However, it was 1932 that saw the rise of the Nazi Party into a prominent political force. In the July 1932 Reichstag elections the Nazi Party polled almost 40 per cent of the vote, making it the most powerful party. There was a slight dip in the elections four months later but the party still had enough electoral clout that Hitler, as dictated by the Weimar constitution, should have been appointed chancellor. But the Weimar president, the 84-year-old Paul von Hindenburg, was reluctant to appoint the former corporal: ‘That man a chancellor?’ he said, ‘I’ll make him a postmaster and he can lick stamps with my head on them.’
Hindenburg replaced the serving chancellor, Franz von Papen, with Kurt von Schleicher (whom Hitler ordered to be murdered on 30 June 1934 during the ‘Night of the Long Knives’). Von Papen, believing the Nazis were already a spent force after the fall in the Nazi vote in November 1932, decided to work with Hitler as his vice-chancellor. Von Papen persuaded the President that he, not Hitler, would have the real power. Hitler, von Papen argued, needed to be contained and this would be far easier with Hitler working inside the government than agitating from outside. ‘In two months,’ said von Papen, ‘we’ll have pushed Hitler into a corner where he can squeal to his heart’s content.’
Reluctantly, Hindenburg agreed. And so on 30 January 1933, Hitler was appointed chancellor within a coalition government. He had done it: Hitler had achieved what he had striven for since 1923 – power through legitimate means. That evening, 30 January, Hitler looked out from his balcony at the Chancellery (pictured below). Beneath him filed past thousands of torch-bearing Nazis. This was their moment of triumph, the day of national exultation; the Nazi era had begun and their mood was jubilant.
Celebrations following Hitler’s appointment as chancellor, 30 January 1933
Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1972-026-11 / Sennecke, Robert / CC-BY-SA
Von Papen was to soon realize the folly of his intrigue – it was he, not Hitler, who was pushed into a corner and who would become an inconsequential figure. Barely a month after Hitler’s appointment came the Reichstag Fire (pictured below), started, whether accidentally or not, by 24-year-old Marinus van der Lubbe, a Dutch arsonist who may or may not have been a communist. Rumours persisted that it was the Nazis themselves that set the parliament building ablaze.
The Reichstag Fire, February 1933
Either way, Hitler saw it as a ‘God-given signal’ and made political capital of it, blaming the communists, having all political opponents rounded up and beaten and put into ‘protective custody’. Hindenburg, increasingly senile, accepted Hitler’s request following the fire for a decree suspending all political and civil liberties as a ‘temporary’ measure for the ‘protection of the people and state’. These temporary measures were never revoked. A year later van der Lubbe was executed.
In March the last parliamentary elections took place. Only Hitler, it was claimed, could save Germany from the communists, and the SA, using violence and intimidation, silenced all other parties. The Nazis polled 44 per cent of the vote, not enough for a majority but enough to squash any future political resistance.