Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939 - Volker Ullrich (2016)
Chapter 14. Totalitarian Revolution
“Now we can really get started,” Hitler told NSDAP Youth Leader Baldur von Schirach on the evening of 5 February 1933, five days after moving into the Chancellery. “We have power and we’re going to keep it. I’m never leaving here.”1 The new Reich chancellor was by no means omnipotent, but he was determined to seize total power. The constellation of the government of “national concentration” Hindenburg had appointed meant that Hitler had to hold back and take into account his conservative coalition partners, who made up the majority of his cabinet. But as he confided to intimates, he saw the alliance formed on 29 and 30 January as an interim solution, an unavoidable transitional phase on the path towards unlimited authority.
Rarely has a political project been revealed as a chimera so quickly as the idea that conservatives in the government cabinet would “tame” the National Socialists. Those who “believed that Hitler is constrained in his cabinet by the lack of his own personnel,” wrote Theodor Heuss on 7 February, were overlooking the fact “that these calculations contained some very dubious assumptions.”2 Papen, Hugenberg and their allies had indeed convinced themselves that they had “boxed in” Hitler so tightly that they could restrain his thirst for power and co-opt him and his movement for their own ends. Soon they would be forced to recognise how utterly mistaken they had been. “We had the wrong idea about the powers of the majority within a presidentially appointed government,” Hugenberg admitted in May 1933 in a conversation with Richard Breiting, the editor-in-chief of the Leipziger Neueste Nachrichten newspaper.3 The other members of the cabinet were no match for Hitler’s tactical cleverness and his notorious mendacity. Within weeks, he had their backs to the wall and succeeded in securing the sort of favour with Hindenburg that Papen had formerly claimed for himself. The vice-chancellor found himself in the role of the apprentice magician who could not control the evil spirits he had summoned.
Contemporary observers took note of the drama playing itself out in Berlin. “When the Hitler-Papen cabinet came to power, there were assurances that Hitler would be kept in check…by a government of conservative nationalists,” reported French Ambassador André François-Poncet in early April 1933. “Six weeks later we find that all the dams that were supposed to hold back the waves of the Hitler movement have been washed away.”4 Nonetheless, there is little truth to the notion of a careful strategic plan behind Hitler’s rapid seizure of power. What National Socialist propaganda later celebrated as the targeted action directed by the Führer’s intuitive genius was actually a series of improvised decisions with which the Nazi leadership responded to and exploited unforeseeable situations.5 Administrative measures “from above” and violent activities “from below” reinforced one another and drove developments.
It was astonishing not just how quickly but how easily Hitler turned political Germany on its head. “All counterweights to his power were suddenly swallowed up and disappeared,” noted the Romance literature professor Victor Klemperer in his diary as early as March 1933. “This complete collapse of the existing powers, worse still their utter absence…has truly shaken me.”6 There was hardly any resistance. Instead, almost all institutions and social groups within Germany bent over backwards to accommodate and support the new regime. The process of bringing things and people “into line”—Gleichschaltung—would never have gone so smoothly and successfully had it not corresponded with a widespread wish to be brought into line.7 Within only eighteen months, Hitler would rid himself of all rivals for power and establish a “Führer dictatorship.”
On the afternoon of 30 January, Hitler held his first cabinet meeting. It was intended to demonstrate that the new government was capable of action and was tackling its duties from the outset. The political situation was clear. As he had demanded in his negotiations with Papen, Hitler wanted new elections to gain a parliamentary majority that would pass an enabling act in the Reichstag. A few hours previously, Hugenberg’s resistance to the idea had almost scuppered the new government. Moreover, the night before, Papen had told Hindenburg that negotiations were under way with the Centre Party to join the government, which was why the position of justice minister had been kept open. These unresolved issues bled over into the cabinet meeting. Hugenberg came out against both fresh elections and involving the Centre Party in the government, arguing that the latter “would endanger the formation of a unified will.” Instead, he suggested banning the KPD and redistributing their parliamentary seats, which would yield a parliamentary majority.
Hitler did not think the beginning of his chancellorship was an opportune moment for such a draconian move. Banning the Communist Party would cause domestic unrest and perhaps lead to a general strike, he told the cabinet. He added: “It is nothing short of impossible to ban the 6 million people who stand behind the KPD. But perhaps in the coming election after the dissolution of the Reichstag, we can win a majority for the current government.”8 Hitler, too, was uninterested in expanding the coalition to include the Centre Party. But with an eye towards the promises he had given Hindenburg, he agreed to “sound out” Centre Party representatives. With that, subsequent talks with Centre Party Chairman Ludwig Kaas and Parliamentary Leader Ludwig Perlitius were destined to fail.9 Hitler demanded parliament be suspended for at least a year, while the Centre leaders would only support a suspension of around two months. They also made their participation contingent upon being given written answers to a series of questions that would provide reliable information about the government’s intentions. Hitler used such demands as a pretext for telling his cabinet that very afternoon that “there is no point to further negotiations with the Centre…new elections will be unavoidable.”
Hitler sought to reassure his conservative coalition partners by promising the outcome of the election would have no influence on the composition of the cabinet. Then it was Papen—and not Hitler—who made a radical suggestion. It should be made clear, the vice-chancellor declared, that the next election would be the last one and that a return to the parliamentary system would be ruled out “for ever.” Hitler gladly adopted this proposal, saying that the upcoming Reichstag election would indeed be the final one and that a return to parliamentary democracy was “to be avoided at all costs.”10 Using this argument, and with support from Papen and Meissner, Hitler succeeded in convincing Hindenburg that it was necessary to dissolve the Reichstag. Hindenburg’s decree, dated 1 February, justified the decision to hold new elections as giving the German people the opportunity to “have their say on the formation of a new government of national solidarity.” The date for the vote was set as 5 March. Hitler had achieved his most immediate goal without any serious resistance from his cabinet.11
On the evening of 1 February, Hitler delivered a governmental declaration, approved by his cabinet, over the radio. It was the first time he had addressed the German people over the airwaves, and the veteran speaker, who thrived on direct contact with his audience, displayed all the signs of stage fright. “His whole body was shaking,” observed Hjalmar Schacht.12 In his address, Hitler combined the attacks on the democratic “betrayal” of November 1918 and the Weimar Republic from his 1932 campaign speeches (“fourteen years of Marxism have brought Germany to the brink of ruin”) with appeals to conservative, Christian, nationalist values and traditions. The first task of his government, Hitler said, was to overcome class hostilities and restore “the unity of our people in spirit and will.” Christianity, Hitler added, was to be “the basis of our morals,” the family the “basic cell of our body as a people and a state,” and respect for “our great past” the foundation for the education of Germany’s young people. The chancellor sounded tones of moderation concerning his foreign policy. A Germany that had recovered its equality with other states, Hitler promised, would stand for “the preservation and solidification of peace, which the world needs now more than ever.” Hitler did not neglect to direct some flattering words in the direction of the “honourable Reich president,” and he ended his speech with the same appeal he was to utter innumerable times in the future: “Now, German people, give us the span of four years and then you may pass judgement upon us!”13
From Hitler’s governmental declaration, it was easy to get the impression that he, as head of government, intended to be more moderate and would revise the goals he had formulated prior to 1933. But it was clear on the evening of 3 February, when Hitler paid his introductory visit to the commanders of the German army and navy, that any such impressions were mistaken. The meeting called by new Defence Minister Werner von Blomberg took place in the official apartment of the army chief of staff, Kurt von Hammerstein, and Hitler was initially ill at ease among all the high-ranking officers. “He made strange humble little bows in every direction and was at a loss,” one participant remarked.14 Only after dinner, when he began a speech that would last two hours, did he shed his nervousness. No trace was left of the moderation he had displayed only two days earlier in his radio address. On the contrary, Hitler, with astonishing frankness, laid out for his military commanders what he intended to do in the years to come.15
Hitler defined his government’s first goal as to “reclaim political power,” which would have to be the “purpose of the entire state leadership.” Domestically there would have to be a “complete reversal” of present conditions. Pacifist tendencies would no longer be tolerated. “Anyone who refuses to convert has to be forced,” an officer attending the meeting quoted Hitler. “Marxism is to be utterly rooted out.”16Germany’s youth and its entire population, Hitler declared, had to be aligned along the ideas that “only battle can save us and everything else must be subordinated to this thought.” The “sternest, authoritarian state leadership” and “the removal of the cancerous damage of democracy” were necessary to strengthen Germany’s “will to defend itself.” In the part of his speech that dealt with foreign policy, Hitler said his first goal would be “to fight against Versailles” by achieving military equality and rearming the Wehrmacht. “Universal conscription has to be reintroduced,” Hitler demanded. The phase of rearmament, Hitler said, would be the most “dangerous” one, since France could decide to launch pre-emptive military strikes. Hitler apparently did not specify what he intended for Germany once it had regained its status as a major military power. But he did hint at two options, and left the officers in no doubt as to which one he favoured: “Perhaps the achievement of new export possibilities; perhaps—and probably better—conquest of new living space in the east and its ruthless Germanification.”17
With that, Hitler had pulled back the curtains and given military leaders a backstage look at his plans for territorial expansion, the same ones he had laid out in principle in Mein Kampf. It is unlikely that the generals in attendance realised that they could be heading for a racist war of extermination with the Soviet Union. What Hitler told them largely reflected the military leadership’s own ideas. The generals could easily identify with a battle against Marxism and pacifism, demands for a revision of the Treaty of Versailles, a rearming of Germany’s military and the restoration of its status as world power. The military leadership was especially pleased to hear Hitler promise that the Wehrmacht would remain the country’s only legitimate military force and that it would not be used to put down domestic opponents. The latter, Hitler declared, was the job of National Socialist organisations, particularly the SA. General Ludwig Beck, who was named chief of the Troop Office in the autumn of 1933, may have later claimed that he soon forgot what Hitler had actually said at the meeting, but this is scarcely credible. Beck was among the officers who had unreservedly greeted the change of power in January 1933 as, in his own words, “one of the first major rays of light since 1918.”18 Admiral Erich Raeder, the navy chief of command, was probably more truthful when he testified after the war that Hitler’s keynote speech had been “extraordinarily well received by everyone who heard it.”19
The partnership concluded by Hitler and the military leadership on 3 February 1933 benefited both sides. The Reich chancellor could now concentrate on crushing the political Left and bringing German society as a whole into line with Nazi ideals without any fears of the military intervening. The military leadership in turn had received a guarantee for its monopoly position and was assured that its concerns would enjoy the highest priority within the new government. “For the next four or five years,” Hitler told his cabinet, “our main principle will be: everything for the Wehrmacht.” Germany’s future, Hitler pontificated, depended “solely and exclusively on the rebuilding of the Wehrmacht.”20
“Attack on Marxism” was the chief slogan Hitler chose for the approaching election.21 “This time it’s a matter of cut and thrust,” noted Goebbels, who went through all aspects of the campaign with Hitler on 3 February.22 From the very beginning, the vote did not take place under fair circumstances. On 4 February, Hindenburg issued a Decree for the Protection of the German People that allowed the government to curtail the right to free speech and free assembly and subjected the two left-wing parties, the SPD and the KPD, to massive restrictions.23 Moreover, unlike before 1933, the NSDAP now had direct access to the airwaves. Goebbels and Hitler agreed on a division of labour: “Hitler will speak on all radio stations, and I’ll do the accompanying reports.”24
On 10 February the National Socialists kicked off the campaign with an event in Berlin’s Sportpalast. “Entirely alone, serious and measured, cordially greeting people, the Führer, Reich Chancellor Adolf Hitler, the leader of young Germany, is striding through the masses!” Goebbels announced at the start of his radio report. “One month ago, he spoke here in the Sportpalast as the head of a scorned, defamed and ridiculed opposition party. Now we can say: what a turnabout in Divine Providence.”25 The next day Goebbels noted with satisfaction in his diary that his twenty-minute report had gone swimmingly, and that he had not felt any stage fright at all.26 As was his wont, Hitler began his speech at a markedly leisurely, almost hesitant pace, only to whip himself into an oratorical frenzy. His words about his government policies were astonishingly general. Hitler repeated his attacks on the “political parties of disintegration,” which had brought Germany to its knees in the preceding fourteen years, confirmed his intention to “root out Marxism and related phenomena in Germany,” promised to replace “lazy democracy” with “the virtue of personality and the creative power of the individual” and asked for “four years” to bring about the “renewal of the nation.” He closed with an echo of the Lord’s Prayer: “I unwaveringly maintain the conviction that the hour will come in which the millions who now hate us will stand behind us and greet the German Reich of greatness, majesty and justice that we will jointly create, tenaciously deserve and obtain through great sacrifice. Amen.”27
Goebbels gushed: “Lots of pathos at the end. ‘Amen!” That’s really powerful. It works. All of Germany will be beside itself.”28 Not only Hitler’s admirers were impressed. Even a critical mind like the Leipzig writer Erich Ebermayer, son of Chief Reich Prosecutor Ludwig Ebermayer, noted after listening to the speech on the radio: “The man is obviously growing into the job. What an instrument radio is for mass propaganda! And how few of Hitler’s rivals know how to use it at all! Did radio not exist before 30 January? Incomprehensible!”29
The National Socialists did not only use radio. They also sought to co-opt Hindenburg’s aura for their own propaganda. One of their campaign posters showed Hitler, the anonymous First World War soldier, and the former field marshal standing shoulder to shoulder. The caption read: “The marshal and the private fight with us for peace and equal treatment.” Another poster featuring Hitler’s and Hindenburg’s heads appealed to voters: “Never will the Reich be destroyed if you stick together and stay true.”30 The DNVP concluded an electoral alliance with the Stahlhelm and other conservative-nationalist groups called the “Battle Front Black, White and Red.” At Hugenberg’s request, Papen ran as their lead candidate in order to, as he wrote, “serve the common cause and to call, side by side with the National Socialists, for participation from all forces who want to renew our German fatherland under the leadership of Field Marshal von Hindenburg in faith, justice and unity.”31 The “Battle Front” too sought to exploit Hindenburg’s mythic status by playing up Papen’s connection to the Reich president. “If Hindenburg trusts him, so can Germany,” read one campaign poster featuring images of both men. “Vote for his close associate, Vice-Chancellor von Papen.”32
But Hitler and the NSDAP profited more than their conservative coalition partners from popular regard for the former field marshal, and they raked in election donations. At the beginning of the campaign, Goebbels had complained about empty party coffers. That changed on 20 February, when Göring hosted a reception for twenty-seven leading industrialists, including the president of the Reich Association of German Industry, Gustav Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach, United Steelworks General Director Albert Vögler, IG Farben board member Georg von Schnitzler and Hoesch chairman of the board Fritz Springorum. Hitler, who spoke for an hour and a half, once again reaffirmed his belief in private property, denied rumours that he was planning any wild economic experiments and stressed that “only the NSDAP offers salvation from the Communist danger.” Fresh elections had been called, Hitler declared, to “allow the people to be heard once more.” And with rare frankness, he revealed the hollowness of his insistence upon remaining within the boundaries of the law. “He was no friend of illegal measures,” one of the industrialists recorded Hitler saying. “But he would not allow himself to be forced from power even if he could not reach his goal of an absolute majority.” Once Hitler had left, Göring declared without further ado that the “coffers of the party, the SS and the SA were empty” and that the business sector would have to bear the costs of the election, “which would be the last one for the foreseeable future.” After Göring, too, had withdrawn from the meeting, Hjalmar Schacht spoke up to present those in attendance with a bill for the campaign: 3 million reichsmarks were to be raised, of which three quarters would go to the NSDAP and one quarter to the “Battle Front Black, White and Red.”33 A satisfied Goebbels noted on 21 February: “Göring just brought the news that the 3 million for the election are there. Great stuff! I alerted the entire propaganda division, and one hour later the machines were rattling away. Our campaign is on.”34
In his capacity as acting Prussian interior minister, Göring had already begun to “cleanse” the Prussian police and administration of the few remaining democrats who had survived Papen’s coup of 20 July 1932. Fourteen police presidents in Prussian cities as well as numerous other senior municipal officers were sent into retirement in February 1933 alone. “Göring is cleaning house,” Goebbels declared on 16 February. “We are gradually enmeshing ourselves in governmental administration.”35 The following day, Prussian police departments were instructed to “support the national propaganda with all their might, combat the activities of organisations hostile to the state with the most severe means and, if necessary, to have no qualms about using firearms.” To be perfectly clear, Göring added: “Police officers who use their weapons in the performance of their duties will be covered by me regardless of the consequences. Conversely, those who hesitate to do their duty will suffer disciplinary action.”36 This “fire-at-will decree” was in effect a licence to kill, as Count Harry Kessler recognised: “From now on all of us who do not stand on the so-called ‘national’ ground, i.e. who are not Nazis, can be killed with impunity.”37
On 22 February, Göring also ordered the creation of an auxiliary police force consisting of members of the “national associations”—the SS, the SA and the Stahlhelm—ostensibly for the purpose of combating “increasing unrest from radical left-wing and especially Communist quarters.”38 With that the Brownshirts were finally given the opportunity they had long coveted to settle the score with their hated left-wing adversaries. The following weeks were marked by attacks on election events, arbitrary detentions, physical abuse and murders. The police did nothing to prevent the SA from terrorising people. Social Democrats were mistreated, but Communists got the worst of it. As of early February, it became practically impossible for them to assemble in public, and almost without exception, Communist newspapers were banned. On 23 February, police carried out a large-scale raid on Karl Liebknecht House, the KPD’s headquarters, confiscating, as was extensively reported in the papers and on radio the following day, many tons of “highly seditious material” allegedly calling for the government to be overthrown.39 Fears of an imminent armed KPD uprising were encouraged. In democratic, left-wing circles, rumours circulated that the Nazis were planning a “bloodbath” by faking an assassination attempt on Hitler as a pretext for taking revenge. “It is said that lists have been drawn up of those to be systematically murdered,” Kessler wrote.40 In the midst of this ominous atmosphere, news broke in the evening of 27 February that the Reichstag was on fire.
The question of who was responsible for the burning of the Reichstag has prompted a decades-long debate that has never been resolved. Because the event was so useful to the National Socialists, suspicions arose immediately that the Nazis themselves had started the fire. Conversely, the Nazi leadership did not waste any time at all in blaming the KPD, although not a shred of evidence was presented. The most likely explanation is the one first advanced by Fritz Tobias in the early 1960s that the Dutch Communist revolutionary Marinus van der Lubbe, who was arrested at the scene, acted on his own, without anyone pulling the strings behind him.41 But there is no way of being certain, and there probably never will be. In any case, more important than continuing debates about whether van der Lubbe was the sole arsonist is what sort of advantages the National Socialists derived from the Reichstag fire.
The initial reactions of the top NSDAP leaders on the evening of 27 February suggest that they, too, were surprised. Hitler was with the Goebbelses, as was his habit, when Hanfstaengl called around 10 p.m. and told them that the Reichstag was in flames. At first they thought it was a bad joke,42 but the news was soon confirmed. Hitler and Goebbels hurried to the scene, where they met Göring. He greeted all those who arrived with a tirade about who was to blame, although the origins of the blaze had yet to be investigated. “This is the beginning of the Communist uprising,” Göring raged. “Now they will strike. We have not a minute to lose!”43 Goebbels accepted this version of events without question, noting: “Arson in 30 spots. Committed by the Communists. Göring a whirlwind of action. Hitler is enraged.”44 Indeed, at the scene of the fire, Hitler worked himself up into a state of extreme agitation. After the war, Rudolf Diels, whom Göring named head of the Gestapo, the Secret State Police, in April 1933, recalled:
He yelled, completely out of control, in a way I had never seen before, as if he was about to burst. “Now there’ll be no more mercy. Anyone who gets in our way will be cut down…Every Communist functionary will be shot on the spot. The Communist deputies must be hanged from the gallows this very evening. Everybody connected with the Communists is to be arrested. There’s no more taking it easy on the Social Democrats and the Reich Banner either.”
Hitler would not hear of it when Diels said he thought the man arrested, Marinus van der Lubbe, was a lunatic. “This is a very clever, carefully planned matter,” Hitler raged. “The criminals thought this through very thoroughly. But comrades, they’ve miscalculated, haven’t they?”45
Nor did Hitler restrain himself in the company of Franz von Papen, who had hurried to the Reichstag from the Gentlemen’s Club, where he had been dining with Hindenburg. “This is a sign from God, Herr Vice-Chancellor!” Hitler told him. “If this fire is, as I believe, the work of Communists, we will have to crush this deadly pestilence with an iron fist!”46 It is difficult to say whether Hitler and his paladins became victims of their own propaganda and truly believed that the Communists were behind the act of arson. But it is beyond doubt that the Nazis were not at all unhappy about the Reichstag fire. On the contrary, it was a welcome excuse to strike a decisive blow against the KPD. Later that evening, when the Nazi leadership assembled in the Hotel Kaiserhof, the mood was positively relaxed. “Everyone was beaming,” Goebbels noted. “This was just what we needed. Now we’re completely in the clear.”47 The Nazis’ conservative coalition partners reacted in similar fashion. When Finance Minister Schwerin von Krosigk, who was having dinner at the French embassy, received word of the fire, he exclaimed, much to the bewilderment of the other guests, “Thank God!”48
By the night of 27-28 February, the KPD’s leading functionaries and almost all of the party’s Reichstag deputies had been arrested. Party offices were closed, and all Communist newspapers were banned until further notice. The arrests continued in the days that followed. On 3 March, KPD Chairman Ernst Thälmann was located and detained. By mid-March more than 10,000 political opponents of Nazism found themselves in “protective custody” in Prussia alone. Among them were left-wing intellectuals like Carl von Ossietzky, Erich Mühsam and Egon Erwin Kisch.49
The meeting of Hitler’s cabinet on the morning of 28 February was naturally dominated by the events of the previous evening. Hitler asserted that the “psychologically correct moment” had arrived for “a ruthless reckoning with the KPD.” He said: “It would be senseless to wait any longer. The KPD is determined in the extreme. The battle against them cannot be made dependent on legal considerations.” Göring reiterated the statement that the Nazi leadership had agreed upon the previous evening: it was “impossible that one person alone could have performed this act of arson.” On the contrary, the Communists had “initiated this attack.” The material confiscated in the Karl Liebknecht House suggested that the Communists intended to form “terrorist groups,” set public buildings on fire, poison the food served in public kitchens and take “the wives and children of ministers and other high-ranking personalities hostage.”50 Although it was easy to see that this nightmare scenario was a crass invention, none of the conservative ministers objected. That very afternoon, the cabinet approved the draft of a Decree for the Protection of the People and the State submitted in the morning by Interior Minister Wilhelm Frick. The first paragraph “suspended until further notice” fundamental civil rights including personal liberty, freedom of speech and the press, the right to assemble, the privacy of letters and telephone conversations and the inviolability of house and home. The second paragraph enabled the government to “temporarily take over” the responsibilities of the upper administration of Germany’s states “in order to restore public security and order.”51That opened the door not only for the Nazis to persecute anyone who disagreed with them but also to bring Germany’s often resistant states into line.
The decree of 28 February was, in the words of one German historian, “the emergency law upon which the National Socialist dictatorship based its rule until it itself collapsed,”52 and as early as 1941 the political scientist Ernst Fraenkel characterised it as the “constitutional document” of the Third Reich.53 Hindenburg had no qualms about signing the emergency decree, which was sold to him as a “special ordinance to fight Communist violence.” Unwittingly or not, he helped transfer political authority from the office of the Reich president to the Reich government.54 In a speech in Frankfurt am Main on 3 March, Göring made it abundantly clear what he intended to do with the new powers he had been granted. The measures he ordered, Göring promised, would not be diluted by any legal considerations: “In this regard, I am not required to establish justice. In this regard, I am required to eradicate and eliminate and nothing more!”55 This sort of language and the violent measures that accompanied Göring’s words must have horrified anyone who maintained any vestige of faith in the rule of law. Papen was not among them. When François-Poncet drew his attention to foreign diplomats’ concern at the National Socialists’ growing terror campaigns, Papen brushed aside any worries: “It’s no big deal. When they’ve scraped the velvet from their horns, everything will be fine.”56
Nor did the SA’s brutal persecution of Communists draw any condemnation from the middle classes. On the contrary, the bête noire of a “Communist threat,” reinforced by years of propaganda, led many people to see draconian measures as justified. “Finally, an iron broom over Prussia!” gushed Luise Solmitz.57 Elisabeth Gebensleben, the wife of the deputy mayor of Braunschweig, did not have any scruples either: “The ruthless intervention of the national government may be somewhat alienating for many people, but there needs to be a thorough cleansing and clearing up. The anti-national forces must be rendered harmless. Otherwise no recovery will be possible.”58 If appearances do not deceive, the suppression of the political Left in Germany, and especially the Communists, did nothing to dampen Hitler’s popularity. On the contrary, it increased his approval among the general populace. If Hitler stayed his course, one report from Catholic Upper Bavaria read, he would surely “have the trust of the great proportion of the German people” in the upcoming Reichstag election.59
The U.S. ambassador, Frederick Sackett, termed the elections on 5 March a “farce,” since the left-wing parties “were completely denied their constitutional right to address their supporters during the final and most important week of the campaign.”60 Discrimination was also all too apparent on election day itself. “In front of the polling station only Nazi and Black, White and Red posters, nothing from the State Party, the SPD or the KPD,” wrote Kessler.61 Bearing that in mind, the result of the vote was all the more astonishing. Despite the extraordinarily high voter turnout of 88.8 per cent, the NSDAP came up clearly short of their stated goal of an absolute majority. The Nazis took 43.9 per cent of the vote—an increase of 10.8 per cent over the November 1932 election. To secure their majority, they needed the support of the Battle Front Black, White and Red, which only received 8 per cent of the vote, less than the DNVP had got the preceding November. The SPD took 18.3 per cent of the vote (down 2.1 per cent), and despite everything, the KPD still polled 12.3 per cent (down 4.6 per cent). Notwithstanding all the obstacles placed in their way, the two left-wing parties still managed to capture almost a third of the vote. The Centre Party (11.2 per cent) and the BVP (2.7 per cent) maintained their support while the State Party (0.9 per cent) and the DVP (1.1 per cent), which had basically become fringe parties, continued their respective declines.62 “The splendid German people!” the writer Erich Ebermayer commented. “Despite everything, the working classes still solidly stand behind their leadership. The Catholics still solidly stand by their Church. There are still upstanding democrats! 48.2 per cent of the electorate had the courage to vote against Hitler or stay at home. I see this day as a victory and a reassurance.”63
But there was no reason to be reassured. The NSDAP registered strong gains in those regions—Catholic Bavaria and Württemberg and metropolitan Berlin—where it had previously performed poorly, and the party also seemed to have mobilised the majority of previous non-voters. “A glorious victory,” noted Goebbels, who had kept track of the incoming results with Hitler in the Chancellery. “Above all in southern Germany. More than a million [votes] in Berlin. Fantastic numbers. We’re all in a state of something like intoxication. One surprise after another. Hitler is very moved. We’re swimming in bliss.”64 Ambassador Sackett also reported that Hitler had achieved an “unprecedented triumph”: “Democracy in Germany has received a blow from which it may never recover.” The Third Reich long heralded by the Nazis, Sackett added, had now become reality.65
The turnaround noticeably changed the way Hitler behaved in his cabinet. Previously, he had shown respect for his conservative coalition partners and moderated cabinet meetings rather than trying to impose his will upon them. “He rarely gets his way in the cabinet,” Goebbels had noted on 2 March,66 and the ministers were impressed not only by Hitler’s knowledge of the issues, but by his ability to “distil what is essential in every problem” and to “summarise concisely the results of a long discussion.”67 But in the first meeting after the election, on 7 March, Hitler began throwing his weight around. “He considers the results of 5 March to be a revolution,” read the minutes of the meeting. “In the end, there will no longer be Marxism in Germany. An Enabling Law approved by a two-thirds majority is necessary. He, the Reich chancellor, is deeply convinced that the Reichstag will pass such a law. The representatives of the KPD will not appear at the inauguration of the Reichstag because they find themselves in detention.” Hitler could also expect to encounter no resistance from his ministers—Papen made that clear when he expressed the gratitude of the cabinet to Hitler for his “admirable performance in the election.”68
On 11 March, Hitler succeeded in getting cabinet approval for the creation of a Reich Ministry for Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda. With that he kept the promise he had made to Goebbels on 30 January but which violated the express assurances he had given his coalition partners that the make-up of the cabinet would not change after the election. With the exception of Alfred Hugenberg, who objected, the members of the cabinet all accepted this breach of the coalition agreement without protest.69 On 13 March, Hindenburg signed the certificate making Goebbels Reich propaganda minister. “What a journey,” the latter wrote in his diary. “A government minister at the age of 35. Hard to believe. I have Hitler to thank. He is a good person and a brave warrior.” The next day, Hindenburg swore in the new minister, prompting Goebbels to comment that he was “like an elderly father.” The new minister added: “I thanked him that he had chosen me despite my youth. That moved him. Meissner assisted very well. A complete success.”70 With the new Propaganda Ministry, the Nazi leadership had created an instrument for influencing and manipulating the public, and it was to play an important role in the party’s gradual consolidation of power. In his first press conference on 16 March, Goebbels announced his and his ministry’s intention “to work on the people until they accept our influence.”71
No sooner had the Reichstag election been held than Hitler began planning the next step on the path towards monopolising political power: bringing the non-National Socialist German states into line. It was imperative, Hitler announced to his cabinet, to “boldly tackle the Reich states problem.”72 Goebbels seconded that sentiment: “Time to clamp down! We can no longer show any consideration. Germany is in the midst of a revolution. Resistance is futile.”73 Measures had been taken to bring Hamburg into line even before the election. Citing the Reichstag Arson Ordinance of 28 February, Interior Minister Frick had pressured the city senate, a coalition of the SPD, State Party and DVP, to take more vigorous action against the Communists. Although the Social Democrat senator for police affairs, Adolph Schönfelder, acceded to these demands and had seventy-five KPD functionaries arrested, the local NSDAP repeatedly raised the alarm and called upon Frick to maintain order by appointing a Reich commissioner for law enforcement in Hamburg. On 2 March, Frick demanded that the Social Democrat Hamburger Echo newspaper be banned for raising doubts as to whether Communists had truly been behind the Reichstag fire, and the city’s SPD senators were forced to resign to preserve the remnants of their dignity. Nonetheless, the SPD did remarkably well in the elections on 5 March, taking 26.9 per cent of the vote—a decline of only 1.7 per cent compared with the previous November. The KPD received 17.6 per cent, a loss of 4.3 per cent. With 44.5 per cent, the two left-wing parties outpolled the NSDAP (38.8 per cent) by nearly 6 percentage points. That, of course, did not stop the Nazis from claiming that they had received a mandate to remake the Hamburg senate along their own lines. Only an hour after polling stations had closed, Frick ordered that responsibility for the Hamburg police be transferred to SA leader Alfred Richter. What was left of the senate caved in. A new senate consisting of six National Socialists, two conservative nationalists, two members of the Stahlhelm and one representative each from the DVP and State Party was formed on 8 March.74
Germany’s other states were brought into line in the same way, with pressure from the party grass roots combining effectively with pseudo-legal measures ordered by the Reich government. Typically the local Gau leadership would start the process by demanding that a Nazi be appointed police president. The SA would stage marches, government offices would be occupied, and the swastika flag raised before public buildings. Under the pretext of having to re-establish “peace and order,” the Reich Interior Ministry would intervene and appoint Reich commissioners. In this fashion, Bremen, Lübeck, Hesse, Baden, Württemberg, Saxony and Schaumburg-Lippe were brought into line between 6 and 8 March.75
On 9 March, the final bastion, Bavaria, fell. Bavarian President Held initially resisted when the Gauleiter of Bavaria, Adolf Wagner, with support from Röhm and Himmler, demanded that the former Freikorps commander Franz Ritter von Epp be installed as general state commissioner. But when Frick appointed Epp anyway that evening, the Bavarian State Ministry had no choice but to give in. On the night of 9-10 March, leading BVP representatives were detained and abused. The worst mistreatment was reserved for Bavarian Interior Minister Karl Stützel, who was particularly hated because he had treated the NSDAP less leniently than his predecessors. Full of outrage, the leader of the Bavarian Catholic Farmers’ movement, Georg Heim, reported to Hindenburg that Stützel “was dragged out of bed, in his nightshirt and barefooted, by adherents of Epp’s party, beaten bloody and taken to the Brown House…These are conditions the like of which I’ve never seen in my Bavarian homeland, not even under the Communist rule of terror.”76 Hindenburg forwarded this message to Hitler without comment; the author never received a response. Reich Commissioner Epp named Gauleiter Wagner acting Bavarian interior minister and Himmler acting Bavarian police director. The former naval officer Reinhard Heydrich, not even 30 years old, took charge of Police Division IV, which was responsible for political crimes. For both Himmler and Heydrich, these positons were springboards from which they eventually came to dominate the Third Reich’s entire police and security apparatus.77
Three days after this staged volte-face, Hitler flew to Munich and expressed his satisfaction that “Bavaria has joined the broad front of the awakening nation.” Following a triumphant drive through the streets of the Bavarian capital, he laid a gigantic wreath in front of the Feldherrnhalle to commemorate the casualties of the putsch of 9 November 1923. Its inscription read: “And in the end you did achieve victory!”78On 16 March, the Held cabinet, as the representatives of the last state to be brought into line, officially resigned. That cleared the way for a government consisting almost exclusively of National Socialists. By late March, a Preliminary Law for Bringing the States into Line ordered that seats in all regional parliaments be allocated according to the results of the national election of 5 March. KPD mandates were annulled. One week later, on 7 April, the Reich government issued the Second Law for Bringing the States into Line with the Reich. It installed “Reich governors,” eradicating once and for all the sovereignty of the regional German states.79
This law gave Hitler the leverage to reorder the power structure in Prussia as well. He himself assumed the authority of Reich governor, rendering Papen’s position as Reich commissioner obsolete. On 10 April, Göring was named Prussian state president, and two weeks later Hitler assigned him the authority of the governorship. As the British ambassador, Horace Rumbold, accurately reported to Foreign Secretary John Simon, Papen’s loss of influence put Prussia completely under National Socialist control and meant that even friends of Hindenburg had to kowtow to Göring and his lackeys.80 Within a matter of weeks, the vice-chancellor, who as recently as 30 January had depicted himself as the ringmaster taming the Nazis, had been pushed to the political margins.
If Hitler’s coalition partners had hoped that SA terror activities would die down in the wake of the election, these hopes were disappointed. On the contrary, the violence only increased. “What I termed terror prior to 5 March was but a mild prelude,” remarked Victor Klemperer on 10 March.81 In many cities and communities, SA men occupied town halls and exacted revenge on representatives of the Weimar “system.” SPD offices and newspapers were also occupied, their furnishings destroyed, and their employees abused and taken to cellars and holding cells, where they, together with already-detained Communists, were mercilessly tortured by Hitler’s henchmen. Rudolf Diels bluntly described what such a torture chamber was like in the spring of 1933:
The victims we found there were close to starvation. They had been confined for days in narrow closets in an attempt to force “confessions” from them. The “interrogations” began and ended with beatings. Around a dozen brutes had taken turns beating the victims with iron bars, plastic batons and whips. Knocked-out teeth and broken bones bore witness to the torture. When we entered the space, whole rows of living skeletons were lying on rotten straw, their wounds festering. To a man, their bodies were covered with blue, yellow and green bruises from inhuman beatings. Many of their eyes were swollen shut, and blood had congealed under their nostrils. There was no groaning or complaint. They simply waited for the end to come or for the next beating to commence…Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel never imagined anything so horrific.82
Rampant SA terror tactics created a climate of fear and intimidation. “We’re forced to acknowledge that all parts of the opposition are completely demoralised,” noted Harry Kessler on 8 March. “The open departure from the rule of law, and the general feeling that justice no longer exists, has a tyrannical effect.”83 In a letter of 14 March, Theodor Heuss wrote:
Numerous rumours have it that there are many brutal excesses away from the public eye, that people are being dragged from their homes and beaten in the Brownshirt barracks. As long as the Nazi government doesn’t punish some of their members who are out of control and make examples of them, I fear that the situation won’t calm down. Thus far, these people have always been able to count on support from above.84
In a statement on 10 March, Hitler cautioned his supporters against “compromising the great work of national renewal with individual actions,” and two days later in a radio address he called for the “strictest and most blind discipline.” The NSDAP’s victory, Hitler said, was “so immense that we cannot feel any petty desires for vengeance.”85 But such public lip service notwithstanding, Hitler was by no means willing to restrain the SA. That emerged with utter clarity in a long letter he sent to Papen on 11 March.
The vice-chancellor had provoked Hitler’s ire by complaining that SA men had harassed foreign diplomats. He had the feeling, Hitler wrote, that “a planned barrage was going on with the intent of stopping the national uprising and definitely of intimidating the movement that carried it.” SA men, Hitler claimed, had shown “unprecedented discipline,” and he was fearful that history would conclude that, “at a decisive moment, perhaps infected by the weakness and cowardice of the bourgeois world, we proceeded with velvet gloves instead of an iron fist.” No one, Hitler vowed, would keep him from fulfilling his mission: “the destruction and eradication of Marxism.” The next few sentences expressed only contempt for the conservative coalition partners who had handed him the levers of power only a few months before, leaving no doubt that Hitler was no longer willing to consider their interests. “If the conservative nationalists and other bourgeois have suddenly lost their nerve and think they have to write open letters to me, they should have done so before the election…” Hitler wrote, mockingly. “I most insistently request of you, my dear Herr Vice-Chancellor, to refrain from addressing such complaints to me in the future.”86
Still, the more uncontrolled violence “from below” there was, the more it became a problem for the Nazi leadership, since it endangered their claim that they were restoring “law and order” after the civil-war-like conditions before 1933. For that reason, Nazi leaders stepped up their efforts to institutionalise the terror tactics used against their enemies. At a press conference in Munich on 20 March, Heinrich Himmler announced the establishment of a concentration camp in a former munitions factory near the small city of Dachau. Initially, as a state facility, Dachau was guarded by Bavarian police, but on 11 April the SS assumed command. The Dachau camp became the first cell from which a national system of terror germinated. It was a kind of laboratory, under the direction of the SS, where experiments could be carried out with the forms of violence that would soon be used in the other concentration camps within the Reich. The German media reported extensively about Dachau, and the stories that were told about what went on there acted as a powerful deterrent to opposition to the Nazis. “Dear God, strike me numb / Lest to Dachau I do come” was an oft-repeated saying in the Third Reich.87
But the mood in the spring of 1933 was not just one of terror and fear. Most Germans were enthusiastic about what they saw as a national renewal. “There were celebrations, relief, spring and intoxication in the air,” Luise Solmitz wrote on the day of the election.88 Many people shared the sense of being present at the dawning of a new era and felt reminded of the euphoria of August 1914. As Sebastian Haffner observed: “I saw old women with shopping bags stop and stare with glittering eyes at the wormlike army of marching and loudly singing Brownshirts. ‘You can really see it, can’t you?’ they said. ‘How things are looking up everywhere.’ ”89 While many supporters of the political Left withdrew, demoralised, into private niches, those sections of the middle classes that had previously kept their distance hastened to embrace the National Socialists, with flags flying. “Now everyone is a Nazi,” Goebbels noted on 24 February. “Makes me sick.”90 On 30 January, the NSDAP had had 850,000 members; only three months later they had been joined by 2 million others. On 1 May 1933, the party leadership had to declare a temporary moratorium on new memberships because Nazi administrators could no longer deal with the flood of applications.91Erich Ebermayer, one of the few who had retained a measure of critical distance, described the “flip-flop of the middle classes’ as “the most shameful aspect of this entire time.”92
The majority of the new party members were bandwagon jumpers who joined in hopes of improving their career opportunities, not out of political conviction. The desire to be on the winning side was combined with the attempt to gain material advantage from the political changes, be it preferential treatment in the search for employment or actual positions in the public sector or the party administration. A joke quickly made the rounds that NSDAP stood for “Na, suchst du auch’n Pöstchen”—“So you too want a little job.”93 New members were at pains to prove that their “conversions” were genuine, for instance by ostentatiously displaying party emblems. Bella Fromm, the reporter for the Vossische Zeitung, observed: “Our colleagues who previously wore their party badge discreetly under their lapels now put them on show for everyone to see.”94 Another way of declaring political allegiance was to use the greeting “Heil Hitler,” and Sefton Delmer noted that the people most apt to use the new social address were those who had dismissed Hitler as a “clown” just a few weeks earlier.95 The Polish journalist Count Anton Sobanski, who visited Berlin in the spring of 1933, found the sight of people spontaneously performing the raised right-arm salute extremely alienating.96 On 13 July 1933, a decree by Frick made the “German greeting” mandatory for all civil servants.97
Others indicated their support for the new regime by flying the swastika flag. On 11 March, Hindenburg ordered that the swastika be flown alongside the black-red-and-white banner of Imperial Germany. “These flags combine the glorious past of the German Empire and the powerful rebirth of the German nation,” Hindenburg wrote.98 With that, the Weimar Republic was symbolically dead and buried, and those who refused to conform and openly rejected the new regime were increasingly ostracised. “It feels like there’s an airless layer surrounding the few of us who refuse to convert,” Ebermayer complained in his diary. “The best of my young friends are declaring their allegiance to National Socialism…You can’t talk to them at all. They simply believe. And there are no rational arguments against faith.”99 Sebastian Haffner, then a legal clerk, had similar experiences. As of March 1933, the atmosphere in the discussion group he regularly attended became increasingly poisonous. Several of the members joined the NSDAP. Open discussions were no longer possible and, in late May, the group disbanded.100
The inauguration of the newly elected Reichstag was scheduled for 21 March in Potsdam’s Garrison Church. Goebbels, as Germany’s first propaganda minister, had assumed responsibility for organising the ceremony,101 and both the location and date were symbolic. March the 21st was not only the beginning of spring but also signified “national renewal,” since it was the date when Bismarck had called to order the first Reichstag after the founding of the German Empire in 1871. Moreover the church crypt in Potsdam contained the coffins of the “Soldier King” Friedrich Wilhelm I and his son Friedrich the Great, making it the perfect location for a propaganda spectacle intended to symbolise the connection between Prussian tradition and National Socialism.102 The state celebrations began in the morning with services in the main churches of both major denominations, although Hitler and Goebbels declined to attend. Instead, they laid wreaths at the graves of Horst Wessel and other “martyrs of the movement.”103
Around noon, Hitler and Hindenburg met in front of the Garrison Church. The president wore his Prussian field marshal’s uniform, while Hitler had swapped his party uniform for a formal black jacket, which made him visibly uncomfortable. One observer commented that he seemed like “a nervous arriviste being introduced by a powerful patron to an alien social circle.”104 In the imperial box, where the seat belonging to Kaiser Wilhelm II had been left empty, Hindenburg greeted Crown Prince Wilhelm by raising his field marshal’s baton. The gesture was intended to express Hindenburg’s connection to the Hohenzollern dynasty, conveniently ignoring the fact that relations between the field marshal and the royal family had been irreparably damaged when Hindenburg ostensibly abandoned the Kaiser to his fate in 1918.105 The president’s welcoming address was kept short, in the military tradition. With the election of 5 March, Hindenburg stated, the German people had backed the government he had appointed “with a clear majority” and provided the “constitutional basis for its work.” With that, Hindenburg threw his weight behind the fiction that Hitler’s consolidation of power was completely legal. SPD deputies did not attend the ceremony, and KPD representatives were either in detention or had gone underground. Hindenburg called on those members of the Reichstag who were in attendance to look beyond “selfishness and party quarrels” and support the “difficult work” of the government “for the blessing of a free, proud and internally unified Germany.”106
Speaking after Hindenburg, Hitler was initially inhibited, his voice subdued, but gradually he grew more confident. Theodor Heuss, who attended the ceremony as a State Party deputy, found Hitler’s speech “moderate,” if also “very general,” and remarked that it contained “several good formulations but no concrete specification of goals.”107 Very much in the tenor of his address of 1 February, Hitler began by painting a grim picture of the “internal decay” that the revolution of 1918 had brought upon Germany before all the more vividly heralding the “great work of national revival.” The core of Hitler’s speech, however, was a tribute to Hindenburg, whom Hitler directly addressed at a number of junctures. Hitler not only praised the president’s “generous decision” to entrust “young Germany” with the leadership of the Reich on 30 January 1933. He also underlined Hindenburg’s military achievements, declaring: “Your wonderful life is a symbol for all of us of the indestructible vitality of our people.”108 Goebbels noted afterwards: “His best speech. All were moved at the end.”109 Hindenburg himself was also deeply impressed. “The Reich president could hardly conceal how moved he was—there were tears in his eyes,” remarked Hamburg’s mayor, Carl Vincent Krogmann.110 After the speech, Hindenburg went up to Hitler, and the two men shook hands. The marriage of the “old” and the “new” Germany—the central message of the day—was thereby sealed.
“The Day of Potsdam” had an extraordinary public resonance. Like millions of others Elisabeth Gebensleben followed the events by radio. “We are all still under the sway of what we experienced yesterday,” she wrote to her daughter, in Holland, on 22 March.
Rarely in history has a nation enjoyed such a day of celebration, of national enthusiasm and of cheering joy. It was a day that released all of what is best and most holy in our people, which had been bound by tight constraints for many years, so that it could flow out in limitless celebrations of the most profound gratitude.111
The Potsdam spectacle even swayed social circles previously sceptical towards the “national revival.” It seemed as though Hitler were about to transform himself from a narrow-minded party leader into a statesman and a “people’s chancellor,” who bridged gaps and reconciled contradictions instead of polarising people. “He has grown in stature—it can’t be denied,” commented Erich Ebermayer. “As surprising as it may be to his opponents, a true statesman seems to be developing from the demagogue and party leader, the fanatic and rabble-rouser.” What most impressed Ebermayer was Hitler’s carefully staged bow before Hindenburg: “The aged field marshal extends his hand to the private from the First World War. The private bows deeply above the hand of the field marshal…No one could avoid feeling deeply moved.”112
“The Day of Potsdam” represented the “definitive breakthrough” in Hitler and Hindenburg’s personal relationship.113 When he appointed the cabinet of “national concentration” on 30 January, the latter had still had considerable reservations about the former, exemplified among other things by the fact that the new chancellor was only allowed to address Hindenburg in the presence of Papen. In the first weeks of his chancellorship, Hitler therefore concentrated particularly on gaining Hindenburg’s trust with expressions of seeming affection. “The main thing is to win over the old man completely,” Hitler told Baldur von Schirach on 5 February. “We must not do anything to upset him right now.”114 Hitler, a fine actor, was quickly able to gain Hindenburg’s favour and push Papen from his privileged position. “He’s now on good footing with the old man,” Goebbels reported on 17 February.115 On a long train journey from his headquarters in East Prussia to Berlin in May 1942, Hitler himself recalled that his relationship with Hindenburg had improved after ten days to the point that Papen no longer had to be present as a monitor when the two men spoke. After three weeks, Hitler said, the “old gentleman” had behaved with “paternal affection.”116
Hitler was probably exaggerating: Papen recalled that it took until April before he was no longer required to be present for consultations.117 But it is certain that Hindenburg already began showing Hitler his favour in February, for example by defending him against external criticism. On 17 February, the BVP chairman and Bavarian finance minister, Fritz Schäffer, warned Hindenburg that Hitler would “try to violently seize total power,” and complained that “upstanding people” such as Social Democrats were being “labelled Marxists and excluded from the community of the German people.” He received the following answer: “After some initial hesitations, he, the Reich president, found Herr Hitler to be a man of the most honest national intentions and was glad that the leader of this major movement is working together with him and other right-wing groups.”118 Hindenburg was quite pleased with the results of the 5 March election, noting with satisfaction that “once and for all we’re done with all this going to the polls.” The “parliamentary hullabaloo,” the president said, had always been “deeply alien and unsavoury” to him.119
The ceremony in the Garrison Church, so effectively staged by Goebbels, marked a new high point of Hindenburg’s appreciation for Hitler. “The old man very happy about Potsdam,” the propaganda minister noted.120 Three days after the ceremony, Hindenburg told Hamburg’s mayor Krogmann that he “had only got to know and value Hitler after appointing him chancellor.” While it was well known, Hindenburg said, that he had had reservations about Hitler because of the latter’s “demands for sole power,” he now recognised the great gifts and abilities of the chancellor.121 Hitler had succeeded in replacing Papen as Hindenburg’s favourite. Now, after exploiting the aura of the “hero of Tannenburg” to improve his own political reputation, he was going to emerge from the shadow of the aged Reich president and put himself “at the forefront as a charismatic leader in his own right.”122
Anyone who thought that Hitler’s bow before Hindenburg meant that he acknowledged the president’s pre-eminence and was ready to give up his pursuit of absolute power would learn better only two days later, when the Reichstag met in the Kroll Opera House to decide whether to pass the Enabling Act. Hitler not only wanted to strip parliament of power but also to “liberate himself from the constraints of the Reich president and his right to issue emergency decrees, which had thus far been the basis of his rule.”123 The Law to Remedy the Distress of the People and the Reich, as the Enabling Act was officially known, had first been debated in Hitler’s cabinet on 15 March. Interior Minister Frick stressed that the legislation had to be worded broadly enough “so that we can deviate from every provision of the Reich constitution.” Once again, the conservative-nationalist ministers expressed no objections. Hugenberg alone queried “whether the laws to be issued by the government on the basis of the Enabling Act would require any active role at all from the Reich president.” Otto Meissner, and not Hitler, brushed this implicit criticism aside, stating that it was “not necessary” for the Reich president to participate in issuing laws, nor would he demand the right to do so.124
Article 76 of the Reich constitution, however, stipulated that any constitutional amendments had to be approved by a two-thirds parliamentary majority, with at least two thirds of the Reichstag’s members present. Frick calculated for the cabinet how this majority could be achieved. If the 81 KPD seats were invalidated from the 647 mandates in total, only 378 deputies would need to vote for the Enabling Act and not 432. Together with the Battle Front Black, White and Red, the NSDAP had won 340 seats on 5 March. The government thus needed the support of the Centre Party. In order to ensure that two thirds of deputies attended the parliamentary session, parliamentary rules were changed so that “Reichstag members absent without excuse” would also be considered in attendance.125 Hitler was eager to gain the support of the Centre Party because, as he explained at a cabinet meeting on 20 March, in which the wording of the law was approved, “that would strengthen the government’s prestige abroad.” The Enabling Act was limited to four years (Article 5) and allowed the Reich government to decree national laws “outside the process envisioned by the Reich constitution” (Article 1). It was permissible for such laws “to deviate from the constitution” (Article 2). In place of the Reich president, the Reich chancellor was allowed to formulate and publish laws (Article 3). In addition, the Reich government was granted the right to negotiate contracts with foreign countries without consulting the Reichstag (Article 4).126
On the afternoon of 23 March, the Reichstag convened under circumstances unprecedented in German parliamentary history. The National Socialists had arranged for an intimidating backdrop. “The entire square in front of the Kroll Opera House was swarming with fascists,” the SPD deputy Wilhelm Hoegner remembered.
We were received with wild chanting: “We want the Enabling Act.” Young men with swastikas on their chests look us up and down insolently and blocked our way. They made us run the gauntlet while they shouted out insults like “Centrist swine” and “Marxist sow”…When we Social Democrats had taken our seats on the outside left of the assembly, SA and SS men positioned themselves in a semicircle in front of the exits and along the walls behind us. The expressions on their faces told us that nothing good was in store.127
A gigantic swastika flag hung at the front end of the grandstand, where the members of the government were seated, as if this was a Nazi Party event and not the session of an institution representing the people. Hitler appeared again in a brown shirt, after presenting himself in civilian clothing two days before.
After being greeted by the NSDAP faction with a “threefold Heil,” Hitler launched into a two-and-a-half-hour speech, which started with repetition of his tirade about the “national decay caused by the mistaken teachings of Marxism,” before moving on to a very general sketch of the government’s plans “to create a genuine ethnic-popular community” and “morally cleanse the body of the people.” When it came to the economy, Hitler promised something for everyone. Agriculture would once again be made profitable for farmers; the middle classes would be protected from excessive competition; labourers and office workers would enjoy increased spending power; the unemployed would be reintegrated into the production process; and the interests of the export economy would receive additional attention. As far as foreign policy was concerned, Hitler struck a conciliatory note. Germany only wanted “the same rights and freedoms” as other countries and aimed to “live in peace with the world.” Only at the very end of his speech did Hitler discuss the Enabling Act, which he claimed was needed because the government of “national uprising” could not do its job if “it had to request and negotiate permission from the Reichstag in every case.” Hitler promised that his government would only make use of the new law “in so far as it is necessary to take measures that affect the life and death of the nation.” Neither the existence of the Reichstag nor that of the Reich Council was threatened, the German local states were not to be eradicated, and the rights of the Churches would not be curtailed. That final promise was directed at the Catholic Centre Party, whose support for the Enabling Act was still uncertain. After these promises came an unconcealed threat: “Now, gentlemen, you may decide whether it’s to be war or peace.”128
When Hitler had finished, Göring declared a two-hour recess, and the parliamentary factions withdrew for consultations. For the Social Democrats, there was nothing to discuss. The detention, in violation of his parliamentary immunity, of one of their most prominent members, former Prussian Interior Minister Carl Severing, as he tried to enter the opera house, had shown once again what lay in store for the political Left.129 By contrast, there were heated debates within the Centre faction, with a majority, led by Party Chairman Ludwig Kaas, voting to accept the legislation. They argued that in the preceding negotiations Hitler had dangled the prospect of written assurances that the Enabling Act would only be used under specific circumstances. This promise was nothing but one of the feints at which Hitler was so uniquely expert—the plan was never to mail the letter in question. Former Chancellor Brüning, who had described the Enabling Act that morning in a faction meeting as “the most horrific thing ever demanded of a parliament,” tried to the very end to get his party to withhold support. It was “better to go under with honour,” he said, than to reach out to a political movement that “won’t allow the Centre any air to breathe.” But both he and a like-minded minority within the faction ultimately agreed to vote with the majority.130
The parliamentary session reconvened shortly after 6 p.m., with SPD Chairman Otto Wels taking the floor. After the persecution Social Democrats had suffered in recent days, he declared, no one could expect him to support the Enabling Act: “You can take away our liberty and our lives, but not our honour.” It was a courageous speech considering the murderous atmosphere in the makeshift parliamentary hall. It was the last time for twelve years that anyone would make a public declaration of support for democratic principles and the rule of law in front of the Reichstag. “No enabling law gives you the power to destroy ideas that are eternal and indestructible,” Wels said and went on to pay tribute to those who were being pressured and persecuted. “Your determination and loyalty deserve admiration. Your courage in your convictions and unbroken confidence are signs of a brighter future to come.” At this point the parliamentary protocol recorded repeated “laughter from the National Socialists.”131
Hardly had Wels finished speaking than Hitler hurried to the podium to attack him: “You’ve shown up late, but you’ve shown up. The nice theories you’ve just put forth here, Herr Deputy, have been communicated a bit too late to world history.” Hitler’s reply seemed to have been extemporaneous, and it has been often cited as evidence of his gift with words. But the truth is that the editor-in-chief of Vorwärts, Friedrich Stampfer, had earlier distributed the text of Wels’s speech as a press release, which gave Hitler time to prepare his answer to it.132 “You’ve never seen anyone cut down like that,” Goebbels crowed. “Hitler was on a roll. It was a massive success.”133 In fact, the Reich chancellor’s speech revealed his true, brutal, power-hungry face, which he had kept concealed behind the mask of the respectable statesman in Potsdam. “Gentlemen, you are whiny and unfit for the current age, if you already speak of persecution,” Hitler snarled at the Social Democrats. He even went so far as to admit that his overtures to secure support for the Enabling Act were a calculated manoeuvre: “Only because we have Germany and its misery and the necessities of national life clearly in view do we appeal at this hour to the German Reichstag to approve what we could have seized for ourselves anyway.” In conclusion, Hitler once again directly addressed the Social Democrats: “I think that you will not vote for this law because your innermost mentality is incapable of comprehending the intention that animates us…I can only say: I do not want you to vote for it! Germany should be free, but not through any action of yours!” The protocol recorded: “Long, frenetic cries of ‘Heil’ from the National Socialists and the rows of spectators. Applause from the conservative nationalists.”134
Hitler could not have expressed any more clearly that his emphasis on “legality” had been mere lip service and that his government was going to do away with all norms of separation of powers and the rule of law. Nonetheless, that did not prevent the spokesmen of the Centre Party, the Bavarian People’s Party, the German State Party, the German People’s Party and Christian People’s Service from voting for the Enabling Act on behalf of their factions—“in the expectation of an orderly development,” as Reinhold Maier from the State Party put it.135 In the final roll call 441 deputies voted yes, while 94 representatives of the decimated SPD faction voted no. With that, the “blackest day” in German parliamentary history was over.136 On 24 March in cabinet, Hugenberg expressed his gratitude for the “excellent success” to Hitler. He particularly praised Hitler’s reply to Wels’s speech, which had “generally been received as giving the SPD a complete dressing-down.”137 As far as the definitive removal of parliamentary democracy and persecution of its last defenders, the Social Democrats, were concerned, there was complete agreement between National Socialists and conservative nationalists.
The Enabling Act concluded the first phase of the Nazi consolidation of power, and the next step was pre-programmed. In shutting down parliament as a state legislative organ, the political parties sacrificed their raison d’être. But Hitler’s government had not just made itself independent of the Reichstag, which henceforth would merely rubber-stamp and celebrate the regime’s decisions. It had also got rid of the president’s authority to issue emergency decrees.138 This marked the definitive end of the idea of “taming Hitler,” which depended on the ability to call upon the powers of the president’s office. Hitler was no longer constrained in any way by his conservative coalition partners, even though he kept them in his cabinet for the time being to maintain appearances. “So now we are the masters,” declared Goebbels, who sat with Hitler in the Chancellery on the evening of 23 March to listen to a rebroadcast of the Führer’s reply to Wels on the radio.139 Although the Enabling Act, which took effect the following day, was limited to four years, it was extended three times and remained the basis of National Socialist rule until the demise of the regime.
A mere week later, on 1 April, the Hitler government launched its next offensive, calling for the first boycott of Jewish businesses, lawyers and doctors. Since Hitler had taken power on 30 January, anti-Semitic agitation had risen noticeably. Physical attacks on Jews and Jewish businesses had become part of everyday life in many cities and areas. Usually they were organised by local SA and party activists.140 The day after the 5 March election, gangs of SA thugs went after Jewish pedestrians on Berlin’s Kurfürstendamm. “In several parts of Berlin a large number of people, most of whom appeared to be Jews, were openly attacked in the streets and knocked down,” the Berlin correspondent of the Manchester Guardian wrote. “Some of them were seriously injured. The police could do no more than pick up the injured and take them off to hospital.”141 Reports like this in foreign newspapers caused outrage. On 26 March, some 250,000 people in New York and more than a million across the United States protested against the Hitler regime’s anti-Jewish discrimination and persecution.142
Both Nazi propaganda and reports by German diplomats described international criticism as a Jewish “atrocity propaganda” against which the Third Reich had to defend itself.143 The Nazi-organised national boycott of Jewish businesses, doctors and lawyers was intended to punish German Jews for foreign criticism and to channel the “wild” activities of the SA towards a common end. Goebbels and Hitler likely decided to stage the boycott when they had met on the Obersalzberg on 26 March. “I am writing a call for an anti-Jewish boycott,” Goebbels noted after the meeting. “That will put an end to the agitation abroad.”144 A “Central Committee for Defence against Jewish Atrocity and Boycott Agitation” planned and organised the initiative. It was chaired by the Nuremberg Gauleiter, Julius Streicher, the publisher of the viciously anti-Semitic newspaper Der Stürmer. The NSDAP leadership’s appeal was published on 28 March in the Völkischer Beobachter. It called on all Nazi Party groups to form immediate action committees so that the boycott could commence “abruptly” on 1 April and be carried out everywhere “down to the smallest village.” The boycott slogan was: “No good German still buys from a Jew and lets himself be talked into purchases by a Jew or his backers.”145
On 29 March, Hitler informed his cabinet about the planned initiative, leaving no doubt that he had ordered the boycott and stood behind it personally. “He was convinced that a boycott of 2-3 days would convince Jews that their atrocious anti-German agitation was hurting themselves the most,” read a protocol of the cabinet meeting.146 Two days later, some of his ministers voiced concerns. Finance Minister von Krosigk feared “massive losses in sales tax revenues,” while Transport Minister Eltz-Rübenach was concerned the initiative would hurt the German economy, citing the fact that all foreign passages aboard the ships MS Europa and MS Bremen had been cancelled. Hitler appeared to be flexible, saying that he would be willing to postpone the boycott until 4 April if the governments of Britain and the United States issued immediate statements condemning foreign criticism of Nazi Germany. Otherwise, Hitler threatened, the boycott would go ahead as planned for Saturday 1 April, although there would be a two-day pause between then and 4 April.147 In fact, both foreign governments agreed to the statement demanded on the evening of 31 March, but that was deemed too late. The mobilised party grass roots were itching for action, and Hitler would have lost face, even had he wanted to call off the boycott. “I don’t know whether my name will be held in honour in Germany in 200 or 300 years,” Hitler told the Italian ambassador, Vittorio Cerruti, on the eve of the boycott. “But I’m absolutely certain that in 500 or 600 years the name Hitler will be universally glorified as the name of the man who once and for all eradicated the global pestilence that is Jewry.”148
On the morning of 1 April, SA men took up positions with placards in front of Jewish businesses, doctors’ offices and legal firms all over Germany and tried to get people to participate in the boycott. “The Jewish businesses—and there were a lot of them in the streets in the east—were open, and SA men planted themselves, their feet spread wide apart, before their front doors,” recalled Sebastian Haffner, who witnessed the boycott in Berlin.149 Reports differed about how the public reacted. “A murmur of disapproval, suppressed but still audible,” went through the country,” wrote Haffner in retrospect.150 The British ambassador also concluded that the boycott had not been popular but that neither had public opinion swung around in Jews’ favour.151 There were plenty of contemporary stories about customers who deliberately visited Jewish businesses, doctors and lawyers on 1 April. But these people were no doubt a courageous minority. The majority seem to have followed the wishes of the regime. They withheld their patronage, stood by and looked on.152
Many German Jews were deeply shocked by the first government-organised national anti-Semitic initiative. “I always felt German,” Victor Klemperer wrote in his diary. “And I always thought the twentieth century and central Europe were different than the fourteenth century and Romania. A mistake.”153 Klemperer was not alone among patriotic German Jews in feeling that in one fell swoop all guarantees against a return to medieval barbarism had been swept away. The boycott was also greeted with shame and horror by Gentile Germans critical of the regime. Count Kessler, who had resided in Paris since deciding not to return to Germany, remarked on 1 April: “This contemptible boycott of Jews in the Reich. This criminal act of insanity has destroyed all the trust and respect Germany had regained in the past fourteen years.”154
Although the boycott was not resumed on 4 April, local SA and party groups staged repeated actions against Jewish businesses in the weeks and months that followed,155 and the Hitler government began using less conspicuous methods of forcing Jews from German society. On 7 April, the regime issued the Law Concerning the Re-establishment of a Professional Civil Service, which not only allowed the government to dismiss state employees considered politically unreliable, but also mandated that civil servants from “non-Aryan backgrounds” be sent into early retirement. Jewish state employees who had fought at the front in the First World War, or whose fathers or sons had fallen, were exempt from the law.156 In a letter to Hitler, Hindenburg had urged him to adopt these exceptions. “If they were good enough to fight and shed their blood for Germany,” Hindenburg wrote, “they should be considered worthy enough to serve their fatherland in their jobs.”157 This did not mean that Hindenburg was generally unhappy about the discriminatory measures. In late April, when Sweden’s Prince Carl, the head of the Swedish Red Cross, tried to intervene on behalf of German Jews, the Reich president rejected those attempts by saying that a peaceful and orderly national revolution was taking place—a development all the more remarkable because “the now-victorious National Socialist movement has been the victim of serious injustice from Jewish and Jewish-Marxist quarters.”158 Hindenburg’s intervention on behalf of Jewish war veterans was thus not a rejection of the regime’s anti-Semitic policies but rather an expression of his loyalty towards those who had fought in the First World War.
It is telling how Hitler reacted to Hindenburg’s letter. On the one hand, he justified his policies by arguing that the German people had to defend themselves against “Jews swamping certain professions,” and that Jews had remained “an alien element that had never merged with the German people.” On the other, he lavished praise upon the Reich president for intervening on behalf of Jewish veterans “in such generous human fashion,” and he promised to “be true to this noble sentiment as broadly as possible.” The next sentence he wrote epitomised Hitler as a master of dissimulation: “I understand your internal rationale, and by the way, I myself often suffer under the difficult fate of being forced to make decisions that as a human being I would prefer one thousandfold to avoid.”159 Hitler still could not afford to alienate Hindenburg, so he slipped into a role that he knew would please the Reich president: that of the polite, modest, adaptable politician who was selflessly doing his burdensome duty and who was forced to act harshly towards Jews and “Marxists” in the interest of the German people and not because that was what he himself wanted.
The Civil Service Law of 7 April was a watershed, marking the first time that the German government curtailed the legal equality of German Jews. It was the first step in a gradual process of reversing the legal emancipation of German Jews completed in 1871. Further discriminatory laws—including the Law on the Licensing of Lawyers and the Law to Combat Overcrowding of Universities—were also issued in April.160Still, only a small minority of German Jews could imagine at this point that the course being taken, in line with Hitler’s lunatic ideological fixations, would end in their complete “removal” from the German “ethnic-popular community.” One of the few who did was Georg Solmssen, spokesman for the board of directors of Deutsche Bank. On 9 April, he wrote to the chairman of the bank’s supervisory board: “I fear that we stand at the beginning of a development that is consciously directed towards economically and morally eradicating all members of the Jewish race [sic] living in Germany according to careful plans.”161
If there was a social force capable of halting the National Socialists’ takeover of German institutions in the April of 1933, it might have been the free trade unions which together made up the Confederation of German Trade Unions (ADGB). But in fact the unions had been destroyed by the beginning of May without having put up any serious resistance—an unprecedented phenomenon that marked the nadir of the German labour movement.162 In his first two months in power, Hitler was uncertain about how to deal with the unions. His initial hesitation was a measure of his respect for such organisations, whose four million members had considerable potential for putting up a fight. But the unions’ surprising vacillation between passivity and ingratiation soon convinced Hitler that they would offer no opposition.
In late February, the confederation had begun to distance itself from the SPD, with which it had been allied for decades, and to move towards the National Socialists. On 21 March, Confederation Chairman Theodor Leipart directly approached Hitler with a request for a meeting. The letter was sycophantic in tone—Leipart signed off with the phrase “With the deepest respect and subservience”—and amounted to a declaration of principles concerning future union activity by the confederation’s leaders. It contained an astonishing concession: “The social tasks of unions must be fulfilled regardless of the nature of the political regime.”163 On 9 April, the confederation’s leadership officially offered to place union organisations “at the service of the state” and suggested the appointment of a “Reich commissioner for unions.”164 But Hitler did not deem either this offer or Leipart’s letter of 21 March worthy of an answer.
Typically, the Nazi leadership requited the unions’ attempts to cosy up to the regime with a carrot-and-stick approach to the working classes. Union buildings were targeted for violent attacks by the SA, and union functionaries in various places were arrested and physically abused. In vain, Leipart turned to Hindenburg as “the shepherd and guarantor of the civil rights anchored in the constitution,” asking him to “put an end to the legal uncertainty that threatens the lives and property of German workers in numerous German cities.”165 Leipart’s protests were futile. The fundamental constitutional rights he cited had long been abrogated by Hitler and his coalition—with Hindenburg’s consent.
At the same time, the Hitler regime stepped up its efforts to prise the working classes away from traditional labour organisations and win them over to the “national uprising.” In late March, Goebbels suggested to the cabinet that 1 May, historically a day of activism for the workers’ movement in Germany, be declared a “holiday of national labour” along the lines of the recent ceremonies in Potsdam.166 Whereas the Day of Potsdam had served to celebrate the symbolic unification of Prussia and National Socialism, 1 May was conceived as a way of cementing Nazism’s connection to the German working classes. Ideological appropriation and violence against opponents were two sides of the same coin. In early April, an “Action Committee for the Protection of German Labour,” chaired by NSDAP Reich Organisational Director Robert Ley, was tasked with drawing up a plan to disempower the trade unions. Hitler gave it the green light from the Obersalzberg on 17 April. Goebbels was once more at the centre of the decision-making process. May the 1st will be celebrated in a “major way,” he noted, and then: “The union headquarters will be occupied on 2 May. ‘Brought into line.’ A couple of days of uproar, and then they will be ours.”167 On 21 April, Ley informed the Gauleiter about these plans: “On Tuesday, 2 May 1933, at 10 a.m., we will start to bring the independent labour unions into line.” The goal, Ley announced, was “to give workers the feeling that this action is not directed against them, but against an outmoded system no longer in the interests of the German nation.”168
The ADGB’s executive committee was still under the illusion it could come to some sort of arrangement with the regime. In mid-April it welcomed the decision to declare 1 May a holiday and expressed support for the new significance given to the occasion: “In keeping with his status, the German worker should take to the streets on 1 May and show that he is a full member of the German ethnic-popular community.”169On 1 May 1933, union members and Nazis marched together under swastika banners. The main event took place on Berlin’s Tempelhofer Feld, formerly a parade ground for the Imperial military. Goebbels had taken charge of organising the spectacle, which he hoped would be his second propaganda masterpiece.170 More than 1 million people took up formation in twelve blocks in front of a gigantic grandstand amidst a sea of flags and banners brightly illuminated by spotlights. In his speech, which was again broadcast on all German radio stations, Hitler appropriated the traditional symbolism of 1 May for the German labour movement, attempting to conflate it with the idea of the “ethnic-popular community.” He adroitly drew parallels between the rhetoric of social reconciliation and the ideas of “workers of the mind and the fist”—a phrase that suggested equality and that no doubt impressed many previously sceptical members of the working classes, as did the event as a whole.171 “Fantastic flush of enthusiasm,” noted Goebbels, who was awe-struck by the spectacle he had staged. Even a critical observer like André François-Poncet was unable to resist the lure of mass suggestion. The effect of Hitler’s “sometimes hoarse, and then once more cutting and wild” voice, he wrote, was augmented by the “theatrical props,” the interplay of light and shadow, the banners and uniforms and insistent rhythms of the music, so that even the French ambassador thought he could sense a “hint of reconciliation and unity.”172
But those illusions were dispelled the very next day. Storm troopers occupied union headquarters and took labour leaders, including Leipart, into “protective custody.” Goebbels was pleased, noting, “Everything is running like clockwork.”173 Leipart’s attempt to save his organisation with what bordered on self-annihilating conformity had failed. A few days later, the German Labour Front was founded under Robert Ley. This was a mammoth umbrella organisation of Nazified workers’ organisations and proved to be a most effective tool for integrating the working classes into the Nazi state.174 German labourers no longer had a body independent of the government to represent their interests. On 19 May the Law on the Administrators of Labour replaced negotiated wage and labour agreements with binding state decrees. A major principle of the socially equitable Weimar Constitution thereby disappeared with the stroke of a pen.175
In a diary entry on 3 June, Goebbels announced with brutal directness what was to follow the dissolution of the unions: “All parties will have to be destroyed. We alone will remain.”176 The KPD had already been suppressed; the SPD was next in line. The regime took immediate repressive action in response to the Social Democratic parliamentary faction’s refusal to support the Enabling Act. Disappointment and resignation spread among SPD members and increasing numbers quit the party. After witnessing the Nazis’ move against the unions, the SPD feared that it could be banned, and those worries were fuelled when Göring confiscated the party’s assets on 10 May. Earlier that month, several members of the Social Democratic leadership had travelled to the Saarland, which was still under the administration of the League of Nations, to prepare for potential emigration. But they disagreed amongst themselves. Was it better to move the party abroad and organise the fight against the regime in exile or to use the legal means that remained to salvage within Germany what could be salvaged? Adherents of the latter point of view were behind the majority of the SPD Reichstag delegates who opted to endorse Hitler’s “peace speech” on 17 May—which we will examine in detail in the next chapter. This not only improved Hitler’s political standing abroad, but also overshadowed the party’s rejection of the Enabling Act. The result was a schism in the party leadership. On 21 May in Saarbrücken, several top party leaders, including Otto Wels, decided to move to Prague and pursue illegal resistance from outside Germany. Those Social Democrats who stayed behind in Berlin under the leadership of Paul Löbe, however, claimed to speak for the party in its entirety. Their hopes that Hitler would become more conciliatory if they compromised were soon dashed.
On 18 June the first edition of Neuer Vorwärts, a relaunch of the Social Democrats’ traditional party newspaper, was published in the Czech city of Karlovy Vary, containing a sharply worded declaration of war on the Hitler regime by the leadership of the SPD in exile. That provided Interior Minister Frick with a welcome pretext to prohibit, in a decree to local state governments on 21 June, the SPD from engaging in any political activity as a “party hostile to the state and people.”177 A wave of arrests of SPD functionaries and Reichstag and Landtag deputies followed. During the “Köpenick Blood Week” in late July 1933, a rolling SA commando attacked the largely Social Democratic Berlin district, arresting more than 500 men and torturing them so brutally that 91 of them died. Among those murdered in this fashion was a member of the SPD executive committee and the former state president of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, Johannes Stelling. Exiled Social Democratic circles described his death as follows: “After the worst sort of mistreatment, he was dumped nearly unconscious outside an SA barracks, where he was detained once again by plainclothes SA men. He was thrown in a car, taken into custody and tortured to death. His body, which had been beaten beyond recognition, was later fished out of the Dahme river in a closed, weighted-down sack.”178 This sort of atrocity had already become possible in Germany in the summer of 1933, without anyone from the country’s traditional elites or middle classes—to say nothing of the conservative cabinet ministers—raising a word of protest.
“SPD dissolved—Bravo!” crowed Goebbels. “We won’t have long to wait for the total state.”179 And indeed, the centrist middle-class parties could no longer hold on. In late June and early July, the German State Party and the German People’s Party dissolved. After the election of 5 March, these liberal parties had lost so much support that hardly anyone noticed when they disappeared.180 The situation was different with the conservative German National People’s Party (DNVP), which, after all, still sat at meetings as the NSDAP’s coalition partner. In late April, Labour Minister Seldte had announced that he was joining the Nazi Party and passing on the leadership of the Stahlhelm to Hitler. This association of First World War veterans was gradually Nazified, and most of its members assigned to the SA.181 In early May, the DNVP changed its name to the German National Front as a way of demonstrating that it was just as opposed to parliamentary democracy as the NSDAP. But the name change did nothing to prevent more and more of its members from defecting to the Nazi Party. In addition, party centres were increasingly subject to attacks by the SA and SS. On 17 May 1933, Alfred Hugenberg and the deputy leader of the German National Front, Friedrich von Winterfeld, complained to the president about attempts throughout Germany “to concentrate power entirely in National Socialist hands and push aside all other men of nationalist sentiment.” Hindenburg answered that he was convinced the Reich chancellor had only the best intentions at heart and was “working in the interest of the fatherland and justice with a clear conscience.” Unfortunately, Hitler’s subordinates “pushed things too far,” Hindenburg conceded, but that problem would diminish over time. He appealed to both Hugenberg and Winterfeld to “maintain the unity that we concluded and sealed with our hearts’ blood on 30 January so that what has since been achieved never falls apart.”182
DNVP Chairman Hugenberg himself contributed to the inexorable downfall of this formerly so self-confident and power-orientated conservative party. At the International Economic Conference in London in mid-June, without consulting with the other members of the German delegation, Hugenberg presented a memorandum demanding the return of Germany’s former colonies in Africa as well as land in eastern Europe for new settlements for his “people without space.” The latter in fact reflected Hitler’s plans for the future, but no one was supposed to raise the issue in public, least of all at an international conference. Hitler could now cannily portray Hugenberg as an incorrigible representative of the Wilhelmine thirst for world power and himself as a relative moderate. Hugenberg’s position within the cabinet became untenable and even his conservative colleagues refused to intervene on his behalf. On 27 June, Hitler informed his ministers that Hugenberg had offered to resign. He personally regretted this step, claimed the Führer, barely able to conceal his delight at marginalising his rival, but “the best thing would be for the German National People’s Party to disappear.”183 The party announced its dissolution that very day. A “friendship agreement” with the NSDAP promised to protect former DNVP members against “all forms of humiliation and disadvantage.”
With no further ado, the “economic dictator,” who had believed that together with Papen he could restrain Hitler, departed the political stage. “They’ve got their just deserts for their contemptible betrayal of the German people,” commented Harry Kessler. “Papen will have his turn too.”184 In September Hugenberg was craven enough to communicate in a letter to his “most esteemed Herr Hitler” his immutable “life’s wish” that the work they had jointly begun on 30 January be carried out to its “happy conclusion.” When Hitler subsequently declared himself “pleasantly moved” that Hugenberg had maintained his “comradely sentiments” despite his departure from the cabinet, Hugenberg did not neglect to solemnly assure Hitler on the first anniversary of his “seizure of power” that he stuck by “all the ideas and goals that initially brought us together.”185 As Hugenberg’s successor at the head of the Economics Ministry, Hindenburg named Kurt Schmitt, the head of the Allianz insurance company and a Nazi Party member. Richard Walter Darré was made minister of food and agriculture. Hitler also succeeded in allowing Rudolf Hess, in his function as “deputy of the Führer,” to attend all future cabinet meetings.186 With that the Nazi Party had a cabinet majority. “The worst is behind us,” noted Goebbels. “The revolution is taking its course.” Goebbels personally profited from Hugenberg’s resignation, inheriting his governmental apartment.187
The end of the Catholic parties was hardly any less disgraceful. By June, mass resignations of party members combined with state repression had diminished the Centre Party’s will to continue. The party’s position became completely impossible when the Vatican, in its negotiations over a concordat with the Nazi regime, agreed that priests would be prohibited in future from engaging in any party-political activity. That was effectively the full capitulation of political Catholicism. The National Socialists rebuffed attempts by the Centre Party to liquidate itself under the same terms as the DNVP,188 and on 5 July the party decided to dissolve. The previous day, its Bavarian sister, the BVP, had also disbanded after being given promises that its members who had been taken into custody would be released.189 On 14 July, the Reich government issued the Law Prohibiting the Reconstitution of the Parties. It proclaimed the NSDAP to be the “only political party in Germany” and made the attempt to preserve or found any other party a prosecutable offence.190 The one-party state became a reality. National Socialist domination of Germany, reported the Swiss chargé d’affaires in Berlin, was “a fact that will have to be reckoned for a considerable time.”191
Hitler had needed only five months to consolidate power. “Everything that existed in Germany outside the Nazi Party,” wrote François-Poncet in early July, “has been destroyed, dispelled, dissolved, co-opted or sucked in.” Considering the political situation he found on 1 February and the conditions under which he became German chancellor, the French ambassador concluded, Hitler had “successfully performed a lightning-quick manoeuvre.”192 Indeed, the changes in political conditions proceeded so rapidly that many contemporaries could hardly keep up with them. “It is a turbulent time that brings something new every day,” Theodor Heuss wrote in late June.193 Looking back at the summer of 1933, Sebastian Haffner described the situation of non-Nazi Germans as “one of the most difficult a human being could find himself in…a state of being completely and hopelessly overwhelmed as well as suffering from the after effects of the shock of being bowled over.” Haffner concluded: “The Nazis had us completely at their mercy. All bastions had fallen, and any form of collective resistance had become impossible.”194 Victor Klemperer saw things much the same. On 9 July 1933, he noted in his diary: “And now this monstrous internal tyranny, the break-up of all the parties, the daily emphasis on the idea that ‘We National Socialists alone have power. It is our revolution.’ Hitler is the absolute master.”195
Is it appropriate to call what happened in Germany between February and July 1933 a revolution? The National Socialist leadership, above all Hitler and Goebbels, were not the only ones to use this term as a matter of course. The Nazis’ conservative coalition partners also employed it. In late March, Papen told the German-American Chamber of Commerce in New York that the “national revolution,” whose goal was “to liberate Germany from grave Communist danger and to cleanse the governmental administration of inferior elements,” had been carried out with “impressive orderliness.”196 In April, a close relative of Hindenburg, Lieutenant General Karl von Fabeck, proclaimed: “We are still in the middle of the national revolution, but it is victorious across the board.”197 Even critics and sceptics saw the overwhelming dynamics of change as revolutionary. “Only now…has the revolution truly begun,” noted the writer Erich Ebermayer on 28 February, the day after the Reichstag fire.198 Count Harry Kessler in turn characterised the situation in March as a “counter-revolution.”199
Compared with contemporaries, historians have been more reticent about using the term “revolution” in conjunction with the Nazi consolidation of power. There are good reasons for this. The word usually implies not only a radical political shake-up, but a fundamental remaking of society, for example the replacement of one set of social elites with another. By contrast, the Nazi consolidation of power in 1933 was characterised by an alliance between traditional elites in the military, major industry, large-scale agriculture and governmental bureaucracy, on the one hand, and the Nazi mass movement and its Führer on the other. Moreover, since the American and French Revolutions, the term usually has the positive connotation of an increase in liberty, justice and humanity. That was anything but the case under the Hitler regime. Despite its insistence on the pretence of “legality,” the first months of the new government left no doubt as to its radically inhumane character, which was hostile towards all principles of democracy, the rule of law and morality. “This revolution boasts of its bloodlessness,” Thomas Mann wrote on 20 April 1933, Hitler’s forty-fourth birthday, “but it is the most hateful and murderous revolution that has ever been.”200Sebastian Haffner also recognised early on that this six-month period in 1933 represented a break with civilisation, which drew its social energies from the Nazis’ will to subject the entire German people to their power and reform it in line with Hitler’s far-reaching racist and ideological programme.201 In light of the regime’s goal of totally dominating all aspects of life, the historian Hans-Ulrich Wehler proposed the term “totalitarian revolution,” depicting a new type of political and social upheaval. This concept still seems best suited for comprehending the specific character of the systematic transformation Germany underwent in 1933.202
After monopolising political power, Hitler redefined certain key ideas. Revolution, he announced to his Reich governors on 6 July, could not be allowed to become a “constant state of affairs.” The revolutionary “current,” he proclaimed, had to be “redirected into the secure riverbed of evolution.” Now that the goal of “external power” had been achieved, emphasis would switch to “people’s education.”203 Goebbels repeated this idea in a radio address in the city of Königsberg: “We will only be satisfied when we know that the entire people understands us and recognises us as its highest advocate.” The goal, Goebbels stated with utter frankness, was that “there should be only one opinion, one party and one faith in Germany.”204
This meant that all sectors of cultural life were to be brought into line with Nazi ideas. In the first six months of Nazi rule, Goebbels oversaw a comprehensive change in personnel in German radio, the most important medium of political and ideological indoctrination. In so far as they were not simply banned, newspapers were softened up by economic pressure and subjected to government monitoring. Some of the larger liberal newspapers like the Frankfurter Zeitung were granted a measure of freedom, but even this was constrained by daily governmental press instructions and editorial self-censorship. In the realms of music, film, theatre, the visual arts and literature, the process of Nazification ran parallel to the removal of Jews from these areas of cultural life: they were seen to personify the modernism so hated by the Nazis, and Hitler had constantly defamed them as advocates of “cultural Bolshevism” prior to 1933. It was particularly easy for the National Socialists to “cleanse” Germany’s universities since German academics were conspicuously willing to bring themselves into line with the regime. The most repulsive manifestation of this attitude was the action “Contrary to the Ungerman Spirit”—the book burnings carried out by students, with the support of university administrations, on Berlin’s Opernplatz and in most other German university towns on 10 May. As a result the very first year of the Nazi regime saw a mass exodus of artists, writers, scientists and journalists from which German intellectual and cultural life has never fully recovered.205 The establishment of the Reich Cultural Chamber, which was inaugurated with Hitler in attendance at the Berlin Philharmonic Concert Hall in November 1933, completed the reshaping of the entire arena of German culture.206 Anyone who wanted to work in film, music, theatre, journalism, radio, literature or the visual arts was required to be a member of one of the seven individual chambers that comprised this institution.
As total as the process of bringing society into line was, the success or failure of the regime depended on its ability to keep its promise to combat mass unemployment. In his very first radio address on 1 February, Hitler announced a “massive, blanket attack on unemployment” that was to overcome the problem “once and for all” within four years.207 On 6 July as well, he told his regional representatives that creating jobs was decisive: “History will only measure us on how we tackle this task.”208 Multiple factors played into the hands of Hitler and his regime. By the time he came to power, economic recovery was already under way. The government also profited from job-creation measures taken under Papen and Schleicher that were only just beginning to bear fruit.209 In terms of announcing employment initiatives of his own, Hitler was conspicuously low-key in the weeks leading up to the Reichstag election. He enumerated the reasons for this in a cabinet meeting on 8 February: “The Reich government has to get 18-19 million voters behind it. There is no economic programme in the whole wide world capable of attracting the approval of such a large mass of voters.”210
It was not until late May 1933 that the cabinet agreed on the Law for the Reduction of Unemployment. Known as the “First Reinhardt Programme” after Finance Ministry State Secretary Fritz Reinhardt, it allocated 1 billion reichsmarks for the creation of additional jobs. That sum was augmented by 500 million reichsmarks in the “Second Reinhardt Programme of September 1933,” which particularly concerned restoration and renovation projects and sought to boost the construction industry.211 The regime took other measures to ease the situation in the job market. The First Reinhardt Programme introduced interest-free “marriage loans” of up to 1,000 reichsmarks, which were contingent on newly-wed women leaving the workforce on the day of their wedding. Simultaneously the regime launched a campaign against the “double-earner syndrome” aimed at forcing women out of the labour market. The government subsidised emergency works projects and assigned jobless people to work in agriculture. It also expanded the Volunteer Labour Service, a state employment programme that had been introduced in the final years of the Weimar Republic. All these measures led to a great reduction in the numbers of people officially registered as unemployed. Between January 1933 and January 1934, the official number of jobless declined from 6 to 3.8 million people, although these figures were by no means completely reliable.212 In any case, the regime seemed to be keeping its promise and tackling the unemployment problem head-on, and this impression no doubt played a major role in increasing the aura surrounding the man at the top.
Hitler was no expert on questions of economic policy, but he had enough of an understanding of the subject to know that populist rhetoric alone would be insufficient. Incentives were needed to stimulate a self-perpetuating economic recovery. However, among the measures designed to jump-start the economy and create new jobs, the role played by the construction of the autobahn was less important than later myths about the Nazi “economic miracle” would have it. In his opening speech at the International Motor Show on 11 February 1933, Hitler had announced “the commencement and completion of a large-scale roadworks plan.” He proclaimed: “Just as horse-drawn traffic created paths and the railway system built the tracks it needed, motor-vehicle transport has to get the motorway it requires.”213 The idea was not fundamentally new. In the mid-1920s, an “Association for the Preparation of the Motorway Hanseatic Cities-Frankfurt-Basle” (Hafraba) had drawn up plans for an autobahn. Hitler had probably also read a pamphlet written by the Munich engineer Fritz Todt in late 1932 entitled “Road Construction and Management,” in which the author had stressed the “strategic” importance of motorway construction and calculated that Germany needed 5,000 to 6,000 kilometres of high-speed roads.214 In late March and early April, Hafraba’s commercial director gave two talks about the planned project in the Reich Chancellery. The motoring fan Hitler seized upon the idea “with great enthusiasm” but insisted on aiming for a national motorway network instead of a single stretch of road: “It would be a great achievement if we succeeded in realising the network under our regime.”215 At a conference with leading industrialists on 29 May, Hitler reiterated his intention to support the construction of the autobahn with all the means at his disposal. Tackling “the problem in its entirety” was the main task, Hitler proclaimed, adding: “Traffic in the years to come will take place on the largest of streets.”216
On 27 June, the Law for the Establishment of the Undertaking “Reich Autobahn” came into force. Three days later, Todt was appointed inspector general of German roadways. On 23 September, Hitler personally dug the first turf for the stretch of motorway between Frankfurt and Darmstadt—a gesture with the propaganda aim of suggesting the Führer was leading the way in what was called the “labour battle.”217 But the short-term effect on unemployment of building the autobahn was only marginal. In 1933, no more than 1,000 men were employed building the first stretch of motorway, and a year after Todt’s appointment only 38,000 had been given work.218 On the one hand, the number of newly registered cars almost doubled in 1933, compared with the previous year, and the number of people employed in the car industry had also grown substantially; on the other, compared with the United States, the level of car ownership in Germany was low. The main reason, as Hitler complained in a meeting to discuss the financing of the autobahn in September 1933, was that the German car industry had not adapted its production to reflect people’s actual income. “They keep building cars that are too heavy and are a long way from realising the goal of a car ranging in price from 1,000 to 1,200 reichsmarks,” Hitler said.219 Thus it was that in 1934 the idea was born of producing an affordable small car, the Volkswagen—the people’s car—that would be affordable to the working classes.220
The strongest long-term stimuli driving economic recovery and the decrease in unemployment came from the rearmament of Germany, which Hitler began pursuing immediately after being named Reich chancellor. As early as February 1933, Hitler was stressing to Germany’s military and his cabinet that rearmament would be made an absolute priority. “Sums in the billions” would have to be found, Hitler declared, because “the future of Germany depends solely and alone on the reconstruction of the Wehrmacht.”221 Hitler did not think then that Reichsbank President Hans Luther was flexible enough to support accelerated rearmament with expansive monetary and credit policies, so in March 1933 he appointed Hjalmar Schacht to the post. This was also an expression of gratitude for the valuable services Schacht had rendered to the National Socialists before 1933.222 The package of expenditures drawn up for the military totalled an astronomical 35 billion reichsmarks. The sum dwarfed that allocated for civilian job-creation measures and was to be placed at the government’s disposal in annual instalments of 4.4 billion reichsmarks over the course of eight years.223 To finance such expenses, Schacht came up with a deviously clever system for procuring money. In the summer of 1933, for the purpose of financing arms contracts, four large industrial and armaments companies—Gutehoffnungshütte, Krupp, Rheinstahl and Siemens—formed a dummy firm called Metallurgische Forschungsgesellschaft (Mefo—Metallurgic Research Society), which issued bills of exchange, guaranteed by the state and discounted by the Reichsbank, to the arms producers. The first Mefo bills were drawn in the autumn of 1933, but in line with the pace of rearmament the first major payments only began in April 1934.224 That initiated a spiralling process of financing a rearmament industry on credit, which in the long term would have led to serious economic defaults.
“Never stand still—always move forwards!” That was Goebbels’s concise formulation in November 1933 of the action-first principle that had guided the Nazis since they took power on 30 January.225 The principle reflected Hitler’s social Darwinist mantra that constant struggle would be the vital elixir of his movement. Like all charismatic leaders, Hitler faced the problem that his power, which he owed to an extreme and extraordinary situation, might wear thin over time and be subjected to a process of “normalisation.”226 Thus while the tempo of his power consolidation and development varied, things were never allowed to come to a standstill. Hitler may have made more progress and achieved easier triumphs than he had dared imagine in his wildest dreams, but he was still quite some way from being the “Führer” whose dictatorship was unquestioned. While their positions were growing weaker, he still had to take into consideration the power of the military and the Reich president. And above all, within the Nazi movement itself, the SA was becoming a problem.
When the Nazis had consolidated their power in the summer of 1933, the Brownshirts saw themselves robbed of their most important raison d’être: terrorising and neutralising the Nazis’ political opponents. Consequently, in early August, Göring rescinded the decree from the preceding February which made the SA an auxiliary police force. Politically there was no point any more to the Brownshirts’ violent activism, and the Nazi leadership viewed it as counter-productive. Many SA men were disappointed. They had hoped that when the party achieved power, their personal situation would change for the better overnight, and these people now felt that the “party bigwigs” and their “reactionary” supporters had cheated them of the spoils of victory.227 Within the SA itself tensions were rising between the “old fighters” and new members who had joined the paramilitary group in hordes since the May 1933 moratorium on new NSDAP members. On 30 January 1933, the SA had fewer than 500,000 members. By the summer of 1934, that number—which now also included incorporated nationalist militias, above all the Stahlhelm—had risen to 4.5 million. This enormous influx of newcomers could hardly be integrated, and increased the potential for dissatisfaction.228 Calls for a “second revolution” were growing.
In June 1933, SA Chief of Staff Ernst Röhm made reference to this negative mood in an article he published in the monthly journal Nationalsozialistische Monatshefte. The “national uprising,” wrote Röhm, had thus far “only travelled part of the way up the path of German revolution.” The SA, he asserted, “would not tolerate the German revolution falling asleep or being betrayed by non-fighters halfway towards its goal.” At the end of his article, Röhm issued a direct threat to all “wimpy bourgeois souls”; he wrote, “Whether they like it or not, we will continue our fight. If they finally understand what is at stake, then with them! If they refuse to understand, then without them! And if need be, against them!”229 With that the perennial structural problem in the relationship between the NSDAP and the SA had re-emerged. Röhm made it unmistakably clear that the SA did not want to be reduced to a mere recipient of commands from the party leadership. On the contrary, he laid claim to a position of power for himself and his organisation within the Third Reich. The mass influx of new SA members played into his hands since it added weight to his demands vis-à-vis the much smaller Reichswehr. Röhm envisioned transforming the SA into a kind of militia army, thereby challenging the regular army’s monopoly on the right to weaponry and threatening to subordinate the Reichswehr to the SA. This was a prospect that alarmed both the military leadership and Hitler, who had concluded an alliance with Germany’s generals in February 1933.
The problems presented by the SA were inseparably connected to the question of who would succeed Hindenburg. In early October 1933, the Reich president turned 86. It was obvious that he could die at any time. When the time came, Goebbels had insisted at a meeting on the Obersalzberg in late March, Hitler himself should succeed him. But Hitler was undecided. “He is not really up for it,” Goebbels noted.230 By July, having conferred with Reich Chancellery State Secretary Hans Heinrich Lammers, Goebbels had decided: “Hitler cannot tolerate a Reich president hanging over him, even as a figurehead. Both offices must be united in a single person.” After a “long discussion about fundamental principles” on 24 August, Hitler and Goebbels agreed that the positions of Reich chancellor and Reich president should be merged.231Two days later, Hitler travelled to East Prussia to visit Hindenburg in Neudeck and take part in a celebration at the Tannenberg memorial on 27 August. He considered it “a blessing and gift of providence,” Hitler proclaimed, to be able to express thanks to the field marshal “in the name of the German people…on the soil of the most glorious battlefield in the great war.” Hitler also used the occasion to give Hindenburg title to the Prussian domains of Langenau and the Preussenwald forest and declare the Neudeck estate exempt from taxes.232
Hitler could only succeed Hindenburg with the support of the Reichswehr since the Reich president was the army’s commander-in-chief. That alone was reason enough to keep Röhm in his place. But as always when faced with difficult decisions, Hitler played for time. Initially he tried to make Röhm more obedient with a combination of verbal attacks and solicitous gestures. On the one hand, in his speech to his Gauleiter on 6 July, he left no doubt that he would “drown, if necessary, in blood” any attempt at a “second revolution.” On 28 September, he repeated this threat in front of the same audience. “He knew all too well that there were many dissatisfied creatures whose ambition could not be sated,” one report of that speech read. “As a matter of course he could show no consideration for such ambitions. He would not sit back and watch the activities of such subjects for very much longer. At some point he would suddenly intervene.”233 On the other hand, in December, Hitler invited Röhm to join his cabinet as a minister without portfolio, the same distinction that Hess enjoyed. And on New Year’s Eve, he sent a letter to his “dear chief of staff,” gushing with thanks for the “eternal services” he had performed for “the National Socialist movement and the German people.”234
Nonetheless in early 1934 it became increasingly clear that Hitler could not postpone a decision for much longer. The mood of dissatisfaction had spread beyond SA circles. The national euphoria of the first few months of the regime had yielded to a certain sobriety. Even Goebbels had to acknowledge: “Negative mood in broad circles because of grandiosity, price hikes, state intervention in agriculture, etc.”235 Workers were angry that food prices were rising while their wages stagnated. Farmers did not like the Hereditary Farm Law, which restricted their freedom in running their property. Middle-class retailers still felt subjected to unfair competition from large department stores. And economic recovery was not continuing as fast as many people had hoped. Disappointment at unfulfilled material desires was combined with increasing bitterness at corruption and nepotism. The latter was directed at party functionaries who had seized the moment to claim lucrative posts. Hitler himself was largely exempt from criticism, however. The reports of the SPD in exile in Prague, which were based on information from sources within Germany, recorded as typical the sentiments of a Munich resident: “Our Adolf is all right, but those around him are all complete scoundrels.”236
Nor did the growing dissatisfaction escape the notice of foreign diplomats. It was unmistakable, reported the Danish envoy, Herluf Zahle, in April 1934, that “the enthusiasm greeting the government has cooled to some degree.”237 Jews who were being harassed in Germany took heart. “People are no longer as convinced that what’s going on right now will last for ever,” Victor Klemperer wrote in his diary in early February 1934. “There’s a gnashing of teeth going through all too many classes, professions and faiths.”238 In fact, the dissatisfaction rarely went beyond general grumbling. But Goebbels took it seriously enough to launch a counter-offensive in May aimed at the “pessimists, moaners and critics.”239
The decline in the public mood formed the background to the growing conflict between the Reich government and the military, on the one side, and the SA on the other. In a speech he gave to his Gauleiter in Berlin on 2 February 1934, Hitler once again attacked the SA leadership without naming any names. Only “fools” could maintain that the “revolution was not yet at an end,” Hitler fumed, which was merely a way of trying “to put themselves in certain positions.”240 The day before, Röhm had sent Werner von Blomberg a letter in which he demanded that the SA take over the function of defending the country and that the Reichswehr be reduced to a mere training army.241 The military leadership saw this as an open declaration of hostility and began to draft its own “Guidelines for Working with the SA,” in which the Brownshirts were degraded to the role of offering preliminary military instruction and helping to monitor the Reich’s borders. In a demonstration of loyalty towards the Nazi leadership, at a meeting of military commanders on 2 and 3 February, Blomberg announced that the Reichswehr would require officers to prove their Aryan heritage and would adopt the swastika as an official military emblem.242
The time had come for Hitler to make a decision, and he did. At a meeting with the heads of the Reichswehr and the leaders of the SA and SS on 28 February, he openly rejected Röhm’s ideas. A militia of the sort suggested by the SA chief of staff, Hitler said, “was unsuitable even for the smallest national defensive action,” to say nothing of the future war for “living space” he again put forward as a vision. For that reason, he was determined to raise “a people’s army, built up on the foundations of the Reichswehr, of thoroughly trained soldiers equipped with the latest weaponry.” The SA was to subordinate itself to his orders. There could be no doubt, Hitler concluded, that “the Wehrmacht is the only armed force of the nation.”243 Röhm pretended to give in, but that evening he vented his rage at the “ignorant private.” He did not intend to stick to what had been agreed, Röhm raged. Hitler was “without loyalty” and had to be “sent on holiday at the very least,” the SA leader was reported as saying. One of those present, SA Obergruppenführer Viktor Lutze, passed on these utterances to Hitler, who responded tellingly: “We will have to let this matter ripen.”244
As early as January 1934, Hitler had ordered the first head of the Gestapo, Rudolf Diels—by Diels’s own account—to collect incriminating material against the leaders of the SA. An identical order was issued to Reichswehr departments.245 On 20 April, Göring appointed Heinrich Himmler, who had taken over the political crimes divisions in the police forces of almost all the German states in the preceding months, as the inspector of the Prussian Secret State Police. He and Reinhard Heydrich, who was made director of the State Police Office, moved from Munich to Berlin. The Gestapo now began to cooperate more intensely with the intelligence department in the Reichswehr Ministry, swapping information about the SA. The net around Röhm and his associates was gradually drawn tighter and tighter.246
In the battle for power that commenced with Röhm, Hitler had no qualms about publicising the former’s homosexuality and using it as a weapon against him. In mid-May, he had a one-to-one discussion with Goebbels, after which the propaganda minister noted: “Complaint about Röhm and his personnel policies under paragraph 175. Revolting.”247 Previously Hitler had shielded Röhm from attacks on his well-known homosexual leanings. In a decree in early February 1931, Hitler had particularly emphasised that the SA “was not a moral institution for the education of well-born daughters but a band of rough-hewn fighters.” Members’ private lives were only an issue “if they ran truly contrary to the National Socialist world view.”248 Moreover, during the presidential elections in March 1932, when the left-wing Welt am Montag and Münchener Post newspapers published compromising letters written by the SA chief of staff, Hitler had sworn: “Lieutenant Colonel Röhm will remain my chief of staff. Even the dirtiest and most repulsive smear campaigns will not change that fact in the slightest.”249 In the spring and early summer of 1934, however, Hitler tried to use Röhm’s homosexuality as a noose to hang him with.
In early June, it appeared as if the situation might relax somewhat. In a personal conversation, Hitler extracted from Röhm a promise to send the SA “on holiday” for the entire month of July and to take a cure himself at the Bad Wiessee spa on Tegernsee Lake. But this discussion was not a genuine attempt at reconciliation. Hitler continued to mistrust Röhm’s intentions. Goebbels noted: “He no longer trusts the SA leadership. We all need to be on our toes. Let’s not feel too secure.”250 Röhm, too, only pretended to be placated. At an evening of partying in the SA’s main headquarters on Berlin’s Standartenstrasse, Ernst Hanfstaengl witnessed the chief of staff, intoxicated, “cursing in the wildest fashion” the Reichswehr, which had drawn Hitler over to their side.251
But it was Franz von Papen, and not anything the SA did, who caused the situation to come to a dramatic head in June 1934. A group of young conservatives—led by Papen’s speechwriter, Edgar Julius Jung, his press director, Herbert von Bose, and his personal assistant, Günther von Tschirschky—had coalesced around the vice-chancellor. They saw the tensions within the Nazi movement as a chance to curb Hitler’s demands for absolute power and to steer the regime in the more moderate direction of a restored monarchy.252 The ambitions of the Papen circle were no secret to the Nazi leadership. In April they began to suspect that Papen was positioning himself to succeed Hindenburg, who had contracted a bladder infection the previous month and would withdraw completely to his Neudeck estate that June.253 Another thorn in the side of Hitler and his entourage was the fact that Papen’s office was increasingly becoming a focal point for complaints about the regime’s dictatorial exercise of power. “Papen is the true complaints office,” Goebbels fumed on 13 June.254
Four days later, a talk by the vice-chancellor at the University of Marburg put the NSDAP leadership on a state of red alert. Not only did Papen criticise the cult of personality surrounding Hitler, arguing that “Great men are not made by propaganda but gain that status through their deeds.” He also excoriated the regime’s use of violence and unchecked radicalism. “It would be reprehensible to believe that a people could be unified through terror, which is always the product of bad conscience,” Papen stated.
No people can afford constant revolt from below if it wants to survive the court of history. At some point the movement will have to end, and a fixed social structure, held together by an independent justice system and a universally accepted power of state, must come into existence. Nothing can be built with constant dynamism. Germany cannot be allowed to become a train speeding blindly ahead without anyone knowing where it is headed.
The government, Papen assured his audience, “knows all about the selfishness, lack of character, mendacity, non-chivalry and presumption that tries to spread under the cover of the German revolution.”255
What Papen did not mention was that he himself bore considerable responsibility for the conditions he criticised. In the first months of the regime, he had not tried to restrain Hitler once, and even after his speech, he did not necessarily want a confrontation. Immediately after his talk, he sent Hitler a telegram that read: “In the venerable university of town of Marburg, I just went to bat for the unwavering and true continuation of your revolution and the completion of your work. In admiration and loyalty, your Papen.”256 But it did not fool anyone within the Nazi leadership. Goebbels seethed: “Papen gave a wonderful speech for gripers and critics. Entirely against us except for a few empty phrases. Who wrote it for him? Where is the scoundrel?”257 It soon emerged that Edgar Julius Jung had written the talk. He was arrested on 26 June, and Goebbels censored the speech but not before it had been read out on the Reich radio station in Frankfurt.258 Papen’s supporters had also distributed an abridged version to the press, and news of disagreement within the regime spread like wildfire. “It seems that there’s something like a mood of conflict in the upper spheres at the moment,” wrote Theodor Heuss on 20 June. “A speech Papen held last Sunday in Marburg has been deemed unsuitable for printing…”259 Foreign diplomats racked their brains as to what Papen’s speech could mean. “The atmosphere was heavy and oppressive, like that ahead of an oncoming thunderstorm,” recalled François-Poncet.260
After the ban on his speech, Papen had no other choice than to offer to quit, but Hitler—who, according to Goebbels, was “very enraged” by the Marburg speech and determined to “get his own back against Papen”—deemed the time not right for his vice-chancellor’s resignation.261 He asked Papen to wait until they had the chance to discuss the situation with Hindenburg. Papen agreed, writing to Hitler that he felt like “a soldier duty bound to your work.” At the same time, he protested against Jung’s arrest. “If someone has to go to jail for the Marburg speech,” Papen wrote, “I stand at your disposal.”262 In reality, Hitler had no intention of going to Neudeck with Papen. Instead, on 21 June he travelled there alone and was relieved to discover that the Marburg speech had made no impression on Hindenburg. “Never had the old man been as friendly,” Hitler reported after his visit.263 At the same time, Defence Minister von Blomberg, who was also at Neudeck, had urged him once again to rein in the SA.264
From 23 to 26 June, Hitler retreated to the Obersalzberg, and it was there that he apparently made his final decision. With his unique instinct for power, Hitler realised that the time had come for a double blow—against the SA leadership clique and the “reactionaries” around Papen—to cut through the domestic political stalemate. Himmler and Heydrich’s staff immediately set about concocting an opaque mixture of rumours, false reports and manipulated orders intended to suggest that an SA rebellion was nigh. At the same time, lists were drawn up of those to be arrested and executed. On 25 June, Himmler summoned SS leaders to Berlin, where they were informed about Röhm’s imminent putsch and made preparations to put it down.265 That same day, Hess gave a speech on Cologne radio, in which he threatened: “Woe to him who breaks his loyalty in the belief that he is serving the revolution by revolting. It’s pathetic how some people think they’ve been chosen to help the Führer by organising revolutionary agitation from below.”266As Erich Ebermayer noted in his diary, Hess’s speech was cause for “great commotion and agitation—everyone knows that something’s in the air.”267 On 27 June, Hitler met with Blomberg and the head of the minister’s office at the Reichswehr Ministry, Walther von Reichenau, to assure himself of the military’s support for the planned action. Local defence commandos were put on high alert, and on 29 June, Blomberg published an article in the Völkischer Beobachter in which he declared his loyalty to the Nazi regime, writing, “The Wehrmacht and the state are one.”268
To preserve the illusion of normality and keep the SA leadership feeling secure, on 28 June Hitler went with Göring and Viktor Lutze to Essen to attend the wedding of Gauleiter Josef Terboven. Having received word that Hindenburg had granted Papen an audience on 30 June, he drew up a schedule for the purge. “I’ve had enough,” Lutze recorded Hitler saying. “I’m going to set an example.”269 On the evening of 28 June, Röhm was instructed by telephone to summon all SA Obergruppenführer, Gruppenführer and inspectors to Bad Wiessee for a meeting with Hitler. While Göring flew back to Berlin to take care of the measures that had been prepared, Hitler spent the morning of 29 June, as planned, inspecting a Reich Labour Service camp in the town of Buttenberg in Westphalia. At the crack of dawn, he had called Goebbels and summoned him to Bad Godesberg. “It’s getting started,” the propaganda minister noted. “In God’s name. Anything is better than this terrible waiting around. I’m ready.”270 When he arrived at the Rheinhotel Dreesen, he learned to his surprise that the purge would be directed not just against the “reactionaries” around Papen, but against “Röhm and his rebels” as well. “Blood will flow—everyone should know that rebellion will cost people their heads,” Goebbels wrote. “I’m in agreement. If you’re going to do it, then do it ruthlessly.”271
In Bad Godesberg, Hitler received cooked-up reports about increasing unrest within the SA, and all the evidence suggests that, having made his irreversible decision, he worked himself up into an extraordinary psychological state. It is hardly plausible that he believed the transparently constructed lies about an imminent SA putsch, but in order to legitimise the purge he seized upon even the most ridiculous conspiracy theories. He told Goebbels, for instance, that there were “indications that Röhm was conspiring with François-Poncet, Schleicher and Strasser.”272 That evening, as word came in that individual SA men had been marauding around Munich and causing trouble, Hitler decided on the spot to fly to the Bavarian capital with his entire entourage. The three-engine Junkers 52 landed at 4 a.m. on Oberwiesenfeld, the precise location where, ten years previously, he had been forced into a humiliating retreat by Bavarian police and Reichswehr units. Now he had no reason to fear resistance from either of those quarters. At the airport, Hitler was received by Gauleiter Wagner, who briefed him on the situation. “He was extraordinarily agitated,” aeroplane captain Baur observed. “He kept fidgeting around in the air with his riding crop, several times bringing it down on his own foot.”273
From the airport Hitler had himself sped to the Bavarian Interior Ministry. There, he summoned Munich SA leaders August Schneidhuber and Wilhelm Schmid and tore their designations of rank from their uniforms with his own hands. “You are under arrest and will be shot,” he snarled.274 Without waiting for his bodyguards in the SS Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler to arrive, Hitler ordered three cars and had himself driven to Bad Wiessee. Most of the guests in the Pension Hanselbauer, where Röhm and his men were staying, were still asleep when the cars arrived at 6:30 a.m. Accompanied by two police officers with drawn pistols and whip in hand, Hitler stormed into the SA chief of staff’s room and blurted out the words: “Röhm, you are under arrest!” Still half asleep, Röhm looked up from his pillows and replied, “Heil, my Führer.” “You are under arrest,” Hitler screamed again, turning around and leaving the room.275 One by one the SA leaders were taken into custody. Among them was Breslau Police President Edmund Heines, who was found in bed with a young man—a discovery Nazi propaganda used in the days to come to depict the Bad Wiessee guest house as a den of homosexual iniquity.276
Those arrested were held in the guest house basement before being taken to Munich’s Stadelheim prison. Hitler also returned to the Bavarian capital with his entourage, stopping the cars full of SA leaders driving in the other direction to what they thought was their meeting with the Führer and ordering them to join his motorcade. Police officers from the political crimes division stopped SA leaders in Munich’s main train station, arresting those whose names were on the lists. They, too, were taken to Stadelheim.277 Around noon, Hitler arrived at the Brown House and addressed a large number of party and SA leaders. He was still in a state of hysteria and, as one eyewitness reported, he spat out a ball of froth when he began speaking. His voice cracking with over-excitement, he accused the Röhm clique of the “greatest betrayal in world history.” He also named Röhm’s betrayer, Viktor Lutze, as the new SA chief of staff. That afternoon, Hitler ordered Sepp Dietrich to have six of the detained SA men, whose names he had marked on a list in green pencil and who included Schneidhuber, Schmid and Edmund Heines, liquidated by an SS commando. Röhm was initially spared. Apparently, Hitler was still somewhat hesitant about having his old comrade-in-arms murdered.278
That morning, Goebbels had already sent the agreed code word “Hummingbird” to Berlin, signalling to Göring that he should mobilise the execution commandos. Papen’s colleagues Herbert von Bose and Edgar Julius Jung were shot. The vice-chancellor escaped with his life but was placed under house arrest. Also executed was the leader of the religious lay organisation “Catholic Action” and ministerial director of the Transport Ministry, Erich Klausener, who had been linked with the Papen circle. Former Chancellor Schleicher and his wife were killed in their home in Neubabelsberg, and the same fate befell Schleicher’s associate General Ferdinand von Bredow a few hours later. He was taken from his Berlin apartment on the evening of 30 June and shot. At the same time, Nazi thugs throughout the Reich took the opportunity to settle old scores. Gregor Strasser was put to death in the basement of Gestapo headquarters. Gustav Ritter von Kahr and the editor-in-chief of the Catholic magazine Der gerade Weg (The Straight and Narrow), Fritz Gerlich, who was one of Hitler’s most passionate critics, were both put to death in the Dachau concentration camp. Otto Ballerstedt, an early political rival who had succeeded in putting Hitler behind bars for a few weeks in 1922 after being physically attacked by him, was found dead from a bullet to the back of the head in the vicinity of Dachau. Father Bernhard Stempfle, an early confidant of Hitler’s, was also executed—probably for knowing too much about the Führer’s past. Such was the murderous zeal of the SS commandos that they did not always adequately check the identities of people they took into custody. Willi Schmid, for example, a music critic for the Münchener Neueste Nachrichten, fell victim to a case of mistaken identity. Ninety people are known to have been killed in what became known as the “Night of the Long Knives”—the actual number is likely twice that.279 Goebbels was satisfied that everything had gone to plan, noting: “No mistakes other than Frau Schleicher also going down. A shame, but there’s no changing that.”280
Hitler returned to Berlin on the evening of 30 June. A delegation led by Göring, Himmler and Frick greeted him at Tempelhof Airport. “The sight of him was ‘one-of-a-kind,’ ” reported one eyewitness. “Brown shirt, black tie, dark brown leather coat, high, black military boots, everything dark upon dark. Above it all, bare-headed, a chalk-white, sleepless, unshaven face which seemed to be sunken and swollen at the same time and from which a pair of extinguished eyes stared through some clotted strands of hair hanging down.”281 After the murderous release of the previous twenty-four hours, Hitler began to regain his inner balance. Christa Schroeder, who encountered him late at night in the Reich Chancellery, recalled him sitting next to her, breathing heavily and saying: “I’ve just had a bath and feel like I’ve been born again.”282 The following day, a Sunday, Hitler was already playing the role of the congenial, good-humoured host at a garden party in the Chancellery. That afternoon, he ordered the commandant of the Dachau concentration camp to call upon Röhm, who was imprisoned in Stadelheim, to shoot himself. When Röhm refused, he was executed.283 “All revolutions devour their own children,” the former SA chief of staff had told Hans Frank, who visited him a few hours before.284
Berlin was abuzz with the wildest rumours on 1 July. No one seemed to know exactly what had happened. That evening, Goebbels gave a radio address in which he talked about a “small clique of professional saboteurs” who had deserved no mercy. “We’re cleaning house,” he said. “A herd of pestilence, a herd of corruption and pathological symptoms of moral barbarism that appear in public life will be smoked out and eradicated down to the bone.” The propaganda minister dwelt at length on the homosexuality of Röhm and his circle, accusing them of being about to “bring the entire party leadership under the suspicion of a contemptible and disgusting sexual abnormality.”285 At a cabinet meeting on 3 July, Hitler also used Röhm’s “unhappy predilection” as an explanation for both “the inferior personnel in SA leadership positions” and his “wilful conflict with the Wehrmacht.” Then he proceeded on to the heart of the conflict. Röhm wished to make the SA a “state within a state,” Hitler explained. In a four-hour conversation, he, Hitler, had implored the former chief of staff to desist from this, but to no avail. Röhm had given him every assurance under the sun, but behind Hitler’s back, he had done exactly the opposite. Hitler did not shy away from spinning a fairy tale about a coup d’état Röhm was planning with Schleicher, Gregor Strasser and the French embassy. With that, the condition of “high treason” had been fulfilled, Hitler claimed, and he had been forced to act immediately in order to “prevent a catastrophe.” Hitler brushed aside any legal objections by arguing that this had been a “military mutiny” that did not admit of any trials or similar procedures. Although he had not personally ordered all the executions, he took full responsibility for them. They had “saved the lives of countless others,” Hitler asserted, and “stabilised the authority of the Reich government for all time.”
Hitler then presented the cabinet with a draft law that would legalise the series of murders ex post facto. “The measures taken on 30 June and 1 and 2 July to put down treasonous acts against the nation and states are a legal form of emergency government defence,” the draft read. Justice Minister Franz Gürtner hastened to add that this was not tantamount to creating a new legal code, but merely confirmed the validity of the existing one. In the name of his cabinet colleagues, Werner von Blomberg thanked Hitler for his “decisive and courageous action, which has spared the German people a civil war.”286
While the cabinet meeting was still in session, Papen, whose house arrest had just been lifted, appeared. “Completely broken,” noted Goebbels. “Asked for leave to speak. We all expected him to resign.”287 But although two of his closest associates had been murdered, Papen did not consider for a moment breaking with Hitler. In a conversation with the Nazi leader on 4 July, the two men agreed that Papen would continue in the office of vice-chancellor until September and then join the diplomatic corps. In the days that followed, Papen complained that the situation was “completely unbearable” as long as he and his team were not rehabilitated and the confiscated files from his office returned. And he announced once again that he intended to travel to Neudeck to tender his resignation to Hindenburg. But he does not seem to have meant these very serious threats, and when Otto Meissner informed him that the Reich president was “very much in need of peace and quiet,” he abandoned his plans. When Hitler told him in another conversation on 11 July that he intended to take public responsibility for everything associated with putting down the SA revolt, Papen replied: “You will allow me to say to you how great I find that in both a manly and human sense.”288 From a moral standpoint, Papen could not have sunk any lower.
Nor did Hindenburg—even though he had been on familiar terms with Kahr and had thanked him the preceding October for his “loyal birthday wishes”—have any qualms about sending Hitler a congratulatory telegram, in which he wrote, “You have saved the German people from a serious threat.”289 On the afternoon of 3 July, Hitler travelled to Neudeck where he gave Hindenburg a private half-hour lecture about the alleged “Röhm revolt.” Hindenburg reiterated his blessings for the crimes being committed by the German government: “That’s the right way to go. Nothing will happen without bloodshed.”290 After returning to Berlin, Hitler told Goebbels: “Hindenburg was smashing. The old man is really something.”291
The initial uncertainty people felt when they heard the news of the murders on 30 June soon gave way to relief. The SA men, who had been so welcome when suppressing the political Left in early 1933, had used up all of their credit among the general populace with their disorderly conduct. The bloody excesses of the SS were excused because they had helped remove an unwanted source of disruption. Goebbels was probably exaggerating when he noted: “A limitless enthusiasm is passing through the country.”292 But it is true that, far from losing prestige, Hitler’s reputation had improved. This is reflected in a number of Nazi Party reports on the mood within the population. Among the broad masses, and particularly among those who took a wait-and-see attitude towards the movement, Hitler has achieved a great victory with his decisive action—he is “not only admired; he is deified,” read one report from a small industrial town in Upper Bavaria.293 Immediately after the Night of the Long Knives, Luise Solmitz noted in her diary: “The personal courage, the decisiveness and effectiveness [Hitler] showed in Munich, that’s unique.”294 Neither Solmitz nor the majority of the German people were bothered by the state planning and carrying out acts of murder—a clear indication of how dulled people’s sense of right and wrong was after only one and a half years of Nazi rule.
In the first few days after 30 June, Hitler avoided appearing in public, although his propaganda minister urged him to in order to combat negative foreign press headlines. “Everywhere we’re coming into discredit,” Goebbels noted on 7 July. “High time for the Führer to speak.”295 The previous day Hitler had flown to Berchtesgaden to rest on the Obersalzberg. But by 9 July, he was already back in Berlin announcing that he wanted to issue an explanation in front of the Reichstag. He discussed the details with Goebbels the following day.296 On the evening of 13 July, when Hitler approached the Reichstag podium, he initially seemed inhibited. “Pale as a corpse with tired facial features and a voice that was still hoarse,” was how François-Poncet recalled him.297 The atmosphere was tense. After all, there had been thirteen Reichstag deputies among the executed SA men. Papen, who had asked Hitler to be excused, was missing from the government bench,298 and SS men in pith helmets had been posted next to the speaker’s lectern and throughout the hall. In his two-hour speech, Hitler repeated the lies about a conspiracy between Röhm, Schleicher and Strasser he had told to his cabinet on 3 July, and he did not neglect to mention that “certain shared predilection” of the Röhm clique as a main motive for their “high treason.” He talked about the “bitterest decisions” of his life, for which he assumed responsibility “before history.” Hitler told his audience: “Mutinies are broken according to never-changing laws. If someone tries to criticise me for not enlisting the regular courts, I can only say: in that hour, I was responsible for the fate of the German nation and was therefore the supreme judge of the German people.”299
The constitutional lawyer Carl Schmitt was tasked with providing academic justification for this twisted notion in an article in the legal journal Deutsche Juristen-Zeitung. He wrote: “The Führer is only protecting the law from the worst sort of abuse, if in a moment of danger he creates immediate law on the basis of his status as leader and supreme judge.”300 Hitler’s speech to the Reichstag was well received not just by the Third Reich’s star lawyer, but also by the German people. Nazi reports on the public mood concluded that the speech had had a “liberating effect.”301 “I wish you could have heard these words instead of merely reading them,” Elisabeth Gebensleben wrote to her daughter. “The greatness, honesty and openness of such a man make you feel small.”302
Nonetheless, no matter how loquacious and inventive Hitler often was when recalling earlier episodes in his life, from now on he maintained steely silence about the Night of the Long Knives, when his murderous side had been on clear display. The topic was absolutely taboo, even for his closest intimates. When Heinrich Hoffmann once tried to broach it, Hitler brusquely waved him off. “Not a single word more!” Hitler said in a tone of voice that brooked no contradiction.303
On 30 June 1934, the true criminal nature of the Nazi regime was revealed, but only a few observers inside and outside Germany were able to see it. “The horrible thing is that a European people has delivered itself up to such a band of lunatics and criminals and continues to tolerate them,” Victor Klemperer complained in his diary.304 Thomas Mann, who had left Germany in February for initial exile in Switzerland, saw all his dark premonitions confirmed. In comparison with the “dirty swindler and murderous charlatan” Hitler, Mann wrote, Robespierre was positively honourable. The circles around Hitler were little better than “gangsters of the lowest sort.” The Nobel laureate went on: “In any case, after little more than a year, Hitlerism is proving to be what we always saw, recognised and deeply felt it to be: the absolute nadir of baseness, decadent stupidity and bloodthirsty humiliation—it is becoming clear that Hitlerism will continue, certainly and unerringly, to prove itself as precisely that.”305 Mann’s judgement was not only on the mark. It was astonishingly prescient.
The Reichswehr leadership, by contrast, felt it had got what it wanted. Röhm had been dispensed with as a rival and the status of the Reichswehr as the only “weapons-bearer of the nation” had been explicitly confirmed. The fact that a former Reichswehr minister and a ranking general had fallen victim to the bloodthirsty “cleansing” did nothing to dampen the triumphant mood. The former state secretary in the Reich Chancellery, Erwin Planck, may have entreated Kurt von Hammerstein’s successor as army chief of staff, General Werner von Fritsch, to rein in the regime’s proclivity for violence—“If you look on without acting, sooner or later you’ll suffer the same fate’306—but the Reichswehr leadership did not heed any such warnings. At a commanders’ conference on 5 July, Blomberg declared that Hitler had acted in the interest of the Wehrmacht, and that the military was now obliged “to thank him with even greater fidelity and loyalty if possible.”307 Such kowtowing weakened the Reichswehr’s position within the Hitler state. The military had become an accomplice to Hitler’s criminal polices, and there was no turning back.
It was the SS, and not the military, that actually profited from the Night of the Long Knives. On 20 July, Hitler decreed that as a reward for the “great service performed in conjunction with the events of 30 June,” the SS was to be separated from the SA and henceforth run as an autonomous organisation. Reichsführer-SS Himmler was put directly under Hitler’s own authority.308 In the years to follow, the power of the SS would constantly grow, whereas under Viktor Lutze’s leadership, the SA gradually devolved into little more than a veterans’ organisation for “old street fighters.”309
In late July, Hindenburg’s condition deteriorated dramatically. His death was only a matter of days away. On the morning of 1 August, Hitler travelled to Neudeck, where he found the dying man still conscious. “Recognised him briefly,” Goebbels wrote after Hitler’s return to Berlin. “Expressed thanks and love. And hallucinated about the Kaiser.”310 Hindenburg died in the early hours of 2 August. The previous evening, before his death was even confirmed, Hitler had presented his cabinet with the Law on the Head of State of the German Reich, which regulated the question of Hindenburg’s successor in Hitler’s favour. It united the offices of Reich president and chancellor and transferred the powers of the former to the “Führer and Reich chancellor,” as Hitler now officially referred to himself. Although this clearly violated the provisions of the Enabling Act, which specified that the responsibilities of the Reich president remain untouched, the cabinet approved the new law. Moreover, without any prompting by Hitler, Blomberg announced his intention to have German soldiers swear an oath of loyalty to the new commander-in-chief as soon as Hindenburg had died.311 On 2 August, members of the Wehrmacht were forced to recite: “I swear by God this holy oath that I will show absolute obedience to the Führer of the German Reich and People, Adolf Hitler, the commander-in-chief of the Wehrmacht, and that as a brave soldier I will be willing to sacrifice my life at any time for this oath.”312 It may be that the military leadership hoped such a display of loyalty would secure them a measure of autonomy. In fact their actions hastened the transformation of the army into a tool for Hitler to use at will.
In his cabinet meeting on 2 August, Hitler played the role of someone mourning for Hindenburg so convincingly that Goebbels wrote: “Everyone was very moved.”313 Hitler declared that he “had lost a paternal friend” and reminded everyone “that the current Reich government would not exist without the hallowed Reich president.” Given the “greatness of the deceased,” Hitler declared that the title Reich president would be retired for all eternity. And he announced that the people would be asked to vote on the new organisation of state leadership on 19 August.314 Hindenburg had asked to be buried next to his deceased wife at his Neudeck estate. But the Nazi leadership ignored this final wish and organised a pompous state funeral inside the Tannenberg Memorial on 7 August. In his address, Hitler once again invoked the myth of the hero of the Great War, which he had so successfully exploited in the previous months. “Deceased field commander, enter now into Valhalla” were the words with which Hitler sent Hindenburg to his tomb.315
That evening, Berlin was rocked by the news that Hindenburg had left behind a political testament. There were fears it might contain something politically explosive,316 so Hitler dispatched Papen to Neudeck to retrieve it. On 14 August, it was opened in the Reich Chancellery. It consisted of two documents: a longer one that was Hindenburg’s political testament and a personal letter to Hitler in which Hindenburg pleaded for a restoration of the monarchy, once political circumstances allowed. Hitler kept the letter to himself—it has never been found—but he had the other document published on 15 August. Not only was its content harmless, it actually worked in Hitler’s favour. Hindenburg expressed his gratitude at being allowed to witness “the hour of Germany’s restrengthening” during the twilight of his life. “My Chancellor Adolf Hitler and his movement have made a decisive, historic step towards the great goal of restoring to the German people its inner unity above any differences of caste or class,” Hindenburg had written. The president took his leave from life in hope that what had led to 30 January 1933 “will ripen into the absolute fulfilment and completion of the historic mission of our people.”317 The Nazis could hardly have wished for a better endorsement ahead of the 17 August plebiscite. On the eve of the poll, Hindenburg’s son Oskar addressed the German people by radio, calling upon them to “approve the transferral of the office my father previously occupied as Reich president to the Führer and Reich chancellor.”318
On 19 August, the official results were announced: 89.9 per cent had voted in favour, with voter turnout recorded at 95.7 per cent. Nonetheless Goebbels was disappointed: “I expected more,” he wrote.319 The result apparently reflected disappointment among parts of the populace at corruption among Nazi functionaries. One voter in Potsdam, for instance, had scrawled on his ballot paper: “For Hitler, Yes, for his Big Shots, No.”320 In Swiss exile, Thomas Mann was positively surprised: “Five million ‘no’ votes plus two million abstentions are a respectable national performance under the current circumstances.”321 Victor Klemperer took a similar view, even if he ultimately had to acknowledge that a vast majority of Germans had voted for the Führer and Reich chancellor: “Hitler is the clear victor, and there’s no end in sight.”322
The popular referendum of August 1934 completed Hitler’s consolidation of power. Over the space of a few months, Hitler had succeeded in outmanoeuvring his conservative coalition partners and removing or neutralising all political opposition. Step by step, he had made himself into the lord and master of the German Reich and transformed Germany into a dictatorship. “One man has been given a power that no one now alive has ever possessed,” wrote Denmark’s ambassador in Berlin. “He is now more powerful than any monarch, more powerful than the president of the United States, and more powerful than Mussolini.”323And now that his absolute domestic power was secured, Hitler could turn his attention to dismantling the system put in place by the Treaty of Versailles.