NAZI Seizure of Power/Machtergreifung (1932-33)


Figure 1.--Germany experienced severe economic problems after World War I. Many families lost all their savings. Jobs were difficult to find. Slowly the economy began to improve in a economic expansion financed in part by Americam loans. Germans were devestated by the Depression which quickly spread from America to Germany. Many families were devestated by the economic collapse. The psychological impact on Germans is incalcuable.

The NAZI's after the July 1932 election were the largest German political party, but did not have a majority in the Reichstag. Hidenburg dismissed Brüning and the result was political instability in the Reichstag. President Hindenburg refused to appoint Hitler Chancellor and instead turned to Papen. The political situation remained unstable. The newly elected Reichstag in September voted no confidence in the Papen government. The November 1932 Reichstag election results were: NAZI Party 196 seats, Social Democrats 121 seats, The Communist Party 100 seats, and the Centre Party 70 seats. The NAZIs lost a few seats, but continued to be the largest party in the Reichstag. Hitler continued to demand to be appointed Chancellor, Hindenburg refused saying that he said he did not trust Hitler to rule democratically. Hindenburg preferred Papen, but the Army objected. Hindenburg turned to General Kurt von Schleicher who lasted 57 days. Finally Hidenburg, running out of options, turned to Hitler whom he appointed January 30, 1933. Hidenburg attempted to control Hitler by placing Papen as vice-chancellor and surrounding Hitler with moderate ministers who supported Papen. Hitler by carefully selecting his cabinet posts was within days gaining control. To be sure of success, however, he needed a majority in the Reichstag. He insisted on a new election. In the middle of the elections the Reichstag went up in flames on February 27, 1933. A Dutch Communist was blamed. Historians still debate who was responsible. Many blamed the NAZIs, but it appears that neither they or the Communist Party was responsible. Hitler took full advantage of the situation and claimed that the fire was a Communist plot, and persuaded Hindenburg to sign an emergency Law for the Protection of the People and State. The law suspended people's rights and allowed the Nazis to arrest many Communists and others. This was the key legal document allowing Hitler and the NAZIs to seize power--the Machtergreifung. Historians use different terms to describe the NAZI victory. Some suggest that Hitler was elected. In fact the NAZIs never gained a majority in as German election, even the tainted 1933 election. The description of seizing power seems more correct.

1932 Presidential Elections (March-April 1932)

With the rise of the NAZIs in the late 1920s, the Reichstag became fractured along ideological lines. The Communists on the left and NAZIs and other nationalist parties on the right became increaingly important. Both were committed to destroying the Republic. This made governing Germany increasingly difficult as the moderate parties supporting the Republic became an increaingly smaller oart of the Reicstag. No party or party groupings could form stable coalitions. The situation in the Reichstag made the German President increasingly important. Hitler decided to challenge the incumbent president and revered military legend Paul von Hindenburg for the presidency. The ageing Hindenburg was now 84 years old and was showing signs of senility to those close to him. Hitler launched an active campaign, fling around the country and using the radio to create an image of an active, modern politican of the future in sharp contrast to the elderly Hindenburg. The majority of Germans still feared Hitler. Hindenburg won the 1932 election with a clear majority. The NAZI's after Hitler's April 1932 election loss to Hindenburg were still a major political party, but did not have a majority in the Reichstag.

Violence and Disorder: Growing Political Instability

Hitler's strategy after his election loss to Hindenburg was to create an atmosphere of violence and chaos in Germany and raise the specter of the Communist menace. An to create the stte of disorder, he had a 4 million man para-military force which dwarfded the size of the Reichswehr--the Sturmabteilungen (SA). And in the disorder he would offer himself and the NAZIs as the only answer to the disoder. Hilter and Himmler decided to create an intelligence and security body within the SS (August 1931). The SS was still organizationally a part of the mich larger SA, but outide SA Leader Röhm's control. Himmler set up the Sicherheitsdienst (SD). Himmler chose disgraced naval officer Richard Heydrich to lead SD. It was operated as a distinct unit from the better known uniformed Schutzstaffel (SS). This was a little noted action, but would have huge consequences for both NAZI opponents and its most ardent proponents--the SA Stormtroopers. This was Hitler's primary force which could be used create disorder on the street. The SA was a by 1932 a very substantial force--more than 400,000 men. Much of this membership were willing to obey orders in violation German law. In fact much of the SA relished violence and wereintent on changing the German Government. The SA was led by Ernst Roehm who dreamed of turning the SA into a new German army and to lead a thorough going revolution in Germany. The major support of the Government at this time was the German Army, a tenous situation because much of the Army never emvraced the Socialist-dominated Weimar Republic. With Hindenburg as president, however, the Army's loyalty was guaranteed. The Army as a result of the Versailles Treaty ws limited to only 100,000 men. The disparity in size between the Army and SA was not as large as the numbers suggest. The Army was not only more professional and better armed, but through a system of reserves and rotation between active duty and reserves, the Army was actually much larger than the 100,000 man limit. Neverteless, democratic politicans had considerable reason for concern that Hitler wouls use the SA to seize power through another coup. German politicans had allowed the SA to grow in part because they feared a possible Commununist seizure of power. It was clear by 1932 it was the NAZIS and the SA that were the real threat and SA street violence was becoming an increased problem. Chancellor Heinrich Bruening banned the SA. The ban, however, did not last long.

President Hindenburg Dismisses Brüning (May 1932)

The presidential election was a ringing endorsement for President Hindenburg. It also seemed to vindicate Chancellor Brüning. The election should have helped stabilize German politics given that it was a set back for the NAZIS. But this assumes that President Hinbvenburg was firmly committed to the Republic and the Socialists and moderate politicans that were its main support. He was not. Hindenburg came from the Prussian Junker class. His loyalty was to the Prussian dominated military. He spent large amount of time at his Neudeck estate in East Prussian, having to travel through the hated Polish Corridor. Here he received constant visitors from his World War I comrads and Polish junkers owning large estates. They were largely monarchists, but even further estrained from the Republic by the progressive taxation system. Now Brüning was proposing the expropriation of the estates and distribution to unemployed workers. They railed to Hindenburg about Brüning. [Marcosson, p. 89.] One of the visitors who attempted to influence the ageing president was Fritz von Papen, a landowner in the Saarland. Another conservative figure undercut Brüning--General Kurtb von Schleicher. He helped force Brüning's primary supporter in the military out of office--General von Groener. It was Groener who had supported the ban on NAZI uniforms. Finally Hindenburg asked for Brüning's resignation. It was in many ways the end of the Republic.

Van Papen and Street War (June 1932)

President Hindenburg replaced Brüning. He still drew the line at Hitler. He refused to appoint him chancellor. Instead he turned to Franz von Papen from the Catholic Centre Party (June 1). Hidenburg dismissed Brüning primarily of the reforms he was promoting and the political instability in the Reichstag. One historian describes Von Papen as an “unexpected and ludicrous figure". [Shirer] Americans might recall thathe had been the German ambassador in Washington that ovcersaw a campaign of espionage and sabatoge before World war I. Von Papen hoping to strengthen his position, dissolved the Reichstag and called for new elections. This would be the third legislative election in 5 months. As a staunch anti-Communist, the new Chancellor was more accomodating to Hitler and the NAZIs. He lifted the ban on the SA. The political situatation, however, not only remained unstable, it worsened. Removing the ban on the SA resulted in an outbreak of a virtual war on German streets as the SA and Communists battled each other. There were 86 people killed and many more injured. Thus President Hindenburg's removal of Brüning actually escalated the vilonence and disorder.

New Election (July 1932)

Chancellor Van Papen decided to call another election in an effort to better his support in the Reichstag. Hitler and the NAZIs having lost the presidebntial election now focused on bringing down the republic through violence. Papen had played into their hands by lifting the ban on the SA. The SA initiated a campaign of political violence and murder. An even though he had been defeated, Hitler was drawing huge crowds at the NAZI rallies during the parlimentary campaign. One historian writes, "In one day, July 27, he spoke to 60,000 persons in Brandenburg, to nearly as many in Potsdam, and that evening to 120,000 massed in the giant Grunewald Stadium in Berlin while outside an additional 100,000 heard his voice by loudspeaker." [Shirer] The results of the election held July 31 were the opposite of what Papen had expected. The NAZIs who were inciting the violence gained in the election. Hitler as a result of the volence which the upper and middle classes tended to blame on the Communists, won 230 seats. This made the NAZIs the largest single party in the Reichstag, althouhj still short of a majority in the 608-member Reichstag. The German Social Democrat Party (SDP) , the main socialist party, still was supported by the urban working class and won 133 seats. And the German Communist Party (DKP) also received substantial working class support, winning 89 seats. This left the Reichstag basically split between left and right. The fact that the SDP and DKP could not make common cause would have disasterous cnsequences for the left. Working class for support for these parties, however, deprived Hitler and the NAZis of an overall majority in parliament. Hitler after the July 1932 election, even without a majority, had demanded that he should be appointed Chancellor. This was not an all-together unreasonable request. The Weimar Republic governments were coaltion governments, usually built around the most important party which had been the SDP. Hitler demanded that President Hindenburg appoint him chancellor and place him in complete control of the German state. Hindenburg rejected Hitlers demands in rather acerbic terms. An aide to the Presudent explauned, "Hindenburg replied that because of the tense situation he could not in good conscience risk transferring the power of government to a new party such as the National Socialists, which did not command a majority and which was intolerant, noisy and undisciplined." [Meissner] The newly elected Reichstag with more NAZI deputies voted no confidence in the Papen government (September). Both the NAZIS and DKP voted against the government. Given what was to come, the NAZIs and DKP voting togethervis notable. Papen urged President Hindenburg to declare a state of emergency, but the President refused.

Another Election (November 1932)

Political deadlocks in the Reichstag and continued political violence soon brought a new election. The concern of the German people was reflected in the next election (November 6, 1932). The NAZIs lost 2 million votes and 34 seats. Thus, even though they were still the largest political party, they were clearly lost ground among German voters voters. There was room for cautious optimism thsat the NAZI star had passed. The makeup of the new Reichstag was: NAZIs - 196 seats, SDP - 121 seats, the DKP - 100 seats, and the Center Party - 70 seats. The NAZIs lost over 30 seats, but continued to be the largest party in the Reichstag. The Communist Party (DKP) had made sizeable gains winning 100 seats. If the DKP had made common cause with the SDP and Center Pary, the NAZIs could have been blocked. The DKP refused, however, to do this. They were as btent in destroying the Republic as the NAZIS. Hitler sensing the political opportunity used this to raise the spectre of the Red Meance. He claimed that Germany was about to suffer another Bolshevik Revolution. He insisted that on the NAZIs could prevent the Communists from seizing power. Some Germans were impressed with his claims. A group of prominent industrialists forwarded a petition to President Hindenburg asking that Hitler be appointed Chancellor.

Major-General Kurt von Schleicher (November 1932)

Hitler continued to demand that he be appointed Chancellor, Hindenburg refused saying that he said he did not trust Hitler to rule democratically. Hindenburg continued to prefer Papen, but the Army objected. And Papen was unable to hold together a coalition in the Reichstag. Hindenburg eventually turned to Major General Kurt von Schleicher. Schleicher and Papen had played an important role in convincing President Hindenburg to fire Brüning. Papen as a political payoff had made Schleicher Minister of Defense. The two had quarled, however, as Schleicher who described himself as a "socially minded general was not as conservative as Papen. Attempting to remedy the street chaos and the deadlock in the Reichstag, Hindenburg dismissed Papen and appointed Schleicher as the new German chancellor. Hitler was outraged at the choice. (Hitler would get his revenge in the Knight of the Long Knives.) In his anger, Hitler almost made a fatal mistake. As the NAZIs began to become a major party in the very late-1920s as a result of the difficult economic conditions and especially during the 1932 parlimentary races. Hitler began to present himself as a responsibe, middle-class politican and toned down his extremist views during the 1932 presidenbtial campaign. After being rejected for the Chancelorship by Hindenburg, however, he let his true colors show. He even called for an end to democracy in a speech, referring to it as a system which meant the "rule of stupidity, of mediocrity, of half-heartedness, of cowardice, of weakness, and of inadequacy." Quickly picking up on their leader's shift, the SA became increasingly violent. In the most outrageous incident of NAZI violence, 167 NAZIS (many in SA uniforms) attacked 57 DDP deputies in the Reichstag itself. The NAZIs physically ejected them from the building. The SA were even more active outside the Reichstag. The main targets were Communists and Socialists. The incidents were widely reported in the still free German press, The brutality of these attacks shocked Germans. One incident was widely reported. The SA seized a young Communist youth in Silesia. They invaded his home and first jabbed an eye with a pool cue. After which they knifed him to death. All this was done in front of his mother. The police arrsted four SA Stormtroopers. Hitler sent the four murderes a letter of support and promised to get them released. (These newspaper accouts are particularly interesting because they openly reported on NAZI violence. Such incidents would no longer be reported after the NAZIs seized power, both because they controlled the press and because they could be carried out in secret behind the barbed wire of concentration camps.) Schleicher strategy was to forge what he called the Querfront (cross-front). It was an attempt to form a coalition with the fractious German political parties. He envisioned an authoritarian but still participatory government. He attempted to draw in the non-Communist labor unions. He even attempted to coopt the left-wing NAZIs led by Gregor Strasser. His efforts proved politically inept. Concessions to labor failed to win over the SDP and antagonized industrialists and agrarians, both potential supporters. [Fest, p. 356.] Schleicher only lasted 57 days. Schleicher like Papen before him asked President Hindenburg to declare a state of emergency. This would mean military rule and Hindenburg refused. Both the NAZIs and Communist press shrieked that Schleicher was trying to become a dictator.

Hindenburg Appoints Hitler Chancellor (January 30, 1933)

President Hidenburg, running out of options, finally turned to Hitler whom he appointed chancellor (January 30, 1933). Hitler's assessment was that thecaging Hindenburg wa an old ma lrgely out of touch with reality. He was careful to show the President outwardly the greatest respect, but to proceed with his plans withour fer that Hindenburg would interfere. After his appointment, thevnew Chancellor and his cabinet called upon President Hindenburg. One historian describes the occassion, "Hindenburg apeeared to be in adaze. Hitler endimanché in a bklack frock coatand clutching a top har, told 'the old man' that he would serve him loyallyas he had done when he was a soldier in the war. It was not usual for speeches to be made on these occasions and everyone looked embarrassed and shifty. Hidenburg was so disconserted that he never in fact went throuhg the formula of offering Hitler the Chancellorship. He merely said gruffly, 'And now, gentlemen, forward with God.'" [Wilson]

NAZI celebration

The NAZIs staged an enormous demonstration in Berlin, a torch light parade proceeded through the hear of the city. About 25,000 uniformed SA members who Göring had deputized as police helped keep order. The NAZIs and Stahlhelm units began marching about 7:00 pm and the celebration went on until midnight. They marched through the Brandenburg Gate past the Chancellery. There Hitler, Goebbels, Göering and Hess watched the procession. After the celebration had died down, Hitler's installed in his new Chancellory quarters launched into one of his monologues. He soon turned to racial themes. He expounded how his appointment as chancellor meant the final stage of the struggle of the white Aryans for control of the world. He said that the colored races had launched their campaign under Bolshevism, but the day had launched "the greatest Germanic racial revolution in world history." [Fest, p. 369.] Some authors have found some of Hitler's decesions during World War II difficult to understand. This is usually because of their failure to understand the fundamental role of race in Hitler's mind set.

Creation of a Dictatorship

Upon becoming chancelor, Hitler immediately proceeded to use police power to create a NAZI dictatorship. Many non-NAZIs were included in the cabinet, including important positions that politicans normally coveted. The ministries Hitler chose for NAZIs were carefully chosen so that he could use police power to create a dictarorship. Here Brüning had laid the groundwork by creating the precedentof suspending the constitution and ruling by decree. For Brüning it was a temporary expedient. For Hitler it was to be the permanent Führer state. And its creation camne with dizzying spoeed. And Göring at the Interior Ministry gave him the ability to act with peed and without constitutional coinstraint. A sries of decrees and actions within a month made Hitler not only chanbcelloe but the dictator of Germany.

New cabinet

Hidenburg attempted to control Hitler by placing Papen as vice-chancellor and surrounding Hitler with moderate ministers who supported Papen. These were members of the Deutschnationale Volkspartei (German National Party, DNVP). Hitler by carefully selecting his cabinent posts was within days gaining control. In fact only three members of the cabinet were NAZI Party members (Hitler himself, Wilhelm Frick led the critically important Interior ministry, and Hermann Göring as Minister without portfolio). Some like Foreign Minister Konstantin von Neurath had no party afiliation, but would later join the the NAZI Party. Justice Minister Franz Gürtner, another DNVP member, would also later join the NAZI Party. The military was represented by Werner von Blomberg who as also apolitical. It was not thecmilitary, but the police through Frick and Göring that would prove the key to establishing the NAZI dictatorship. In fact the Reichwehr because of the SA had grave cioncerns about Hitler abd the NAZIs. Days afterwards, Joseph Goebbels entered the cabinet upon the establishment of the Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda (March 13). The former Stahlhelm leader Franz Seldte, the Minister for Labour, joined the NAZI Party (April 1933. After the dissolution of the DNVP the party's "strong man" Alfred Hugenberg, who had held two ministerial posts, retired (June 1933). Most of the other DNVP membersalso joined the NAZI Party. From the beginning, Hitler did not use his cabinet to seek advice and direction, but to give orders. A NAZI-DNVP coalition government was, however, a nminority government. To be sure of success, however, Hitler needed a majority in the Reichstag. Hitler immediately insisted on a new election.

Decree for the Protection of the German People (February 4)

The names the NAZIs dreamed up for their emergency decrees are truly Orwelian. The press was an early NAZI target. This emergency degree gave Hitler the authority to prohibit political meetings and ban the newspapers and publications of rival political parties. Germany at the time had a democratic if chaotic democratic system and one of the most vibrant free presses in Europe. The SA could be used to enforce these decesions. And Göring by essentially deputizing thousands of SA members made such actions legal. With breath taking speed both oposoition partoies nd the free press would be silenced.

Göring and the Interior Ministry

The Interior Ministry was the key ministry for Hitler. (Americans should understand that the Interior Ministry in Europe means the police.) Hermann Göring was one of Hitler's earliest and cloest political associates. He is best known today as the head of the Luftwaffe and his role in the Holocaust. Henrich Himmler is generally associated with the Gestapo. It was Göring, however, who laid the foundation of the Gestapo. Hindenburg limited Hitler and the NAZIs to only three ministries. Hitler chose very carefully. Wilhelm Frick was one of those ministers. He was an early Hitler supporter and a career police administrator. Frick was appointed Minster of Interior. The Interior Ministry was not like the American Interior Department, a natural resources agency, but rather the ministry which included the police. He was one of only three NAZIs in Hitler's original cabinet. Frick drafted many of the laws that layed the foundation for the NAZI dictatorship, including the enabling act. Göring was appointed Ministry of Interior for Prussia. While this may seem a relatively minor appointment, it was critical in the NAZI seizure of power. Prussia was the largest German state and the state where Berlin was located. Göring began a carefully orcestrated campaign of dismissing police officials who were known to be NAZI opponents or unwilling to politicize the police. Göring replaced them with NAZI-Party members or supporters, mostly SA officers. He created what he called "honorary commisar" positions. From these posts men like SS Oberführer Daluege soon had effective control of the ministry and Prussian police. Göring ordered the Prussian police to establish coordinating links with nationalist associations (SA, SS, and Stahlhelm) (February 17). Göring seized on a small office in the central Berlin police force that was enpowered to investigate anti-constitutional activities. The force was greatly expanded becoming the Secret State Police (Geheime Staatspolizei). This was the foundation of the Gestapo. Göring also began organizing a 50,000-man force on the Sturm Abteilung (SA) which would serve as police auxiliaries (February 22). This essentially meant that the police functim was now in the hands of the NAZI Party. A there would be no constitutional or legal scrupples about how the police function would be applied. Göring proudly explained, "My measures will not be sicklied o'er by any legal scruples. My measures will not be sicklied o'er by any bureaucracy. It is not my business to do justice; it's my business to annihilate and exterminate, that's all." [Fest, p. 392.] Göring ordered a raid on the Berlin Communist Party (KPD) (February 24). Almost immediately after his appointment , Göring banned Communist meetings in Prussia, but street clashes and incidents had followed between Communits and NAZIs. After the raid he announced tht the police had foiled a Communist (KPD) plot to seize control of the government. The NAZI press reported that "tons of trasonous materials" had been found. Göring ordered the arrest of the KPD leaders. This appears to have been a total fabrication. No real evidene was ever offered of this, bit it made for effective NAZI propaganda in the 1933 election campaign. Göring even came up with the absurd charge that the Communists were preparing to poison German milk supplies, apparently to frighten German mothers.

Disolution of the Prussian Parliament (Feburary 6)

Germany when Hitler was appointed Chancellor was a federal state with the various German states retaining considerable authority. This complicated Hitler's plan to seize power. Prussia was, however, the largest and most importabt German state. Thus the Prussian parliament or Landtag was another early NAZI target. And here Hitler acted to immediately seize control. Hitler disolved it in another emergency degree (February 6). And Göring as Minister oif Interior forvPrussia proceeded to deal with anti-NAZIs throughout Prussia.

Reichstag Fire (February 27)

The Reichstag building in the middle of the Reichstag (parlimentarian) election campaign went up in flames (Februarry 27, 1933). This presented a golden opportunity for Hitlercand the NAZIs to esentialy stge a coup to permanently end German democracy. Hitler was having dinner with the Goebbels. The telephone rang with an emergency alert: “The Reichstag is on fire!” Both Hitler and Goebbels rushed to the burning Reoichstag. There they found Goering screamong, "This is the beginning of the Communist revolution! We must not wait a minute. We will show no mercy. Every Communist official must be shot, where he is found. Every Communist deputy must this very day be strung up." The police arrested Marianus van der Lubbe. He was an unstable young Dutch man who when a teenager had joined the Communist Party. Lubbe confessed, but many believed he was duped into setting the fire by the NAZIs. The actual circumstances will now never be known. The Prussian government the following day announced that it had found communist documents which describing a planned revolution. "Government buildings, museums, mansions and essential plants were to be burned down... . Women and children were to be sent in front of terrorist groups.... The burning of the Reichstag was to be the signal for a bloody insurrection and civil war.... It has been ascertained that today was to have seen throughout Germany terrorist acts against individual persons, against private property, and against the life and limb of the peaceful population, and also the beginning of general civil war." Wether or not the NAZIs were involved, they certainly put the Reicstah fire to full use. Göring ordered the Berlin police force on full alert. Göring's police including SA auxileries immediately arrested about 4,000 men. The speed of the NAZI police action is one reason that some beliece the NAZIs were responsible for the fire. Most of those arrested were rousted out of their beds. They were primarily DKP leaders, but there were also a number of anti-NAZI writers, intelectuals, and others who had crossed the NAZIs. [Fest, p. 396-397.] Goebbels and the NAZIs made full use of this in the election campaign. Göring used the incident to buteress is claim that the DKP was ploting to seize control of the government. Historians still debate who was responsible. Many blamed the NAZIs, especially the SA. This is certainly a pssibility, but there is no real proof. Some historians believe that neither the NAZIs or the DKP were actually responsible. [Davidson, pp. 17-22.]

Emergency Laws (February 28)

Hitler took full advantage of the situation and claimed that the fire was a Communist plot. Hitler ordered DKP leaders hanged. President Hindenburg rejected this, but was persuaded signed an emergency decrees (February 28). The first was the Law for the Protection of the People and State. Hitler justified the decree as a “defensive measure against Communist acts of violence endangering the state”. The presidential decree suspended the constitutional guarantees pertaining to civil liberties. It read, "Restrictions on personal liberty, on the right of free expression of opinion, including freedom of the press; on the rights of assembly and association; and violations of the privacy of postal, telegraphic and telephonic communications; and warrants for house searches, orders for confiscations as well as restrictions on property, are also permissible beyond the legal limits otherwise prescribed." A second decree, The Law Against Betrayal of the German People and Treasonous Machinations. These decrees suspended people's rights and allowed the NAZIs to arrest many Communists and other regime opponents with the full legal authority of the German state. This essentially gave Hitler dictatorial powers. One historian writes, "was the decisive legal basis for NAZI rule". [Fest, p. 398.] The NAZIs often using SA police auxilleries established by Göring arrested thousands of Communists, Social Democrats, and other individuals who had opposed their rize to power. German jails were soon over flowing with political prisoners.

1933 Election (March 5)

Hitler was finally chancellor, but he knew all to well that German chancellors come and go, some only lasting a few weeks. He also knew that the Army was not yet under his cintrol. Thus he needed a veneer of constituntionality. This soon after becoming Chancellor he decided to hold another election. This was a gambel on his part. The NAZIs had lost more thn 30 seats in the November 1932 election. He realized that the election would have to be carefully managed. And the NAZIs needed money to finally outdistance the other parties. Hermann Göring assembeled a group including many of Germany's leading industrialists in the palace of the Reichstag president (February 20). Some were already NAZI supporters. Others had been shaken by the Reichstag fire. All feared the Communists. Göring told them that the 1933 General Election would probably the last German election for some time. He explained that the NAZI Party needed money to conduct a major election campaiggn. He got donations totaling 3 million Reichmarks. NAZI Party propaganda chief Joseph Goebbelswas estatic. He penned in his diary, "Radio and press are at our disposal. Even money is not lacking this time." [Goebbels was the only one of the top NAZIs to keep a diary and is a fascinating source.] Fear of Communism gained the NAZIs additional support at the polls. German political parties had trouble competing with the NAZIs, especially the left-wing parties. Not only were they not as well financed, but The arests of their leaders and candidates made it very difficult to contest the dlection. In addition, the SA was used to break up opposition party rallies and meetings. The NAZIs killed some candidates. THe NAZIs also succeeded in closing opposition newspapers. One action the NAZIs did not take was to ban the Communist Party. Hitler reasoned that this might just result in DKP voters supporting the SD. [Fest, p. 392.] Despite all these difficulties, Hitler and the NAZIs still failed to gain a mjority in the Reichstag. The NAZIs received less than 44 percent of the vote, gaining 288 seats out of the 647 seats in the Reichstag. Much of the additional NAZI voters were gained in the Catholic rural areas where Catholics feared a Communist government. The March 1933 election results were: NAZI Party 288 seats, Social Democrats 120 seats, Communist Party 81 seats, Centre Party 73 seats, Nationalist Party 52 seats, and Others 23 seats.

Day of Potsdam (March 21)

Germany after the Reichstag fire had to find a new location for the newly elected Reichstag (March 5). The inagural celebrations had not yet been held. The location decided upon was Potsdam--a Berlin suburb. The location was the Garrison Church. Two Prussian kings (Frederick William I and Frederick II) were then buried there. President Hindenburg had previously appointed Adolf Hitler as the Reich chancellor. The opening of the new Reichstag (here meaning parliament rather than the building) came to be known in NAZI Germany as the Day of Potsdam and was portrayed in NAZI mythology as a union between the old and new Germany. Potsdam was a symbol of the old Germany. It was the capital of Prussia and the location of the residence of Prussian kings. The most fabeled Prussian king (Frederock the Great--Frederick II is buried there.) After unification (1870), the capital moved to Berlin, but the royal court remained in Potsdam. There was a Prussian military garrison at Potsdam which is why the church is named the Garison Church. Thus opening the new Reichstah there with the new Chancellor symbolically merged the old Prussian traditions with the NAZI New Order (March 21). Hitler appeared at the ceremony wearing in a tail coat and gratiously greeted the aging President. Annual celebrations were held in Potsdam to commemorate the historic day. The Hitler Youth converged there in large numbers.

The Enabling Act (March 23)

Hitler appeared before the Reichstag to "temporarily" delegate its authority to him so that he would have the needed power to deal with the crisis. He denouncing opponents as traitors and shouted, “Germany will be free, but not through you!” The NAZIs still had only 288 seats, still short of a majority. But the DKP deputies had many arrested, many in Dachau. SA Stormtroopers lined the entrance to the Reichstag. The vote was fore ordained, 441 for and 84 against. This gave Hitler the required two-thirds majority to suspend the Weimar Constitution. This essential made Hitler what he had always wanted, the dictator of Germany. He now had no legislative or constitutional constraints.

The Judiciary

The one branch of Government that the emergency decrees and Enabling Act did not imediately put in NAZI hands was the judiciary. The SS could carry out extra judicial actions in Dachau and the other concentration camps being opened, but Hitler also wanted control of the judiciary. The Weimar Constitution had established an independent judiciary. The Enabling Act suspended the Constitution, but the judges were still in place and protected from arbitrary removal. {Shirer] And some of these judges soon infuriated Hitler. Americans may not realise that trials in German courts (and much of the rest of the world) are decided by judges and not juries. The Reichstag trial found Lubbe guilty and sentenced him to death. The court acquitted three other defendents (Communists). Georgi Dimitrov, one of the Reichstag terrorist defendants, angered Göring during the trial whe Dimitrov cross-examined him. Even so, Dimitrov was taken into “protective custody,” by the Gestapo. The NAZIs arrested DKP leader Ernst Thälmann, but never tried him, least he turn the trial into another spectical. Hitler at any rate quickly put a stop to embarassing trials. The NAZI Government transferred jurisdiction in treason cases from the Supreme Court to a new People’s Court. One historian reports, This People's Court "... soon became the most dreaded tribunal in the land. It consisted of two professional judges and five others chosen from among party officials, the S.S. and the armed forces, thus giving the latter a majority vote. There was no appeal from its decisions or sentences and usually its sessions were held in camera. Occasionally, however, for propaganda purposes when relatively light sentences were to be given, the foreign correspondents were invited to attend." [Shirer] The NAZIs also established the Special Court to try political crimes or other “insidious attacks against the government.” These courts according to one historian, "consisted of three judges, who invariably had to be trusted party members, without a jury. A Nazi prosecutor had the choice of bringing action in such cases before either an ordinary court or the Special Court, and invariably he chose the latter, for obvious reasons. Defense lawyers before this court, as before the Volksgerichtshof, had to be approved by Nazi officials. Sometimes even if they were approved they fared badly. Thus the lawyers who attempted to represent the widow of Dr. Klausener, the Catholic Action leader murdered in the Blood Purge, in her suit for damages against the State were whisked off to Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where they were kept until they formally withdrew the action." [Shirer] Sachsenhausen was an especially notorious SS concentration camp.

NAZI Revolution

The actual election numbers were a disappointing, but the instruments of state power were now in NAZI hands. Goebbels explained, "What do figures matter now? We're the masters in the Reich and in Prussia." At the cabinent meeting after the election, Hitler referred to the election results as a revolution (March 7). [Fest, p. 399-400.] And he proceeded to make that revolution. All over Germany the SA was used to seize control of city and state government (March 7-11). Mayors and other elected officals were outsted from their offices by the SA. The NAZIs elected revenge on numerous individuals. One historian estimated that the were 500-600 politically motivated murders, As many as 100,000 were swept into the concentration camps the regime opened. [Fest, p. 401.] There were murmors of diappoiment within the SA. Many had assumed that the NAZI victory would give them authority for the open and arbitary use of force. Elements in the SA also wanted a social revolution targeting aristocrats and industrialists. Hitler understood the need for a veneer of constitutional rule and he saw the industrialists as key to German military power. He also knew that the Army still stood between him and the absolute mastery of Germany. The rift between the SA and Hitler would be resolved in 1934.

Dachau (March 21)

The Reichstag fire (February 27, 1933) was the perfect pretext for the NAZIs to strike at their political opponents. Göring immediately acussed the Communists of stting the fire and ordered the SA and SS to arrest first Communists and then Social Democrats (Socialists) and trade union members. SS leader Heinrich Himmler sought out political opponents in other German Landen. Soon German jails and prisons were filled to over flowing with "protective detainees", as the NAZIs called their prisoners. State Commissary of the Interior, Adolf Wagner, adviced his colleague Hans Frank of further options such as concentration camps. We are not sure who first campe up with the idea of concentration camps. Frick mentioned the possibility (March 8). When Hitler was appointed Chancellor, the German police had not yet been politicized, although Göring moved very quickly to do so. Thus Hitler was limited in what could be done in jails and prisons. The answer to this was concentration camps. The first permanent NAZI concentration camp was Dachau. I'm not sure when the orders were issued to open it, but the ininial facility was quickly completed (March 21). The NAZIs used an abandoned munitions factory near Munich. Göring had appointed Heinrich Himmler police president of Munich. Himmler described Dachau as "the first concentration camp for political prisoners." It was at Dachau that the NAZIs learned how to run concentration camps. Dachau served as a model for the vast network of KZs that the NAZIs were to establish first in Germany and later in the Europeans countries they occupied during World War II. Himmler announced the establishment of a 'concentration camp' on March 20 during a press conference. The NS opened the first official special camp for communist protective detainees at a former ammunition factory near Dachau. At first the guards were police from Munich. When Himmler was made Political Police Commander of Bavaria on April 1, 1933 he immediately begins to take contol of Dachau.

Enabling Act (March 23)

The NAZIs after the 1933 election were the largest party, but still did not have a majority. Over half of the voters chose other parties. The Nationalist Party, however, decided to support the NAZIs. Their 53 deputies added to the 288 NAZI deputies provided the slim majority Hitler needed. Hitler immediately put an Enabling Act before the Reichstag and asked the members to vote for it. The Enabling Law (the NAZIs called it the Law for the Removal of Distress from People and Reich) gave Hitler as Chancellor the power to make laws by decree for the next 4 years without Reichstag approval. NAZI SA storm troopers lined the entrance to the Reichstag to intimidate the opposition delegated. Only 94 members Social Democrat deputies (the Communists had been arrested) voted against the Enabling Law (March 23). Hitler now had the legal authority to reshape Germany as he willed. Only 2 day earlier, Himmler had opened Dachau to deal with those who attempted to oppose the New Order.

Historical Assessment

Historians use different terms to describe the NAZI victory. Some suggest that Hitler was elected. In fact the NAZIs never gained a majority in as German election, even the tainted 1933 election. The description of seizing power seems more correct. An example here is historian Jonathan Atler in an interview on the "Charlie Rose Show" stated that Hitler was elected the same time Roosevelt was inagurated. Actually the NAZIs in the very tainted 1933 election did not receive a majority vote. And the Enabling Act which took place afterwards was done in an atmopsphere of political arrests, supressionnof opposition party meetings, closures of opposition newspapers, and even the murder of some candidates. This was largely by the SA which had been deputized by Göring. Atler writes, "Please look at the weekend of march 4-5, 1933. Hitler had been in power for a month, and his government was given the backing of the German electorate that weekend. alas, it was a legit election." [Atler] There was a thin veneer of legality on the NAZI seizure of power. But to say that the 1933 election was legitimate or that the German people elected Hitler I think is extreemly misleading. Not only did the NAZIs not gain a majority, but the 1933 election was hardly a free, open democratic election. And it was followed by a illegal actions all over Germany in which NAZI thugs ousted democratically elected mayors and state officials all over Germany.

Sources

Atler, Jonathan. Interview on the "Charlie Rose Show, May 24, 2006. Atler has just published a superb book on Franklin Roosevelt. His contention is that the New Deal saved both democracy and capitalism in America. It is a very important thesis that is too often disnissed by conservatives.

Atler, Jonathan. E-mail message, May 31, 2006.

Davidson, Eugene. The Unmaking of Adolf Hitler (Univesity of Missouri: Columbia, 1996), 519p.

Fest, Joachim C. Hitler (Vintage Books: New York, 1975), 844p.

Marcosson, Isaac. Turbulent Years.

von Meissner, Otto. Meissner was an aide to President Hindenburg and testified at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trias.

Shirer, William. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.

Weber, Paul. Hitler - A German Fate (1932).

Wilson, A.N. Hitler (2012), 224p.









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Created: 1:46 AM 6/1/2006
Last updated: 12:40 AM 5/5/2012