Part 2 here
I. Who Would End the Bankruptcy?
“We have the power. Now our gigantic work begins.”
Those were Hitler’s words on the night of January 30, 1933, as cheering crowds surged past him, for five long hours, beneath the windows of the Chancellery in Berlin.
His political struggle had lasted 14 years. He himself was 43, that is, physically and intellectually at the peak of his powers. He had won over millions of Germans and organized them into Germany’s largest and most dynamic political party, a party girded by a human rampart of hundreds of thousands of storm troopers, three fourths of them members of the working class. He had been extremely shrewd. All but toying with his adversaries, Hitler had, one after another, vanquished them all.
Standing there at the window, his arm raised to the delirious throng, he must have known a feeling of triumph. But he seemed almost torpid, absorbed, as if lost in another world.
It was a world far removed from the delirium in the street, a world of 65 million citizens who loved him or hated him, but all of whom, from that night on, had become his responsibility. And as he knew — as almost all Germans knew at the end of January 1933 — this was a crushing, an almost desperate responsibility.
Half a century later, few people understand the crisis Germany faced at that time. Today, it’s easy to assume that Germans have always been well-fed and even plump. But the Germans Hitler inherited were virtual skeletons.
During the preceding years, a score of “democratic” governments had come and gone, often in utter confusion. Instead of alleviating the people’s misery, they had increased it, due to their own instability: it was impossible for them to pursue any given plan for more than a year or two. Germany had arrived at a dead end. In just a few years there had been 224,000 suicides — a horrifying figure, bespeaking a state of misery even more horrifying.
By the beginning of 1933, the misery of the German people was virtually universal. At least six million unemployed and hungry workers roamed aimlessly through the streets, receiving a pitiful unemployment benefit of less than 42 marks per month. Many of those out of work had families to feed, so that altogether some 20 million Germans, a third of the country’s population, were reduced to trying to survive on about 40 pfennigs per person per day.
Unemployment benefits, moreover, were limited to a period of six months. After that came only the meager misery allowance dispensed by the welfare offices.
Notwithstanding the gross inadequacy of this assistance, by trying to save the six million unemployed from total destruction, even for just six months, both the state and local branches of the German government saw themselves brought to ruin: in 1932 alone such aid had swallowed up four billion marks, 57 percent of the total tax revenues of the federal government and the regional states. A good many German municipalities were bankrupt.
Those still lucky enough to have some kind of job were not much better off. Workers and employees had taken a cut of 25 percent in their wages and salaries. Twenty-one percent of them were earning between 100 and 250 marks per month; 69.2 percent of them, in January 1933, were being paid less than 1,200 marks annually. No more than about 100,000 Germans, it was estimated, were able to live without financial worries.
During the three years before Hitler came to power, total earnings had fallen by more than half, from 23 billion marks to 11 billion. The average per capita income had dropped from 1,187 marks in 1929 to 627 marks, a scarcely tolerable level, in 1932. By January 1933, when Hitler took office, 90 percent of the German people were destitute.
No one escaped the strangling effects of the unemployment. The intellectuals were hit as hard as the working class. Of the 135,000 university graduates, 60 percent were without jobs. Only a tiny minority was receiving unemployment benefits.
“The others,” wrote one foreign observer, Marcel Laloire (in his book New Germany), “are dependent on their parents or are sleeping in flophouses. In the daytime they can be seen on the boulevards of Berlin wearing signs on their backs to the effect that they will accept any kind of work.”
But there was no longer any kind of work.
The same drastic fall-off had hit Germany’s cottage industry, which comprised some four million workers. Its turnover had declined to 55 percent, with total sales plunging from 22 billion to 10 billion marks.
Hardest hit of all were construction workers; 90 percent of them were unemployed.
Farmers, too, had been ruined, crushed by losses amounting to 12 billion marks. Many had been forced to mortgage their homes and their land. In 1932 just the interest on the loans they had incurred due to the crash was equivalent to 20 percent of the value of the agricultural production of the entire country. Those who were no longer able to meet the interest payments saw their farms auctioned off in legal proceedings: in the years 1931-1932, 17,157 farms — with a combined total area of 462,485 hectares — were liquidated in this way.
The “democracy” of Germany’s “Weimar Republic” (1918–1933) had proven utterly ineffective in addressing such flagrant wrongs as this impoverishment of millions of farm workers, even though they were the nation’s most stable and hardest working citizens. Plundered, dispossessed, abandoned: small wonder they heeded Hitler’s call.
Their situation on January 30, 1933, was tragic. Like the rest of Germany’s working class, they had been betrayed by their political leaders, reduced to the alternatives of miserable wages, paltry and uncertain benefits, or the outright humiliation of begging.
Germany’s industries, once renowned everywhere in the world, were no longer prosperous, despite the millions of marks in gratuities that the financial magnates felt obliged to pour into the coffers of the parties in power before each election in order to secure their cooperation. For 14 years the well-blinkered conservatives and Christian democrats of the political center had been feeding at the trough just as greedily as their adversaries of the left.
Thus, prior to 1933, the Social Democrats had been generously bribed by Friedrich Flick, a supercapitalist businessman. With him, as with all his like, it was a matter of carefully studied tactics. After 1945, his son, true to tradition, would continue to offer largess to the Bundestag Socialists who had their hands out, and, in a roundabout way, to similarly minded and equally greedy political parties abroad as well. The benefactors, to be sure, made certain that their gifts bore fruit in lucrative contracts and in cancelled fiscal obligations.
Nothing is given for nothing. In politics, manacles are imposed in the form of money.
Even though they had thus assured themselves of the willing cooperation of the politicians of the Weimar system’s parties, the titans of German capitalism had experienced only a succession of catastrophes. The patchwork governments they backed, formed in the political scramble by claim and compromise, were totally ineffective. They lurched from one failure to another, with neither time for long-range planning nor the will to confine themselves somehow to their proper function.
Time is required for the accomplishment of anything important. It is only with time that great plans may be brought to maturity and the competent men be found who are capable of carrying them out. Not surprisingly, therefore, any economic plans drawn up amid all this shifting for short-term political advantage were bound to fail.
Nor did the bribing of the political parties make them any more capable of coping with the exactions ordered by the Treaty of Versailles. France, in 1923, had effectively seized Germany by the throat with her occupation of the Ruhr industrial region, and in six months had brought the Weimar government to pitiable capitulation. But then, disunited, despising one another, how could these political birds of passage have offered resistance? In just a few months in 1923, seven German governments came and went in swift succession. They had no choice but to submit to the humiliation of Allied control, as well as to the separatist intrigues fomented by Poincare’s paid agents.
The substantial tariffs imposed on the sale of German goods abroad had sharply curtailed the nation’s ability to export her products. Under obligation to pay gigantic sums to their conquerors, the Germans had paid out billions upon billions. Then, bled dry, they were forced to seek recourse to enormous loans from abroad, from the United States in particular.
This indebtedness had completed their destruction and, in 1929, precipitated Germany into a terrifying financial crisis.
The big industrialists, for all their fat bribes to the politicians, now found themselves impotent: their factories empty, their workers now living as virtual vagrants, haggard of face, in the dismal nearby working-class districts.
Thousands of German factories lay silent, their smoke-stacks like a forest of dead trees. Many had gone under. Those which survived were operating on a limited basis. Germany’s gross industrial production had fallen by half: from seven billion marks in 1920 to three and a half billion in 1932.
The automobile industry provides a perfect example. Germany’s production in 1932 was proportionately only one twelfth that of the United States, and only one fourth that of France: 682,376 cars in Germany (one for each 100 inhabitatnts) as against 1,855,174 cars in France, even though the latter’s population was 20 million less than Germany’s.
Germany had experienced a similar collapse in exports. Her trade surplus had fallen from 2,872 billion marks in 1931 to only 667 millions in 1932 — nearly a 75 percent drop.
Overwhelmed by the cessation of payments and the number of current accounts in the red, even Germany’s central bank was disintegrating. Harried by demands for repayment of the foreign loans, on the day of Hitler’s accession to power the Reichsbank had in all only 83 million marks in foreign currency, 64 million of which had already been committed for disbursement on the following day.
The astronomical foreign debt, an amount exceeding that of the country’s total exports for three years, was like a lead weight on the back of every German. And there was no possibility of turning to Germany’s domestic financial resources for a solution: banking activities had come virtually to a standstill. That left only taxes.
Unfortunately, tax revenues had also fallen sharply. From nine billion marks in 1930, total revenue from taxes had fallen to 7.8 billion in 1931, and then to 6.65 billion in 1932 (with unemployment payments alone taking four billion of that amount).
The financial debt burden of regional and local authorities, amounting to billions, had likewise accumulated at a fearful pace. Beset as they were by millions of citizens in need, the municipalities alone owed 6.542 billion in 1928, an amount that had increased to 11.295 billion by 1932. Of this total, 1.668 billion was owed in short-term loans.
Any hope of paying off these deficits with new taxes was no longer even imaginable. Taxes had already been increased 45 percent from 1925 to 1931. During the years 1931–1932, under Chancellor Brüning, a Germany of unemployed workers and industrialists with half-dead factories had been hit with 23 “emergency” decrees. This multiple overtaxing, moreover, had proven to be completely useless, as the “International Bank of Payments” had clearly foreseen. The agency confirmed in a statement that the tax burden in Germany was already so enormous that it could not be further increased.
And so, in one pan of the financial scales: 19 billion in foreign debt plus the same amount in domestic debt. In the other, the Reichsbank’s 83 million marks in foreign currency. It was as if the average German, owing his banker a debt of 6,000 marks, had less than 14 marks in his pocket to pay it.
One inevitable consequence of this ever-increasing misery and uncertainty about the future was an abrupt decline in the birthrate. When your household savings are wiped out, and when you fear even greater calamities in the days ahead, you do not risk adding to the number of your dependents.
In those days the birth rate was a reliable barometer of a country’s prosperity. A child is a joy, unless you have nothing but a crust of bread to put in its little hand. And that’s just the way it was with hundreds of thousands of German families in 1932.
In 1905, during the reign of Kaiser Wilhelm II, the birthrate had been 33.4 per one thousand. In 1921 it was only 25.0, and in 1924 it was down to 15.1. By the end of 1932, it had fallen to just 14.7 per one thousand.
It reached that figure, moreover, thanks only to the higher birth rate in rural areas. In the fifty largest cities of the Reich, there were more deaths than births. In 45 percent of working-class families, there were no births at all in the latter years. The fall in the birthrate was most pronounced in Berlin, which had less than one child per family and only 9.1 births per one thousand. Deaths exceeded the number of new births by 60 percent.
In contrast to the birthrate, politicians were flourishing as never before — about the only thing in Germany that was in those disastrous times. From 1919 to 1932, Germany had seen no less than 23 governments come and go, averaging a new one about every seven months. As any sensible person realizes, such constant upheaval in a country’s political leadership negates its power and authority. No one would imagine that any effective work could be carried out in a typical industrial enterprise if the board of directors, the management, management methods, and key personnel were all replaced every eight months. Failure would be certain.
Yet the Reich wasn’t a factory of 100 or 200 workers, but a nation of 65 million citizens crushed under the imposed burdens of the Treaty of Versailles, by industrial stagnation, by frightful unemployment, and by a gut-wrenching misery shared by the entire people.
The many cabinet ministers who followed each other in swift succession for thirteen years — due to petty parliamentary squabbles, partisan demands, and personal ambitions — were unable to achieve anything other than the certain collapse of their chaotic regime of rival parties.
Germany’s situation was further aggravated by the unrestrained competition of the 25 regional states, which split up governmental authority into units often in direct opposition to Berlin, thereby incessantly sabotaging what limited power the central Reich government had at that time.
The regional remnants of several centuries of particularism were all fiercely jealous of their privileges. The Treaty of Westphalia of 1648 had divided Germany into hundreds of Lilliputian states, most of them musical comedy kingdoms whose petty monarchs tried to act like King Louis XIV in courts complete with frills and reverential bows.
Even at the beginning of the First World War (1914–1918), the German Reich included four distinct kingdoms (Prussia, Bavaria, Württemberg and Saxony), each with its own sovereign, army, flag, titles of nobility, and Great Cross in particolored enamel. In addition, there were six grand duchies, five duchies, seven principalities, and three free cities.
The Bavarian clung fiercely to his Lederhosen, his steins of beer, and his pipe. He took part in the war to preserve them. The Saxon would gladly have had a go-around with the haughty Prussian. Each was intent on his rights. And for all of them, faraway Berlin was a thorn in the side.
Each regional state had its own separatist government with parliament, prime minister and cabinet. Altogether they presented a lineup of 59 ministers who, added to the eleven Reich ministers and the 42 senators of the Free Cities, gave the Germans a collection of 112 ministers, each of whom viewed the other with a jaundiced eye at best.
In addition, there were between two and three thousand deputies — representing dozens of rival political parties — in the legislatures of the Reich, the 22 states and the three Free Cities.
In the Reichstag elections of November 1932 — held just months before Hitler became Chancellor — there were no less than 37 different political parties competing, with a total of 7,000 candidates (14 of them by proxy), all of them frantically seeking a piece of the parliamentary pie. It was most strange: the more discredited the party system became, the more democratic champions there were to be seen gesturing and jostling in their eagerness to climb aboard the gravy train.
To all appearances, the incumbents who had been elected were there forever. They received fat salaries (a Reichstag deputy got ten times what the average worker earned), and permitted themselves generous supplementary incomes in the form of favors provided by interested clients. A number of Socialist Reichstag deputies representing Berlin, for example, had arranged for their wives to receive sumptuous fur coats from certain Jewish financiers.
In a parliamentary democracy, mandates are often very brief, and ministerial appointments even more so. The temptation is strong to get it while you can.
Honest, dishonest, or piratical, these 112 cabinet ministers and thousands of legislative deputies had converted Germany into a country that was ungovernable. It is incontestable that, by January of 1933, the “system” politicians had become completely discredited. Their successors would inherit a country in economic, social and political ruins.
Today, more than half a century later, in an era when so many are living in abundance, it is hard to believe that the Germany of January 1933 had fallen so low. But for anyone who studies the archives and the relevant documents of that time, there can be no doubt. Not a single figure cited here is invented. By January 1933, Germany was down and bleeding to death.
All the previous chancellors who had undertaken to get Germany back on her feet — including Brüning, Papen and Schleicher — had failed. Only a genius or, as some believed, a madman, could revive a nation that had fallen into such a state of complete disarray.
When President Franklin Roosevelt was called upon at that same time to resolve a similar crisis in the United States, he had at his disposal immense reserves of gold. Hitler, standing silently at the chancellery window on that evening of January 30, 1933, knew that, on the contrary, his nation’s treasury was empty. No great benefactor would appear to help him out. The elderly Reich President, Paul von Hindenburg, had given him a work sheet of appalling figures of indebtedness.
Hitler knew that he would be starting from zero. From less than zero. But he was also confident of his strength of will to create Germany anew — politically, socially, financially, and economically. Now legally and officially in power, he was sure that he could quickly convert that cipher into a Germany more powerful than ever before.
What support did he have?
For one thing, he could count on the absolute support of millions of fanatical disciples. And on that January evening, they joyfully shared in the great thrill of victory. Some thirteen million Germans, many of them former Socialists and Communists, had voted for his party.
But millions of Germans were still his adversaries, disconcerted adversaries, to be sure, whom their own political parties had betrayed, but who had still not been won over to National Socialism.
The two sides — those for and those against Hitler — were very nearly equal in numbers. But whereas those on the left were divided among themselves, Hitler’s disciples were strongly united. And in one thing above all, the National Socialists had an incomparable advantage: in their convictions and in their total faith in a leader. Their highly organized and well-disciplined party had contended with the worst kind of obstacles, and had overcome them.
While it enjoyed extraordinary popular support, the National Socialist movement had grown too fast, and problems deriving from that lay in wait ahead. Thousands of visionaries with nebulous dreams of domination, not to mention hotheads dreaming only of brawls and revolution in perpetuity, had found their way into the National Socialist ranks. The ambitious ones intended to rise to the top at any cost — and as quickly as possible. Many of them were ill-prepared; some simply lacked morals. Many bitter disappointments were in store for Hitler because of them.
Hitler sensed as much. He had ordered his party to halt recruitment of new members, and even directed that the SA — the huge civilian paramilitary force that had carried him to power — be reduced in size. Indeed, by 1933 SA stormtroop membership had grown to the incredible figure of 2,500,000 men, 25 times the size of the regular army, the Reichswehr.
It was due to such pressures that Hitler was sometimes driven to rash action, contrary to his real desire or intent. Sometimes this meant expulsions, the use of force or cases of intransigence, even though his larger goal was to reunite the nation in peace, and accomplish his political and social programs without useless clashes.
Hitler knew that he was playing with dynamite. Still, it was his conviction that he was being driven not just by his National Socialist movement, but by an inner, almost supernatural force. Whether one called it Providence or Destiny, it was this force, he felt, that had carried him to victory. His own force of character was such that it would yield to nothing. For Hitler, it was a foregone conclusion that he would forge a new Reich, a new world.
Hitler knew that the task he had set himself would be immense and difficult to accomplish, that he would have to transform Germany in practically every respect: the structure of the state, social law, the constitution of society, the economy, civic spirit, culture, the very nature of men’s thinking. To accomplish his great goal, he would need to reestablish the equilibrium of the social classes within the context of a regenerated community, free his nation from foreign hegemony, and restructure its geographic unity.
Task number one: he would have to restore work and honor to the lives of six million unemployed. This was his immediate goal, a task that everyone else thought impossible to achieve.
After he had once again closed the windows of the chancellery, Hitler, with clenched fists and resolute mien, said simply: “The great venture begins. The day of the Third Reich has come.”
In just one year this “great venture” would be in full swing, effecting a transformation from top to bottom in political, social and economic life — indeed, in the German way of life itself.
II. The Unification of the State
“It will be the pride of my life,” Hitler said upon becoming Chancellor, “if I can say at the end of my days that I won back the German worker and restored him to his rightful place in the Reich.” He meant that he intended not merely to put men back to work, but to make sure that the worker acquired not just rights, but prestige as well, within the national community.
The national community had long been the proverbial wicked stepmother in its relationship with the German working man. Class struggle had not been the exclusive initiative of the Marxists. It had also been a fact of life for a privileged class, the capitalists, that sought to dominate the working class. Thus the German worker, feeling himself treated like a pariah, had often turned away from a fatherland that often seemed to consider him merely an instrument in production.
In the eyes of the capitalists, money was the sole active element in the flourishing of a country’s economy. To Hitler’s way of thinking, that conception was radically wrong: capital, on the contrary, was only an instrument. Work was the essential element: man’s endeavor, man’s honor, blood, muscles and soul.
Hitler wanted not just to put an end to the class struggle, but to reestablish the priority of the human being, in justice and respect, as the principal factor in production.
One could dispense with gold, and Hitler would do just that. A dozen other things could be substituted for gold as a means of stimulating industry, and Hitler would invent them. But as for work, it was the indispensable foundation.
For the worker’s trust in the fatherland to be restored, he had to feel that from now on he was to be (and to be treated) as an equal, instead of remaining a social inferior. Under the governments of the so-called democratic parties of both the left and the right, he had remained an inferior; for none of them had understood that in the hierarchy of national values, work is the very essence of life; and matter, be it steel or gold, but a tool.
The objective, then, was far greater than merely sending six million unemployed back to work. It was to achieve a total revolution.
“The people,” Hitler declared, “were not put here on earth for the sake of the economy, and the economy doesn’t exist for the sake of capital. On the contrary, capital is meant to serve the economy, and the economy in turn to serve the people.”
It would not be enough merely to reopen the thousands of closed factories and fill them with workers. If the old concepts still ruled, the workers would once again be nothing more than living machines, faceless and interchangeable.
What was required was to reestablish that moral equilibrium between the workers, human beings who shape raw materials, and a useful and controlled capitalism, returned to its proper function as a tool. This would mean changing an entire world, and it would take time.
As Hitler knew full well, such a revolution could not be achieved while the central and regional governments continued in a state of anarchy, seldom accomplishing anything solid, and sometimes running amok. Nor could there be a revolution in society while dozens of parties and thousands of deputies of every conceivable stripe pursued their selfish interests under a political system that had thrashed about incoherently since 1919.
Restoring the effectiveness of Germany’s institutions on a nationwide basis was therefore an indispensable prerequisite to any social rebirth.
“A fish rots from the head down,” says a Russian proverb. And it was at the head that political Germany, prior to Hitler, was going bad. In the end, the “democratic” parties abdicated without even defending themselves. In 1930, the aged President Marshall von Hindenburg used his emergency powers under Article 48 of the Weimar constitution to enable a succession of semi-dictators to rule by decree. But even they could accomplish little.
These last chancellors — Herr Brüning, Herr von Papen, and General Schleicher — were able to maintain rule only by executive decree. Their authority, artificially sustained by misuse of Article 48, was dependent on von Hindenburg and the camarilla advising him. Just how slim was their level of popular support was shown in a particularly humiliating 1932 Reichstag “vote of confidence,” in which more than 90 percent of the deputies voted against him and his government.
Hitler’s accession to power abruptly brought an end to government impotence. As a condition of appointing him, however, Hindenburg had demanded that the new chancellor be hemmed in like a prisoner in his own government. In his first government, Hitler was obliged name four times as many conservative — or better, reactionary — ministers as his own men. Just two members of his first cabinet were National Socialists.
Hindenburg’s representatives were given the mission of keeping Hitler on a leash. At the Reichstag session of March 24, however, Hitler broke that leash, not with yet another executive decree (like his immediate predecessors), but by obtaining a two-thirds parliamentary majority for the “Enabling Act” that legally amended the constitution and gave him sweeping plenary powers for a period of four years.
Four years in power to plan, create and make decisions. Politically, it was a revolution: Hitler’s first revolution. And completely democratic, as had been every stage of his rise. His initial triumph had come through the support of the electorate. Similarly, sweeping authority to govern was granted him through a vote of more than two-thirds of the Reichstag’s deputies, elected by universal suffrage.
This was in accord with a basic principle of Hitler’s: no power without freely given approval of the people. He used to say: “If you can win mastery over the people only by imposing the power of the state, you’d better figure on a nine o’clock curfew.”
Nowhere in twentieth-century Europe had the authority of a head of state ever been based on such overwhelming and freely given national consent. Prior to Hitler, from 1919 to 1932, those governments piously styling themselves democratic had usually come to power by meager majorities, sometimes as low as 51 or 52 percent.
“I am not a dictator,” Hitler had often affirmed, “and I never will be. Democracy will be rigorously enforced by National Socialism.”
Authority does not mean tyranny. A tyrant is someone who puts himself in power without the will of the people or against the will of the people. A democrat is placed in power by the people. But democracy is not limited to a single formula. It may be partisan or parliamentary. Or it may be authoritarian. The important thing is that the people have wished it, chosen it, established it in its given form.
That was the case with Hitler. He came to power in an essentially democratic way. Whether one likes it or not, this fact is undeniable. And after coming to power, his popular support measurably increased from year to year. The more intelligent and honest of his enemies have been obliged to admit this, men such as the declared anti-Nazi historian and professor Joachim Fest, who wrote:
For Hitler was never interested in establishing a mere tyranny. Sheer greed for power will not suffice as explanation for his personality and energy … He was not born to be a mere tyrant. He was fixated upon his mission of defending Europe and the Aryan race … Never had he felt so dependent upon the masses as he did at this time, and he watched their reactions with anxious concern.
Those lines weren’t written by Dr. Goebbels, but by a stern critic of Hitler and his career. (J. Fest, Hitler, New York: 1974, p. 417.)
By February 28, 1933, less than a month after his appointment as chancellor, Hitler had already managed to free himself of the conservative ballast by which Hindenburg had thought to weigh him down. The Reichstag fire of the previous evening prompted the elderly President to approve a new emergency law “For the Protection of the People and the State,” which considerably increased the powers of the executive.
Hitler meant, however, to obtain more than just concessions ruefully granted by a pliable old man: he sought plenary powers legally accorded him by the nation’s supreme democratic institution, the Reichstag. Hitler prepared his coup with the skill, the patience, and the astuteness for which he is legendary. “He possessed,” historian Fest later wrote, “an intelligence that included above all a sure sense of the rhythm to be observed in the making of decisions.”
At first, Hitler carefully cultivated Hindenburg, the elderly First World War Feldmarschall who was fond of tradition. Accordingly, Hitler arranged a solemn ceremony in Hindenburg’s honor in Potsdam, historic residence of the Prussian kings. This masterpiece of majesty, beauty, tradition and piety took place in Potsdam’s Garrison Church on March 21, 1933, just days before the Reichstag was to reconvene.
Hindenburg had served as an army officer for half a century. So that the old soldier might be reunited with his comrades, Hitler had arranged for veterans from all the wars in which Hindenburg had served to be present on this solemn occasion. From all around the country they came: veterans from the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871 (62 years before), from the war of 1866 against the Austrian empire (67 years before), and even from the war of 1864 against Denmark (69 years before!). For someone on the retirement list of 1911, it must have been a heartwarming occasion to be reunited again with comrades from so long ago.
With deference and apparent humility, and attired in formal dress for the occasion, Hitler bowed his head before the old man. In the stately church where the ceremony took place, Hitler had arranged that the chair of the former Kaiser, Wilhelm II, which had been unoccupied for 14 years, remained empty, so that Hindenburg could halt before it and make his salute, his marshal’s baton raised, as if the monarch were still there.
Hitler also quietly led Hindenburg down into the church crypt, to place wreaths on the tombs of his old master, Kaiser Wilhelm I, and of Frederick the Great. The President’s old eyes were rimmed with tears.
On that 21st day of March at Potsdam, the octogenarian President relived the glorious past of the German monarchy. This somber homage was his hour supreme. Hindenburg had always been a loyal servant of the Emperor, and this reminder of his former sovereign, and of the great days of his own long career, deeply moved him. Hitler was the first chancellor since the defeat of 1918 to so honor the tradition of Prussia and Germany. The young revolutionary chancellor had touched his heart.
A month and a half earlier, Hindenburg had commissioned Papen, Hugenberg, and Neurath and other conservative ministers to pinch Hitler “until he hollered.” Now that was over. Hitler had won him over: in front of an empty armchair and before the tombs of Prussia’s greatest kings.
A year and a half later, as he lay dying, the old Feldmarschall would believe that he was back in the time of the Hohenzollern dynasty, and in his delirium would address Hitler as “Majesty.”
This “Day of Potsdam” ceremony also won Hitler new support from among the country’s many monarchists, giving them the impression that he was not altogether insensitive to the idea of restoring the monarchy. But the new chancellor’s temporary prudence was calculated with precision.
“There is no need to destroy the existing institutions,” Hitler assured, “until there is something better to put in their place.”
He still had need of men like von Papen and other ruling-class troglodytes. He kept them at his side as he drove them around Potsdam on that historic day, the festive city bedecked not only with swastika banners but equally with the black-white-and-red flags of the Second Reich, resurrected for the occasion. Brass bands paraded around, blaring heroic marches calculated to make their old chests swell. Here too, the scarcely camouflaged aversion to the parvenu was softened. Hitler had tamed the aristocrats, both born and moneyed. They would no longer stand in his way.
But it was above all Germany’s army — the Reichswehr — that was the object of Hitler’s most ardent courtship. In 1933, he desperately needed the army’s support. The generals had tolerated his rise to power with reluctance. A corporal in the chancellery seemed intolerable to the haughty, monocled generals. Some ambitiously sought to supervise the nation’s political machinery.
They had not been consulted when Hitler was named Chancellor on January 30. The old Feldmarschall had even sternly sent away General von Hammerstein-Equord, who had come to tell Hindenburg of the General Staff’s vote of disapproval. In the weeks since, the generals had barely tolerated the young outsider.
Keenly aware that a coup d’etat by this proud military caste could instantly sweep him and his party away, along with all his plans for the future, Hitler knew that he must proceed cleverly against the imperious generals. The Reichswehr was therefore accorded a position of honor at Potsdam. At the entry walkway to the royal palace, Reichswehr troops presented arms on one side, while a line of SA stormtroopers faced them on the other side. Unifying conservative military traditions of duty and honor with a revolutionary new force, together they formed the honor guard that symbolized a Germany restored to harmony.
As for the generals, their tunics gleaming with decorations and their chests thrown out, they once again marched behind their old commander, a heroic retinue worthy of a great Germanic chieftain. At last, after fourteen years of disregard under the democratic Weimar Republic, they once again bathed in the golden light of martial glory. Corporal Hitler was perhaps not as contemptible as they had thought.
The ex-corporal, standing at attention in top hat and formal dress suit, let them have their day of glory at Potsdam. He knew enough to let them bask in the limelight.
Hitler had won his armistice.
To reach the people, Hitler and Dr. Goebbels had quickly taken control of the nation’s radio, from which they had for so long been barred (and which their adversaries had put to only mediocre use). Within a few weeks, they had succeeded in making radio their most effective tool. Each of Hitler’s major speeches was broadcast to the nation with a hitherto unknown power.
Radio also brought the spectacle of Potsdam to the people. Goebbels set up his microphones everywhere: in front of Hindenburg, behind Hindenburg, in the royal crypt, close to the military bands, and even on the rooftops of houses (where the announcers risked their necks to cover the pageantry). One of them was a young National Socialist Reichstag deputy named Baldur von Schirach, who in 1946 would find himself in the dock before the vengeful Allied judges of the Nuremberg Tribunal.
All of Germany was on the edge of its seat as it listened for hours to the exciting coverage of the event. Millions of Germans thrilled to once again hear the stirring old melodies, and to closely follow Hindenburg’s every move, almost as if they were there.
During the dark days of the recent past, the venerated old warrior had represented tradition and hope. Now, thanks to Hitler’s careful planning and management of this occasion, the ancient soldier embodied the promise of great national renewal. It was, as historian Fest has observed, “the feast of reconciliation gorgeously presented … That day at Potsdam truly proved to be a turning point in history … Many government officials, army officers, lawyers and judges, many members of the nationalistic bourgeoisie who had distrusted Hitler on rational grounds, abandoned their stand …” (J. Fest, Hitler, New York: 1974, p. 405.)
Potsdam was a grandiose theatrical stage on which all had played their parts, even — by their very absence — the luke-warm and Hitler’s enemies on the left.
Glued to their radio sets, all Germany had participated in the spectacle, at first fascinated, and then caught up in the emotion of the event. The next day, Berlin newspapers declared: “National enthusiasm swept over Germany yesterday like a great storm.”
“A strange mixture of tactician and visionary,” Joachim Fest would later write, sizing up this extraordinary stage manager. For Hitler had led field marshals, generals, and other dignitaries, none of them fools, through his drill paces as though they had been so many animated tin soldiers. But Hitler’s plans extended far beyond winning over the Old Guard.
In order to establish his new state in definitive form, Hitler now proposed to obtain the official ratification of the Reichstag, which would establish his authority to govern as a virtual dictator for a period of several years.
To gain such plenary powers lawfully, the German constitution had to be amended, and this would require approval by two thirds of the parliament’s members.
Hitler’s party, having won 17,300,000 votes in the elections of March 5, 1933, for the new Reichstag, held a total of 288 seats — making it by far the largest single party. His conservative ally in the temporary partnership, Hugenberg’s German National People’s Party (DNVP), had captured 4,750,000 votes and held another 52 seats, giving the coalition a total of 340 deputies.
After deducting the 81 “empty” Communist seats, the opposition now mustered just 226 members: 120 Social Democrats, 92 (Catholic) Center and BVP deputies, and 14 others.
Although his coalition held a majority of seats, to alter the constitution Hitler needed a two thirds majority — which meant 36 additional votes.
At first sight, this goal seemed almost impossible. For more than a decade, the Catholic Center and Bavarian People’s parties had been outspoken critics of Hitler and his National Socialist movement, unhesitatingly using religion as a partisan political weapon, and even denying religious burial to Catholic National Socialists murdered by Communist killers.
Hitler, with the assistance of Goering (who was now president of the new Reichstag), would now have to win over that clerical flock. Center party leader Monsignor Kaas, a squat and pudgy prelate who found the collecting of votes to be more satisfying than the guidance of souls, was flattered and courted by Hitler, who dangled before him the promise of a rapprochement between the state and the Catholic Church, an earnest promise that Hitler would make good on the following summer. The beguiled prelate may have believed that he was going to lead errant sheep back to the fold. In any case, Hitler succeeded in persuading and seducing the Center party.Some deputies of the smaller opposition parties also yielded.
When it came time to vote, Hitler was granted plenary powers with a sweeping majority of 441 votes to 94: he had won not just two thirds, but 82.44 percent of the assembly’s votes. This “Enabling Act” granted Hitler for four years virtually absolute authority over the legislative as well as the executive affairs of the government.
The five paragraphs of this “Law for the Alleviation of the Misery of the People and the Nation” were brief and to the point:
1. Laws may be promulgated by the Reich government apart from the procedures provided for by the Constitution …
2. Laws promulgated by the Reich government may deviate from the Constitution provided they do not change the position of the Reichstag or of the Reichsrat. The powers of the Reich President are not changed.
3. Laws promulgated by the Reich government will be prepared by the Chancellor and published in the “Official Journal.” Unless otherwise specified, they become effective on the day following publication …
4. Treaties concluded by the Reich with foreign states that concern matters of national legislation do not require ratification by the legislative bodies. The Reich government is empowered to issue the regulations necessary for their execution.
5. This law becomes effective on the day of publication, and remains valid until April 1, 1937. It also becomes invalid if the present government is replaced with another.
Berlin, March 24, 1933 Von Hindenburg, Hitler, Frick, von Neurath, Krosigk
Thus, a parliamentary democracy, exercising its constitutional powers, had legally established an authoritarian national state. Next, a solution was needed to the problem of the horde of the competing regional, state and local parliaments, jurisdictions and authorities. For the most part, these authorities were virtual nullities, and there was no love lost between them. For fourteen years, though, they had acted together whenever an opportunity presented itself to thwart the central government in Berlin.
It was inconceivable that a strong government such as the one Hitler had just established could function effectively with thousands of second-level politicians carping and questioning his every move. Anyway, Germans had in fact become sick and tired of the squandering of authority, the perpetual squabbling, the pettiness, discord, and the anarchy for which, in the final analysis, it was the people who paid.
“It is a fact,” French historian Benoist-Mechin later observed, “that the unification of the states and the Reich answered one of the most profound aspirations of the German people. They had enough of being torn apart by the constant threats of secession and the provincial governments. For centuries they had dreamed of being part of a single community.” (Histoire de l’Armee Allemande, vol. III, p. 117.)
It seemed a simple enough task, because public opinion demanded the abolition of the administrative mess. But such a reform would necessarily bruise the vanity of thousands and collide head-on with many local special interests.
A man who is a council president or a minister, even if only of a small state, does not easily resign himself to being no more than a private citizen, to once again becoming, let us say, a provincial lawyer scampering to the court house with coattails flying. The 2,400 legislative deputies would also be bitter about losing the good life they had come to know and expect. Gone the prestige, the deference, the awards, the vacation trips at public expense, the discreet gratuities! Who among us does not make a wry face when swallowing bitter medicine? But it had to be, for Hitler had his eyes fixed on that national goal: a unified nation.
That did not mean, of course, that in eliminating the regional administrations Hitler had any desire to do away with the distinctive identities of the nation’s various provinces. On the contrary, he believed that a nation’s life ought never to be monopolized by its capital city, but should rather be nourished and constantly renewed by the blooming of dozens of centers of culture in regions rich in varied manners, mores and legacies of their past.
He believed that the nation was the harmonious conjunction of these profound and original variations, and that a state conscious of its real powers ought to promote such variety, not smother it.
The dispersion of political power had not favored such a variety, but had, on the contrary, diminished it, depriving it of the cohesion a large community brings. The Reich’s 25 separate administrative entities, rivals of the central government and often of each other, were a source of disorder. A nation must consist of regions that know and esteem each other, and which gain mutual enrichment from their interlinking, rather than each withdrawing into a culture that is strangled by an exclusive and restrictive provincialism. And only a strong central authority could insure the flowering of all the various regions within a single collective entity. In sum, what Hitler intended was that each region should bring its share of original culture to the totality of a German Reich that had put an end to so many fractious administrations.
From 1871 to 1933, Germany’s various national governments had come up against this obstacle of political particularism. Even so gifted a leader as Bismarck had not been able to overcome this persistent problem. And now, where the leaders of both the Second Reich and the Weimar Republic had failed, or had not dared to take the risk, Hitler, in a few months, was going to convert this long-standing division and discord into potent and effective unity.
Hitler had scarcely moved into his office overlooking the chancellery garden, where squirrels cracked nuts in the trees and at times even leaped into the building itself, when he drew up a law to unify the Reich’s many lands.
The first of the states that would be made to toe the line was Bavaria, which up to that point had been a bulwark of belligerent separatism and hidebound monarchists.
Hitler’s intentions were no sooner known than several Bavarian ministers devised a plan to resurrect from retirement that old fogy, the ex-Prince Ruprecht, heir to Bavaria’s Wittelsbach throne, who in November 1923, then as an ordinary private citizen, had, with a good deal of boasting, helped block Hitler’s ill-fated Putsch. Now the new chancellor responded to their little plot with sudden and crushing force, bringing the Bavarian state administration to heel in a single night. The next morning, Lieutenant General von Epp was named Reich Commissioner in Munich.
Thereafter, almost all of the other regional states rapidly collapsed, like a house of cards.
The most difficult state to master was Prussia, an enormous bastion (a third of Germany) stretching across the heart of the country. Prussia truly consisted a state within the state, a special government. In 1931 its Socialist government had held Reich Chancellor Brüning completely in check. His humiliating defeat came notwithstanding their party’s crushing defeat in the Prussian elections a short time earlier at the hands of Hitler’s candidates. Chancellor von Papen found that he, too, had to come to grips with Prussia, which was nearly as strong as the central government.
After he became Chancellor, Hitler was obliged for a time — because Hindenburg demanded it — to let von Papen remain as Reich Commissioner of Prussia; and it was only with great effort on his part that Hitler managed to have Goering named as von Papen’s Minister of the Interior in Prussia. The autonomy of the Prussian government, more than any other, had to be liquidated: otherwise, the central government would remain subject at any moment to embarrassment and hindrance in the city that was the capital of both Prussia and the Reich. The matter was particularly delicate because von Papen, the aristocrat, had to remain as Reich Commissioner of Prussia. To remove him would risk disapproval and even countermeasures by President von Hindenburg.
Hitler at that point surpassed himself in versatility and guile. By dint of flattery and persuasion, within a month von Papen let himself be gently shoved out the door. Hitler all but dictated for him the text of his letter of resignation of April 7, 1933, in which the Vice Chancellor acknowledged that the Law on the Unification of the Lands of the Reich “was a legal edifice destined to be of great historic importance in the development of the German Reich.” He further recognized that “the dualism existing between the Reich and Prussia” had to come to an end. In his letter he even compared Hitler to Prince Otto von Bismarck.
Although von Papen was being nudged out, Hitler soothed his wounded pride by publicly declaring that he never would have been able to carry out the political reunification of the Reich alone; that the great architect of the achievement had been von Papen.
Without turning a hair, Hitler also wrote to Feldmarschall von Hindenburg:
In assuming the functions of Reich Commissioner in Prussia during the difficult period following the 30th of January, Herr von Papen has deserved very great credit for contributing so strongly to the working out of a strict coordination between the policies of the Reich and those of the regional states. His collaboration with the cabinet of the Reich, to which he will henceforth be able to devote himself completely, will be of priceless assistance to me. The feelings I have for him are such that I rejoice in having the benefit of his cooperation, which will be of inestimable value to me.
For his part the aged field marshal responded to this small masterpiece of hypocrisy with one of his own, this one addressed to von Papen:
Dear Herr von Papen, I have just accepted your request that you be relieved of your duties as Reich commissioner of Prussia. I take this opportunity to thank you, in the name of the Reich and in my own name, for the eminent service you have rendered the nation by eliminating the dualism existing between the Reich and Prussia, and by imposing the idea of a common political direction of the Reich and the regional states. I have learned with satisfaction that you will henceforth be able to devote all your energies to the government of the Reich.
With feelings of sincere comradeship, I remain your devoted
von Hindenburg, President of the Reich
Ex-Chancellor von Papen thus lost the only effective power he still held. Although he remained a member of the inner circle of Hitler’s government (but for how long?), he was now really little more than a willing stooge.
Hitler immediately named himself Statthalter of Prussia, and Goering as Minister President, thus bringing the greatest German state under firm control.
One after another, the regional states were shorn of their sovereignty. The process was staged like a ballet.
Act One: Regional parliamentary power is transferred smoothly to men who had Hitler’s confidence.
Act Two: Each man announces acceptance of the “Law of Unification.”
Act Three: Each regional parliament proclaims the end of its own state autonomy and sovereignty.
Act Four: In each region, Hitler appoints Reich Commissioner (or Statthalter), who is charged with carrying out the Chancellor’s political directives.
In the Grand Duchies of Baden and Saxony there were a few verbal skirmishes, but these were quickly squelched. In the Free City of Hamburg (population a million and a half), its leaders grumbled a bit for form’s sake, but only a few hours of negotiations were required to make them see the light. In just a few weeks, the entire process was accomplished.
Making use of the sweeping powers granted him by the Reichstag’s overwhelming vote of approval on March 23, 1933, within a few months Hitler succeeded in transforming the faltering Reich government into a formidable instrument of action. Thanks to that mandate, and several special decrees signed by the President, he was thus able constitutionally to eliminate the rival authorities of numerous state governments and parliaments.
“It all went much faster than we had dared hope,” Goebbels commented with delight, and a shade of sarcasm.
Precisely one year after Hitler had become Chancellor, a “Law for the Rebuilding of the Reich” spelled out the full extent of the change:
1. Representation of the regional states is abolished.
2.(a) The sovereign rights of the regional states are transferred to the government of the Reich.
(b) The governments of the regional states are subject to the government of the Reich.
3. The governors [Statthalter] are subject to the authority of the Reich Minister of the Interior.
4. The government of the Reich may modify the constitutional rights of the regional states.
5. The Minister of the Interior will issue the legal and administrative decrees necessary for the implementation of this law.
6. This law will become effective on the day of its official publication.
Berlin, January 30, 1934 Von Hindenburg, Hitler, Frick
Bismarck, the “Iron Chancellor,” could never have dreamed of political reunification on such an authoritarian and hierarchical basis. But Hitler had tried, and succeeded.
Germany had now attained a level of concentrated power and authority more profound than any ever achieved in her history. And it had all been accomplished, moreover, by democratic means.
After 1945 the explanation that was routinely offered for all this was that the Germans had lost their heads. Whatever the case, it is a historical fact that they acted of their own free will. Far from being resigned, they were enthusiastic. “For the first time since the last days of the monarchy,” historian Joachim Fest has conceded, “the majority of the Germans now had the feeling that they could identify with the state.”
But what of the political parties?
Although Hitler had succeeded in transforming the tens of millions of Bavarians, Saxons, Prussians and residents of Hamburg into citizens of one and the same Reich, under a single national administration, and even though the anthill of petty and more or less separatist states had been leveled, there still remained in Germany the contentious and divisive political parties. They had been discredited, to be sure, but the hearty ambitions of impenitent politicians could reawaken to erode the foundations of the new state.
The party leaders were scarcely in a position to protest. On the preceding 23rd of March they themselves had overwhelmingly approved the fateful “Enabling Act.” Now, with their wings clipped and their prerogatives taken away, they no longer served any useful purpose. They were not merely superfluous, they had become an encumbrance.
How would Hitler get rid of them?
III. Liquidation of the Parties
On the day in March when the deputies of the Weimar Republic voted to relinquish their power, Hitler, standing before them in their own parliamentary bailiwick, utterly poised in his brown shirt, did not spare them. “It is for you, gentlemen of the Reichstag,” he declared, “to decide between war and peace.”
But how, one might ask, could they take up the fight now, when they had in fact already given up the fight years earlier?
At this point, Hitler was no longer even willing to let the last recalcitrant Reichstag deputies, the Social Democrats — by now reduced to representing a mere 17.55 percent of the nation’s voters — assume the martyred pose of a persecuted fringe group.
“You talk about persecution!” he thundered in an impromptu response to an address by the Social Democratic speaker. “I think that there are only a few of us [in our party] here who did not have to suffer persecutions in prison from your side … You seem to have totally forgotten that for years our shirts were ripped off our backs because you did not like the color … We have outgrown your persecutions!”
“In those days,” he scathingly continued, “our newspapers were banned and banned and again banned, our meetings were forbidden, and we were forbidden to speak, I was forbidden to speak, for years on end. And now you say that criticism is salutary!”
The shoe was now on the other foot.
“From now on we National Socialists will make it possible for the German worker to attain what he is able to demand and insist on. We National Socialists will be his intercessors. You, gentlemen, are no longer needed … And don’t confound us with the bourgeois world. You think that your star may rise again. Gentlemen, Germany’s star will rise and yours will sink … In the life of nations, that which is rotten, old and feeble passes and does not return.”
Finally, Hitler dismissed these bankrupt Socialists with the words: “I can only tell you: I do not want your votes! Germany shall be free, but not through you!” (Quoted in: J. Fest, Hitler, New York: 1974, p. 408 f.)
Within just half a year, Hitler would succeed in liquidating all those now passé and essentially irrelevant political parties. Not just the Socialist Party, already rejected by the people themselves, but all the other conniving party politicians as well: the conservatives, a century behind the times, the myopic nationalists, and the boastful Catholic centrists — all of them agents and collaborators in Germany’s road to ruin between 1919 and 1933.
All of these parties had clearly lost their drive. That some voters still supported them in early 1933, even after Hitler had become Chancellor, was largely out of habit. Their impetus was gone. The parties of the Weimar system had botched everything and let the nation go to ruin. Germany’s collapse, her six million unemployed, the widespread hunger, the demoralization of an entire people: all this was their doing. Now that a strong leader with broad national support had taken their place, what could they do? As Joachim Fest would later write, they were “like a spider web with which one hoped to catch eagles.”
Hitler’s millions of followers had rediscovered the primal strength of rough, uncitified man, of a time when men still had backbone. Theirs was a Dionysian power, one that they would conserve for the great challenges to come: it wouldn’t be needed against the political parties. A mere shrug of the shoulders, and those would fall apart.
It was fitting that the first to crumble was the Social Democratic party (SPD). It went out with a whimper.
It had still shown some guts on March 23, when its Reichstag deputies refused to vote Hitler plenary powers. After 1945 the Socialist party would glory in that deed, while at the same time taking care not to add that less than two months later, on May 17, the Social Democratic deputies decided to approve Hitler’s major address to the Reichstag on foreign policy. It was as if they felt themselves swept along by the surge of popular support for Hitler, even within the ranks of their own party. Along with the National Socialist deputies, they voiced their approval for Hitler’s policy.
From his perch as Reichstag president, Goering turned to glance at the turncoats, and commented: “The world has seen that the German people are united where their destiny is at stake.”
Now that the Social Democratic leadership, which for so long had railed against Hitler, decided to back him in the Reichstag, the party’s rank and file could hardly be expected to oppose him. That day marked the end of the Social Democratic party’s credibility. Following the example of their own party leadership, the large SPD electorate would, understandably, now also vote for Hitler.
After this act of capitulation, it was now child’s play for Hitler to liquidate the Social Democratic party. Four weeks later, on June 22, it was officially dissolved. “No one,” Fest has observed, “expected any show of resistance on the part of the SPD.” The party’s initials could more fittingly have been RIP: Resquiescat in pace.
The peace would be total. Apart from a few leftist members of the Reichstag who went into exile and led isolated and unproductive lives abroad, the now former Socialist deputies continued, each month, to pocket the pensions that Hitler had allowed them. They walked about unmolested on the streets of Berlin. A number of them, some with great success, even threw in their lot with the National Socialists.
Gustav Noske, the lumberjack who became defense minister — and the most valiant defender of the embattled republic in the tumultuous months immediately following the collapse of 1918 — acknowledged honestly in 1944, when the Third Reich was already rapidly breaking down, that the great majority of the German people still remained true to Hitler because of the social renewal he had brought to the working class.
After the “Reds,” the “Whites” had their turn. Of the two dozen or so political parties that existed in Germany in 1932–1933, a number of the smaller ones quietly dissolved themselves without anyone even noticing their demise. They had been created for no reason other than to aid the political ambitions of their founders. But now, with no more Reichstag seats in sight, there was no further point in trying to recruit voters.
The parties of the right, formerly important but now abandoned by their voters, were conscious of the futility of expending any further effort or money to subsist artificially. Now lacking any popular support, one after another they, too, voluntarily disbanded. The “German National People’s Party,” abandoned by its bourgeois supporters, was the first to give up the ghost. A few days later, on June 28, the “State Party” did the same. The “Bavarian People’s Party” and the “German People’s Party” took the same step on July 4.
Of all the conservative mossbacks, the most difficult to get rid of was Alfred Hugenberg, the media titan who was still a minister in Hitler’s cabinet. Nazis rather disrespectfully called him “the old porker in the beet patch.” Hugenberg ultimately lost his cabinet post because he overplayed the role of zealous nationalist at a conference in London in June 1933, making a claim, premature to say the least, for the return to Germany of her colonies, and calling for German economic expansion into the Ukraine! Hitler regarded this as totally inopportune, particularly at a time when he was making every effort to reassure his skeptics and critics abroad. After this diplomatic blunder, Hugenberg had no choice but to resign. Thus departed the once powerful capitalist who had vowed, on January 30, to politically muzzle the newly named Chancellor.
His dismissal was a double success for Hitler: by disavowing an international troublemaker, he reassured those outside the Germany who had been alarmed by Hugenberg’s ill-chosen statements; and he rid himself of a political liability whose diplomatic gaffe had cost him whatever standing he had in von Hindenburg’s esteem.
The last political factor to go was the clerico-bourgeois “Center” party. Following its vote on March 23 to give Hitler plenary powers, the Center had forfeited all credibility as an opposition party. Its following dwindled away in indifference. After all, if Center leader Monsignor Kaas decided to side with the Führer in the Reichstag, why shouldn’t the party’s rank and file do likewise?
Meanwhile, diplomatic negotiations with the Vatican on a concordat to regulate relations between the German state and the Catholic church were close to a favorable conclusion. In this effort, perhaps more than any other, Hitler manifested patience, cunning, and tact. He needed political peace with the Church, at least until, with the help of the hierarchy, he could count completely on the support of Germany’s many Catholics.
By voting for Hitler in the Reichstag, Center leader Kaas and his pious clerics had unsuspectingly fallen into a trap. On July 5, 1933, they declared themselves politically neutral and dissolved themselves as a party.
As a contemporary observer noted: “All the things being abolished no longer concerned people very much.” With regard to the rapid demise of the political parties and the other political forces of both the right and left, Joachim Fest aptly commented: “If anything could have demonstrated the sapped vitality of the Weimar Republic, it was the ease with which the institutions that had sustained it let themselves be overwhelmed.” (Quoted in: J. Fest, Hitler, New York: 1974, p. 415.)
To abolish the political parties and swallow up their once vast networks of voters took only a scant half year, and with little damage to life or limb. Hitler had succeeded in winning over or at least neutralizing those who had so recently reviled and jeered him. No one was more astonished at the rapidity with which the political parties had succumbed than Hitler himself. “One would never have thought so miserable a collapse possible,” he remarked in July 1933, after having thrown the last shovelful of dirt on the graves of the Weimar Republic’s once mighty parties.
To be continued
Source: Léon Degrelle, “How Hitler Consolidated Power in Germany and Launched a Social Revolution,” Journal of Historical Review, Volume 12, Number 3 (Fall 1992).
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