Hitler’s Rise to Power
At the time of Hitler’s release, the political situation in Germany had calmed and the economy had improved, which hampered Hitler’s opportunities for agitation. Though the “Hitler Putsch” had given Hitler some national prominence, his party’s mainstay was still Munich.
The NSDAP and its organs were banned in Bavaria after the collapse of the putsch. Hitler convinced Heinrich Held, Prime Minister of Bavaria, to lift the ban, based on representations that the party would now only seek political power through legal means. Even though the ban on the NSDAP was removed effective 16 February 1925, Hitler incurred a new ban on public speaking as a result of an inflammatory speech. Since Hitler was banned from public speeches, he appointed Gregor Strasser, who in 1924 had been elected to the Reichstag, as Reichsorganisationsleiter, authorizing him to organize the party in northern Germany. Strasser, joined by his younger brother Otto and Joseph Goebbels, steered an increasingly independent course, emphasizing the socialist element in the party’s program. The Arbeitsgemeinschaft der Gauleiter Nord-West became an internal opposition, threatening Hitler’s authority, but this faction was defeated at the Bamberg Conference in 1926, during which Goebbels joined Hitler.
After this encounter, Hitler centralized the party even more and asserted the Führerprinzip as the basic principle of party organization. Leaders were not elected by their group but were rather appointed by their superior and were answerable to them while demanding unquestioning obedience from their inferiors. Consistent with Hitler’s disdain for democracy, all power and authority devolved from the top down.
A key element of Hitler’s appeal was his ability to evoke a sense of offended national pride caused by the Treaty of Versailles imposed on the defeated German Empire by the Western Allies. Germany had lost economically important territory in Europe along with its colonies and in admitting to sole responsibility for the war had agreed to pay a huge reparations bill totaling 132 billion marks. Most Germans bitterly resented these terms, but early Nazi attempts to gain support by blaming these humiliations on “international Jewry” were not particularly successful with the electorate. The party learned quickly, and soon a more subtle propaganda emerged, combining anti-Semitism with an attack on the failures of the “Weimar system” and the parties supporting it.
Having failed in overthrowing the Republic by a coup, Hitler pursued a “strategy of legality“: This meant formally adhering to the rules of the Weimar Republic until he had legally gained power. He would then use the institutions of the Weimar Republic to destroy it and establish himself as dictator. Some party members, especially in the paramilitary SA, opposed this strategy; Röhm and others ridiculed Hitler as “Adolphe Legalité.“
The political turning point for Hitler came when the Great Depression hit Germany in 1930. The Weimar Republic had never been firmly rooted and was openly opposed by right-wing conservatives (including monarchists), communists and the Nazis. As the parties loyal to the democratic, parliamentary republic found themselves unable to agree on counter-measures, their grand coalition broke up and was replaced by a minority cabinet. The new Chancellor, Heinrich Brüning of the Roman Catholic Centre Party, lacking a majority in parliament, had to implement his measures through the president’s emergency decrees. Tolerated by the majority of parties, this rule by decree would become the norm over a series of unworkable parliaments and paved the way for authoritarian forms of government.
The Reichstag’s initial opposition to Brüning’s measures led to premature elections in September 1930. The republican parties lost their majority and their ability to resume the grand coalition, while the Nazis suddenly rose from relative obscurity to win 18.3% of the vote along with 107 seats. In the process, they jumped from the ninth-smallest party in the chamber to the second largest.
In September–October 1930, Hitler appeared as a major defense witness at the trial in Leipzig of two junior Reichswehr officers charged with membership of the Nazi Party, which at that time was forbidden to Reichswehr personnel. The two officers, Leutnants Richard Scheringer and Hans Ludin, admitted quite openly to Nazi Party membership, and used as their defense that the Nazi Party membership should not be forbidden to those serving in the Reichswehr. When the Prosecution argued that the Nazi Party was a dangerous revolutionary force, one of the defense lawyers, Hans Frank had Hitler brought to the stand to prove that the Nazi Party was a law-abiding party. During his testimony, Hitler insisted that his party was determined to come to power legally, that the phrase “National Revolution” was only to be interpreted “politically“, and that his Party was a friend, not an enemy of the Reichswehr. Hitler’s testimony of 25 September 1930 won him many admirers within the ranks of the officer corps.
Brüning’s measures of budget consolidation and financial austerity brought little economic improvement and were extremely unpopular. Under these circumstances, Hitler appealed to the bulk of German farmers, war veterans and the middle class, who had been hard-hit by both the inflation of the 1920s and the unemployment of the Depression.
In 1932, Hitler intended to run against the aging President Paul von Hindenburg in the scheduled presidential elections. His 27 January 1932 speech to the Industry Club in Düsseldorf won him, for the first time, support from a broad swath of Germany’s most powerful industrialists. Though Hitler had left Austria in 1913 and had renounced his Austrian citizenship in 1925, he still had not acquired German citizenship and hence could not run for public office. On 25 February, however, the interior minister of the Brunswick, a Nazi (the Nazis were part of a right-wing coalition governing the state) appointed Hitler as administrator for the state’s delegation to the Reichsrat in Berlin. This appointment made Hitler a citizen of Brunswick. In those days, the states conferred citizenship, so this automatically made Hitler a citizen of Germany as well and thus eligible to run for president.
The new German citizen ran against Hindenburg, who was supported by a broad range of nationalist, monarchist, Catholic, republican and even social democratic parties. Another candidate was a Communist and member of a fringe right-wing party. Hitler’s campaign was called “Hitler über Deutschland.” The name had a double meaning; besides a reference to his dictatorial ambitions, it referred to the fact that he campaigned by aircraft. Hitler came in second on both rounds, attaining more than 35% of the vote during the second one in April. Although he lost to Hindenburg, the election established Hitler as a realistic alternative in German politics.
Meanwhile, Papen tried to get his revenge on Schleicher by working toward the General’s downfall, through forming an intrigue with the camarilla and Alfred Hugenberg, media mogul and chairman of the DNVP. Also involved were Hjalmar Schacht, Fritz Thyssen and other leading German businessmen and international bankers. They financially supported the Nazi Party, which had been brought to the brink of bankruptcy by the cost of heavy campaigning. The businessmen wrote letters to Hindenburg, urging him to appoint Hitler as leader of a government “independent from parliamentary parties” which could turn into a movement that would “enrapture millions of people.”
Finally, the president reluctantly agreed to appoint Hitler Chancellor of a coalition government formed by the NSDAP and DNVP. However, the Nazis were to be contained by a framework of conservative cabinet ministers, most notably by Papen as Vice-Chancellor and by Hugenberg as Minister of the Economy. The only other Nazi besides Hitler to get a portfolio was Wilhelm Frick, who was given the relatively powerless interior ministry (in Germany at the time, most powers wielded by the interior minister in other countries were held by the interior ministers of the states). As a concession to the Nazis, Göring was named minister without portfolio. While Papen intended to use Hitler as a figurehead, the Nazis gained key positions.
On the morning of 30 January 1933, in Hindenburg’s office, Adolf Hitler was sworn in as Chancellor during what some observers later described as a brief and simple ceremony. His first speech as Chancellor took place on 10 February. The Nazis’ seizure of power subsequently became known as the Machtergreifung or Machtübernahme.