Sunday, 24 November 2013

The Backroom Machinations that enabled Hitler to Possess Power

The following selection was excluded from That Line of Darkness: The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden (Encompass Editions, 2013) because it did not relate to the overarching thesis of the book but I think the piece's deserves to be posted because of its intrinsic merits.

Gregor Strasser
Expectations were high for the Nazi Party in the summer of 1932, but when they did not achieve instant results and gain power, some of their popular support drifted away so that in the November election that year, they lost two million votes and thirty-four seats. A similar drop in popular support followed in state and municipal elections. Morale fell when large numbers of opportunistic supporters bolted and because of the division within the Party when one of its leaders, Gregor Strasser, resigned. As a leftist within the Party, he chafed at Hitler’s growing accommodation with big business. Even more unsettling, he considered, even though he did not accept, an important cabinet position as Vice Chancellor in the last Weimar cabinet of General Kurt Schleicher, a move that likely would have split the Party. Strasser disagreed with Hitler’s unbending "all-or-nothing" approach when the latter remained adamant that he would never occupy a position in any government unless he was Chancellor. The allurement of power remained too much of an aphrodisiac for Hitler to share it with anyone. It would also have been psychologically impossible for him to even contemplate someone else in the Party occupying a government position while he remained on the outside. Strasser sealed his own fate for upstaging Hitler and earning his enmity when Hitler ordered his murder in the violent purge of June 1934, the Night of the Long Knives. 

Given the mutinies among storm troopers and the rank and file’s growing impatience for not seizing power rather than waiting to achieve it legally, the very real possibility that the Party could fragment and implode was sensed by liberal journalists. The Berlin correspondent from a Frankfurt newspaper declared: “The mighty Nationalist Socialist assault has been repulsed.” Another journalist wrote, “1932 has brought an end to Hitler’s luck,” and confidently expressed that a “guardian angel has saved [the German people] from a dictatorship that would have been the end not merely of German liberty but also of the German spirit.” Their palpable relief was underscored by reports that the Nazis were openly vowing to intern Communists and Social Democrats in concentration camps. 


Liberal journalists were not alone in believing that the Nazis verged on collapse. In his diary entries, Joseph Goebbels on December 8 attested to the despondent mental state among the Nazis acknowledging the abysmal financial shape the party was in: “A severe depression hangs over the organization.” On December 15, his pessimism deepened. Although he believed that the Nazis would one day acquire the reins of power: “For the time being, however, we have not the slightest prospect of doing so.” Even though they were not privy to these private thoughts, the informed public would have the believed that the threat posed by the Nazi party had passed, and that its chance of coming to power was slim. Had forceful leadership been wielded by the President and the Chancellor, the Nazis would likely been a spent force, and Hitler would have undertaken what he had threatened if he did not achieve his goal, he would have committed suicide. According to Goebbels’ diary entry, Hitler had warned in December 1932: “When this party falls to pieces, I shall end it all in five minutes with a pistol.” In a perceptive book published in 1940 (Germany: Jekyll and Hyde, London: Secker and Warburg), the German émigré Sebastian Haffner predicted that Hitler would do it "when the game is up" and he explained why Hitler was willing to gamble all or nothing:

Hitler is the potential suicide par excellence. He owns no ties outside his own ego, and with  its extinction he is released and absolved from all cares, responsibilities and burdens, He is in the privileged position of one who loves nothing and no one but himself. He is completely indifferent to the fate of States, men. Commonwealths, whose existence he stakes at play…So he can dare all to preserve or magnify his power, that power to which he owes the present, and which alone stands between him and speedy death.  But alas, anti-Nazi leadership was deficiently absent. Germany and the world paid the price for the choices made by the country’s most powerful decision-makers.
This waxwork figure of a glum-looking Adolf Hitler in Madame Tussards museum in Berlin, although intended to suggest the despondency of Hitler in April 1945, also captures his suicidal mood in late 1932

Like the intellectual and medical elites, the politically influential Nationalist Party despised democracy, the Weimar Republic, and longed for the day when the elites, the landed aristocracy and the military officer corps, that once had wielded power in Imperial Germany could resume their traditional prerogatives. They were equipped with a mentality that made it easier for Hitler to acquire power because their attitudes bore certain similarities with the National Socialists. They shared his perception that Jews dominated the economic and cultural life of Germany, abhorred the parliamentary system with its unmanageable twenty-nine political parties and welcomed its emasculation, and demonstrated a willingness to suspend the rule of law and disenfranchise those whom they feared. The creeping authoritarianism in the system was most embodied in the office and person of the octogenarian President and former Field-Marshall Paul von Hindenburg, a conservative nationalist who not merely appointed Chancellors but could dissolve the Reichstag at any time and could promulgate laws bypassing parliament. Since 1930 there had been no parliamentary majorities and Hindenburg fully utilized the centralizing powers enshrined in the constitution.

Franz von Papen
Franz von Papen, whose background was in the Catholic Center Party, but whose ideology placed him to the right with the Conservative Nationalists, was appointed Chancellor at the end of May 1932. With no popular support, he did not dare to face the Reichstag and lose a no-confidence vote; consequently he requested Hindenburg to dissolve parliament and call elections which resulted in the Nazi euphoria from the July results. Hitler seized upon the results to demand the chancellorship for himself, which Hindenburg, contemptuous of the upstart former corporal, curtly rejected. As Chancellor, von Papen used the radio to announce policies such as cutting welfare assistance to needy unemployed and ignored parliament. In the summer of 1932 of murder and arson, he exploited the violence between Nazi and Communists street fighters where civilians were killed in the crossfire to stage a coup d’état against a socialist-led Prussian government. He appointed a Reich commissioner as Prussian Interior Minister who then proceeded to purge socialist, Catholic and Jewish civil servants, and remove the prohibition against Nazis becoming civil servants. In his mind, he likely believed that his maneuvers were not all that different from the Nazis if they acquired power. Indeed, they were similar to the initial measures of 1933-34 that drove Jews and the political left out of the civil and military services, the professions and cultural life. But where the nationalists would have likely ended their discriminatory policies, the Nazis were just beginning. But an authoritarian nationalist like von Papen was more successful at sabotaging democratic institutions than in using the prerogatives of his office to retain power. 

Although Hindenburg had authorized von Papen to dissolve the Reichstag when its members convened on September 12, they subjected him to a humiliating defeat of non-confidence because he did not have the dissolution decree at hand. Another election was called leading to the November results and the loss of Nazi support, even though the National Socialists still retained the largest number of seats. Hindenburg, was still prepared to keep von Papen as Chancellor, but the Minister of Defence, General Schleicher refused to use the army to support a highly unpopular Chancellor if mass demonstrations occurred. Hindenburg had no choice but to dismiss von Papen and appoint Schleicher as his Chancellor.  After his removal from power, von Papen displayed no scruples about feeding Hindenburg’s vanity and turning the old man’s dislike towards Schleicher into disaffection. Hindenburg expected to be treated as a feudal overlord and consequently was susceptible to flattery. 

Schleicher possessed no gifts for messaging the ego of the aged Hindenburg, who gradually became susceptible to the chicanery that von Papen wielded over him. The former Chancellor was determined to regain power and remove the current incumbent whom he blamed for his own downfall, all the time blinded to the reality that the most powerful threat to his power emanated from the Nazis. His success was evident when Hindenburg not only refused to dissolve the Reichstag and permit a temporary emergency rule that Schleicher had requested, but also refused even to permit the dissolution to be followed by the calling of elections. Had Hindenburg supported emergency rule for even six months, it is most likely the Nazi movement would have collapsed, and Hitler would never have eased into power. One piece of evidence to support this hypothesis was that Schleicher as a last order of business in his fifty-seven days as Chancellor gave final approval to a financial measure he needed to implement job creation programs. Half a billion marks for public works projects were set aside and in the next six months two million of the unemployed found jobs, something that the Nazi propaganda machine efficiently exploited to ensure that Schleicher never received the credit. With an improvement in the economy and frustration accelerating among the Nazi rank and file, it does not appear unreasonable to suggest that Hitler might have carried out his suicide threat and that would have been followed by the implosion of his Party. Even disregarding this possibility, had Schleicher been allowed to establish a temporary military dictatorship, with the opposition of Communists, Socialists and Nazis fragmented and the army already being prepared to deal with civil disorders, this scenario would have been vastly superior to the Nazi regime that transpired. 

Kurt von Schleicher
The reasons for the President’s failure to endorse his incumbent Chancellor resided largely in the backroom intrigue and mendacity that succeeded in wearing down the resistance of a senile Field Marshall and appointing Hitler as Chancellor. Much of the responsibility lay with von Papen, a prime gravedigger of the Weimar Republic. This ambitious but hapless backroom player arranged a secret meeting between a Cologne banker sympathetic to the Nazis, Hitler and himself, conferring upon Hitler credibility and respectability he had not previously warranted. Von Papen then proceeded to deceive Hindenburg by suggesting that Hitler would accept a coalition with himself as Vice Chancellor. When Hitler remained adamant about becoming Chancellor, von Papen persuaded the frail President’s closest advisors, including Hindenberg’s own son to pressure the old man to accept Hitler as Chancellor. Finally he duped the President into believing that Hitler would respect a parliamentary government supported by the Catholic Center Party. 

Hindenburg must bear the greatest responsibility for handing power over to Hitler because he had been elected ten months previously on the pledge that he would defend the constitution against the Nazi threat, and despite his personal aversion to Hitler and the Nazis, he feared democracy even more. Behind him stood the feckless and preening von Papen who vastly contributed to Hitler’s access to power. This obtuse patrician, who had no understanding of either the populist appeal of Nazism or its goals, had the temerity to opine that with him occupying the Vice Chancellorship with the blessing of Hindenburg: “In two months we’ll have pushed Hitler so far into a corner that he’ll squeal.” In actuality, instead of marginalizing Hitler, von Papen validated the former corporal’s belief that destiny would guide him (Hitler) to power as the “sleepwalker,” who would exploit the delusions of vain, self-important politicians. Von Papen and Hindenburg, to name the most prominent of the ultra-conservative nationalists, were the true authors of the stab-in-the-back of Germany, but they scapegoated the Weimar Republic with its cosmopolitan spirit and pluralistic society. 

President Paul von Hindenburg asks Hitler to be chancellor
Beyond personalities, it is essential to stress that the traditional elites, those that had wielded power in Wilhelm’s Germany, wanted to bury the despised republic and restore the monarchy, and believed that they could use the inexperienced Hitler as their tool. At worst, he was a necessary evil, but with his rabble rousing skills and the muscle of the SA behind him, he could destroy both the Marxist threat and the democratic left, the trade unions, the welfare system and the parliamentary system that collectively had diminished their power. With his passion to jettison the Versailles treaty, rearm Germany and transform it into a great power again, Hitler would be serving their interests. Since his first cabinet was stacked with mostly old-line conservatives whose experience could “tame” him, Hitler would at best be a figurehead. Alas, these myopic self-serving politicians, their business allies and the widespread conservative press deluded themselves with wishful thinking that underestimated the man who possessed a much surer grasp of mass politics than they did. Hitler not only wanted to destroy the republic; he had no intention of reviving something like the imperial rule of the Kaisers with its elitist politics and deferential social hierarchies. Within six months, he ended a conservative nationalist coalition government, emasculated the parliamentary system, scuttled the rule of law, established the concentration camps and set in motion a system that was far more ideological and brutal than the conservatives could have ever conceived in their wildest imagination. Indeed, most of them were lucky to escape with their lives. General Schleicher and his wife were included among the murdered in Hitler’s purge of the SA in June 1934. Also although von Papen survived, his two Secretaries were murdered when he was put under house arrest. 

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