The appointment of Adolf Hitler as German chancellor on January 30th 1933 marked the beginning of the end of the Weimar Republic. While he accepted the chancellorship with gusto, Hitler’s path to power was far from the glorious revolution or triumphant ascension the National Socialist (NSDAP) leader had dreamed of back in 1923.
An inglorious rise
Rather than rising to power on a wave of popular support, Hitler became chancellor as part of a shadowy political deal. His appointment was orchestrated by others, particularly the leader of the Centre Party‘s ultra-right faction and former chancellor Franz von Papen.
These men sold a Hitler chancellorship to the ageing president, Paul von Hindenburg, promising they could control the NSDAP leader and curb his worst excesses.
As a consequence, Hitler’s elevation was a rather mundane and nondescript affair. There was nothing to suggest his fate would be significantly different from the 14 Weimar chancellors who had preceded him. Yet within two months, Hitler and the NSDAP had begun killing off Weimar democracy and setting Germany on a course toward authoritarian dictatorship.
1932: a pivotal year
The campaign to install Hitler as chancellor began in early 1932, fuelled by his growing public profile and the NSDAP’s increasing share of Reichstag seats. For his own part, Hitler understood that gaining and retaining power would be impossible without the support of wealthy industrialists and the Reichswehr (army).
In the first weeks of 1932, Hitler busied himself meeting notable figures from each group and telling them what they wanted to hear. In February, Hitler held a secret meeting with Reichswehr generals, promising them that an NSAP government would restore authoritarian rule, reject the Treaty of Versailles and restore Germany’s military power.
Hitler also had meetings with powerful corporate leaders. In a speech to industrialists in the Ruhr, delivered in January 1932, Hitler pledged his commitment to private ownership of capital and state support for large corporations.
Many industrialists threw their weight behind Hitler and provided hefty political donations to the NSDAP, allowing the party to continue its propaganda campaign during the worst of the Great Depression. These donations continued after Hitler’s appointment as chancellor. A February 1933 meeting of two dozen industrialists raised more than 2 million marks for the NSDAP.
Newspaper mogul and German National People’s Party (DNVP) leader Alfred Hugenberg became a keen supporter of Hitler. Hugenberg aligned his own party with the Nazis, forming a working coalition with them in October 1931 (the ‘Harzburg Front’).
Hugenberg’s editors and reporters provided Hitler and his party with sympathetic media coverage while attacking the incumbent chancellor as ineffective and demanding his replacement.
Hindenburg’s views on Hitler
The critical figure in Hitler’s leadership ambitions was president Paul von Hindenburg, the man responsible for upholding the Weimar constitution and appointing chancellors.
Hindenburg had met Hitler for the first time in 1931 but the old general was far from impressed. This may have been class snobbery (Hindenburg was a Prussian aristocrat and a field marshal while Hitler was an Austrian corporal of low birth).
Hindenburg was also unimpressed with Hitler’s political abilities. The NSDAP leader’s nationalist program sounded grand but he offered no detail about how they could be achieved. After their meeting, Hindenburg reportedly said Hitler might make a good postmaster but that was about all.
The 1932 presidential election
Hitler’s path to power was enhanced by his candidature in the 1932 presidential election, where he ran against Hindenburg. The ageing president, who wanted to retire, was to convinced to stand again. This time Hindenburg ran with the support of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and centrist parties, who wanted to keep Hitler out of the presidency.
Faced with Hindenburg’s widespread popularity, Hitler campaigned vigorously. He adopted the slogan Hitler uber Deutschland (‘Hitler over Germany’) and used aircraft to speak in more than two dozen major cities.
Hindenburg won 49 per cent of the vote and ultimately triumphed. Hitler’s tilt at the presidency was not fruitless, however. He won 30 per cent of the vote and received invaluable national press attention and publicity.
The NSDAP grows in the Reichstag
The growing support for Hitler and his party was reflected in the Reichstag elections of July 1932. The NSDAP won 230 seats, making it the largest single party in the chamber.
Hindenburg began to receive letters from influential Germans, urging him to appoint a Hitler-led cabinet. The most notable of these, dated November 19th 1932, was signed by 20 leading industrialists and also leaked to the press.
Hindenburg held firm, however, refusing to appoint the “ridiculous Austrian corporal” to the chancellorship. Instead, he offered it to defence minister Kurt von Schleicher, who Hindenburg hoped could form some kind of working relationship with Hitler and NSDAP delegates in the Reichstag.
Hitler was not prepared to enter into coalitions or accept anyone as chancellor other than himself. Nor were his supporters, who maintained pressure on Hindenburg to replace Schleicher with Hitler.
Another critical player entered the scene in late 1932: Franz von Papen, the leader of the Centre Party’s right-wing and himself chancellor for six months in 1932. Papen’s support for a Hitler chancellorship was tactical: He wanted a measure of revenge on Schleicher, who had replaced him as chancellor. He also believed Hitler, while enormously popular, could be controlled and manipulated.
In a series of meetings with Hindenburg, Papen criticised and undermined Schleicher and urged the president to replace him with Hitler. Hindenburg expressed concerns about Hitler’s fanaticism and the thuggery of his Sturmabteilung. These concerns were eased by Papen, who suggested that Hitler, for all his intensity, was a political novice. A carefully chosen cabinet, Papen assured Hindenburg, could curb Hitler’s excesses while exploiting the voting power of the NSDAP in the Reichstag.
Hitler’s path to power had been cleared. On January 30th 1933, the ageing president finally relented, offering the chancellorship to Hitler and inviting him to form a government. With this appointment, Hindenburg had signed the death warrant of Weimar democracy.
A historian’s view:
“Outside the Nazi Party and its supporters, Hitler’s elevation to the chancellorship did nothing overnight to alter existing perceptions. The Regensburger Anzeiger, a newspaper aligned to the Bavarian People’s Party, said that a Hitler chancellorship marked a ‘leap into the dark’. On the Left especially, the view prevailed that Hitler would be no more than a ‘frontman’ for a cabinet of reactionaries dominated by Hugenberg, Papen and their friends, the direct representatives of Germany’s ruling classes… Away from the clamour of the big city celebrations, Hitler’s appointment initially did nothing. Pessimism generally prevailed here: many thought that there was little chance of Hitler bringing about any improvement, some that ‘Hitler would not even be as long in office as his predecessor, General von Schleicher’.”
1. Through 1932, Adolf Hitler began his tilt at the chancellorship by cultivating support from Reichswehr generals and powerful industrialists and business leaders.
2. In mid-1932, Hitler ran for president against Paul von Hindenburg. Though unsuccessful, Hitler campaigned vigorously and boosted his public profile nationwide.
3. Two months later, the Nazis won 230 seats in Reichstag elections, the highest number of seats won by any single party during the Weimar era.
4. Two different chancellors were appointed in 1932: Franz von Papen and Kurt von Schleicher. Both proved ineffective, clearing the path for a Hitler chancellorship.
5. Hindenburg expressed low regard for Hitler, believing him at best politically incompetent and at worst, dangerous. He was persuaded by others, particularly Papen, that Hitler could be curbed or controlled.