Month of Destiny: January 1933 - Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939 - Volker Ullrich

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

Chapter 12. Month of Destiny: January 1933

“The amazing thing about my life,” Heinrich Brüning quoted Hitler as saying in early February 1933, just after being appointed German chancellor, “is that I’m always rescued just when I myself have given up.”1And indeed, the NSDAP’s prospects at the beginning of 1933 looked anything but rosy. Hitler’s party was in deep crisis, with many members feeling deflated and resigned. Dissatisfaction with the party leadership was threatening to make the SA explode. In short, the National Socialist movement seemed further away from power than it had been at the start of 1932. In a letter to his friend Winifred Wagner in early 1933, Hitler complained about “all the difficult and onerous work” he had had to take on in the preceding weeks. New worries were constantly being added to old ones, Hitler carped. “I now know,” he wrote, “why Wagner and his destiny in particular meant more to me as a young man than many other great Germans. It is no doubt the same misery of an eternal struggle against hatred, envy and incomprehension.”2

Despite the confidence he projected externally, Hitler’s dissatisfaction with his situation was clearly evident in the New Year’s message he dictated on the Obersalzberg on 30 December—his droning voice could be heard echoing throughout Haus Wachenfeld.3 That evening, Hitler read out his message to his paladins. Goebbels raved: “No reconciliation. A battle to the last drop of blood…Hitler is grand. Radicalism at its most extreme.”4 Gone were all tactical considerations that Hitler had maintained in order to preserve an aura of middle-of-the-road respectability at his appearances in front of business circles and during his 1932 campaign. The fanatic, anti-Semitic beer-cellar rabble-rouser re-emerged, articulating his obsession in language that was both exceedingly aggressive and pseudo-religiously convoluted: “In almost all states of the world, the international Jew as an intellectual inspirer conducts the battle of the deficiently gifted inferior race against culture—and therefore against the talent of a higher breed that creates and secures human life, whose capacity to resist has been exhausted by liberalism.” In Russia, Hitler added, the “Jewish intellectual leadership of the world revolution” had already done its destructive work, and the plan was “to infect the rest of the world via a network of connections and bases.” Only one country, Hitler claimed, was standing up to this threat—Mussolini’s Italy, which had found in Fascism “a dominant ideal capable of reshaping its entire life anew”: “There we see the only state and the only people who have overcome the bourgeois, class-defined state and thereby achieved the preconditions for overcoming and rooting out Marxism.”

Hitler reiterated his refusal to compromise in any form, stating that at this moment he was “utterly decided not to sell the first-born child of our movement for the pittance of being allowed to participate, without power, in a government.” He would fight “down to his last breath” against bartering “the proudest and greatest uprising of the German people for a couple of ministerial seats.”5 There seemed to be no doubt that Hitler was sticking to his all-or-nothing strategy, and the party seemed headed for political marginalisation.

Four weeks later, Hitler was German chancellor. This turnabout, which astonished a great many people at the time, was no “triumph of the will” or “seizure of power,” as Nazi propaganda would soon claim. It was the result of sinister intrigues behind the scenes in which a handful of figures, most notably former Chancellor von Papen, pulled the strings. “Herr Hitler was a defeated man when he was given victory,” the journalist and sociologist Leopold Schwarzschild remarked in an article entitled “Chancellor Hitler” in early February 1933. “He had already lost the contest for governmental authority, when he was offered the opportunity to win it ex post facto.”6

The decisive factor in the political intrigue was access to Hindenburg, or, as Konrad Heiden more casually wrote, “who had the old man’s ear.”7 Ultimately the destiny of Germany depended on the Reich president. In his definitive Hindenburg biography, Wolfram Pyta convincingly showed that the ageing German president was not merely a marionette in the hands of his camarilla, as earlier historians had depicted him. On the contrary, Hindenburg remained in control of his decisions at all times.8 He played the leading part in the drama that preceded Hitler’s appointment to the chancellorship. Papen, State Secretary Meissner and Hindenburg’s son Oskar—although the Weimar Constitution had not foreseen a role played by the president’s son—were the most significant members of the supporting cast.

The beginning of the drama took place on 4 January, when Papen met with Hitler—an event which the historian Karl-Dietrich Bracher has rightly described as the “hour when the Third Reich was born.”9 It was arranged by the banker Kurt von Schröder, a member of the “Keppler Circle” and a signatory of the petition to Hindenburg of 19 November 1932. On 16 December, after a speech by Papen to the Berlin Gentlemen’s Club, he had started conversing with the former Reich chancellor. The idea was broached—historians disagree whether by Papen or Schröder—of organising a tête-à-tête with Hitler, and Schröder immediately informed Keppler of Papen’s willingness to meet the NSDAP chairman. “In the current situation the wish to arrange a discussion between P[apen] and H[itler] seems to me to be very crucial,” Keppler wrote on 19 December, adding that Papen “could surely judge best of all…what the old man’s mood was like these days and how resistance from that quarter could be best overcome.”10 That very day, Keppler wrote to Hitler offering to mediate. As a location for the meeting he suggested Schröder’s house just outside Cologne, and he assured Hitler that he could vouch for the banker’s “absolute reliability.”11 On 26 December, Keppler informed Schröder that Hitler would be arriving in Cologne on the morning of 4 January. He hoped that the “skill” of the host would succeed in “removing the final barriers during the conversation.” From his estate at Wallerfangen an der Saar in south-western Germany, Papen agreed to the date and place.12

The planned meeting opened up interesting prospects for both Papen and Hitler. Papen had not got over being politically outmanoeuvred by his former patron Schleicher and was eager to get revenge, seeing a deal with Hitler as a way of forcing Schleicher from office and once more playing a major role himself. For his part, Hitler recognised that a possible understanding with Papen offered the chance of getting out of the dead end into which he had led his party and reversing his own fortunes. He knew that Papen retained privileged access to Hindenburg and hoped that the aristocrat could help break down the president’s resistance to the idea of Hitler becoming chancellor.13 Both sides insisted that the meeting be kept secret. Hitler, who was scheduled to open the campaign for the Landtag elections in Lippe-Detmold in western Germany on 4 January, did not travel directly to the first event there, but took the night train from Munich to Bonn. At the train station, his chauffeur Schreck was already waiting with a Mercedes limousine and drove Hitler and his travelling companions to the Hotel Dreesen in Bad Godesberg for breakfast. A short time later, a second automobile with curtained windows picked up Hitler, Himmler and Hess for the trip to Schröder’s Cologne villa. Keppler, who had come from Berlin, showed up a short time later, while Papen arrived at 11:30 a.m.14

Hitler and Papen immediately withdrew for two hours into Schröder’s office, with their host accompanying them as a silent witness. Schröder recalled Hitler opening the conversation by attacking Papen for his government’s handling of the Potempa case. Papen replied that they should put their past differences behind them and try to arrive at a common basis for a new government that would consist of conservatives and National Socialists. It seems that Papen suggested something along the lines of a “duumvirate,” in which he and Hitler would share power. To make this idea more appealing, he dangled the positions of defence and interior ministers before Hitler’s nose, whereupon Hitler commenced one of his feared monologues in which he justified his insistence upon the chancellorship. However, he would accept Papen adherents in his cabinet, as long as they supported the changes he wanted to institute after taking office. The first measures Hitler specified were “the removal of all Social Democrats, Communists and Jews from leading positions” and the “re-establishment of order in public life.” There was still a considerable gap between the two men’s positions, but they did promise to continue their discussions.15

On 6 January, Keppler wrote to Schröder that “the meeting had a very positive effect in the desired direction.” Hjalmar Schacht, too, thanked the banker for the “courageous initiative in paving the way for an understanding between men whom we both greatly admire and whose cooperation could perhaps bring about a positive solution most quickly.” Hopefully, Schacht wrote, “the conversation in your house will be of historical importance.”16 Schacht’s hope would come true. The meeting in Cologne was the starting point of a process that concluded on 30 January 1933. Hitler, who had been at his wits’ end in the final days of December, saw himself catapulted back into the contest for power. The most important thing to emerge from the Cologne meeting was that Papen and Hitler agreed to put aside their enmity and work together to topple Schleicher. Although the contours of a new government had not been discussed in detail, and the all-important question of the chancellorship remained unanswered, the first step had been taken. Hitler could be sure that Papen would bring his influence with Hindenburg to bear to advance the solution they were going to negotiate. On 9 January, Hitler spoke with Goebbels, who then noted in his diary: “Papen dead set against Schleicher. Wants to topple and eradicate him entirely. Has the old man’s ear. Even stays with him. Arrangement with us prepared. Either the chancellorship or the ministries of power: defence and interior. Worth listening to.”17

The attempt to keep the conspiratorial meeting secret failed. When Papen got out of his car in front of Schröder’s house, he was photographed by a waiting reporter. One day later, the pro-Schleicher Tägliche Rundschau newspaper ran a story with the headline: “Hitler and Papen against Schleicher.”18 The Catholic newspaper Germania compared the revelation with “prodding an anthill” and wrote that it had given rise to a flurry of wild speculation.19 In a joint declaration on 5 January, Papen and Hitler tried to dispel the idea that their discussions had been directed against the new Reich chancellor. The meeting had merely been about exploring “the possibility of a broad national front of unity,” the two men declared, and their talks had “not touched at all” on the current cabinet.20 This disingenuous declaration did not succeed in putting the issue to rest. For days, the newspapers were filled with “a huge amount of guessing” as to what the purpose of Hitler and Papen’s meeting had been.21

Initially Schleicher did not appear all that worried. At tea with the French ambassador, André François-Poncet, on 6 January, the chancellor spoke disparagingly about his predecessor. When next they met, Schleicher said, he would tell Papen: “My dear little Franz, you’ve committed another blunder.”22 On 9 January, Papen personally went to Schleicher and tried to convince him that the Cologne meeting had been about finding a place for Hitler in Schleicher’s government—an assertion that Papen would repeat in his memoirs. It is hard to imagine that the former army general believed such an obvious lie, but in a joint communiqué the two men did assert that their discussion “completely belied” the reports of a falling-out between them.23 That same day, Papen also reported to Hindenburg about his meeting with Hitler. If we believe Otto Meissner’s memoirs, Papen said that Hitler “had given up his previous demands for the entire power of government and was now prepared in theory to participate in a coalition government with other right-wing parties.” In response, Hindenburg charged Papen with continuing to negotiate with Hitler “on a personal and strictly confidential basis.”24 With that the Reich president consciously and in full knowledge of the consequences became a participant in a conspiracy aimed at creating a new government of “national concentration” behind the current Reich chancellor’s back. It was the same sort of government that Hitler’s intransigence had blocked in the autumn of 1932.25

Schleicher was no longer assured of the Reich president’s support. As early as 10 January, Goebbels learned that the chancellor could by no means count on an executive order dissolving parliament if the Reichstag staged a vote of no confidence when it reconvened in late January. Schleicher, Goebbels noted, was on “a downward slope.”26 And indeed, the chancellor’s position in early January was precarious. In a government statement he had made via radio on 15 December 1932, Schleicher had presented himself as a “socially responsible general,” promising not just to take measures to boost employment, but also to revoke the ordinance of the Papen cabinet from 5 September that allowed employers to pay lower wages than those contained within the official labour agreements. These announcements alienated business leaders, and Schleicher further awakened mistrust with the “sacrilegious” assertion that he supported “neither capitalism nor socialism” and that he was not impressed by concepts like “private or planned economy.”27 On the other hand, Schleicher never succeeded in garnering the support of trade unions. While his policy of state-financed job creation met with approval in union circles, the Social Democrats, who were closely allied with the unions, stuck to their position of “absolute opposition” to the chancellor, whom they rightfully accused of being in part responsible for the coup d’état in Prussia in July 1932.28

Any hopes Schleicher had placed in cooperating with Gregor Strasser proved unrealistic. On 6 January, the Reich chancellor introduced the former NSDAP organisational director to Hindenburg, who agreed in principle to appointing Strasser vice-chancellor and labour minister. But Schleicher did not force the issue. Once news had got around about Papen and Hitler’s Cologne meeting, there was very little chance that a significant part of the NSDAP would support Schleicher’s government.29

To make matters worse for Schleicher, his cabinet was coming under attack from the Reichslandbund, the lobbying organisation of Germany’s wealthy aristocratic landowners. It accused the government of not doing enough to protect big farmers against cheap food imports and of foreclosing on bankrupt agricultural enterprises. On 11 January, Hindenburg received a delegation from the Reichslandbund, consisting of four committee members, which included the National Socialist Werner Willikens. The organisation’s president, Count Eberhard von Kalckreuth, painted the situation in the blackest terms. If immediate measures were not taken to “improve economic conditions in agriculture,” disaster was imminent. Hindenburg immediately ordered Schleicher and his ministers for agriculture and economics to listen to the complaints and to take action.30 Shortly after this meeting, however, a declaration that the Reichslandbund had given to the press before seeing Hindenburg was published. It accused the government of hastening the “impoverishment of German agriculture” in a fashion “unimaginable even under a purely Marxist regime.” Schleicher responded to this attack by refusing to negotiate in future with representatives of the Reichslandbund.31

In many respects the anti-Schleicher conspiracy resembled the campaign against Brüning’s purported “agrarian Bolshevism” that had led to his dismissal in late May 1932. Hindenburg, who as the owner of a large estate in Neudeck was thoroughly receptive to the concerns of the East Elbian agrarians, was once again easily influenced. Schleicher’s position, already weakened by Papen and the failure of the plans for a “cross-party front,” was further undermined. “Schleicher has a conflict with the Landbund—the farmers are going wild,” Goebbels noted. In a revised version of his diary from 1934, he was even more explicit: “That serves us quite well at the moment.”32 But perhaps even more damaging to Schleicher was the deterioration since late 1932 of his relationship with Oskar von Hindenburg, who served as a military adjutant and close adviser to his father. We do not know what precisely caused the rift between the two men, but the consequences were serious. Schleicher lost his most important advocate in the house of Hindenburg.33

As if the situation were not bad enough, the DNVP also distanced itself from the government. On 13 January, Alfred Hugenberg offered to join the Schleicher cabinet as minister of economics and agriculture, but only on the condition that the chancellor implemented a strictly authoritarian regime that ruled independently of parliament. Schleicher, however, had made clear in his radio address of 15 December that he “could hardly sit on the point of a bayonet” and “could not rule for very long without broad popular approval behind him” and therefore refused Hugenberg’s offer.34 Consequently, a week later, on 21 January, the DNVP Reichstag faction attacked the Schleicher government in tones no less harsh than the Landbund. Schleicher’s government “tended towards internationalist socialism,” the faction declared in a statement. “It runs the risk of Bolshevism in the countryside and is liquidating the authoritarian idea that the Reich president created when he appointed the Papen cabinet.”35

All of this was grist for the mill of Schleicher’s enemies. During the night of 10-11 January, after attending a performance of Verdi’s La Traviata, Hitler met again with Papen in a villa belonging to the sparkling-wine merchant Joachim von Ribbentrop in the wealthy Berlin district of Dahlem. Ribbentrop, a former military officer who had gone into business after the First World War and got rich by marrying the daughter of winemaker Otto Henkell, had met Hitler in August 1932 and joined the NSDAP soon thereafter. Thanks to the excellent social contacts Ribbentrop enjoyed as a member of the exclusive Gentlemen’s Club, he was an ideal mediator between conservative circles and the National Socialists.36 We do not know precisely what Hitler and Papen discussed at their second meeting, but apparently they did not make much progress since Hitler declined at short notice an invitation to continue the exchange of opinions over lunch in Dahlem on 12 January. “Everything still up in the air,” noted Goebbels.37

Hitler’s attention at this time was focused on the Landtag election in Lippe-Detmold, which he hoped would prove that the NSDAP had recovered from the crisis of the end of the previous year and was back on the path to victory. “Lippe is the first opportunity to go from the defensive back on the offensive,” Goebbels announced in his capacity as propaganda director.38 The small region of 174,000 inhabitants, including 117,000 eligible voters, was flooded by an unprecedented wave of propaganda in the first two weeks of January. The NSDAP sent all their well-known speakers there, including Goebbels, Göring, Frick and Prince August Wilhelm. Hitler himself spoke at sixteen events in ten days. In an article entitled “Hitler Hits the Villages,” the Lippische Landes-Zeitung concluded: “The NSDAP must be in serious trouble if the great ‘Führer’ himself is travelling to tiny villages.”39 Because the venues in Lippe were too small, Nazi campaign directors rented three tents, the largest of which could accommodate 4,000 people. In order to fill them, audience members were brought in great numbers from elsewhere: six specially chartered trains arrived on 4 January alone for Hitler’s appearance at the opening of the campaign.40

Hitler’s speeches offered little that was new. Once again, he justified his decision not to join the government in August and November 1932: “If I wanted to sell myself for a plate of lentils, I would have already done so.” Whoever conquered the hearts of people, Hitler boasted, would inevitably be given the power of government one day. He had inherited a “thick peasant’s skull” from his ancestors, he told audiences, and could wait until “Providence deems the time is at hand.” Attentive listeners might have pricked up their ears at Hitler’s repeated assertion that he did not want to enter the halls of power “through the back door but rather through the main gate.” This—entry into the Chancellery—was precisely what Hitler was busily preparing in his meetings with Papen. Hitler’s only reference of local interest was when he utilised the myth of the Germanic warrior Arminius to promote the Nazi ethnic-popular community. On 5 January, he invoked “the first communal, powerful and successful appearance of the German nation under Arminius against Roman tyranny,” adding: “Internal fragmentation and squandering of strength has caused great injury to the German people down the years. The National Socialist ethnic-popular community will put an end to this situation.”41 One week later, Hitler and Goebbels visited the monument to Arminius near Detmold, which commemorated the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest at which the Roman general Varus’s legions had been annihilated in A.D. 9. “Was covered in fog and made such a grand impression,” Goebbels noted. “Defiant towards France. That’s always been the thrust of German politics.”42

Unnoticed by the public, Hitler established his election headquarters in Grevenburg, a waterfront estate belonging to Baron Adolf von Oeynhausen, right on the border with Lippe. From there, he could get to all parts of the small state with ease. “No inquisitive journalist’s nose discovered our scent, and no reporter found our tracks,” Otto Dietrich reported. “We arrived and then disappeared again without anyone knowing where from or where to.”43 The constant topic of evening conversations around the fireplace was Gregor Strasser, whose intentions were still unclear to Hitler and his consorts. They knew that Strasser had returned to Berlin at the start of January and that Schleicher had proposed making him vice-chancellor in a new cabinet. When it became known in Grevenburg on 12 January that Strasser had been received by Hindenburg, the Nazi leadership’s worst fears seemed to have been confirmed. “That’s how I imagine a traitor,” Goebbels fumed. “I knew it all along. Hitler is very dismayed. Everything depends on Lippe.”44

By the evening of 15 January, the results were in. The NSDAP had received 39,064 votes (39.5 per cent), 6,000 more than in November but still 3,500 fewer than in the election of June 1932.45 The Vossische Zeitung newspaper commented: “If the concentrated and massive Hitler propaganda is only able to win a minority in this entirely Protestant and primarily rural region—39 per cent against 61 per cent—we can only conclude that the demands for 100 per cent power are a presumption consisting of deception and self-deception.”46 The influential editor in chief of the Berliner Tageblatt, Theodor Wolff, was even more pointed: “In truth, Hitler has brought home from his heroic struggle in Lippe only a fly impaled on the tip of his sword.”47 By contrast, Nazi propaganda celebrated the election result as a triumph. “The party is back on the offensive,” Goebbels noted with satisfaction. “It was worth it in the end.”48 The Völkischer Beobachter also interpreted the election result as a success: “[It is] incontrovertible evidence that the stagnation of the NSDAP has been fully overcome and a new upward development has begun. The National Socialist wave is rising once more.”49 This sort of propaganda had a psychological effect. Hitler’s position within the party was reinforced, and that put him in a better bargaining position with Papen.

Hitler also used this new momentum to settle accounts with Gregor Strasser at a Gauleiter conference in Weimar on 16 January. There he spoke for three solid hours, and if anyone present sympathised with the former NSDAP Reich organisational director, he did not speak up. “Hitler has achieved a complete victory,” Goebbels recorded. “The Strasser issue has been dealt with…Everyone is abandoning him…I’m glad this is happening to this fraud. He’ll end up as nothing, just as he deserves.”50 Strasser’s career was over. To avoid being expelled from the party, he had to pledge to avoid any political activity for two years, and Hitler cancelled a meeting with him planned for 24 January in Munich at short notice.51 The party leader never forgave the colleague he had formerly valued so much for putting him in a tight spot. Hitler would have Strasser murdered during the Night of the Long Knives on 30 June 1934.

From Weimar, Hitler went directly to Berlin to continue secret talks about the formation of a government under his leadership. The NSDAP chairman was “in the best of moods and obviously quite satisfied with how things were going,” Wilhelm Keppler told Kurt von Schröder.52 On 17 January, Hitler met Hugenberg and the DNVP parliamentary chairman, Otto Schmidt-Hannover, in Göring’s apartment. The former partners in the Harzburg Front had bitterly attacked one another in the November election, but now relations were more relaxed. On 28 December 1932, Hugenberg had written to Hitler directly and suggested discussing whether they might not be able to restore unity and end “the political division of parts of the movement for national renewal that actually belong together.”53 A rapprochement with the NSDAP was part and parcel of the DNVP’s increasing distance from the Schleicher cabinet. The two men’s talks on 17 January yielded no concrete results, but Hitler did assure Hugenberg of a major post in his cabinet if he was made chancellor. Hitler was quite contemptuous of Hindenburg, dismissing him as “not an independent factor,” a man who talked “like a gramophone record” and “whose political vocabulary consisted of the same eighty sentences.” For his part, Hugenberg seemed to “have found lots of common ground with Hitler, although their mutual understanding was not perfect,” DNVP Deputy Chairman Reinhold Quaatz noted after being extensively briefed about the meeting that evening.54

At noon on 18 January, Hitler, Röhm and Himmler once again travelled to Ribbentrop’s villa in Dahlem to continue talks with Papen. His position strengthened by the Lippe election results, Hitler demanded the chancellorship more forcefully than at the earlier meetings. Papen responded that he did not have enough influence to get Hindenburg to grant this wish, whereupon the negotiations seemed once again to have reached a dead end. To overcome the blockade, Ribbentrop suggested introducing Hitler to Oskar von Hindenburg. Then the discussion broke up without a date for the next meeting being agreed.55 Papen wrote to the Ruhr Valley industrialist Fritz Springorum that he had tried “in every way to bring about a national concentration but had been greeted by fierce resistance from Hitler who objected, after the Lippe elections, to becoming the junior partner in a governing cabinet.”56 At this point, Papen still hoped to become chancellor himself—an option that would have been welcome to most Ruhr industrialists.

Although Hitler was quite preoccupied by the conspiracy to overthrow Schleicher, he still found plenty of opportunities for entertainment. On the evening of 18 January, he and Goebbels took in the film The Rebel, directed by and starring Luis Trenker, about a Tyrolean student who sacrifices his life in the anti-Napoleonic resistance. “A great achievement,” Goebbels gushed: “a Tyrolean national uprising. Fantastic crowd scenes…It shows you what film can do. And what we will do with film some day.” Hitler was so carried away that he watched the film a second time the next evening. Then they sat together and reminisced at Göring’s residence until 5 a.m. “Hitler very funny,” Goebbels noted. “We laughed ourselves silly.”57

Despite the tug of war for political power, Hitler retained his daily routine and tried to project calm and confidence. On most afternoons, he could be seen taking tea and cake with his entourage in the Hotel Kaiserhof. Late in the evening, after the political work was done, Hitler usually relaxed in the company of Joseph and Magda Goebbels. It was rare for him to leave before 3 a.m. Goebbels fretted about his health: “The boss doesn’t feel well at all. He gets too little sleep and doesn’t eat enough.”58 On 20 January, Hitler put on a star performance in front of 10,000 party functionaries in the Sportpalast. “A storm of applause erupted such as cannot be described in words,” wrote the Nazi newspaper Der Angriff about Hitler’s entrance into the auditorium. “You thought the place would collapse. The music was drowned out. The Führer strode to the front of the hall through a forest of arms raised in salute, accompanied by SS men and his constant companions.”59 Once again, Hitler told his followers not to be discouraged by setbacks or be infected by “accursed defeatism”—a jibe at Strasser—but to work with determination towards the “great goal,” the establishment of a “new ethnic-popular community.” In conclusion he appealed to his audience: “We have to forge our will and make it even harder. We have to consecrate this will with camaraderie and obedience. With it, we will defy every misery of this age. May our will become the will of the German people and overcome the time of great misery!”60 Hitler’s entire speech aimed to prepare the party faithful for an extended struggle for power. No one listening would have been able to imagine that in only ten days’ time Hitler would be appointed Reich chancellor.

During the afternoon of 22 January, at the Nicolai cemetery in the Berlin district of Prenzlauer Berg, Hitler unveiled a memorial to Horst Wessel, the SA street fighter who had been elevated to a martyr after his death in February 1930. Hitler praised Wessel as a “blood witness,” whose song “Die Fahne hoch”—“Hold High the Flag”—had already become a “battle hymn for millions.” By sacrificing his life, Hitler said, Wessel had created a “monument more lasting than stone and bronze.”61 Before the Berlin SA units assembled at the cemetery, they had marched past the Karl-Liebknecht-Haus, the KPD headquarters, on Bülowplatz. Berlin’s police president had refused permission for a Communist counter-demonstration and deployed 14,000 police officers to prevent clashes between the two groups. Everything proceeded relatively calmly. The KPD leadership had called upon their followers not to let themselves be provoked by the SA march. Nazi propaganda, however, celebrated the absence of confrontation as a great victory. “The SA marched,” Goebbels noted. “Massive loss of prestige for the KPD. Bülowplatz is ours. We’ve won a battle.”62 The Social Democratic Vorwärts commented:

The fact that on 22 January 1933 in Berlin Hitler’s brown hordes were allowed to march outside the windows of the KPD headquarters with the conscious intention of challenging and humiliating their enemies, and that they were able to do so without any possibility of effective resistance, was a very bitter pill for the entire labour movement.63

That evening, Hitler gave another speech dedicated to Horst Wessel in the Sportpalast and then left at around 10 p.m. to travel with Frick and Göring to Dahlem, where Papen was waiting. Notably, State Secretary Meissner and Oskar von Hindenburg were also present. To keep their participation at the meeting secret, the two men had conspicuously attended the opera on Unter den Linden and discreetly slipped out of the theatre before the final curtain.64 Shortly after arriving in Ribbentrop’s villa, Hitler asked the president’s son for a private word. What the two men talked about during their two-hour discussion has been the subject of much speculation. It is hardly probable, as one rumour had it, that Hitler threatened to reveal that the president had improperly transferred the Neudeck estate to his son Oskar in 1928 to avoid paying inheritance tax. It is quite possible, however, that Hitler may have promised to use his influence, if made chancellor, to wipe out the debts on the estate that had resulted from extensive renovations.65 Hitler was apparently unable to overcome all of Oskar von Hindenburg’s reservations, but on the trip back to central Berlin, the president’s son did tell Meissner he had been taken with what Hitler had to say.66 Hitler for his part was less impressed. “Young Oskar is an unusual picture of stupidity,” he remarked a few days later to Goebbels.67

More significant was the fact that after his private talk with the younger Hindenburg, Hitler had made clear progress in his negotiations with Papen. For the first time, the man who had Hindenburg’s ear suggested that he might warm to the idea of Hitler becoming chancellor while contenting himself with the post of vice-chancellor.68 But when Papen visited President von Hindenburg on the morning of 23 January to argue for that idea, he was rebuffed. Ribbentrop took on the task of breaking the bad news to Hitler.69 That evening, the latter travelled to Munich, where he met Goebbels at the Brown House. Hitler still seemed confident about how things were developing. “Terrain smoothed,” noted Goebbels. “Papen wants to be vice-chancellor. Schleicher’s position very precarious. He seems to suspect nothing.”70 In Hitler’s absence, Frick and Göring continued negotiations with Papen in Dahlem. They agreed that the best way to overcome Hindenburg’s resistance to a Hitler chancellorship was to present him with a cabinet of “national concentration” that would reunite all former members of the Harzburg Front. Ribbentrop succinctly noted: “Decision reached about a national front to support Papen with Hindenburg.”71 On the evening of 21 January, Meissner had told Hugenberg: “Hindenburg attaches great importance to the participation of the German nationalists.” The German president also wanted to retain the right to appoint the Reich defence and foreign ministers himself, arguing that according to Germany’s constitution he was head of state and represented the Reich under international law and therefore bore direct responsibility for those positions.72

The Reich chancellor’s demise was getting closer and closer. “Schleicher’s position is very bad,” Goebbels noted on 22 January. “When will he fall?”73 Two days before that, the Reichstag Council of Elders decided that Germany’s parliament would indeed be called to session on 31 January. Given that only the tiny DVP faction had declared its support for the government, Schleicher was headed for a devastating vote of no confidence, just like Papen before him. Schleicher had already threatened on 16 January to present parliament with a written dissolution order in case the Reichstag put such a vote on the agenda. In so doing he was resorting to the same plan his predecessor had drawn up towards the end of his tenure: dissolving the Reichstag and postponing fresh elections beyond the sixty-day limit imposed by the German constitution, to the autumn, in the hope that the economy would further recover later in 1933. Surprisingly Foreign Minister von Neurath and Finance Minister Schwerin von Krosigk, who had rejected a violation of the constitution in early 1932, both supported Schleicher’s idea.74 The question, though, was whether Hindenburg could be persuaded—especially since Schleicher had got Papen and his government dismissed by arguing that precisely this sort of violation of the constitution would lead to civil war.

Schleicher received his answer on 23 January at a meeting with Hindenburg, who declared that while “he would consider dissolving the Reichstag, he could not take responsibility for postponing the election beyond the deadline specified by the constitution.”75 This decision was hardly a surprise. By resorting to Papen’s old emergency plan, Schleicher was admitting that, just like his predecessor, he had failed to establish a broad parliamentary majority to tolerate his government. Hindenburg found it presumptuous that the chancellor would try to take the same escape route that he had used to drive his predecessor from office. By this point the Reich president seems to have decided to drop Schleicher—a decision made easier since he was being kept informed about the secret negotiations between Papen and Hitler and knew that a potential alternative was emerging. It is possible that Hindenburg was also influenced by the fact that a few days previously in the parliamentary budget committee, talk had turned to the misuse of public funds for the restoration of debt-ridden aristocratic estates. The so-called “Eastern Help scandal” made waves, especially as several of Hindenburg’s friends were implicated. They in turn accused Schleicher of not protecting them and stepped up their attacks upon him.76

The Social Democrats and the Centre Party were greatly alarmed by rumours about Schleicher’s intention to cancel the fresh elections mandated by a dissolution of parliament. On 25 January, the SPD party leadership and the leaders of the Social Democratic parliamentary faction “vehemently protested against the plan to proclaim a so-called emergency legal situation,” arguing that it would amount to a coup d’état.77 The Prussian state president, Otto Braun, even spoke of a “call for high treason.”78 In a letter of 26 January, the chairman of the Centre Party, Prelate Ludwig Kaas, also warned the Reich chancellor that he was headed down a legally unjustifiable path: “Moving back the date of the election would be an undeniable violation of the constitution with all the legal and political consequences that would entail.”79 These protests by Germany’s two largest democratic parties further undermined Schleicher’s position. What the pro-democracy politicians did not realise was that the biggest danger was not posed by Schleicher’s suggested violation of the constitution, but by the installing of a cabinet of “national concentration” under Hitler.

On the morning of 28 January, Schleicher called a cabinet meeting and announced that he would only appear before the Reichstag on 31 January if the Reich president gave him an order to dissolve parliament. He said he did not want to present the public with a “pointless spectacle of certain defeat.” If Hindenburg refused as expected to issue such an order, Schleicher would submit the cabinet’s resignation. Shortly after noon, once the ministers had approved this plan, the chancellor adjourned the meeting and made his way to see the president. As he had five days previously, Hindenburg coolly rejected Schleicher’s request for a dissolution order, saying that Schleicher had failed “to win over a parliamentary majority” and that another solution would have to be found.80 After only twenty minutes, Schleicher returned to his cabinet with the news that he “might as well have been talking to a wall” and that “the old man seemed not to register arguments, but simply to be reciting words he had memorised.” Finance Minister von Krosigk noted in his diary: “We are all deeply shaken. The Schleicher cabinet has been toppled after two months by the Reich president withdrawing his confidence.”81 Shortly after his dismissal of Schleicher, Hindenburg officially called upon Papen to start negotiations to form a new government. “He is now unabashedly playing the role of the president’s favourite since he has nothing else behind him and almost the entire German people against him,” wrote Harry Kessler, who believed Germany was headed for another Papen-led cabinet. “It sickens me to think that we will once again be ruled by this infamous oaf and reckless gambler…The whole thing is a mix of corruption, back-room dealings and nepotism that recalls the worst days of the absolutist monarchy.”82

On 27 January, the day before Schleicher’s resignation, Hitler returned from Munich to Berlin. That afternoon, in Göring’s office, Hitler and Frick met with Hugenberg and Otto Schmidt-Hannover. Göring opened the meeting by announcing that Papen now supported Hitler being named chancellor and that Franz Seldte, the leader of the Stahlhelm, had agreed to join a Hitler-led cabinet. But Hugenberg still remained reserved, rejecting Hitler’s demand that a Nazi be named the Prussian interior minister, which would have given the NSDAP control over the police force in the largest German state. The DNVP chairman also demanded that Schmidt-Hannover be made state secretary in the Reich Chancellery and that a further DNVP member be appointed Reich press spokesman. Hitler would not hear of this, and the meeting, Ribbentrop noted, “ended in quarrel.”83 Hitler was so outraged at Hugenberg’s behaviour that he wanted to depart immediately for Munich, and Göring and Ribbentrop only just managed to persuade him to stay in Berlin. Old fears resurfaced that the conservatives would derail him just before he reached his goals, as they had the preceding August. “Hitler is very sceptical and mistrustful,” Goebbels noted. “With justification. These people are one big gang of swindlers.”84 Rumours circulating in Berlin that Papen was about to be called to head a “battle cabinet” only strengthened Hitler’s distrust.85 In any case, he refused to meet that evening with the former chancellor. Negotiations seemed once again to be on the verge of breaking down. It was Papen who kept them going. On the evening of 27 January, he declared that the importance of the quarrel between Hugenberg and Hitler should not be exaggerated. The main thing was that he, Papen, “had now come out fully in favour of Hitler as chancellor” and was willing to do everything to persuade Hindenburg. For Ribbentrop, this assurance was the “turning point in the whole matter.”86

Indeed, over the course of 28 January, Papen succeeded in finally overcoming Hindenburg’s resistance to the idea of Hitler as chancellor—on the condition that the NSDAP leader formed his government “within the framework of the constitution and with the assent of the Reichstag.” Hugenberg, who met with Papen that afternoon, also proved to be far more conciliatory now that Schleicher had resigned, remarking that “We need to enter into a pact with Hitler and try to limit his power as much as possible.” Hugenberg wanted to be named the economics minister of both the Reich and Prussia, arguing that uniting the two positions made political sense. Hitler for his part told Papen that Hugenberg could pick and choose which posts he wanted—with the exception of Reich interior minister and Prussian state commissioner, which were to be reserved for Nazis.87 On the surface this was a remarkable compromise and a striking turnabout from Hitler’s previous policy of all-or-nothing. In reality, however, Hitler was gambling that by using those two positions the National Socialists could consolidate power as they had in Thuringia in 1930. Papen contacted Finance Minister von Krosigk, who agreed to join the Hitler cabinet as long as he was “able to work professionally.”88 Konstantin von Neurath and Paul von Eltz-Raubach likewise agreed to continue in their previous posts.

When Papen reported to Hindenburg late in the evening of 28 January about how negotiations were progressing, the president was pleased at what he considered Hitler’s “moderation.” Hindenburg was also impressed by the fact that most of the conservative ministers whom he favoured and who had served in Papen’s and Schleicher’s cabinets would be retained. The president decided to replace Schleicher at the Defence Ministry with one of his confidants, Lieutenant General Werner von Blomberg, the commander of the military district in East Prussia, who was at the time a member of the German delegation to a disarmament conference in Geneva.89 Oskar von Hindenburg was charged with summoning Blomberg back to Berlin by telephone. With that, no obstacles to a Hitler cabinet remained. Still, those closest to Hitler feared that Hindenburg might still change his mind. “The old man is unpredictable,” Goebbels warned. “We should be under no illusions about that!”90

On 29 January, the last deals were done. That morning the negotiators agreed on the make-up of the cabinet, with Papen accepting Hitler’s proposal to make Frick Reich interior minister. For his part Hitler had to swallow—“with barely concealed resentment”—Hindenburg’s appointment of Papen and not himself as Reich commissioner of Prussia. By way of compensation, Göring was named Prussian interior minister and deputy Reich commissioner, which gave him control over the Prussian police—something Hugenberg had wanted to prevent. As a new condition for his participation, Hitler demanded that fresh elections be called and a subsequent enabling law be passed. This was an idea he had already proposed in his negotiations with Hindenburg in November 1932,91 although it required the assent of both his conservative-nationalist coalition partners and above all the German president.

That afternoon, at a meeting with Hugenberg and Stahlhelm leaders Franz Seldte and Theodor Duesterberg, Papen sought to overcome the final objections to a Hitler cabinet. Hugenberg was promised the Economics Ministry as well as that of agriculture in both Prussia and the Reich. The prospect of being in charge of such a mega-ministry was so appealing that he agreed to support the deal Papen had negotiated with Hitler. Seldte, who was tipped for the Labour Ministry, also agreed to join the cabinet. Only Duesterberg, who had been subject to scathing attacks from National Socialists only months before for having a Jewish grandfather,92 warned against “the dynamics of Hitler’s nature and his fanatic mass movement.” Hugenberg brushed aside such concerns, arguing that the dominance of traditional conservatives in the cabinet would neutralise the threat of Nazi abuse of power and “fence Hitler in.” Duesterberg prophesied that Hugenberg “would one night have to flee through his ministerial gardens in his underwear to avoid arrest.”93 Few traditional conservatives were that prescient. Most were aware of the risk entailed by a pact with Hitler but believed the Nazi leader could be kept in check. “If we go with Hitler, we have to restrain him,” DNVP Deputy Chairman Quaatz wrote in his diary on 29 January.94 It would not be long before it became apparent how utterly misplaced all ideas of restraining Hitler actually were.

What Papen failed to mention to Hugenberg was that Hitler had insisted on fresh elections—a demand that the DNVP chairman would hardly have accepted since the NSDAP was likely to gain votes at the conservatives’ expense, making it all the more difficult to rein in Hitler. When Papen briefed Göring about the outcome of the meeting, he also gave the impression that “everything was a done deal.” Göring immediately passed on the message to the Nazi leadership anxiously waiting in the Hotel Kaiserhof. Goebbels remained sceptical: “We don’t yet dare believe it. Is Papen being honest? Who knows?”95 There were persistent rumours in Berlin that Hindenburg ultimately wanted to appoint a Papen-Hugenberg “battle cabinet” without Nazi involvement but that the Reichswehr would not tolerate such a move. Later that afternoon Hitler met with General Kurt von Hammerstein, the head of the army chief of command, at the Bechsteins’ villa. There the NSDAP chairman was asked “whether he thought the negotiations with the Reich presidential palace about assuming power were genuine or just for show.” If the latter were the case, Hammerstein promised, the military command would try to use its influence in Hitler’s favour, although Schleicher would likely retain the post of defence minister. Hitler disingenuously said that nothing had been decided yet and promised to notify Hammerstein as soon as he “saw things clearly.”96

That evening, Schleicher and Hammerstein sent their go-between Werner von Alvensleben to Goebbels’s apartment, where Hitler and Göring were waiting. His task was to gain information about the status of negotiations, but he went well beyond that, taking it upon himself to announce: “If the folks on Wilhelmstrasse are only pretending to negotiate with you, then the Reich defence minister and the army chief of staff would have to alert the garrison in Potsdam and sweep the entire pigsty on Wilhelmstrasse clean.”97 The Nazi leadership interpreted this ill-advised statement as proof that Hindenburg intended to appoint a Papen-Hugenberg cabinet and that the Reichswehr was considering a coup d’état. It was hardly beyond the realm of possibility that Hindenburg would be deposed and his son Oskar arrested. “So it’s a coup,” Goebbels commented. “A threat. In earnest or a joke? Reported to Göring and Hitler waiting in the room next door. Göring spoke immediately to Meissner and Papen…We deliberated at length. Hitler in full motion.”98 The NSDAP chairman took the rumours very seriously and had the leader of the Berlin SA, Count Wolf-Heinrich von Helldorff, put all Brownshirts in the German capital on high alert. The Nazi leadership also charged the “trustworthy” police major Walter Wecke, later commander of the Hermann Göring Regiment, with “preparing for a lightning strike to occupy Wilhelmstrasse with six police battalions.”99

Although it soon emerged that the rumours of a coup were entirely unfounded, they served to hasten the pace of developments. Papen saw his conviction that there was no time to lose reinforced, and late in the evening on 29 January, he presented Hindenburg with a final list of cabinet members. As had been agreed, it contained only three National Socialists: Hitler as chancellor, Frick as interior minister and Göring as Reich minister without portfolio, deputy Prussian interior minister and Reich commissioner for aviation. Three of the party-unaffiliated ministers had previously served in the Papen and Schleicher cabinets: Foreign Minister von Neurath, Finance Minister von Krosigk and Postal and Transport Minister Eltz-Rübenach. Reichswehr Minister von Blomberg, Economic and Agriculture Minister Hugenberg and Labour Minister Seldte were new appointments. The post of justice minister was left vacant because Papen wanted Hindenburg to think that negotiations with the Centre Party were under way and one ministry had to be left open in case of agreement; the position was intended to go to Franz Gürtner, who had held it under Papen and Schleicher. Swearing-in ceremonies were scheduled for 11 a.m. the following day.100

The Reich president’s decision was not announced publicly, so on 30 January 1933 the morning newspapers were still in the dark as to what was going on. Some still thought that the appointment of a Papen-Hugenberg cabinet excluding the National Socialists was the most likely outcome. The Frankfurter Zeitung speculated that Hitler would once again make impossible demands to avoid the responsibility of power.101 Schleicher had thought much the same, having told his cabinet on 16 January that “Hitler didn’t really want to come to power.”102 But the leader of the NSDAP was on the verge of his greatest triumph. Hitler and his entourage stayed up until 5 a.m. in the Goebbelses’ apartment, ever fearful that some unforeseen events would throw everything back up in the air.103 When Blomberg arrived at the Anhalter Bahnhof train station early that morning, Oskar von Hindenburg immediately took him to Wilhelmstrasse, where at 9 a.m. he was sworn in as the new Reich defence minister.

Meanwhile Papen summoned Hugenberg, Seldte, Duesterberg and Schmidt-Hannover to his apartment on Wilhelmstrasse to inform them that the new cabinet was about to be made official. When Duesterberg and Schmidt-Hannover protested against the hasty appointment of Hitler as chancellor, a “flustered” Papen interjected: “If a new government has not been formed by 11 a.m. the Reichswehr will be marching, and we will face a military dictatorship under Schleicher and Hammerstein.” Soon afterwards Hitler and Göring arrived. Once more, the NSDAP chairman demonstrated what a fine actor he was, immediately going up to Duesterberg, taking his hand and declaring in a solemn voice and with tears in his eyes: “I greatly regret the personal insults to you in my newspapers. I give you my word that I did not order them.”104

Around 10:45 a.m., a quarter of an hour before the scheduled swearing-in ceremonies, the group proceeded through the ministerial gardens to the Reich Chancellery, where Hindenburg had been residing since the summer of 1932, while the presidential palace was being renovated. Duesterberg later recalled that, as the other ministers designate arrived one by one, with the exception of Eltz-Rübenach, who had fallen ill, Hitler, Papen and Hugenberg negotiated the final unresolved questions in Meissner’s office. It was only now that Papen and Hitler revealed to the DNVP chairman that Hitler intended to dissolve the Reichstag and call for new elections. Hugenberg was taken aback and vehemently protested, arguing that the November 1932 election had accurately mirrored the relative strengths of the parties and that a fresh poll was unnecessary. In a grand gesture, Hitler gave his word of honour that the make-up of the cabinet would not change, regardless of the outcome of a new election. But the blindsided Hugenberg refused to give in even after Papen pleaded with him not to endanger the agreement, which had been so hard to reach. The formation of the new government looked as though it would fall through literally at the last minute. The appointed time for the swearing-in ceremony came and went, and Hindenburg was getting impatient. Meissner burst into the room, watch in hand, and complained: “It’s 11:15. You can’t keep the Reich president waiting any longer.” Duesterberg recalled: “At that point, Hugenberg relented. Hitler had got his way. Proud and triumphant, with his underlings in his wake, he marched victoriously up the stairs to the first floor, where the elderly gentleman was awaiting the new cabinet.”105

Hindenburg greeted the men and expressed his satisfaction that “the nationalist Right has finally been unified,” whereupon Papen read out the list of ministers. After being sworn in, Hitler gave a short speech in which he asked the Reich president to have faith in him and the new government.106 At around noon, the ceremony was concluded. In his diary, Goebbels wrote: “[Hindenburg] was quite moved at the end. That’s the way it should be. Now we have to win him over completely.”107 Hitler’s followers had been waiting on tenterhooks in the Hotel Kaiserhof, and when the freshly appointed chancellor returned there, to cheers from a crowd of admirers, everyone breathed a sigh of relief. “We all had tears in our eyes,” noted Goebbels. “We shook Hitler’s hand. He deserved this. Enormous celebrations.” Goebbels had not got a cabinet post, but he had received Hitler’s promise that he would be put in charge of the Education Ministry after the next election. “Right down to work,” he noted. “The Reichstag will be dissolved. New elections in four weeks. Until then I’m free of any office.”108 Later that day, Hitler gave a speech in which he thanked his party comrades for the “loyalty and devotion” that had made his political triumph possible. “The task that lies before us is massive,” he added. “We will have to be equal to it and we will be.”109

That evening, National Socialists celebrated Hitler’s appointment as chancellor with a torchlit parade lasting hours. “There’s a jubilant mood tonight in Berlin,” wrote Harry Kessler, who was as surprised as most people by Hitler’s elevation to chancellor. “SA and SS men, together with uniformed Stahlhelm members, are making their way through the streets, and the pavements are crowded with onlookers. In and around the Hotel Kaiserhof, it’s a veritable carnival.”110 Hitler, who greeted the marching columns of his supporters from the illuminated window of his new office, was euphoric. “The good doctor is a true wizard,” he praised Goebbels, who had hastily organised the celebrations. “Where did he get all the torches?”111 A few windows further down, Hindenburg stood stiff as a statue and received tributes from SA men. The newly appointed Nazis lost no time in exploiting the possibilities of radio. Speeches by Göring and Goebbels were broadcast on all stations in Germany except Bavaria’s Bayerischer Rundfunk. Göring compared the mood to that of August 1914, when “a nation also set out for new territory,” thereby establishing the melodramatic tone of Nazi propaganda, which would soon transform 30 January 1933 into a “day of national uprising.”112 Things only calmed down after midnight. While Hitler remained in the Chancellery and held one of his digressive monologues,113 Goebbels went to Potsdam to visit Prince August Wilhelm. There the celebrations continued for hours. “Everything completely intoxicating,” Goebbels noted. “At home at 3 a.m. Fall into bed as though dead. Exhausted.”114

January the 30th, 1933 saw something happen that hardly anyone would have thought possible at the end of December 1932. At the relatively young age of 43, Hitler had become the chancellor of the most powerful state in central Europe. Even his closest confidants like Goebbels regarded this twist of fate as “something out of a fairy tale.”115 Hess wrote to his wife on 31 January: “Am I dreaming or am I awake? I’m sitting in the chancellor’s office on Wilhelmplatz. Ministry employees silently approach on soft carpets bringing files for the Reich chancellor.” Even the day before, Hess had been afraid that everything would fall apart, especially as Hitler had confided to him that “a couple of times things were on a knife-edge” because of “intransigence” from Hugenberg, the “old shrew” in the cabinet.116

The formation of a “Cabinet of National Concentration” also seemed like a miracle to the NSDAP’s supporters. “It’s as though we’ve been blessed and are walking on air in an unbelievable dream,” wrote Emerentia Krogmann, the wife of the northern German wholesaler Carl Vincent Krogmann. “Hitler is Reich chancellor! It’s true! Farewell Marxism! Farewell Communism! Farewell parliament! Farewell Jews!—Here’s to Germany!”117 Luise Solmitz from Hamburg, who had turned away from Hitler in disappointment at the end of 1932, was equally enthusiastic: “What a cabinet!!! We didn’t dare to dream of this last July. Hitler, Hugenberg, Seldte, Papen!!! A large portion of my German hopes are attached to each one of them. National Socialist vigour, German nationalist reason, the apolitical Stahlhelm and the unforgettable Papen…This is a memorable 30 January.”118

Hitler’s conservative coalition partners also believed they had achieved their goals. When an acquaintance warned Papen about Hitler’s thirst for power, he replied: “You’re wrong. We engaged him for our ends.”119 And in response to accusations of betrayal from the Pomeranian estate owner Ewald von Kleist-Schmenzin, the vice-chancellor shot back: “What do you want? I have Hindenburg’s confidence. In two months, we’ll have pushed Hitler so far into a corner he’ll squeak.”120 It was impossible to underestimate more fatally Hitler’s will to power and determination to dispose of his conservative cabinet members as soon as possible. Hugenberg was famously quoted as telling the Leipzig mayor, Carl Goerdeler, the day after Hitler’s appointment that he had committed “the greatest act of foolishness” in his life by concluding an alliance with the “biggest demagogue in world history,” but it is unlikely that Hugenberg said any such thing.121 The super-minister felt that he was the most powerful figure in Hitler’s cabinet and believed, along with the other conservatives, that they could keep the new chancellor in check and direct him for their own purposes. Another bit of fiction is the oft-repeated story of Erich Ludendorff writing to Hindenburg at the end of January and accusing the Reich president of “delivering [Germany] up to one of the biggest demagogues of all time.” Ludendorff is supposed to have stated: “I solemnly prophesy that the man will cast our empire into the abyss and bring unimaginable misery to our nation. Coming generations will curse you in your grave for this decision.”122 These would have been prophetic words indeed, had Ludendorff actually written them. The reality, however, was that while Ludendorff was initially sceptical of the Hitler government, the two men would re-establish contact after Hindenburg died in August 1934. In April 1937, Hitler and Ludendorff met in Munich and were officially “reconciled.” The “hero of Tannenberg” was a useful spokesman for the Führer’s drive to rearm the Wehrmacht. When Ludendorff died that December, the Nazis staged a pompous state funeral for the former general.123

Not only Hitler’s conservative helpers, but many of his democratic opponents initially assumed that Papen and Hindenburg would hold the true power in the cabinet. On 31 January, Harry Kessler recorded a conversation he had had with the banker and politician Hugo Simon: “He sees Hitler as a prisoner of Hugenberg and Papen. ‘The poor fellow,’ who’s not very clever, has been delivered up, hands and feet bound, to those cagey conspirators.” Kessler apparently shared this estimation. A few days later, he predicted that the government would not last long since only the intrigues of the “windbag” Papen were holding it together: “Hitler must have already realised that he has fallen into a trap. His hands and feet are tied in government, and he has no room to manoeuvre either forward or back.”124 The Vossische Zeitung initially consoled itself with the idea that Hitler had not succeeded with his policy of “all or nothing”: “He moves into Wilhelmstrasse not as a dictator who knows no other law than his own will. This is not a Hitler cabinet. It is a Hitler-Papen-Hugenberg government that is full of contradictions, even if it clearly agrees that a complete break has to be made with what came before it.” However, the newspaper called this government “a dangerous experiment that can only be followed with profound concern and deepest distrust.”125

Jewish circles were also worried, although several prominent figures warned against panic. In an editorial on 2 February, Ludwig Holländer, the director of the Central Association of German Citizens of the Jewish Faith, wrote: “Despite the times, German Jews will not lose the composure granted them by the knowledge of their inalienable connection to everything truly German.”126 Fairly typical of the reaction of conservative and patriotic German Jews to Hitler’s appointment as chancellor was the 30 January diary entry of the Breslau teacher and historian Willy Cohn: “I fear that this means civil war! The right wing will be initially victorious, but in the end there’ll be communism! And then a left-wing revolution will come, and it won’t be nearly this mild. If Hitler abides by the constitution, however, he’ll be doomed with his own people too. In any case, times are gloomy, especially for us Jews!” The following day Cohn noted that the National Socialists had behaved like victors on the streets, but he stuck by his prognosis: “They too will be unable to deal with the economic crisis, and then there’ll be a massive turn to the left.”127 Cohn’s fear of communism still outweighed his worries about National Socialism—an attitude that was to change very soon.

Representatives of Germany’s political Left also had the wrong ideas about the new government. “The Harzburg Front has been resurrected in the Hitler-Papen-Hugenberg cabinet,” the SPD leadership and the Social Democratic parliamentary faction asserted in a statement to party members on 30 January, warning against “undisciplined behaviour.” The battle was to be pursued on “the basis of the constitution” in order not to give the new right-wing government any pretence for doing away with that document.128 The KPD did call for a general strike to protest “the fascist dictatorship of Hitler, Hugenberg and Papen,” but Communist appeals to form a common front fell on deaf ears among Social Democrats, who remembered all too well being defamed by the Communists as “social fascists.”129 Union leaders also did not put much stock in extraparliamentary protests. “Organisation and not demonstration is the watchword of the hour,” General German Trade Union Association chairman, Theodor Leipart, stated on 31 January.130 For many representatives of the Social Democratic labour movement, Hitler was a hostage of the old reactionary elites, the large agricultural estate owners in the east and the major industrialists in the west. Policy, in their view, would be set not by the new chancellor, but by Vice-Chancellor von Papen and the “economic dictator” Hugenberg, who would soon succeed in demystifying the messiah from Braunau. People on the left failed to recognise both Hitler’s determination to seize total power or the dimensions of the danger he presented. Most Social Democratic and trade union leaders had grown up in the Wilhelmine Empire, and some had directly experienced Bismarck’s campaign against the SPD. They may have suspected that the new government would pass anti-socialist legislation, but they could not imagine that National Socialism would seriously try to destroy the entire organised labour movement.

In his book Defying Hitler, written in British exile in 1939, Sebastian Haffner recalled the “icy fright” that had been his first reaction to the news that Hitler had been named chancellor: “For a moment I almost physically sensed the odour of blood and filth surrounding this man Hitler. It was a bit like being approached by a threatening and disgusting predator—it felt like a dirty paw with sharp claws in my face.” But on the evening of 30 January 1933, Haffner—then a young intern at Berlin’s Superior Court of Justice—calmly discussed the prospects of the new government with his father, a liberal Prussian educational reformer. The two men agreed that the Hitler-led cabinet would do some damage but would not stay in office for very long. “A conservative-reactionary government on the whole, with Hitler as its mouthpiece,” Haffner later recalled their conclusion. “That was the main difference to the last two governments that had followed after Brüning…No, all things considered, this government was no great cause for alarm.”131 In line with this statement, many Germans reacted to Hitler’s appointment as chancellor with indifference. There had been three changes of government in 1932, and people had almost come to expect such shifts. In the weekly cinema newsreels, the swearing-in of the new cabinet came last—after the major sporting events.132 Only a handful of particularly keen observers recognised that 30 January had been an irreversible turning point. Thea Sternheim, who learned of Hitler’s appointment while in Paris, wrote in her diary: “Hitler as chancellor. On top of everything else, now this intellectual humiliation. The last straw. I’m going home. To vomit.”133 Klaus Mann noted: “News that Hitler has become Reich chancellor. Horror. Never thought it possible. (The land of unlimited possibilities…)”134

For most foreign diplomats, on the other hand, 30 January did not mark a major caesura. Sefton Delmer heard from his contacts in the British embassy that Hitler was a “chancellor in handcuffs,” held hostage by Papen and Hugenberg.135 The British ambassador, Horace Rumbold, advocated taking a wait-and-see approach to the new government. He too saw Hitler as the weaker partner in the coalition and considered the vice-chancellor the true architect of the political alliance: “It may be said that the Hitler movement has been saved for the time being, largely owing to the instrumentality of Herr von Papen.” Rumbold predicted that conflicts would soon erupt since Papen and Hugenberg’s goal of restoring the monarchy could not be squared with Hitler’s plans. The ambassador regarded it as a positive sign that Neurath had remained foreign minister, which he took as an indication that German foreign policy was not going to change.136

The formation of the Hitler-Papen-Hugenberg cabinet had been kept secret until the very last minute, the French ambassador, André François-Poncet, reported to Paris on the evening of 30 January. He was most concerned about the possible consequences for Germany’s foreign policy. The new government with Hitler at the top represented “une experience hasardeuse” for all of Europe and not just Germany, since Hitler would try to bring about revisions of the Treaty of Versailles. Nonetheless, François-Poncet recommended that his government stay calm and wait to see how things developed. When he met Hitler for the first time on 8 February at a reception hosted by Hindenburg for the diplomatic corps, the ambassador was relieved. The new chancellor struck him as “dull and mediocre,” a kind of miniature Mussolini without any initiative or ideas of his own. François-Poncet thought he understood why the Reich president’s advisers had argued that it would be easy to use and control Hitler.137

The Swiss senior envoy in Berlin, Paul Dinichert, received the news of the new government’s formation at lunch with some “elevated German personalities.” In his report to Berne on 2 February, Dinichert wrote: “None of them seemed to have had any intimation. Heads were shaken. ‘How long can this last?’ ‘It could have been worse.’ The conversation went round in circles.” The Swiss diplomat recognised that Hitler’s appointment was the result of a “political game of chess and puzzle-solving,” in which “the watchful and ever-active Herr von Papen, backed up by Hindenburg’s unique trust in him,” had pulled the strings. But like so many other observers, Dinichert failed to recognise the true import of the new constellation of power when he wrote: “Hitler, who for years insisted on ruling by himself, has been yoked, hemmed in or constrained (take your pick) with two of his disciples between Papen and Hindenburg.”138

January the 30th, 1933 was thus not seen at the time as the major date in world history it rightfully appears now. In fact, the date marked the start of a fateful process that saw the new man in the chancellor’s office quickly seize complete power and that ultimately ended in the fathomless crimes of the wars of annihilation against Poland and the Soviet Union and the mass murder of European Jews. Historians have perennially tried to answer the question of whether Hitler’s rise to power could have been halted. Doubtlessly, there were powerful tendencies, deeply anchored in German history, which promoted the success of National Socialism. They included an anti-Western nationalism that rejected the “ideas of 1789,” that felt particularly provoked by Germany’s unexpected defeat in the First World War and the perceived humiliation of the Treaty of Versailles, and that took refuge in stab-in-the-back legends and lies about Germany’s lack of responsibility for the war, so as to prevent any sort of self-critical examination of who was responsible for the disaster of 1918. Other factors included the anti-Semitism that already permeated all strata of German society except the Social Democratic working classes in the Wilhelmine Empire, and which had been radicalised by the First World War and in particular by the revolutionary months of 1918 and 1919; the influence of pre-democratic elites, above all the military, Eastern Elbian aristocratic landowners, large-scale industrialists and civil servants within the government and the justice system, whose power had basically remained untouched in the democratic Weimar Republic; the structural shortcomings of the Weimar Constitution, making the Reich president into something of an ersatz kaiser and allowing him to rule by emergency decree, which in the hands of a dedicated monarchist like Hindenburg was practically an invitation to abuse political power during the economic crisis of 1929 and 1930; and finally the unwillingness of Germany’s political parties to compromise, which was partially to blame for the chronic functional difficulties of parliamentary democracy and which culminated in the collapse of the grand coalition in March 1930, ringing in the phase of rule by presidential decree.139

However, despite all of these weaknesses, which were primarily the result of the failure to break decisively enough with the legacy of Wilhelmine authoritarianism when the Weimar Republic was founded in 1918 and 1919, it was by no means inevitable that political power would be handed over to Adolf Hitler. There were repeated opportunities to end Hitler’s run of triumphs. The most obvious one was after the failed putsch of November 1923. Had the Munich rabble-rouser been forced to serve his full five-year term of imprisonment in Landsberg, it is extremely unlikely that he would have been able to restart his political career.140 Hindenburg’s unnecessary dismissal of Brüning in late May 1932 was also, in the words of the historian Heinrich August Winkler, a “decisive turning point in the German crisis of state” after 1930. Had Brüning remained in office, Papen would not have been able to destroy the “democratic bulwark” of Prussia, and Reichstag elections would not have been held until September 1934—by which point Germany’s economy would have probably recovered somewhat and extremist parties would have lost some of their appeal.141 Instead the Reichstag election of 31 July made the NSDAP Germany’s strongest party and supported Hitler’s claims to power.

Yet even in late January 1933, Hitler would have been denied power if Hindenburg had granted Schleicher’s request for an order to dissolve parliament and given him what he had once agreed to for Papen: permission to postpone new Reichstag elections for more than sixty days. Hindenburg could have also ignored the parliamentary vote of no confidence and retained Schleicher in office. That option would have been akin to tacitly imposing a military dictatorship, but it would have been an opportunity to play for time, until the economic situation had likely improved.142 It is very doubtful whether Hitler would have dared to mobilise the SA for an armed battle against the Reichswehr under such circumstances. Crucially, Hindenburg allowed himself to be persuaded by Papen and his advisers that a cabinet of “national concentration,” in which Hitler would supposedly be contained and tamed by a majority of traditional conservative ministers, was the least risky way out of the crisis. A significant role in the final act of this drama was played by East Elbian aristocratic landowners, who used their access to Hindenburg to urge him to appoint Hitler chancellor. Like the traditional conservative majority in the cabinet and the clique surrounding Hindenburg, they underestimated Hitler’s determination and ability to free himself from all attempts at political control and realise his dreams of total power. All of these groups operated under the illusion that they had “engaged” or co-opted Hitler to give them the mass backing they desired for their authoritarian policies. “The history of Hitler is the history of people underestimating him,” wrote the historian Veit Valentin shortly after the end of the Second World War.143

Nonetheless, if Hitler’s rise to chancellor was by no means the inevitable result of the Weimar Republic’s crisis of state, it was also more than just a historical mishap, as some observers, most recently the historian Eberhard Jäckel, have claimed down the years.144 Without the specific social and political conditions of the post-war and hyperinflationary period, the decommissioned private would have remained an antisocial outsider. The situation in the Bavarian capital proved perfect soil for Hitler’s hateful, anti-Semitic tirades and his diatribes against the “November criminals” and the “dictates” of the Treaty of Versailles. Without the consequences of the Great Depression, which hit Germany particularly hard, the NSDAP would never have become a mass movement. And it was the chairman of the NSDAP who best understood how to articulate and exploit people’s desires for a saviour who would inject order into chaos, create an ethnic-popular community in place of party squabbling and class warfare, and lead the Reich to new greatness.

Hitler can be accused of a lot of things, but one cannot say that he was not frank about his intentions. With astonishing openness in both Mein Kampf and countless speeches, he announced exactly what he would do if he came to power. Hitler’s main domestic aims were to destroy the Weimar system, which he had ruthlessly exploited from within, to completely “root out” Marxism, by which he meant both the SPD and KPD, and to remove Jews from Germany by whatever means necessary. In terms of foreign policy, Hitler never left any doubt that he wanted to revise the Treaty of Versailles and, in the longer term, conquer “living space” in eastern Europe, which inevitably entailed war with Poland and the Soviet Union. Those who brought him to power agreed with his aims of preventing a return to parliamentary democracy, getting rid of the shackles of the Treaty of Versailles as quickly as possible, rearming Germany’s military and restoring Germany’s status as a major world power. As far as Hitler’s long-term wishes were concerned, his conservative coalition partners believed either that he was not serious or that they could exert a moderating influence on him. In any case, they were severely mistaken. Right from the beginning, Hitler thought in completely different dimensions. In December 1941, as the planned Blitzkrieg against the Soviet Union stalled before Moscow, Hitler looked back on 1933 and remarked: “When I took power it was a decisive moment for me. Should we keep the old calendar? Or should we take the new world order to be a sign for a new beginning in time? I told myself: the year 1933 is nothing less than the renewal of a millennial condition.”145