Reading Henry Ashby Turner Jr.'s Hitler's Thirty days To Power: January 1933
is an exasperating read at times. We all know the ending so there's no surprise there, but I often found myself wanting to yell at the page, "No!" when reading about how Hitler went from a doomed leader of a doomed political party as 1933 began to chancellor before the month was out.
Turner's book was a fascinating read as well which dispelled a lot of myths and notions that I had about Hitler's rise to power. Until this point, I'd always been told that Hitler got into office because of his steadfast determination to build his party and take advantage of anti-Semitism and the economic problems faced by Germany after World War I and the worldwide depression at the time. He got the momentum going and then inserted himself into the chancellorship. But Turner ably shows that the rise of a former army corporal was contingent on a multitude of people and that the Nazi party was essentially on life support in January of 1933. What I thought was a slow ascension to power topped off with a coup was actually very sudden and seemingly freakish considering how many points there were along the way to prevent it. Moreover, Hitler assumed office under completely legal circumstances.
The first chapter is introduces the reader to the key actors in the story and summarizes important events prior to 1933. Included here is the governmental structure of the Weimar Republic. You had a president who appointed a chancellor, the head of the government, and the Reichstag, the legislative branch. The Reichstag could give a vote of no confidence and force the chancellor to resign. Similarly, the president could depose of the chancellor and his cabinet at will but he could also 86 the Reichstag and force a new election. Paul von Hindenberg was President at this time. He was in his 80s and an aristocratic throwback to the German Empire. In addition, he had tipped the balance of power away from the Reichstag towards a more potent presidency.
The largely ineffective Franz von Papen became Chancellor in May 1932 but was succeeded by General Kurt von Schleicher late in the year. In the elections of July 1932, the Nazis did well but saw defeat at the polls the following November. Come January 1933, Schleicher was on the outs with just about everyone. His relationship with Hindenberg was awful and his policies tended away from job creation and towards establishing national military service. Papen had remained in the President's favor and was scheming to return to power. For his part, Hitler watched popular support for his party dwindle and dissension develop in the ranks of the Nazi Sturmabteilung
or SA, a paramilitary branch of the party which had many members who were dissatisfied with their leader's desire to obtain power through political means rather than violent overthrow.
So how did Hitler get into power when Hindenberg had denied him the chancellorship before and show disdain for the man? The short of it is that Schleicher was incompetent, Hindenberg didn't really pay attention, and Papen proved much more able than anyone had ever given him credit for being. Papen told the President what he wanted to hear and revived Hitler's fading prospects by secretly meeting with him on January 4. The former chancellor got Hitler his old job under the notion that the Nazi would essentially be a figurehead and that he, Papen, would actually wield authority as Vice Chancellor. Schleicher's pursuit of his own goals and his chronic underestimation of others left him defenseless. Papen's scheming was certainly abetted by the President's son, Oskar von Hindenberg as well as the elder Hindenberg's advisor, Otto Meissner. They greased a lot of wheels for Papen to get most of the parties involved to go along with the plan and to secure the approval of the Reichstag to avoid a vote of no confidence.
Again, this is the short of it and Turner gives an almost day-by-day account of the activities of these main players during January 1933. In the last chapter he apportions blame and there's a lot to go around. While the German people voted for the Nazis and gave Hitler and his party some political clout, Turner notes that this was one of those times when the fate of an entire country essentially rested in the hands of a few elder statesmen. And, for their part, they were blinded for their own lust for power having discarded any notions of the greater good. While it's easy to judge in hindsight, I often wondered while reading the book how it was that any of these actors would have even considered Hitler with his demagoguery and anti-Semitism. It turns out that there is no evidence to show that the main players here had ever read Mein Kampf
and that they were likely ignorant of just how heinous an individual Hitler truly was. Turner also goes after various moderate/liberal groups. He is critical of them for not defending their republican ideals and instead letting the country move towards political power residing in executive authority. And, finally, I'll give some credit to Hitler himself for being one of the most determined individuals in history in addition to having charisma and being able to lie/hide the truth very well.
Turner notes all-too well that there were many junctures where Hitler could have been relegated to the dustbin of history if only someone had bothered to investigate who they were attempting to install as Chancellor, had relegated their own self-interest down a notch, etc. Hitler was almost completely marginalized until Papen decided to meet with him and, from then on, people kept Hitler in the picture. He did not seize power nor was he fated for the Chancellorship because of his tremendous popularity, hard work, and good looks. At every turn Hitler's ambitions could have been thwarted yet no one did so. He is even reported to have marveled at the turnaround of his fortunes.
When reading history I like to find analogues to the present time or try to glean some lesson from it. In this case, the thing which struck me most was how many people in German politics at the time were dismissive of republican rule and that people like Hindenberg, Papen, and the other main actors here were in favor of consolidating power in the Chancellorship and weakening the Reichstag. For example, in August 1932 Hindenberg granted Papen the authority to dissolve the Reichstag and was willing to forego the constitutionally mandated elections within 60 days giving the Chancellor and his cabinet the full power of the German state. Well, excepting that reserved for the President.
This incident and others reminded me of Bush and Obama in their use of executive authority. (Mind you, I am not calling anyone a Nazi or fascist here.) In prosecuting the "War on Terror", both Bush and Obama have taken on powers which seem anti-republican - warrantless wire tapping, orders to assassinate an American citizen, etc. None of these are equivalent to calling off elections and I don't think we're in the same position of the Weimar Republic in 1932 but it feels like we're taking anti-republican baby steps and yielding to the less-than democratic demands of our presidents with more frequency. I'm not sure how much of our democracy would be left if there were another terrorist attack on the scale of 9/11.