welcoming crowd swelled to a crescendo he went over to phase two of his pose. His eyes widened to show their whites and a “light” came into them. A light intended to denote kindly understanding of people’s needs, fearless confidence, the light in the eyes of a Messiah predestined to lead Germany to its place in the sun.59

Local dignitaries usually showed up to meet Hitler’s plane. Young girls would give him bouquets of flowers, while SA bands would provide appropriate music. Frequently, Communist protestors would slow Hitler’s motorcade during the trip from the landing strip to wherever he was appearing. In the Baltic Sea port of Elbing, for example, Delmer witnessed Hitler’s bodyguards, under the command of Sepp Dietrich, jumping from their cars to beat demonstrating workers with plastic truncheons and brass knuckles.60 The police did nothing to stop them. It was an indication that the National Socialists already felt like the masters of Germany, entitled to take the law into their own hands.

In his speeches, Hitler repeated his never-ending complaints about thirteen years of alleged financial mismanagement in Germany, combined with promises to clean up the “party gang” as soon as he came to power. It was taxing for his entourage to have to listen to the nearly identical tirades, varied only slightly to reflect where he was speaking. In Potsdam, for example, he compared the development of the NSDAP to the rise of the small state of Brandenburg which became the global power Prussia. “When we began, we were small, disdained and ridiculed, and we slowly worked our way up to become a National Socialist movement,” Hitler said. “Today we have more than 11 million people behind us. The largest organisation Germany has ever seen marches under our banner.”61

In early April, Hitler was put in an uncomfortable position when the left-liberal newspaper Welt am Montag published a bill from the Hotel Kaiserhof under the headline “This Is How Hitler Lives.” According to the bill, Hitler and his entourage had spent 4,008 reichsmarks within ten days in March 1932. The figure was in fact exaggerated. The bills from the hotel for the years 1931 and 1932 have been preserved, and they show that Hitler and the three or four people who usually accompanied him typically spent between 606 and 829 marks for a four-day stay. For the five days between 28 April and 2 May 1932, Hitler paid 837 marks for five people and seven rooms.62 Nonetheless, the sums were considerable and stood in marked contrast to Hitler’s image as a man of the people with simple tastes who had retained his modest lifestyle. In a declaration on 7 April, the NSDAP chairman hastily declared the published bill a fake, and in his speeches, he continued to contrast himself with the “bigwigs” from the other parties as an unworldly politician who did not have any wealth of his own: “I don’t need any—I live like a bird in the wild.”63

The results of the election announced on the evening of 10 April were less disappointing for the National Socialists than those of 13 March. Hindenburg was re-elected as expected with a 53 per cent majority, but Hitler had gained around 2 million additional ballots and increased his share of the vote to 36.8 per cent—he seems to have won over the majority of Duesterberg’s support after the latter withdrew his candidacy. Thälmann only got 10.2 per cent, after many KPD supporters boycotted the election.64 The results of the vote did nothing to calm the nerves of defenders of the Weimar Republic, however. “Yesterday Hindenburg was re-elected in Germany, but despite that success, what horrific growth of the Hitler party,” wrote Thea Sternheim from Paris. “The battle is not over yet, not by a long shot.”65 The NSDAP leadership regained some of their former confidence. “An overwhelming victory for us…” Goebbels commented. “Hitler is entirely happy. Now we have a springboard for the Prussian elections.”66

There were state elections on 24 April not only in Prussia, but in Bavaria, Württemberg and Anhalt as well, and voters in Hamburg were choosing a new mayor. The day after the 10 April result, Goebbels was already gearing up for the next round of polls: “14 days of election propaganda. We want to produce our masterpiece.”67 On 16 April, Hitler set off on his second flying tour, this time including the provinces, where he sparked enormous interest. “The masses stood for seven hours waiting for the Führer,” reported the Völkischer Beobachter about an event in Donauwörth in southern Bavaria.68 But Hitler concentrated his efforts on Prussia, the biggest and most important of the German states. The poll, he emphasised, would determine the destiny of Prussia, and he promised to topple the governing SPD-led coalition under Otto Braun and continue the legacy of “Friedrich the Great’s Prussia, which had been a unique model of cleanliness, order and discipline for centuries.” Prussia, Hitler thundered, had been a “standard-bearer of German freedom” in the 1813 campaign against Napoleon, and it would likewise become “a standard-bearer of the new, great social unification of the German nation.”69

The Nazis celebrated major electoral gains in the elections of 24 April. In Prussia, they improved their share of the vote from 1.8 per cent in 1928 to 36.3 per cent, taking 162 seats and becoming the largest party in the Landtag. The coalition between the SPD, the Centre and the State Party lost their majority, but formed the acting government because the NSDAP lacked the absolute majority needed to force the election of a new state president. In Bavaria, the BVP got 32.6 per cent and just edged out the NSDAP, whose share of the vote rose from 6.1 to 32.5 per cent. In Württemberg, the Nazis received 26.4 per cent of the vote and became the strongest party, and in the Social Democratic stronghold Hamburg, the NSDAP took 31.2 per cent, surpassing the SPD’s 30.2 per cent. The best result came in Anhalt, where the party received 40.9 per cent of ballots cast.70 Yet despite these impressive results, the Nazis failed to convert their strength into positions in government in Prussia, Bavaria, Württemberg or Hamburg. Anhalt was the only place in which they succeeded in replacing the Social Democratic state president. Amidst all the euphoria over the NSDAP’s “phenomenal victory,” Goebbels’s diary betrays a certain helplessness: “What now? Something has to happen. We have to gain power. Otherwise we will triumph ourselves to death.”71

As was often the case, unexpected external events rather than any ingenious inspiration from Hitler came to the NSDAP’s assistance. Hindenburg and Brüning fell out because the Reich president was angry that he had been re-elected with Social Democratic and Catholic Centrist votes rather than those of right-wing nationalists for whom he felt the greatest affinity. “What an ass I was to stand a second time,” Hindenburg is reported to have remarked.72 On 11 April, when Brüning congratulated Hindenburg in the name of his cabinet, the former field marshal was visibly irritated and signalled that the German chancellor’s days were numbered.73

The issue of a potential ban on the SA and SS worsened the mood between Hindenburg and Brüning. On 17 March, Prussian Interior Minister Carl Severing ordered the NSDAP’s and the SA’s offices in Prussia searched. The material confiscated showed that the SA had been put on high alert on the day of the 13 March election. Hitler protested against the search order but also called upon the SA and SS not to let themselves be “provoked into breaking the law.”74 At a conference in Berlin on 5 April, the interior ministers of the German states, and in particular those of Prussia and Bavaria, lobbied Reich interim Interior Minister Groener to do something about the Nazi paramilitary organisations. After much humming and hawing, Groener decided to act. In a memo to Brüning on 10 April, he suggested that Hindenburg’s re-election was an auspicious moment to rein in the “Brownshirt columns.” It took a considerable amount of persuading, but Brüning finally convinced Hindenburg that a ban was necessary, and on 13 April, the president issued an emergency decree for the “Assurance of State Authority,” which dissolved all the paramilitary organisations of the NSDAP.75

Count Harry Kessler was surprised “that the issue could be resolved so quickly with the stroke of a pen” and that the SA and SS allowed themselves to be disarmed “as timidly as lambs.” Kessler decided that this reflected “Hitler’s weak feminine character,” which made the Nazi chairman, like Wilhelm II before him, “a big mouth with nothing to back it up when the situation turned serious.”76 Kessler could hardly have been more wrong in his assessment of both the political situation and Hitler. The National Socialists were informed about the imminent ban and had sufficient time to take counter-measures. Overnight the Brownshirts may have disappeared from Germany’s streets, but the organisational cohesion of the SA and the SS remained intact, and their members continued to be active under the general umbrella of the party. The emergency decree thus actually did little to dissolve the organisations.77 In an address on 13 April, Hitler made it clear that he saw the ban as a temporary impediment and that the cards would be reshuffled after the Landtag elections on 24 April. He therefore instructed his followers not to give “those who momentarily hold power any excuses to cancel the elections.” Hitler promised: “If you do your duty, our propaganda will redirect this attack by General Groener a thousand-fold back upon himself and his allies.”78

Hitler knew that Hindenburg had signed the decree against his better judgement and that there was great opposition to the ban within the Reichswehr leadership. On 15 April, Hindenburg had ordered Groener to review whether Social Democratic militias like the Reich Banner Black-Red-Gold should be banned as well. The tone of Hindenburg’s order was anything but cordial, and included with it was incriminating material against the Reich Banner, which Hindenburg had been given by Army Commander-in-Chief General Kurt von Hammerstein.79 What ultimately sealed the fate of Groener—and with him that of the entire Brüning cabinet—was the fact that he lost the support of his political patron, the head of the Ministerial Bureau in the Defence Ministry, General Kurt von Schleicher. Schleicher opposed the ban because he viewed the SA street fighters as a potentially useful tool for rebuilding Germany’s military might, and he began to actively undermine Groener. Schleicher also continued to advocate tying the NSDAP to a governing coalition as a means of “taming” the party. In this he was of one mind with Hindenburg, who had long pushed for the cabinet to be expanded to the political right and who blamed Brüning for relying on the SPD to tolerate his government.80

On 28 April, Schleicher secretly met with Hitler to discuss the conditions under which the NSDAP chairman would join or at least tolerate a governing coalition. According to Goebbels, the conversation—in which Kurt von Hammerstein also took part—went well, and agreement was reached. In May Goebbels reported that the two generals “were continuing to stir things up…Brüning and Groener must go!” At a second secret meeting on 7 May, Hitler, Schleicher, Hindenburg’s state secretary, Otto Meissner, and the president’s son, Oskar von Hindenburg, scripted the demise of the Brüning government. Goebbels summarised: “Brüning is to fall this week. The old man will revoke his trust. Schleicher is throwing himself behind that…Then there will be a presidential cabinet. The Reichstag is dissolved. The emergency laws revoked. We will be free to act and can deliver our coup de grâce.”81 Hitler had refused to join the government but he had agreed to tolerate a more right-wing, interim presidential cabinet if fresh elections were scheduled and the ban on the SA and SS lifted. Hitler could be more than satisfied with this arrangement. He had not tied himself down and still held all the trump cards. “The boss is relaxed and good-humoured,” Goebbels noted. “We’re conferring over the next election campaign. It’s going to be a huge hit.”82

But the conspiracy did not go to plan. Brüning was able to stave off his demise by warning Hindenburg of the negative foreign-policy effects his dismissal would have, and by threatening to make the former field marshal’s ingratitude known to the Reichstag.83 The German parliament convened once again on 9 May. In his role as speaker for the NSDAP faction, Göring directly attacked Groener and demanded that the ban on the SA and SS be lifted. Groener delivered his rebuttal the following day, but weakened by illness and constantly distracted by jeers from Nazi deputies, he did not make a very good impression. “Unfortunately, Groener was catastrophically bad in defending his position in front of parliament,” wrote the German State Party deputy and post-war German President Theodor Heuss. “We knew he couldn’t speak off the cuff, which is why he mostly read out statements. But he was completely agitated, and his head was covered in bandages because of boils. He looked awful, tried to speak extemporaneously and was unable to finish his sentences because he was constantly interrupted.”84 After this disastrous performance, Groener had to go, and Schleicher and Hammerstein lobbied for his dismissal. “So far so good,” Goebbels joked. “If the cloak falls so does the duke.”85 On 12 May, Groener announced that he would step down as Reich defence minister. However, he wanted to stay on as interior minister. Hindenburg had departed that day for his family’s estate in East Prussian Neudeck, so the decision was postponed. To all intents and purposes, though, Groener’s career was over on 12 May, and with him the Brüning cabinet had lost its most important pillar.86

While Hindenburg was in Neudeck, Brüning’s enemies continued to “burrow away” at the ground beneath his feet.87 Goebbels’s diaries reveal how systematically they went about their work: “The crisis is going according to script…A series of calls with Hitler. He is very satisfied” (14 May). “Everyone is celebrating Pentecost. Except Brüning who’s beginning to wobble. Time to give him a push” (18 May). “Mission Schleicher going well. Brüning completely isolated. Desperately looking for new ministers. Schleicher refused Defence. He’s going the whole hog” (19 May). “Schleicher continues to undermine. A list of ministers is being discussed…Poor Brüning. He’s on short rations” (20 May).88 On 25 May, Werner von Alvensleben, a Schleicher intimate who served as a contact with the National Socialists, reported that Brüning would be “out the door” in three days’ time. He also had a finished cabinet list with the name of the new chancellor: Franz von Papen.89

In Neudeck, Hindenburg was exposed to the influence of his extremely conservative fellow aristocrats, who encouraged the idea of firing Brüning. On 20 May, Brüning’s cabinet had drawn up a draft of an emergency decree empowering the Reich commissioner for eastern assistance, Hans Schlange-Schöningen, to buy bankrupt estates at compulsory auctions and release them for settlement by farmers. The main lobbying organisation for the large landholders, the Reichslandbund, was infuriated by what it saw as “agrarian Bolshevism” and kicked up a storm with Hindenburg. When Otto Meissner presented him with the draft emergency decree on 25 May, Hindenburg refused to sign it.90 Moreover, he communicated via his state secretary his “urgent wish” to Brüning that “the cabinet should be reformed and moved to the right.”91 This was tantamount to asking for his resignation.

When Hindenburg returned to Berlin on 28 May, the die was already cast. In a decisive conversation on the morning of 29 May, Brüning told Hindenburg that he could no longer put up with the “undermining of himself and the government from unqualified quarters, in particular the Reichswehr.” In order to continue his work, Brüning said, he needed “certain guarantees” and above all “a new demonstration of trust by the Reich president.”92 Hindenburg brusquely rejected this and told Brüning he would no longer authorise the government to draft emergency decrees. The break was complete. Around noon on 30 May, Brüning handed in his resignation request. His final meeting with Hindenburg lasted three and a half minutes.93 That was how coldly Hindenburg dismissed the man who had helped him get re-elected only seven weeks previously. Brüning’s intimate Hermann Pünder remarked that, even though Brüning did not let it show, he was “internally and justifiably outraged.”94 He also rejected Hindenburg’s request that he serve as Germany’s future foreign minister.

“Yesterday the bomb went off,” Goebbels crowed. “At 12 o’clock, Brüning handed in the resignation of his entire cabinet to the old man. With that the system has collapsed.”95 By contrast, the democrat Count Kessler reacted to the news of Brüning’s dismissal with horror: “Backroom interests have got their way as in the time of [Wilhelm II],” Kessler complained on 30 May. “Today marks the beginning of the end for the parliamentary republic.”96 And indeed the fall of Brüning represented a watershed. His departure, as historian Heinrich August Winkler pointed out, signalled the end of the “moderate phase of presidential rule.”97 At the same time, it is also true that while in office Brüning had helped undermine parliamentary democracy and bolster the power of the Reich president and the Reich military leadership by largely removing the Reichstag from the process of political decision-making. To some extent, the chancellor fell victim to a development he himself had partially initiated.

Late in the afternoon of 30 May, as part of his consultations with the leaders of the various political parties, Hindenburg received Hitler and Göring. The NSDAP chairman declared his willingness to engage in “productive cooperation” with a Reich government under Franz von Papen, but he also reiterated the conditions he had negotiated with Schleicher: a quick dissolution of the Reichstag and the lifting of the ban on the SA.98 He received assurances on both counts. Goebbels noted with satisfaction: “Discussion with the old man went well…SA ban is gone. Uniforms allowed and Reichstag dissolved. That’s the most important thing. The man is Papen. That’s irrelevant. Elections, elections! Straight to the people! We’re all very happy.”99 The Nazi leadership considered it a given that the new government was nothing more than an interim solution. They assumed that they would achieve such an overwhelming result in the next Reichstag elections that Hindenburg would have no choice but to appoint Hitler the leader of the government. Local elections in Oldenburg on 29 May and Mecklenburg-Schwerin on 5 June, in which the NSDAP took 48.4 and 49 per cent of the vote respectively and won a majority of seats in the two Landtage,100strengthened the conviction that they would achieve a similar triumph in the next national poll. “We have to divorce ourselves from Papen as soon as possible,” Goebbels was already writing in his diary on 6 June.101

The new chancellor Franz von Papen, an old-school gentleman from a venerable Westphalian aristocratic family, was a Centre Party backbencher in the Prussian Landtag who had never made much of a political name for himself. He had served as a battalion commander on the Western Front during the First World War, however, which recommended him in Hindenburg’s eyes. And Papen’s lack of political experience was a major advantage in the view of Schleicher, who pulled Papen’s name out of a hat in the hope the new chancellor would be all the more malleable as Schleicher increased his own political power. Lutz Schwerin von Krosigk would later recall: “He [Schleicher] wanted to pull the political strings and needed a ‘mouthpiece chancellor,’ who was able to speak but did not have a political will of his own.”102 In the new cabinet the political general, who had previously kept his manoeuvring behind the scenes, assumed the role of minister of defence and entered the public spotlight for the first time. Baron Konstantin von Neurath, previously ambassador to Britain, became foreign minister; Baron Wilhelm von Gayl was made interior minister; and the director of the East Prussian Land Society, Baron Magnus von Braun, was promoted to minister of food and agriculture. The Finance Ministry fell to Krosigk, a count who had been ministerial director there since 1929. The Postal Services and Transport Ministry went to Baron Paul von Eltz-Rübenach, previously president of the Reichsbank directorship in Karlsruhe, and the Labour Ministry was taken over by Hugo Schäffer, a former director of the Krupp concern and president of the Reich Insurance Office. Franz Gürtner, who had protected Hitler in his capacity as Bavarian minister of justice, assumed control of the Reich Justice Ministry. The only cabinet member retained from the Brüning government was Economics Minister Hermann Warmbold. All in all, deeply conservative representatives of the landed eastern German aristocracy dominated the body, leading the SPD newspaper Vorwärts to speak, with considerable justification, of a “cabinet of barons.”103 The new government had little support across the social and political spectrum. Not only the SPD and the KPD declared their opposition: the Centre Party, who blamed Papen for the betrayal of Brüning, also withheld their support.

Papen met with Hitler for the first time on 31 May. In his 1952 memoirs, Papen recalled that Hitler had struck him more as a bohemian than as a politician. The aristocrat noticed little of the “magnetic force of attraction” often ascribed to the NSDAP chairman. “He behaved politely and modestly,” Papen wrote. Brüning and Groener’s first impression of Hitler had been markedly similar. Apparently this was a role Hitler played to win over others and lure them into a false sense of security concerning his real intentions. When asked whether he would potentially participate in a later government, Hitler became evasive. “He did not want to tie himself down before the results of the election were out,” Papen recalled. “But I could tell that he considered my cabinet an interim solution and that he would continue the fight to make his party the strongest in the land and himself chancellor.”104

Hindenburg dissolved the Reichstag as promised on 4 June. The 31st of July was set as the date for new elections. On 16 June, the ban on the SA was lifted. Hitler’s two conditions for tolerating the Papen cabinet were thereby fulfilled. Bavarian State President Held had protested in vain at a meeting between Papen and representatives of the German states on 11 June that Hindenburg’s 13 million voters would not understand these measures. Held called them the equivalent of a “carte blanche for murder, manslaughter and the worst sort of terrorising of everyone who thought differently [than the Nazis].”105 Many people’s worst fears had come true: violence escalated to previously unseen levels as National Socialists now engaged in bloody street battles on a daily basis. “We are getting closer and closer to civil war,” Harry Kessler observed. “Day for day, Sunday for Sunday, this is a continuous St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.”106 One of the worst clashes occurred on 17 July in Altona just outside Hamburg. After conferring with Carl Severing, the SPD police president had granted permission for 7,000 SA men to march provocatively through the left-wing districts of the city. Seventeen people died, and many were seriously wounded in the ensuing violence. “The shock at this new bloody Sunday is widespread and deep,” wrote Kessler.107

The escalation in violence the Papen government had helped bring about served as an excuse to realise one of its most important aims, namely to chip away at the republican “Prussian bulwark.” Despite the electoral debacle of 24 April, the fragile coalition between the SPD, the Centre and the German State parties had remained in office. Nonetheless, by June 1932, the once-so-powerful SPD state president, Otto Braun, had resigned and passed on his duties to his former deputy, Welfare Minister Heinrich Hirtsiefer of the Centre Party. Rumours were already swirling that a Reich commissioner could be appointed for Prussia. In the short term, Papen favoured a different solution. On 6 June, he called upon the president of the Prussian Landtag, the National Socialist Hanns Kerrl, to begin “without delay” trying to form a new coalition between the NSDAP, the Centre Party and the DNVP.108 Negotiations quickly stalled. “No shared responsibility in Prussia either. Either total power or opposition,” Goebbels noted in his diary to summarise Hitler’s logic.109 The Centre Party was willing to accept a conservative nationalist, but not a National Socialist, as state president. In early July, attempts to form a majority government in Prussia were deemed a failure, and the Landtag went into indefinite recess.

With that the focus shifted to the second option of subjecting Prussia to Reich administration. In a Reich ministers’ conference on 11 July, Interior Minister von Gayl declared that “the psychological moment had come for a Reich intervention.” The Prussian government was concentrating exclusively on combating the Nazi movement while “insufficiently” addressing “the Communist threat.” In the protocol, Papen said that the meeting had agreed upon “deploying a Reich commissioner in Prussia.”110 On 14 July, Papen, Gayl and State Secretary Meissner went to Neudeck to get Hindenburg’s unconditional authorisation to carry out this planned coup. The date of the “Ordinance on the Restoration of Security and Order in the Territory of Prussia” was left open. The conspirators were waiting for a suitable excuse to have it go into force.111

That excuse was the “Bloody Sunday” in Altona, back then an exclave part of Prussia, of 17 July. The next day, Heinrich Hirtsiefer, Carl Severing and Prussian Finance Minister Otto Klepper were ordered to report to the Reich Chancellery on the morning of 20 July. Without further ado, Papen told them that Hindenburg had appointed him Reich commissioner of Prussia and had relieved the ministers of their duties. Papen added that he would personally take over the duties of Prussian state president and that he had appointed Essen Lord Mayor Franz Bracht as acting Prussian interior minister. Hirtsiefer’s and Severing’s objections that this procedure was “unheard-of” and “without precedent in history” left Papen entirely unimpressed.112 Immediately after the meeting, he declared a military state of emergency in Berlin and throughout Brandenburg province. Lieutenant General Gerd von Rundstedt, who would be promoted all the way up to general field marshal in Hitler’s Wehrmacht, was put in command. In a letter to Papen, the outgoing Prussian government officials complained and announced that they would challenge the decision in Germany’s highest court.113 That made it clear that resistance to the coup d’état would be restricted to legal means—which was tantamount to capitulation. “In Berlin everything calm,” noted Goebbels with glee. “SPD and unions completely tame. They won’t do a thing. Reichswehr entering. The swine have lost power.”114

Would the Prussian authorities have been capable of resisting? This question has been hotly debated. It is clear that if Prussian leaders had mobilised their police forces, the Papen government would have responded with the Reichswehr, and there is no doubt which side would have won that battle. Moreover, the Prussian police, especially the higher-ranking officers, were by no means as loyal to the Weimar Republic as many liked to pretend after 1945.115 Reich Banner activists were most eager to fight, and they were greatly disappointed by the passivity of the SPD leadership. “I saw Reich Banner people weeping around that time,” the Lower Silesian SPD secretary, Otto Buchwitz, later recalled. “Older functionaries threw their membership books on the ground at our feet.”116 But realistically, the Reich Banner would have been no match for the right-wing paramilitary organisations.

The most effective means of protest would probably have been a general strike. That was a possibility feared not only by the “cabinet of barons” but also within Hitler’s circles. “Is a general strike coming?” asked Goebbels. “I don’t think so, but wait and see. Feverish tension.”117 Goebbels no doubt recalled the fact that a general strike had meant the end of the Kapp-Lüttwitz putsch. But the situation in the summer of 1932 was very different from that in the spring of 1920. Back then, Germany had enjoyed full employment. In 1932, there were 6 million jobless, and all indications were that a call for strike action would have found little support. Moreover, the Prussian “coup” was not as blatantly unconstitutional as the Kapp putsch. In 1920 right-wing conspirators tried to topple a legitimate government; in 1932, action was taken by the Reich government and Reich president against a state government that had lost its parliamentary majority.

Thus it is hard to fault Social Democrats and trade unions for not wanting to risk civil war. They can, however, be blamed for sitting back and letting things take their course. Abandoning the bastion of Prussia without resistance demoralised the supporters of democracy and encouraged their enemies. Immediately after the “coup,” the new masters began to “cleanse” the Prussian civil service of democrats, and the National Socialists would continue this process immediately after taking power. The historian Karl-Dietrich Bracher rightly pointed out that the “Prussia coup” was a prelude to the Nazi assumption of power on 30 January 1933.118 On 25 October 1932, Germany’s highest court delivered its verdict. It could hardly have been more contradictory. On the one hand, the judges upheld the Reich president’s right to appoint Reich commissioners. On the other, they declared the complete exclusion of the Prussian government unconstitutional. This verdict did nothing to alter the new power relations. The former Prussian government was rehabilitated, in a formal sense, but it led little more than a shadow existence alongside the Reich commissioner.119

Hitler began campaigning in early July 1932. He had already set the basic tenor at a conference of Gauleiter in Munich on 8 June, where he declared that 31 July had to be turned into “a general reckoning by the German people with the policies of the past fourteen years and those responsible for them.”120 The main slogans promoted by the Reich propaganda directorship were “Germany awaken! Give Adolf Hitler power!” and “Down with the system, its parties and its exponents!”121 In mid-July Hitler made a shellac recording distributed at a price of 5 marks by the Eher Verlag.122 After that, he went on his third flying tour, which included appearances in fifty cities all over Germany. The scenes were familiar. Tens of thousands of people waited to hear him, often for hours, wherever he went. On 19 July in Stralsund, people remained patient until long after midnight.123 The following evening in Bremen, Hitler’s fully illuminated aeroplane flew a couple of loops over the local football stadium before landing—this was intended to symbolise that the Führer was an enlightened deus ex machina, who was above the squabbles of political fighting.124 By the time the election marathon was over, a local newspaper in the town of Gladbek would describe Hitler as making “a tired, worn-out impression.”125 Ernst Hanfstaengl, who accompanied Hitler on his travels, would write in his memoirs of a “murderous chase from mass event to mass event, from city to city.” The Nazi chairman, Hanfstaengl recalled, was utterly exhausted: “Truth be told, we were nothing more than the corner men of a boxer and had our hands full trying to get Hitler fit again between rounds of speeches.”126

Hitler seldom said anything new. He began his speeches by sketching the general economic and political decay, which he blamed on the Weimar “system.” This was followed by a promise to get rid of “the nepotism of parties.” One of his goals, he told a crowd in Eberswalde on 27 July, was “to sweep the thirty different political parties out of Germany.”127 At that point, Hitler invoked the “miracle” of the National Socialist movement, which had grown from a handful of people to a massive organisation that would stay true to its principles instead of agreeing to “putrid compromises.” The Nazis, Hitler proclaimed, were interested in “the future of the German people,” not in parliamentary seats or ministerial positions. The NSDAP was not a party representing narrow interests or classes of people: it was a “party of the German people” whose greatest service was to have “filled millions of people with renewed hope.”128 Hitler was careful not to be too critical of the new presidential cabinet. In Tilsit Hitler told his audience on 15 July: “When my enemies say, ‘You’re providing cover for the Papen government,’ I have to say, ‘Be happy Papen is governing and not I.’ ”129

Hitler entirely left out any shrill anti-Semitism, obviously in an attempt to win some votes from the socially liberal middle classes. In his speech in Kiel on 20 July, for example, when Hitler spoke of a “sub-humanity” which the Nazis wanted to “do away with,” he deliberately left it open exactly who was meant.130 Nonetheless he never lost sight of the central tenets of his world view. He was merely concealing them, for tactical reasons, in public. In the introduction he wrote at the time for the official guidelines for the Nazi Party’s Political Organisation, Hitler grandiloquently proclaimed that the Nazi movement had not only recognised but “consciously honoured” for the first time ever “blood and race, personality and its value, struggle as a phenomenon of the ongoing selection of the fittest, soil and living space as determining, compelling and driving forces.”131

At the end of July 1932, Hitler was celebrating another electoral result. “A great victory has been achieved,” he crowed. “The National Socialist German Workers’ Party is now clearly the strongest party in the German Reichstag.”132 On the surface, the Nazis’ victory was indeed impressive. They took 37.3 per cent of the vote, a growth of 19 per cent, and formed the largest parliamentary faction with 230 seats. The Communists also recorded slight gains, from 13.1 to 14.5 per cent, while the Social Democrats’ share declined from 24.5 to 21.6 per cent. The Centre Party and the BVP registered modest rises from 11.8 to 12.5 and 3 to 3.2 per cent respectively. The DNVP saw their share of the vote decline from 7 to 5.9 per cent, while the DVP and the German State Party suffered dramatic losses, going from 4.7 to 1.2 and 3.8 to 1 per cent respectively. “The centre is fully destroyed,” noted the DNVP deputy Reinhold Quaatz drily.133

On close inspection, however, the results were less impressive for the NSDAP. Compared with the presidential run-off election on 10 April, the party’s share of the vote had increased by only 0.6 per cent, suggesting that the party could have reached its limits. Count Kessler concluded with satisfaction: “Not only have the Nazis failed to reach their goal. For the first time there are clear signs of standstill and an ebbing of their flood.”134 Goebbels saw the situation in similar terms. “We won’t get an absolute majority like this,” he noted in his diary. “We need another way.” On the question of what this “other way” might be, Goebbels wrote: “We have to come to power now and eliminate Marxism. By hook or by crook. Something has to give. Our time in opposition is at an end. Deeds are what we need now.”135

Hitler was uncertain as to what his next steps should be and retreated to Adolf Müller’s house on Tegernsee Lake, as he had after Geli Raubal’s death. There he met Goebbels on 2 August, who noted in telegraph style immediately thereafter: “Hitler ponders. Difficult decisions ahead. Legal? With Centre? Nauseating!”136 Indeed, for a short time, Hitler seems to have considered forming a coalition with the Centre Party, with whom the Nazis would have had a parliamentary majority. But he quickly dropped the idea since it would have entailed sharing power—and that with a party he had repeatedly defamed in past elections as one of the pillars, together with the SPD, of the “system” he so loathed. As he always did when faced with tough choices, Hitler procrastinated. On 3 August, to distract himself, he attended a performance of Tristan and Isolde with Goebbels in Munich. Afterwards they enjoyed some “music and light conversation” at the Hanfstaengls.137 Still, no sooner had Hitler returned to Berchtesgaden than he made up his mind. Hitler would go and see Kurt von Schleicher to demand the chancellorship for himself and four further ministries for his party. Frick would be interior, Göring aviation, Strasser labour and Goebbels popular education minister. “That means complete power or nothing,” Goebbels noted. “That’s the way. The worst thing is to back down. [Hitler] believes the barons will give in. But what about the old man?”138 That was the great uncertain factor in Hitler’s calculations. Would Hindenburg be willing to name him chancellor?

On 5 August, Hitler met Schleicher at a secret location in the town of Fürstenberg near Berlin, and he apparently convinced the defence minister, during the course of an “hours-long walk,” that there was no way around him becoming chancellor.139 In any case, upon returning to the Obersalzberg, Hitler immediately called together his paladins and told them that everything had gone well. “In one week the deal will be done,” Goebbels recorded. “The boss will become chancellor and Prussian state president. Strasser Reich and Prussian interior minister. Goebbels Prussian culture and Reich education minister. Darré in charge of both agriculture ministries. Frick permanent secretary in the Reich Chancellery. Göring aviation. Justice remains ours. Warmbold economics. Crosigk [sic] finance. Schacht Reichsbank. A cabinet of men.” We do not know whether Hitler had in fact negotiated all these positions with Schleicher, or whether Goebbels was being over-optimistic. What is certain is that Schleicher wanted to keep the Defence Ministry, which is probably why he thought that he could control a Chancellor Hitler. By contrast Goebbels and Hitler agreed that, should they get those positions, the National Socialists would have achieved their aims. “We’ll never give up power—they’ll have to cart out our dead bodies,” Goebbels wrote. “This is a total solution. It will cost some blood, but it cleanses and purifies. A job well done. We’ll work like berserkers. We talk the whole evening, and I draw up plans deep into the night. I can’t believe it. We’re at the gates of power.”140

The Nazi leadership were not the only ones who thought definitive triumph was at hand. The party grass roots and the SA also started preparing for what looked like their certain “seizure of power.” SA units around Berlin were assembled to present a threatening backdrop and underscore the Nazis’ claim to power. “Make the fine gentlemen nervous,” Goebbels noted. “That’s the point of the exercise.”141 On 10 August, on returning to his apartment in Berlin, Harry Kessler noted that the cellar rooms of the building’s concierge, an ardent Nazi supporter, were brightly illuminated: “Music was playing on the radio, and the door was wide open so that people could simply wander in from the street. A party and a mood of victory! People are already in the ‘Third Reich!’ ”142 But the celebrations were premature. Although on 10 August the newspapers had treated Hitler’s ascension to the chancellorship as a foregone conclusion, Kessler sensed a change in mood the following day: “The opposition of the old man seems to have stiffened.”143 News to that effect had also made its way to the Nazi leadership meeting in the southern Bavarian town of Prien am Chiemsee. “The old man refuses to play along,” Goebbels wrote in his diary. “Doesn’t want Hitler…In any case, we now have to keep our nerve and stay strong.”144 So what had happened?

On the morning of 10 August, after Hindenburg had returned from Neudeck, Papen informed him that circles within the NSDAP and the Centre Party were trying to replace his government with one led by Hitler. While Centre deputies believed that they could achieve a parliamentary majority with the Nazis, Papen explained, Hitler imagined a government installed by presidential decree with him as chancellor. “The chancellor,” State Secretary Meissner noted, “left the decision up to the Reich president and declared that he would not try to block the formation of a new government.” Hindenburg stated that he wanted to stick with a government of presidential decree under Papen. As much as Hindenburg “wished to bring in the National Socialist movement and get it to cooperate,” Meissner recorded, he refused with equal conviction to appoint Hitler Reich chancellor, fearing that Hitler’s cabinet would be Nazi Party-centred and partisan. Hindenburg personally held it against Hitler that he had broken his promise to tolerate the Papen cabinet and felt there was no guarantee that Hitler, if named chancellor, would respect “the character of a presidential government.”145 In other words, Hindenburg was concerned with preserving his own sphere of influence. Finally, Hindenburg’s rejection of Hitler reflected the antipathy of a representative of the old Wilhelmine elite for an upstart. “I cannot entrust the empire of Kaiser Wilhelm and Bismarck to a private from Bohemia,” Hindenburg is alleged to have told one of his assistants.146 (During Prussia’s 1866 war against Austria, Hindenburg had passed through a Bohemian town called Braunau and mistook it for Hitler’s birthplace.)

On the afternoon of 10 August, Franz von Papen convened his cabinet and informed the ministers about his meeting with Hindenburg. The priority, he said, was “to involve the right-wing movement in the state” without entrusting Hitler with political leadership. In the wake of Hindenburg’s veto, Schleicher also distanced himself from the agreement he had reached with Hitler, speaking only of involving the NSDAP in the government and not of making Hitler chancellor. The majority of ministers agreed with this position. Summarising the results of the cabinet meeting, Papen said that coming negotiations with Hitler would determine “to what extent the National Socialists would have to be involved in the government to dislodge them from the opposition.”147

On 12 August, Hitler travelled by car to Berlin, spending the night at the Goebbelses’ in the nearby town of Caputh. Decisive talks with the government were scheduled for the following day. “Is the fruit of ten years of work now ripe?” Goebbels noted in his diary. “I hope so, but I hardly dare believe it.”148 On the morning of 13 August, Hitler met Schleicher at the Defence Ministry before heading to Papen at the Chancellery. Hundreds of people milled about the government district, expecting to witness a historic occasion.149 But Hitler was about to learn for himself, as he had already heard from others, that Hindenburg had refused to name him chancellor. Papen offered to make him vice-chancellor, but Hitler brusquely refused. As the leader of the strongest party in the Reichstag, Hitler fumed, there was no way he would “subordinate himself to another chancellor.” The conversation went on for two hours and grew quite heated, as Papen tried in vain to convince Hitler that a movement as large as the NSDAP could not remain “permanently in opposition.” In the end, Papen had to inform Hindenburg that the negotiations had failed.150 By 2 a.m., when Hitler arrived at Magda Goebbels’s apartment on Reichskanzlerplatz, it appeared that his second chance at power had come and gone.

But then, at 3 p.m. that afternoon, Hermann Pünder’s successor at the Reich Chancellery, Erwin Planck (the son of the famous physicist), called with the news that Hindenburg wanted to speak with him. At first Hitler refused: “The decision has been made—what’s the point of me going?” But Planck seems to have created the impression that Hindenburg’s mind was not completely made up. “Brief vague hope,” noted Goebbels. “Everyone kept their fingers crossed.”151 The meeting with Hindenburg took place after 4 p.m. Hitler brought along Wilhelm Frick and Ernst Röhm, while Hindenburg had Papen and Otto Meissner at his side. When the president asked whether Hitler would be willing to participate in a government under Papen, the Nazi Party chairman responded that the idea was out of the question—for the reasons he had enumerated that morning. “Given the significance of the National Socialist movement, he had no choice but to demand full leadership of the government and the party,” Meissner noted Hitler as saying. Hindenburg categorically refused Hitler’s demand, declaring that “in front of God, his conscience and his country he could not justify giving the entire power of government to a single party and especially not one so hostile towards people who thought differently.” Hindenburg urged Hitler to play his role in the political opposition in a gentlemanly fashion and suggested that he would not bear any grudges: “We two are old comrades and want to remain so. The road ahead may bring us together again. So I extend my hand as a comrade.”152 After barely half an hour, the meeting was over.

Hitler had held his temper in front of Hindenburg, but as soon as he was out in the hall of the Reich Chancellery, he vented his rage, accusing Papen and Meissner of deceiving him. The two had allowed Planck to suggest that Hindenburg’s mind was open, Hitler fumed, when in fact the decision had already been made.153 “How do you intend to rule?” he asked Papen. “Does the government believe it can work with this Reichstag?” Papen nonchalantly dismissed these objections. “The Reichstag?” he replied. “I’m surprised that you of all people think the Reichstag is important.”154 On the evening of 13 August, the government issued an official communiqué that chronicled the conversation in a way that publicly embarrassed Hitler. The Nazi leader had demanded the “entire power of state,” which Hindenburg had been forced to reject “because his conscience and sense of national duty forbade him from transferring complete authority to the National Socialist movement, which would use it one-sidedly.”155 A few days later Planck told Pünder that the communiqué had been modelled on the Ems Dispatch, which Bismarck had used in 1870 to cast aspersions on France and provoke the Franco-Prussian War.156 In a statement hastily prepared by Frick and Röhm, Hitler replied that he had demanded the “leadership” of the government, that is the position of chancellor, and not the entire power of state,157 but that was not sufficient to limit the damage. The nationalist circles sympathetic to the Nazis came to believe, with considerable justification, that Hitler was incapable of compromise and was banging his head against a wall. The impression arose that the Nazi leader was less concerned about the welfare of Germany than with securing unfettered power for himself and his followers.

August the 13th was a major setback for Hitler. The politician whose instincts were regarded as fail-safe had gone after the big jackpot and come up short. Or to borrow a different metaphor from Alan Bullock: Hitler had “knocked on the door of the Chancellery, only to have the door publicly slammed in his face.”158 This sort of rejection painfully reminded the NSDAP chairman of his failed November 1923 putsch, and he repeatedly invoked it over the next weeks. At a Gau conference in Nuremberg he compared the current situation with that of a decade before, declaring: “The party battles and comes close to victory, but at the last moment the same old conspiracy against it always appears. A tiny bunch of reactionaries with no future join together with Jews and try to prevent the party’s imminent triumph at the last minute.” Unlike in 1923, however, the Nazi Party was not going to be lured into a putsch but would “hold its nerve and not give in.”159 But appeals like this could not compensate for the deep disappointment of Hitler’s followers at their renewed failure to take control. Especially within the SA, whose members believed they had entered the antechambers of power, discontent was rife. Ernst Röhm declared that it had never been so difficult to maintain calm among his brown-shirted battalions.160

Hitler immediately had himself driven back to Munich on the evening of 13 August. “Well, we’ll just have to see how things progress now,” his companions heard him remark during the journey.161 For a few days, he retreated to the Obersalzberg. Karl Weigand, a correspondent for the New York American who interviewed Hitler on 18 August in Haus Wachenfeld, found him still fuming at being dismissed by Hindenburg.162 But in a conversation that same day with Louis P. Lochner from the Manchester Guardian, Hitler denied revived rumours that he was planning a “march on Berlin.” His storm troopers were sufficiently disciplined, Hitler said, and would not take a single step from the path of legality.163

Belying that claim in early August, the SA had engaged in a whole series of politically motivated acts of violence in East Prussia, Upper Silesia and Schleswig-Holstein. They primarily targeted members of the KPD and the Reich Banner and claimed a number of lives. Attacks were also directed at trade union buildings, left-wing newspapers and Jewish locations like the main synagogue in the city of Kiel.164 These acts of terror, wrote Count Harry Kessler, gave a small taste of what the Nazis would do “in larger fashion and throughout the Reich if they achieved victory.”165 Within the Reich cabinet, which had consulted on 9 August about proposed “measures for restoration of public safety,” Papen attributed the new wave of violence to a Nazi attempt to “unsettle the public” and to force through the idea that “Hitler had to take the leadership of the government.” To do nothing, Papen argued, would be tantamount to “the government committing suicide.” That very day, the cabinet drafted an emergency decree making politically motivated manslaughter a capital crime. Special courts were set up in Berlin and the East Prussian district of Elbing to prosecute the perpetrators more quickly.166

A few hours later, in the night of 9-10 August, one of the most grisly murders of the pre-1933 years took place in the Upper Silesian village of Potempa. Nine uniformed SA men forced their way into the apartment of the miner and KPD supporter Konrad Pietrzuch, dragged him out of bed and kicked him to death in front of his mother and his brother.167 Since this crime was carried out after the emergency decree had come into force, the perpetrators were subject to the new stricter punishment. Less than two weeks later, on 22 August, the special court in the town of Beuthen rendered its verdict: five of the perpetrators were sentenced to death, one was given two years in prison and three were acquitted. The verdict elicited outraged protest from the National Socialists. Hitler sent those convicted a telegram which read: “In light of this monstrously bloodthirsty verdict, I feel connected to you in boundless loyalty. From this moment on, your freedom is a matter of honour for us, and the fight against a government, under which this judgment was possible, is our duty.”168 On 24 August, in an article headlined “The Jews Are to Blame,” Goebbels openly expressed sentiments that Hitler had suppressed, for tactical reasons, in his campaign speeches the previous month: “Never forget it, comrades! Repeat it out loud a hundred times a day until the words follow you into your deepest dreams: The Jews are to blame! And they will not evade the criminal tribunal that they deserve.”169

By openly declaring his solidarity with the murderers of Potempa, Hitler had let the mask slip, revealing his oft-sworn respect for the law as a means of deceiving the public. By that point, anyone in Germany could have figured out what would await the country if the Nazis ever came to political power. “In the entire country, who can comprehend that the leader of such a large political movement could so callously dare to declare his respect for these drunken murderers?” asked the Frankfurter Zeitung.170 Kessler saw the affair as the clear beginning of a popular disenchantment with the Nazi Party, writing that “13 August and Potempa are poison in its body.”171 But once again Hitler was bailed out by the Papen government upon which he had just declared war. In early September, the sentences of the five main perpetrators were commuted to life in prison. In March 1933, a few weeks after Hitler was named chancellor, they were pardoned.172

Nonetheless, the fact that Hitler had unmistakably revealed that a government led by him would do away with the rule of law and legalise political murder did not scare people off as much as Kessler hoped it would. Hjalmar Schacht, for example, who had been part of the cabinet negotiated between Hitler and Schleicher, hastened to assure the NSDAP leader of his “unalterable affection.” Although he knew that Hitler did not need words of consolation, Schacht wrote, perhaps a word of “most genuine sympathy” would not be unwelcome:

Your movement is borne internally of such powerful truth and necessity that victory in one form or another is a matter of course. In times of the movement’s rise, you have not let yourself be seduced by false idols. And I am completely convinced that now, at a time when you have been forced onto the defensive, that you will resist that temptation. If you stay true to yourself, your success is guaranteed.

Schacht concluded his letter by promising: “You can count on me as a faithful helper.”173 This was essentially a job application, made by a graduate of Hamburg’s prestigious Johanneum Gymnasium and a long-time president of the Reichsbank, for a leading position in the Third Reich whose arrival he so deeply wished for.

But how to proceed after 13 August? The situation was tied up in knots. Papen had come no closer to his goal of tying the National Socialists to the government, just as Hitler had made no progress towards achieving the decisive position of power in a cabinet that ruled by presidential decree—his desired launching pad for eradicating the Weimar “system” and erecting a dictatorship. After Hindenburg’s categorical rebuff, he seemed to have no chance of reaching this goal in the short term. So the question was whether to negotiate with the Centre Party about a coalition or, as Hitler had already threatened, to steer the NSDAP towards a stricter course of opposition to Papen’s cabinet. On 25 August, Hitler discussed the three possibilities with Goebbels in Berchtesgaden. “Either a cabinet by presidential decree. Most agreeable but least likely,” noted the latter. “Or the Centre with us. Unpleasant but relatively easy to have at present. Or the most blunt sort of opposition. Very unpleasant, but if necessary, possible.”174 While the two men conferred, Gregor Strasser arrived and reported on conversations he had had with ex-Chancellor Brüning two days earlier in the southern German town of Tübingen. According to Brüning’s memoirs, Strasser had hinted that Hitler would forgo the office of chancellor in return for a swift agreement between the Centre and Nazi Parties.175 Hitler would never have made such a commitment, as Goebbels’s diaries make clear: “Strasser very supportive of the Centre solution. Hitler and I, on the other hand, for a continuation of the idea of the cabinet by presidential decree.”176 Brüning and Hitler met once more on 29 August in the house of a manufacturer in the Berlin suburb of Grunewald, but an alliance between the two was impossible. Under no circumstances was Brüning prepared to hand over the offices of Prussian president and interior minister, with their control over the police, or to accept Hitler as chancellor of a conservative-Nazi coalition.177 Nonetheless the Nazis proceeded with informal coalition talks with the Centre Party because the spectre of a majority coalition in parliament put pressure on Hindenburg and his circles and threatened the nationalist DNVP with complete marginalisation. “There are many indications that Hitler and Brüning will reach agreement and that both we and the economy are facing a terrible regime,” Hugenberg wrote on 19 August to Albert Vögler, the chairman of the United Steelworks.178

The Papen government countered Hitler’s declaration of hostilities with a two-pronged strategy. It altered economic policy by instituting a series of measures to stimulate the domestic economy, by reducing taxes on businesses that hired new employees and by relaxing labour agreements, as employers had long demanded.179 At the same time, the cabinet intensified its pursuit of plans first suggested by Interior Minister von Gayl at a ministerial meeting on 10 August: namely to dissolve the Reichstag and delay new elections beyond the sixty-day window prescribed by Article 25 of the Weimar Constitution. “Without doubt we will come into conflict with the constitution, but that’s primarily a matter for the Reich president,” read the minutes of that meeting.180 On 30 August, Papen, Schleicher and Gayl went to Neudeck. Arguing that an “emergency of state” justified extraordinary measures, they succeeded in securing Hindenburg’s support for indefinitely postponing new elections. The Reich president also issued them a blank cheque to dissolve the Reichstag.181

The same day that Hindenburg gave the Papen cabinet permission to violate the constitution, the newly elected Reichstag convened for its inaugural session. Beforehand, Hitler underscored “the movement’s claim to power” in a speech to the NSDAP parliamentary faction, saying he had never been “more relaxed or confident.”182 Hermann Göring was elected Reichstag president with votes from the NSDAP, the Centre Party and the BVP. Although the position of first vice-president traditionally went to the second-strongest party—in this case the Social Democrats—their candidate, Paul Löbe, was defeated by a Centre Party deputy put forward by the National Socialists. The result was, in the words of the Völkischer Beobachter, “a Marxist-free Reichstag presidium.” The NSDAP’s strategy was obvious. The Nazis had got wind of the Papen cabinet’s emergency plan and wanted to demonstrate, as Göring declared in a speech on 30 August, that “the new Reichstag has a large nationalist majority capable of functioning, so that in no sense is there a state of governmental emergency.”183

Hitler took things one step further. Late in the evening of 31 August, he assembled his paladins in Göring’s apartment for a “secret conference.” Goebbels noted: “Bold plan drawn up. We’ll try to topple the old man. Silence and preparation of the essence. The old man doesn’t want us. He’s completely in the hands of the reactionaries. Thus, he himself must go.”184 The idea was to topple Hindenburg using Article 43 of the Weimar Constitution, which foresaw the removal of the Reich president if a two-thirds majority of the Reichstag backed a popular referendum and the German people were in favour of it. Hindenburg’s authority would have suffered just from such a resolution being drawn up. On 8 and 10 September, delegations from the NSDAP and the Centre Party met in Göring’s villa to discuss common action against Hindenburg. In Goebbels’s estimation, the Centre Party was not completely disinclined, but their representatives asked for more time to think things over.185 It was not until Brüning threatened to leave the party “if a single member of the faction conducted further negotiations in this direction” that the idea of cooperating with the Nazis was dropped.186 The former Reich chancellor himself had good reason to revenge himself on Hindenburg for his humiliating dismissal, but Brüning knew that if Hindenburg fell, his successor would in all likelihood be Hitler.

While negotiating with the Centre Party, Hitler stepped up his attacks on the Papen cabinet. In his speech in the Sportpalast on 1 September, he excoriated it as “a political regime that rules by the bayonet.” Hitler scoffed at the notion that serial dissolutions of the Reichstag represented a threat to the National Socialists: “For all we care, do it a hundred times. We’ll emerge as the victors. I’m not going to lose my nerve. My will is unshakeable, and I can outwait my adversaries.”187 Three days later, at the NSDAP Gau conference in Nuremberg, Hitler attacked the “reactionary clique” of aristocrats in the cabinet: “Do they truly think I can be bought off with a few ministerial seats? I don’t want anything to do with them…They can’t imagine how totally meaningless that all is to me. If God wanted things to be the way they are, we’d have all been born with monocles.”188 A further three days later, in a speech at Zirkus Krone on 7 September, Hitler even depicted himself as a defender of the German constitution: “We have a right to say that we will form the government. The fine gentlemen refuse to grant us this right. I’ll pick up the glove tossed on the ground…They say that the constitution is obsolete. I say, only now does it make sense.”189

On 12 September, the Reichstag met for its first working session. On the agenda was a governmental declaration by Papen, which was to be followed by several days of general debate. But the session took an unexpected turn. Before business had even been opened, Communist deputy Ernst Torgler seized the floor, demanding an immediate vote on the motions brought by his party, which included rejecting emergency governmental measures and a declaration of no confidence in the Papen government. The KPD initiative could have been blocked had a single deputy objected, but that did not happen. In the general confusion that ensued Wilhelm Frick moved for a half-hour adjournment. While Papen used the break to have messengers fetch Hindenburg’s order to dissolve the Reichstag issued on 30 August, Hitler instructed the NSDAP faction to support the Communist motion. Hitler’s intent was to demonstrate, for all to see, how little parliamentary support the Papen government had.

After the session was reopened, Göring in his capacity as Reichstag president began to explain the various voting procedures, studiously ignoring the Reich chancellor, who repeatedly requested the floor from the government bench while brandishing a red folder containing Hindenburg’s decree. “In that situation,” Papen recalled in his memoirs, “I had no choice but to lay the dissolution order on Göring’s desk, to roars and yells from the deputies, and to leave the building with my government.”190 Shortly thereafter, Göring announced the results of the vote. Five hundred and twenty-two Reichstag members had voted to withdraw confidence in the Papen government, while only forty-two DNVP and DVP deputies had rejected the motion. “It was the most humiliating defeat imaginable,” Goebbels noted.191 The psychological effects of the vote were massive. The rug was pulled from under Papen’s feet, and his protestations that the dissolution decree had been presented before the vote, thereby rendering it moot, did nothing to undo the damage. The fact was, as Kessler concluded, that “more than nine-tenths of the Reichstag and the German people are against this chancellor of ‘national concentration.’ ”192 In the wake of the overwhelming defeat, the Papen cabinet decided on 14 and 17 September to back off from the emergency plan agreed with Hindenburg and schedule new parliamentary elections on 6 November, the last possible day within the sixty-day deadline.193 In a conversation with Brüning’s former deputy Hermann Pünder in October 1932, Kurt von Schleicher admitted that the Papen cabinet had failed in its main task of “tying the NSDAP to the government” but asserted that the Nazis had been “completely demystified.” In the coming weeks, Schleicher predicted, support for both the National Socialists and the Centre Party would erode so that a parliamentary majority would no longer be possible. At that point, he believed, the Reichstag would be willing to tolerate the government in order to avoid yet another vote.194

“Election prospects extremely pessimistic,” Goebbels noted in late September. “We’ll have to work until we burst. Then perhaps we’ll succeed again.”195 After four difficult elections, fatigue was beginning to show both among the populace in general and the Nazis’ supporters. The SA in particular had little desire to focus all its energy on an election again after the disappointment of 13 August. For the first time, the numbers of Nazi Party members declined: from 455,000 in August to 435,000 in October 1932. From around the country came reports of a “downcast” mood and a “tendency to complain.”196 Moreover, the constant election campaigns had depleted the party coffers, and it was difficult to find additional resources. “Procuring money is difficult,” Goebbels complained. “The fat cats are with Papen.”197 The Papen government, whose new economic programme was very much to the liking of entrepreneurs, could indeed count on the support of big business. Their donations went nearly exclusively to parties that favoured Papen and his cabinet, that is the DNVP and the DVP.198

In contrast to many of his underlings, Hitler projected optimism. The Papen government would soon collapse “like a house of cards,” he told the Daily Mail on 24 September.199 In a speech at the Reich propaganda conference in the Brown House on 6 October, Hitler tried to mobilise party members for the coming election: “We National Socialists will give the nation an unprecedented display of our strength of will…I head into this struggle with absolute confidence. Let the battle commence. In four weeks, we’ll emerge victorious from it.”200 The main Nazi campaign slogan was “Against Papen and the reactionaries.”201The diplomat Ulrich von Hassell, who visited Hitler in his Munich apartment on 23 September after being named Germany’s ambassador to Italy, found the NSDAP leader still extremely bitter towards Papen and Hindenburg. “Hitler said he would place no limits upon his agitation against this government, which had fought against and ‘betrayed’ him,” wrote Hassell. “He made no bones about his feelings towards the barons.”202 The Nazi propaganda instructions issued by Goebbels ran in the same vein. Papen, Goebbels instructed, should be depicted as an “equally ambitious and incompetent representative of the reactionary old boys’ club.”203

Hitler knew what was at stake. If he did not succeed in bettering or at least maintaining his level of support from the 31 July election, it would threaten the aura of inevitable triumph surrounding National Socialism, and the momentum that had carried the movement from success to success could be reversed. He therefore submitted to an even more gruelling election campaign. The fourth “flying tour of Germany,” which he began in his Junkers 52 on 11 October, lasted three and a half weeks and took him to every corner of the country, including such provincial places as East Frisia or the Bergisches Land, which he had previously skipped. Hitler started all his speeches by justifying his decision not to join the Papen cabinet on 13 August. It was a sign of how disappointed he was at his failure to seize the office of chancellor. He had not wanted to be a “minister by Papen’s grace,” he told the crowds, adding that he was not cut out for such a “decorative role.” Using different imagery, he said that he did not want to get on board a train he would have to get off a few months later. Papen and his reactionary clique, Hitler fumed, were not interested in granting him political influence but simply getting him to “shut up.”204 Repeatedly, Hitler stressed that he was interested neither in getting a ministerial post nor in sharing power with anyone else: “The only thing that appeals to me is leadership itself, true power, and we National Socialists have a sacred right to it.”205 His opponents should be under no illusions about his “enormous determination.” Hitler had chosen his path, he assured his audiences, and would pursue it to the end: “A man like me may perish. A man like me may be beaten to death. But a man like me cannot yield!” One word that did not exist in the National Socialist vocabulary, Hitler crowed, was “capitulation.”206 But the fact that Hitler felt forced to make such assurances suggests that his confidence in victory was partially play-acted, that he himself may have feared a possible setback. Indeed, while the Nazi press once again boasted about how successful Hitler’s propaganda tour was, attendance was in reality declining. Nuremberg’s Luitpoldhalle auditorium was only half full for Hitler’s appearance on 13 October.207 A substantial number of voters who had flocked to the putative saviour in July turned their backs on him after 13 August. “They say he’s come up short,” Konrad Heiden wrote, describing the mood among parts of the German populace. “He’s just another misguided fanatic, who overreaches and achieves nothing. A falling comet in the November fog.”208

As if to bolster the impression that he himself had closed the doors to power with his inflexible fanaticism, Hitler gave free rein to his anti-Semitic hatred in his election campaign. Strangely, none of Hitler’s biographers have remarked on this shift, although it is perfectly evident. In all of his speeches, Hitler falsely claimed that Papen’s economic programme was the brainchild of the Jewish banker Jakob Goldschmidt, the former director of the Danatbank, and was “welcomed above all by Jews.” No speech was complete without a tirade against the “Jewish press of Berlin” or an invocation of the spectre of “Jewish-internationalist Bolshevism,” which Hitler characterised as a “plague that has beset almost the entire European continent and threatens to attack us.” On 30 October in Essen, Hitler thundered: “Either the German people will escape from the hands of the Jews or it will degenerate into nothing. I want to be its advocate and lead it into a unified German empire.”209 Once again Hitler had made it perfectly plain that there would be no room for Jews in the new ethnically defined state.

But bourgeois voters were less disconcerted by Hitler’s naked anti-Semitism than by his polemics against Papen’s “reactionary clique” and the anti-capitalist, class-warfare tone of the party’s propaganda, which seemed to clash with the slogan of “ethnic community.” On 25 September, Goebbels had insisted that “right now the most radical socialism has to be advanced.”210 The Berlin Gauleiter put these words into practice when he saw to it that the NSDAP supported a strike by the city’s public transport workers a few days before the election. Together with the Communist-dominated Revolutionary Union Opposition (RGO), the Nazi Factory Cell Organisation (NSBO) formed picket lines and brought traffic in Berlin to a standstill. “All yesterday: strike,” Goebbels noted on 5 November. “Our people in the lead. Grave acts of terror. Already 4 dead. Revolutionary mood in Berlin. Press on!”211 Goebbels maintained constant contact with Hitler during the strike, and Goebbels noted with satisfaction that Hitler supported his position, even though cooperating with the Communists was likely to cost the Nazis votes. “Hitler has gone Marxist for the moment—the Berlin transport strike,” the Hamburg schoolteacher Luise Solmitz wrote in her diary on the day of the election.212 In July she had voted for the NSDAP, but she switched to the DNVP on 6 November. Solmitz was obviously not alone among conservative-nationalist voters: Hugenberg’s party increased its share of the vote from 5.9 to 8.9 per cent.

For the National Socialists, the 6 November election was a catastrophe. The party lost 2 million voters, and their overall share of the vote declined by 4.2 per cent to 33.1 per cent. They only picked up 196 parliamentary seats, a decrease of 34. Along with the DNVP, the big winners of the election were the KPD, who increased their share of the vote from 14.5 to 16.9 per cent and took 100 seats in the Reichstag. The SPD and the two Catholic parties suffered small declines in support: the SPD dropped from 21.6 to 20.4 per cent, the Centre from 12.5 to 11.9 per cent and the BVP from 3.2 to 3.1 per cent. The DVP did slightly better, rising from 1.2 to 1.9 per cent, and the German State Party held steady at 1 per cent. Overall turnout declined by almost 4 per cent compared with July, falling to 80.6 per cent—which probably hurt the NSDAP more than any other party.213 The major liberal papers in Berlin depicted the election as a sensation. “The National Socialist idea has lost its power to win people over,” wrote the Vossische Zeitung. “The aura is gone…the magic has failed. The faith is flagging…Hitler’s failure as a politician and a statesman has become apparent.”214 Goebbels, who had hoped a few days before the vote that the result would not be “all that bad,” also had to admit: “We suffered a heavy defeat…We now face some difficult struggles.”215

For Hitler personally, 6 November represented a third painful defeat within the year 1932. His charismatic aura, which was based on his magnetic effect on the masses and their belief in him as a political messiah, was coming under fire. Hitler of course did his best to put a positive spin on the results in his post-election speech. The “massive attack on the Nazi Party” had been repelled, he claimed, and the Papen government had suffered a “debilitating defeat” since the DNVP, which supported the status quo, had been unable to break the 10-per-cent mark. The message for National Socialists, Hitler said, was “to continue the fight against this regime until it has been ultimately eradicated.”216 But he was unable to lift the NSDAP out of the deep depression that had set in throughout the party.217 For the first time, there were considerable doubts about Hitler’s political judgement. Did not the Nazi strategy of all-or-nothing condemn the party to eternal opposition, many Hitler followers asked? Would the next election bring an even worse defeat? Hitler seems to have been utterly unmoved by such concerns. After a long meeting with Hitler on 9 November, Goebbels noted: “No reconciliation. Hold steady! Papen must go. There can be no compromises. The reactionaries will be left scratching their heads. We don’t do things by halves.”218

Papen had every reason to be happy with the election result, which meant that the NSDAP and the Centre Party no longer had a parliamentary majority and Hitler could no longer threaten him with a “black and brown” coalition. Papen thus believed he would be greeted more receptively on 13 November when he issued a written invitation for Hitler to join his cabinet along the lines of what he had proposed in August. The 6 November election, Papen wrote, had created “a new situation” and a “new possibility to concentrate all [of Germany’s] nationalist forces.” The bitterness of the election, Papen suggested, should be forgotten in order to jointly serve “the welfare of the country.”219 The Nazi Party leadership suspected that this was yet another attempt to lure Hitler into a trap. “No repeat of 13 August—that would be a catastrophe,” Goebbels noted in his diary, leaving no doubt as to what the main obstacle was. “Hitler must be Reich chancellor! Conditio sine qua non.220

Hitler took three days before refusing Papen’s request to discuss the possibility of National Socialist participation in the government. He was at most prepared to engage in a written exchange of ideas. “Under no circumstances,” Hitler wrote in his reply to Papen, “will I tolerate a repeat of the proceedings of 13 August.”221 In a cabinet meeting on 17 November Papen admitted that his efforts to ally Germany’s nationalist parties had failed. Papen dissolved the cabinet “in order to clear the way…for the Reich president to open negotiations with the leaders of the political parties.”222 Hindenburg accepted Papen’s resignation but asked him to continue to temporarily administer the government’s business.

Harry Kessler celebrated the news of Papen’s resignation: “Finally! This perpetually smiling, foolhardy dilettante has done more damage in six months than any of his predecessors in a comparable period.”223The socialist newspaper Vorwärts reported the news under the headline: “Cabinet of lords deposed!”224 People in Social Democratic circles remembered all too well that Papen had been the one who had destroyed the last bulwark of the Weimar Republic with his 20 July coup d’état against Prussia. Yet it was entirely unclear who would succeed Papen as chancellor or whether a way out of the political crisis could be found. The only thing that was clear, Kessler noted on 19 November, was the absolute impenetrability and uncertainty of the situation: “Everything more or less depends on chance and the good or bad moods of four or five individuals.”225

On 18 November, Hindenburg commenced negotiations with party leaders. His goal remained to form a “cabinet of national concentration,” ranging from the Centre Party to the National Socialists. The first man he received was Alfred Hugenberg, who came out in favour of continuing rule by presidential decree and against making Hitler chancellor. He had been “unable to discover much respect for agreements in Hitler,” Hugenberg said.226 DVP Chairman Eduard Dingeldey also warned against Hitler, calling him “an unpredictable person easily subject to outside influences.” No one, Dingeldey argued, could rule out Hitler “trying to seize power even against the will of the Reich president.”227 The chairman of the Centre Party, Ludwig Kaas, was more moderate in his views, as was the leader of the BVP, Fritz Schäffer. Both argued that the National Socialists should be part of the new government. But both declined to offer suggestions about who should be Reich chancellor, saying that was a matter for Hindenburg alone. Schäffer even contended that the danger resided “less in Hitler himself than in the people surrounding him,” since they were obsessed with the idea of a “single-party dictatorship.” For that reason, any Hitler-led government would have to include “counterweights and strong personalities” in order to prevent abuses of power.228

Hitler was invited by telephone to a personal audience with Hindenburg at 11:30 a.m. on 19 November. The day before that, he flew with Wilhelm Frick and Gregor Strasser to Berlin. Goebbels advised him to treat Hindenburg like a father: “Cajole him in the most primitive fashion and try to gain his trust.” The Nazi leaders sat together until late at night. “We ate, laughed, chatted and made some music,” Goebbels noted in his diary. “Hitler was very relaxed…God willing, may everything turn out well.”229 As they had on 13 August, Nazi supporters congregated on Wilhelmstrasse, cheering Hitler on as he arrived for his appointment with Hindenburg. It was the third time he had met with the Reich president, but the first in which he had insisted on a private discussion. Only during the second half of their meeting, which lasted more than an hour, was State Secretary Meissner allowed to join the two men. Once again, Hindenburg appealed to Hitler as the “leader of a large movement,” whose nationalist sentiment he respected, not to rule out the invitation to be part of a nationalist government. “The times are too serious for everyone to follow his own personal interests and go his own way,” Hindenburg argued according to Meissner’s minutes. “We have to put our differences behind us and come together in an emergency community.” Hitler stuck to his guns, telling Hindenburg he would only join a governing cabinet if he received “political leadership,” that is the office of chancellor. He did, however, signal willingness to compromise on the further composition of such a cabinet. By no means, he assured Hindenburg, did he want to fill the remaining ministerial posts exclusively with National Socialists. When Hindenburg asked him if he was willing to initiate discussions with other parties about the policies of a potential coalition, Hitler responded that the Reich president first needed to call upon him to form a government. At this point, Hitler suggested an idea to which he presumed Hindenburg would be receptive: “I think I could find a basis upon which I and the new government would receive an enabling law from the Reichstag.” The possibility of ruling by virtual decree via an enabling law was a legal option in times of crisis—albeit one that required a two-thirds parliamentary majority. Stresemann had already used such a law during the crisis of October 1923. An enabling law had the advantage of allowing the government to act independently of the institutions of the Reichstag for a time without constantly having to approach the Reich president for emergency decrees. Hindenburg said that he would think over Hitler’s suggestion and then speak to him again.230

The most important result to come out of 19 November was that after his one-to-one meeting, Hindenburg seemed no longer categorically opposed to Hitler’s chancellorship. Nonetheless, Hitler’s entourage was uncertain as to whether this was really a “serious attempt to come together” or another attempt by the other side to “screw us,” as Goebbels coarsely put it.231 That issue was resolved on 21 November, when Hindenburg received Hitler a second time and charged him with forming a government—but only under the condition that he create “a stable working majority with a set, unified agenda in the Reichstag.” That would only be possible if Hitler secured the support of the Centre Party as well as the DNVP, and for Hitler, Hugenberg’s party was clearly a lost cause. Otto Meissner had informed Hitler about Hindenburg’s intentions in advance, allowing him to respond with a carefully prepared letter he now presented to the Reich president. In it, Hitler demanded that he be given “the authority that all previous bearers of Your Excellency’s presidential power have possessed”—i.e. the comprehensive powers of a chancellor of a presidential cabinet enjoyed by Brüning and Papen. Hindenburg was by no means prepared to accede to this demand. With that, negotiations had broken down to all intents and purposes, even if Hindenburg assured Hitler: “You will always find my door open.”232

Hitler’s meetings with Hindenburg led to a correspondence between Hitler and Meissner that once more laid out the fundamental difference between a presidential cabinet and a parliamentary government based on a majority in the Reichstag.233 On 23 November, Hitler officially renounced Hindenburg’s mandate to negotiate with other parties to form a parliamentary majority as “impossible to fulfil for internal reasons.” One day later, in a letter from Meissner, Hindenburg officially refused Hitler’s request to be charged with the leadership of a presidential cabinet. Hindenburg’s justification essentially repeated the arguments of 13 August. The Reich president felt unable to take responsibility for entrusting his “comprehensive presidential powers to the leader of a party that had always stressed its desire to rule exclusively and that was negatively inclined towards the measures which [Hindenburg] himself personally favoured and judged politically and economically necessary.” Under such circumstances, the letter read, there was reason to fear that a Hitler-led presidential government “would inevitably become a single-party dictatorship exacerbating the tensions within the German people in a way incompatible with [Hindenburg’s] oath of office and conscience.”234 Having already exchanged opinions with Meissner, Hitler expected his request to be refused and reacted calmly. “The old man doesn’t trust him, and the feeling is mutual,” Goebbels noted. “The farce is over. Papen will be back no doubt…The barons have won again. But for how long?”235

Hindenburg did not change his mind even when a small group of industrialists, bankers and agricultural producers submitted a petition on 19 November calling upon the president to give the “leader of the largest nationalist group”—i.e. Hitler—“responsible directorship” of a presidential cabinet.236 The initiator of this action was Wilhelm Keppler, a middle-class entrepreneur, whom Hitler had made an economic adviser in the spring of 1932. At the behest of Hjalmar Schacht, a department named after Keppler was set up to “harmonise the National Socialist economic policies…with the flourishing of the private sector.”237But the petition had not attracted nearly the amount of support from the business sector as its initiators expected. It contained only nineteen signatures, a little fewer than half of whom came from the so-called “Keppler Circle”: Schacht, bankers Kurt von Schröder (the owner of the Stein bank in Cologne) and Friedrich Reinhart (a Commerzbank board member), the industrialist August Rosterg and Ilseder Steelworks supervisory board member Ewald Hecker. Hamburg merchant circles were prominently represented with four signatories: Emil Helfferich, Franz Witthoeft, Carl Vincent Krogmann (later mayor of Hamburg under the Nazis) and Kurt Woermann. Five signatories were large-scale agriculturalists—they were led by the president of the Reichslandbund, Count Eberhard von Kalckreuth. The Ruhrlade—an organisation representing the interests of the Ruhr Valley’s twelve leading industrialists—provided only one signatory, Fritz Thyssen, a long-time Hitler admirer.238 Schacht had already informed Hitler on 12 November that most representatives of heavy industry—in keeping with the ponderousness of that designation—were not going to take part in the petition.239 The director of the United Steelworks, Albert Vögler, told Schröder on 21 November that he, Gutehoffnungshütte Supervisory Board Chairman Paul Reusch and Hoesch General Director Fritz Springorum agreed with the petition’s “solution to the current crisis” but had declined to sign it because they “always avoided taking any sort of political position.”240 This suggests a change of mood in Hitler’s favour that was probably influenced by the electoral gains of the KPD in the November election and the renewed fears among business leaders that Germany could be “Bolshevised.” Still, the majority of industrialists stuck by Papen as their preferred choice for chancellor. That being the case, the petition was hardly going to sway Hindenburg. The greatest impression was probably made by the fact that it had been signed by Kalckreuth, since the lobbyists for the large landowners east of the Elbe had usually regarded Hindenburg as their advocate. In January 1933, their influence would prove particularly fateful.

After the attempt to form a “cabinet of national concentration” including the Nazis had failed, Hindenburg had no option other than to appoint either Papen or another one of his intimates chancellor. And aside from Papen, the only other option was Schleicher, the éminence grise of the presidential government. On 23 November, the general and Reich defence minister had already sounded out Hitler as to whether he would support a cabinet headed by him. Hitler answered in the negative and stressed that he would not allow any of his people to join such a cabinet. Given the circumstances, Schleicher said at a ministerial conference on 25 November, there “was nothing to be gained by a change of chancellor.”241 In fact, however, Schleicher had already decided to jettison Papen since, contrary to expectations, his protégé had proved to be anything but a passive puppet and had long since emancipated himself politically. Papen’s greatest capital was the trust he had built up with Hindenburg during the five months of his chancellorship, which Papen now sought to cash in against Schleicher. On 26 November, Hindenburg refused to honour Papen’s request not to be charged with forming a new government. “It broke his heart,” Hindenburg wrote, that Papen too now wanted to abandon him.242 Schleicher assumed responsibility for negotiating with the leaders of the political parties to get them to tolerate a Papen cabinet. But the sly general in fact used the meetings to test out the possibilities of becoming chancellor himself.243

The NSDAP leadership waited to see how “the Papen-Schleicher wrestling match” would turn out,244 and Hitler studiously remained absent from Berlin, decamping to Weimar where he had a number of speaking engagements before the upcoming Thuringian local elections. Sefton Delmer visited him in his home away from home, the Hotel Elephant on Weimar’s central market square, on 27 November, and Hitler appeared confident that the great day was at hand for the National Socialist movement, and that it would triumph in four months at the latest. After the interview Delmer asked him whether he aimed to restore the Hohenzollern monarchy once he assumed power. Hitler answered that he had no intention of being “a racehorse for an imperial jockey who wants to jump on my back precisely at the moment when I cross the finishing line.”245 On 30 November, Hitler refused an invitation from Meissner to come to Berlin for another meeting with the Reich president. His tone was cordial, but his message was clear: as long as neither side had changed its position, there was no point in further talks. Hitler could not allow public hopes to be raised, he wrote, “which would inevitably lead to disappointment when they went unfulfilled.”246The trauma of 13 August was still fresh.

By the time Hindenburg invited Papen and Schleicher to a meeting in the late afternoon of 1 December, it was clear that a decision on the chancellor question would have to be made. Schleicher reported on the lack of progress he had made with his negotiations but advocated “waiting to see how the Nazi camp would develop.” He also revealed for the first time how, in his mind, a cabinet led by him might be able to find a way out of the crisis. Schleicher’s idea was to get some National Socialists, under the leadership of Gregor Strasser, to join the cabinet, thereby dividing the NSDAP and establishing a “vertical front” from the trade unions through the bourgeois parties to dissident Nazis that would be willing to support measures necessary to stimulate the economy and lower unemployment. Hindenburg found that the prospects of success for this endeavour were too uncertain. He refused to accept further delay and asked Papen to continue heading the government. Papen agreed under the condition that “he would be given all the authority of the presidency in the conflict with the Reichstag that was sure to come.” Hindenburg agreed, saying that it was a matter of “preserving Germany from the damage that would result from a violation of the duties of the Reichstag.”247 In other words, Hindenburg had decided upon a “battle cabinet” that would institute the emergency plans drawn up in August and September and dissolve the Reichstag, postpone new elections indefinitely and force through changes to the constitution that would divorce the government from the parliament. Schleicher made no secret of the fact that he could not support this decision because openly violating the constitution would lead to a de facto civil war. “You have a difficult road ahead, little monk,” he threatened Papen when the meeting broke up.248

On the morning of 2 December, Papen convened his cabinet to inform them of Hindenburg’s decision. It was a dramatic meeting. With the lone exception of Postal and Transport Minister Eltz-Rübenach, the ministers all came out against a new incarnation of the Papen government. When Meissner remarked that this would not move the Reich president to reconsider “a decision he had made after much difficult deliberation,” Schleicher played his trump card. In response to Justice Minister Gürtner’s question as to “whether the Reichswehr was ready to meet all coming eventualities,” Schleicher summoned Lieutenant Colonel Eugen Ott into the cabinet. In the preceding weeks, Schleicher had ordered him to test the Reichswehr’s readiness to deal with internal unrest and simultaneously secure Germany’s borders. The results of those tests were negative. Ott’s report left a “devastating impression” on those at the meeting, as Finance Minister von Krosigk noted in his diary.249 Papen immediately declared that the situation had changed and that he would have to renounce his mandate to form a government. Hindenburg only reluctantly accepted the resignation of his preferred chancellor. “Then in God’s name we will have to let Herr von Schleicher try his luck,” Papen recalled Hindenburg’s words.250 Even after he had stepped down as chancellor, Papen was allowed to keep his government apartment in Wilhelmstrasse. Hindenburg wanted him in close proximity as an adviser. This constellation of individuals would prove particularly significant in January 1933.

Hitler and his entourage welcomed Schleicher’s nomination. “Very good—it’s the old man’s final evasive manoeuvre,” Goebbels noted. “We’ll immediately start complaining and extract whatever there is to be extracted.”251 But there was also resistance within the Nazi leadership to the idea of immediate confrontation. Gregor Strasser in particular demanded a change in the course of all-or-nothing. Many historians have asserted that Schleicher offered him the post of vice-chancellor and Prussian state president at a secret meeting on 4 December, but it is far from certain whether that was indeed the case. The only primary source for the meeting is Goebbels’s From the Hotel Kaiserhof to the Reich Chancellery, but his diaries contain no mention of it or anything comparable to Goebbels’s assertion in the book that “not only did Strasser not refuse but said that he intended to run in the next election with a list of his own.” It is quite likely that Goebbels invented the meeting after the fact to make the idea of Strasser’s “grave betrayal of the Führer and the party” seem more plausible.252

Whatever the real story may have been, no one disputes that Gregor Strasser advocated greater flexibility towards the Schleicher cabinet and did not regard the chancellor’s office as a categorical precondition for joining the government. He was strengthened in those views by the results of the Thuringian election on 4 December. Although Hitler had been heavily involved in the campaign, the NSDAP suffered heavy losses. Compared with the Reichstag election of 31 July the party lost 40 per cent of its votes.253 The headline of the article about the election in the Berliner Tageblatt read: “Nimbus Destroyed,” and the newspaper wrote: “Since the NSDAP has thus far existed solely on the psychotic belief in certain victory, the reversal of this tendency must hit them all the harder.” For the Frankfurter Zeitung, the outcome of the Thuringian election was proof that “Less and less, and not more and more, is Herr Hitler justified to appear in public claiming to be the leader of the nation…4 December has put Herr Hitler back among the ranks of all the other political leaders where he belongs.”254 It no longer seemed inconceivable that the NSDAP would suffer dramatic losses in the next Reichstag election and see its movement decline. The mood of depression that had taken hold of the party since 6 November worsened. In December 1932, Munich’s political police observed the first signs of disintegration: “Numerous resignations occur every day, dues arrive irregularly and expulsions because of arrears become more and more frequent…All sections of the party…give the impression of being run down.”255 This backdrop explains why the conflict between Hitler and Gregor Strasser would flare up as it did.

The rivalry had been simmering for quite some time, and Goebbels had done everything in his power to discredit his former mentor and now adversary with Hitler, particularly by suggesting that Strasser was using the task of organising the party to increase his own power. “Strasser has got his hands on the party with organisational changes—very subtle,” Goebbels noted in late June 1932. “Hitler is to be gradually pushed aside. Honorary president. Hitler doesn’t want to see it. He needs to be stirred up.” Goebbels’s constant undermining of the “party Mephisto,” as he nicknamed Strasser, had its desired effect. In early September, Goebbels noted in his diary: “At noon a long conversation with Hitler. He greatly distrusts Strasser. Wants to knock his power within the party from his hands.”256 But it was no mean feat to strip Strasser of power since the Reich organisational director enjoyed great respect with the party rank and file; he was also considered by western German industrialists as one of the few National Socialists with whom one could do business. In September 1932, for example, August Heinrichsbauer, the editor of an important business journal in the city of Essen, informed Strasser that “several leading gentlemen” of industry were concerned about Hitler’s all-or-nothing principle. “Adherence to this principle in practice,” Heinrichsbauer argued, was “tantamount to self-destruction.” The NSDAP would enter into a “voluntary isolation” from which it would be difficult to escape. Moreover, the party’s “out-of-bounds, Marxist-style agitation” risked the trust “that is essential for taking over the highest forms of authority.”257 After the election defeat in November, Strasser thought the time was right to introduce a new strategy and lead the party from opposition into government. He spelled that out to Hitler in no uncertain terms. Hitler interpreted this as a challenge to his authority and reacted with commensurate venom. He was “furious with Strasser” for engaging in “sabotage,” Goebbels noted on 9 November.258

In late November 1932, things came to an initial head when Hitler, Göring, Strasser, Frick and Goebbels debated the party’s future stance towards the Schleicher cabinet in Weimar. “Strasser was for participation; otherwise he sees no hope,” Goebbels summarised. “Hitler vehemently against him. Kept his line.”259 The conflict was ratcheted up a notch at a Reich leaders’ conference in the Hotel Kaiserhof on 5 December. Beforehand Strasser and Frick had had a meeting with Schleicher at which the chancellor threatened to dissolve the Reichstag again should the National Socialists not tolerate his cabinet. Again, Strasser spoke out for a compromise while Hitler remained adamant.260 In the afternoon of 5 December, a day before the new Reichstag convened for its first session, Hitler ordered NSDAP deputies to take a hard line, arguing that “Never has a great movement been victorious if it went down the path of compromise.” The leader of the Nazis’ parliamentary faction, Frick, then pledged his “unshakeable and inviolable loyalty” on behalf of the entire faction to the Führer.261 During Hitler’s speech, Goebbels observed, Strasser’s face “turned to stone.”262 Strasser no doubt sensed that his views had isolated him within the faction and that there was no way of getting his way against Hitler in the party.

On the morning of 8 December, Strasser wrote to Hitler announcing his intention to resign from all his party offices and give up his Reichstag mandate. In justifying his decision, Strasser wrote that he thought Hitler’s strategy of trying to create political chaos in the hope that the chancellorship would then drop into his lap was “wrong, dangerous and not in the general German interest.” At the same time, Strasser assured Hitler that his resignation was not designed to put him at the “centre of an opposition movement within the party.” On the contrary, he wished to “return to the party rank and file without any hard feelings.” For that reason, Strasser wrote, he would be leaving both Berlin and Germany for an extended period.263

Immediately after writing that letter, Strasser summoned the NSDAP state inspectors present in Berlin, who each supervised numerous Gaue after a reform of the party organisation, to his office. In a hoarse voice, Strasser informed them of his decision. Hitler, he said, had not been following a “clear line” since August 1932 other than “wanting to become chancellor at all costs.” Since there was no realistic chance of that happening, Hitler was risking the disintegration and decay of the movement. There were two ways to achieve power, Strasser argued. The legal one—in which case Hitler should have accepted the position of vice-chancellor and tried to use it as a political lever. And the illegal option—which would have entailed trying to seize power violently through the SS and SA. Strasser would have followed his Führer down either path. But he was no longer prepared to wait until some indeterminate point in the future when Hitler was named chancellor. Strasser also made no bones of the fact that his resignation was personally motivated, complaining vigorously that Göring, Goebbels and Röhm all enjoyed more of Hitler’s favour than he did. For Strasser this was a demotion which he had not deserved and was no longer willing to tolerate. As one eyewitness to the meeting described it, Strasser’s surprise announcement left the state inspectors utterly dismayed. They tried to get him to reconsider, but Strasser refused, announcing that his decision was “final and thus immutable.”264

Strasser had his letter delivered to the Hotel Kaiserhof that very morning, and it created a massive stir among Hitler and his entourage. Hitler feared that it could be the harbinger of an inner-party rebellion and immediately took counter-measures. At noon, he held an audience with the state inspectors in his hotel suite, mustering all his powers of persuasion and melodrama to secure their loyalty. Hitler began his address on a very sombre note: “If one individual turns disloyal and abandons me in the most difficult hour of the party, I can overcome that. If you all intend to abandon me, my life’s work and my struggle for it no longer makes any sense, and the movement will collapse. Without this movement and the life’s mission that goes with it, I have nothing…”—at this point, Hitler glanced over at the bust of his niece Geli Raubal—“…tying me to this earth. In that case, I will bear the consequences and would only ask that you decorate my body and my coffin with the banner I once created for the movement and as a symbol of a new Germany.”

After this prelude, Hitler demanded that the state inspectors “openly and honestly” reveal the reasons Strasser had named for his resignation. Robert Ley did so, whereupon Hitler commenced a long monologue in which he tried to refute Strasser’s arguments one by one. Becoming vice-chancellor, Hitler countered, would have quickly led to fundamental differences with Papen, who would have dismissed any initiative with a cold smile and the statement that he was the chancellor and the head of the cabinet and that Hitler could resign if he did not like his course. With that Papen and his backers would have succeeded in publicly demonstrating that Hitler was incapable of governing. “I refuse to go down this road and still wait until I’m offered the chancellorship,” Hitler said. “The day will come, and probably sooner than we think.” Even less promising was the illegal path to power, since Hindenburg and Papen would not hesitate to issue orders for the army to shoot. “Gentlemen,” Hitler said, “I am not so irresponsible as to hound Germany’s youth and the war generation, the best of Germany’s manhood, in front of police and Reichswehr machine guns. Gregor Strasser will never see the day when that happens!”

Hitler also rejected all criticism of how he had treated his long-term comrade. He had been aware for quite some time that Strasser had become “reserved, sombre and reticent” towards him. “Is that my fault?” Hitler asked. “Can I help it if Göring and Goebbels show up for uninvited visits more often than Strasser?…Are these sufficient reasons for one of my most intimate and oldest colleagues to turn his back on the movement?” At this point, Hitler used his thespian ability and modulated his tone, becoming, as Hinrich Lohse, the state inspector of the northern Gaue, recalled, “ever more calm, human, friendly and solicitous.” In the end, none of those in attendance at the two-hour meeting were able to resist Hitler’s seductive logic. “He triumphed,” Lohse remembered. “In the gravest test the movement had faced he proved to his uncertain yet indispensible foot soldiers, who then collected themselves, that he was the master and Strasser was the vassal.”265

Nonetheless the mood that evening in the Goebbelses’ apartment was subdued, with Hitler looking “very pale.” At 3 a.m., Goebbels, Röhm and Himmler were summoned to an emergency meeting in the Hotel Kaiserhof. There they inspected the latest edition of the Tägliche Rundschau newspaper, which broke the news of Strasser’s resignation and speculated that only if he took over the party leadership would the NSDAP be able to break free of its “hopeless confusion.” Hitler saw his fears of a conspiracy confirmed. “If the party falls apart, I’ll put an end to everything in three minutes,” Goebbels quoted Hitler as saying.266As he had after the failed putsch of 1923, Hitler toyed with the idea of suicide; it would not be the last time before 30 April 1945, when he did in fact end his own life in the bunker beneath the Reich Chancellery. Despite the mood of despair, however, Hitler was astonishingly quick to take organisational measures. Strasser’s office was to be restructured and the institution of the state inspectors abolished. Hitler himself took over the leadership of political organisation, naming Robert Ley, previously the NSDAP’s Reich Inspector II, as his deputy. The Nazi departments for agriculture and education were made autonomous and handed over to Walther Darré and Goebbels respectively.267

Strasser’s resignation was the top news story of 10 December. All the major newspapers led with it. Wild rumours flew around. But it soon became clear that the departure of this once-so-powerful man would not lead to a schism within the NSDAP. Strasser had accepted he would have to take a lesser role a long time before. He had no desire to engage in a power struggle with Hitler. The day of his resignation, he boarded a train to Munich from where he travelled on to Tyrol. He would not return from this holiday until shortly before Christmas. For two weeks, not even his close friends knew where he was.268 The only Nazi leader to sympathise with him was Gottfried Feder, who had played an important role in Hitler’s rise in the early 1920s but who no longer enjoyed much political influence.269 On the afternoon of 9 December, Hitler once again spoke to the inspectors and Gauleiter before addressing Nazi Reichstag deputies. Goebbels noted: “Annihilating towards Strasser and even more towards Feder. The people howled in anger and pain. Huge triumph for Hitler. In the end a spontaneous declaration of loyalty. Everyone shook Hitler’s hand. Strasser is isolated. A dead man.”270 Two days later, after the party leadership had met in the Brown House in Munich, Goebbels remarked: “Everyone rallying around Hitler. Joy that the Strasser affair was liquidated so quickly.”271

But the crisis within the party was not quite over yet. Strasser’s resignation caused what Goebbels described as “great unrest” among the party rank and file.272 There were doubts about Hitler’s leadership mixed with confusion as to where to go from here. Hitler spent the weeks before Christmas travelling to the Gaue to shore up morale among party functionaries. On 10 December in Breslau, in a sign of how dramatic the situation was, he compared the NSDAP’s struggle with that of Friedrich the Great in the Seven Years War. The Prussian king, Hitler said, had also had to deal with repeated setbacks but had triumphed in the end. Anyone hoping for a “collapse of the movement,” Hitler thundered, “was fooling himself—it stood as immovable as a cliff in the ocean.”273 The following day in Leipzig, he declared: “I am proud of the knowledge that the entire movement stands behind me more determined than ever. The party has not been seized by crisis. It’s already put this crisis behind it.”274 This was little more than whistling in the dark. Hitler’s words so obviously contradicted the true situation that he was unlikely to have convinced many of his followers. Goebbels’s diary offers a more accurate account, with its mentions of declining attendance at Nazi events and the party’s hopeless finances.275 On Christmas Eve Goebbels concluded: “1932 has been one long run of bad luck. It should be smashed to pieces.”276

In conversation with Bavarian State President Held on 10 December, the newly appointed Chancellor von Schleicher stated that he considered the National Socialist danger to have been “overcome.”277 The tenor of the opinion pieces in the major liberal newspapers at the end of the year was similar. “The massive National Socialist attack on the democratic state has been repelled,” the Berlin correspondent of the Frankfurter Zeitung, Rudolf Kircher, declared. Julius Elbau titled his review article in the Vossische Zeitung “Year of Decision.” Yet Elbau also complained that the republic had not been saved because Germans had defended it. “Its attackers got rid of one another,” Elbau wote. “It was a march through the valley of the devil that makes you shudder when you look back at it.”278 The Berliner Tageblatt already consigned the Hitler movement to the realm of history: “All over the world, people talked about…what was his first name again, Adalbert Hitler? And later? He disappeared.”279

In the newspaper Der deutsche Volkswirt, the liberal journalist Gustav Stolper assured his readers: “The year 1932 has brought an end to Hitler’s luck.” The movement had reached its high point on 31 July, Stolper argued, and its decline had begun on 13 August. “Since then Hitlerism has been collapsing to an extent and at a rate that are comparable only with its rise,” Stolper wrote. “Hitlerism is perishing according to the same laws by which it lived.” The Social Democratic politician and former Reich Finance Minister Rudolf Hilferding agreed. In the SPD theoretical journal Die Gesellschaft, he wrote that 13 August had “marked a sudden shift in the drama—what is thus far the decisive turn…Herr Hitler descends the steps of the palais—it’s the demise of fascism.”280

“I believe we’ve turned the corner,” Thomas Mann wrote to Hermann Hesse on 22 December. “We seem to be past the peak of the insanity.”281 People abroad, too, breathed a sigh of relief that the wave which had borne National Socialism seemed to be over. In the British Foreign Office, experts attributed Hitler’s declining influence to his mule-headed insistence on total political authority: “Hitler’s obstinacy in demanding complete power…has caused him to miss the bus.”282 Harold Laski, the British political scientist and Labour politician, remarked that Hitler would likely end up as an old man in a Bavarian village, telling his friends in an evening beer garden about how he once almost toppled the German Reich.283

Critical observers were not the only ones in late 1932 and early 1933 who were convinced that the National Socialist movement would inevitably fade into insignificance. Some Hitler supporters felt much the same way. On 31 December 1932, Luise Solmitz vented her disappointment in her diary: “This year takes with it a great hope…Adolf Hitler. The man who awakened us and led us towards national unity…is ultimately only the leader of a party that is sliding into certain desperation. I still can’t accept this bitter disappointment.”284

Of course, there were other voices that warned against drawing conclusions too hastily. In a letter to the industrialist Robert Bosch on 29 December, the journalist, political scientist and liberal politician Theodor Heuss expressed the hope that “all the fuss around Hitler will not survive this current crisis.” At the same time, he added: “But it would be dangerous to underestimate the movement as a power factor since thousands of people are fighting for their economic survival within the [party] apparatus.”285 In the New Year’s edition of Die Weltbühne, Carl von Ossietzsky also expressed his satisfaction that Hitler’s party, which had knocked on the doors of power at the start of the year, was now “rocked by a serious crisis.” But Ossietzsky, too, warned against overheated expectations: “The economic situation is still perfect for breeding further desperadoes.”286 With almost 5.8 million Germans still out of work in late 1932, unemployment was still very high, and in January that figure once again exceeded 6 million.287 The reasons for the rise, however, were seasonal, and the figures were better than those of the previous years. The worst of the crisis was over and cautious optimism started to spread. “Land in sight!” read the headline of the business section of the Frankfurter Zeitung on 1 January 1933.288