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Undercover of legality.

Hitler used violence and propaganda to extend and consolidate his power in 1933-4
by Dr Edgar Feuchtwanger. University of Southampton
new perspective. Volume 7. Number 1. September 2001

Summary: When Hitler became German Chancellor in January 1933, the Nazis were in a minority in the cabinet and had no real power. Indeed, conservative elites gave Hitler this position in order to tame him and use Nazi popularity to stabilise the existing regime. Yet democracy in Germany had only shallow roots, and the tamers, especially Papen and Hindenburg, were unequal to their task. By calling elections, by exploiting the Reichstag fire, and by using terror and propaganda, Hitler was able to form a one-party state. In 1934 he eliminated his enemies within the Nazi party and, on the death of Hindenburg, became Fhrer, thus opening the way to total power. Questions to consider

Why did the attempts to tame Hitler and the Nazi movement fail? How important was propaganda in the Nazi takeover? Was Hitler's Machtergreifung a revolution disguised as a restoration? What was the role played by the Reichswehr in the establishment of the Nazi dictatorship? What was the significance of the Night of the Long Knives? Taming Hitler

When Hitler was appointed German Chancellor on 30 January 1933 he headed a cabinet of which only three members, including himself, were Nazis. The National Socialist party had become the largest German party six months previously, with more than 37 per cent of the vote. Although its strength was considerably reduced in the elections of November 1932, it still obtained the votes of a third of the electorate, nearly twice as many as the next largest party, the Social Democrats. It had, therefore, become very difficult to form a government without Hitler and the Nazi party. Hitler had, however, made it quite clear that his aim was to obtain total power and to put an end to democracy and the rule of law. The formation of the Hitler cabinet was intended to bring him and his movement tamed to the support of the government, while leaving real control in the hands of the conservative nationalists and the bureaucrats who made up the majority of the cabinet. It can be seen as an alliance between the various elites in German society, the bureaucracy, the industrialists, the big landowners, above all the Army, on the one hand, and the Nazi mass movement, on the other. These elites could not carry on the government without a measure of the popular support they would obtain by co-opting Hitler. In the succeeding days, weeks and months Hitler swiftly knocked away the safeguards that had been built in to prevent him from establishing a dictatorship. By the summer of 1933 Germany was a one-party state in which there could be no open opposition. The rule of law, freedom of the person, of speech and of the press had all been

abolished. Opponents of the regime were in concentration camps or in exile. The idea of taming by constitutional devices a mass party like t he Nazis, many of whose more committed members had revolutionary intentions and were dedicated to violence, was flawed from the outset. The men who were foremost in allowing Hitler into power, on the assumption that they would retain real control, showed in the event no determination to rein him in and were a push-over. The most prominent among them was Papen, who had been chancellor from June to December 1932, and who was vice-chancellor in Hitlers cabinet. He swiftly gave up all the positions that had been intended to curb Hitlers power and, although acquitted at the Nuremberg trial after the war, played a lamentable role. Hindenburg, the 85-year old president, had been re-elected in April 1932, with the support of the democratic parties and against Hitlers own candidature. He was supposed to be the remaining guardian of the rule of law, but after March 1933 he virtually ceased to intervene. The deeper reasons for Hitlers quick success in eliminating all opposition lay, however, beyond personal failures. German democracy was never very strongly rooted and in the years of the great economic slump after 1929 became completely eroded. By 1932 a majority of the electorate voted for parties that openly advocated dictatorship, the Nazis and the Communists, though they were at opposite ends of the political spectrum. Once Hitler was in power and looked like the winner, a lot of people, who had previously supported the democratic or even the left-wing parties, jumped on his bandwagon. Even if the tamers had been more determined and skilful, their task was almost impossible. Hitler and his henchmen, among whom Gring and Goebbels were at this stage the most prominent, exploited their opportunity ruthlessly. Hitler takes control In the Nazi take-over, Machtergreifung in German, three elements stand out. One is legality: in form Hitler had been legally appointed Chancellor by Hindenburg and many of the subsequent steps were covered by a nominally legal process, though the spirit of the law was nearly always broken. The second is terror: behind the veneer of legality there was open terror, the imprisonment, torture and murder of opponents without the possibility of legal redress. The third is deception: a huge propaganda campaign, against which no contrary opinions were allowed, persuaded all but the committed supporters of the former democratic parties that this was a national rebirth.Nationale Erhebung, national uprising, was the slogan used by the Goebbelss propaganda machine. The first step on the road to dictatorship took place within hours of the Hitler cabinet being sworn in. It was decided to dissolve the Reichstag once more, the third time within eight months. On each occasion the newly elected Reichstag hardly met, because neither of the two previous governments had a majority and would have had a vote of no confidence passed against them. By calling elections once more, to be held on 5 March, Hitler could fight them from a position of strength. He controlled the radio, before television the most important propaganda instrument. He could suppress the newspapers of the opposition, break up their meetings and generally harass them. Gring played a key role in preventing the democratic parties from campaigning freely, because as Prussian minister of the interior he controlled the

police in two-thirds of Germany. He enlisted 50,000 Nazi storm-troopers, the SA, as auxiliary police and gave them licence to hunt down their opponents. He issued a notorious decree giving full support to any policeman using his weapon against opponents of the national parties. The election campaign was further distorted by the Reichstag fire on 27 February. This was declared to be the signal for an intended Communist uprising. The following day President Hindenburg signed an emergency decree suspending basic constitutional rights, such as freedom from arrest without due process of law, freedom of speech, of assembly and association. This decree remained one of the pillars of the Nazi dictatorship until 1945. Most of the Communist leaders and candidates for the impending Reichstag elections were immediately arrested, but their names remained on the ballot papers. The split between the two left-wing parties, Social Democrats and Communists, that had fatally undermined any prospect of resisting the Nazi takeover was, therefore, still operating in the elections of 5 March. In spite of all the repressive measures against their opponents, the Nazis failed to achieve an overall majority. Nevertheless, their vote was massive, 44 per cent on a greatly increased turn-out. Together with their nominal cabinet allies, the German Nationalist Party, they now had a majority, 52 per cent, of the Reichstag seats. This was the signal for the Nazi take-over to go into high gear. All over Germany the SA forced members of the democratic parties out of official positions they still held and put Nazis in their place. This process was called Gleichschaltung, the subordination of all institutions to the National Socialist state. It took place under the threat of violence and terror, but it could not have been done so thoroughly and swiftly if it had not encountered a great deal of consent. This is where the elements of legality and deception came in. A majority of Germans accepted the Hitler cabinet as the legal government of the country. There could be no resistance against it from the civil service, the police or the Army. The whole apparatus of the State was at the disposal of the new masters. Even those still opposed to the new regime, for example the Social Democrats and the trade unions, felt that they could not resist by force a government legally established. For a time they clung to the illusion that the Nazi regime would not last long and that it would be swiftly followed by a turn to the left, as predicted by Marx. The element of deception was equally important. The majority of the population, most of whom were not at this stage strongly committed Nazis, became convinced that this was, in fact, a national rebirth and deserved their support. For many of them this was a time of euphoria. There had been years of humiliation and depression, defeat in 1918, the treaty of Versailles, collapse of the currency, then, after a brief more prosperous interlude, catastrophic economic slump. Now there was a new beginning. This was the message relentlessly hammered home by Hitler and the Nazi propaganda machine, which now had the field to itself. Goebbels was put in charge of a new Ministry of Propaganda and Popular Enlightenment. Within a week of his appointment he staged the opening of the new Reichstag with an elaborate ceremony known as The Day of Potsdam on 21 March 1933. It was held in the Garrison Church at Potsdam, the shrine of the old Prussian monarchy. President Hindenburg appeared in the uniform of an imperial field marshal and Hitler, in top hat and morning coat, bowed deep before him. The impression was given that the Nazi regime was restoring the old glories lost in 1918. Defeat had been the result of treason,

Hitler constantly proclaimed, and he was now eliminating those guilty of it. What was a revolution was made to look like a restoration of past greatness. One-party state Two days after this ceremony the Reichstag passed the Enabling Act, by which it transferred its legislative powers to the Hitler cabinet, initially for a period of four years. It was now no longer necessary to use the decree making power of President Hindenburg, as had been the case after the Reichstag fire. Only the Social Democrats, at the risk of their lives, voted against the Enabling Act, which was accepted by 441 to 94 votes. Its importance should not be exaggerated, for if there had been a hitch in getting it passed it would not have halted the Nazi take-over. The point of no return had long been passed and the act merely made it that much easier and more convincing to maintain the veneer of legality that had proved so useful. Nothing remained of parliamentary democracy and Hitler could issue laws and decrees as he saw fit. During the next few weeks and months a number of laws were issued, which completed the process of establishing a one-party state and began the creation of a state based on the Nazi doctrine of race. A law of 7 April 1933 ended the security of tenure hitherto enjoyed by civil servants and made possible their dismissal on grounds of political unreliability and race. It was the first law discriminating against German citizens of the Jewish faith and was the beginning of a development that was to end in the murder of millions of European Jews. A law of 14 July, entitled law against hereditarily diseased offspring, one of a batch of enactments published on that day, legalised the sterilisation of persons considered to be of inferior heredity. It was the beginning of a process that was to lead to the killing of large numbers of handicapped people in the Third Reich. Another law of the same date made the Nazi party the only legal party in Germany. The other parties had already gone into voluntary liquidation in the previous few weeks, while the left-wing parties had been forcibly dissolved. The process of Gleichschaltung was rolling on relentlessly and subjecting all other organisations in German society to nazification. Particularly striking was the case of the trade unions, once among the most powerful in Europe. They had already been gravely weakened by heavy unemployment during the slump. Some of their leaders made rather abject attempts to ingratiate themselves with the new regime, by professing loyalty and undertaking to refrain from all political activity in the future. This only emboldened Hitler and his colleagues to annihilate them in one violent stroke. Hitler used Labour Day, 1 May, for a great demonstration to celebrate the dignity of labour. Functionaries and members of the unions were put off their guard. The following day storm-troopers ransacked trade union offices all over Germany and took all officials they could lay their hands on into protective custody. Employees now had to join the Nazi German Labour Front, while wages were fixed by so-called Trustees of Labour. Strikes were outlawed. The elimination of the trade unions was welcomed by the business community. Large and small employers hoped that the new regime would bring political stability and economic recovery. Businesses and their organisations were also subjected to Gleichschaltung. Many firms were forced to give jobs to old Nazi fighters with no technical qualifications. Nevertheless, Hitler could not at this stage carry over into

the economic and social sphere the revolution that had swept over the political scene, for economic recovery was vital to the consolidation of the regime. Dr Schacht, a conservative international banker, was made economic overlord. He managed to stage a considerable recovery, so that the number of unemployed, which averaged 5.6 million in 1932, dropped to 2.7 million in 1934. After that the German economy was, on Hitlers insistence, increasingly switched to war production. Schacht wanted to limit armaments production to what the economy could bear, but was pushed out in 1936. He was thus another from the old nationalist elites who tried to tame the Nazis and failed. Night of the Long Knives By July Hitler proclaimed the complete success of his national revolution and called for a period of consolidation. This left the large army of storm-troopers, who had supplied the violent drive for the Nazi take-over, without a clear role. Their chief, Ernst Rhm, wanted them to become the revolutionary army that would conquer Europe and the world for the Third Reich. This was a direct challenge to the professional army, the Reichswehr. The Armys acceptance of and increasing co operation with the regime was the most crucial factor in the collaboration between Hitler and the old nationalist and conservative elites. The Fhrers plans for futur e conquest could not be carried on without the professional officer corps of the Army. In the early months of 1934 there was growing tension between Reichswehr and SA. It took place against a background of dissatisfaction with the slowness of economic recovery among the population at large and unease at the excesses of the stormtroopers. At the same time those who, like Papen, had intended to tame the Nazis, felt it was their last chance to put a brake on Hitler and restore something of the rule of law. To do so they needed the support of Hindenburg, who was not expected to live much longer. Hitler, therefore, saw his dictatorship threatened from two sides; from Rhm, who wanted to drive the Nazi revolution forward, and from the conservatives who wanted to halt it. He resolved the situation by what was the single most violent coup of his seizure of power, the Night of the Long Knives, 30 June 1934. Rhm and other leading storm-troopers were murdered, as were a number of conservatives, among them General Schleicher, Hitlers predecessor as chancellor. Five weeks later, on the death of Hindenburg, Hitler combined the offices of president and chancellor as Fhrer and Reich Chancellor. All soldiers took a personal oath to him as head of state. The way was open in the next few years to the removal of all restraints on Hitlers personal rule, to a degree unprecedented in a highly complex modern society. He was then free to plunge the world into war and to take the decisions that led to the eventual self-destruction of his regime and his country. FURTHER READING: E.J. Feuchtwanger, Germany 1916-1941, Sempringham, 1997; W.S. Allen, The Nazi Seizure of Power: The experience of a single German town 19221945, Penguin, 1989; Ian Kershaw, Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris, Allen Lane The Penguin Press, 1998; Richard Overy, The German Economy, 1919-1945, pp 33-73, and Edgar Feuchtwanger, The transition from Weimar to the Third Reich: the political dimension, pp 105-133, in Panikos Panayi (ed), Weimar and Nazi Germany. Continuities and Discontinuities, Longman, 2001; Richard Bessel, Political Violence and the Rise of Nazism: Storm Troopers in Eastern Germany, Yale University Press, 1984; Detlev J.K. Peukert, Inside Germany: Conformity, Opposition and Racism in

Everyday Life, Batsford, 1993. Selected related articles published in new perspective. Click on those under lined for immediate access. From Weimar to Hitler: The Rise and Fall of the First German Democracy by E.J. Feuchtwanger Vol 1, No 1*; The Rise of Nazism by Dr Conan Fischer, Vol 1, No 3; Life in the Third Reich by Henry Metalmann, Vol 2, No 3*; Germans against Hitler. Who resisted the Third Reich and why did they do it? by Dr Martyn Housden, Vol 3, No 3*; From Weimar to Hitler: continuity gives way to creeping revolution by Dr E.J. Feuchtwanger, Vol 4, No 3*; Nazi Anti-Semitic Policy and the Origins of the "Final Solution" by Dr Lisa Pine, Vol 6, No 2. How Hitler Consolidated his Power, 1933-4 by Edgar Feuchtwanger new perspective 2001 Edgar Feuchtwanger has taught modern German and British history at the University of Southampton. He has written widely on German history, including From Weimar to Hitler: Germany 1918-33, 2nd edition, Macmillan, 1995, and Imperial Germany 18501918, Routledge, 2001. He is at present working on a biography of Bismarck.