Biographies & Memoirs


Levered into Power


Hitler took the events of 13 August ‘as a personal defeat’. His anger and humiliation was intensified by the government’s deliberately brusque communiqué – instigated by Schleicher – on the meeting, which had briefly emphasized Hindenburg’s rebuff of Hitler’s demand for total power. Hitler’s pedantically correct, piqued rejoinder could only claim that he had not demanded ‘total’ power. At the time, his anger was chiefly directed at Papen. Sent a few days later to intercede with Hitler, by then staying at Obersalzberg, Joachim von Ribbentrop – the vain and humourless future Reich Foreign Minister, on his upward career path not least through his marriage to the heiress of Germany’s biggest Sekt manufacturers, Henkel, and a recent recruit to the NSDAP – found him ‘full of resentment towards Herr von Papen and the entire cabinet in Berlin’. But if the events of January 1933 were to redeem Papen, Schleicher would emerge as the central target of Nazi aggression for his role in the months between August 1932 and January 1933. His manoeuvrings behind the scenes, particularly his ‘betrayal’ in August which had led to Hitler’s humiliation, were not forgotten. He would pay for them with his life.

As usual, Hitler had the capacity to channel disappointment and depression into outright aggression. Open opposition to the hated Papen government was now proclaimed. The shadow-boxing of the summer was over.

Within days, Hitler had an opportunity to turn attention away from the debacle of his audience with Hindenburg. On 10 August, a group of SA men had murdered an unemployed labourer and Communist sympathizer in the Silesian village of Potempa. The murder was carried out with extraordinary savagery, and in front of the victim’s mother and brother. As so often, personal and political motives intermingled. Horrifically brutal though the killing was, it is an indication of how far public order had collapsed that the event was in itself little more than a routine act of terror in the awful summer of 1932, symptomatic of the climate of violence in near-civil war conditions. No one took particular notice of it at first. Given a list of three dozen acts of political violence recorded in a single day and night around the time, the Potempa incident did not stand out. However, the murder had been committed an hour and a half after the Papen government’s emergency decree to combat terrorism had come into effect. This prescribed the death penalty for premeditated political murder and set up special courts to provide swift justice for cases arising under the decree. The trial took place at Beuthen in a tense atmosphere and amid great publicity between 19 and 22 August, ending with the pronouncement of the death penalty on five of the accused. To inflame feelings in the Nazi camp still further, two Reichsbanner men were given relatively light sentences on the very same day for killing two SA men during disturbances in Ohlau in July. These murders had not been premeditated, and had taken place before Papen’s emergency decree. But such differences naturally did not weigh among Hitler’s supporters. The Potempa murderers were portrayed as martyrs. The local SA leader, Heines, threatened an uprising if the death sentences were to be carried out. His rabble-rousing tirade incited the crowd to break the windows of Jewish-owned shops in Beuthen and attack the offices of the local SPD newspaper. In this heated atmosphere, Goöring praised the condemned men and provided money for their families. Röhm was dispatched to visit them in jail. On 23 August, Hitler himself sent the telegram that caused a sensation. ‘My comrades!’ he wrote, ‘in view of this most monstrous verdict in blood, I feel tied to you in unbounded loyalty. Your freedom is from this moment on a question of our honour. The struggle against a government under which this was possible is our duty!’ The head of Germany’s largest political party was publicly expressing solidarity with convicted murderers. It was a scandal Hitler had to take on board. Not to have sympathized with the Potempa murders would have risked alienating his SA in a particularly sensitive area, Silesia, and at a time when it was vitally important to keep the restless stormtroopers on the leash.

The next day, Hitler put out a proclamation castigating the Papen cabinet, and taking the opportunity to turn the events of 13 August on their head by claiming his own refusal to participate in a government capable of such sentences. ‘Those of you who possess a feel for the struggle for the honour and freedom of the nation will understand why I refused to enter this bourgeois government,’ he declared. ‘With this deed, our attitude towards this national cabinet is prescribed once and for all.’

In the event, Papen, acting in his capacity as Reich Commissar in Prussia, backed down and had the death sentences for the Potempa murderers commuted into life imprisonment – a decision which Papen himself acknowledged was political rather than legal. The murderers were freed under a Nazi amnesty as early as March 1933.

The Potempa affair had cast glaring light, at precisely the juncture where the power-brokers were still examining ways and means of incorporating Hitler in government, on Nazi attitudes towards the law. But such unmistakable indications of what a Hitler government would mean for the rule of law in Germany posed no deterrent to those who still thought the only way out of the crisis was somehow to involve the Nazis in the responsibility of public office.

Hitler’s rejection of anything less than the office of Chancellor had not only created difficulties for the NSDAP. The problems for the government were now acute. Schleicher had now given up the idea of a Hitler Chancellorship as long as Hindenburg remained Reich President. Papen, himself resolutely opposed, took Hindenburg’s continued opposition for granted. Only two possibilities, neither attractive, appeared to remain. The first was a coalition of Zentrum and National Socialists. Feelers were put out from the Zentrum about such a possibility following the events of 13 August. It never stood much chance of emerging as a solution. The Zentrum continued to insist that the NSDAP concede the Chancellorship, but a Hitler Chancellorship had meanwhile become a ‘question of honour’. Hitler was unwilling now, as he was to be following the November elections when the possibility was once more raised, of heading a government dependent upon Reichstag majorities for support. In any case, the thought of a reversion to parliamentary government was anathema to Hindenburg and his advisers.

The second alternative was to persevere with a ‘cabinet of struggle’ without any hope of support in the Reichstag, where the Nazis and Communists together prevailed over a ‘negative majority’. This implied going ahead with plans, 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. Schleicher and Gayl were also present. Hindenburg gave Papen the dissolution order without ado, and also agreed to the unconstitutional postponement of new elections on the grounds of a national state of emergency. Some leading constitutional lawyers – most prominent among them Carl Schmitt, the renowned constitutional theorist who in 1933 would place himself at the service of the Third Reich – were ready with their legal arguments to back the introduction of an authoritarian state through such a device.

Probably, if he wanted to risk such a solution, Papen should have had the new Reichstag dissolved at its very first sitting on 30 August. By 12 September, when the Reichstag met for its second – and last – sitting, the initiative had been lost. The only item on the agenda that day was a government declaration on the financial situation, announcing details of a programme aimed at economic recovery. A debate was expected to last for several days. However, the Communist Deputy Ernst Torgler proposed an alteration to the order of proceedings. He sought first to put a proposal of his party to repeal the emergency decrees of 4 and 5 September (which had made deep incisions in the system of tariff wage-bargaining), and to couple this with a vote of no-confidence in the government. No one expected much of such a proposal. The amendment to the order of proceedings would have fallen had there been a single objection. The Nazis expected the DNVP deputies to object. Astonishingly, not one did so. In the confusion that followed, Frick obtained an adjournment of half an hour to seek Hitler’s decision on how to proceed. Papen, completely taken aback, had to send a messenger to the Reich Chancellery during the adjournment to pick up the dissolution order, signed by Hindenburg on 30 August, which he had not even bothered to bring into the chamber with him.

At a brief meeting with his chief henchmen, Hitler decided that the opportunity to embarrass the government could not be missed: the Nazi deputies should immediately support the Communist vote of no-confidence, thus pre-empting Papen’s dissolution order which no one doubted he would now put forward. When the Reichstag reassembled, Papen appeared with the red dispatch box which traditionally contained the orders of dissolution under his arm. Amid chaotic scenes, the Reichstag President Göring announced straight away that he would proceed with the vote on the Communist proposal. At this, Papen tried to speak. Göring ignored him, looking intentionally away from the Chancellor to the left side of the chamber. Papen’s State Secretary Planck pointed out to Göring that the Chancellor wished to exercise his right to speak. Goöring retorted simply that the vote had begun. After again trying vainly to speak, Papen marched over to the Reichstag President’s platform and slapped the dissolution order down on Göring’s table. Followed by his cabinet, he then walked out of the chamber to howls of derision. Göring blithely pushed the dissolution order to one side, and read out the result of the division. The government was defeated by 512 votes to 42, with five abstentions and one invalid ballot paper. Only the DNVP and DVP had supported the government. All the major parties, including the Zentrum, had supported the Communist proposal. There had never been a parliamentary defeat like it. It was received with wild cheering in the Reichstag.

Göring now read out Papen’s dissolution order, which he declared invalid since the government had already fallen through a vote of no-confidence. This was technically incorrect. Göring was subsequently compelled to concede that the Reichstag had indeed been formally dissolved by the presentation of Papen’s order. The no-confidence motion was, therefore, without legal standing. But this was of purely procedural significance. The government remained, as a consequence, in office. The reality was, however, that it had been rejected by more than four-fifths of the people’s representatives. Papen had been shown in the most humiliating way possible to be a Chancellor almost devoid of public support. Hitler was beside himself with joy. The cynical Nazi tactics had meanwhile given a foretaste of how they would behave in power, given the opportunity.

New elections – the fifth of the year – loomed. Papen still had in his possession Hindenburg’s approval to postpone the election beyond the sixty days allowed by the constitution. But after the fiasco of 12 September, the cabinet decided two days later that now was not the time to proceed with that experiment. The elections were set for 6 November. The Nazi leadership was aware of the difficulties. The bourgeois press was now completely hostile. The NSDAP could make little use of broadcasting. The public were weary of elections. Even leading party speakers found it difficult to sustain top form. Not least, noted Goebbels, previous campaigns had drained all available funds. The party’s coffers were empty.

Electioneering reinvigorated Hitler. And in the fifth long campaign of the year, he set out yet again to do what he did best: make speeches. Once more, his indispensability as the chief propaganda focus of the movement meant he had to embark upon a punishing schedule of speeches and rallies. During his fourth ‘Germany Flight’ between 11 October and 5 November he gave no fewer than fifty speeches, again sometimes three a day, on one occasion four.

His attack now focused squarely on Papen and ‘the Reaction’. The vast support for his own movement was contrasted with the ‘small circle of reactionaries’ keeping the Papen government, lacking all popular backing, in office. The Nazi press inevitably portrayed Hitler’s campaign as a victory march. But grossly inflated figures for attendance at Hitler rallies provided in the party press – in rural areas especially thousands were brought in from outside the area to swell the numbers – hid the plain signs of disillusionment and electoral fatigue. Even Hitler was now unable to fill the halls as he previously had done. For his speech in Nuremberg on 13 October, the Festhalle in Luitpoldhain was only half full. While a Hitler speech might have made a difference to the election result in some places, observers were already predicting in October that his campaign tour would do little to prevent the expected drop in Nazi support. The day before the election, Goebbels, too, was anticipating a defeat.

When the votes were counted, Nazi fears were realized. In the last election before Hitler came to power (and the last fully free election in the Weimar Republic) the NSDAP had lost 2 million voters. In a reduced turn-out – the lowest (at 80.6 per cent) since 1928 – its percentage of the poll had fallen from 37.4 in July to 33.1 per cent, its Reichstag seats reduced from 230 to 196. The SPD and Zentrum had also lost ground slightly. The winners were the Communists, who had increased their vote to 16.9 per cent (now little more than 3 per cent behind the SPD), and the DNVP, which had risen to 8.9 per cent. The DNVP’s gains had been largely in winning back former supporters who had drifted to the NSDAP. The lower turn-out was the other main factor that worked to the disadvantage of Hitler’s party, as earlier Nazi voters stayed at home. Not only had the party failed, as before, to make serious inroads into the big left-wing and Catholic voting blocks; it had this time lost voters – it seems to all other parties, but predominantly to the DNVP. The middle classes were beginning to desert the Nazis.


The November election had changed nothing in the political stalemate – except, perhaps, to make the situation even worse. The parties supporting the government, the DNVP and DVP, had only just over 10 per cent of the population behind them. And with the drop in the vote of both the NSDAP and the Zentrum, a coalition between the two parties, such as had been discussed in August, would in itself not suffice to produce an absolute majority in the Reichstag. The only majority, now as before, was a negative one. Hitler was undeterred by the election setback. He told party leaders in Munich to continue the struggle without any relenting. ‘Papen has to go. There are to be no compromises,’ was how Goebbels recalled the gist of Hitler’s comments.

Now, as before, Hitler had no interest in power at the behest of other parties in a majority government dependent on the Reichstag. By mid-November, Papen’s attempts to find any basis of support for his government had failed. On 17 November, mourned by few, his entire cabinet resigned. It was now left to Hindenburg himself to try to negotiate a path out of the state crisis. Meanwhile, the cabinet would continue to conduct the daily business of governmental administration.

On 19 November, the day that Hindenburg received Hitler as part of his meetings with the heads of the political parties, the Reich President was handed a petition carrying twenty signatures from businessmen demanding the appointment of Hitler as Chancellor. It did not mark proof, as was once thought, of big business support for Hitler, and its machinations to get him into power. The idea was, in fact, that of Wilhelm Keppler, emerging as Hitler’s link with a group of pro-Nazi businessmen, and put into operation in conjunction with Himmler, who served as the liaison to the Brown House. Keppler and Schacht began with a list of around three dozen possible signatories. But they found it an uphill task. Eight of the ‘Keppler Circle’, headed by Schacht and the Cologne banker Kurt von Schröder, signed the petition. The results with industrialists were disappointing. A single prominent industrialist, Fritz Thyssen, signed. But he had for long made no secret of his sympathies for the National Socialists. The acting President of the Reichslandbund (Reich Agrarian League), the Nazi-infiltrated lobby of big landowners, was another signatory. The rest were middle-ranking businessmen and landholders. It was misleadingly claimed that leading industrialists Paul Reusch, Fritz Springorum, and Albert Vögler sympathized, but had withheld their names from the actual petition. Big business on the whole still placed its hopes in Papen, though the petition was an indication that the business community did not speak with a single voice. The agricultural lobby, in particular, was the one to watch.

In any case, the petition had no bearing on Hindenburg’s negotiations with Hitler. The Reich President remained, as the exchanges of mid-November were to show, utterly distrustful of the Nazi leader. Hitler, for his part, was privately contemptuous of Hindenburg. But he had no way of attaining power without the President’s backing.

At his meeting with Hitler on 19 November, Hindenburg repeated, as in August, that he wanted to see him and his movement participating in government. The President expressed the hope that Hitler would take soundings with other parties with a view to forming a government with a parliamentary majority. This was calling Hitler’s bluff. Hindenburg knew that it would prove impossible, given the certain opposition of the DNVP. The outcome would have been the exposure of Hitler’s failure, and a weakening of his position. Hitler saw through the tactic straight away.

In what Goebbels called a ‘chessmatch for power’, Hitler replied that he had no intention of involving himself in negotiations with other parties before he had been entrusted by the Reich President, in whose hands the decision lay, with constructing a government. In such an eventuality, he was confident of finding a basis which would provide his government with an enabling act, approved by the Reichstag. He alone was in the position to obtain such a mandate from the Reichstag. The difficulties would be thereby solved.

He repeated to Hindenburg in writing two days later his ‘single request’, that he be given the authority accorded to those before him. This was precisely what Hindenburg adamantly refused to concede. He remained unwilling to make Hitler the head of a presidential cabinet. He left the door open, however, to the possibility of a cabinet with a working majority, led by Hitler, and stipulated his conditions for accepting such a cabinet: establishment of an economic programme, no return to the dualism of Prussia and the Reich, no limiting of Article 48, and approval of a list of ministers in which he, the President, would nominate the foreign and defence ministers. On 30 November Hitler rejected as pointless a further invitation to discussions with Hindenburg. The deadlock continued.

Schleicher had been gradually distancing himself from Papen. He was imperceptibly shifting his role from éminence grise behind the scenes to main part. Meanwhile, he was making sure that lines were kept open to Gregor Strasser, who was thought to be ready ‘to step personally into the breach’ if nothing came of the discussions with Hitler.

Schleicher threw this possibility into the ring during discussions between himself, Papen, and Hindenburg on the evening of 1 December. Strasser and one or two of his supporters would be offered places in the government. About sixty Nazi Reichstag deputies could be won over. Schleicher was confident of gaining the support of the trade unions, the SPD, and the bourgeois parties for a package of economic reforms and work creation. This, he claimed, would obviate the need for the upturning of the constitution, which Papen had again proposed. Hindenburg nevertheless sided with Papen, and asked him to form a government and resume office – something which had been his intention all along. Behind the scenes, however, Schleicher had been warning members of Papen’s cabinet that if there were to be no change of government, and the proposed breaking of the constitution in a state of emergency were to take place, there would be civil war and the army would not be able to cope. This was reinforced at a cabinet meeting the following morning, 2 December, when Lieutenant-Colonel Ott was brought in to report on a ‘war games’ exercise which the Reichswehr had conducted, demonstrating that they could not defend the borders and withstand the breakdown of internal order which would follow from strikes and disruption. The army was almost certainly too pessimistic in its judgement. But the message made its mark on the cabinet, and on the President. Hindenburg was afraid of possible civil war. Reluctantly, he let Papen, his favourite, go and appointed Schleicher as Reich Chancellor.


In the wake of Schleicher’s overtures to Gregor Strasser, Hitler’s movement entered upon its greatest crisis since the refoundation of 1925. Strasser was no fringe character. His contribution to the growth of the NSDAP had been second only to that of Hitler himself. The organization of the party, in particular, had been largely his work. His reputation inside the party – though he had made powerful enemies, not least his one-time acolyte Goebbels – was high. He was generally seen as Hitler’s right-hand man. Strasser’s resignation of all his party offices on 8 December 1932 naturally, therefore, caused a sensation. Moreover, it hit a party already rocked by falling support and shaky morale. If power were not attained soon, the chances that the party might fall apart altogether could not be discounted.

Bombshell though Gregor Strasser’s resignation of his party offices was, trouble had been brewing for some considerable time. By the autumn of 1932, as Hitler – once seen by sections of business as a ‘moderate’ – was viewed as an intransigent obstacle to a conservative-dominated right-wing government, Strasser came to be seen as a more responsible and constructive politician who could bring Nazi mass support behind a conservative cabinet. Strasser’s differences with Hitler were not primarily ideological. He was an out-and-out racist; he did not shy away from violence; his ‘social ideas’ were hardly less vague than Hitler’s own; his economic ideas, eclectic and contradictory, were more utopian than, but still compatible with, Hitler’s cruder and more brutal notions; his foreign-policy ambitions were no less extensive than Hitler’s; and he was ruthless and single-minded in the drive for power. But tactically, there were fundamental differences. And after 13 August, as Hitler’s political inflexibility threatened increasingly to block the road to power forever, these differences came more and more to the surface. In contrast to Hitler’s ‘all-or-nothing’ stance, Strasser thought the NSDAP ought to be prepared to join coalitions, explore all possible alliances, and if necessary enter government even without the offer of the Chancellorship.

Schleicher was particularly interested in the possibility that Gregor Strasser could help bring the trade unions behind a ‘national’ – that is, authoritarian – government. Unlike Hitler, whose dislike of trade unions had never wavered, Strasser was openly conciliatory towards the unions. Given his growing contacts with union leaders interested in a broad coalition to head off the dangers they saw on the far Right and far Left, the prospects of winning their support for a Schleicher cabinet that had Strasser in the government and offered an expansive work-creation programme could not be lightly dismissed.

During the autumn, the rift between Hitler and Strasser widened. After the November election, Strasser lost his place in Hitler’s inner circle. In the light of the political sensitivities of the autumn, a public split in the party leadership was scarcely opportune. But by the first week of December, matters could rest no longer.

At a meeting held in secret in Berlin on 3 December, Schleicher offered Strasser the posts of Vice-Chancellor and Minister President in Prussia. Strasser’s choices were now to back Hitler, to rebel against him in the hope of winning over some of the party, or to do what by 8 December he had made up his mind to do: resign his offices and withdraw from an active role in politics. Strasser must have realized that the chances of leading a palace revolution against Hitler were minimal. His best support lay among the Nazi Reichstag members. But here, too, he controlled nothing amounting to a firmly organized faction. Pride, as well as his principled objections, prevented him from backing down and accepting Hitler’s all-or-bust strategy. He was left, therefore, with only the third possibility. Perhaps disappointed at the lack of open support from his party friends, he withdrew to his room in Berlin’s Hotel Exzelsior and wrote out his letter resigning his party offices.

On the morning of 8 December, he summoned those Regional Inspectors of the party – the senior Gauleiter – who happened to be in Berlin to his office in the Reichstag. Six were present besides Reich Inspector Robert Ley when Strasser addressed them. According to the post-war account of one of them, Hinrich Lohse, Strasser told them he had written the Führer a letter, resigning his party offices. He did not criticize Hitler’s programme, but rather his lack of any clear policy towards attaining power since the meeting with Hindenburg in August. Hitler was clear, he said, about one thing only: he wanted to become Reich Chancellor. But just wanting the post was not going to overcome the opposition he had encountered. And meanwhile the party was under great strain and exposed to potential disintegration. Strasser said he was prepared to go along with either the legal or the illegal – that is, putschist – way to power. But what he was not prepared to do was simply wait for Hitler to be made Reich Chancellor and see the party fall apart before that happened. Hitler, in his view, should have accepted the Vice-Chancellorship in August, and used that position as a bargaining counter to build up further power. On a personal note, Strasser expressed his pique at being excluded from top-level deliberations, and had no wish to play second fiddle to Göring, Goebbels, Röhm, and others. Now at the end of his tether, he was resigning his offices and leaving to recuperate.

Strasser’s letter was delivered to Hitler in the Kaiserhof at midday on 8 December. It amounted to a feeble justification of Strasser’s position, couched in terms of wounded pride, and not touching on the fundamentals that separated him from Hitler. It had the ring of defeat in the very way it was formulated. Hitler had been forewarned by Gauleiter Bernhard Rust, who had attended the meeting called by Strasser, to expect the letter. He had immediately summoned the same group of party Inspectors whom Strasser had addressed to the Kaiserhof for a meeting at noon. The group, in dejected mood, were left standing in Hitler’s apartment while, in an agitated state, he provided a point-by-point counter to Strasser’s reasons for his resignation, as summarized by Robert Ley from the earlier meeting. Entering the Papen cabinet, he said, would have given the initiative to the party’s enemies. He would soon have been forced, through fundamental disagreement with Papen’s policies, into resignation. The effect on public opinion would have been the apparent demonstration of his incapacity for government – that which his enemies had always claimed. The electorate would have turned their backs on him. The movement would have collapsed. The illegal route was even more dangerous. It would simply have meant – the lessons of 1923 plainly recalled – standing ‘the prime of the nation’s manhood’ in front of the machine-guns of the police and army. As for overlooking Strasser, Hitler disingenuously claimed he entered into discussions with whomsoever was necessary for a particular purpose, distributed tasks according to specific circumstances, and – according to availability – was open to all. He shifted the blame back on Gregor Strasser for avoiding him. His address went on for the best part of two hours. Towards the end, the well-worn tactic was deployed once more: he made a personal appeal to loyalty. According to Lohse’s account, he became ‘quieter and more human, more friendly and appealing in his comments’. He had found ‘that comradely tone which those assembled knew and which completely convinced them … Increasingly persuasive to his audience and inexorably drawing them under his spell, he [Hitler] triumphed and proved to his wavering, but upright and indispensable fighters in this toughest test of the movement, that he was the master and Strasser the journeyman … The old bond with him was again sealed by those present with a handshake.’

The mood that evening at Goebbels’s house, where Hitler returned, was nevertheless still sombre. There was real concern that the movement would fall apart. If that were to happen, announced Hitler, ‘I’ll finish things in three minutes.’ Dramatic gestures soon gave way to concerted moves to counter the possible ramifications of the ‘treachery’. Goebbels was summoned the same night at 2 a.m. to a meeting in the Kaiserhof, where he found Röhm and Himmler already with Hitler. Hitler, still stunned by Strasser’s action, spent the time pacing the floor of his hotel room. The meeting lasted until dawn. The main outcome was the decision to dismantle the organizational framework that Strasser had erected, and which had given him his power-base in the party. In time-honoured fashion, as he had taken over the SA leadership following the Stennes affair, Hitler himself now formally took over the leadership of the political organization, with Robert Ley as his chief of staff. A new Political Central Commission was set up, under Rudolf Heß, and the two Reich Inspectorates created by Strasser were abolished. A number of known Strasser supporters were removed from their posts. And a major campaign was begun, eliciting countless declarations of loyalty to Hitler from all parts of Germany – also from Strasser sympathizers. Strasser was rapidly turned into the movement’s arch-traitor. Hitler began the appeals to loyalty the very next day, 9 December, when he addressed the Gauleiter, Regional Inspectors, and Reichstag deputies. According to the report in the Völkischer Beobachter, every single person present felt the need to offer a personal show of loyalty by shaking hands with the Führer. ‘Strasser is isolated. Dead man!’ noted Goebbels triumphantly. Soon afterwards, Hitler set off on a speaking tour, addressing party members and functionaries at seven meetings in nine days. Again and again the personal appeal was successful. No secession followed Strasser’s resignation. The crisis was past.

Strasser now retired fully from all political activity and from public view. He was not excluded from the party. In fact, early in 1934 he applied for, and was granted, the NSDAP’s badge of honour, awarded to him as party member No.9, dating from the refoundation of the party on 25 February 1925. Neither this nor a plaintive letter he wrote to Rudolf Heß on 18 June 1934 emphasizing his lengthy service and continuing loyalty to the party could save his skin. Hitler was unforgiving to those he felt had betrayed him. His final reckoning with Gregor Strasser came on 30 June 1934, when the former second man in the party was murdered in what came to be known as ‘the Night of the Long Knives’.

Ultimately, the Strasser affair – the most serious of the inner-party crises since 1925 – revealed once again most graphically just how strong Hitler’s hold over the party had become, how much the NSDAP had become a ‘leader party’.


The events of January 1933 amounted to an extraordinary political drama. It was a drama that unfolded largely out of sight of the German people.

A fortnight after Schleicher had taken over from him as Reich Chancellor, Franz von Papen had been guest of honour at a dinner at the Berlin Herrenklub. Among the 300 or so guests listening to his speech on 16 December, justifying his own record in government, criticizing the Schleicher cabinet, and indicating that he thought the NSDAP should be included in government, was the Cologne banker Baron Kurt von Schröder. A few weeks earlier, Schröder had been a signatory to the petition to Hindenburg to make Hitler Chancellor. For months before that, he had been a Nazi sympathizer, and was a member of the ‘Keppler Circle’ – the group of economic advisers that Wilhelm Keppler, a one-time small businessman, had set up on Hitler’s behalf. Already in November – though nothing came of it at the time – Keppler had told Schröder that Papen might be prepared to intercede with Hindenburg in favour of a Hitler Chancellorship. Now, after Papen’s Herrenklub speech, interested by what the former Chancellor had had to say, Schröder met him for a few minutes late in the evening to discuss the political situation. The two had known each other for some time. And since Schröder also knew Hitler, he was the ideal intermediary at a time that relations between the Nazi leader and the former Chancellor were still icy. Out of the discussion came the suggestion of a meeting between Hitler and Papen. The meeting was fixed to take place at Schröder’s house in Cologne on 4 January 1933.

Papen arrived around midday. He found Hitler – who had entered through the back door – together with Heß, Himmler, and Keppler, waiting for him. Hitler, Papen, and Schröder adjourned to another room, while the others waited. Schröder took no part in the discussions. Most likely, the question of who was to lead the new government was left open at the meeting. Papen spoke loosely of some sort of duumvirate, and left open the possibility of ministerial posts, even if Hitler himself did not feel ready to take office, for some of his colleagues. After about two hours, discussions ended for lunch with the agreement to deal with further issues at a subsequent meeting, in Berlin or elsewhere. Papen evidently felt progress had been made. In a private audience with the Reich President a few days later, Papen informed Hindenburg that Hitler had lessened his demands and would be prepared to take part in a coalition government with parties of the Right. The unspoken assumption was that Papen would lead such a government. The Reich President told Papen to keep in touch with the Nazi leader.

A second meeting between Hitler and Papen soon followed. It took place this time in the study of Ribbentrop’s house in Dahlem, a plush residential suburb of Berlin, on the night of 10–11 January. Nothing came of it, since Papen told Hitler that Hindenburg still opposed his appointment to the Chancellorship. Hitler angrily broke off further talks until after the Lippe election.

Elections in the mini-state of Lippe-Detmold, with its 173,000 inhabitants, would at other times scarcely have been a first priority for Hitler and his party. But now, they were a chance to prove the NSDAP was again on the forward march after its losses the previous November and after the Strasser crisis. Despite the poor state of the party’s finances, no effort was spared towards obtaining a good result in Lippe. For close on a fortnight before the election, on 15 January, Lippe was saturated with Nazi propaganda. All the Nazi big guns were fired. Göring, Goebbels and Frick spoke. Hitler himself gave seventeen speeches in eleven days. It paid off. The NSDAP won almost 6,000 more votes compared with the November result, and increased its share of the poll from 34.7 to 39.5 per cent. The bandwagon seemed to be rolling again.

Hitler’s position was strengthened, however, less by the Lippe result than by Schleicher’s increasing isolation. Not only had his lingering hopes of Gregor Strasser and gaining support from the Nazi ranks practically evaporated by mid-January. The Reichslandbund had by then declared open warfare on his government because of its unwillingness to impose high import levies on agricultural produce. Schleicher was powerless to do anything about such opposition, which had backing not only within the DNVP but also within the NSDAP. Accommodation with the big agrarians would axiomatically have meant opposition from both sides of industry, bosses and unions, as well as consumers. Hugenberg’s offers to bring the DNVP behind Schleicher if he were to be given the combined ministries of Economics and Food were therefore bound to fall on deaf ears. Correspondingly, by 21 January, the DNVP had also declared its outright opposition to the Chancellor. Shrill accusations, along with those of the agrarians, of the government’s ‘Bolshevism’ in the countryside because of its schemes to divide up bankrupt eastern estates to make smallholdings for the unemployed were a reminder of the lobbying which had helped bring down Brüning. Schleicher’s position was also weakened by the Osthilfe (Eastern Aid) scandal that broke in mid-January. The agrarian lobby was incensed that the government had not hushed up the affair. Since some of Hindenburg’s close friends and fellow landowners were implicated, the ire directed at Schleicher could be transmitted directly through the Reich President. And when, in the wake of the scandal, it was revealed that the President’s own property at Neudeck, presented to him by German business five years earlier, had been registered in his son’s name to avoid death-duties, Schleicher was held responsible by Hindenburg for allowing his name to be dragged through the mud.

Meanwhile, serving as the go-between, Ribbentrop had arranged another meeting between Hitler and Papen on 18 January. Accompanied by Röhm and Himmler, Hitler – encouraged by the Lippe success and by Schleicher’s mounting difficulties – now hardened his position from the earlier meetings in the month and expressly demanded the Chancellorship. When Papen demurred, claiming his influence with Hindenburg was not sufficient to bring this about, Hitler, in his usual way, told the former Chancellor he saw no point in further talks. Ribbentrop then suggested that it might be worth talking to Hindenburg’s son, Oskar. The following day, Ribbentrop took his suggestion further with Papen. The result was a meeting, arranged for late on the Sunday evening, 22 January, at Ribbentrop’s house, at which Oskar von Hindenburg and the Reich President’s State Secretary Otto Meissner agreed to be present. Frick accompanied Hitler. Göring joined them later. The main part of the meeting consisted of a two-hour discussion between Hitler and the President’s son. Hitler also spoke with Papen, who told him that the President had not changed his mind about making him Chancellor, but recognized that the situation had changed and that it was necessary to incorporate the National Socialists in this or a new government. Hitler was unyielding. He made it plain that Nazi cooperation could only come under his Chancellorship. Apart from the Chancellorship for himself, he insisted only upon the Reich Ministry of the Interior for Frick and a further cabinet post for Göring. These claims were more modest – and were recognized as being such – than those he had put forward to Schleicher the previous August. Papen demanded the post of Vice-Chancellor for himself. On that basis, he now agreed to press for Hitler to become Chancellor – a notable breakthrough – but promised to withdraw if there was any sign that he did not have Hitler’s confidence.

The following day, Chancellor Schleicher, by now aware of the threat to his position, informed the Reich President that a vote of no-confidence in the government could be expected at the delayed recall of the Reichstag on 31 January. He requested an order of dissolution and postponement of new elections. Hindenburg agreed to consider a dissolution, but rejected the breach of Article 25 of the Weimar Constitution which an indefinite postponement would have entailed. What he had been prepared to grant Papen five months earlier, he now refused Schleicher.

At the same time, Hindenburg had left himself with little room for manoeuvre. He had once more rejected the idea of a Hitler Chancellorship. That left only the return to a Papen cabinet – Hindenburg’s favoured outcome, but scarcely likely to resolve the crisis, and regarded with scepticism even by Papen himself. As rumours hared round Berlin, the prospect of a reversion to Papen’s ‘cabinet of struggle’, with a major role for Hugenberg, and a declaration of a state of emergency was, remarkable though it now seems, seen as more worrying than a cabinet led by Hitler. Fears of such an eventuality were sharply intensified after Schleicher, on 28 January, having been refused the dissolution order by the Reich President, submitted his own resignation and that of his entire cabinet. Within hours, Hindenburg asked Papen to try to work towards a solution within the framework of the Constitution and with the backing of the Reichstag. According to Papen’s own account, he was asked by the President to take soundings about the possibilities of a Hitler cabinet. Papen told Ribbentrop that Hitler must be contacted without delay. A turning-point had been reached. After his talk with Hindenburg, he now thought a Hitler Chancellorship a possibility.

By this time, Papen had come round to full acceptance of a government led by Hitler. The only question in his mind was to ensure that Hitler was firmly contained by ‘reliable’ and ‘responsible’ conservatives. Following the resignation of the Schleicher cabinet on 28 January, Papen had meetings with Hugenberg and Hitler. Hugenberg agreed that a Hitler cabinet was the only way forward, but stressed the importance of limiting his power. He demanded for himself the Reich and Prussian Ministries of Economics as the price of the DNVP’s support. Hitler, unsurprisingly, refused – as he had done since August – to entertain the notion of a government dependent on a parliamentary majority, and held out for the headship of a presidential cabinet with the same rights that had been granted to Papen and Schleicher. He reiterated his readiness to include those from previous cabinets whom the President favoured, as long as he could be Chancellor and Commissioner for Prussia, and could place members of his own party in the Ministries of the Interior in the Reich and Prussia. The demands for extensive powers in Prussia caused problems. Ribbentrop and Göring tried to persuade Hitler to settle for less. Eventually, ‘with a bad grace’, as Papen put it, he accepted that the powers of Reich Commissar for Prussia would remain with Papen, in his capacity as Vice-Chancellor.

Meanwhile, Papen had taken soundings by telephone from several former cabinet members, conservatives held in esteem by Hindenburg. All replied that they would be prepared to work in a Hitler cabinet, with Papen as Vice-Chancellor, but not in a Papen–Hugenberg ‘cabinet of struggle’. This impressed Hindenburg, when Papen reported to him late on the night of 28 January. He was also gratified by the ‘moderation’ of Hitler’s demands. For the first time, the Reich President was now amenable to a Hitler cabinet. The deadlock was broken.

Hindenburg and Papen discussed the composition of the cabinet. The President was glad that the trusted Konstantin Freiherr von Neurath would remain at the Foreign Ministry. He wanted someone equally sound at the Defence Ministry, following Schleicher’s departure. His own suggestion was General von Blomberg, the army commander in East Prussia and currently technical adviser of the German delegation to the Disarmament Conference in Geneva. Hindenburg thought him extremely reliable and ‘completely apolitical’. The following morning he was ordered back to Berlin.

Papen continued his power-brokerage on the morning of 29 January in discussions with Hitler and Göring. The composition of the cabinet was agreed. All posts but two (other than the Chancellorship) were to be occupied by conservatives, not Nazis. Neurath (Foreign Minister), Schwerin von Krosigk (Finance), and Eltz-Rübenach (Post and Transport Ministry) had been members of the Schleicher cabinet. The occupancy of the Justice Ministry was left open for the time being. Frick was nominated by Hitler as Reich Minister of the Interior. Compensation for the concession made over the position of Reich Commissar of Prussia was the acceptance by Papen that Göring would serve nominally as Papen’s deputy in the Prussian Ministry of the Interior. This key appointment effectively gave the Nazis control over the police in the giant state of Prussia, embracing two-thirds of the territory of the Reich. There was no place as yet for Goebbels in a propaganda ministry, part of Nazi expectations the previous summer. But Hitler assured Goebbels that his ministry was waiting for him. It was simply a matter of necessary tactics for a temporary solution. Apart from all else, Hitler needed Goebbels for the election campaign he was insisting must follow his appointment as Chancellor.

Papen had talks the same day with Hugenberg and with the Stahlhelm leaders Seldte and Duesterberg. Hugenberg still objected to the Nazi demands for new elections, from which his own party had nothing to gain. But, tempted by the offer of the powerful Economics Ministry, which he had long coveted, he tentatively offered his cooperation. When, in late January, the deputy Stahlhelm leader Theodor Duesterberg warned him of the consequences of entrusting the Chancellorship to someone as dishonest as Hitler, Hugenberg waved the objections aside. Nothing could happen. Hindenburg would remain Reich President and supreme commander of the armed forces; Papen would be Vice-Chancellor; he himself would have control of the entire economic sphere, including agriculture; Seldte (the Stahlhelm leader) would be in charge of the Labour Ministry. ‘We’re boxing Hitler in,’ concluded Hugenberg. Duesterberg replied darkly that Hugenberg would find himself one night fleeing through ministerial gardens in his underpants to avoid arrest.

Some of Papen’s conservative friends also expressed their deep concern at the prospect of a Hitler cabinet. Papen told them there was no alternative within the framework of the Constitution. To one who warned him that he was placing himself in Hitler’s hands, Papen replied: ‘You are mistaken. We’ve hired him.’

A last problem still had to be resolved. Hitler insisted at his meeting with Papen on new elections to be followed by an enabling act. For Hitler, this was crucial. An enabling act was vital to be able to rule without dependency on either the Reichstag or on presidential backing for emergency decrees. But the current composition of the Reichstag offered no hope of passing an enabling act. Papen reported back, via Ribbentrop, that Hindenburg was not in favour of new elections. Hitler told Ribbentrop to inform the President that there would be no further elections after these. By the afternoon of 29 January, Papen was able to tell Göring and Ribbentrop that all was clear. ‘Everything perfect,’ Göring reported back to the Kaiserhof. Hitler was expected by the Reich President at eleven o’clock the next morning to be sworn in as Chancellor.

Just before the new cabinet entered the Reich President’s chambers, it was finally agreed that they would seek the dissolution order that Hitler so badly wanted. 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.’


‘Hitler is Reich Chancellor. Just like a fairy-tale,’ noted Goebbels. Indeed, the extraordinary had happened. What few beyond the ranks of Nazi fanatics had thought possible less than a year earlier had become reality. Against all odds, Hitler’s aggressive obstinacy – born out of lack of alternatives – had paid off. What he had been unable to achieve himself, his ‘friends’ in high places had achieved for him. The ‘nobody of Vienna’, ‘unknown soldier’, beerhall demagogue, head of what was for years no more than a party on the lunatic fringe of politics, a man with no credentials for running a sophisticated state-machine, practically his sole qualification the ability to muster the support of the nationalist masses whose base instincts he showed an unusual talent for rousing, had now been placed in charge of government of one of the leading states in Europe. His intentions had scarcely been kept secret over the years. Whatever the avowals of following a legal path to power, heads would roll, he had said. Marxism would be eradicated, he had said. Jews would be ‘removed’, he had said. Germany would rebuild the strength of its armed forces, destroy the shackles of Versailles, conquer ‘by the sword’ the land it needed for its ‘living space’, he had said. A few took him at his word, and thought he was dangerous. But far, far more, from Right to Left of the political spectrum – conservatives, liberals, socialists, communists – underrated his intentions and unscrupulous power instincts at the same time as they scorned his abilities. The Left’s underestimation was at least not responsible for getting him into power. Socialists, communists, trade unions were all little more than by-standers, their scope for influencing events emasculated since 1930. It was the blindness of the conservative Right to the dangers which had been so evident, arising from their determination to eliminate democracy and destroy socialism and the consequent governmental stalemate they had allowed to develop, that delivered the power of a nation-state containing all the pent-up aggression of a wounded giant into the hands of the dangerous leader of a political gangster-mob.

There was no inevitability about Hitler’s accession to power. Had Hindenburg been prepared to grant to Schleicher the dissolution that he had so readily allowed Papen, and to prorogue the Reichstag for a period beyond the constitutional sixty days, a Hitler Chancellorship might have been avoided. With the corner turning of the economic Depression, and with the Nazi movement facing potential break-up if power were not soon attained, the future – even if under an authoritarian government – would have been very different. Hitler’s rise from humble beginnings to ‘seize’ power by ‘triumph of the will’ was the stuff of Nazi legend. In fact, political miscalculation by those with regular access to the corridors of power rather than any actions on the part of the Nazi leader played a larger role in placing him in the Chancellor’s seat.

His path ought to have been blocked long before the final drama of January 1933. The most glaring opportunity was missed through the failure to impose a hefty jail sentence after the putsch fiasco of 1923 – and to compound this disastrous omission by releasing him on parole within a matter of months and allowing him a fresh start. But those miscalculations, as well as those during the Depression years that opened up the possibility, then the reality, of a Hitler Chancellorship, were not random acts. They were the miscalculations of a political class determined to inflict what injury it could on (or at least make only the faintest attempts to defend) the new, detested, or at best merely tolerated democratic Republic. The anxiety to destroy democracy rather than the keenness to bring the Nazis to power was what triggered the complex developments that led to Hitler’s Chancellorship.

Democracy was surrendered without a fight. This was most notably the case in the collapse of the grand coalition in 1930. It was again the case – however vain the opposition might have proved – in the lack of resistance to the Papen coup against Prussia in July 1932. Both events revealed the flimsiness of democracy’s base. This was not least because powerful groups had never reconciled themselves to democracy, and were by this time actively seeking to bring it down. During the Depression, democracy was less surrendered than deliberately undermined by élite groups serving their own ends. These were no pre-industrial leftovers, but – however reactionary their political aims – modern lobbies working to further their vested interests in an authoritarian system. In the final drama, the agrarians and the army were more influential than big business in engineering Hitler’s takeover. But big business, also, politically myopic and self-serving, had significantly contributed to the undermining of democracy which was the necessary prelude to Hitler’s success.

The masses, too, had played their part in democracy’s downfall. Never had circumstances been less propitious for the establishment of successful democracy than they were in Germany after the First World War. Already by 1920, the parties most supportive of democracy held only a minority of the vote. Democracy narrowly survived its early travails, though great swathes of the electorate opposed it root and branch. Who is to say that, had not the great Depression blown it completely off course, democracy might not have settled down and consolidated itself? But democracy was in a far from healthy state when the Depression struck Germany. And in the course of the Depression, the masses deserted democracy in their droves. By 1932, the only supporters of democracy were the weakened Social Democrats (and even many of these were by this time lukewarm), some sections of the Zentrum (which had itself moved sharply to the Right), and a handful of liberals. The Republic was dead. Still open was what sort of authoritarian system would replace it.

The ruling groups did not have the mass support to maximize their ascendancy and destroy once and for all the power of organized labour. Hitler was brought in to do the job for them. That he might do more than this, that he might outlast all predictions and expand his own power immensely and at their own expense, either did not occur to them, or was regarded as an exceedingly unlikely outcome. The underestimation of Hitler and his movement by the power-brokers remains a leitmotiv of the intrigues that placed him in the Chancellor’s office.

The mentalities which conditioned the behaviour both of the élites and of the masses, and which made Hitler’s rise possible, were products of strands of German political culture that were plainly recognizable in the twenty years or so before the First World War. Even so, Hitler was no inexorable product of a German ‘special path’, no logical culmination of long-term trends in specifically German culture and ideology.

Nor was he a mere ‘accident’ in the course of German history. Without the unique conditions in which he came to prominence, Hitler would have been nothing. It is hard to imagine him bestriding the stage of history at any other time. His style, his brand of rhetoric, would, deprived of such conditions, have been without appeal. The impact on the German people of war, revolution, and national humiliation, and the acute fear of Bolshevism in wide sections of the population gave Hitler his platform. He exploited the conditions brilliantly. More than any other politician of his era, he was the spokesman for the unusually intense fears, resentments, and prejudices of ordinary people not attracted by the parties of the Left or anchored in the parties of political Catholicism. And more than any other politician of his era, he offered such people the prospect of a new and better society – though one seeming to rest on ‘true’ German values with which they could identify. The vision of the future went hand in hand with the denunciation of the past in Hitler’s appeal. The total collapse of confidence in a state system resting on discredited party politics and bureaucratic administration had led over a third of the population to place its trust and its hopes in the politics of national redemption. The personality cult carefully nurtured around Hitler turned him into the embodiment of such hopes.

Whatever the future held, for those who could not share the delirium of the SA hordes marching through the Brandenburg Gate in celebration on the evening of 30 January 1933, it was at best uncertain. ‘A leap into the dark’ was how one Catholic newspaper described Hitler’s appointment to the Chancellorship.

Many Jews and political opponents of the Nazis now feared for their well-being – even for their lives. Some made hurried plans to leave the country. There were those, not just on the defeated Left, who foresaw disaster. But others rapidly shook off their initial foreboding, convincing themselves that Hitler and the Nazis had few prospects of ruling for long. Sebastian Haffner, then a young Berlin lawyer, later – after leaving a country whose government he could no longer tolerate – a distinguished journalist and writer, summarized his views at the time: ‘No. All things considered, this government was no cause for concern. It was only a matter of what would come after it, and perhaps the fear that it would lead to civil war.’ Most of the serious press, he added, took the same line next day.

Few, indeed, predicted that things would turn out so differently.

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