Hitler’s path to power

hitler's path to power
Adolf Hitler and the man who appointed him chancellor, Paul von Hindenburg

The appointment of Adolf Hitler as German chancellor on January 30th 1933 marked the beginning of the end of the Weimar Republic. Hitler’s path to power was hardly the glorious ascension he had dreamed of back in 1923. Rather than seizing power triumphantly at the head of a glorious revolution, Hitler became head of the German government as part of a shadowy political deal. Hitler’s rise to national power was orchestrated by former chancellor Franz von Papen and other backroom players, who sold it to ageing president Paul von Hindenburg. Consequently, his appointment to the chancellorship came in rather mundane and nondescript fashion. There was nothing to suggest that Hitler’s fate would be much different to the 14 Weimar chancellors who had preceded him. Within two months, the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP) leader had killed off Weimar democracy, setting Germany on a course toward a one-party state and authoritarian dictatorship.

The campaign to install Hitler as chancellor began in early 1932 and strengthened over the course of the year, fuelled by his growing public profile and the NSDAP’s increasing share of the Reichstag. For his own part, the Nazi leader 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 by meeting notable figures from each group, telling them what they wanted to hear. In a January 1932 speech to industrialists in the Ruhr, Hitler pledged his commitment to private ownership of capital and state support for large corporations. Many threw their weight behind Hitler, while some provided hefty political donations so the NSDAP could continue its propaganda campaign during the worst of the Great Depression. At a meeting with Reichswehr generals in February 1932, Hitler promised to expand and re-arm the military, in defiance of the restrictions imposed by Versailles.

“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 ‘front man’ for a cabinet of reactionaries dominated by Hugenberg, von 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’.”
Ian Kershaw, historian

The critical figure in Hitler’s leadership ambitions was the man who appointed Weimar chancellors: president Paul von Hindenburg. Hitler had met the president for the first time in 1931 – but the old man was far from impressed. To some extent this stemmed from class snobbery: Hindenburg was a Prussian general of the Junker aristocracy, miles apart from Hitler, the ex-corporal born into the lower classes of the Austrian frontier. But Hindenburg was also unimpressed with Hitler’s political program. The Nazi leader’s nationalist ambitions sounded grand but he offered no detail or explanation about how they could be achieved. After their meeting, Hindenburg reportedly said that Hitler might make a good postmaster, but that was about all. Hitler stood as a candidate in the following year’s presidential election, running against Hindenburg. The NSDAP leader campaigned vigorously, adopting the slogan Hitler uber Deutschland (‘Hitler over Germany’) and using aircraft to speak in more than two dozen major cities. Hindenburg won 49 per cent of the vote and ultimately triumphed – but Hitler’s tilt at the presidency was not fruitless; he won 30 per cent of the vote and received invaluable national press attention and publicity.

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. Hitler continued to pick up support from important capitalists and military figures. Newspaper mogul and DNVP leader Alfred Hugenberg had been 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 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. But Hindenburg held firm, refusing to appoint the “ridiculous Austrian corporal” to the chancellorship. Instead, he offered it to defence minister Kurt von Schleicher, who hoped to form some kind of working relationship with Hitler and NSDAP delegates in the Reichstag.

But Hitler was not prepared to accept anyone as chancellor, other than himself. Nor were his supporters, who maintained pressure on Hindenburg to replace von Schleicher with Hitler. Another critical player entered the scene in late 1932: Franz von Papen, the Centre Party politician who von Schleicher had replaced as chancellor. In a series of meetings with Hindenburg, von Papen criticised and undermined von Schleicher and urged the president to replace him with Hitler. Hindenburg’s grave concerns about Hitler’s fanaticism and the thuggery of his Sturmabteilung were eased by von Papen, who suggested that Hitler, for all his intensity, was a political novice. A carefully chosen cabinet, von Papen assured Hindenburg, could curb Hitler’s excesses while exploiting the voting power of the NSDAP in the Reichstag. On January 30th 1933 the old man finally relented, offering the chancellorship to Adolf Hitler and inviting him to form a government. With this appointment, Hindenburg had signed the death warrant of Weimar democracy.

1. In early 1932 Hitler began his tilt at the chancellorship by cultivating support from the army and industrial capitalists.
2. In mid-1932 Hitler unsuccessfully ran for president against Hindenburg, which boosted his public profile.
3. Two months later the Nazis won 230 seats, giving them a dominant position in the Reichstag.
4. In 1932 Hindenburg appointed two different chancellors, von Papen and von Schleicher, but both proved ineffective.
5. Hindenburg had a low regard for Hitler but was persuaded by others, especially von Papen, to appoint him as chancellor, mistakenly believing he could be curbed or controlled.

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This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “Hitler’s path to power”, Alpha History, 2014, accessed [today’s date], http://alphahistory.com/weimarrepublic/hitlers-path-to-power/.