Modern history



The young brownshirt activist Horst Wessel had made himself thoroughly hated by Berlin’s Communist paramilitaries by 1930. Idealistic, intelligent and well educated, he had caught the attention of Joseph Goebbels, who had sent him to study the well-organized Nazi youth movement in Vienna in the first half of 1928. Back in Berlin, Wessel had quickly risen to a position of local prominence in the brownshirt organization in the Friedrichshain district, where he led a ‘storm’ or branch of the Nazi paramilitaries. He proceeded to unleash a particularly energetic and provocative campaign on the streets, including a brownshirt attack on the local Communist Party headquarters, in which four Communist workers were seriously injured. Heinz Neumann, known as the Goebbels of the Communist Party, and Berlin editor of the Communist daily, The Red Flag, responded with a new slogan issued to party cadres: ‘Beat the fascists wherever you find them!81

It was in this atmosphere that Wessel’s landlady, the widow of a Communist, went to a tavern in the area on 14 January 1930 to ask for help in dealing with her tenant, who, she said, had not only refused to pay rent for his live-in girlfriend but had also responded to the landlady’s demands by threatening her with violence. Whether or not this was true was another matter, for there was evidence that the real cause of the dispute was her attempt to raise Wessel’s rent. The landlady was also afraid that, if the girlfriend did not move out, she would lose her legal right to the flat, which she did not own, but rented herself, not least because the girlfriend was a prostitute (whether or not she was still working subsequently became the subject of heated and somewhat prurient debate). The key factor here was the widow’s connection to the Communist Party. Despite their disapproval of the landlady’s insistence at the time of her husband’s death on giving him a church funeral, the Communists decided to help her deal with her tenant. Only the previous day, they claimed, a local Communist had been shot in a fight with the brownshirts. The dispute offered an ideal opportunity to get even. Conscious of the likelihood that Wessel would be armed, they sent to a nearby tavern for a well-known local tough, Ali Höhler, who was known to possess a gun, to provide the muscle in a punitive expedition to Wessel’s flat. Hohler was not only a member of the neighbouring branch of the Red Front-Fighters’ League, but also had convictions for petty crimes, perjury and pimping. A member of one of Berlin’s organized crime syndicates, he illustrated the connections between Communism and criminality that were likely to be forged at a time when the party based itself in the poor districts and ‘criminal quarters’ of Germany’s big cities. Together with the Communist Erwin Rückert, Hohler climbed the stairs to Wessel’s flat, while the others stood watch outside. As Wessel opened the door, Höhler opened fire. Wessel fell, badly wounded in the head, and lingered on in hospital for a few weeks before he finally died from his injury on 23 February.82

When the Communists mounted a hurried propaganda campaign to depict Wessel as a pimp and Höhler’s deed as part of an underworld dispute unconnected with the Red Front-Fighters’ League, Goebbels went into overdrive to present him as a political martyr. He interviewed Wessel’s mother, and extracted from her a portrait of her son as an idealist who had rescued his girlfriend from a life of prostitution and sacrificed himself out of missionary zeal for the cause of the Fatherland. The Communists, by contrast, Goebbels trumpeted, had shown their true colours by enrolling a common criminal like Höhler in their ranks. Wessel was hardly cold in his grave before Goebbels began work on blowing his memory up into a full-scale cult. Innumerable articles in the Nazi press all over the country praised him as a ‘martyr for the Third Reich’. A solemn funeral procession was staged - it would have been much bigger but for police restrictions on its size—and watched, so Goebbels claimed, by up to 30,000 people lining the streets on the way to the church. Chants, attacks and attempts at disruption by the Red Front-Fighters’ League led to wild and violent scenes on the fringes of the ceremony. At the graveside, while Goring, Prince August Wilhelm of Prussia and various other dignitaries looked on, Goebbels praised Wessel in terms that deliberately recalled Christ’s sacrifice for humankind - ‘Through sacrifice to redemption’. ‘Wherever Germany is,’ he declared, ‘you are there too, Horst Wessel!’ Then a choir of stormtroopers sang some verses that Wessel himself had written a few months earlier:

The flag’s held high! The ranks are tightly closed!
SA men march with firm courageous tread.
Together with us, marching in our ranks in spirit, are those
Comrades Red Front and Reaction shot dead!

Clear the streets for the brown battalions,
Clear the streets for the Storm Division man!
The swastika’s already gazed on full of hope by millions.
The day for freedom and bread is at hand!

The last time now there sounds the call to meet!
For struggle we are standing all prepared at last!
Soon Hitler flags will flutter over every street.
Our servitude will very soon be past!83

The song had already gained some currency in the movement, but Goebbels now publicized it far and wide, prophesying that it would soon be sung by schoolchildren, workers, soldiers, everyone. He was right. Before the year was over, it had been published, issued on a gramophone record and turned into the official anthem of the Nazi Party. After 1933 it became in effect the national battle hymn of the Third Reich, alongside the old-established Deutschland, Deutschland über Alles (‘Germany, Germany before all’).84Wessel became the object of something like a secular religious cult propagated by the Nazis, celebrated in film, and commemorated in countless ceremonies, memorials and sites of pilgrimage.

That such an open celebration of brutal physical force could become the battle hymn of the Nazi Party speaks volumes for the central role that violence played in its quest for power. Cynically exploited for publicity purposes by manipulative propagandists like Goebbels, it became a way of life for the ordinary young brownshirt like Wessel, as it was for the young unemployed workers of the Red Front-Fighters’ League. Other songs were more explicit still, such as the popular ‘Song of the Storm Columns’, which was chanted by marching brownshirts on the streets of Berlin from 1928 onwards:

We are the Storm Columns, we put ourselves about,
We are the foremost ranks, courageous in a fight.
With sweating brows from work, our stomachs without food!
Our calloused, sooty hands our rifles firmly hold.

So stand the Storm Columns, for racial fight prepared.
Only when Jews bleed, are we liberated.
No more negotiation; it’s no help, not even slight:
Beside our Adolf Hitler we’re courageous in a fight.

Long live our Adolf Hitler! We’re already marching on.
We’re storming in the name of German revolution.
Leap onto the barricades! Defeat us only death can.
We’re Storm Columns of Hitler’s dictatorship of one man.85

This kind of aggression found its outlet in constant clashes with rival paramilitaries on the streets. In the middle period of the Republic, beginning in 1924, all sides did indeed draw back from political violence on the scale of the January uprising of 1919, the Ruhr civil war of 1920 or the multiple conflicts of 1923, but if they put away their machine guns, it was only to replace them with rubber truncheons and knuckledusters. Even in the relatively stable years of 1924-9, it was claimed that 29 Nazi activists had been killed by Communists, while the Communists themselves reported that 92 ‘workers’ had been killed in clashes with ‘fascists’ from 1924 to 1930. Twenty-six members of the Steel Helmets were said to have fallen in the fight against Communism and 18 members of the Reichsbanner in various incidents of political violence from 1924 to 1928.86 These were only the most serious consequences of the continual fighting between rival paramilitary groups; the same sources counted injuries sustained in the battles in the thousands, many of them more serious than mere bruises or broken bones.

In 1930 the figures rose dramatically, with the Nazis claiming to have suffered 17 deaths, rising to 42 in 1931 and 84 in 1932. In 1932, too, the Nazis reported that nearly ten thousand of their rank-and-file had been wounded in clashes with their opponents. The Communists reported 44 deaths in fights with the Nazis in 1930, 52 in 1931 and 75 in the first six months of 1932 alone, while over 50 Reichsbanner men died in battles with the Nazis on the streets from 1929 to 1933.87 Official sources broadly corroborated these claims, with one estimate in the Reichstag, not disputed by anybody, putting the number of dead in the year to March 1931 at no fewer than 300.88 The Communists played their part with as much vigour as the Nazis. When the sailor Richard Krebs, leader of a detachment of a hundred members of the Red Front-Fighters’ League, was instructed to break up a Nazi meeting in Bremen addressed by Hermann Göring, for instance, he made sure that ‘each man was armed with a blackjack or brass knuckles’. When he rose to speak, Goring ordered him to be thrown out after he had said only a few words; the brownshirts lining the hall rushed to the centre, and:

A terrifying mêlée followed. Blackjacks, brass knuckles, clubs, heavy buckled belts, glasses and bottles were the weapons used. Pieces of glass and chairs hurtled over the heads of the audience. Men from both sides broke off chair legs and used them as bludgeons. Women fainted in the crash and scream of battle. Already dozens of heads and faces were bleeding, clothes were torn as the fighters dodged about amid masses of terrified but helpless spectators. The troopers fought like lions. Systematically they pressed us towards the main exit. The band struck up a martial tune. Hermann Goring stood calmly on the stage, his fists on his hips.89

Scenes like this were being played out all over Germany in the early 1930s. Violence was particularly severe at election-time; of the 155 killed in political clashes in Prussia in the course of 1932, no fewer than 105 died in the election months of June and July, and the police counted 461 political riots with 400 injuries and 82 deaths in the first seven weeks of the campaign.90 The task of curbing political violence was not helped by the fact that the political parties most heavily implicated got together at intervals and agreed on an amnesty for political prisoners, thus releasing them from prison to engage in a fresh round of beatings and killings. The last such amnesty came into effect on 20 January 1933.91


Facing this situation of rapidly mounting disorder was a police force that was distinctly shaky in its allegiance to Weimar democracy. Unlike the army, it continued to be decentralized after 1918. The Social Democrat-dominated Prussian government in Berlin, however, failed to seize the opportunity to create a new public-order force which would be the loyal servant of Republican law enforcement. The force was inevitably recruited from the ranks of ex-soldiers, since a high proportion of the relevant age group had been conscripted during the war. The new force found itself run by ex-officers, former professional soldiers and Free Corps fighters. They set a military tone from the outset and were hardly enthusiastic supporters of the new political order.92 They were backed up by the political police, which had a long tradition in Prussia, as in other German and European states, of concentrating its efforts on the monitoring, detection and at times suppression of socialists and revolutionaries. 93 Its officers, like those of other police departments, considered themselves above party politics. Rather like the army, they were serving an abstract notion of ‘the state’ or the Reich, rather than the specific democratic institutions of the newly founded Republic. Not surprisingly, therefore, they continued to mount surveillance operations not only over the political extremes but also over the Social Democrats, the party of government in Prussia and, in a sense, their employers. The old tradition of seeking subversives primarily on the left wing of the political spectrum thus lived on.94

The bias of the police and the judiciary was particularly apparent in the case of a Social Democrat like the Reichstag deputy Otto Buchwitz in Silesia, who recalled later with considerable bitterness how stormtroopers began to disrupt his speeches from December 1931 onwards. Brownshirts occupied the seats at his meetings, shouted insults at him, and on one occasion fired a shot at him, causing mass panic amongst his listeners and leading to a brawl in which more shots were fired by both stormtroopers and Reichsbanner men. Several Nazis and Social Democrats had to be taken to hospital, and not a single table or chair in the hall was left intact. After this, gangs of eight to ten Nazi stormtroopers harassed Buchwitz outside his house when he left for work in the morning, twenty or more crowded round him when he came back to his office after lunch, and between one and two hundred hassled him on the way home, singing a specially composed song with the words ‘When the revolvers are shot, Buchwitz’ll cop the lot!’ Nazi demonstrations always halted outside his house, chanting ‘Death to Buchwitz!’ Not only did his complaints to the police and requests for protection go completely unheeded, but when he lost his parliamentary immunity with the dissolution of the Reichstag in 1932, he was hauled before the courts for illegal possession of a weapon at the December 1931 brawl and sentenced to three months in prison. Not one Nazi among those involved in the affair was prosecuted. After his release, Buchwitz was refused permission to carry a gun, but always had one on him anyway, and demonstratively released the safety catch if the brownshirts got too close. His complaint to the Social Democratic Interior Minister of Prussia, Carl Severing, met with the response that he should not have got involved in a shooting-match in the first place. Buchwitz’s feeling of betrayal by the Social Democratic leadership was only strengthened when a large contingent of rank-and-file Communist activists came up to him before a speech he was due to give at the funeral of a Reichsbanner man shot by the Nazis, and explained that they were there to protect him from a planned assassination attempt by the brownshirts. Neither the police nor the Reichsbanner were anywhere to be seen.95

The police for their part regarded the Red Front-Fighters’ League as criminals. This not only followed a long police tradition of conflating crime and revolution, but also reflected the fact that Communist strong-holds tended to be based in poor, slum areas that were the centres of organized crime. As far as the police were concerned, the Red Front-Fighters were thugs, out for material gain. For the Communists, the police were the iron fist of the capitalist order, which had to be smashed, and they frequently targeted policemen in acts of physical aggression all the way up to murder. This meant that in clashes with the Communists, a tired, nervous and apprehensive police force was only too prone to make use of the pistols with which it was customarily armed. Prolonged fighting in Berlin in 1929 achieved fame as ‘Blood-May’, when 31 people, including innocent passers-by, were killed, mostly by police gunshots; over two hundred were wounded, and more than a thousand were arrested in the course of Communist demonstrations in the working-class district of Wedding. Stories that newspaper reporters covering the events were beaten up by the police only made press comment more critical, while the police themselves reacted with barely concealed contempt for a democratic political order that had failed to defend them from injury and insult.96

Alienated from the Republic by continual Communist polemics and by Social Democratic attempts to curb their powers, the police were also troubled by the slowness of promotion, and many younger policemen felt their careers blocked.97 Professionalization had made great strides amongst detective forces in Germany, as in other countries, with fingerprinting, photography and forensic science prized as new and startlingly effective aids to detection. Individual detectives such as the famous Ernst Gennat, head of the Berlin murder squad, became celebrated in their own right, and the force claimed some impressive detection rates of serious crimes in the mid-1920s. Yet the police attracted massively hostile comment in the press and news media for failing to arrest serial killers, like Fritz Haarmann in Hanover, or Peter Kürten in Düsseldorf, before they had claimed a whole series of victims. The police in their turn felt that the rampant political violence and disorder of the era were forcing them to divert precious resources from fighting crimes such as these.98 Not surprisingly, therefore, policemen began to sympathize with the Nazis’ attacks on the Weimar Republic. In 1935, a report claimed that 700 uniformed policemen had been members of the party before 1933, while in Hamburg 27 officers out of 240 had joined by 1932.99

Reich Chancellor Brüning decided to use the police, however, to curb political violence on the right as well as the left, because the chaos on the streets was deterring foreign banks from issuing loans to Germany.100 His resolve was strengthened by two serious incidents that occurred in 1931. In April, the brownshirt leader in north-eastern Germany, Walther Stennes, got into a dispute with Party headquarters and briefly occupied the Nazis’ central offices in Berlin, beating up the SS guards stationed there and forcing Goebbels to flee to Munich. Stennes denounced the extravagance of the Party bosses and their betrayal of socialist principles. But, although he undoubtedly articulated the feelings of some stormtroopers, he had little real support. Indeed there is some indication that he was secretly subsidized by Brüning’s government in order to create divisions within the movement. Hitler fired the brownshirt leader Franz Pfeffer von Salomon, who had failed to prevent this debacle, recalled Ernst Rohm from his Bolivian exile to take over the organization, and forced all the brownshirts to swear a personal oath of allegiance to him. Stennes was expelled, with the incidental consequence that many conservative businessmen and military leaders now became convinced that the Nazi movement had lost much of its subversive drive.101 Nevertheless, there remained very real tensions between the ceaseless activism of the stormtroopers and the political calculation of the Party leaders, which were to surface repeatedly in the future.102 More seriously, the Stennes revolt indicated that many brownshirts were keen to unleash revolutionary violence on a considerable scale, a lesson that was not lost on the nervous Reich government.

These suspicions were confirmed with the discovery of the so-called Boxheim documents in November 1931. Nazi papers seized by the police in Hesse showed that the SA was planning a violent putsch, to be followed by food rationing, the abolition of money, compulsory labour for all, and the death penalty for disobeying the authorities. The reality fell some way short of the police’s claims, since the Boxheim documents were in fact only of regional significance, and had been devised without the knowledge of his superiors by a young Party official in Hesse, Werner Best, to guide Party policy in the event of an attempted Communist uprising in Hesse. Hitler quickly distanced himself from the affair and all SA commanders were ordered to desist from making any more contingency plans of this kind. Criminal proceedings were eventually dropped for lack of clear evidence of treason against Best.103 But the damage had been done. Brüning obtained a decree on 7 December banning the wearing of political uniforms and backed it with a strongly worded attack on Nazi illegality. Referring to Hitler’s constantly reiterated assurances that he intended to come to power legally, Brüning said: ‘If one declares that, having come to power by legal means, one will then break the bounds of the law, that is not legality.’104

The ban on uniforms had little effect, since the brownshirts carried on marching, only dressed in white shirts instead, and violence continued during the winter. Rumours of an impending Communist insurrection, coupled with pressure from Schleicher, stayed Brüning’s hand during this period, but Communist electoral setbacks in Hamburg, Hesse and Oldenburg convinced him in the spring of 1932 that the moment had come to ban the brownshirts altogether. Under heavy pressure from the other political parties, particularly the Social Democrats, and with the support of the worried military, Brüning and General Groener (whom he had appointed Interior Minister in October 1931 in addition to his existing responsibilities as Minister of Defence) persuaded a reluctant Hindenburg to issue a decree outlawing the stormtroopers on 13 April 1932. The police raided brownshirt premises all over Germany, confiscating military equipment and insignia. Hitler was beside himself with rage but impotent to act. Yet despite the ban, clandestine membership of the stormtroopers continued to grow in many areas. In Upper and Lower Silesia, for instance, there were 17,500 stormtroopers in December 1931, and no fewer than 34,500 by the following July. The outlawing of the brownshirts had only a slightly dampening effect on levels of political violence, and the presence of Nazi sympathizers in the lower ranks of the police allowed the Nazi paramilitaries a fair degree of latitude in continuing their operations.105 Claims that the Nazi Party and their paramilitary wing would have virtually ceased to exist had the ban been continued for a year or more were thus very wide of the mark.106

The new situation after the Nazis’ electoral breakthrough not only sharply escalated the level of violence on the streets, it also radically altered the nature of proceedings in the Reichstag. Rowdy and chaotic enough even before September 1930, it now became virtually unmanageable, as 107 brown-shirted and uniformed Nazi deputies joined 77 disciplined and well-organized Communists in raising incessant points of order, chanting, shouting, interrupting and demonstrating their total contempt for the legislature at every juncture. Power drained from the Reichstag with frightening rapidity, as almost every session ended in uproar and the idea of calling it together for a meeting came to seem ever more pointless. From September 1930 only negative majorities were possible in the Reichstag. In February 1931, recognizing the impossibility of carrying on, it adjourned itself for six months as the parties of the extreme right and left demonstratively walked out of a debate after amendments to the parliamentary rule book made it more difficult for them to obstruct business. The deputies did not return until October.107 The Reichstag sat on average a hundred days a year from 1920 to 1930. It was in session for fifty days between October 1930 and March 1931; after that, it only met on twenty-four further days up to the elections of July 1932. From July 1932 to February 1933 it convened for a mere three days in six months.108

By 1931, therefore, decisions were no longer really being made by the Reichstag. Political power had moved elsewhere - to the circle around Hindenburg, with whom the right to sign decrees and the right to appoint governments lay, and to the streets, where violence continued to escalate, and where growing poverty, misery and disorder confronted the state with an increasingly urgent need for action. Both these processes greatly enhanced the influence of the army. Only in such circumstances could someone like its most important political representative, General Kurt von Schleicher, become one of the key players in the drama that followed. Ambitious, quick-witted, talkative and rather too fond of political intrigue for his own good, Schleicher was a relatively unknown figure before he suddenly shot to prominence in 1929, when a new office was created for him, the ‘Ministerial Office’, which had the function of representing the armed forces in their relations with the government. A close collaborator of Groener for many years, and a disciple of the leading general of the early 1920s, Hans von Seeckt, Schleicher had forged many political connections through running a variety of offices at the interface of military and political affairs, most recently the army section of the Defence Ministry. The dissident Russian Communist Leon Trotsky described him as ‘a question mark with the epaulettes of a general’; a contemporary journalist saw him as a ‘sphinx in uniform’. But for the most part Schleicher’s aims and beliefs were clear enough: like many German conservatives in 1932, he thought that an authoritarian regime could be given legitimacy by harnessing and taming the popular might of the National Socialists. In this way, the German army, for which Schleicher spoke, and with which he continued to have very close contacts, would get what it wanted in the way of rearmament.109

Brüning’s government ran into increasing difficulties with Schleicher and the circle around President Hindenburg after the elections of September 1930. With the Communists and the Nazis baying for his blood, the Nationalists trying to oust him, and far-right fringe groups divided over whether to support him or not, Brüning had no option but to rely on the Social Democrats. For their part, the leaders of what was still the largest party in the Reichstag were sufficiently shocked by the election results to promise that they would not repeat their earlier rejection of the budget. Brüning’s dependence on the tacit toleration of his policies by the Social Democrats won him no credit at all among the circle around Hindenburg, led by his son Oskar and his State Secretary Meissner, who regarded this as a shameful concession to the left.110 The Chancellor’s main priorities now lay in the field of foreign policy, where he made some headway in securing the end of reparations - abrogated by the Hoover Moratorium on 20 June 1931 and effectively ended by the Lausanne Conference, for which Brüning had laid much of the groundwork, in July 1932. And although he failed to achieve the creation of an Austro-German Customs Union, he did conduct successful negotiations in Geneva for the international recognition of German equality in questions of disarmament, a principle eventually conceded in December 1932. However, none of this did anything to strengthen the Chancellor’s political position. After many months in office, he had still failed to win over the Nationalists and was still dependent on the Social Democrats. This meant that any plans either Brüning himself or the circle around Hindenburg might have had to amend the constitution decisively in a more authoritarian direction were effectively stymied, since this was the one thing to which the Social Democrats would never give their assent. To men such as Schleicher, shifting the government’s mass support from the Social Democrats to the Nazis seemed increasingly to be the better option.111


As 1932 dawned, the venerable Paul von Hindenburg’s seven-year term of office as President was coming to an end. In view of his advanced years - he was 84 - Hindenburg was reluctant to stand again, but he had let it be known that he would be willing to continue in office if his tenure could simply be prolonged without an election. Negotiations over automatically renewing Hindenburg’s Presidency foundered on the refusal of the Nazis to vote in the Reichstag for the necessary constitutional change without the simultaneous dismissal of Brüning and the calling of a fresh general election in which, of course, they expected to make further huge gains.112 Hindenburg was thus forced to undergo the indignity of presenting himself to the electorate once more. But this time things were very different from the first time round, in 1925. Of course, Thälmann stood again for the Communists. But in the meantime Hindenburg had been far outflanked on the right; indeed, the entire political spectrum had shifted rightwards since the Nazi electoral landslide of September 1930. Once the election was announced, Hitler could hardly avoid standing as a candidate himself. Several weeks passed while he dithered, however, fearful of the consequences of running against such a nationalist icon as the hero of Tannenberg. Moreover, technically he was not even allowed to stand since he had not yet acquired German citizenship. Hurried arrangements were made for him to be appointed as a civil servant in Braunschweig, a measure that automatically gave him the status of a German citizen, confirmed when he took the oath of allegiance (to the Weimar constitution, as all civil servants had to) on 26 February 1932.113 His candidacy transformed the election into a contest between right and left in which Hitler was unarguably the candidate for the right, which made Hindenburg, extraordinarily, incredibly, the candidate for the left.


Map 12. The President Election of 1932 First Round.

The Centre and the liberals backed Hindenburg, but what was particularly astonishing was the degree of support he received from the Social Democrats. This was not merely because the party considered him the only man who could stop Hitler - a point the party’s propaganda made repeatedly throughout the election campaign - but for positive reasons as well. The party leaders were desperate to re-elect Hindenburg because they thought that he would keep Brüning in office as the last chance of a return to democratic normality.114 Hindenburg, declared the Social Democratic Prussian Minister-President Otto Braun, was the ‘embodiment of calm and constancy, of manly loyalty and devotion to duty for the whole people’, a ‘man on whose work one can build, as a man of pure desire and serene judgment’.115 Already at this time, as these astonishing sentences showed, the Social Democrats were beginning to lose touch with political reality. Eighteen months of tolerating Brüning’s cuts in the name of preventing something worse had relegated them to the sidelines of politics and robbed them of the power of decision. Despite disillusionment and defections amongst their members, their disciplined party machine duly delivered more than 8 million votes to the man who was to dismantle the Republic from above, in an effort to keep in office a Chancellor whom Hindenburg actually disliked and distrusted, and whose policies had been lowering the living standards and destroying the jobs of the very people the Social Democrats represented.116


Map 13. The President Election of 1932 . Second Round

The threat of a Nazi victory was real enough. The Goebbels propaganda machine found a way of combating Hindenburg without insulting him: he had done great service to the nation, but now was the time for him finally to step aside in favour of a younger man, otherwise the drift into economic chaos and political anarchy would continue. The Nazis unleashed a massive campaign of rallies, marches, parades and meetings, backed by posters, flysheets and ceaseless exhortations in the press. But it was not enough. In the first ballot, Hitler only managed to win 30 per cent of the vote. Yet despite the efforts of the Social Democrats and the electoral strength of the Centre Party, Hindenburg did not quite manage to obtain the overall majority required. He gained only 49.6 per cent of the vote, tantalizingly short of what he needed. On the left, Thälmann offered another alternative. On the right, Hindenburg had been outflanked not only by Hitler but also by Theodor Duesterberg, the candidate put up by the Steel Helmets, who received 6.8 per cent of the vote in the first ballot, which would have been more than enough to have pushed Hindenburg over the winning margin.117

For the run-off, between Hitler, Hindenburg and Thälmann, the Nazis pulled out all the stops. Hitler rented an aeroplane and flew across Germany from town to town, delivering 46 speeches the length and breadth of the land. The effect of this unprecedented move, billed as Hitler’s ‘flight over Germany’, was electrifying. The effort paid off. Thälmann was reduced to a marginal 10 per cent, but Hitler boosted his vote massively to 37 per cent with over 13 million votes cast in his favour. Hindenburg, with the combined might of all the major parties behind him apart from the Communists and the Nazis, only managed to increase his support to 53 per cent. Of course, despite the hiccup of the first ballot, his re-election had been foreseeable from the start. What really mattered was the triumphant forward march of the Nazis. Hitler had not been elected, but his party had won more votes than ever before. It was beginning to look unstoppable.118 In 1932, better organized and better financed than in 1930, the Nazi Party had run an American-style Presidential campaign focusing on the person of Hitler as the representative of the whole of Germany. It had concentrated its efforts not so much on winning over the workers, where its campaign of 1930 had largely failed, but in garnering the middle-class votes that had previously gone to the splinter-parties and the parties of the liberal and conservative Protestant electorate. Eighteen months of worsening unemployment and economic crisis had further radicalized these voters in their disillusion with the Weimar Republic, over which, after all, Hindenburg had been presiding for the past seven years. Goebbels’s propaganda apparatus targeted specific groups of voters with greater precision than ever before, above all women. In the Protestant countryside, rural discontent had deepened to the point where Hitler actually defeated Hindenburg in the second round in Pomerania, Schleswig-Holstein and Eastern Hanover.119 And the Nazi movement’s new status as Germany’s most popular political party was underlined by further victories in the state elections held later in the spring - 36.3 per cent in Prussia, 32.5 per cent in Bavaria, 31.2 per cent in Hamburg, 26.4 per cent in Württemberg, and, above all, 40.9 per cent in Saxony-Anhalt, a result that gave them the right to form a state government. Once more, Hitler had taken to the air, delivering 25 speeches in quick succession. Once more, the Nazi propaganda machine had proved its efficiency and its dynamism.

Brüning’s attempts to curb the Nazi Party’s rise had obviously failed to make any kind of impact. The time seemed to many in President Hindenburg’s entourage to be ripe for a different tactic. Despite his election victory, Hindenburg was far from satisfied with the result. The fact that he had run into such serious opposition was highly displeasing to a man who was increasingly treating his position like that of the unelected Kaiser he had once served. Brüning’s cardinal sin was to have failed to persuade the Nationalists to support Hindenburg’s re-election. When it became clear that they were backing Hitler, Brüning’s days were numbered. Despite the Reich Chancellor’s tireless campaigning on his behalf, the old Field-Marshal, who embodied for many the Prussian traditions of monarchism and Protestant conservatism, was deeply resentful at his dependence on the votes of the Social Democrats and the Centre Party, which made him look like the candidate of the left and the clericals, as, indeed, in the end, he was. Moreover, the army was becoming impatient with the crippling effects of Brüning’s economic policies on the arms industry, and considered that his ban on the brownshirts got in the way of recruiting them as auxiliary troops, a prospect that became more enticing the more members they acquired. Finally, Hindenburg’s attention was drawn to a moderate measure of land reform being proposed by the government in the east, in which bankrupt estates would be broken up and provided as smallholdings to the unemployed. As a representative of the landed interest himself, with an estate of his own, Hindenburg was persuaded that this smacked of socialism.120 In an atmosphere heavy with behind-the-scenes intrigue, with Schleicher undermining Groener’s standing with the army and Hitler promising to tolerate a new government if it lifted the ban on the brownshirts and called new elections to the Reichstag, Brüning rapidly became more isolated. When Groener was forced to resign on 11 May 1932, Brüning’s position was left completely exposed. Continually undermined by intrigues in Hindenburg’s entourage, he saw no alternative but to tender his resignation, which he did on 30 May 1932.121


The man whom Hindenburg appointed as the new Reich Chancellor was an old personal friend, Franz von Papen. A landed aristocrat whose position in the Centre Party, for which he had sat as an obscure and not very active deputy in the Prussian Parliament, Papen was even further to the right than Brüning himself. During the First World War he had been expelled from the United States, where he was military attaché at the German Embassy, for spying, or ‘activities incompatible with his status’, as the conventional diplomatic phrase went, and joined the German General Staff. During the 1920s he used the wealth brought him by a marriage to the daughter of a rich industrialist to buy a majority share in the Centre Party’s newspaper, Germania. Papen thus had close contacts with some of the key social and political forces in the Weimar Republic, including the landed aristocracy, the Foreign Office, the army, the industrialists, the Catholic Church and the press. Indeed, he had been recommended to Hindenburg by Schleicher as someone who would be sympathetic to the army’s interests. Even more than Brüning, he represented a form of Catholic political authoritarianism common throughout Europe in the early 1930s. Papen had long been at odds with his party, and he had openly championed Hindenburg against the Centre candidate Marx in the 1925 Presidential election. The Centre disowned Papen, who in his turn handed in his party membership card, proclaiming that he sought a ‘synthesis of all truly nationalistic forces - from whatever camp they may come - not as a party man, but as a German’.122 Now the break was complete.123

These events marked, explicitly as well as in retrospect, the end of parliamentary democracy in Germany. Most members of the new cabinet were without party affiliation, apart from a couple who were, nominally at least, members of the Nationalist Party. Papen and his fellow-ideologues, including Schleicher, saw themselves as creating a ‘New State’, above parties, indeed opposed to the very principle of a multi-party system, with the powers of elected assemblies even more limited than they had been in Brüning’s more modest vision. The kind of state they were thinking of was indicated by Papen’s Interior Minister, Wilhelm Freiherr von Gayl, who had helped create a racist, authoritarian, military state in the area ceded to Germany by the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918.124Among Gayl’s proposals were the restriction of voting rights to a minority and the drastic reduction of parliamentary powers.125 Papen’s self-appointed task was to roll back history, not just Weimar democracy but everything that had happened in European politics since the French Revolution, and re-create in the place of modern class conflict the hierarchical basis of ancien régime society.126 As a small but potent symbol of this intention, he abolished the use of that classic symbol of the French Revolution, the guillotine, for executions in parts.of Prussia where it had been introduced in the nineteenth century, and replaced it with the traditional Prussian instrument of the hand-held axe.127 Meanwhile, in a more immediately practical way, Papen’s government began extending the curbs imposed by its predecessor on the radical press to democratic newspapers as well, banning popular left-liberal publications like the Social Democratic daily paper Forwards twice within a few weeks, pro-scribing popular left-liberal papers like the Berlin People’s Paper (Berliner Volkszeitung) on two separate occasions, and convincing liberal commentators that press freedom had finally been abolished.128

Papen’s utopian conservatism did scant justice to the political realities of 1932. Papen’s cabinet was made up of men with relatively little experience. So many of them were unknown aristocrats that it was widely known as the ‘cabinet of barons’. In the discussions that preceded Brüning’s resignation, Papen and Schleicher had agreed that they needed to win over the Nazis to provide mass support for the anti-democratic policies of the new government. They secured Hindenburg’s agreement to dissolve the Reichstag and call fresh elections, which Hitler had been demanding in the expectation that they would lead to a further increase in the Nazi vote. The elections were set for the end of July 1932. In addition, they also conceded Hitler’s demand for a lifting of the ban on the brownshirts. This would, thought Schleicher, tame Nazi extremism and among other things persuade the brownshirts to act as an auxiliary army with which the limitations on the strength of the German armed forces imposed by the Treaty of Versailles could be decisively circumvented. 129 But it proved another disastrous miscalculation. Masses of stormtroopers flooded triumphantly back onto the streets, and beatings, pitched battles, woundings and killings, never entirely absent even during the period of the ban since the previous April, quickly reached record new levels. Even so, public opinion was shocked when, on 17 July 1932, a march staged by thousands of Nazi stormtroopers through the Communist stronghold of Altona, a working-class municipality on the Prussian side of the state border of Hamburg, ran into violent resistance from thousands of heavily armed Red Front-Fighters. Richard Krebs, in charge of 800 Communist sailors and dockers ready to drive the Nazis from the waterfront, reported later how the Red Front-Fighters were under orders to attack the stormtroopers in the streets. Stones, rubbish and all kinds of missiles were hurled at the passing marchers. According to some reports, there were Communist sharp-shooters on the roofs, ready to massacre the stormtroopers below. Someone, nobody was sure who, fired a shot. Immediately, the police panicked and opened fire with everything they had, spraying the locality with bullets and causing panic flight in all directions. The Communists were driven away along with the rest. Their attempt to stop the brownshirt march through their territory had been an abject failure.130 Eighteen people were killed and more than a hundred injured. Most of the deaths were caused, as autopsy reports revealed, by bullets fired from police revolvers. The depths of violence to which German political confrontations had now sunk clearly demanded action by the government.131

Far from banning the paramilitaries again, however, Papen seized on the events of ‘Bloody Sunday’ in Altona to depose the state government of Prussia, which was led by the Social Democrats Otto Braun and Carl Severing, on the grounds that it was no longer capable of maintaining law and order. This was the decisive blow against the Social Democrats which he had been put into office to achieve. Papen had a sort of precedent in Ebert’s deposition of the Saxon and Thuringian state governments in 1923, but Prussia, covering more than half the territory of the Reich, with a population greater than that of France, was a far more significant target. The central position of the army in the strife-torn political situation of 1932 was graphically illustrated as heavily armed combat troops took to the streets of Berlin, and a military state of emergency was declared throughout the capital city. The Social Democrat-controlled police force was simply pushed aside; any attempt by the Prussian government to use it as a means of resisting the armed strength of the military would only have led to confusion. Its manpower was too small, and the senior and middle-ranking officers were either disillusioned with the Republic, sympathized with Papen, or had been won over by the Nazis.132

If Papen and Schleicher feared a workers’ uprising, they were wrong. Many rank-and-file members of the Reichsbanner were ready to take up arms, and machine guns, pistols and carbines had been assembled to defend the party headquarters in the event of a putsch until the police, who, the party assumed—wrongly, as it turned out - would resist any attempt to overthrow the Republic, arrived on the scene. A recent increase in numbers had brought the strength of the Reichsbanner’s Republican Defence Units up to more than 200,000. But they were heavily outnumbered by the combined forces of some three-quarters of a million brownshirts and Steel Helmets, who would certainly have mobilized against them had they staged an uprising. They were poorly trained and ill prepared. And they would have been no match for the well-equipped forces of the German army. The Communists, who had better reserves of arms, were certainly not going to take them up to defend the Social Democrats.133 .

In the situation of July 1932, when Hindenburg, the military leadership and the conservatives were all extremely anxious to avoid provoking a civil war in Germany, an armed uprising by the Reichsbanner might have forced a climbdown by Papen, or an intervention by the Reich President. One can never know. The call to resist never came. The law-abiding traditions of the Social Democrats compelled them to put a ban on any armed resistance to an act that was sanctioned by the head of state and the legally constituted government, backed by the armed forces and not opposed by the police.134 All that remained as an option for Braun and Severing were rhetorical protests and lawsuits brought against Papen on the ground that he had breached the constitution. On 10 October 1932, the State Court ruled in part at least in favour of the Braun cabinet, which therefore continued to be a thorn in the Reich government’s flesh by representing Prussia in the Reich Council, the upper chamber of the national legislature.135 Meanwhile, Papen secured from the President his own appointment as Reich Commissioner to carry out the business of government in Prussia, while punctilious civil servants dithered and suspended business until the legal position was resolved.136

Papen’s coup dealt a mortal blow to the Weimar Republic. It destroyed the federal principle and opened the way to the wholesale centralization of the state. Whatever happened now, it was unlikely to be a 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 absence of any serious resistance on the part of the Social Democrats, the principal remaining defenders of democracy, was decisive. It convinced both conservatives and National Socialists that the destruction of democratic institutions could be achieved without any serious opposition. The Social Democrats had received plenty of advance warning of the coup. Yet they had done nothing. They were paralysed not only by the backing given to the coup by the man they had so recently supported in the Presidential election campaign, Paul von Hindenburg, but also by their catastrophic defeat in the Prussian parliamentary elections of April 1932. While the Nazis had increased their representation in the Prussian legislature from 9 seats to 162, and the Communists from 48 to 57, the Social Democrats had lost a third of their mandates, falling from 137 to 94. No party now had a majority, and the existing administration, led by Braun and Severing, carried on as a minority government with a correspondingly weakened political legitimacy. Beyond this, too, a sense of impotence had spread throughout the party leadership during the long months of passive toleration of Brüning’s savage policy of cuts. The trade unions were powerless to do anything against the coup because the massive unemployment made a general strike impossible; millions of desperate, jobless people would have had little choice but to take on work as strikebreakers, and they knew it. A repeat of the united labour movement stand that had defeated the Kapp putsch in 1920 was thus out of the question. The Nazis were jubilant. ‘You only have to bare your teeth at the reds and they knuckle under’, wrote the Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels in his diary for 20 July: the Social Democrats and trade unions, he observed with satisfaction, ‘aren’t lifting a finger’. ‘The reds’, he noted not long after, ‘have missed their big chance. It’s never going to come again.’137

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