Modern history



Revolutionary rhetoric and unbridled violence on the streets were not exactly what Papen and Hitler’s other cabinet allies had been expecting when they had agreed to Hitler’s becoming Reich Chancellor two months before, for all their approval of the police crackdown on the left. They had rather expected that bringing the Nazis into government would put a stop to all this. For worried conservatives and traditionalists, including Reich President Hindenburg, who after all still possessed at least the formal power to sack Hitler and replace him with someone else, the Nazis therefore staged a reassuring ceremony to mark the state opening of the newly elected Reichstag. Given the unavailability of the gutted and ruined Reichstag building, the ceremony had to take place elsewhere. Hitler and his conservative allies agreed to hold it in the garrison church at Potsdam, the symbolic locus of the Prussian monarchy, on 21 March 1933, the exact anniversary of the day on which the inaugural Reichstag had met after Bismarck’s founding of the Second Reich. The elaborate ceremony was planned down to the last detail by Goebbels as a propaganda demonstration of the unity of the old Reich and the new. Hindenburg stood next to the Kaiser’s vacant throne, dressed in the uniform of a Prussian Field-Marshal, to receive the obeisance of the frock-coated Hitler, who bowed and shook his hand. The Reich Chancellor gave a speech notable for its studied moderation, praising Hindenburg for his historical role in entrusting the fate of Germany to a new generation. Wreaths were laid on the tombs of the Prussian kings, and Hindenburg then reviewed a massive parade of the paramilitaries and the army.

The ritual was more important for the visual images it conveyed than for the speeches that were delivered. Here was Hitler appearing as a soberly dressed civilian statesman, humbly acknowledging the supremacy of the Prussian military tradition. Here were flags in the imperial colours of black, white and red, that had already officially replaced the black, red and gold of the Weimar Republic on 12 March. Here were the Prussian military grandees in their sometimes outlandish uniforms redolent of monarchist tradition. Here was the Protestant church, implicitly reasserting its supremacy alongside that of the army and the throne. Here was the restoration of the old Germany, wiping history clean of the tainted memory of Weimar democracy.107 Not surprisingly, the Social Democrats declined the invitation to attend. In a further piece of symbolism, Hitler for his part refused to go to a service at the Catholic parish church in Potsdam on the grounds that Catholic priests, still loyal to the Centre Party and critical of what they regarded as the Nazis’ godless ways, had barred some leading Nazis from receiving the sacraments. This was a clear warning to the Church that it was time to fall into line.108

Two days later, in the Kroll Opera House, designated as the temporary home of the Reichstag, Hitler, now dressed, like the other Nazi deputies, in a brownshirt paramilitary uniform, spoke to the Reichstag in a very different atmosphere. Standing beneath a huge swastika banner, he introduced the long-planned measure that would enable the Reich Chancellor to prepare laws that deviated from the constitution without the approval of the Reichstag and without reference to the President. This ‘Enabling Act’ would have to be renewed after four years, and the existence of the Reichstag itself, the upper legislative chamber representing the federated states, and the position of the Reich President, was not to be affected. What it meant, however, was that the Weimar constitution would be a dead letter, and the Reichstag would be shut out of the legislative process altogether. The passage of the Enabling Act was by no means assured: 94 out of the 120 elected Social Democrats were still able to vote - of those absent, some were in prison, some were ill, and some stayed away because they feared for their lives. Hitler knew in any case that he would not get the Social Democrats’ support. An amendment of the Weimar constitution required both a two-thirds quorum and a two-thirds majority of those present. Hermann Goring, as the Reichstag’s presiding officer, reduced the quorum from 432 to 378 by not counting the Communist deputies, even though they had all been legally elected. This was a high-handed decision that had no legitimacy in law whatsoever.109 Yet even after this illegal manoeuvre, the Nazis still needed the votes of the Centre Party to push the measure through.

By this point in its history, the party had long since ceased to be a supporter of democracy. Following the general trend of political Catholicism in interwar Europe, it had come to support the principles of authoritarianism and dictatorship out of fear of Bolshevism and revolution. True, what seemed to be shaping up in Germany was not quite the kind of ‘clerico-fascist’ regime to which Catholic politicians were soon to lend their support in Austria and Spain. But in 1929 the Catholic Church had safeguarded its position in Italy through a Concordat with Mussolini, and the prospect of a similar arrangement was now held out to it in Germany as well. The escalating terror to which Catholics and their political representatives, newspapers, speakers and local officials had been subjected since the middle of February made the Centre Party look anxiously for guarantees that the Church would survive. Now, under stronger clerical influence than ever before, and led by a Catholic priest, Prelate Ludwig Kaas, the party was reassured in two days of discussions with Hitler that the rights of the Church would not be affected by the Enabling Act. The doubts of Heinrich Brüning and his close advisers were assuaged. The federated states, bastions of Catholicism in the south, would remain intact, despite their takeover by Reich Commissioners appointed from Berlin, and the judiciary would stay independent. These promises, combined with heavy pressure from the Vatican, proved sufficient to win the Centre Party deputies over to supporting the measure that in the long run was bound to mean their own political demise.110

The deputies arrived at the Kroll Opera House in an atmosphere heavy with violence and intimidation. The Social Democrat Wilhelm Hoegner remembered:

Wild chants greeted us: ‘We want the Enabling Law!’ Young lads with the swastika on their chests looked us cheekily up and down, virtually barring the way for us. They quite made us run the gauntlet, and shouted insults at us like ‘Centrist pig’, ‘Marxist sow’. In the Kroll Opera it was swarming with armed SA and SS ... The debating chamber was decorated with swastikas and similar ornaments ... When we Social Democrats had taken our places on the far left, SA and SS men placed themselves by the exits and along the walls behind us in a half-circle. Their attitude did not bode well for us.111

Hitler began his speech with his usual diatribes against the ‘November criminals’ of 1918 and boasted of his removal of the threat of Communism. He repeated his promise to protect the interests of the Churches, particularly in the schools, a major bone of contention under the Weimar Republic. He ended, however, with an unmistakeable threat of violent repression should the measure be rejected. The ‘government of the nationalist uprising’, he declared, was ‘determined and ready to deal with the announcement that the Act has been rejected and with it that resistance has been declared. May you, gentlemen, now take the decision yourselves as to whether it is to be peace or war.’ This did not fail to have an effect on wavering Centre Party deputies such as Heinrich Brüning, who now decided to vote for the Act. ‘They fear’, as Joseph Wirth, one of the party’s leading figures and a former Reich Chancellor himself, told the Social Democrats in private, ‘that if the Act is rejected, the Nazi revolution will break out and there will be bloody anarchy’.112

In the face of such threats, the Social Democrats had decided that their chairman, Otto Wels, should adopt a moderate, even conciliatory tone in his speech for the opposition, fearing that otherwise he might be shot down or beaten up by the brownshirts who were standing threateningly round the edge of the chamber, or arrested as he went out. What he had to say, however, was dramatic enough. He defended the achievements of the Weimar Republic in bringing about equality of opportunity, social welfare and the return of Germany to the international community. ‘Freedom and life can be taken from us, but not honour.’ Wels was not exaggerating: several prominent Social Democrats had already been killed by the Nazis, and he himself was carrying a cyanide capsule in his waist pocket as he spoke, ready to swallow should he be arrested and tortured by the brownshirts after delivering his speech. His voice choking with emotion, he ended with an appeal to the future:

In this historic hour, we German Social Democrats solemnly profess our allegiance to the basic principles of humanity and justice, freedom and socialism. No Enabling Law gives you the right to annihilate ideas that are eternal and indestructible. The Anti-Socialist Law did not annihilate the Social Democrats. Social Democracy can also draw new strength from fresh persecutions. We greet the persecuted and the hard-pressed. Their steadfastness and loyalty deserve admiration. The courage of their convictions, their unbroken confidence, vouch for a brighter future.

Wels’s peroration was greeted with uproar in the chamber, the mocking, raucous laughter of the Nazi deputies drowning out the applause from his own benches.

Hitler’s response was contemptuous. The Social Democrats had sent the speech to the press in advance of the session, and Hitler’s staff had obtained a copy on which to base the Chancellor’s reply. He knew that he did not need their votes. ‘You think’, he said, to thunderous applause from the uniformed ranks of Nazi deputies, ‘that your star could rise again! Gentlemen, Germany’s star will rise and yours will sink .’.. Germany shall be free, but not through you!’ After brief speeches by the leaders of the other parties, the deputies voted 444 in favour and 94 against. The once proud German liberals, now represented through the German State Party, were amongst the bill’s supporters. Only the Social Democrats voted against. So great was the majority that the bill would have passed even had all 120 Social Democratic and all 81 Communist deputies been present, making the total number of seats 647 instead of 566, and all of them had voted ‘no’.113

With the Enabling Act now in force, the Reichstag could be effectively dispensed with. From this point on, Hitler and his cabinet ruled by decree, either using President Hindenburg as a rubber stamp, or bypassing him entirely, as the Act allowed them to. Nobody believed that when the four years of the Act’s duration had elapsed, the Reichstag would be in a position to object to its renewal, nor was it. As with the Reichstag fire decree, a temporary piece of emergency legislation with some limited precedents in the Weimar period now became the legal, or pseudo-legal basis for the permanent removal of civil rights and democratic liberties. Renewed in 1937 and again in 1939, it was made permanent by decree in 1943. The brownshirt terror on the streets was already comprehensive enough to make it quite clear what was now about to happen. Wels was right to predict that Germany would soon become a one-party state.114


With the Communists already effectively out of the way since 28 February, and the Enabling Act in force, the regime now turned its attention to the Social Democrats and the trade unions. They had already been subjected to widespread arrests, beatings, intimidation, even murder, and to the occupation of their premises and the banning of their newspapers. Now the full fury of the Nazis was turned upon them. They were in no condition to resist. The ability to work together with the unions had been crucial to the Social Democrats in defeating the Kapp putsch in 1920. But it was no longer present in the spring of 1933. Both wings of the labour movement had been united in their disapproval of the appointment of Hitler as Chancellor in January 1933. And both had suffered similar acts of violence and repression in the following two months, with trade union premises being occupied and trashed by gangs of stormtroopers in growing numbers. Up to 25 March, according to the unions themselves, union offices had been occupied by brownshirts, SS or police units in 45 separate towns throughout the Reich. Such pressure was the most direct possible threat to the continued existence of the unions as the functional representatives of the workers in negotiating pay and conditions with their employers. It also drove a rapidly deepening cleft between the trade unions on the one hand and the Social Democrats on the other.

As the political repression and marginalization of the Social Democrats rapidly became more obvious, so the trade unions under Theodor Leipart began to try to preserve their existence by distancing themselves from the Social Democratic Party and seeking an accommodation with the new regime. On 21 March the leadership denied any intention of playing a role in politics and declared that it was prepared to carry out the social function of the trade unions ‘whatever the kind of state regime’ in power.115 The Nazis were aware, of course, that they had little support among trade unionists; the Nazi factory cell organization116 was not popular, and only managed single-figure percentages in the great majority of the elections to works councils held in the first months of 1933. Only in a very few areas, like the Krupp works, the chemical industry, some steelworks, or the Ruhr coal mines, did it do significantly better, showing that some workers in some major branches of industry were beginning to accommodate themselves to the new regime.117Alarmed at the general result, however, the Nazis enforced an indefinite postponement of the remaining works council elections.

Despite their annoyance at this arbitrary interference in their democratic rights, the trade union leader Theodor Leipart and his designated successor Wilhelm Leuschner intensified their efforts to secure the institutional survival of their movement. They were encouraged in their efforts at a compromise by their belief that the Nazis were serious about setting up the job-creation schemes they had been demanding for many years. On 28 April they concluded an agreement with the Christian and Liberal Trade Unions that was intended to form the first step towards a complete unification of all trade unions in a single national organization. ‘The nationalist revolution’, began the unification document, ‘has created a new state. This state wants to bring together the whole German nation in unity and asserts its power.’ The unions evidently thought that they had a positive part to play in this process, and wanted to play it independently. As a sign that they would do so, they agreed to support Goebbels’s public declaration that May Day, traditionally the occasion for massive public demonstrations of the labour movement’s strength, would be a public holiday for the first time. This was a long-cherished desire of the labour movement. The unions agreed that it would be known as the ‘Day of National Labour’. This act, once more, symbolized the new regime’s synthesis of the seemingly divergent traditions of nationalism and socialism.118

On the day itself, trade union premises, in a departure from labour movement tradition that many older workers must have found scandalous and depressing, were decked out with the old national colours of black, white and red. Karl Schrader, president of the textile workers’ union, marched in the Berlin procession under the sign of the swastika, not the only union official to do so. Few, indeed, took part in the ‘flying’ counter-demonstrations staged with lightning speed at various locations by the Communists, or the quiet commemorations of the day held behind locked doors by the Social Democrats in their own secret meeting-places. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions of people marched through the streets led by brass bands of stormtroopers playing the Horst Wessel Song and patriotic tunes. They streamed towards vast open-air meeting-places, where they listened to speeches and readings from nationalistic ‘worker-poets’. In the evening, Hitler’s voice boomed out over the radio, assuring all German workers that unemployment would soon be a thing of the past.119

The Tempelhof field in Berlin was packed with a vast assembly of over a million people arranged, military-style, in twelve huge squares, surrounded by a sea of Nazi flags, with three huge Nazi banners illuminated by searchlights. After dark, firework displays culminated in the emergence from the gloom of vast glowing swastikas lighting up the sky. The media blared forth their celebration of the winning over of the workers to the new regime. It was a proletarian counterpart of the ceremony held for the upper classes at Potsdam ten days before.120 The masses, however, did not appear at the ceremonies entirely of their own accord: and the atmosphere was less than wholly enthusiastic. Many workers, especially in state employment, had been threatened with dismissal for non-attendance, while thousands of industrial employees in Berlin had had their timecards confiscated on arriving at work, with the promise that they would only get them back on the Tempelhof field. The general atmosphere of looming violence and widespread intimidation had also played its part in bringing about the formal agreement of trade union leaders to participate.121

If the union leaders had thought they would preserve their organizations by such compromises, however, they were in for a rude awakening. In early April the Nazis had already begun secret preparations for a takeover of the entire trade union movement. On 17 April Goebbels noted in his diary:

On 1 May we shall arrange May Day as a grandiose demonstration of the German people’s will. On 2 May the trade union offices will be occupied. Co-ordination in this area too. There might possibly be a row for a few days, but then they will belong to us. We must make no allowances any more. We are only doing the workers a service when we free them from the parasitic leadership that has only made their life hard up to now. Once the trade unions are in our hands the other parties and organizations will not be able to hold out for much longer.122

On 2 May 1933 brownshirts and SS men stormed into every Social Democratic-oriented trade union office in the land, took over all the trade union newspapers and periodicals, and occupied all the branches of the trade union bank. Leipart and the other leading union officials were arrested and taken into ‘protective custody’ in concentration camps, where many of them were beaten up and brutally humiliated before being released a week or two later. In a particularly horrific incident, stormtroopers beat four trade union officials to death in the cellar of the trade union building in Duisburg on 2 May. The entire management of the movement and its assets was placed in the hands of the Nazi factory cell organization. On 4 May the Christian Trade Unions and all other union institutions placed themselves unconditionally under Hitler’s leadership. The ‘row’ predicted by Goebbels never materialized. The once-powerful German trade union movement had disappeared without trace virtually overnight.123 ‘The revolution goes on,’ trumpeted Goebbels in his diary on 3 May. With satisfaction he noted the widespread arrests of ‘bigwigs’. ‘We are the masters of Germany,’ he boasted in his diary.124

Confident that the Social Democratic Party would no longer be able to call upon the unions to support any last-minute resistance it might decide to mount, the regime now began the endgame of closing the party down. On 10 May the government seized the party’s assets and property by court order, justified by the General State Prosecutor in Berlin with reference to the supposed embezzlement of trade union funds by Leipart and others, an accusation that had no basis in fact. Wels had arranged for the party’s funds and archive to be shipped out of the country, but the Nazis’ haul was still considerable. This measure deprived the party of any basis on which it could resurrect either its organization or its newspapers, periodicals and other publications. As a political movement it was effectively finished.125 Yet, astonishingly, none of this prevented the Social Democrats from lending their support to the government in the Reichstag on 17 May, when Hitler put before the legislature a neutrally worded resolution in favour of German equality in international disarmament negotiations. The declaration had no real meaning except the assertion of German rights and no purpose apart from winning some credit for the regime abroad after months in which it had been heavily criticized all over the world; the government had no intention of taking part in any kind of disarmament process in reality. Nevertheless, the Social Democratic deputies, led by Paul Lobe, thought they would be portrayed as unpatriotic if they boycotted the session, so those who were able to do so turned up and joined in the Reichstag’s unanimous approval of the resolution, following a hypocritically moderate and neutrally worded speech by Hitler, to the strains of the national anthem, cries of ‘Hail!’ from the Nazis, and overt satisfaction from Hermann Goring, who declared in his capacity as presiding officer of the Reichstag that the world had now witnessed the unity of the German people when its international fate was at stake. The deputies’ action caused outrage in the party, above all among the leaders now in exile: they condemned the action as the negation of the proud vote against the Enabling Act on 23 March. Otto Wels, who had led the opposition to the vote, withdrew his resignation from the Socialist International. The exiled leadership relocated the party headquarters to Prague. In shame and despair at the failure of the Reichstag deputies to realize that they were being used as part of a Nazi propaganda operation, the most passionate opponent of the decision, Toni Pfülf, one of the leading Socal Democratic women in the Reichstag, boycotted the session and committed suicide on 10 June 1933. Lobe himself was arrested; Wels fled the country.126

The gulf between the new party leadership in Prague and those officials and deputies who remained in Germany rapidly deepened. But the regime declared that it could not see any difference between the two wings of the party; those who had decamped to Prague were traitors defaming Germany from a foreign land and those who had not were traitors for aiding and abetting them. On 21 June 1933 Interior Minister Wilhelm Frick ordered the state governments throughout Germany to ban the Social Democratic Party on the basis of the Reichstag fire decree. No Social Democratic deputies in any legislature were to be allowed to take up their seats any more. All Social Democratic meetings, all Social Democratic publications, were prohibited. Membership in the party was declared incompatible with holding any public office or any position in the civil service. On 23 June 1933 Goebbels wrote triumphantly in his diary that the Social Democratic Party had been ‘dissolved. Bravo! The total state won’t have to wait for long now.’127

Social Democrats did not have to wait long either to discover what the total state would mean. As Frick’s decree of 21 June was being published, over three thousand Social Democratic functionaries were arrested all over Germany, severely manhandled, tortured, and thrown into prisons or concentration camps. In the Berlin suburb of Köpenick, when they encountered armed resistance from one house, the stormtroopers rounded up 500 Social Democrats, and beat and tortured them over a period of several days, killing 91; this concerted assault, savage even by the standards of the brownshirts, quickly became known as the ‘Köpenick Blood-Week’. Particular vengeance was wreaked on anyone associated with the left in Munich in the revolutionary days of 1918-19. Kurt Eisner’s former secretary Felix Fechenbach, now editor of the local Social Democratic newspaper in Detmold, had been arrested on 11 March and put into custody along with most of the leading Social Democrats in the province of Lippe. On 8 August a detachment of stormtroopers took him by car out of the state prison, ostensibly to be transferred to Dachau. But on the way, they forced the accompanying policeman out of the vehicle. Then they drove into a wood, where they took Fechenbach a few paces and shot him dead. The Nazi press reported later that he had been ‘shot while trying to escape’.128 Less controversial figures were targeted, too. The former Minister-President of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, Johannes Stelling, a Social Democrat, was taken to a brownshirt barracks, beaten up, and thrown semi-conscious out onto the street, where he was picked up by another gang of stormtroopers, taken off in a car, and tortured to death. His body was sewn into a sack weighted down with stones and thrown into a river. It was later fished out with the bodies of twelve other Social Democratic and Reichsbanner functionaries who had been murdered the same night.129

Similar brutal acts of repression against Social Democrats were carried out all over Germany. Particularly notorious was the makeshift concentration camp opened on 28 April at Dürrgoy, on the southern outskirts of Breslau, by the local brownshirt, Edmund Heines. The camp commandant was a former Free Corps leader and member of a far-right assassination squad, who had been convicted of murder under the Weimar Republic. His prisoners included Hermann Lüdemann, former Social Democratic chief administrator of the Breslau district, the former Social Democratic mayor of the city; and the ex-editor of the Social Democrats’ daily paper in Breslau. Inmates were subjected to repeated beatings and torture. The camp commandant held regular fire drills throughout the night, and had the prisoners beaten as they returned to their barracks. Heines paraded Lüdemann through the streets of Breslau, dressed as a harlequin, to the accompaniment of jeers and insults from watching stormtroopers. He also kidnapped the former Social Democratic President of the Reichstag, Paul Lobe, against whom he had a personal grudge, from his prison in Spandau; pressure from Lobe’s wife and friends quickly secured an order for his release, but he refused to leave, declaring his solidarity with the other Social Democratic prisoners.130

With repression such as this, the party was effectively hounded out of existence well before it fell under the same ban as the Communists on 14 July. In retrospect, its chances of survival had been diminishing rapidly for nearly a year. Decisive in this context was its failure to mount any effective opposition to the Papen coup of 20 July 1932; if there had been any moment when it might have stood up for democracy, that was it. But it is easy to condemn its inaction with hindsight; few in the summer of 1932 could have realized that the amateurish and in many ways rather ludicrous government of Franz von Papen would give way little more than six months later to a regime whose extreme ruthlessness and total disregard for the law were difficult for decent, law-abiding democrats to grasp. In many ways, the labour movement leaders’ desire to avoid violence in July 1932 was thoroughly to their credit; they were not to know that their decision was to play a key role in opening the way to much greater violence later on.

With the crushing of the labour movement, the Nazis, assisted by the state’s law enforcement agencies and the sympathetic inaction of the armed forces, had removed the most serious obstacle to their establishment of a one-party state. The labour movement had been brought to heel, the trade unions smashed, the Social Democratic and Communist Parties, whose combined vote considerably exceeded that of the Nazis in the last fully free elections to the Reichstag in November 1932, had been destroyed in an orgy of violence. There remained, however, another major political force whose members and voters had stayed largely loyal to their principles and representatives throughout the Weimar years: the Centre Party. It derived its strength not simply from political tradition and cultural inheritance, but above all from its identification with the Catholic Church and its adherents. It could not be subjected to the kind of indiscriminate and unbridled brutality that had swept the Communists and the Social Democrats off the political stage. More subtle tactics were required. In May 1933 Hitler and the Nazi leadership set about putting them into action.


Clemens August Count von Galen was a Catholic priest of the traditional kind. Born in 1878 into a noble family in Westphalia, he grew up in an atmosphere of aristocratic piety, encouraged by relations such as his great-uncle, Bishop von Ketteler, one of the founders of social Catholicism. The eleventh of thirteen children, Clemens August seemed almost predestined for the priesthood. His parents, their political consciousness awakened by Bismarck’s attempt to repress the Catholic Church in the 1870s, taught him that conscience, especially religious conscience, came before obedience to authority. But they also taught him modesty and simplicity, for they were short of money and lived in Spartan circumstances in a castle that lacked running water, indoor toilets and heating in most of the rooms. Educated partly at home, partly at a Jesuit academy, Galen went on to qualify for university at a state school. In 1904 he entered the priesthood after graduating in theology from Innsbruck. From 1906 to 1929 he served as a parish priest in Berlin, an overwhelmingly Protestant city with a strong, mostly atheistic working class. Six feet seven inches tall, Galen was a commanding presence in more ways than one, winning a reputation for personal asceticism as well as an ability to communicate with the poor. There was a large dose of noblesse oblige in his attitude to life.131

With such a background, it is not surprising that Galen’s political views were on the right. He supported the German war effort in 1914-18 and tried (unsuccessfully) to volunteer for military service at the front. He abhorred the 1918 Revolution because it overthrew a divinely ordained state order. He firmly believed in the ‘stab-in-the-back’ myth of Germany’s defeat in the war, opposed the Centre Party’s initial commitment to Weimar democracy, and took part, though as a moderating influence, in abortive discussions intended to lead to the foundation of a new Catholic political movement further to the right. Galen excoriated the Weimar constitution as ‘godless’, echoing Cardinal Michael Faulhaber’s condemnation of its secular foundations as ‘blasphemy’. Faulhaber, along with many other priests, welcomed the promise of the Nazi leadership to restore strong Christian foundations to the state in 1933. And indeed, Hitler and most of his leading associates were aware of the breadth and depth of Christian allegiance in the majority of the population, and did not want to antagonize it in the course of suppressing parties such as the Centre. They were thus careful in the early months of 1933 to insist repeatedly on the adherence of the new government to the Christian faith. They declared that the ‘nationalist revolution’ intended to put an end to the materialist atheism of the Weimar left and to propagate a ‘positive Christianity’ instead, above confession and attuned to the Germanic spirit.132

Catholic priests like Galen were generally worried about the position of the Catholic Church in a country where atheistic Communism seemed a major threat. But they also had more secular concerns. The Weimar Republic had seen the Catholic community achieve unprecedented participation in the state, in government and in senior posts in the civil service. In pursuit of the promised Concordat which, they were assured, would preserve these gains, the German bishops withdrew their opposition to Nazism and issued a collective declaration of support for the regime in May. They began to clamp down on local priests who insisted on continuing to voice criticisms of the Nazi movement. Catholic brownshirts and Nazi Party members, unable to attend Mass because the bishops had forbidden the wearing of uniforms in church, began to be seen at Protestant services, where there was no such prohibition, raising the alarming spectacle of a mass defection to the religious opposition. Cardinal Bertram persuaded the bishops to lift the ban.133 Soon, passive toleration had turned to active support. Many priests took part in the public ceremonies held to mark the ‘Day of National Labour’ on I May. The Fulda Bishops’ Conference on 1 June 1933 issued a pastoral letter welcoming the ‘national awakening’ and the new stress on a strong state authority, though it also expressed concerns about the Nazis’ emphasis on race and the looming threat to Catholic lay institutions. Vicar-General Steinmann was photographed raising his arm in the Nazi salute. He declared that Hitler had been given to the German people by God in order to lead them.134 Catholic student organizations published a declaration of loyalty to the new regime (‘the only way to restore Christianity to our culture ... Hail to our Leader Adolf Hitler’). Catholic newspapers ceased publication or turned themselves into something like Nazi propaganda organs.135

While this situation was developing, the Centre Party leader, Prelate Kaas, went on an extended visit to the Vatican to help draft the Concordat. It soon became clear that he was willing to sacrifice the party as a condition of the regime’s signature. In early May he resigned as party leader, pleading ill-health. He was succeeded by the former Reich Chancellor Heinrich Brüning, who immediately became the object of a pale imitation of the leadership cult that surrounded the person of Hitler. Centre Party newspapers now referred to Brüning as the ‘Leader’ and declared that his Catholic ‘retinue’ would ‘submit’ itself to his decisions.136 All the party’s deputies and officials tendered their resignations and gave Brüning full power to reappoint them or find replacements. This included the Reichstag deputies, who owed their election to their place on the party’s list of candidates and thus could indeed be replaced at Brüning’s whim by others lower down the list. So the Centre Party now, de facto, replaced the idea of an elected Reichstag by an appointed one. Brüning announced a thorough reform of the party’s structure, and in the meantime moved closer still to the Nazi regime, persuading his deputies to vote for the government’s foreign policy declaration on 17 May 1933 and personally helping Hitler draft the remarkably moderate-sounding speech with which he presented it to the legislature. Brüning’s willingness to compromise did not stop the political police from tapping his telephone and opening his mail, as he told the British Ambassador Sir Horace Rumbold in mid-June. According to Rumbold, Brüning now took the view that only the restoration of the monarchy could rescue the situation, an opinion he had in fact held for several years.

The former Chancellor seemed to have little idea of the extent of the repression now bearing down upon his party’s members. Its newspapers were being banned or taken away from it. Its local and regional organizations were being closed down one by one. Its ministers in every state had been removed from office. Its civil servants, despite constant reassurances from Hermann Goring, were under continual threat of dismissal. Its 200,000 members were resigning from the party in ever-growing numbers. From May onwards, leading Catholic politicians, lawyers, activists in lay organizations, journalists and writers, were arrested as well, particularly if they had published critical articles about the Nazis or the government. On 26 June 1933, Himmler, as police chief of Bavaria, ordered that not only the entire body of Reichstag and state legislature deputies of the Bavarian People’s Party, closely allied to the Centre, should be taken into ‘protective custody’ but also all ‘those persons who have been particularly active in party politics’.137On 19 June the Württemberg State President Eugen Bolz, one of the Centre’s leading conservatives, was arrested and severely beaten; senior civil servants such as Helene Weber, who was also a Centre Party Reichstag deputy, were suspended from office; and the organization of the Catholic trade unions was forced to dissolve itself. These were only the most prominent and widely publicized cases in a whole new round of arrests, beatings and dismissals. At a local level, one Catholic lay organization after another came under pressure to close down or join the Nazi Party, arousing widespread concern amongst the Church hierarchy. While Papen and Goebbels demanded the Centre Party’s dissolution with increasing vehemence in public, negotiations in Rome, joined towards the end of the month by Papen himself, produced an agreement that the party should cease to exist once the Concordat had been concluded.138

The final text of the Concordat, agreed on 1 July with the approval of Papen and Kaas and signed a week later, included a ban on priests engaging in political activity. Centre Party national and state legislators began resigning their seats or transferring to the Nazis, as did a number of councillors in Berlin, Frankfurt and other cities. Even Brüning now finally understood the writing on the wall. The party formally dissolved itself on 5 July, telling its Reichstag deputies, state legislators and local elected representatives to approach their Nazi colleagues with a view to transferring their allegiance to them. The party’s members, declared the leadership, now had the opportunity to place themselves ‘without reservation’ behind the national front led by Hitler. What was left of the party press portrayed the end as the outcome not of external pressure but of an inevitable inner development which placed the Catholic community behind the new Germany in a historic transformation of the national polity. The party administration not only instructed all the party organizations to dissolve themselves but also warned that it was co-operating with the political police in implementing the dissolution procedure. Predictably enough, the Nazis preferred to persuade the party’s legislators to resign their seats rather than find a new home in the Nazi Party delegations as they had envisaged.139

Together with the labour movement, the Centre Party had offered the only effective resistance to the electoral inroads of the Nazis in the early 1930s. The cohesion and discipline of the two political milieux had been the product, among other things, of the persecution they had both suffered under Bismarck. But while the Social Democrats and, later, the Communists, had been driven into a state of permanent opposition and isolation by the experience of repression, the reaction of the Catholics had been to put reintegration into the national community above almost any other aim. Leading Catholic politicians such as Papen and, to a lesser extent, Brüning and Bolz, lacked the commitment to democracy that had characterized figures such as Wilhelm Marx or Matthias Erzberger in the Republic’s early days. The Church as a whole was turning against parliamentary democracy all over Europe in the face of the Bolshevik threat. In this situation, the dissolution of the party seemed a small sacrifice to make in the interests of what almost every leading figure involved saw as the securing of binding guarantees from the new regime for the continued autonomy of the Catholic Church and the full participation of Catholics in the new German order. Just how binding these guarantees were, the Catholics would soon find out.

Meanwhile, on 28 October 1933, Clemens August Count von Galen was consecrated Catholic Bishop of Münster, the first such elevation to take place after the signing of the Concordat. In his address to the congregation, Galen declared that his duty as he saw it was to tell the truth, to pronounce on ‘the difference between justice and injustice, on good and bad actions’. Before his installation, he had called on Hermann Goring, the Prussian Minister-President, to whom, in accordance with the terms of the Concordat, he swore an oath of loyalty to the state. In a symbolic act of reciprocity, local Nazi and brownshirt officials from the District Leader downwards filed past him during the consecration ceremony in Münster, saluting him with the outstretched arm of the ‘German greeting’. Swastika-bearing columns of stormtroopers and SS men lined the roads for the episcopal procession. They paraded past Galen’s palace in a torchlit procession the same evening. The reconciliation of Nazism and Catholicism seemed, at least for the time being, complete.140


The destruction of the Communists, the Social Democrats and the Centre Party was the most difficult part of the Nazis’ drive to create a one-party state. Together, these three parties represented far more voters than the Nazi Party itself ever won in a free election. In comparison to the problems they posed, getting rid of the other parties was easy. Most of them had lost virtually every vote and seat in the Reichstag they had ever possessed. They were ripe for picking off one by one. By early 1933 the only one among them which had belonged to the coalition of parties that had supported the Weimar Republic from the beginning, the State Party (formerly the Democrats) was drifting helplessly at the mercy of events, reduced to two seats in the Reichstag and issuing pathetic appeals to other parties to take its deputies under their wing. It continued to advertise its opposition to the Nazis, but at the same time it was also advocating the revision of the constitution in an unmistakeably authoritarian direction. It failed to improve its support in the elections of March 1933, though by tagging its candidates onto the much better supported Social Democratic Party list, it increased its representation in the Reichstag from 2 seats to 5. With strong reservations, but unanimously, the party’s deputies, including the later Federal German President Theodor Heuss, voted for the Enabling Law on 23 March 1933, cowed by Hitler’s threat of a bloodbath should the vote go against him. In practice their votes made no difference, as they must have known. The party’s parliamentary floor leader Otto Nuschke began signing his official letters with the ‘German freedom greeting’ and urged recognition of the government’s legitimacy. Meanwhile, civil servants, who had been a major element in the party, were leaving it en masse to join the Nazis in a bid to keep their jobs. Ever since the party had been pushed to the fringe in the elections of 1930 there had been repeated discussions over the question of whether it was worth going on. The brownshirts unleashed a fresh campaign of terror on the few remaining deputies, officials and local councillors who openly declared their allegiance to the party. The government then stripped its Reichstag deputies of their seats, on the grounds that they had stood on the Social Democratic list in the March election and were therefore Social Democrats. After this, the party leadership finally gave up and declared the State Party formally dissolved on 28 June 1933.141

The People’s Party, which had moved sharply to the right after the death of its leading figure for most of the Weimar years, Gustav Stresemann, in 1929, began to shed its liberal wing in 1931 - ‘liberal’ being defined by this time as support for the Brüning government, yet another measure of how far the political spectrum had shifted to the right - and agitate for a general coalition of all nationalist forces, including the Nazis. The more the party lost electoral support, however, the more it disintegrated into a chaos of warring factions. With only 7 seats left in the Reichstag after July 1932, the People’s Party had been pushed far out onto the political fringe. Its leader by this time, the lawyer Eduard Dingeldey, thought it a good idea to join forces with the Nationalists in a common electoral list in November 1932. This drove out the remaining liberals from the party but failed to bring it any real gains. Alarmed at this sign of further dissolution, Dingeldey abandoned the pact with the Nationalists for the next election, with the result that the People’s Party was able to win only 2 seats in March 1933. This was all that was left of the proud tradition of Germany’s National Liberal Party, which had dominated the Reichstag in the 1870s and done so much to soften the harsh contours of Bismarck’s creation with a broad palette of liberal legislation. While Dingeldey withdrew from politics for two months as a result of a serious illness, the party’s remaining members, and in particular civil servants frightened for their jobs, began to leave in large numbers, while others, led by the deputy leader, urged the party to dissolve itself and formally merge with the Nazis. When Dingeldey succeeded in preventing this, the party’s right wing resigned. His efforts to obtain an audience with Hitler or Goring were rebuffed. Fearing for the safety of the party’s remaining officials and deputies in the general atmosphere of intimidation, Dingeldey announced the dissolution of the People’s Party on 4 July. As a reward, he obtained an audience with Hitler three days later, and the Nazi Leader’s assurance that former party members would not suffer any discrimination because of their political past. Needless to say, this did not prevent the Nazis from enforcing the resignation of former People’s Party deputies from legislatures all over Germany, nor the dismissal of civil servants on grounds of opposition to the National Socialist movement. Dingeldey’s protests at such actions were contemptuously brushed aside.142

The Nationalist Party under Alfred Hugenberg had hardly been any more successful than the two liberal parties in electoral terms. It had lost almost all its votes to the Nazis in the early 1930s. Yet it regarded itself as the main coalition partner of the Nazis, whom it had always treated with a certain degree of condescension. Leading Nationalists welcomed the fact that the Hitler cabinet marked the definitive end of the parliamentary system and the beginning of a dictatorship. Hugenberg campaigned vigorously in the elections of 5 March 1933 for an overall majority with the Nazis that would provide popular legitimacy for this transformation. Yet the leading Nationalists were uncomfortably aware that this left them extremely vulnerable. They warned against the ‘socialism’ of the Nazis and pleaded for a ‘non-party’ government. Certainly, the Nazis were careful to maintain the illusion of a genuine coalition during the campaign. No Nationalist newspapers were banned, no Nationalist meetings broken up and no Nationalist politicians arrested. But the massive repression and violence of the campaign were wholly exerted in favour of the Nazis. On 5 March the Nazis got their reward, increasing their representation in the Reichstag from 196 seats to 288. The Nationalists, by contrast, did not manage to improve their situation significantly, winning 52 seats instead of 51. These seats, and the 8 per cent of the vote they represented, were enough to push the coalition over the 50 per cent mark. But the electoral results demonstrated graphically how unequal the coalition partners were. On the streets, the paramilitary ‘fighting leagues’ associated with the Nationalists could in no way compete with the might of the brownshirts and the SS. And the Nationalists had failed to win the unconditional allegiance of the Steel Helmets, the one major paramilitary group that seemed to share their political views.

The March election result changed the relationship between the two parties fundamentally. With the Communists now out of the legislature, the Nazis no longer needed the Nationalists to form an overall majority, though they still fell some way short of possessing the two-thirds needed to alter the constitution. Hitler and Goring now began to make it brutally clear to Hugenberg that they were calling the shots. The passage of the Enabling Act with the support of the Nationalists was made palatable for the more conservative party members by the preceding formal opening of the parliament in Potsdam, with its clear reference to the Bismarckian traditions they were dedicated to renewing. But as soon as the Enabling Act had gone through, Hitler lost no time in declaring that there could be no question of restoring what he regarded as the failed institution of the monarchy. It was at this point, finally, that the Nazis began to apply to the Nationalists the same pressures under which the other parties had already been suffering since the middle of February. On 29 March the office of the party’s floor leader in the Reichstag, Ernst Oberfohren, was searched, and on the following day his house was raided. The Nazis revealed that documents found there showed Oberfohren to be the author of anonymous letters attacking Hugenberg. This was enough to persuade the party leader to drop his intention of complaining. Oberfohren had also been taking a suspiciously close interest in the circumstances in which the Reichstag had burned down, suggesting that he shared the Communist view that the arson had been organized by the Nazis. Warned by the raid on his home, Oberfohren immediately resigned his seat. Meanwhile, other senior Nationalists also began to come under pressure. Gunther Gerecke, Reich Commissioner for Work Creation, was accused of embezzlement. The head of the Reich Land League, an organization traditionally close to the Nationalists, was dismissed for illicitly speculating on the corn market. And reports began to come in of the dismissal of civil servants who openly acknowledged their membership of the Nationalist Party.143

The Nationalists had entered the coalition on 30 January feeling that they were the senior partners in an alliance with an immature and inexperienced political movement that they would easily be able to control. Two months later, all this had changed. Amid privately expressed fears of the destructive consequences of a full-blown Nazi revolution, they now acknowledged helplessly the impossibility of preventing illegal actions against their own members by a government in which they were still a formal partner. In this situation, it seemed wise to them to adapt to the new, post-democratic order. Hugenberg obtained a restructuring of the party organization that made the ‘Leadership Principle’ fundamental at every level. Following this, the Nationalists changed their formal designation from the German-Nationalist People’s Party to the German-Nationalist Front, to make clear their view that political parties were a thing of the past. But these changes only deprived Hugenberg of the last vestiges of democratic legitimacy and so left his position even more exposed than before. One after another, Nazis in Berlin and in the country at large publicly criticized and pressurized institutions and organizations which Hugenberg considered to be under his aegis, amid a whispering campaign that he was slowing down the ‘national revolution’.

Regional organs of the Nazi Party now began to declare that Hugenberg, as Prussian Minister of Agriculture, no longer enjoyed the confidence of the peasantry. There were rumours that he was about to resign from his Prussian posts. Hugenberg’s response to these attempts to undermine him was to threaten to quit the cabinet. He believed that by doing so he would invalidate the Enabling Act, since it applied only to what it called the ‘present government’. Already, however, the constitutional theorist Carl Schmitt, an influential supporter of the Nazis, had declared that by ‘present government’ the Act did not mean the particular group of ministers in office when it was passed, but the ‘completely different kind of government’ which had come into being with the end of the party-political system. Thus the ‘present government’, and with it the validity of the Enabling Act, would not be affected by the resignation of this minister or that; its nature was, rather, determined by its Leader.144 Hugenberg’s threat was an empty one, another example of the futility of legalistic reasoning in the face of Nazi pressure. Meanwhile, the threat of Nazi violence against his supporters became increasingly explicit. On 7 May Ernst Oberfohren, already hounded out of office by the Nazis, was found dead; in the prevailing atmosphere of ruthless intimidation by the Nazis, many rightly refused to believe the official story that he had shot himself. There were reports of arrests of local Nationalist officials and the banning of some Nationalist meetings. The Nationalists came under increasing pressure to dissolve their paramilitary ‘fighting groups’. By this time these groups, mostly student and youth organizations, had increased in strength to 100,000 in the wake of the ‘national uprising’ and so they were strong enough to cause some concern to the Nazis.

On 30 May 1933 some of the Nationalist leaders met with Hitler to complain about the growing pressure on them to surrender their autonomy. They were met with a ‘hysterical outburst of rage’ in which the Nazi leader shouted that he would let his ‘SA open fire and arrange a bloodbath lasting three days long ... until there’s nothing left’, if the Nationalist paramilitaries did not wind themselves up of their own accord. This was enough to shake the Nationalists’ already weak resolve to resist. In mid-June, therefore, Hitler personally ordered the dissolution of the Nationalist student and youth organizations and the confiscation of their assets. Leading Nationalists associated with these groups, including Herbert von Bismarck, who was also State Secretary in the Prussian administration, were arrested and interrogated; faced with alleged evidence of the groups’ infiltration by supposed Marxist elements, Bismarck confessed he had had no idea how bad things had become.

By this time, leading Nationalists such as the ultra-right Catholic historian Martin Spahn had declared that they could not serve two leaders, and had begun defecting to the Nazis. The daily humiliations that the Nationalist ‘Leader’ Hugenberg had to suffer in the cabinet were becoming more and more pronounced. When he publicly demanded, at an international economic conference, the return of Germany’s African colonies, without consulting the cabinet beforehand, the government equally publicly disowned him, embarrassing him before the whole world. On 23 June his non-Nazi conservative cabinet colleagues Papen, Neurath, Schwerin von Krosigk and Schacht joined Hitler in condemning his behaviour. Hugenberg’s planned speech to a Nationalist political meeting on 26 June was banned by the police. Complaining bitterly that he was constantly blocked in his ministerial duties and publicly attacked by the Nazi press, he demonstratively tendered his resignation to Hindenburg the same day.

Hugenberg of course did not really intend to leave the government. But the aged President failed completely to meet his expectations; instead of rejecting his letter and intervening with Hitler as he was supposed to, Hindenburg did nothing. A meeting with Hitler to try and resolve the situation amicably only provoked Hitler into demanding that the German-Nationalist Front must be dissolved if Hugenberg’s resignation were to be rejected. If this did not happen, ‘thousands’ of Nationalist civil servants and state employees would be dismissed, he said. But the alternative was a false one; Hitler never had any intention of allowing Hugenberg, the last remaining independent cabinet member of any political stature, to withdraw his resignation. As Hitler was triumphantly reporting Hugenberg’s departure to the cabinet, the other leading figures in the German-Nationalist Front met Hitler to conclude a ‘Friendship Agreement’ in which they agreed the party’s ‘self-dissolution’.145 The conditions agreed by the Nationalists - Hitler’s formal coalition partner - were superficially less oppressive than those agreed by other parties; but in practice the Nazis forced any deputies or elected legislators whose views they did not like, such as Herbert von Bismarck, to resign their seats, and only accepted those who they could be confident would follow orders without question. Guarantees that Nationalist civil servants would not suffer because of their party-political past were not treated as binding by the regime. The ‘Friendship Agreement’ was little more than abject surrender.

With the parties dissolved, the Churches brought to heel, the trade unions abolished and the army neutralized, there was one major political player still to be dealt with: the Steel Helmets, the ultra-nationalist paramilitary veterans’ organization. On 26 April 1933, after lengthy negotiations, Franz Seldte, the Steel Helmets’ leader, joined the Nazi Party and placed the Steel Helmets under Hitler’s political leadership with the guarantee that they would continue to exist as an autonomous organization of war veterans. Those who opposed this move, such as the joint leader of the organization, Theodor Duesterberg, were summarily dismissed. A rapid expansion in numbers to perhaps as many as a million, comprising war veterans drawn from a variety of recently banned organizations including the Reichsbanner, diluted the political commitment of the Steel Helmets still further and opened them up to criticism from the Nazis. As auxiliary police, the Steel Helmets had lent support to the actions of Nazi stormtroopers during the previous months without either fully participating on the one hand, or attempting to restrain them on the other. Their position was rather like that of the army, for whom they regarded themselves indeed as an armed, experienced and fully trained reserve. Their leader Franz Seldte was a member of the cabinet and proved completely incapable of standing up to the bullying of Hitler and Goring. By May, they had been completely neutralized as a political force.146

At the end of May, therefore, Hitler took the next step, accusing the Steel Helmets with some plausibility of being infiltrated by substantial numbers of ex-Communists and Social Democrats looking for a substitute for their own, now-banned paramilitary organizations. They were forcibly incorporated into the SA, while still retaining enough of a vestige of their previous autonomy to dissuade them from resisting. The presence of the Steel Helmets’ leader Franz Seldte in the cabinet seemed to most of them to guarantee their continued influence where it mattered. Their functions as a reserve army and a veterans’ welfare association carried on. Even as late as 1935, renamed the National Socialist German Front-Fighters’ League, they still claimed a membership of half a million. The Steel Helmets’ aim of the destruction of Weimar democracy and the return of an authoritarian, nationalist regime had self-evidently been achieved: what possible grounds could they have to object to their incorporation into the ranks of Ernst Röhm’s brownshirts? The merger caused organizational chaos for a time, but it effectively deprived the Nationalists of any last, lingering chance of being able to mobilize opposition on the streets to the rampaging stormtroopers of the SA.147

The paramilitary groups had thus been shut down as effectively as the political parties. By the summer of 1933 the creation of a one-party state was virtually complete. Only Hindenburg remained as a potential obstacle to the achievement of total power, a senile cypher seemingly without any remaining will of his own, whose office had been neutralized by the provisions of the Enabling Act. The army had agreed to stand on the sidelines. Business had fallen into line. On 28 June 1933 Joseph Goebbels had already celebrated the destruction of the parties, the trade unions and the paramilitaries and their replacement by the monopoly of power on the part of the Nazi Party and its affiliated organizations: ‘The road to the total state. Our revolution has an uncanny dynamism.’148

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