In 1928, German agriculture reached only its prewar level and remained stagnate, despite protective tariffs. The year before, German manufacturing had been at its postwar high: 22% above what tit had been in 1913. But much of economic boom that Germany had enjoyed in the mid-1920s was built on foreign capital, with German entrepreneurs not accumulating enough of their own working capital. Germans were accumulating debts. Labor unions were forcing up wage rates, and a spiraling rise in wages and prices appeared. Modernization of equipment was resulting in a decreased need of skilled workers. 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 U.S. stockmarket in 1929, lenders from the U.S. gave Germany ninety days to start repayment.
In 1929 in Munich, Adolf Hitler, still a political aspirant, 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." (Hitlerland, by Andrew Nagorski, p. 68)
By September 1930 Germany's unemployment had risen to 3,000,000. By 1930 Germany's manufacturing had fallen seventeen percent from that 1927 level. [note] Bankruptcies were increasing. Farmers were hurting. Some in the middleclass feared sliding into the lower class. And some in the middleclass blamed the economic decline on unemployed people being unwilling to work – while hunger was widespread.
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 revolution. The Communist Party in Germany did find a little more support, but, rather than Germany moving to the kind of revolution that Communists yearned for, Hitler and the Fascists, campaigning against Communism, were gaining strength.
In 1930 the parliamentary coalition that governed Germany fell apart, and new elections were held. The biggest winner in these elections 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 U.S. Communist Party did in 1932 elections), and 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 reformers, and the Communists believed that a collapse of parliamentary government would hasten the revolutionary crisis that would propel them to power.
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 -- less than the Communists. And Brüning did not have the majority parliamentary support needed to rule. As chancellor, Brüning ruled under Hindenburg's emergency powers. It was the beginning of the end of democracy in Germany, with Hindenburg willing to do anything but give the government back to the Socialists.
Brüning attempted to restore economic equilibrium by a balanced budget, high interest rates and remaining on the gold standard – no emergency deficit spending. And the economy continued to slide. Hitler, meanwhile, was looking good to many Germans because he seemed to be a man who believed in something and wanted radical change that differed from the alternatives offered by the Socialists and Communists. Hitler appeared to be truly devoted to Germany. He was. He was a sincere nationalist and, in addition to being obsessed by what he saw as enemies within Germany, and foreign enemies, he identified with Germans in the abstract. He loved innocent children and those adults who supported him – in his eyes real Germans.
Hitler found his greatest support in traditionally conservative small towns. He campaigned with attacks on Marxism, making it clear that by Marxism he meant the Social Democrats. Hitler 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 upheaval in the Soviet Union and the rise in fear and disgust for Bolshevism. His party's 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 middleclass. 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 the arrest of 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.
Hitler's call for more territory for Germany did not win him many votes, for the country was in no mood to consider adventures and risking war. Appeals to anti-Semitism had not been much help to conservative candidates before the depression, and conservative governments after the arrival of the depression were making no moves to rescind the rights of Jews. But Hitler's continued verbal attacks on Jews had some 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, appealing to those who believed the myths about Jews and believed in the socialism of his National Socialist German Workers Party.
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 had paid off.
Hindenburg had become dissatisfied with his present 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 force: Hitler's storm troopers, also known as the S.A. or the Brown Shirts.
The aristocratic Hindenburg disliked Hitler, seeing him as a rabble-rouser of working class types 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 middleclass and middle-road political parties, and 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, seeking a government led by Hitler, organized a vote against the von Papen government, and 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, who believed, with some others, 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.
Schleicher was alarmed by the growth of support for the Communists. (So too was Herbert Hoover's ambassador to Germany, Frederic Sackett.) Schliecher 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 these conservatives to compromise was paving the way for Adolf Hitler, as other compromises were in the offing.
Hitler refused the proposal from von Papen that he, Hitler, be anything but the head of a new government, and 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, and, in January 1933, Hindenburg gave power to Hitler and his new coalition – the conservatives with Papen still believing that they would be able to control Hitler.
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 in the elections he had entered. His National Socialist Party had never received more than a third of the seats in parliament. Hitler had been appointed chancellor by a man – Hindenburg – 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.
Moreover, simply as chancellor, Hitler's powers were limited. But those limitations were soon to be cast aside, done by something other than purely democratic means.
Hitlerland, by Andrew Nagorski, 2012
Copyright © 1998-2011 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.