In his book "Defying Hitler," written in exile in England in 1939, journalist Sebastian Haffner recalled the "icy horror" he felt when he had learned of Hitler’s appointment while working as a clerk at the Kammergericht court in Berlin six years earlier. For a moment, he had "physically sensed (Hitler’s) odor of blood and filth." But on the evening of Jan. 30, he discussed the views of the new government with his father, a liberal progressive-educator, and they quickly agreed that while the cabinet could do a lot of damage, it couldn’t stay in power for very long. "A deeply reactionary government, with Hitler as its mouthpiece. Apart from this, it did not really differ much from the two governments that had succeeded Brüning's. … No, all things considered, this government was not a cause for alarm."
The big liberal newspapers also argued that nothing truly terrible would happen. Theodor Wolff, the editor-in-chief of the Berliner Tageblatt saw the cabinet as the embodiment of what the united right-wing political groups had wanted since their meeting in Bad Harzburg in 1931. He opened his editorial on Jan. 31 by writing: "It has been achieved. Hitler is the Reich Chancellor, Hugenberg is the economics dictator and the positions have been distributed as the men of the ‘Harzburger Front’ had wanted." The new government, he argued, would try anything to "intimidate and silence opponents." A ban on the Communist Party was on the agenda, he thought, as well as a curtailing of the freedom of the press. But even the imagination of this otherwise so clear-sighted journalist didn’t go far enough to conceive the power of a totalitarian dictatorship. He argued there was a "border that violence would not cross." The German people, who were always proud of the "freedom of thought and of speech," would create a "soulful and intellectual resistance" and stifle all attempts to establish a dictatorship.
In the Frankfurter Zeitung, politics editor Benno Reifenberg expressed doubt Hitler had the "social competence" for the office of chancellor, but didn’t think it was out of the question that the responsibility of his office might transform him in ways that could earn him respect. Like Theodor Wolff, Reifenberg described it as "a hopeless misjudgment of our country to believe a dictatorial regime could be forced upon it." "The diversity of the German people demands democracy," he wrote.
Julius Elbau, the editor-in-chief of the Vossischer Zeitung, displayed less optimism. "The signs are pointing to a storm," he wrote in his first commentary. Although Hitler wasn’t able to achieve the absolute power he sought -- "it is not a Hitler cabinet, but a Hitler-Papen-Hugenberg government" -- this triumvirate was in agreement, despite all of their inner contradictions, that they wanted to make a "complete break from all that had come before." Given this prospect, the newspaper warned that it constituted "a dangerous experiment, which one can only watch with deep concern and the strongest suspicion."
The left was also concerned. In their appeal on Jan. 30, the party executive of the Social Democrats and their Reichstag parliamentary group called for supporters to carry out a "fight on the basis of the constitution." Every attempt by the new government to damage the constitution, they argued, "will be met with the most extreme resistance of the working class and all elements of the population who love freedom."
With their strict insistence on the legalities of the constitution, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) leadership overlooked the fact that the previous presidential governments had already hollowed the constitution and that Hitler would not hesitate to destroy its last vestiges.
The Communist Party of Germany (KPD) also made a misjudgment in its call for a "general strike against the fascist dictatorship of Hitler, Hugenberg, Papen." Given that there were 6 million unemployed people in Germany, few had the desire to go on strike. The call to build a common line of defense also wasn’t very popular with the Social Democrats, whom the Communists had defamed as "social fascists" only a short time earlier.
The idea of taking action outside of parliament was just as far from the unions’ minds. "Organization -- not demonstration: That is the word of the hour!" Theodor Leipart, the head of the General German Trade Union, said on Jan. 31. In the views of the representatives of the social-democratic workers’ movement, Hitler was a henchman of the old socially reactionary power-elites -- large landowners in the eastern Elbe region and the Rhineland-Westphalian heavy industry. In a talk in early February 1933, SPD Reichstag lawmaker Kurt Schumacher described the Nazi leader as being merely a "decoration piece." "The cabinet has Hitler’s name on the masthead, but in reality the cabinet is Alfred Hugenberg. Adolf Hitler may make the speeches, but Hugenberg will act."
The dangers emanating from Hitler could not have been more grotesquely misread. Most of the leading Social Democrats and unionists had grown up in the German Kaiserreich. They could imagine repression similar to Bismarck’s anti-socialist law, but not that someone would seriously try to destroy the workers’ movement in its entirety.