Much of the economic boom that Germany had enjoyed in the mid-1920s was built on foreign capital. In 1927, German manufacturing was at its postwar high: 22% above what it had been in 1913. German agriculture reached its prewar level in 1928 and remained stagnate, despite protective tariffs. Also, labor unions were forcing up wage rates, and a spiraling rise in wages and prices appeared. Germans were accumulating debts. In September 1928 Germany had 650,000 unemployed, and by 1929 three million had lost their jobs. In the wake of the great fall of prices on the US stock market in 1929, lenders from the US gave Germany ninety days to start repayment.
In 1929 in Munich the political aspirant Adolf Hitler told a US newsman, Karl Wiegand, that with Germany's economic troubles, especially bankruptcies, rising unemployment and distrust of public officials, Germany was "steadily, slowly, but surely slipping more and more into conditions of Communism." The public is confused, he said, and "It is this state of affairs that the National Socialists are raising the cry of home country and nation against the slogan of internationalism of the Marxian Socialists." Asked whether he was interested in again opposing the government by force, Hitler replied that support for his movement was growing so rapidly that "we have no need of other than legal methods." note33
By 1930 in Germany, bankruptcies were increasing. Farmers were hurting. Some in the middle-class feared sliding into the lower class. And some in the middle-class blamed the economic decline on unemployed people being unwilling to work – while hunger was widespread. note35
According to Stalinist dogma, a crisis in capitalism and its attendant suffering was supposed to produce a rise in class consciousness among working people and to advance the revolution. The Communist Party in Germany did find a little more support, but Hitler and the Fascists, campaigning against Communism, were gaining strength. In 1930 the parliamentary coalition that governed Germany fell apart. New elections were held, and the biggest winner was Adolf Hitler's National Socialist Party. From twelve seats in parliament they increased their seats to 107, becoming Germany's second largest political party. The largest party was still the Social Democrats, and this party won 143 seats and 24.5 percent of the vote. Communist Party candidates won 13.1 percent of the vote (roughly 50 times better than the US Communist Party did in 1932 elections). Together the Social Democrats and the Communists were large enough to claim the right to make a government. But Communists and the Social Democrats remained hostile toward one another. The Comintern at this time was opposed to Communists working with Social Democrat reformers. It held to the belief that a collapse of parliamentary government would hasten the revolutionary crisis that would produce their revolution.
Instead of a left-of-center, socialist government, the president of the German republic, Hindenburg, selected Heinrich Brüning of the Catholic Center Party to form a government. This Party had received only 11.3 percent of the vote. Brüning did not have the majority parliamentary support needed to rule. Brüning ruled as chancellor under Hindenburg's emergency powers. It was the beginning of the end of democracy in Germany, with Hindenburg willing to do anything other than give the government back to the Social Democrats.
Brüning attempted to restore the economy with the conservative policies: a balanced budget, high interest rates and remaining on the gold standard. There was no emergency deficit (Keynesian) spending as in Sweden, and the economy continued to slide.
Hitler was looking good to many Germans because he seemed truly devoted to the country. He was a sincere nationalist. He appeared to adore children and those adults who supported him. Hitler found his greatest support in traditionally conservative small towns. He appealed to morality, attacking free love and what he inferred was the immorality of Berlin and some other major cities. He promised to stamp out big city corruption. He called for a spiritual revolution, for a "positive Christianity" and a spirit of national pride. Hitler repeatedly called for national renewal. He and his National Socialists benefited from the recent upheavals in the Soviet Union: the collectivization, starvations, persecutions, and the rise in fear and disgust in Germany for Bolshevism. Hitler's campaign posters read:
If you want your country to go Bolshevik, vote Communist. If you want to remain free Germans, vote for the National Socialists.
Hitler called for a strengthened Germany and a refusal to pay reparations. He promised to restore Germany's borders. He appeared to be for the common man and critical of Germany's "barons." To the unemployed he promised jobs and bread. His party had the appeal of being young and on the move. Disillusioned Communists joined his movement, as did many unemployed young men and a variety of malcontents. In addition to finding support in small towns, he found support among the middle-class. He found support too from some among the newly rich and among some aristocrats. He found support among a few industrialists and financiers who wished for lower taxes and an end to the labor movement. From wealthy contributors Hitler was able to set up places where unemployed young men could get a hot meal and trade their shabby clothes for a storm trooper uniforms.
Appeals to anti-Semitism had not been much help to conservative candidates before the depression, but Hitler's verbal attacks on Jews were now having more appeal. Not one prominent industry in Germany had a Jew as an owner or director, but Hitler continued to hammer away at what he described as the Jewish aspect of capitalism.
The depression had been worsening in Germany, and in 1932 unemployment reached thirty percent – 5,102,000 in September. Hindenburg's seven-year term as president ended that year, and at age 84 Hindenburg ran for re-election, his major opponent for the presidency – Adolf Hitler. Neither Hindenburg nor Hitler won a majority, and in the runoff campaign Hindenburg won 19.4 million to Hitler's 11.4. But in the parliamentary elections held later that April, the National Socialists increased their seats from 107 to 162, the National Socialists becoming the largest political party in Germany. Hitler had lost the election for the presidency, but his campaigning was building support.
Hindenburg had become dissatisfied with his chancellor, Brüning, and the hunt was on for a new chancellor. Brüning still lacked the parliamentary majority needed for democratic rule, and without Hindenburg's support he was forced to resign. His last act as chancellor was to put a ban on Hitler's street forces, the storm troopers or Brown Shirts, also known as the Sturmabteilungor (S.A.), in English the Assault Division.
The aristocratic Hindenburg disliked Hitler, seeing him as a rabble-rouser and believing that the Nationalist Socialists were indeed socialists. He was not about to select Hitler as his new chancellor, while his aide, Kurt von Schleicher, was having difficulty putting together a governing coalition of national unity. Giving up on national unity, Schleicher put together a cabinet that was largely of aristocrats – to be known as "the cabinet of barons"– with himself as minister of defense and Franz von Papen as chancellor. It was another government that lacked a parliamentary majority, and it was unpopular across Germany. But the new government did have at least one success in foreign affairs: the cancellation of Germany's obligation to make reparations payments.
The crisis over establishing a government with a parliamentary majority continued, and in late July, 1932, another parliamentary election was held. The results hurt the middle-class and moderate political parties. The National Socialists increased their seats in parliament still more – to 230 of a total of 670 seats. The number of seats for the Communists rose to 89. Schleicher believed that it was necessary to form a government that included National Socialists, and Hitler was buoyed by the thought that he was on the verge of being selected as chancellor. When parliament opened in September, the National Socialists were seeking a government led by Hitler, and they organized a vote against the von Papen government. Von Papen responded by dissolving parliament, with new elections scheduled for November.
In the November elections, the Communists won seventeen percent of the vote, and their number of seats in parliament rose to 100, while Hitler's National Socialists lost 34 seats. This drop shocked the National Socialists. With others they believed that their movement might have lost its momentum. Also the National Socialists were in debt from all their campaigning – Hitler having borrowed money extravagantly for his campaigns, believing he could pay it back easily if he won and that the loans did not matter if he lost. Discouraged financial backers began withdrawing their support from the National Socialists, and opportunistic party activists began leaving the party. Hitler was alarmed, and there was talk that some who were leaving the National Socialists were going over to that other party of revolution – the Communists.
Hermann Goering, another fascistic war hero. When Hitler became chancellor he put Goering in charge of the police.
Schleicher was alarmed by the growth of support for the Communists. (So too was Herbert Hoover's ambassador to Germany, Frederic Sackett.) Schleicher forced von Papen's resignation. Papen was irritated with Schleicher and, buoyed by the decline of the National Socialists, he hit on the idea of heading a coalition that included the National Socialists, believing that he and other respectable conservatives in his cabinet could control the humbled National Socialist party. Schleicher formed an emergency government and tried to put together a coalition of many political parties, including some National Socialists that he hoped to split away from Hitler. Schleicher hoped to win the support of both moderate socialists and conservatives, but the reforms that he hoped would appeal to the moderate socialists were rejected by conservatives, and Schleicher's coalition failed to hold together.
The unwillingness of the conservatives to work with the Social Democrats paved the way for Adolf Hitler. Hitler agreed to work with von Papen but only as the head of a new coalition government. Papen went to Hindenburg and proposed a government with Hitler as chancellor and himself as vice-chancellor, with the majority of the cabinet to be conservatives from von Papen's Nationalist Party. Hitler met with some right-wing industrialists, reassuring them of his respect for private property. He told them that democracy led to socialism and that he would curb socialism and the socialist-led labor unions. The industrialists liked what Hitler told them. In January 1933, Hindenburg made Hitler chancellor.
It was not democracy that gave power to Hitler. Hitler became Germany's chancellor (prime minister) without ever having received more than 37 percent of the popular vote. His National Socialist Party had never received more than a third of the seats in parliament. Hitler had been appointed chancellor by a man who did not believe in democracy and had been maneuvering against the creation of a government that had majority support as the parliamentary system demanded, Hindenburg's purpose being to keep the Social Democrats from power.
As Germany's new chancellor, Hitler's powers were limited. But those limitations would soon be cast aside, accomplished by other than democratic means.
Copyright © 1998-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.