On 30 January 1933, Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany. The supposed one thousand year Reich had started. But it would be another nineteen months before Hitler achieved absolute power.
1932 Germany saw the rise of the Nazi party into a prominent political force. The Weimar government had failed its people and, following the worldwide depression, Germany was in economic ruin, people’s livelihoods shattered and the nation still burdened with the humiliation of the post-First World War Treaty of Versailles. Germans, fearful of Communists and Jews, looked for an alternative and that alternative lay in Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party.
In the July 1932 Reichstag elections, the Nazi party gained almost 40% of the vote making it the most powerful party in Germany. There was a slight dip in the elections four months later but the party still had enough electoral clout that Hitler, as dictated by the Weimar constitution, should have been appointed chancellor.
But the Weimar president, the 85-year-old Paul von Hindenburg (pictured with Hitler), was reluctant to appoint the former corporal: “That man a chancellor?” he exclaimed, “I’ll make him a postmaster and he can lick stamps with my head on them.”
Franz von Papen, Hindenburg’s former chancellor, who believed the Nazis were already a spent force after the dip in the Nazi vote in November 1932, decided to work with Hitler (or rather his objective was to manipulate the Nazi leader). Hitler would become chancellor and Papen would serve as his vice chancellor.
Justice to everyone
But the real power, Papen persuaded the aging president, would be himself. Hitler, Papen argued, needed to be contained and this would be far easier with Hitler working inside the government than agitating from outside. “In two months,” said Papen, “we’ll have pushed Hitler into a corner where he can squeal to his heart’s content.”
Reluctantly, Hindenburg agreed.
And so on 30 January 1933, Hitler was appointed Chancellor within a coalition government. At around noon, Hitler took his oath: “I will employ my strength for the welfare of the German people, protect the Constitution and laws of the German people, conscientiously discharge the duties imposed on me, and conduct my affairs of office impartially and with justice to everyone.” Yes, Hitler promised to respect the German constitution with justice for all.
He had done it – Hitler had achieved what he had striven for since 1923 following the failed attempt to seize power by force, the Munich Putsch – power through legitimate means.
‘The New Reich has been born’
That evening Hitler looked out from his balcony at the Chancellery. Below him filed passed thousands of torch-bearing Nazis, singing the Nazi anthem, the Horst Wessel song (so named after a martyr of the Nazi cause). This was their moment of triumph, the day of national exultation; the Nazi era had begun and their mood was jubilant. That evening, an ecstatic Joseph Goebbels wrote his in diary, “It is almost like a dream – a fairytale. The new Reich has been born. Fourteen years of work have been crowned with victory. The German revolution has begun!”
Not everyone however was delighted by the turn of events. Hindenburg’s old wartime partner, Erich Ludendorff, who had been at Hitler’s side during the Munich Putsch, wrote to the president: “By appointing Hitler Chancellor of the Reich you have handed over our sacred German Fatherland to one of the greatest demagogues of all time. I prophesy to you this evil man will plunge our Reich into the abyss and will inflict immeasurable woe on our nation. Future generations will curse you in your grave for this action.”
Papen (pictured) was to soon realise the folly of his intrigue – it was he, not Hitler, who was pushed into a corner and became an inconsequential figure. He was fortunate to survive Hitler’s murderous purge, the Night of the Long Knives, in which close associates of Papen’s were shot, and was shunted off to serve as German ambassador first in Vienna then later, during the war, in Turkey. He lived to the age of 89, dying in Germany on 2 May 1969.
The Road to Ruin
But for Hitler in January 1933, the road to absolute power had only just begun. The fortuitous (or not) Reichstag Fire, a month later, followed by the Enabling Act in March 1933 which, despite his oath, allowed Hitler to dispense with the German constitution, augmented his power. But it was the death of President Hindenburg, in August 1934, that allowed Hitler to establish his dictatorial rule. The road to ruin lay ahead.
Rupert Colley’s enthralling novel, set in Nazi-occupied France, The White Venus, is now available.
Also, gathered together in one collection, 60 of Rupert Colley’s history articles, The Savage Years: Tales From the 20th Century.