January 1933 would see the end of the Schleicher government that lasted under two months, and on January 30th a new era in Germany would begin.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 22 - The Third Reich Part 8 - January 1933. As 1932 was coming to a close Germany was once again looking at entering a new year without a cabinet which could secure a majority in the Reichstag. Hitler had rebuffed any approaches by Schleicher, Papen, and Hindenburg to enter the government either as Chancellor with several restrictions or as Vice Chancellor. This left the government in an interesting and unenviable position. They had previously attempted to dissolve the Reichstag and delay elections indefinitely while a more workable government model was determined, but that had failed when Papen had been unable to prevent the censure vote. After the elections of November 1932 the government was once again faced with the same deadline, the Reichstag was one again scheduled to meet on January 24, 1933 and it was basically inevitable that the Nazi and Communists parties would have a competition to see who could put forward the censure motion faster. In early December Schleicher was able to convince Hindenburg that he would be a better choice for Chancellor than Papen, and he would be successful in this argument, becoming Chancellor on December 3rd. This would set the stage for what would end up being the last Chancellorship before Hitler would take over the position at the end of January 1933. In this episode we will discuss the short duration of Schleicher’s chancellorship, what he hoped to accomplish, and why he would fail at essentially all of it. Then we will discuss the events which occurred near the end of January that would result in Hitler being named Chancellor. In retrospect this would be a critical turning point for Germany, even if at the time it appeared to be just yet another new government in a long string of short lived governments.
Schleicher was not a person who wrote a lot about his thoughts and actions, and so there is kind of a void during his almost two month period as Chancellor. What personal documentation he did keep during this time was confiscated by the Nazis and later destroyed. This means that our overall insight into Schleicher’s thoughts is somewhat limited, but there are some very obvious facts that would be the primary drivers of his actions. First of all, Schleicher would have no real backing in the Reichstag, he was not even the leader of a party or a smaller faction within a party like Papen had been. This meant that his only two options were to find a way to prevent the Reichstag from opening its first session on January 24th or to do the impossible and get Nazi support for his government. Papen and Schleicher had been attempting to bring Hitler into a coalition for months, and Schleicher hoped that he could reach out to other Nazi leaders to put pressure on Hitler to accept. His hope that Hitler would cave to this pressure would continue right to the end, and even just days before the end of January he would still hope that a change would occur. He also hoped to gain some popular support through the introduction of a major public works legislation which would act as a stimulus package for the economy. It has been in the background of these episodes but Germany was still in the depths of the Great Depression as it entered 1933, and Schleicher hoped that by reducing unemployment his ability to maintain his position would be greatly enhanced. These was support from many groups for this legislation, but many were still very hesitant to fully trust and openly support the Chancellor. In the end the attempts to stimulate the economy, and to use those stimulus efforts as an olive branch to the labor unions and the Social Democrats would fail. There was simply no way that that those groups would trust that Schleicher was doing anything beyond trying to buy their support. The greatest problem which would develop for Schleicher over the course of December and January was the rift that opened with Hindenburg. Hindenburg had been a fan of Papen, and had supported much of what he had done or tried to do as Chancellor. Now Schleicher was completely shifting the focus of the government away from helping businesses to instead a public works program. Papen was also able to frequently meet directly with Hindenburg while Schleicher’s ability to do so began to decline rapidly. This was critical because as his outreach to the Nazi party failed time and time again, Schleicher became more and more dependent on the support of the President and the decree which would dissolve the Reichstag on January 24th.
A key part of Schleicher’s Nazi outreach program was simply bypassing Hitler and instead reaching out to other leaders within the party, the most important of which was Gregor Strasser. Strasser was the second most influential person within the Nazi party, and since he had risen to leadership in the party he had been the representative of the left-wing members of the party. This dates all the way back to the mid 1920s, with Strasser trying at that point to decisively shift the party’s policies to the left. Strasser’s vies were not fundamentally different than Hitler’s views for the party, they agreed on many of the most important items of party policy: racism, expansionism, authoritarianism, to just name a few. Strasser and Hitler did have some disagreements in the economic realm, with Strasser’s economic ideas having a clear socialist bent to them, but much like Hitler’s they were vague and utopian enough to make it difficult to determine the exact differences between the two. There were however meaningful differences in how the two men viewed the best path to power. He was concerned that Hitler’s truculence was beginning to threaten the party’s ability to grow and achieve its ultimate goal of taking power. Perhaps the most foundational difference between the two was simply their view on cooperation with other political groups. Hitler had already made it clear that he wanted an all or nothing approach to gaining power, he wanted the Nazi party to be in control of the state, if there were other parties who wanted to come along that was great, but only after they recognized Nazi supremacy. Strasser instead wanted to take a more traditional path, entering the government in coalition, working with other parties, and then hopefully increasing the party’s support from there. These differences would never be resolved. From Schleicher’s viewpoint, Strasser was an attractive avenue to approach the party because he was heavily involved in the organization of the party, and had more direct contact with provincial and local party leaders than almost anybody else in the party. Schleicher would reach out to Strasser and offer him the position of Vice Chancellor and Premier of Prussia, all he had to do was influence the party enough to bring it into support of a Schleicher led cabinet. Papen would later claim that Schleicher made this offer to try and cause a rift to develop in the Nazi party, and to pull Strasser away from Hitler with an official split possibly bringing 60 or more Nazi deputies out of the party. However, it is just as possible that he was hoping to simply use Strasser and his influence within the party to shifts its course. This kind of comes back to the lack of personal writings from Schleicher, we just do not have the insight into exactly what his exact purposes were. In some ways it does not really matter what Schleicher was trying to do, because he would fail at either option. Once news of the offer reached Munich, Hitler, pushed on by Goering and Goebbels who both wanted Strasser out of the picture, was furious. Strasser would be forced to resign from the party, and he would then go on vacation in Italy. The position as head of the party’s political organization would transition to Hitler, leaving him in even greater control of the party.
While Schleicher was experiencing very little success in his plans, those who were plotting to remove him from officer were having no such difficulties. Papen felt slighted by Schleicher’s role in his removal from office, and so he would begin to hatch his own plans which would, he hoped, lead to another stint as Chancellor. As with every other scheme we will discuss today, this one also involved Hitler and the Nazi party. In early January Papen and Hitler would meet at the home of Kurt von Schroder, a banker from the Rhineland who was well connected with the two leaders. At this meeting Papen suggested a right wing coalition government which could then fully remove the left wing parties from power. This goal was not that much different than previous discussions, and neither man really trusted the other, but they both had something that the other needed to accomplish their goals. Papen needed popular support, Hitler needed the President who could completely block any effort by Hitler to come to power. As with all previous discussions the two could not agree on the exact makeup of the future cabinet, the ministry positions, and state governments but they were not necessarily adverse to working together. The goal of both groups had been to hold the meeting in secret, but it would very quickly become apparent that the meeting was not a secret and it would be front page news all over Germany the next day. Papen would explain that the meeting was just part of the continuing efforts to find a way to form a coalition on the right to support the government of Schleicher. Schleicher seems to have believed this, or at lead did not have any other options and found it politically impossible to openly refute Papen’s claims.
While Schleicher was trying to set the course for the government, and Papen was actively undermining it, in the wider political landscape the crucial parties of the German center were very concerned about the future of the republic. There were concerns within these parties that the goal of Schleicher, or even Papen if he found his way back into a Chancellorship, was to undermine the republic. now of course, this was very much a possibility, indefinitely delaying elections would be their primary method of undermining the constitution. Critical to any action by the parties that supported the continuation of the republic, so not the Nazis or the Communists, were of course the Social Democrats. Unfortunately for the future of the Weimar constitution, the Social Democrats were in an impossible political situation. They believed that Schleicher was better to lead the government than any of the other options that were available, however they could not actually support his government, and instead were forced to remain in opposition due to political realities. There was a very real fear that any public support given to Schleicher would see a huge exodus of members to the Communist party. Remember, this was already a problem for the Social Democrats during 1932, left leaning individuals dropping their support for the the Social Democrats due to their more moderate policies. Openly support Chancellor Schleicher would probably have greatly accelerated that process and so, as the weeks went by, there was no real action of any kind from the Social Democrats, the Center Party, or any other more moderate political entity in Germany. They were simply at the mercy of more radical groups.
As I mentioned earlier all of these political moves, maneuverings, and discussions were on a timer. On January 23 Schleicher would meet with Hindenburg and officially inform him that a majority in the Reichstag would not be possible, and so he requested its dissolution and emergency decrees to be put in place. The only success Schleicher would have would be to delay the first Reichstag session by a week until January 31st, this additional week did not allow him to drastically alter the German political landscape, but it would allow him to gain final approval for the job creation program, which would be the only real lasting legacy of the Schleicher government, even if those that came after would receive most of the credit. On the 28th Hindenburg informed Schleicher that he would not authorize the dissolution of the Reichstag, and with no other option Schleicher would tender his resignation on the 28th. He would later say to the French Ambassador “I stayed in power only fifty-seven days and on each and every one of them I was betrayed fifty-seven times. Don’t ever speak to me of ‘German loyalty’.”
In January 1933 there was a growing desperation from some within the Nazi party to see the party take the next step into the national government. The party finances had not really recovered after the campaigns of spring and summer 1932, and the financial position of the party would only continue to deteriorate. For the campaigns of 1932 the Nazi party had brought on many new salaried employees, and they would have to continue to be paid even if the party income continued to stagnate. Relations with the SA also continued to be problematic. The exact feelings of party members during this period is something that will probably never been known, as there were efforts within the party, and especially at the local and regional level to obfuscate concerns and issues brought up by party members to prevent them from becoming public knowledge. There was of course also the problem that the November elections had resulted in the first reduction in Nazi support in almost 5 years. The problems were mounting for the party, but the hope was that all of them would quickly dissipate if they could create a government in which they were in power, and the negotiations with Papen were the only viable path to making that happen. The day after Schleicher resigned, Papen would meet with Hindenburg to gain his acceptance for a government that would be led by Hitler. Papen wanted himself in the position of Vice Chancellor and he planned to offer cabinet positions to leaders of other conservative parties to gain their support. After these discussions Hindenburg would give Papen permission to try and form such a government.
With the permission of the President, Papen began to put his plan into place. He would reach out to the other conservative parties to gain their support, and he did truly believe that they would be an important part of giving the government some form of legitimacy and ensuring that it would remain on the correct path. Papen believed that the traditional conservative leaders that would be in the cabinet and in the government would be able to act as a moderating influence on a Hitler chancellorship, and to guarantee that his more radical ideas would not be put in place. Others were less enthused about the idea, some would warm Papen that he was making a huge mistake. Papen would always maintain his confidence that in such a government he and the other moderate members would always retain the upper hand. To one doubter, who would voice the concern that Papen was putting himself at the mercy of Hitler, he would reply that ‘You are mistaken. We’ve hired him.’ He would also say that ‘Within two weeks, we will have pushed Hitler so far into a corner that he’ll squeak.’ To jump out of our chronological arrangement here, I just want to say that this would be a colossal miscalculation by Papen. it would rapidly become apparent that the Conservative coalition within the government, which Papen put so much faith in, had no real power, and no real ability to moderate Nazi policies. They would instead be slowly marginalized and then removed from the government before, during the summer of 1934, several would be assassinated. Of course, in January 1933 Papen did not know that his plan would come to such utter ruin.
The final agreement between Papen and Hitler was that Nazi members would be given the Chancellorship, the Ministry of the Interior, and the Prussian Ministry of the Interior. The other 8 positions including Foreign Office, Ministry of Finance, and the Defense Ministry, would be filled by Papen and those he appointed with the support of the President. This left the Nazis in a very small minority within the cabinet, but the agreement also included another set of elections after the government was created and then also the possibility of more radical legislation that would resolve the political deadlock permanently. The choice by Hitler and the Nazi leaders to accept fewer positions within the government, but to focus on just the Chancellorship and the Ministry of the Interior, were important choices, because it would rapidly become apparent that having only these positions still gave them a huge amount of power to alter the political situation within Germany. On the afternoon of January 29th both parties had agreed to this arrangement, and when it was presented to Hindenburg it would also gain his support, on the afternoon of January 29th Hitler and other Nazi leaders were informed that Hitler would be named Chancellor on the next day, January 30th.
Hitler’s rise to power would very quickly be put through the party propaganda machine and it would come out the other side as a story of a great triumph of Hitler where it was his persistence and his sheer force of will that brought him to power. I hope over the last episodes that I have made it clear that it was actually something quite different. There were many reasons that the Nazi party came to power in 1933. It would begin with structural problems within the Weimar constitution and the political landscape of Germany. The postwar years were incredibly divisive in Germany, after a defeat on the scale of the First World War this was expected. In the immediate postwar years, the parties that supported the new government were able to gain and retain enough support to make it work. However, as the years went by this support began to evaporate, not just between the parties that supported the government, but instead to those who wanted to see it destroyed. This was one of the key differences between Germany and other Western democracies, in nations like France and Britain or others there were shifts in the political landscape during the interwar years, but there were never large parties which fundamentally questioned the legitimacy of the democratic foundations of the nation. In Germany there were two of these major parties, which by the early 1930s would both be in the top five largest parties in Germany. There was also nothing in the Weimar constitution that allowed for anyway to combat these new threats, especially as they slowly came to the point where combined they controlled a majority of the vote. Instead the government had to resort to using Article 48 and presidential decrees to maintain any government at all, decrees originally designed to allow for a national government to function in times of emergency, but suddenly they became the norm. There were many opportunities in the years before 1932 for the political groups within Germany to choose different courses which might have had different outcomes, but almost all of them would have required greater cooperation among the parties who supported the constitution, and with so many rejecting any coalition with the Social Democrats this became impossible. One of the reasons that this did not happen was due to the problems that the traditional parties on the right had during these years. There was really no way to avoid the fact that there were large overlaps between Nazi and conservative policies during this period, there were even large overlaps between Nazi policy and the German liberal views, and basically anybody to the right of the Social Democrats were all competing for the same voters. Many of these groups also at least in some ways questioned the democratic path that Germany was on. Not all of them contained a revolutionary movement like the Nazis, Papen being a really good example of the other viewpoint, believing that Germany should be led by an authoritarian government, but not one that was put in place by violence. This was a view held by many on the right, they perhaps did not support radical violence change, but they would not shed a tear for the disappearance of the democratic structures of Weimar Germany. This unwillingness to put the preservation of Democracy above all other political considerations, which many had done in the years immediately following the First world War, robbed those who did believe in the continuation of the Weimar system of the numbers that they needed. It is unclear if a change in the party politics would have made a difference though, the failure of one large conservative party to form, a party that was loyal to the constitution and democracy like many democracies would have and continue to have, is a failure within the German system that is perhaps mostly attributable to how recently the republic had been created. At the least it cannot be easily described and the blame cannot be placed on one group or one decision. When faced with the rise of the Nazi Party Conservative leaders and supporters then were willing to put their support behind the party, even if they had to ignore or discount some of the party’s more radical policies. They focused on the destruction of Germany democracy first and also a reduction in power of the Left. The rise of the Nazi party is also, of course, not wholly attributable to the failures of others. Credit must be given to the party, its leaders and its members. They recognized several key facts about the situation in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s, they would downplay some of their more radical views, like their extreme antisemitism and they realized that as a protest party the most important thing they could do was use vague policies that appealed to the emotions of the people, not their logic. The Nazi’s sold the German people on a vision of the future, of a Germany restored to past greatness, of a Germany that would be able to throw off the shackles of the postwar settlements, of a Germany unhindered by democracy and division. And yet, even with all of their successes, when they came to power they were only supported by just over a third of the German people, two thirds of Germany would not vote for the Nazi party before it came to power, and so it required help, which it found in that conservative support. There were many other paths that Germany could have taken during this period, some would have required a drastic shift in the path of the political evolution of Germany, others were specific choices made by individuals, for example Hindenburg could have given Schleicher a dissolution decree and if that was successful it could have delayed elections and maybe the Nazi party support would have continued to decline. One of many great what-ifs from this period of history, but of course none of those other paths would be taken.
January 30th, 1933 would be the day. In the morning Hitler and the other cabinet members would drive over the Chancellery to meet with Hindenburg. After some final concerns by some of the other cabinet members, most importantly the Hugenburg the leader of the National People’s Party, the group would meet with Hindenburg, although only after an hour long delay. Ian Kershaw would describe the scene like this “At last, shortly after noon, the members of the Hitler cabinet trooped into the Reich President’s rooms. Hindenburg gave a brief welcoming address, expressing satisfaction that the nationalist Right had finally come together. Papen then made the formal introductions. Hindenburg nodded his approval as Hitler solemnly swore to carry out his obligations without party interests and for the good of the whole nation. He again approvingly acknowledged the sentiments expressed by the new Reich Chancellor who, unexpectedly, made a short speech emphasizing his efforts to uphold the Constitution, respect the rights of the President, and, after the next election, to return to normal parliamentary rule. Hitler and his ministers awaited a reply from the Reich President. It came, but in only a single sentence: ‘And now, gentlemen, forwards with God.’” With that, Hitler was officially Chancellor of Germany, and Germany would never be the same.