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Jan. 30, 1933: The Story behind Hitler's Rise to Power

By in Berlin

Wednesday marks the 75th anniversary of Adolf Hitler's attainment of power. It took the Führer just 12 years to plunge Europe into the darkest chapter of its history and unleash the Holocaust. But how did a failed painter manage to bring all of Germany under his dictatorial thumb?

It was a chilly winter day in 1933 when the German dictatorship began. Thermometers showed a temperature of minus 4 degrees Celsius -- the skies were clear. At about 10 a.m., Adolf Hitler, head of the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP), made his way down Wilhelmstrasse in the heart of Berlin.

The 44-year-old Hitler was on his way to the Reichskanzlei, seat of the Weimar Republic's government, where both he and his cabinet were to meet with President Paul von Hindenburg. A feeling of relief was in the air. For months, the German state had been limping from one failed government to the next, with three general elections having been held within 10 months. Hopes were high that the next government would provide some desperately needed stability. The swearing-in ceremony was set for 11 a.m.

Hindenburg, 85 years old at the time, spoke for just a few minutes, expressing his pleasure that all had finally managed to come together to form a coalition. Then he turned the floor over to Hitler, and nodded in appreciation as the new chancellor promised to uphold the constitution and govern for the good of the nation. It was Monday, Jan. 30, 1933 -- exactly 75 years ago -- and Hitler had finally reached his goal.

It was a moment Hitler had been working towards for years. Having joined the small German Workers Party in the autumn of 1919, the young World War I veteran -- originally from the Austrian border town of Braunau am Inn -- worked ceaselessly to transform the small group of conservative agitators into a national political force. Relying on a mix of nationalist demagoguery, vicious anti-Communism and virulent anti-Semitism -- topped off with an unceasing flood of invective aimed at the Treaty of Versailles -- Hitler rode a wave of street popularity he hoped would help him overthrow the Berlin government.

His first attempt, in November 1923, would fail in a hail of bullets in Munich -- the so-called Beer Hall Putsch. Yet even though the Weimar Republic -- the democratic regime which emerged out of Germany's post-World War I chaos -- managed to stabilize the country both politically and economically in the mid-1920s, Hitler's Nazis would get a second chance.

From today's perspective, it is tempting to pin the blame for Hitler's eventual rise to power on the great New York stock market crash of 1929, an event which put millions of German workers out of a job. Others point to the onerous conditions placed on Germany by the Treaty of Versailles, which required Germany to accept responsibility for starting World War I and forced Berlin to pay 132 billion goldmarks in war reparations. Still others argue that Germany's history somehow made the country predestined for the kind of murderous dictatorship that Hitler's reign became.

The NSDAP got most of its support in the July 1932 election in northern Germany.
SPIEGEL ONLINE

The NSDAP got most of its support in the July 1932 election in northern Germany.

Entire libraries have been filled with books attempting to explain how a once-homeless failed artist could have launched a war machine that eventually resulted in 60 million dead, and a death machine that killed 6 million in the Holocaust's gas chambers. More are certainly to come. The rise of the Nazis defies any simple narrative, coming as it did out of a myriad of interlacing events, ideologies and historical accidents.

One thing, however, is clear. Nazi Germany, and the flood of destruction it unleashed on Germany, Europe and the world, was far from inevitable.

The ill-fated Weimar Republic emerged from post-war chaos that verged on civil war. German soldiers, defeated on the battlefield, returned home only to be sent into skirmishes against communist revolutionaries. Right-wing monarchists and conservative anti-leftists in the military, judiciary and bureaucracy saw to it that little mercy was shown. Over 1,000 people were killed in the fighting, with Hitler's adopted home of Munich seeing a revolving door of bright red governments that only ended when a local paramilitary force combined forces with a federal army unit to brutally put down the red threat. A number of future Nazis took part in the slaughter, and the political climate in Germany remained poisoned for years.

But stability remained elusive. The Weimar Republic's constitution made it almost inevitable that governments would have a short shelf life, and in the 14 years of the republic, fully 20 different governments would rule. But even still, the infant German democracy had a chance.

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© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2008
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