No return

Democracy did not end when Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany on 30 January 1933. Its demise began with the legislative election of September 1930 and was hurried along by Hitler’s three predecessors. 

Germany had three chancellors in 1932: academic economist Heinrich Brüning, an aristocratic dilettante, Franz von Papen, and the ambitious scheming soldier, General Kurt von Schleicher.

One person or event cannot be blamed for Hitler’s appointment but Papen, Hitler’s Vice Chancellor, did more than most to pave the way for the disastrous dictatorship.

“Superficial, blundering, untrue, ambitious, vain, crafty and an intriguer,” was how the French ambassador in Berlin, M. François-Poncet described Papen at the time of his appointment as Vice Chancellor. Schleicher said: “He doesn’t need a head. His job is to be a hat”. 


Chancellor Hitler and “The Hat”


The main contributing factors that led to Hitler’s appointment were catastrophic economic and social conditions that created political chaos exacerbated by politicians’ lack of support for the Weimar Republic Constitution.

Adolf Hitler was the leader of a minority extremist party not taken seriously by most Germans until the onset of the Great Depression. The Nazis won just 2.6 percent of the vote at the 20 May 1928 elections. The Wall Street crash began on 24 October 1929 as a ripple and ended in a tsunami – especially in Germany.

At the end of 1929, 1.5 million Germans were unemployed. At the end of 1932 that had quadrupled to six million – 25 percent of the workforce. American banks started calling in the loans that had been propping up the economy since 1924. The US was the biggest buyer of German industrial exports. In 1930 the US imposed tariffs to protect its companies. German industrialists no longer had access to US markets and found credit almost impossible to obtain. Runs on German banks in 1931 resulted in several closures.

The dire economic situation was reflected by social chaos, much of it provoked by Nazi paramilitary storm troopers. The brown-shirted thugs would march into Communist neighbourhoods and insight violence that often escalated into riots. One-hundred-and-fifty people were killed in political violence in Prussia in 1932. In the Reichstag election campaign in June and July there were 461 riots, 82 people were killed and 400 injured.

The Depression’s effects were exacerbated by Brüning’s policies that the Social Democrats (SPD)  supported to keep the Nazis out of power. Brüning cut government spending, including civil servants’ wages, increased taxes and cut the government deficit which was 38 per cent lower in 1932 than in 1928. He cut prices and real incomes fell. The impact of all this was unprecedented unemployment that earned Brüning the nickname of ‘Hunger Chancellor’. He has been blamed for Hitler’s eventual appointment as Chancellor. But that doesn’t take into account other mitigating circumstances, including Papen’s role.


Brüning (above) called unscheduled elections for 17 September 1930 in which many thousands of hungry, unemployed and disenchanted voters supported the Nazis. The party increased its 1928 vote of 2.6 percent to 18.3 percent; a gain of 95 seats. The result was the beginning of the end of the legislature’s involvement in governing Germany.

The Nazis made the chamber virtually unworkable with continuous points of order and other disruption. The Reichstag sat an average 100 days a year in the 10 years before the election. From October 1930 to March 1931, the average was 50. From March 1931 to July 1932 it sat 24 days and from July to February 1933, three days.

Brüning’s perceived inability to manage the economic and social chaos and land reforms he wanted to introduce led to his isolation and loss of President Hindenburg’s support. Hindenburg was angry Brüning had not persuaded the right-wing parties to support him instead of Hitler in the 1932 presidential election. Hindenburg was the virtual presidential candidate of the left in the March/April elections which was ironic as he was an old right-wing warhorse.

Brüning also wanted to sub-divide the bankrupt estates and provide them to the unemployed. Many of Hindenburg’s inner circle were aristocratic land owners who persuaded the President the proposal was “socialist” and should be resisted. Brüning gave notice of his resignation on 10 May 1932 and left office on 31 May.

He left Germany in 1934 after being tipped off his life may be in danger. He became a visiting professor at Harvard University in 1937. His warnings about Hitler’s plans for war and later Soviet expansion were ignored. He died in 1970 at the age of 84.

Papen and Schleicher wanted an autocratic government that would include Nazis. They ignored Hitler’s oft-repeated dictum he would accept no role in government except Chancellor.



Schleicher (above) had several meetings with Hitler in 1932. They made a “gentleman’s agreement” on 8 May in which Schleicher would force Brüning from theChancellorship. Brüning had banned the Nazi paramilitary storm troopers on 13 April. Schleicher agreed to install a new presidential government that would lift the ban and dissolve the Reichst
ag for elections in the summer of 1932. Hitler promised to support the new government which Schleicher said would destroy democracy. Schleicher kept his side of the deal, Hitler didn’t.  

Papen was Schleicher’s fourth choice as Chancellor, which says much about how the role had lost its allure. Papen  was sworn in on 1 June. Schleicher selected Papen’s cabinet of politically inexperienced chief executives and aristocrats dubbed the Barons or the Monocle Cabinet. Derogatory names did not deter Papen from making dramatic and damaging decisions. One was the sacking of the Prussian government.

Prussia was Germany’s biggest state. Its population was bigger than France’s and its geographical area was half of Germany. The sacking would be tantamount to the US federal government sacking the government of California. The dismissal was precipitated by a riot on 17 July, 14 days before the Reichstag election. Nazi storm troopers marched into the Communist district of Altona in Hamburg. Eighteen people were killed and more than 100 were injured.

Papen justified the dismissal on the SPD government’s failure to maintain law and order. Papen’s decision was a “mortal blow” to parliamentary democracy, writes Richard J Evans in his insightful and readable book, The Coming of the Third Reich. How the Nazis Destroyed Democracy and Seized Power in Germany. “It destroyed the federal principle and opened the way to the wholesale centralisation of the state. Whatever happened now, it was unlikely to be the full restoration of parliamentary democracy. After 20 July 1932, the only realistic alternatives were a Nazi dictatorship or a conservative, authoritarian regime backed by the army.”

The winds of political fortune started to blow against Papen. Like his predecessors, he ruled via Article 48 which gave the President power to make laws without reference to the Reichstag. But the legislature could revoke any Article 48 law by a majority vote within 60 days of it being signed into law. The Reichstag could also pass a vote of no-confidence in the government.

The SPD was the second biggest party in the Reichstag behind the Nazis. Papen’s role in bringing down Brüning and sacking the Prussian SPD government enraged the SPD. The Reichstag passed a vote of no-confidence in the government on 12 September 1932 with 512 for, 42 against and five abstentions. Papen never recovered. Another blow to his leadership was the withdrawal of Schleicher’s support caused by Papen not acting as the puppet Schleicher expected. Papen had alientated every possible ally and so he had to resign when Schleicher persuaded the army to withdraw its support.

Schleicher became chancellor on 3 December. His tenure ended on its 58th day. His life ended on 30 June 1934 when he was murdered by the Nazi SS .

The Weimar Republic’s success was fatally undermined by the right-wing parties’ lack of support for it and the constitution’s lack of checks and balances for which the United States’ Constitution is famous. The Weimar president could dismiss the chancellor, even if the chancellor had the Reichstag’s confidence. Worse, the president could appoint a chancellor who didn’t have the Reichstag’s support. Article 48 allowed the president to suspend civil liberties and rule by decree, which contradicted other clauses. Hitler used Article 48 extensively. Germany’s democracy was built on unstable foundations that Hitler destroyed with the help of the other political parties.

Two months after Hitler’s appointment, freedom of the press and individual freedoms were restricted by the Reichstag decree of 28 February 1933 and the Chancellor’s legislative power without requiring the Reichstag’s approval was extended by the Law to Remedy the Distress of the People (Enabling Act) of 23 March 1933. The first steps of the path to absolute power were being built. The Night of the Long Knives purge from 29 to 30 June 1934 in ended the path. Vice Chancellor Papen became German Ambassador to Austria. Two of his staff were murdered during the purge.


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