A German Presidential election was scheduled for 1932, and it would perfectly illustrate how divided the German political landscape had become.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 20 - The Third Reich Part 6 - The 1932 Presidential Election. Before we get started today, if you would like a recommendation for a podcast that I am not associated with in any way, check out the new Reconquista podcast. Host Sharyn has done an excellent job on the History of the Crusades podcast, and has now moved onto a new story. Listening History of the Crusades back in 2014 is one of the reasons I started podcasting in the first place, so check out Reconquista and crusadespod.com, or through the link in the show notes. After the 1930 election the political landscape in Germany would shift, and for the next several years national politics in Germany would be in turmoil. While this turmoil was happening a deadline would approach. The Weimar constitution set the Presidential Term at 7 years, which of course meant that presidential elections would have to occur every 7 years, with 1932 being the end of one of those periods. The elections would also present another turning point, while the government after 1930 would sort of just stumble along under Bruning, after the elections of 1932 it would begin to shift rapidly. Today we will discuss the elections, their aftermath, and then the end of Bruning’s time as Chancellor. As a reminder of the state of the Reichstag after 1930, there was deadlock. The Communists and National Socialists had been able to gain enough seats during the 1930 election to effectively block any majority from being formed. This meant that no new cabinet could gain the votes that it needed to officially be created. There was also just a general level of purposeful non-functioning within the chamber even when it was in session. Both Nazi and Communists deputies did their best to disrupt proceedings, using both a constant stream of points orders and then just causing chaos by shouting, chanting, insulting, or interrupting speakers by any means available. Reichstag sessions became almost unworkable, even if there were items that could have gained a majority. This gave President Hindenburg a lot of power, and also those men close to him who were his advisors. The President had the ability to sign Presidential decrees, which allowed the office, or those he appointed, the ability to run most of the essential functions of the government. This is one of the reasons why the presidential elections of 1932 were so important, from 1930 to 1932 the office of the president, either in his person or with his consent, was almost the sole possessor of political power in Germany. It was very likely that if Hindenburg ran for President again he would win, there were many war heroes in Germany at this time, but Hindenburg was the war hero, and he was one of the few which had been able to unit the support of all of the parties on the political right in the previous election in 1925. However, he was also very old, he would be 84 in 1932 and was in fact quite reluctant to even run for the office again. Initially he would inform those around him that he would only continue to serve if he could just continue in the office and did not have to go through another election campaign. However, making such a change to the government was impossible without the intervention of the Reichstag, if the Reichstag wanted to it could extend the Presidential term, but with such a dysfunctional Reichstag this was never going to happen. And with the refusal of the Reichstag, Hindenburg would have to participate in the election. Unlike the elections in 1925 the elections in 1932 would see a reshuffle of political allegiances, with the Democratic Socialists actually supporting Hindenburg’s bid for president, a testament to the turbulent times.
In the background of all of the political events of the early 1930s was the constant political violence that was occurring. From 1930 to 1932 the Nazi party would claim that 143 of its members would be killed in clashes with the Socialists and Communists. The Communists would claim 177, and the Reichsbanner, the Social Democratic paramilitary, 50. While these numbers seem low, they hide the fact that while only a few hundred individuals would die, the number of wounded members would be in the thousands. The scale on which these street clashes occurred completely overwhelmed the existing ability of the German police to maintain order. There was also the even present problem of police bias, with the great concern of many policemen not being to maintain order, but instead to ensure that certain groups did not gain the upper hand. For the Communists especially, the police represented the blunt instrument of the capitalists, a system that was just as much a target of Communist anger as the Nazis. This caused antagonism between the Communists and the Police, and the violence that would occur between the two groups was only outdone by that which occurred between the Nazis and the Communists. While all of these actions would not directly alter the outcome of the Presidential election, it is important background to the decisions that were being made both by the individual German citizens as well as groups within the nation, like political parties, workers organizations, and others.
The candidates, and their political backing, were the perfect representation of the shift in German politics in the 7 years since the previous presidential election in 1925. In the first round of voting in that year there had been 7 major candidates all supported by national political parties from across the political spectrum. However, in 1932 the election would only have 4, 3 candidates representing more radical parties, and then Hindenburg left in the center. On the left you had the Communist Ernst Thalmann, who had also ran in 1925, during that election he had received just over 6% of the votes. Thalmann and the Communists would always refuse to join in any coalition with other parties on the left when it came to national elections, and some would claim that it cost the Social Democrat supported Center Party candidate Wilhelm Marx the election in 1925. Der Stahlhelm, which was a paramilitary organization built around war veterans, and a party which supported the monarchist movement in Germany would be represented by Theodor Duesterberg. There was also of course Adolf Hitler representing the National Socialists. When it came time to consider running for president there were risks that had to be weighed for the Nazi Party. Up until 1932 the party had been on an almost meteoric rise, and it was very likely that they would be defeated in the presidential race. The most important consideration was whether the possible negative impacts of a national loss on the party’s image was more or less impactful than the negative perception that was sure to be the result of not even trying to put forward a candidate at all. The decision to run or not was hotly debated among Nazi party leaders, with the decision apparently swaying back and forth several times. For example, Goebbels would write in his diary at the time that Hitler decided to run on February 2nd, but then a week later there were fresh debates about the best path forward with no conclusive decision being made. The fourth candidate was of course Hindenburg. While Hindenburg would be the favorite to win, the parties supporting him were very different than in 1925. He was officially an independent candidate, and did not belong to a party, but in 1925 he had been supported by the parties on the right. However, those parties, or whatever was left of them at this stage, did not provide any real base of support, and instead Hindenburg found support for the Center Party, some of the smaller other moderate parties, and most surprisingly the Social Democrats. The support for Hindenburg by the Social Democrats is perhaps the best example of how concerned many political leaders were about the growing strength of the Nazi party and what they might do should Hitler be made president. The Social Democrat party had strongly opposed Hindenburg as a candidate in 1925, and yet in 1932 they would join with other parties to make sure that he was victorious due simply to the fact that he was seen as the least bad option. Or as William Shirer would say in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich “All the traditional loyalties of classes and parties were upset in the confusion and heat of the electoral battle. To Hindenburg, a Protestant, a Prussian, a conservative and a monarchist, went the support of the Socialists, the trade unions, the Catholics of Bruening’s Center Party and the remnants of the liberal, democratic middle-class parties. To Hitler, a Catholic, an Austrian, a former tramp, a “national socialist,” a leader of the lower middle-class masses, was rallied, in addition to his own followers, the support of the upper-class Protestants of the north, the conservative Junker agrarians and a number of monarchists, including, at the last minute, the former Crown Prince himself.”
After Hitler did in fact decide to run for President, there was just one little, small problem, he couldn’t. In 1925 when Hitler had renounced his Austrian citizenship, however, when he applied for German citizenship in 1929 he had been denied. Technically he was not a citizen of any nations, and to run for President of Germany a person had to, of course, be a citizen of Germany. There was a loophole though, because in German law there was a provision where if a person was appointed to any government post at the national or regional level, they would automatically gain citizenship. This meant that Hitler’s first role in the official government of Germany was not as Chancellor in 1933 but instead an Administrator of the Brunswick delegation to the Reichsrat in Berlin. Not exactly as fancy as his later positions, but it got the job done and provided him with citizenship in Braunschweig, the capital city of Brunswick and therefore also the ability to run for President. With that administrative hurdle taken care of, the Nazis began their campaigning. The campaign used by the Nazi party during the presidential election was similar in many ways to earlier campaigns by the party. There would be heavy criticism of the government, specifically connecting Bruning’s unpopular emergency decrees with Hindenburg’s presidency. It was also heavy on big ideas and grand visions, and generally light on details. Where such details did exist, and they were present on some issues in the form of policy papers, they were also full of contradictions. One really straight forward example of this was the promise to farmers that they would be able to get higher prices for their products while also guaranteeing to lower prices for food in the cities. Hitler would also benefit from some of the same facts that the party had benefitted from in 1930, specifically the very broad policies of the Nazi party allowed for considerable latitude in almost all situations and prevented any direct attacks, and also of course, the Nazi party had not been in any national political leadership roles where they would have been forced to make direct policy decisions, which prevented any attack on Hitler’s record.
After a hectic campaign which saw all of the parties campaigning all over Germany, although Hindenburg participated the lead amount possible, the election would occur on March 13, 1932. When the votes were counted the expected outcome occurred, Hindenburg received the most votes by a pretty wide margin, almost 20 percent more than any other candidate. However, he did not receive enough of the vote to reach a majority, coming just .4% short at 49.6% or just over 18.6 million total votes. Hitler would receive about 11.3 million votes for just over 30%, Thallmann 4.9 million for over 13%, and Duesterberg 2.5 million for 6.8%. This was not a bad showing for any of the three lessor candidates, Hitler’s votes represented almost double of the Nazi party vote from the 1930 elections and Thallmann and Duesterberg did better than their party’s performance in 1930. Within the rules of the Presidential election, as had happened in 1925, with no candidate having received a majority of the votes there was a second round of voting. This second vote would occur on April 10th, and in the intervening weeks violence all over Germany increased as the various paramilitary organizations staged rallies and clashed with the others. On April 10th the weather would be rainy, and this along with growing election fatigue caused there to be a million fewer votes than in a month earlier. The outcome was the expected one once again, with Hindenburg gaining 53% of the vote, a 3 percent increase. However, Hitler’s total went up almost 7%, nearly a 2 million vote increase. It was clear that for many Hitler was the second choice. The elections represented a clear defeat of Hitler and the Nazi Party, but it also clearly asserted that they were the most powerful singular political movement in Germany. Hindenburg had been supported by a wide array of political parties and still had to go to the second vote to win, it was a poor showing for the moderate parties that supported him.
Immediately after the end of the Presidential elections, and before the final vote tallies were counted, political leaders all over Germany shifted focus onto regional elections that occurred on April 24th. These elections would see state and city positions filled all over Germany and were seen as a very important part of the shifting political focus of the country. However, before those elections could occur Bruning wanted to make a change. One of Bruning’s major goals throughout 1932 and early 1932 had been to bring Hitler and the Nazi’s into the government in some form. He desperately wanted them to stop being able to launch assaults on the government without having any actual responsibility, and none of the burden, of actually accomplishing something. He would never achieve this goal, but with the continued rise of support for the Nazi party he decided to try and remove their most volatile and most powerful tool, the SA. On April 13th a decree would be put in place from the office of the Minister of the Interior, General Wilhelm Groener, and the decree effectively outlawed the SA and the SS. The conversations for this decree had been started even before the second presidential vote, with many German states requesting action from the national government to in some way reduce the violence throughout Germany. The decision was made on April 10th, although the announcement was only made a few days later after the results of the election were clear. The reason given for this action was that the Prussian police had raided the Nazi headquarters in Berlin, and they claimed that they had found documents that contained plans for the SA to immediately execute a coup d’etat if Hitler was elected president. This, along with all of the other violence was used as justification for the decree. They also hoped that by removing the paramilitary wing of the Nazi Party, support for the party would begin to dissipate. Hindenburg had just received a majority of German votes, and so theoretically removing the violent group that posed a direct threat to the government seemed reasonable. The response from the party was one of outrage, they would say that it was just another example in a long list of examples of the government trying to suppress their movement which represented millions of Germans. They would also point out that it was a bit odd that other paramilitary groups, the Reichsbanner, the Stahlhem, the Communist Red Front had been mysteriously unaffected by the decree. There were discussions within the SA, even up to its leader Rohm, of launching an armed resistance to the decree, but Hitler and the other political leaders did not want to overplay their hands just as their legitimate path to power strategy was beginning to show serious signs of success. In the regional elections of April 24, 1932 the Nazi party did quite well, gaining almost a third of the vote or more in several key areas like Prussia and Bavaria. Prussia was a very important state, and the only reason that the Social Democratic government that was in Prussia before the election maintained power after it was because in Prussia the law stated that a government could not be dissolved until there was a majority for its replacement. With the vote split in a similar manner to the national Reichstag, the Prussian Landtag had no hope of finding such a majority, a problem that would only be resolved in 1932 when the Prussian state government was dissolved by Presidential decree.
After the elections in April Bruening was in just as precarious of a position as he had been in earlier months. These problems would be accelerated by General Kurt von Schleicher. Schleicher is an important player in our story for the next few episodes, he had been a major behind the scenes influence on German politics during the early 1930s. He was close with Groener and Hindenburg, and exercised no small amount of influence on the President. He also firmly believed that it was critical to bring the Nazi party into the government, but also not to put too many restrictions on their actions because he saw the party as the most powerful tool for the right to use against the Socialists and Communists. When the ban on the SA went into place, Schleicher felt that he had to act quickly, and that action would begin in mid-May. The Reichstag would meet on May 10th, and Groener would be confronted by the Nazi Reichstag deputies on his banning of the SA. The situation became very charged, with verbal abuse thrown at Groener who eventually just got up and started to walk out of the chamber. Schleicher would then inform him that he had lost the confidence of the army and should resign from his position as Minister of Defense. With Groener removed, Schleicher then targeted Bruning. Bruning only served at the pleasure of President Hindenburg, it was the President’s power that kept him in position and so Schleicher had to convince the President to remove him. This was relatively easy, Schleicher would just give the old general a nudge, claiming that it had been Bruning’s fault that the presidential election had occurred at all. This just added fuel to Hindenburg’s pre-existing frustration with Bruning. After the SA ban had been put in place Hindenburg had been frustrated that the same restrictions did not apply to other paramilitary groups on the left, who he saw as the real enemies of Germany. All of these frustrations would result in Bruning being removed from his position as Chancellor on May 30th, 1932. Schleicher had worked out a deal with the Nazi leadership, Bruning would be removed, a new cabinet would be created by Hindenburg, there would be another round of Reichstag elections, and Hitler agreed to support the government until those elections. In exchange the ban of the SA would be lifted. The elections would be set for July 31st, but during the interim a new cabinet would be created under the leadership of one Franz von Papen.
Papen was an aristocratic member of the Center Party, the Zentrum, from Westphalia and he was also Catholic. The Zentrum drew a lot of its support from German Catholics, but they did not all share the same views on the best path forward. Papen would be on the conservative side of the party, and he would attempt to bring the party closer to his views. Papen supported a return to some sort of authoritarian government either a monarchy or some other structure, and he rejected the democratic basis of the Weimar constitution. However, and critically, Papen did not support a revolutionary or putschist method of change, instead believing that any change should take place within the confines of existing legality. During most of the 1920s his attempts to move the party in this direction met with only marginal success. One of the problems was that the traditional Catholic elite which had previously been an important part of the party had fragmented after the war. Some were disappointed in the party’s shift to the left on many issues in the aftermath of the conflict, and instead of sticking with the party on its new course they instead found other political groups to join. Many would move over the National People’s Party, while some would move even further into the radical right. This type of shift in support was familiar to all of the political parties of the German center at this time, and has been the major trend that we have focused on in the last few episodes. Papen would generally stay the course though, at least in terms of his rejection of revolutionary methods. Papen would be a supporter of the Bruning cabinet, and he maintained critical links between the cabinet and the German industrial leaders and aristocracy, both of which Papen was well connected with. However, as support for Bruning’s policies and his position as Chancellor began to decay, Papen started looking for a way out, and perhaps a way up. Part of this was simple self interest, but there was always an ideological rift between Bruning and Papen, and this only widened as Bruning was forced, out of lack of other options, to work more closely with the Social Democrats. After Bruning was dismissed, Papen’s close relationship with Schleicher and the President would allow him to be named Chancellor of Germany on June 1st. Much like Bruning Papen did not have any real path to a majority in the Reichstag, but that was nothing new. To say that Papen’s chancellorship was a surprise would be to undersell the shock experienced by many, Papen was not even particularly well known among the German public. I love this quote from the French ambassador to Germany who would say at this point that “The President’s choice met with incredulity. No one but smiled or tittered or laughed because Papen enjoyed the peculiarity of being taken seriously by neither his friends nor his enemies.” Next episode we will examine in more detail the curious case of Franz von Papen, and discuss his very, lets call it interesting time as Chancellor of Germany.