Another round of political chaos results in another national election, with disappointing results for the Nazi party.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 21, the Third Reich Part 7 - “We Will win ourselves to death”. When Franz von Papen was approached with an offer to become Chancellor, there was general shock around Germany as people tried to determine what the new path of the government would be. Hindenburg asked him to create a new government which was above parties, whatever that really meant. General Schleicher had made many of the arrangements for what the new cabinet would be composed of and he would act as the man behind the curtain in the early days of the Papen government. He had been instrumental in its creation and he had also saddled it with some required actions once it was in place. the most important of these, at least when considering the future of Germany was an agreement made between Schleicher and the Nazi party which traded Nazi support for the government for the promise of elections in the summer of 1932 and a removal of the ban on the SA which had been instituted by Bruning before his dismissal. Papen would honor these agreements and on June 4th he would dissolve the Reichstag, triggering new elections that were scheduled to take place on July 31. On June 15th the ban on the SA was then rescinded. These actions were all part of the strategy of trying to tie the Nazi party closer to the government, and hopefully to eventually bring them into the government an action that both Papen and Schleicher firmly believed would prompt changes within the Nazi movement. It would also remove their oppositional advantage, and remove their ability to criticize the government from the sidelines. They also hoped that it would moderate the entire Nazi movement. During this episode we will discuss Papen’s government and the events that would occur around it, and its eventual downfall.
There would be many problems which faced Papen during his time as Chancellor. One of these problems was the constant violence that after years of greater and greater intensity displayed no signs of dissipating but instead continuing to reach new heights. During the summer of 1932, in the lead up to the election at the end of July all over Germany there were constant street clashes between the various paramilitary groups. In Prussia alone during the first three weeks of June there would be over 450 distinct instances of multiple groups meeting in the streets and coming to blows. Calls for the government to find some way of restoring order continued to grow louder and louder, and it came from almost all corners, except from the Nazis and Communists whose supporters in the streets were some of the primary drivers of that violence. Eventually, Papen would be forced to ban all political rallies and public demonstrations for the last two weeks of July, out of simple fear that it would continue to escalate. This seems like a reasonable response, but really only served to prevent the more moderate parties from holding party rallies, there was a much smaller effect on the violence from those groups that were already predisposed to not follow government instructions. Papen would also decide to depose the government of Prussia. During the summer of 1932 Prussia was led by a cabinet of Social Democrats which would not have a majority support within the Prussian Landtag due to the massive increase in support for the Nazi Party in the 1932 elections. However, in Prussia before a cabinet could be removed there had to be a new government that did have majority support, a majority which was never going to happen due to the highly charged political atmosphere. With mounting frustration about the actions of the Social Democrats which were only in control by default, and the continuing violence in Prussia, Papen decided to remove the cabinet. To accomplish this goal he would be greatly aided by Schleicher who was able to produce, some very dubious evidence that the Prussian government was working closely with the Communists in the hopes of overthrowing the government. This gave Papen the pretense that he needed to remove the Prussian leaders, when they then refused, he would remove them from office by force. Eventually martial law would be declared in Berlin in hopes of maintaining control. Along with these decisions Papen was also dealing with an erosion of support for his position as Chancellor. Papen had been selected for the position in the hopes that he would be able to bring the support for the Center Party. However, during the summer of 1932 Papen’s support from the Center would begin to decay rapidly. For much of the Center party the construction of the new cabinet, including the role that Schleicher and others played in its creation, was nothing short of a betrayal of the Weimar legacy of both social reform and democratic policies. Papen was already precariously placed in terms of political allies, but then as the Center party deserted him he was forced to try and find new friends to continue his government.
When the results were tallied for the election it was clear that it was another huge victory for the Nazi party, and to a much lesser extent the Communists. The Nazi party would increase its support by a staggering 19 percentage points, bringing its total up to 37% of the vote. The Communist party would increase by just over 1%, which brought them up to 14 percent of the total. The Social Democrats and National People’s Party would see small reductions, and the Center party would see a small uptick. With these, mostly quite large, parties shifting downwards only by a few percentage points each, where did the support for the Nazi party come from? During the 1930 election there had been several parties that had received between 1 and 5% of the vote, these were smaller parties, generally on the right wing of German politics, and also generally representing very specific groups of people. Examples of this type of party would be the German People’s Party, the German Farmer’s Party, and the Reich Party of the German Middle Class, among some others. To put it bluntly, for these smaller parties, 1932 was a political massacre. They would enter the election controlling over 150 Reichstag seats between them, and depending on who you include in that group they would exit the 1932 election with just half of that number. This drastic reduction in the smaller parties in the Reichstag was due in now small part to the shift in their supporters to the Nazi party, just the latest in a series of shifts as the more moderate parties on the right saw their supporters shift their support to the far more revolutionary message of the Nazi party.
With their latest in a long line of successes at the voting box, Hitler and the Nazi leadership entered into negotiations with Schleicher for an entry of the Nazi party into the government. Hitler set the price for this entry very high, Hitler would have to be made Chancellor, he would get to install his choices as the Premiership of Prussia, the German and Prussian Ministers of the Interior, the Ministers of Justice, Economy, and Aviation, Goebbels would be able to create a new Propaganda Ministry, and Schleicher would be offered the role of Minister of Defense. Obviously, giving all of those positions over to Hitler and those that he chose for them was a high price to pay, and it would have given the Nazi party essentially absolute control over the German government. At this point Schleicher was not willing to give away so much control and so once again it appeared that the Nazis would not enter into the cabinet. While Hitler was making demands, demands that would never really change, there was once again growing concerns about the morale of the SA. There was a growing disillusionment among the members of the party that wanted action. For the previous 2 years they had been in an almost constant state of campaigning, with a seemingly endless set of marches, demonstrations, and agitations all over Germany. During that time the party had experienced a great series of electoral successes. After the July elections the Nazi party was by far the largest political party in the nation, garnering more support at the ballot box than the next two parties combined, and yet they still were not in control of…really anything. Not only were they not in control of the national government, they were not even a member of it. These feelings caused some members of the party to begin to once again question their future support and others began to contemplate more radical independent action. In August the SA was ready and waiting for their orders to march on Berlin, to replicate Mussolini’s March on Rome and to take over the national government by force, all they needed was the order to be given, but it was an order that would never come.
The problems within the party were only heightened after a meeting between Hitler and Hindenburg on August 13. In the official communique that was released by the office of the President it would state that the President “regretted that Herr Hitler did not see himself in a position to support a national government appointed with the confidence of the Reich President, as he had agreed to do before the Reichstag elections.” It also publicized Hitler’s demands for a very large role in any new government, along with many of the Ministries, stating that Hitler demanded “complete control of the State.” With these demands, and perhaps a slightly biased viewpoint of them, being public knowledge, it turned the demand for the Chancellorship from a simple desire by Hitler into almost a question of honor. After his demand had been made public, to settle for anything less would have made it appear that he had backed down. Meanwhile, he firmly rejected any calls from the SA for a more violent approach to power, determined to remain in the legal realm which had served the party so well over the previous years. While the rejection of Hitler’s demands were causing some issues within the Nazi party and the SA, for the government there were far greater problems at hand. With all approaches to Hitler having been rebuffed, or put at such a price that they were not acceptable to Schleicher and Papen, the two had to find some path forward. The only other option was to continue forward with the system already in place, a cabinet that was stuck with minority support but which could continue to rule based on Presidential decree. However, it was clear that this was not a long term possibility given the resistance of many groups within the Reichstag, like the Nazis and Communists, and so a new plan was created. Ian Kershaw would explain this new plan in Hitler a Biography like this “first advanced by Interior Minister Freiherr Wilhelm von Gayl earlier in August, for dissolving the Reichstag and postponing new elections in order to provide time to undertake a far-reaching reduction in the powers of the Reichstag through restricted franchise and a two-chamber system with a non-elected first chamber. The intention was to end ‘party rule’ once and for all. Necessary for such a drastic step were the support of the Reich President and the backing of the army to combat the expected opposition from the Left and possibly also from National Socialists. This solution for a dissolution of the Reichstag and postponement – in breach of the Constitution – of elections beyond the sixty-day limit prescribed, was put to Hindenburg by Papen at a meeting in Neudeck on 30 August.” So in summary, their plan to fix the government was to blow it all up and hopefully restructure the Weimar Constitution. The public reason that would be released for this action would be to claim that the national state of emergency existed, and it would be the only way to reduce the amount of political violence occurring in the streets. While the entire plan seems a bit extreme, there were lawyers prepared and arguments made ready to convince at least enough of the public that it was not just legal and possible, but that it was the only viable path forward.
There were many problems with this plan, most of which are not worth discussing because it would not get past the first one, which was the dissolution decree, whereby the Reichstag would be dissolved by Presidential order which had to be read and accepted by the Reichstag. When the Reichstag reconvened on August 30th the Nazis and the Center party joined together and elected Goering to be the President of the Reichstag. This gave him a good amount of power over the running of the chamber, within the confines of its parliamentary structure. On September 12th the Reichstag would hold its first real working session, and Papen would be present, however he did not bring the dissolution decree with him to the opening of the session, for reasons that are not entirely clear. Almost immediately the leader of the Communist Reichstag delegation introduced an amendment to the order of the day which was a censure of the government, a vote for censure was the reverse equivalent of the dissolution decree, it dissolved the government by order of the Reichstag, and then allowed the Reichstag to set the dates for the next election. When this amendment was introduced, there were no objections. Before voting could commence the Nazi delegation asked for a 30 minute adjournment. During this 30 minute period two important things happened. The first was that Papen, who had been “caught unawares” as he would later say, sent a messenger who his office to get the dissolution order. The second was that the Nazi Reichstag members decided to join with the Communists on the vote of censure. Joining with the Communists in this way was not a simple prospect, the two parties were the greatest political enemies in Germany, and joining together might cause publicity problems but especially for the Nazis who were joining in on a Communist proposed motion. In this case there seemed to be no alternative. When the session restarted, Papen request the floor so that he could present the dissolution decree, which would end the session immediately. But, for some reason, Goering did not see him, funny how that happens sometimes. Instead Goering began the vote on the motion to censure. Papen then became quite frustrated and literally walked up to Goering and put the dissolution order on his desk, and Goering continued to ignore it and let the vote proceed. An important bit of info here is that the decree was in a red container, the traditional container for such a decree, so everybody knew what it was. As expected the censure motion passed with a staggering 513 in support and just 32 against. It was only after the vote had been counted that Goering read out the dissolution decree which had been signed by President Hindenburg and former Chancellor Papen. Given the fact that the Chancellor who had signed the decree was no longer Chancellor due to the censure vote, Goering declared that the decree was no longer valid. The Reichstag then dissolved itself, setting the date for new elections as November 6th. The plan by Schleicher and Papen to delay a new set of elections was just as dead on arrival as the dissolution decree.
While the political parties prepared for the next elections, it also took some effort to prepare the German people. The elections which would take place in November would be the fifth national elections to take place in Germany in 1932, which is a lot. Parties had been almost nonstop campaigning for almost a year, and there were concerns that the German voter was simply growing tired of a constant election cycle. Even among the Nazi party, there were serious signs of lagging enthusiasm both within the party and from voters. As always Hitler went on a nonstop speaking tour of Germany, but unlike in previous elections the attendance at this events was far less than full capacity. The party propaganda groups hid the reality as much as they possibly could, and there were efforts to bring supporters in from other areas if it was felt that local rallies would not fill the seats, but there was no hiding the fact that attendance was flagging from party members. When the election occurred the total number of votes is a clear indicator that the German people were lacking either in enthusiasm or belief that their votes even mattered before 1.4 million less people would turn out to vote, even though total registered voters was up by 150,000. The results for the Nazi party would, for the first time, indicate that not just was their political rally attendance in decline, but also their support from voters. They would lose a total of 2 million votes, and 34 seats in the Reichstag. Once again the Social Democrats would also lose seats, 12 this time, although the Communists would once again increase their number, this time by 11. This shift in support on the left meant that what had started as a two to one advantage for the Social Democrats in 1930 at 143-77 seats was now down to just 121-100, a clear sign that the revolutionary left was close to overtaking the more moderate Social Democrats. The big winners in the election, would be the more traditional conservative parties, the National People’s Party and the People’s Party who would both see their seat allocation increase, a sign of a recovery of these parties after the complete disasters they had experienced in 1930 and early 1932. The Nazi party was still the largest in the Reichstag, with 33% which was 14% more than the Social Democrats, but there were concerns for the first time that maybe the party had reached its peak. This was coupled with the fact that after almost a year of constant campaigning the Nazi Party was simply out of money. While it was generally expected that the national organization, with its ability to interface with and utilize large donors, would help support local and regional groups, by the late summer of 1932 the flow of funds had instead reversed and money was flowing out of the local and regional party groups and to the national headquarters in Munich. This made it ever more challenging for local groups to perform the actions that were expected of them during the campaigns like host rallies and print leaflets, which they had done in huge numbers in previous campaigns.
The decline in support for the party prompted an immediate internal investigation led by Goebbels. This investigation revolved around discussions of the situation within the various regions and cities in Germany, and then using those conversations with local party leaders to try and get some idea of why the November election had seen the Nazis lose so much support. One of the problems was the large middle class support that the Nazis had built up before the election. The party determined that many of these supporters had moved to support other parties due to two main reasons: Hitler’s unwillingness to enter into the government in August and the continued and aggressive efforts of the party to gain more support among workers. To quote the internal report: “the decline in our votes can in many ways be attributed to the fact that Hitler did not enter the government. Many quite simply have no understanding of our explanation.” As middle class support for the party waned, there had been no other group in which support for the party had grown enough to compensate. Along with this erosion of support in the middle class, the SA and the radical members of the party were also on the verge of what seemed like mutiny. During late 1932 there would be several cases where the local SA leaders simply refused to cooperate with or take orders from local Nazi officials. At the same time many of those local party officials were losing faith in the ability of the SA and even questioning whether or not they were still an overall positive force for the party. Some were beginning to question whether or not the seemingly random violence and disorder caused by the SA was actually helping or was in fact detrimental to the party’s aim by pushing some segments of the German population away from the party. A few district reports would claim that this was just as much of a problem for the party as election fatigue or the flight of the middle class, of course in these reports it is impossible to ignore that in some cases this was just the local officials trying to find a scapegoat for the failure of the efforts of the party in their districts, but that does not mean that their concerns were completely invalid. When all of this information was collated at the national level there were several conclusions. Maybe the most important was that there was a growing concern among the party leaders that they were losing the protest vote which had been so important to the party in previous years. The Nazi Party and the National Socialist movement as a political force had always been a protest part. They were protesting against the government, against those that the government worked with, and the decisions that had been made over the previous decade. By November 1932 the Nazis had participated, and done very well, in several national elections using this message. However, there was a problem that this caused for the party, you can only campaign on a platform of political protest so many times before you have to start finding a way to either make meaningful changes or adequately explain to the people supporting you why those changes cannot be made. This was especially true for the Nazi leaders who after the first 1932 election were the largest political party in Germany, and yet somehow with so much support they had not been involved in any actual government. It was imperative that something change, and quickly, or more of the party’s supporters might lose faith, or at Goebbels would say in his diary months before in April: “we have to come to power in the near future or we will win ourselves to death in these elections.”
With Hitler once again refusing to enter into a government, on November 17th the Papen cabinet resigned and there were new discussions involving Hindenburg, Papen, and Schleicher about how to form a new government moving forward. Hitler would meet with Hindenburg once again, he was offered the position of Chancellor, but only if he could create a workable majority in the Reichstag which was basically impossible. He could also enter a coalition and form a minority government, but in that scenario he was offered the position of Vice Chancellor. It was very likely that in such an arrangement Papen would retain his position as Chancellor. Hitler would refuse the second option, again going with the all or nothing Chancellor strategy. He would also reject the first option, because even if he could find a majority, which would be difficult, Hindenburg put many conditions on his acceptable of Hitler as Chancellor, including the ability of the President to name the Foreign and Defense ministers, and that Hitler could not put any limit on Presidential decrees. With Hitler’s refusal of these options the German government was in much the same position that it had been in during late May, trying to form a new government that would rule by Presidential decree with very little real support in the Reichstag.