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

By in Berlin

Part 3: Wary of Democracy

There is no denying that Hitler was a gifted speaker. But without the fatal weaknesses in Germany's political leadership, it is difficult to see how he would have made it to the top. President von Hindenburg had never been terribly convinced that democracy was the way to go. Indeed, the World War I hero and his supporters had long yearned for a strong leader free from parliamentary meddling -- and they were especially wary of the Social Democrats, the one party that had thrown all of its support behind the Weimar democracy from the beginning.

Von Hindenburg's skepticism of parliamentary democracy was shared by many in German society, especially in heavy industry and among the country's powerful farming sector. It came as no surprise when, the SPD government of Chancellor Hermann Müller having collapsed, von Hindenburg appointed nationalist Heinrich Brüning in his place in March 1930. The left side of the political spectrum was in no shape to prevent it -- the communists seemed just as eager to see the end of Weimar as the radical right was. The dangers to German democracy were mounting.

Soon thereafter, it became dramatically clear that the Nazis had recovered. When Brüning stepped in, he was handed far-reaching emergency powers -- and when parliament complained, von Hindenburg dismissed it and called for new elections on Sept. 14, 1930. Hitler's NSDAP, until then a tiny splinter party on the national political stage, raked in 18.3 percent of the vote.

Governmental stability, however, was still a long way off. The ensuing two years saw prime ministers come and go, seemingly at the whim of the aging president. Meanwhile, the numbers of Germans without a job continued to rise -- to over 8 million -- and the government in Berlin did little about it. Indeed, instead of trying to stimulate the moribund economy, von Hindenburg continued on a path of strict savings, partially to demonstrate to the Allies that Germany was simply too poor to pay World War I reparations. When elections were finally held again in July 1932, the Nazis got a whopping 37.4 percent of the vote.

Another way to see the results, however, is that 63.6 percent of Germans didn't cast their ballots for the NSDAP. Indeed, despite Hitler's party getting support from across the country and from a variety of different segments of society, his was still largely a protest vote -- and it would only last as long as there was something to protest. But the Depression was showing signs of bottoming out. General elections held in November that same year showed a drop in support for the Nazis to 33.1 percent. Even worse for the NSDAP, President von Hindenburg still seemed disinclined to hand over power to Hitler, even though the NSDAP had received far more votes than any other party. He said that naming Hitler chancellor was "neither compatible with his conscience nor with his obligation to the Fatherland."

Hitler's NSDAP won a series of elections.

Hitler's NSDAP won a series of elections.

It was a potentially disastrous time for the Nazis. Support was waning and being left out of government meant that, despite election success, the party had no way to reward its most ardent followers. "We are all very depressed, especially given the danger that the party might break up and our work will have been in vain," noted Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Party propaganda guru.

Help came from an unexpected quarter. Franz von Papen, who had already had his turn on the chancellor merry-go-round in June, wanted a second chance and beseeched von Hindenburg to give his backing to a coalition of Hitler's Nazis, independent conservatives, and the arch-nationalists from the DNVP. Other von Hindenburg advisors likewise pleaded for the solution, arguing that, by hemming Hitler in among those who had long been in Germany's political elite, they would be able to control the wannabe dictator. In January 1933, von Hindenburg gave in.


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