E.1. Establishing a Dictatorship: The Stabilization of Nazi Power

On the surface, not many things seemed to have changed in the German government. Only three out of twelve ministers in the new cabinet belonged to the NSDAP. Several ministers had already been members of the Brüning, Papen, and Schleicher cabinets. Hitler, however, received a decisive concession from his conservative allies right before Hindenburg appointed him: the right to call new elections. The Reichstag had just been reelected in November 1932, but Hitler hoped to win a majority in a new election campaign in which he would for the first time be able to use the power of the state in support of his party. That his party colleague Hermann Göring controlled Prussia with its strong police apparatus (which, until 1932 under SPD control, had often fought the Nazis) and that a Nazi was Interior Minister and thus head of the police all over Germany greatly helped Hitler.

On 1 February the Reichstag thus was dissolved. Hitler called elections for 5 March. The election campaign was by no means democratic and free. SA gangs terrorized the streets and political meeting halls. The Nazi interior minister made sure that the police complied. In Prussia, Göring even hired 50,000 auxiliary policemen, mostly SA members, allegedly “to keep order” during the campaign. Many Communists and some Social Democrats were persecuted, beaten up, and shot. Göring encouraged his police officers to make eager use of their guns. Meanwhile, the Nazis started to purge the top administration. People who disagreed with their views were dismissed, as were Jews.

The decisive opportunity for Hitler to expand his power came on 27 February 1933. The Reichstag burnt down. A young Dutch communist seemed to have put fire on it. Whether he really did it (and if yes, on whose orders) is still unclear. Some historians see the whole affair as a Nazi plot. In any case, the Reichstag fire made it easy for Nazi propaganda to cause a widespread scare of communist activity. The Reichstag fire induced Hitler’s colleagues in government to consent to an emergency decree that limited the individual and political rights guaranteed by the Weimar Constitution, which was legally still in existence. The so-called “Decree for the Protection of the People and the State” (28 February 1933) legalized the Nazi terror that had already been practiced for several weeks and allowed even more flagrant violations of democratic rights.

Although elections under these circumstances could not be called democratic and free, the Nazis — to their dismay — did not reach an absolute majority on 5 March. Their share of the vote increased from 33 to almost 44%, an impressive rise, but short of the hoped-for majority. The KPD, with most of its leaders already in the newly established concentration camps, lost less than expected and fell from 16 to 12%. The elected Communist deputies were all arrested before the new Reichstag even met. The SPD, also under severe terror, fell only slightly from 20 to 18% but received almost as many votes as in November 1932. Through their monopoly on propaganda the Nazis managed to win over mostly new voters but failed to make many converts among voters of the other parties. The turnout rose from 35 to 39 million voters.

Given his strengthened parliamentary group, Hitler now could have agreed to a coalition with the rightist DNVP and governed with parliamentary support in accordance with the Weimar constitution. NSDAP and DNVP together held a majority of the seats. This would have made Hitler independent of presidential emergency decrees and of the intrigues of his conservative watchdogs in the government and in Hindenburg’s entourage. But he decided instead to suspend the Reichstag. To this end he needed the consent of a two-thirds majority in the Reichstag. This meant that he needed to woo the center-to-right parties, the Center Party, the BVP, and the DNVP.

To disclaim his revolutionary intentions and to show the German conservatives that he felt committed to a common Prusso-German nationalist heritage, Hitler staged an emotional reunion with President Hindenburg in Potsdam, the traditional residence of the Prussian kings. This move was deftly planned by the new Nazi minister for propaganda, Joseph Goebbels. Right after the show at Potsdam, Hitler submitted a bill to the Reichstag that granted the government the right to decree laws without any parliamentary control for the following four years (theEnabling Act). The center-to-right parties had misgivings about this law, but they hoped that they would gain more power over the Nazis if they cooperated with them instead of opposing them. For reasons difficult to understand in retrospect, they believed that the Nazis, even with full power, would respect laws in the future. By approving the bill, the center-to-right deputies hoped to save their own parties and organizations and to exercise a mitigating effect on the Nazi dictatorship.

In reality, they became the gravediggers of the last remainders of German democracy and of their own parties. On 23 March they passed the bill with the necessary two-thirds majority. Only the SPD deputies voted against it although they knew that they might pay for this by being sent to a concentration camp. Surrounded by SA guards and Nazi flags, the SPD deputies remained loyal to their democratic ideals, and their leader held a courageous speech arguing that the Nazis had power on their side but not justice.

The SPD leader was perfectly right. The rule of law, which the center-to-right parties mysteriously hoped to preserve by complying with Hitler, had been suspended immediately after 30 January 1933. The SA was let loose to settle accounts with old enemies. The Enabling Act gave the regime free rein to pursue its politics through terror and compulsion. On 1 April 1933 a boycott of Jewish stores was decreed, and violence against Jews occurred. Some laws banning Jews from public office and forbidding them to practice as lawyers and physicians except for other Jews took effect in the spring of 1933.

The regime also used its new powers to destroy first the parties of its enemies and then those of its friends. The KPD was outlawed right after the Reichstag fire and the SPD followed suit a few months later. The leaders of the free trade unions were also arrested and their organizations forced to form a new, Nazi-controlled organization, the German Work Front (DAF). In the intellectual and artistic realm Nazi terror destroyed almost all aspects of the rich Weimar culture. Goebbels staged a public burning of books by democratic, socialist, and Jewish authors in Berlin. Erich Kästner, an author whose books were given to the flames, watched the scene without being recognized. He commented: First they burn books; next they will burn people. Thousands of intellectuals, including the luminaries of Weimar culture and science, left Germany and emigrated, mostly to the United States.

The Enabling Act also gave the regime full power over the governments of the single states. During the spring of 1933 Hitler ordered the remaining non-Nazi governments to step down. They were replaced by Nazi governors (Gauleiter). The predominant party in Bavaria, the BVP, tried to resist but to no avail. The days of the parties were counted anyway. Under pressure from Hitler even those parties that had been helpful in bringing him to power, the DNVP and the Center Party, dissolved themselves before July 1933.

Hitler claimed that the German people needed only one party. In similar ways, the Nazis took over almost every organization and leisure club in the whole country. Usually they formed parallel associations to existing ones; a Nazi League of Professors next to the older Professor’s League, a Nazi Women’s League next to older women’s organizations, and so on. Sooner or later, the Nazi group took over its rival.

Only one group of organizations refused to be dissolved: associations linked with the churches. To win over the Catholics, Hitler concluded a Concordat with the Vatican. He promised to leave the Catholic church in Germany unharmed if the Catholics abstained from political activity outside the NSDAP. The Vatican agreed, and Hitler’s guarantee (which, of course, was merely tactical) reconciled many German Catholics with the regime.

The Lutheran church, the predominant Protestant denomination in Germany, was split. A majority was in favor of the regime and proceeded to integrate the Protestant church into the Nazi state. A minority, however, criticized this policy and formed its own platform, the Bekennende Kirche (Professing Church) with Pastor Martin Niemöller as its leader. This circle became a source of criticism and resistance throughout the Third Reich. The police tried to repress its activities but failed to wipe it out.

In the economic realm the Nazis did little in addition to the containment of the trade unions. Many farmers had voted for Hitler and agreed to put their fragmented interest organizations under united Nazi leadership. The small business owners and artisans did not resist when they were forced into similar Nazi organizations. Heavy industry and big business were left unharmed except for the removal of Jewish managers. Hitler even gave leading industrialists positions of power in his government and in the administration. Industrialists were happy with the Nazis: they had destroyed the socialist parties and tamed the trade unions. The army, finally, was pleased by the Nazi dictatorship because the Nazis had eliminated the communist threat and because they promised to intensify rearmament. The only thing troubling the army was the position of the SA. The army officers had their own esprit de corps and did not want to end up as an auxiliary force of the SA.

By the middle of 1933 almost all groups in German society were either repressed or more or less satisfied. The economy had started to grow slowly in late 1932, and the smashing of the free trade unions may have made it easier for industrialists to make profits again – at the expense of the workers, to be sure. Unemployment declined and terror became less conspicuous and widespread after the outbursts in early 1933. In a way, the Germans who had voted for the NSDAP because they wanted law and order and economic recovery felt that they had made the right choice. As far as one can tell in a dictatorship, the regime was popular. Just like the industrialists and army officers, most of the German middle and upper class were happy that the regime had repressed socialism, the largest threat these groups had been able to see before 1933. Those Germans who were neither Jewish nor socialist could live largely the same way as they had before, often even slightly better, since order had returned to society (a questionable and superficial order, of course) and since the economy had started to recover. Although the Nazis took the credit for economic recovery it came less from their politics than from an international trend that had started already in the second half of 1932. In some cases, recovery was an outcome of measures taken by the last governments before Hitler.

Observers in the West had watched Hitler’s takeover with dismay, and the terror in the months following his appointment disturbed them further. When the initial wave of terror stopped, however, foreign countries began to consider Hitler’s Nazism as a German variant of Mussolini’s fascism and maybe as a good state form for the Germans.

One group in Germany, however, was far from being satisfied: the SA. With their violence and terror campaigns, SA troops had made the Nazi takeover and consolidation of power possible. After terror subsided in the late spring of 1933 no new role was available to the SA. The police was firmly in Nazi hands, so the SA was not needed for “keeping order” any more. Plans existed to incorporate the SA into the army, but this hurt the pride of many SA members. They had fought for a new society, and many of them had more radical visions of Germany than Hitler seemed willing to realize for the time being. Many SA members wanted to step up terror against Jews, but the regime was reluctant to allow this, since the foreign and domestic public tended to get shocked by anti-Semitic violence. At the beginning of his rule, Hitler had given the SA one opportunity to act out its anti-Semitism, the April boycott of Jewish stores. But this was not enough to keep the SA satisfied. Besides the anti-Semites, many SA members wanted a true national socialism (socialization of the industry), but the regime was on good terms with the industrialists and big businessmen and had no interest in disturbing this relationship, particularly not at a time of recovery after the worst economic crisis in modern Germany.

In 1934 the conflicts between the army and the SA came to a head. Röhm, the chief of the SA, argued that the German army should be infused with Nazi spirit and therefore be merged with the SA, with the SA receiving the leading role. The army, of course, resented being put under the rule of “plebeian” street fighters and their partly homosexual leaders. Hitler had to make a choice. Since he hoped for a war of revenge to destroy the Versailles system and to conquer “living space” in Eastern Europe soon, he allied with the army and sacrificed the SA. To this end he used another paramilitary formation that had been built up alongside the SA in the late 1920s: the Schutzstaffel (SS).

The SS under the leadership of Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich originally fulfilled functions comparable to the first mission of the SA: it protected Nazi meetings and leaders. But it slowly became a more powerful elite force, which incorporated Hitler’s racist ideology to its extremes. On 30 June 1934 SS units shot the complete leadership of the SA, mostly in Munich. To justify this murder of murderers, Hitler claimed that there had been a Röhm Putsch. This was a fabricated lie. Röhm had no intention to start a putsch. The SS troops, moreover, did not limit themselves to killing SA leaders; under the cover of the so-called Röhm Putsch they settled accounts with Hitler’s older enemies and rivals. They shot Kahr, the Bavarian dictator of 1923, who had thwarted Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch, they killed Schleicher and his wife, and they murdered a whole group of Vice-Chancellor Papen’s advisers, people, who had criticized Nazi terror. Papen, by the way, was spineless enough to continue working for the regime.

The people called the murders of 30 June 1934 the “Night of the long knives”. Even though many observers in Germany and abroad felt repelled by the violence, few people outside the SA could feel sorry about many of the victims, who had been murderers themselves. The SA remained in existence, but it was diminished and partly absorbed by the army. It is remarkable that the “Night of the long knives” remained Hitler’s only major purge. Unlike Stalin, who for years encouraged purges that cost thousands of lives, Hitler preferred to disregard unsuccessful administrators instead of purging them (unless they resisted him, of course).

The elimination of the SA leaders was the last step in Hitler’s consolidation of power. It probably increased his popularity because it seemed to signal to legalistically minded Germans that the Nazi party had decided to return to law, not only to order. But already from the fall of 1933 on it is safe to say that the Nazi regime was highly popular in Germany. The country seemed to be back in order, the economy recovered progressively, unemployment continued to decline, and even those groups most apprehensive about a Nazi dictatorship, the socialist workers and the Catholics, made their peace with the regime.

The regime’s popularity was genuine, but one also has to consider that resistence was nearly impossible. First, already in the spring of 1933 the SS built up an efficient political police force, the Gestapo (acronym for Secret State Police). Given the lack of any legal guarantees to individual citizens (such as the right to a defense lawyer, the right to privacy, to a fair trial, and so on), the Gestapo had free rein to prosecute critics and to punish them harshly enough to deter the rest of the population. The Gestapo set up the first concentration camps in which enemies of the regime were tortured and forced to work.

Second, the overwhelming popularity of the regime made resistance a hopeless and extremely dangerous cause. Many people readily denounced everybody who they suspected of subversive activities, and it was hard to get out of the pincers of the Gestapo for those who got arrested once. Terror helped to uphold solidarity with the regime although it was for the most part not essential. Resistance was hopeless, no convincing alternative to Nazism seemed to exist (democracy was thoroughly discredited), and — last but not least — Hitler was by far the most popular politician in Germany. This became even more true when economic recovery continued in the following years, while Hitler had stunning foreign political success.

Go on to E.2.