Was Hitler originally democratically elected

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  • Election poster for the German Democratic Party, 1924

In November 1918, most Germans were bitterly aware that Germany had lost the First World War. The Versailles Treaty, which, in addition to extensive territorial cessions, also stipulated a far-reaching curtailment of Germany's military power, shook national self-confidence once again. The "dictated and shameful peace" with the determination of German reparations payments soon turned out to be one of the dominant issues in German domestic politics and a constant source of national disappointment. The war guilt question and the stab-in-the-back legend, which was tirelessly widespread in conservative and right-wing extremist journalism, provided a high level of political explosives. For long-term domestic political stability, they formed just as much of a liability as the changes in cabinets and coalitions, which could hardly be surpassed in frequency in the 1920s. In total, the Weimar Republic experienced 16 imperial governments within 14 years with an average duration of eight months.

Dangers to the Republic 1919-1922

The overwhelming vote for the Weimar coalition of the SPD, the center and the left-wing liberal DDP in the elections for the National Assembly in January 1919 hardly reflected the torn and radicalized domestic political situation in Germany. Rather, from 1919 onwards, completely opposing ideas about the political structure of Germany developed in the party landscape. After the failed revolution of 1918/19, the KPD remained an unpredictable force for the republic. At the beginning of the 1920s, the monarchically-minded DNVP also bitterly fought the parliamentary-democratic system of the Weimar Republic. Radical nationalism and anti-Semitism were models of the extreme right. Their internal rejection of the republic turned into open resistance in March 1920. A group of conspirators around the highest-ranking Reichswehr General Walther von Lüttwitz and the East Prussian General Landscape Director Wolfgang Kapp sought to establish a dictatorial regime with a military coup. However, the coup failed after a few days due to a general strike that was followed almost unanimously. The revolutionary March uprising in the Ruhr area, Saxony and Thuringia, which had begun during the Lüttwitz-Kapp putsch, bloodied units of the Reichswehr - who remained waiting from the right during the putsch - together with free corps.

The Weimar Republic survived its first ordeal almost unscathed, but the imperial government under Gustav Bauer resigned. The new Reich Chancellor was the Social Democrat Hermann Müller in March 1920, but his cabinet was replaced by a coalition of the Center, DDP and DVP under Konstantin Fehrenbach. At the same time, the provisional National Assembly dissolved with this election to the Reichstag. It was replaced by the Reichstag, which over the next few years was confronted above all with the social misery in Germany and with Allied demands for reparations. By supposedly fulfilling the required reparations, the government set up in May 1921 under Joseph Wirth tried to provide evidence that the demands were too high and impossible for Germany to meet. For the extreme right, which strictly rejects all reparation claims, the calculation was not discernible. So-called "fulfillment politicians" became death row inmates. The first prominent victim was Matthias Erzberger, murdered on August 26, 1921, who was hated by nationalists like no other politician as the initiator of the peace resolution of 1917, as a signatory of the armistice of 1918 and as the author of the financial reform of 1920. In June 1922, right-wing extremist assassins shot and killed Foreign Minister Walther Rathenau, who, as a representative of left-liberal Judaism, represented the embodiment of the hated "Jewish republic" par excellence. Under the impression of his murder, which upset the Weimar Republic like hardly any other event, the Reichstag passed a "law for the protection of the republic", which was often publicly called for, which was intended to tighten measures against anti-republican acts and organizations.

Occupation of the Ruhr and attempted coups in 1923

The crisis in the German Reich experienced its temporary climax with the occupation of the Ruhr by French and Belgian troops in 1923. The Reich government under the non-party Wilhelm Cuno called on the population to "passive resistance". Officials were prohibited from obeying orders from the intervention powers. A general strike paralyzed the economy and inflation was so ruinous for many areas of society that Gustav Stresemann - from August 13, 1923 Chancellor of the first grand coalition of the SPD, DDP, Zentrum and DVP - ended the "passive resistance" at the end of September 1923 had to explain. The political instability of the republic and the catastrophic economic and social situation in 1923 were an ideal breeding ground for extremist groups of various stripes. From Central Germany, a "German October" planned by the KPD in cooperation with the Soviet leadership threatened the republic, which was violently ended by Reich President Friedrich Ebert with the invasion of Reich defense units in Saxony and Thuringia. In the west of the empire, with the support of the occupying powers, separatist movements formed, which sought to detach the Rhineland from the German empire, but were ultimately also suppressed.

Starting with Bavaria, which tried to maintain itself as a "cell of order" within a republic that was supposedly sinking into "Marxist chaos", Gustav Ritter von Kahr, who was appointed General State Commissioner by the Bavarian government, and the Bavarian military district commander Otto von Lossow, sought a national uprising against the Reich government. On the other hand, they showed no willingness to support the "March on Berlin" planned by Adolf Hitler. On the morning of November 9, 1923, units of the Bavarian State Police put down the Hitler putsch in Munich. The NSDAP, led by Hitler, was banned across the Reich.

Years of relative calm 1924-1929

Domestically, the years from 1924 to 1929 were far less dramatic and without attempts at violent overthrow. The currency reform in November 1923 and the American credits associated with the Dawes Plan ushered in a phase of relative stabilization compared to previous years. Politically, this already made itself felt in the Reichstag election on December 7, 1924. The radical wing parties suffered considerable losses, and the SPD emerged as the winner of the election. In the years between the two Reichstag elections in December 1924 and May 1928, however, the Social Democrats, tired of government activity, preferred the role of the opposition. Therefore, under the Chancellors Wilhelm Marx and Hans Luther, bourgeois cabinets were in office, which were confronted above all with the heated flag dispute and the debate about the expropriation of the princes without compensation.

A novelty occurred in 1925 when the monarchist DNVP entered government for the first time. Coalition partners of the German Nationalists in the so-called "Citizens' Block" government under Luther were the Center, the DVP and the Bavarian People's Party (BVP). The cautious rapprochement of the German Nationals to the republic was supported by the first constitutionally provided presidential election in 1925. From this, Paul von Hindenburg emerged victorious as the candidate of the right-wing parties united in the "Reichsblock". The national forces used the great popularity of the 78-year-old war hero to position a man at the control point of power who, as a supporter of the monarchy, was by no means considered a stabilizing factor of democracy. After the DNVP became part of the government, the republic took another step to the right.

The clear winner of the Reichstag election on May 20, 1928, emerged from the SPD, which no longer refused to participate in the government. The party chairman of the SPD, Hermann Müller, was again Chancellor in a grand coalition. His cabinet, which existed until the end of March 1930, was the longest-lived in the entire Weimar Republic, although it had to fight off a severe endurance test in the summer of 1928 during the dispute over the construction of the armored cruiser. The coalition was also confronted with increasing political radicalization and a shift to the right by the bourgeois parties. The extreme right-wing orientation of the German Nationals ended the rapprochement between the DNVP and the republic that had begun through participation in the coalition. The media tsar and co-founder of the "Pan-German Association", Alfred Hugenberg, who was elected chairman of the DNVP in October 1928, put his party back on a strictly anti-democratic course. In an initial cooperation with the NSDAP, which was newly founded in 1925, Hugenberg initiated the referendum against the Young Plan together with Hitler and Franz Seldte vom Stahlhelm in 1929. Despite the failure of the plebiscite, the beneficiary of the largest propaganda campaign to date in the Weimar Republic was the NSDAP, which enjoyed increasing popularity in the right-wing camp.

Radicalization and Presidential Cabinets 1929-1932

The arguments between opponents and supporters of the Young Plan were not only verbal. Hall and street battles between the National Socialist Sturmabteilung (SA), the communist Red Front Fighters Association (RFB) and the police were part of everyday life in the German Reich from the end of the 1920s. More than 30 people were killed in street fighting in the "Blutmai" in 1929, when the traditional May Day rallies, carried out by the KPD despite the ban, were violently broken up by police units.

The parties, worn down by street riots, constant labor disputes over the eight-hour day and the consequences of the global economic crisis, increasingly tried to evade political responsibility, which was becoming increasingly uncomfortable. In March 1930, the grand coalition - which had long suffered from irreconcilable socio-political contradictions between the worker-friendly SPD and the industry-friendly DVP - collapsed due to the failed reform of the unemployment insurance scheme introduced in 1927. The difficulties of forming a democratic majority after the resignation of the Müller government prompted Hindenburg to set up a right-wing conservative presidential cabinet that was independent from parliament and that had the confidence of the head of state alone. In the interests of industry, large-scale agriculture and the Reichswehr leadership, the SPD should be kept away from further government participation in the future. At the end of March 1930, the financial expert and parliamentary group leader of the center, Heinrich Brüning, was appointed by Hindenburg as the new Chancellor.

Audio: Speech by Heinrich Brüning with a warning about political unity, 1931
© Foundation German Broadcasting Archive

The political weight shifted within the next two years from the parties and parliament to the Reich President and his right-wing conservative advisers. Only with the help of emergency ordinances under Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution - originally intended to protect the republic in the event of public security threats and as a means of accelerated legislation in times of crisis - the minority governments were able to enforce laws that had not previously found a majority in the Reichstag. Domestic politics in the Weimar Republic was now shaped by the dictatorship of the Reich President and the dissolution of the Reichstag. At the same time, the party-political landscape changed permanently due to the global economic crisis. After devastating defeats, the liberal DDP (from 1930 German state party) and the DVP were barely perceptible as serious political forces. On the other hand, the rise of the NSDAP to a mass movement began, and the KPD also gained new voters who were frustrated by the political and social situation. In order to prevent further strengthening of the radical wing parties, the SPD largely tolerated Brüning's austerity and deflationary policies based on the reduction of social spending and the destruction of the parliamentary system.

The Social Democrats stuck to their policy of toleration during the 1932 presidential election, which was due on March 13, 1932 after Hindenburg's seven-year term in office had expired. Strengthened by the Harzburg Front established in October 1931 and the mass influx of the National Socialists, Hitler believed that as the incumbent's challenger, he had good chances of being elected. However, with the support of the SPD, Hindenburg was re-elected for seven years in the second ballot. Only a short time later, however, the SPD ended its policy of tolerance after the Reich Chancellorship had passed from Brüning to Franz von Papen in June 1932. Hindenburg and his "camarilla" associated Papen with the speedy implementation of their authoritarian constitutional plans. They therefore took the "Altona Blood Sunday" as a welcome occasion to remove the Prussian Prime Minister Otto Braun, who had been in office since 1920, from the SPD with the Prussian strike on July 20, 1932. With the termination of the last substantial government participation of the Social Democrats in the Weimar Republic, possible resistance in the "democratic bulwark" of Prussia to the desired dictatorial restoration policy was to be eliminated. In order to secure his government's backing and long-term tolerance, Papen wanted to involve the NSDAP as a "junior partner" in the presidential dictatorship. In return, he fulfilled Hitler's demand for a new Reichstag election by dissolving parliament.

Hitler's way to power

Hitler's calculation worked out with the Reichstag election of July 31, 1932: with 37.4 percent, the NSDAP received the most votes. Strengthened by this electoral success, Hitler now rejected the policy of toleration that had been promised to Papen and the government participation that had been offered to him. As the overwhelming winner of the election, he uncompromisingly demanded all the political power that Hindenburg still denied him in the summer of 1932. The Papen cabinet had no political backing, and on the day the parliament opened, the majority of MPs expressed their distrust. An expected verdict for Papen, with Hindenburg's order he dissolved the newly elected Reichstag. In the resulting Reichstag election of November 6, 1932, the NSDAP was the strongest parliamentary force with 33.1 percent, but now it too was affected by the persistent election fatigue and lost two million votes. Deterred by the brutal street terror of the SA and cooperation between the NSDAP and the KPD in the Berlin BVG strike, it was mainly the middle-class electorate who refused to favor the Nazis.

Nevertheless, Hitler stuck to his "all or nothing strategy" and, with the support of influential bankers and industrialists, demanded chancellorship again in November 1932. On the other hand, Papen had no noteworthy support in the economy, in the Reichstag or in the population. For Hindenburg this was the reason to appoint Reichswehr Minister Kurt von Schleicher as the new Reich Chancellor on December 3, 1932. In his so-called cross-front concept, Schleicher intended to gain a broad base in the population through an alliance of the Reichswehr, professional organizations and the workers across the party system. Above all, however, because the trade unions refused to cooperate with Reichswehr General Schleicher, the concept had already failed at the beginning of January 1933.

At the same time, with Hindenburg's consent, Papen conducted several exploratory negotiations with Hitler in order to return to the government. His plan to take over the office of Reich Chancellor himself had to be postponed by Hitler's claim to leadership. But Papen convinced the Reich President, who had resisted Hitler's appointment as Reich Chancellor until the end, that an NSDAP leader who was "framed" and neutralized by a conservative cabinet majority as a bearer of governmental power posed little danger. The Reichswehr and General Werner von Blomberg were to play a key role in this taming policy. His appointment as the new Reichswehr Minister made Hindenburg a condition of Hitler's chancellorship. The Reich President was not aware of Blomberg's strong sympathy for the NSDAP, so a Reichswehr Minister Blomberg was very welcome to Hitler.

The appointment of Hitler as Chancellor and the swearing-in of his cabinet on January 30, 1933 took place in a hectic atmosphere due to a rumor of an imminent military coup. Allegedly, when Hindenburg was arrested, Schleicher and General Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord planned to prevent Hitler from being appointed Reich Chancellor. This dispelled the President's last possible misgivings about Hitler's chancellorship.