Why Was Hitler Able to Dismantle the German Constitution So Easily?

Why Was Hitler Able to Dismantle the German Constitution So Easily?

This article is an edited transcript of The Rise of the Far Right in Europe in the 1930s with Frank McDonough, available on Our Site TV.

Dan chats to Professor Frank McDonough on how Dictators seized power in several European countries during the 1930s and why it happened.

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The German constitution that Adolf Hitler seemed able to dismantle so easily was a relatively new one.

The Weimar Republic, as Germany was known between 1919 and 1933, was quite a new state and so didn’t have long roots like the United States or, going even further back, Britain. The constitutions of those countries acted as a kind of sea anchor and stabilising force, but the constitution of the Weimar Republic had only been around for a decade or two and so had less legitimacy.

And it was that lack of legitimacy that made the constitution so easy for Hitler to dismantle.

The apparent failure of democracy

Germany never really came to terms with its defeat in World War One. Major portions of society still looked back to the imperial era and really wanted the restoration of the Kaiser.

Even somebody like Franz von Papan, who served as the German chancellor in 1932 and then as Hitler’s vice-chancellor from 1933 to 1934, said in his memoirs that most of the non-Nazi members of Hitler’s cabinet thought that the Nazi leader might restore the monarchy following the death of President Paul von Hindenburg in 1934.

The problem with Weimar democracy was that it didn’t look like something that had brought prosperity.

Hitler (left) is pictured with German President Paul von Hindenburg in March 1933. Credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-S38324 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

First off, the great inflation happened in 1923, and that destroyed a lot of middle class pensions and savings. And then, in 1929, short-term loans from America dried up.

So Germany really collapsed in a quite dramatic way – rather like the banking crisis of 2007, where the whole of society was affected by it – and there was vast employment.

Those two things shook up supporters of democracy in Germany. And there hadn’t been many such supporters to begin with. The Nazi Party wanted to get rid of democracy on the right, while on the left the Communist Party also wanted to get rid of democracy.

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If you add up the percentage of the vote won by the two parties in the 1932 general election, it comes to more than 51 per cent. So there was about 51 per cent of the electorate who didn’t actually want democracy. So when Hitler came to power, even the communists had this idea that, “Oh let him come to power – he’ll be exposed as being totally inefficient and will fall from power and we’ll have the communist revolution”.

The German army also never really accepted democracy; although it saved the state from the Kapp putsch in 1920 and from Hitler’s putsch in Munich in 1923 it was never really wedded to democracy.

And neither were most of the ruling class, the civil service or the judiciary. A communist would come before a court in Weimar Germany and get executed, but when Hitler came before a court for high treason, he got just six years in prison and was let out after just over a year.

The ruling elite undermine Hitler

Großdeutscher Reichstag ("Greater-German Reichstag") after 1938, was the pseudo-Parliament of the Third Reich from 1933 to 1945. Following the Nazi seizure of power and the passing of the Enabling Act of 1933, it was meant only as a rubber stamp for the actions of Adolf Hitler's dictatorship — always by unanimous consent — and to listen to Hitler's speeches. In this purely ceremonial role, the Reichstag convened only 20 times, the last on 26 April 1942. The President of the Reichstag (German: Reichstagspräsident) throughout this period was Hermann Göring.

During this period, the Reichstag was sometimes derisively referred to by the German public as the "teuerste Gesangsverein Deutschlands" (the most expensive singing club in Germany) due to frequent singing of the national anthem during sessions. To avoid holding scheduled elections during World War II, in 1943 Hitler extended the term of office of the current Reichstag (elected in late 1938 to serve in 1939–1943) to serve a special eight-year term to end on 30 January 1947.

Power and Influence of Adolf Hitler

The term power is most often associated with leaders, especially in the context of this course because leaders have a certain degree of power over their followers. Power is defined simply as the capacity to produce effects on others (Shih, 2013). The amount of power an individual has affects the individual’s ability to influence followers (Shih, 2013). Influence is any change in a follower’s beliefs or values (Shih, 2013). A fine example of a leader with power is Adolf Hitler who was famous for his ability to influence his followers through his powerful charisma.

In the early 1930’s Germany was suffering economic hardships (“Hitler”). These conditions gave Hitler a good opportunity to appeal to the everyday working man with the National Socialist German Workers’ Party. The Nazi group appealed to the lower classes such as the youth and unemployed (“Hitler”). German democracy ended in 1933 when Hitler was elected chancellor of Germany (“Hitler”). The Third Reich had only one master and only the Nazi political party existed during this time. Hitler utilized fear, propaganda, and transformed Germany into a militant country. Hitler’s SS officers instilled fear with their austere and put-together appearance.

From a personal perspective, I can testify to the extent of Hitler’s power and influence because I grew up with a product of his regime. My grandmother was a part of the Hitler Youth when she was a child and possesses the same values and ideas even though she came to America when she was in her 20’s. My grandmother speaks of Hitler fondly, as a man who “loved children and animals.” My grandmother grew up in Innsbruck, Austria and was the youngest of three children. She explains that the Hitler Youth sent the children to do work on farms and castles in order to build character. She tells me that he did many good things for the people of Innsbruck. I find it interesting to hear her prospective on these events, especially considering how Hitler is viewed as an evil tyrant–and rightly so. I find myself amazed by the degree of his power and influence can transcend culture and time.

Shih, Shin-I. (2013). Psych 485: Leadership in Work Settings. Lesson 7: Power and Influence. Pennsylvania State University. Retrieved from https://courses.worldcampus.psu.edu/fa13/psych485/002/content/07_lesson/01_page.html

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “Hitler Comes to Power.” Holocaust Encyclopedia. Retrieved from http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005143.


Adolf Hitler is a perfect example of power leadership. As Hitler learned power and manipulation was not a way to gain power, but not till the end. Power through force is not a way to gain leadership. Leadership through force only will inhibit a negative reaction. As we have read in history, Hitler’s followers only were one by one taken down, including Hitler and his wife committing suicide. When a group of people are controlled by fear, eventually that group of people will turn against them.
As I look at history, power driven and hungry individuals have never prospered by giving other orders. Hitler used brut force to obtain his followers through fear. That brut force will not gain followers, but will cause someone to be spiteful. Hitler did obtain influence, but only through brut force and fearfulness, which is not way to lead a country.

History has frequently portrayed Hitler as someone with many negative traits. He often does not come to mind when one thinks about a leader probably because our ideal of a leader is someone who is affable, moral and ethical, but a leader he was nonetheless and as you mentioned one with power and much influence.

According to our lesson it was his strong ability to influence his followers to the point that they changed their values and beliefs and that was what made him so powerful (Pennsylvania State University World Campus, 2013). Convincing one man to kill another man, women or child that he does not know and who has done him no wrong clearly demonstrates his influence.

It is often painted that many of his followers feared him that indicates Hitler had coercive power which is when one “controls others through the fear of punishment or the loss of valued outcomes” and the commitment and consistency principle of social influence by getting others to commit to his way of thinking (Pennsylvania State University World Campus, 2013). That wasn’t so for your grandmother or those who shared her view of him. Your grandmother’s depiction of him seems to fall under the liking principle of social influence “we tend to listen to people we like” and referent power in which a leader is seen as a role model because of how he felt about children and animals and had done good things for her community (Pennsylvania State University World Campus, 2013).

It’s amazing how the same individual can be perceived so differently. I guess Hitler was similar to a coin both sides of quarter look different, but it’s still a quarter. Thanks for the personal perspective!

Why German Soldiers Don’t Have to Obey Orders

Consider, if you will, a fraught military standoff. A soldier from the German army receives an order from a superior to fire his gun, but he puts it down and walks away. In the United States, he would have just committed the unforgivable and illegal act of insubordination, even if the superior officer weren’t from the same service branch.

But in this scenario, the German soldier didn’t break the rules—he followed them. Military disobedience is actually baked into the German Bundeswehr, or armed forces. And the reasons why can be found in the country’s sinister past.

American military law states that an order can only be disobeyed if it is unlawful. However, the German military manual states that a military order is not binding if it is not “of any use for service,” or cannot reasonably be executed. In fact, if the order denies human dignity to the armed forces member or the order’s target, it must not be obeyed.

In practice, that means that a soldier or armed forces administrator can ignore a superior officer’s order𠅎ven if it’s in the midst of combat or is given by a high-ranking official.

That’s not how it used to be. Unconditional obedience to military orders was once a norm going back to the kingdoms that preceded Germany before it became a nation state in 1871. During World War I, Germany executed 48 soldiers for insubordination, and its basic training regimen�signed around unconditional submission to higher officers—was known as one of Europe’s most brutal.

After World War I, this discipline softened thanks to the Allied forces, which blamed the country’s strict military hierarchy for the ruthlessness of World War I. Under the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was forced to admit guilt for the war and to restrict its military’s numbers and weapons. The country’s military was effectively dismantled, with officer schools shut down and the number of troops reduced to just 100,000.

Hans von Seeckt watching as troops march by, 1936. (Credit: Ullstein Bild via Getty Images)

However, Germany had no intention of following the treaty’s military provisions. Soon after the treaty was signed, German general Hans von Seeckt began to reorganize and secretly rebuild the military with the help of Russia. German companies began producing forbidden arms on Russian soil and German troops trained with Russian soldiers𠅊ll in secret.

By the time Adolf Hitler came into power in 1933 with promises to revive the country’s former might, the German public was ready for it. Hitler immediately began to openly flout the treaty. As he brought Germany’s secretive postwar military into the open, they began pledging their loyalty directly to him. From 1934 on, the German military oath was sworn to Hitler himself𠅊nd it contained a clause that promised “unconditional obedience.”

That rule was taken seriously during the lead up to World War II and the conflict itself. At least 15,000 German soldiers were executed for desertion alone, and up to 50,000 were killed for often minor acts of insubordination. An unknown number were summarily executed, often in the moment, by their officers or comrades when they refused to follow commands.

This wasn’t always the case. Historian David H. Kitterman’s research on a group of 135 German soldiers who refused orders to kill Jews, POWs or hostages shows they suffered beatings and death threats for defying their superiors, but none were executed. Although insubordination was taken seriously, excuses that soldiers had “just been obeying orders” when they participated in Holocaust atrocities weren’t entirely true.

German Nazi Chancellor and dictator Adolf Hitler consulting a geographical survey map with his general staff including Heinrich Himmler and Martin Bormann duringWorld War II, 1939. (Credit: France Presse Voir/AFP/Getty Images)

When the war ended, the Allies assumed control of Germany and decommissioned its entire military. It took a decade for Germany—now split in two—to regain a military, and in 1955 a new Bundeswehr was created.

The new German armed forces were a different beast than their predecessors. German law forbids the use of its military to do anything other than defend Germany itself, though the military does participate in some humanitarian and NATO coalition missions. Instead of blind obedience, the military emphasizes Innere Führung, a hard-to-translate concept that centers the military experience around the inner conscience of each individual.

As a result, many German soldiers refuse combat assignments or disobey orders—with no consequence. Their ability to do so has been repeatedly held up in civil courts (Germany has no military courts) and in the federal government. In 2007, the German federal government even went so far as to state that German law means unconditional authority or loyalty to superiors can’t exist. Soldiers must not obey unconditionally, the government wrote, but carry out 𠇊n obedience which is thinking.” However, the policy statement added, soldiers can’t disobey an order merely because their personal views conflict with those of their superior.

Nowhere is that conception of conscientious military service more apparent than at the Benderblock, a Berlin building where participants of a failed attempt to assassinate Hitler were executed in 1944. Today, the building is a museum to German resistance𠅊nd every year, it’s the place where new German soldiers are traditionally sworn to their duties.

It’s intentional that their oaths to defend Germany are sworn in a place not of military obedience, but of military resistance. The brutal legacy of two world wars and the Holocaust explains Germany’s reticence to make its soldiers obey orders no matter what.

This story is part of Heroes Week, a weeklong celebration of our heroes in the armed forces. Read more veterans stories here. 

Nazifying Police Culture

In the 1930s, Nazi police leaders remade police culture to align with Nazi values. This was part of their plan to create a National Socialist form of policing. Propaganda efforts tried to improve the public image of the police. Beginning in 1934, celebrations called “The Day of the German Police” honored the connection between the police and the people with parades and speeches. During those events, which eventually expanded to a full week, German policemen stood on street corners and collected money for the Nazi charity program Winter Relief ( Winterhilfswerk ). Propaganda depicted German policemen directing traffic, returning lost children, shaking hands with people, and teaching children new skills.

Nazi ideology became central to police training and police practice. In police newspapers and booklets, Himmler and other Nazi police leaders contrasted the new National Socialist police ideal with the Weimar-era police, whom the Nazis condemned as servants of a weak constitutional state. The new Nazi police were supposedly the “friend and helper” of the German people. Importantly, in Nazi Germany “the German people” did not mean German citizens or residents of Germany instead, it meant “Aryan” Germans. Police were to act in ways that protected Aryans and served the entire racial community. This changed how policemen were supposed to identify potential threats, criminals, and enemies. No longer were they simply on the lookout for people who violated the law. Under the Nazi state, police were obligated to prevent perceived biological and racial threats as well.

The Nazi police were also supposed to be incredibly harsh with Nazism’s political, racial, social, and criminal enemies. Many of these harsher tasks fell to the Kripo ( Kriminalpolizei , criminal police) and Gestapo ( Geheime Staatspolizei , secret state police) , two police agencies with enormous power to arrest, incarcerate, and abuse people. In the 1930s, Nazism’s enemies included political opponents, people who they identified as professional criminals or asocials, and Jews.

Dismantling Democracy

Unit Essential Question: What does learning about the choices people made during the Weimar Republic, the rise of the Nazi Party, and the Holocaust teach us about the power and impact of our choices today?

Guiding Questions

  • What steps did the Nazis take to transform Germany into a dictatorship during their first two years in power?
  • What can we learn from the rise of the Nazis about what makes democracy fragile?

Learning Objectives

  • Students will learn about the transformation of Germany into a dictatorship in 1933–1934 and draw conclusions, based on this history, about the values and institutions that might serve as a bulwark against dictatorship and make democracy possible.


In previous lessons, students traced the rise of the Nazi Party during the years of the Weimar Republic in Germany, and they explored the political climate that led both to the Nazis becoming the most popular political party in Germany and to the appointment of Adolf Hitler as chancellor. In this lesson, students will continue this unit’s historical case study by learning about the National Socialist revolution that followed Hitler’s appointment as chancellor and analyzing the steps the Nazis took in 1933 and 1934 to dismantle democracy in Germany and establish a dictatorship. In the process, students will continue to deepen and extend their study of democracy and reflect on the idea of democracy’s fragility. By examining how democracy was replaced with dictatorship in a relatively short period of time in Germany, students will begin to draw conclusions about the responsibilities shared by both leaders and citizens for democracy’s survival.


Historians point out that Hitler’s political position upon his appointment as chancellor in January 1933 was precarious. Yet, by July of 1933, Hitler and the Nazis had succeeded in dismantling democracy and laying the foundation for dictatorship in Germany. Few Germans believed this could happen. In fact, many did not believe Hitler would remain in power for long. After all, in the 14 years since the creation of the Weimar Republic, Germany had had 14 chancellors, most of whom served for less than a year. Recalling a discussion with his father on the day Hitler became chancellor, journalist Sebastian Haffner wrote in 1939:

I discussed the prospects of the new government with my father. We agreed that it had a good chance of doing a lot of damage, but not much chance of surviving very long. How could things turn out so completely different? 1

The events described in this lesson begin to answer Haffner’s question. The Nazis moved swiftly in early 1933 to take advantage of the weaknesses of the Weimar Republic. Previous chancellors had already invoked emergency powers under Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution (see Lesson 8: The Weimar Republic) to bypass the Reichstag and enact their own laws to try to pull the country out of the Great Depression. According to the constitution, only the president could invoke Article 48, so Paul von Hindenburg had to approve each of the measures chancellors took under emergency powers. Hitler seized on those powers, relying on Hindenburg’s willingness to sign off, to eliminate opposition, increase his power, and dismantle democracy.

On February 27, 1933, less than a month after Hitler became chancellor, the Reichstag building in Berlin was set on fire. While historians continue to debate who set the fire, Hitler chose to immediately blame the Nazis’ chief political competitors, the Communists. The day after the fire, Hitler used emergency powers under Article 48 to issue two decrees that suspended every part of the constitution that protected personal freedoms and also legalized the arrest of Communists and other political opponents of the Nazis. A few weeks later, on March 21, Hitler issued another decree making it illegal to speak out against the government or criticize its leaders. And three days after that—while many Reichstag deputies from opposing parties were in prison, exile, or hiding—the Reichstag passed the Enabling Act, which gave Hitler and his cabinet the power to enact laws that overrode the constitution and the power to imprison anyone Hitler deemed an enemy of the state. That day, the Nazi government also announced the opening of the first concentration camp at Dachau to hold Communists and other political prisoners. The Nazis continued to attack opposing parties and organizations through the summer of 1933, dissolving trade labor unions in May and outlawing the Social Democratic Party in June. By July, remaining political parties dissolved and the Nazi Party was the only legal party in Germany.

In the first six months of Hitler’s chancellorship, the Nazis also stepped up violence, intimidation, and terror toward the German people. The SA and SS attacked political dissenters in the streets, and the secret police force known as the Gestapo was created in April to spy on, interrogate, and imprison citizens in order to “protect public safety and order.” The Nazis initiated attacks on homosexual men, imprisoning dozens under a long-existing law (Paragraph 175) that was not regularly enforced by the Weimar Republic. The Nazis also targeted Jews, imprisoning Jewish immigrants and attacking Jewish judges, lawyers, and shopkeepers. On April 1, the Nazis called for a nationwide day-long boycott of Jewish businesses. The boycott did not receive the widespread support the Nazis had hoped for in some places in Germany people embraced the attack on Jewish businesses, but in other places people deliberately shopped in Jewish-owned businesses in defiance. Regardless, the event signaled the Nazis’ intent to target German Jews and foreshadowed the onslaught of discrimination that would soon follow. On April 7, a new law to “restore” Germany’s civil service went into effect, forcing the firing of Jews (and individuals deemed disloyal to the nation) who worked for government institutions.

In addition to people, the Nazis also began to attack ideas. On March 13, 1933, Hitler established the Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda and put Joseph Goebbels in charge. The ministry set out to coordinate every form of expression in Germany—from music to radio programs to textbooks, artwork, newspapers, and even sermons—crafting language and imagery carefully to praise Nazi policies and Hitler himself and to demonize those who the Nazis considered enemies. On May 6, Goebbels led the first book burning, which the German Student Association declared was a nationwide “Action against the Un-German Spirit.”

After July 1933, Hitler grew more concerned with his opposition within the Nazi Party itself. He feared that the SA, whose members outnumbered the German military, and its leader, Ernst Röhm, had become too powerful. On June 30, 1934—in what became known as “the Night of the Long Knives”—Hitler ordered the SS and the regular army to murder more than 200 SA leaders, including Röhm, and other high-profile political threats to the regime. According to historian Lucy S. Dawidowicz, the massacre was accepted by many Germans who “believed that the purge of the SA represented Hitler’s wish to halt the arbitrary terror of the SA in the streets and to restore a measure of legality to the country." 2

On August 2, 1934, President Hindenburg died and Hitler combined the positions of president and chancellor into a new position he called Führer. The dictatorship was complete.

In response to his own question—how could things turn out so differently?—Sebastian Haffner answered:

Perhaps it was just because we were all so certain that they could not do so—and relied on that with far too much confidence. So we neglected to consider that it might, if worse came to worst, be necessary to prevent the disaster from happening. 3

In this lesson, and especially in the lessons that follow, students will wrestle with the question of how Germans like Haffner might have tried to resist or prevent the Nazis’ takeover and the atrocities that followed. The rapidity of the events that transformed Germany during that time suggests a sense of inevitability. However, it is important to help students look closely at each of these events and consider the agency of individuals, groups, and the public at large to influence the actions of the Nazi Party and resist the revolution. That level of agency varied from person to person and depended on circumstances and time.

There is evidence, after all, that Hitler and the Nazis were responsive to pressure against their policies from leaders such as Hindenburg as well as from public opinion. Historian Doris Bergen writes: “Hitler and his associates in the new German leadership struck in dramatic, decisive ways, but they also tested the public response to each move before proceeding further.” 4 Yet public opinion did not stop Germany’s descent into Nazi dictatorship. While a few Germans resisted or protested, others were true believers in the Nazi program. Still others were swept up in the energy and excitement of Nazi rallies and parades, or appreciated the order that the Nazis appeared to bring to German society in an unsettled time. Crucially, still others were troubled by the Nazis but felt intimidated and afraid to act. This lesson asks students to begin to consider the human behavior that may have influenced all of these responses, a topic that will be explored more deeply in subsequent lessons.


  • 1 : Sebastian Haffner, “Street-Level Coercion,” in How Was It Possible? A Holocaust Reader, ed. Peter Hayes (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2015), 118–19, excerpt from Defying Hitler: A Memoir, trans. Oliver Pretzel (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002), 106–08. Reproduced by permission from Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Notes to Teacher

Assigning Reading: Heterogeneous or Leveled Groupings of Students
To learn about the many ways the Nazis created a dictatorship in Germany, groups of students will read one of five articles highlighting significant events from 1933 and 1934. The readings vary in length from half a page to two pages, so you might consider in advance how you will group students for this activity. One option is to create heterogeneous groupings of readers so that the stronger readers can assist struggling ones with pacing, vocabulary, and comprehension. Alternatively, you might group students by level and work more closely with struggling readers to target specific literacy skills while allowing the more confident readers to tackle the content independently.

Reviewing Characteristics of Democracy
In Lesson 8, the class brainstormed characteristics of democracy. Students will refer to their notes from that discussion in this class. If you collected their ideas about democracy on chart paper, you might hang it in the room before class so it is ready to review in the first activity. As noted in Lesson 8: The Weimar Republic, make sure that the chart paper includes “free and fair elections,” “the rule of law,” “equality before the law,” “free expression,” “free press,” and “freedom of religion,” if they are not already there.

Previewing Vocabulary
The following are key vocabulary terms used in this lesson:

Add these words to your Word Wall, if you are using one for this unit, and provide necessary support to help students learn these words as you teach the lesson.


  • Video: From Democracy to Dictatorship (Spanish captions available)
  • Video: Hitler’s Rise to Power, 1933–1934 (Spanish captions available)
  • Handout: Hitler’s Rise to Power, 1933–1934 Viewing Guide (see Spanish version)
  • Handout: Democracy to Dictatorship Reading Analysis (see Spanish version)
  • Reading: Shaping Public Opinion (see Spanish version)
  • Reading: Targeting Jews (see Spanish version)
  • Reading: “Restoring” Germany’s Civil Service (see Spanish version)
  • Reading: Where They Burn Books . . . (see Spanish version)
  • Reading: Isolating Homosexuals (see Spanish version)

Teaching Strategies


Start the class by asking students to review their notes, or the class chart, from their Lesson 8 discussion about the characteristics of democracy. Then introduce the concept of dictatorship. You might create a similar chart for dictatorship as you did for democracy, or you can simply provide students with the following definition:

After watching the video, ask students to respond in their journals to the following prompt:

For Alfred Wolf, what were the signs that a dictatorship was replacing democracy in Germany in 1933? What else do you imagine might be a sign of such a change? What might you be able to do if you lived in a democracy that you wouldn’t be able to do if you lived in a dictatorship?

After a few minutes, ask students to share some of their ideas as you write them on the board.

  • Introduce the video Hitler’s Rise to Power, 1933–1934 (7:45). It provides an overview of the two years following Hitler’s appointment as chancellor of Germany. Explain to students that they will learn about some of the events that the video touches upon in more detail later in the lesson.
  • Pass out the handout Hitler’s Rise to Power, 1933–1934 Viewing Guide and instruct students to respond to the first two questions on the handout as they watch the video. You might briefly pause the film two or three times to allow students some extra time to write their notes. After the film, ask students to complete the two reflection questions on the handout. They can complete this step independently or with a partner.
  • Debrief the video by reviewing the questions on the viewing guide and discussing the information students should have recorded.
  • Tell students that they will now work in groups to explore more deeply some specific choices the Nazis made to dismantle democracy and create a dictatorship in Germany. Each group will analyze the ways an individual event undermined democracy and share their conclusions about that event with the rest of the class.
  • Divide the class into small groups and provide each group with a copy of the handout Democracy to Dictatorship Reading Analysis and one additional reading: Shaping Public Opinion, Targeting Jews, “Restoring” Germany’s Civil Service, Where They Burn Books . . ., or Isolating Homosexuals.
  • Give the groups time to complete their assigned reading and the handout. Tell students that they will be using the information they gather on their handouts for the next activity and should be prepared to share it with the class.

Then have students review their Democracy to Dictatorship Reading Analysis handouts, and discuss with them the questions below. Time permitting, use the Fishbowl teaching strategy to structure this conversation.

  • In what ways is democracy fragile?
  • What makes democracy strong (or less vulnerable to becoming a dictatorship)?


To assess students’ understanding of the factors that led to the destruction of democracy and rise of dictatorship in Germany, assign them to create a pie chart to represent the distribution of responsibility for that transformation between the groups listed below. They can create the chart individually or in pairs, and they should use evidence from the video Hitler’s Rise to Power, 1933–1934 and the readings they analyzed in this lesson. Use the following prompt to spark their thinking:

  • What role did each of the following individuals or groups play in the destruction of democracy in Germany?
    • Adolf Hitler
    • President Hindenburg
    • Members of the Reichstag
    • German citizens
    • Other (label who on your pie chart)


      Watch Hitler’s First Victims
      The video Hitler’s First Victims (11:00) details the Nazis’ response to the Reichstag fire, the opening of Dachau, the first Nazi concentration camp, and the murders of four Jewish prisoners at the camp. The story of the murders and the response to them by investigators, bureaucrats, and Nazi officials sheds light on the relationship between the Nazi program, the law, the government bureaucracy, and public opinion in 1933, and it helps students consider the consequences of the choices made by a variety of individuals and groups at that crucial point in time.

    Examine How the Nazis Stifled Dissent
    The reading Storm Troopers, Elite Guards, and Secret Police introduces the Gestapo, or Nazi secret police. The resource book Holocaust and Human Behavior includes more information on the Gestapo and its tactics in the readings Spying on Family and Friends and Speaking in Whispers. You might include one or both of these readings in the main activity above, or you can share these readings with students after the main activity and discuss the following questions:

    A Winter of Deceit

    Over the course of the next two months, there was much political intrigue and backroom negotiations that occurred within the German government.

    A wounded Papen learned of Schleicher’s plan to split the Nazi Party and alerted Hitler. Hitler continued to cultivate the support he was gaining from bankers and industrialists throughout Germany and these groups increased their pressure on Hindenburg to appoint Hitler as chancellor. Papen worked behind the scenes against Schleicher, who soon found him out.

    Schleicher, upon discovering Papen’s deceit, went to Hindenburg to request the President order Papen to cease his activities. Hindenburg did the exact opposite and encouraged Papen to continue his discussions with Hitler, as long as Papen agreed to keep the talks a secret from Schleicher.

    A series of meetings between Hitler, Papen, and important German officials were held during the month of January. Schleicher began to realize that he was in a tenuous position and twice asked Hindenburg to dissolve the Reichstag and place the country under emergency decree. Both times, Hindenburg refused and on the second instance, Schleicher resigned.

    5 Widespread Hatred Of Jews

    Anti-Semitism existed in Germany before the Nazi Party came to power. By the early 1900s, there were already parties running on specifically anti-Jewish platforms. After the Russian Revolution, hyperinflation and the Barmat scandal struck in the span of two years. As a result, being a German Jew became a lot more dangerous.

    While most Germans were going bankrupt, the Jews were viewed as privileged, rich, and corrupt people. Jews made up only 1 percent of the German population, but they were 16 percent of all lawyers, 10 percent of all doctors, and 5 percent of all editors and writers. Generally speaking, they were people who had money while others were starving&mdashand that won them a lot of resentment.

    At the same time, the Bolshevik revolution in Russia was being blamed on Jews. The Germans believed that Jews were behind the growing Communist sentiment and that they would be a threat down the road.

    Anti-Semitism became widespread. It wasn&rsquot just the Nazis&mdashalmost every political party used anti-Semitic language in their campaigns. Hotels started refusing service to Jews. Priests started working criticism of Judaism into their sermons.

    The Nazis led the charge. They promised to take control of Jewish shops and use them to lower expenses for the poor. The Nazis also started an organization supporting German doctors, helping them take jobs from Jews. They promised to muscle Jews out and keep Germans working&mdashand a lot of Germans appreciated it.


    Adolf Hitler became involved with the fledgling German Workers Party – which he would later transform into the Nazi Party – after the First World War, and set the violent tone of the movement early, by forming the Sturmabteilung (SA) paramilitary. [1] Catholic Bavaria resented rule from Protestant Berlin, and Hitler at first saw revolution in Bavaria as a means to power. An early attempt at a coup d'état, the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch in Munich, proved fruitless, however, and Hitler was imprisoned for leading the putsch. He used this time to write Mein Kampf, in which he argued that effeminate Jewish–Christian ethics were enfeebling Europe, and that Germany was in need of an uncompromising strongman to restore itself and build an empire. [2] Learning from the failed coup, he decided on the tactic of pursuing power through legal means rather than seizing control of the government by force against the state and instead proclaimed a strictly legal course. [3] [4]

    From Armistice (November 1918) to party membership (September 1919)

    In 1914, after being granted permission from King Ludwig III of Bavaria, the 25-year-old Austrian-born Hitler enlisted in a Bavarian regiment of the German Army, although he was not yet a German citizen. For over four years (August 1914 – November 1918), Germany was a major participant in World War I. [b] After fighting on the Western Front ended in November 1918, [c] Hitler was discharged on 19 November from the Pasewalk hospital [d] and returned to Munich, which at the time was in a state of socialist upheaval. [5] Arriving on 21 November, he was assigned to 7th Company of the 1st Replacement Battalion of the 2nd Infantry Regiment. In December he was reassigned to a prisoner-of-war camp in Traunstein as a guard. [6] He remained there until the camp dissolved in January 1919, after which he returned to Munich and spent a couple weeks on guard duty at the city's main train station (Hauptbahnhof) through which soldiers had been traveling. [7] [e]

    During this time a number of notable Germans were assassinated, including socialist Kurt Eisner, [f] who was shot dead by a German nationalist on 21 February 1919. His rival Erhard Auer was also wounded in an attack. Other acts of violence were the killings of both Major Paul Ritter von Jahreiß and the conservative MP Heinrich Osel. In this political chaos Berlin sent in the military – called the "White Guards of Capitalism" by the communists. On 3 April 1919, Hitler was elected as the liaison of his military battalion and again on 15 April. During this time he urged his unit to stay out of the fighting and not to join either side. [8]

    The Bavarian Soviet Republic was officially crushed on 6 May, when Lieutenant General Burghard von Oven and his forces declared the city secure. In the aftermath of arrests and executions, Hitler denounced a fellow liaison, Georg Dufter, as a Soviet "radical rabble-rouser." [9] Other testimony he gave to the military board of inquiry allowed them to root out other members of the military that "had been infected with revolutionary fervor." [10] For his anti-communist views he was allowed to avoid discharge when his unit was disbanded in May 1919. [11] [g]

    In June 1919, Hitler was moved to the demobilization office of the 2nd Infantry Regiment. Around this time the German military command released an edict that the army's main priority was to "carry out, in conjunction with the police, stricter surveillance of the population . so that the ignition of any new unrest can be discovered and extinguished." [9] In May 1919, Karl Mayr became commander of the 6th Battalion of the guards regiment in Munich and from 30 May the head of the "Education and Propaganda Department" of the General Command von Oven and the Group Command No. 4 (Department Ib). In this capacity as head of the intelligence department, Mayr recruited Hitler as an undercover agent in early June 1919. Under Captain Mayr, "national thinking" courses were arranged at the Reichswehrlager Lechfeld near Augsburg, [12] with Hitler attending from 10–19 July. During this time Hitler so impressed Mayr that he assigned him to an anti-Bolshevik "educational commando" as 1 of 26 instructors in the summer of 1919. [13] [14] [h] [i]

    In July 1919, Hitler was appointed Verbindungsmann (intelligence agent) of an Aufklärungskommando (reconnaissance commando) of the Reichswehr, both to influence other soldiers and to infiltrate the German Workers' Party (DAP). The DAP had been formed by Anton Drexler, Karl Harrer and others, through amalgamation of other groups, on 5 January 1919 at a small gathering at the restaurant Fuerstenfelder Hof in Munich. While he studied the activities of the DAP, Hitler became impressed with Drexler's antisemitic, nationalist, anti-capitalist and anti-Marxist ideas. [15]

    During the 12 September 1919 meeting, [j] Hitler took umbrage with comments made by an audience member that were directed against Gottfried Feder, the speaker, a crank economist with whom Hitler was acquainted due to a lecture Feder delivered in an army "education" course. [14] [k] The audience member (in Mein Kampf, Hitler disparagingly referred to him as the "professor") asserted that Bavaria should be wholly independent from Germany and should secede from Germany and unite with Austria to form a new South German nation. [l] The volatile Hitler arose and scolded the man, eventually causing him to leave the meeting before its adjournment. [16] [17]

    Impressed with Hitler's oratory skills, Drexler encouraged him to join the DAP. On the orders of his army superiors, Hitler applied to join the party. [18] Within a week, Hitler received a postcard stating he had officially been accepted as a member and he should come to a "committee" meeting to discuss it. Hitler attended the "committee" meeting held at the run-down Alte Rosenbad beer-house. [19] Later Hitler wrote that joining the fledgling party ". was the most decisive resolve of my life. From here there was and could be no turning back. . I registered as a member of the German Workers' Party and received a provisional membership card with the number 7". [20] Normally, enlisted army personnel were not allowed to join political parties. However, in this case, Hitler had Captain Mayr's permission to join the DAP. Further, Hitler was allowed to stay in the army and receive his weekly pay of 20 gold marks. [21]

    From early party membership to the Hofbräuhaus Melée (November 1921)

    By early 1920, the DAP had grown to over 101 members, and Hitler received his membership card as member number 555. [m] Hitler's considerable oratory and propaganda skills were appreciated by the party leadership. With the support of Anton Drexler, Hitler became chief of propaganda for the party in early 1920 and his actions began to transform the party. He organised their biggest meeting yet, of 2,000 people, on 24 February 1920 in the Staatliches Hofbräuhaus in München. [23] There Hitler announced the party's 25-point program (see National Socialist Program). [24] He also engineered the name change of the DAP to the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei – NSDAP (National Socialist German Workers' Party), later known to the rest of the world as the Nazi Party. [n] [25] Hitler designed the party's banner of a swastika in a white circle on a red background. He was discharged from the army in March 1920 and began working full-time for the Nazi Party. [26]

    In 1920, a small "hall protection" squad was organised around Emil Maurice. [27] The group was first named the "Order troops" (Ordnertruppen). Later in August 1921, Hitler redefined the group, which became known as the "Gymnastic and Sports Division" of the party (Turn- und Sportabteilung). [28] By the autumn of 1921 the group was being called the Sturmabteilung ("Storm Detachment") or SA, and by November 1921 the group was officially known by that name. [29] Also in 1920, Hitler began to lecture in Munich beer halls, particularly the Hofbräuhaus, Sterneckerbräu and Bürgerbräukeller. Only Hitler was able to bring in the crowds for the party speeches and meetings. By this time, the police were already monitoring the speeches, and their own surviving records reveal that Hitler delivered lectures with titles such as Political Phenomenon, Jews and the Treaty of Versailles. At the end of the year, party membership was recorded at 2,000. [30]

    In June 1921, while Hitler and Dietrich Eckart were on a fundraising trip to Berlin, a mutiny broke out within the Nazi Party in Munich, its organizational home. Members of its executive committee wanted to merge with the rival German Socialist Party (DSP). [31] Hitler returned to Munich on 11 July and angrily tendered his resignation. The committee members realised that the resignation of their leading public figure and speaker would mean the end of the party. [32] Hitler announced he would rejoin on the condition that he would replace Drexler as party chairman and that the party headquarters would remain in Munich. [33] The committee agreed, and he rejoined the party on 26 July as member 3,680. [33] In the following days, Hitler spoke to several packed houses and defended himself, to thunderous applause. His strategy proved successful: at a general membership meeting, he was granted absolute powers as party chairman, with only one nay vote cast. [34]

    On 14 September 1921, Hitler and a substantial number of SA members and other Nazi Party adherents disrupted a meeting of the Bavarian League at the Löwenbräukeller. This federalist organization objected to the centralism of the Weimar Constitution but accepted its social program. The League was led by Otto Ballerstedt, an engineer whom Hitler regarded as "my most dangerous opponent". One Nazi, Hermann Esser, climbed upon a chair and shouted that the Jews were to blame for the misfortunes of Bavaria and the Nazis shouted demands that Ballerstedt yield the floor to Hitler. [35] The Nazis beat up Ballerstedt and shoved him off the stage into the audience. Hitler and Esser were arrested and Hitler commented notoriously to the police commissioner, "It's all right. We got what we wanted. Ballerstedt did not speak". [36]

    Less than two months later, 4 November 1921, the Nazi Party held a large public meeting in the Munich Hofbräuhaus. After Hitler had spoken for some time, the meeting erupted into a melée in which a small company of SA defeated the opposition. [27] For his part in these events, Hitler was eventually sentenced in January 1922 to three months' imprisonment for "breach of the peace", but only spent a little over one month at Stadelheim Prison in Munich. [37]

    From Beer Hall melée to Beer Hall coup d'état

    In 1922 and early 1923, Hitler and the Nazi Party formed two organizations that would grow to have huge significance. The first began as the Jungsturm Adolf Hitler and the Jugendbund der NSDAP they would later become the Hitler Youth. [38] [39] The other was the Stabswache (Staff Guard), which in May 1923 was renamed the Stoßtrupp-Hitler (Shock Troop-Hitler). [40] This early incarnation of a bodyguard unit for Hitler would later become the Schutzstaffel (SS). [41] Inspired by Benito Mussolini's March on Rome in 1922, Hitler decided that a coup d'état was the proper strategy to seize control of the German government. In May 1923, small elements loyal to Hitler within the Reichswehr helped the SA to illegally procure a barracks and its weaponry, but the order to march never came, possibly because Hitler had been warned by Army General Otto von Lossow that "he would be fired upon" by Reichswehr troops if they attempted a putsch. [42]

    A pivotal moment came when Hitler led the Beer Hall Putsch, an attempted coup d'état on 8–9 November 1923. At the Bürgerbräukeller in Munich, Hitler and his deputies announced their plan: Bavarian government officials would be deposed and Hitler installed at the head of government, with Munich then used as a base camp from which to march on Berlin. Nearly 2,000 Nazi Party members proceeded to the Marienplatz in Munich's city center, where they were met by a police cordon summoned to obstruct them. Sixteen Nazi Party members and four police officers were killed in the ensuing violence. Hitler briefly escaped the city but was arrested on 11 November 1923, [43] and put on trial for high treason, which gained him widespread public attention. [44]

    The rather spectacular trial began in February 1924. Hitler endeavored to turn the tables and put democracy and the Weimar Republic on trial as traitors to the German people. Hitler was convicted and on 1 April sentenced to five years' imprisonment at Landsberg Prison. [45] He received friendly treatment from the guards he had a room with a view of the river, wore a tie, had regular visitors to his chambers, was allowed mail from supporters and was permitted the use of a private secretary. Pardoned by the Bavarian Supreme Court, he was released from jail on 20 December 1924, after serving just nine months, against the state prosecutor's objections. [46]

    Hitler used the time in Landsberg Prison to reconsider his political strategy and dictate the first volume of Mein Kampf (My Struggle originally entitled Four and a Half Years of Struggle against Lies, Stupidity, and Cowardice), principally to his deputy Rudolf Hess. [o] After the Beer Hall Putsch, the Nazi Party was banned in Bavaria, but it participated in 1924's two elections by proxy as the National Socialist Freedom Movement. In the May 1924 German federal election the party gained seats in the Reichstag, with 6.6% (1,918,329) voting for the Movement. In the December 1924 federal election, the National Socialist Freedom Movement (NSFB) (combination of the Deutschvölkische Freiheitspartei (DVFP) and the Nazi Party (NSDAP)) lost 18 seats, only holding on to 14 seats, with 3% (907,242) of the electorate voting for Hitler's party. The Barmat Scandal was often used later in Nazi propaganda, both as an electoral strategy and as an appeal to anti-Semitism. [47]

    After some reflection, Hitler had determined that power was to be achieved not through revolution outside of the government, but rather through legal means, within the confines of the democratic system established by Weimar. For five to six years, there would be no further prohibitions of the party. [ citation needed ]

    In the May 1928 federal election, the Nazi Party achieved just 12 seats in the Reichstag. [48] The highest provincial gain was again in Bavaria (5.1%), though in three areas the Nazis failed to gain even 1% of the vote. Overall, the party gained 2.6% of the vote (810,100 votes). [48] Partially due to the poor results, Hitler decided that Germans needed to know more about his goals. Despite being discouraged by his publisher, he wrote a second book that was discovered and released posthumously as the Zweites Buch. At this time the SA began a period of deliberate antagonism to the Rotfront by marching into Communist strongholds and starting violent altercations.

    At the end of 1928, party membership was recorded at 130,000. In March 1929, Erich Ludendorff represented the Nazi Party in the Presidential elections. He earned 280,000 votes (1.1%), and was the only candidate to poll fewer than a million votes. The battles on the streets grew increasingly violent. After the Rotfront interrupted a speech by Hitler, the SA marched into the streets of Nuremberg and killed two bystanders. In a tit-for-tat action, the SA stormed a Rotfront meeting on 25 August and days later the Berlin headquarters of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) itself. In September, Goebbels led his men into Neukölln, a KPD stronghold, and the two warring parties exchanged pistol and revolver fire. The German referendum of 1929 was important as it gained the Nazi Party recognition and credibility it had never had before. [49]

    On the evening of 14 January 1930, at around ten o'clock, Horst Wessel was fatally shot in the face at point-blank range by two members of the KPD in Friedrichshain. [50] The attack occurred after an argument with his landlady, who was a member of the KPD and contacted one of her Rotfront friends, Albert Hochter, who shot Wessel. [51] Wessel had penned a song months before which would become a Nazi anthem as the Horst-Wessel-Lied. Goebbels seized upon the attack (and the weeks Wessel spent on his deathbed) to publicize the song, and the funeral was used as an anti-Communist propaganda opportunity for the Nazis. [52] In May, Goebbels was convicted of "libeling" President Hindenburg and fined 800 marks. The conviction stemmed from a 1929 article by Goebbels in his newspaper Der Angriff. In June, Goebbels was charged with high treason by the prosecutor in Leipzig based on statements Goebbels had made in 1927, but after a four-month investigation it came to naught. [53]

    Against this backdrop, Hitler's party gained a significant victory in the Reichstag, obtaining 107 seats (18.3%, 6,409,600 votes) in the September 1930 federal election. [48] The Nazis thereby became the second-largest party in Germany, and as historian Joseph Bendersky notes, they essentially became the "dominant political force on the right". [54]

    An unprecedented amount of money was thrown behind the campaign and political success increased the party's momentum as it recorded over 100,000 new members in the next few months following the election. [55] Well over one million pamphlets were produced and distributed sixty trucks were commandeered for use in Berlin alone. In areas where Nazi campaigning was less rigorous, the total share of the vote was as low as 9%. The Great Depression was also a factor in Hitler's electoral success. Against this legal backdrop, the SA began its first major anti-Jewish action on 13 October 1930, when groups of Nazi brownshirts smashed the windows of Jewish-owned stores at Potsdamer Platz. [56]

    The Wall Street Crash of 1929 heralded worldwide economic disaster. The Nazis and the Communists made great gains at the 1930 federal election. [57] The Nazis and Communists between them secured almost 40% of Reichstag seats, which required the moderate parties to consider negotiations with anti-democrats. [58] "The Communists", wrote historian Alan Bullock, "openly announced that they would prefer to see the Nazis in power rather than lift a finger to save the republic". [59]

    The Weimar political parties failed to stop the Nazi rise. Germany's Weimar political system made it difficult for chancellors to govern with a stable parliamentary majority, and successive chancellors instead relied on the president's emergency powers to govern. [60] From 1931 to 1933, the Nazis combined terror tactics with conventional campaigning – Hitler criss-crossed the nation by air, while SA troops paraded in the streets, beat up opponents, and broke up their meetings. [4]

    A middle-class liberal party strong enough to block the Nazis did not exist – the People's Party and the Democrats suffered severe losses to the Nazis at the polls. The Social Democrats were essentially a conservative trade union party, with ineffectual leadership. The Catholic Centre Party maintained its voting block, but was preoccupied with defending its own particular interests and, wrote Bullock: "through 1932–3 . was so far from recognizing the danger of a Nazi dictatorship that it continued to negotiate with the Nazis". The Communists meanwhile were engaging in violent clashes with Nazis on the streets, but Moscow had directed the Communist Party to prioritise destruction of the Social Democrats, seeing more danger in them as a rival for the loyalty of the working class. Nevertheless, wrote Bullock, the heaviest responsibility lay with the German right wing, who "forsook a true conservatism" and made Hitler their partner in a coalition government. [61]

    The Centre Party's Heinrich Brüning was Chancellor from 1930 to 1932. Brüning and Hitler were unable to reach terms of co-operation, but Brüning himself increasingly governed with the support of the President and Army over that of the parliament. [62] The 84-year-old President von Hindenburg, a conservative monarchist, was reluctant to take action to suppress the Nazis, while the ambitious Major-General Kurt von Schleicher, as Minister handling army and navy matters hoped to harness their support. [63] With Schleicher's backing, and Hitler's stated approval, Hindenburg appointed the Catholic monarchist Franz von Papen to replace Brüning as Chancellor in June 1932. [64] [65] Papen had been active in the resurgence of the Harzburg Front. [66] He had fallen out with the Centre Party. [67] He hoped ultimately to outmaneuver Hitler. [68]

    At the July 1932 federal election, the Nazis became the largest party in the Reichstag, yet without a majority. Hitler withdrew support for Papen and demanded the Chancellorship. He was refused by Hindenburg. [69] Papen dissolved Parliament, and the Nazi vote declined at the November election. [70] In the aftermath of the election, Papen proposed ruling by decree while drafting a new electoral system, with an upper house. Schleicher convinced Hindenburg to sack Papen, and Schleicher himself became Chancellor, promising to form a workable coalition. [71]

    The aggrieved Papen opened negotiations with Hitler, proposing a Nazi-Nationalist Coalition. Having nearly outmaneuvered Hitler, only to be trounced by Schleicher, Papen turned his attentions on defeating Schleicher, and concluded an agreement with Hitler. [72]

    On 10 March 1931, with street violence between the Rotfront and SA increasing, breaking all previous barriers and expectations, Prussia re-enacted its ban on Brownshirts. Days after the ban, SA-men shot dead two communists in a street fight, which led to a ban being placed on the public speaking of Goebbels, who sidestepped the prohibition by recording speeches and playing them to an audience in his absence.

    When Hitler's citizenship became a matter of public discussion in 1924 he had a public declaration printed on 16 October 1924,

    The loss of my Austrian citizenship is not painful to me, as I never felt as an Austrian citizen but always as a German only. . It was this mentality that made me draw the ultimate conclusion and do military service in the German Army. [73]

    Under the threat of criminal deportation home to Austria, Hitler formally renounced his Austrian citizenship on 7 April 1925, and did not acquire German citizenship until almost seven years later therefore, he was unable to run for public office. [74] Hitler gained German citizenship after being appointed a Free State of Brunswick government official by Dietrich Klagges, after an earlier attempt by Wilhelm Frick to convey citizenship as a Thuringian police official failed. [75] [76]

    Ernst Röhm, in charge of the SA, put Wolf-Heinrich von Helldorff, a vehement anti-Semite, in charge of the Berlin SA. The deaths mounted, with many more on the Rotfront side, and by the end of 1931 the SA had suffered 47 deaths and the Rotfront recorded losses of approximately 80 killed. Street fights and beer hall battles resulting in deaths occurred throughout February and April 1932, all against the backdrop of Adolf Hitler's competition in the presidential election which pitted him against the monumentally popular Hindenburg. In the first round on 13 March, Hitler had polled over 11 million votes but was still behind Hindenburg. The second and final round took place on 10 April: Hitler (36.8% 13,418,547) lost to Paul von Hindenburg (53.0% 19,359,983) while the KPD candidate Thälmann gained a meagre percentage of the vote (10.2% 3,706,759). At this time, the Nazi Party had just over 800,000 members.

    On 13 April 1932, following the presidential elections, the German government banned the Nazi Party paramilitaries, the SA and the SS, on the basis of the Emergency Decree for the Preservation of State Authority. [77] This action was prompted by details uncovered by the Prussian police that indicated the SA was ready for a takeover of power by force after an election of Hitler. The lifting of the ban and staging of new elections were the price Hitler demanded in exchange for his support of a new cabinet. The law was repealed on 16 June by Franz von Papen, Chancellor of Germany as part of his agreement with Hitler. [78] In the federal election of July 1932, the Nazis won 37.3% of the popular vote (13,745,000 votes), an upswing by 19 percent, becoming the largest party in the Reichstag, with 230 out of 608 seats. [48] Dwarfed by Hitler's electoral gains, the KPD turned away from legal means and increasingly towards violence. One resulting battle in Silesia resulted in the army being dispatched, each shot sending Germany further into a potential civil war. By this time both sides marched into each other's strongholds hoping to spark a rivalry. The attacks continued and reached fever pitch when SA leader Axel Schaffeld was assassinated on 1 August.

    As the Nazi Party was now the largest party in the Reichstag, it was entitled to select the President of the Reichstag and were able to elect Göring for the post. [79] Energised by the success, Hitler asked to be made chancellor. Hitler was offered the job of vice-chancellor by Chancellor Papen at the behest of President Hindenburg but he refused. Hitler saw this offer as placing him in a position of "playing second fiddle" in the government. [80]

    In his position of Reichstag president, Göring asked that decisive measures be taken by the government over the spate of murders of Nazi Party members. On 9 August, amendments were made to the Reichstrafgesetzbuch statute on "acts of political violence", increasing the penalty to "lifetime imprisonment, 20 years hard labour[,] or death". Special courts were announced to try such offences. When in power less than half a year later, Hitler would use this legislation against his opponents with devastating effect.

    The law was applied almost immediately but did not bring the perpetrators behind the recent massacres to trial as expected. Instead, five SA men who were alleged to have murdered a KPD member in Potempa (Upper Silesia) were tried. Hitler appeared at the trial as a defence witness, but on 22 August the five were convicted and sentenced to death. On appeal, this sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in early September. They served just over four months before Hitler freed all imprisoned Nazis in a 1933 amnesty.

    The Nazi Party lost 35 seats in the November 1932 election, but remained the Reichstag's largest party, with 196 seats (33.1%). The Social Democrats (SPD) won 121 seats (20.4%) and the Communists (KPD) won 100 (16.9%).

    The Communist International described all moderate left-wing parties as "social fascists" and urged the Communists to devote their energies to the destruction of the moderate left. As a result, the KPD, following orders from Moscow, rejected overtures from the Social Democrats to form a political alliance against the NSDAP. [81] [82]

    After Chancellor Papen left office, he secretly told Hitler that he still held considerable sway with President Hindenburg and that he would make Hitler chancellor as long as he, Papen, could be the vice chancellor. Another notable event was the publication of the Industrielleneingabe, a letter signed by 22 important representatives of industry, finance and agriculture, asking Hindenburg to appoint Hitler as chancellor. Hindenburg reluctantly agreed to appoint Hitler as chancellor after the parliamentary elections of July and November 1932 had not resulted in the formation of a majority government—despite the fact that Hitler had been Hindenburg’s opponent in the presidential election only 9 months earlier. Hitler headed a short-lived coalition government formed by the NSDAP and the German National People's Party (DNVP).

    On 30 January 1933, the new cabinet was sworn in during a brief ceremony in Hindenburg's office. The NSDAP gained three posts: Hitler was named chancellor, Wilhelm Frick Minister of the Interior, and Hermann Göring, Minister Without Portfolio (and Minister of the Interior for Prussia). [83] [84] The SA and SS led torchlit parades throughout Berlin. It is this event that would become termed Hitler's Machtergreifung ("seizure of power"). The term was originally used by some Nazis to suggest a revolutionary process, [85] though Hitler, and others, used the word Machtübernahme ("take-over of power"), reflecting that the transfer of power took place within the existing constitutional framework [85] and suggesting that the process was legal. [86] [87]

    Papen was to serve as Vice-Chancellor in a majority conservative Cabinet – still falsely believing that he could "tame" Hitler. [88] Initially, Papen did speak out against some Nazi excesses. However, after narrowly escaping death in the Night of the Long Knives in 1934, he no longer dared criticise the regime and was sent off to Vienna as German ambassador. [89]

    Both within Germany and abroad, there were initially few fears that Hitler could use his position to establish his later dictatorial single-party regime. Rather, the conservatives that helped to make him chancellor were convinced that they could control Hitler and "tame" the Nazi Party while setting the relevant impulses in the government themselves foreign ambassadors played down worries by emphasizing that Hitler was "mediocre" if not a bad copy of Mussolini even SPD politician Kurt Schumacher trivialized Hitler as a Dekorationsstück ("piece of scenery/decoration") of the new government. German newspapers wrote that, without doubt, the Hitler-led government would try to fight its political enemies (the left-wing parties), but that it would be impossible to establish a dictatorship in Germany because there was "a barrier, over which violence cannot proceed" and because of the German nation being proud of "the freedom of speech and thought". Theodor Wolff of the Frankfurter Zeitung wrote: [90]

    It is a hopeless misjudgement to think that one could force a dictatorial regime upon the German nation. [. ] The diversity of the German people calls for democracy.

    Even within the Jewish German community, in spite of Hitler not hiding his ardent antisemitism, the worries appear to have been limited. In a declaration of 30 January, the steering committee of the central Jewish German organization (Centralverein deutscher Staatsbürger jüdischen Glaubens) wrote that "as a matter of course" the Jewish community faces the new government "with the largest mistrust", but at the same they were convinced that "nobody would dare to touch [their] constitutional rights". The Jewish German newspaper Jüdische Rundschau wrote on 31 Jan: [91]

    . that also within the German nation still the forces are active that would turn against a barbarian anti-Jewish policy.

    However, a growing number of keen observers, like Sir Horace Rumbold, British Ambassador in Berlin, began to revise their opinions. On 22 February 1933, he wrote, "Hitler may be no statesman but he is an uncommonly clever and audacious demagogue and fully alive to every popular instinct", and he informed the Foreign Office that he had no doubt that the Nazis had "come to stay". [92] On receiving the dispatch Robert Vansittart, Permanent Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, concluded that if Hitler eventually gained the upper hand, "then another European war [was] within measurable distance". [93]

    With Germans who opposed Nazism failing to unite against it, Hitler soon moved to consolidate absolute power.

    At the risk of appearing to talk nonsense I tell you that the National Socialist movement will go on for 1,000 years! . Don't forget how people laughed at me 15 years ago when I declared that one day I would govern Germany. They laugh now, just as foolishly, when I declare that I shall remain in power!

    Following the Reichstag fire, the Nazis began to suspend civil liberties and eliminate political opposition. The Communists were excluded from the Reichstag. At the March 1933 elections, again no single party secured a majority. Hitler required the vote of the Centre Party and Conservatives in the Reichstag to obtain the powers he desired. He called on Reichstag members to vote for the Enabling Act on 23 March 1933. Hitler was granted plenary powers "temporarily" by the passage of the Act. [95] The law gave him the freedom to act without parliamentary consent and even without constitutional limitations. [96]

    Employing his characteristic mix of negotiation and intimidation, Hitler offered the possibility of friendly co-operation, promising not to threaten the Reichstag, the President, the States or the Churches if granted the emergency powers. With Nazi paramilitary encircling the building, he said: "It is for you, gentlemen of the Reichstag to decide between war and peace". [95] The Centre Party, having obtained promises of non-interference in religion, joined with conservatives in voting for the Act (only the Social Democrats voted against). [97]

    The Act allowed Hitler and his Cabinet to rule by emergency decree for four years, though Hindenburg remained President. [98] Hitler immediately set about abolishing the powers of the states and the existence of non-Nazi political parties and organisations. Non-Nazi parties were formally outlawed on 14 July 1933, and the Reichstag abdicated its democratic responsibilities. [99] Hindenburg remained commander-in-chief of the military and retained the power to negotiate foreign treaties.

    The Act did not infringe upon the powers of the President, and Hitler would not fully achieve full dictatorial power until after the death of Hindenburg in August 1934. [100] Journalists and diplomats wondered whether Hitler could appoint himself President, who might succeed him as Chancellor, and what the army would do. They did not know that the army supported Hitler after the Night of the Long Knives, or expect that he would combine the two positions of President and Chancellor into one office. Only Hitler, as head of state, could dismiss Hitler as head of the government. All soldiers took the Hitler Oath on the day of Hindenburg's death, swearing unconditional obedience to Hitler personally, not to the office or nation. [101] A large majority approved of combining the two roles in the person of Hitler through the 1934 German referendum. [102]


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