Is there reason to worry? No, thought Nikolaus Sieveking, an employee at Hamburg’s World Economy Archive. "I find the act of viewing Hitler’s chancellorship as a sensational event to be childish enough that I will leave that to his loyal followers," he wrote in his diary on Jan. 30, 1933.
Like Sieveking, many Germans didn’t initially recognize this date as a dramatic turning point. Few sensed what Hitler’s appointment as chancellor actually meant, and many reacted to the event with shocking indifference.
The chancellor of the presidential cabinet had changed twice in 1932 -- Heinrich Brüning was replaced in early June by Franz von Papen, who was replaced in early December by Kurt von Schleicher. People had almost gotten used to this tempo. Why should the Hitler government be anything more than just an episode? In the Wochenschau news programs shown in cinemas, the swearing-in of the new cabinet came last, after the major sporting events.
This, despite the fact that Hitler had plainly explained in "Mein Kampf" and countless speeches before 1933 what he wanted to do once in power: to abolish the democratic "system" of Weimar Germany, to "eradicate" Marxism (by which he meant both social democracy and communism) and to "remove" the Jews from Germany. As for foreign policy, he made no secret of the fact that he wanted to revise the Versailles Treaty and that his long-term goal was the conquering of "Lebensraum in the East."
German President Paul von Hindenburg’s camarilla, which had hoisted him to power through a series of intrigues, agreed with Hitler’s goals of preventing a return to parliamentary democracy, of cutting the chains of the Versailles Treaty, massively arming the military and once again making Germany the dominant power in Europe. As for the rest of Hitler’s stated intentions, his conservative coalition partners were inclined to dismiss them as mere rhetoric. Once he was in power, they argued, he would become more reasonable. They also believed they had "framed in" Hitler in a way that would enable his ambitions for power and the dynamics of his movement to be kept in check. "What do you want?" Vice Chancellor Papen, the actual architect of the January 30 coalition, asked critics. "I have the confidence of Hindenburg! In two months, we’ll have pushed Hitler so far into the corner that he’ll squeal."
Hitler’s thirst for power couldn’t have been more grossly underestimated. The nine conservative ministers in the so-called "Cabinet of National Concentration" clearly carried more weight than the three National Socialists. But Hitler also made sure that two key ministries were filled by his men. Wilhelm Frick took over the Ministry of the Interior of the German Reich. Hermann Göring became a cabinet minister without a portfolio, but also Prussia’s interior minister, thus acquiring power over the police in Germany’s largest state -- an important precondition for the establishment of the Nazi dictatorship.
Media mogul and head of the German National People’s Party Alfred Hugenberg was seen as the strongman in the cabinet. He was given the Ministry of Economy and Agriculture of both the Reich and Prussia. The new super minister purportedly told Leipzig Mayor Carl Goerdeler he had made the "biggest mistake" of his life by aligning himself with the "biggest demagogue in world history," but his assertion is hard to believe. Hugenberg, like Papen and the remaining conservative ministers, was convinced that he could steer Hitler to go along with his own ideas.
Big-business representatives shared the same illusion. In an editorial in the Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, which had close ties to heavy industry, editor-in-chief Fritz Klein wrote that working together with the Nazis would be "difficult and exhausting," but that people had to dare to take "the leap into darkness" because the Hitler movement had become the strongest political actor in Germany. The head of the Nazi party would now have to prove "whether he really had what is needed in order to become a statesman." The stock market didn’t seem spooked either -- people were waiting to see what would happen.
The conservatives who helped Hitler rise to power, and his opponents in the republican camp, were wrong in their assessment of the true division of power. On Jan. 31, Harry Graf Kessler, the diplomat and arts patron, reported having a conversation with Hugo Simon, a former close colleague of Foreign Minister Walther Rathenau, who was murdered in 1922. "He sees Hitler as a prisoner of Hugenberg and Papen." Apparently Kessler felt similarly, because only a few days later he prophesized that the new government wouldn’t last long, since it was only held together by the "Papen’s cream puffery and intrigues." He argued, "Hitler must have noticed by now that he has fallen prey to a deception. He is bound, hand and foot, to this government and can move neither forward nor backward."
"The signs are pointing to a storm"
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.
Hitler needed only five months
The fact that Hitler’s appointment meant that a fanatical anti-Semite had come to power should have made Germany’s Jews, above all, nervous. But that was not the case at all. In a statement given on Jan. 30, the chair of the Central Association of German Citizens of Jewish Faith said, "In general, today more than ever we must follow the directive: wait calmly." He said that although one watches the new government "of course with deep suspicion," President Hindenburg represents the "calming influence." He said there was no reason to doubt his "sense of justice" and "loyalty to the constitution." As a result, he said, one should be convinced that "nobody would dare" to "touch our constitutional rights." In an editorial in the Jüdische Rundschau, a Jewish newspaper, published on Jan. 31, the author argued that "there are powers that are still awake in the German people that will rear up against barbarian anti-Jewish policies." It would only be a few weeks before all these expectations would prove to be illusory.
Foreign diplomats also made false assumptions about the nature of the change of power. The American consul general in Berlin, George S. Messersmith, believed that it was difficult to make a clear prediction about the future of the Hitler government and spoke of his assumption that it represented a transitional phenomenon on the road to a more stable political situation. To British Ambassador Horace Rumbold, it seemed like the conservatives had managed to successfully fence in the Nazis. But he also predicted that there would soon be conflicts between the unequal coalition partners because Papen’s and Hugenberg’s goal of restoring the monarchy could not be reconciled with Hitler’s plans. He recommended that the Foreign Office should take a wait-and-see attitude toward the new government.
French Ambassador Andre François-Poncet called the Hitler-Papen-Hugenberg cabinet a "bold experiment," but he also suggested his government remain calm and wait for further developments. When he met Hitler in the evening of Feb. 8 during a reception held by the German president for the diplomatic corps, he was relieved. The new chancellor seemed "dull and mediocre," a kind of miniature Mussolini.
The Swiss envoy, Paul Dinichert, heard about Hitler’s appointment as he was eating lunch with some "elevated German personalities." He described the reactions in his dispatch to Bern thusly: "Heads were shaken. ‘How long can this last?’ -- ‘It could have been worse.’" Dinichert recognized, correctly, that Papen was the puppet master behind the installation of the new cabinet. But, like most other commentators, he was wrong in describing the outcome: "Hitler, who for years insisted on ruling by himself, has been yoked, hemmed in or constrained (take your pick) with two of his disciples between Papen and Hindenburg."
Rarely has a political project so rapidly been revealed to be a chimera as the idea that the conservatives would "tame" the Nazis. In terms of tactical cunning, Hitler towered high above his cabinet allies and opponents. In a short time, he had upstaged them and driven them against the wall, dislodging Papen from of his preferential position with Hindenburg and forcing Hugenberg to resign.
Hitler needed only five months to establish his power. By the summer of 1933, fundamental rights and the constitution had been suspended, the states had been forced into conformity, the unions crushed, the political parties banned or dissolved, press and radio brought into line and the Jews stripped of their equality under the law. Everything that existed in Germany outside of the National Socialist Party had been "destroyed, dispersed, dissolved, annexed or absorbed," François-Poncet concluded in early July. Hitler, he claimed, had "won the game with little effort." "He only had to puff -- and the edifice of German politics collapsed like a house of cards."
Translated by Thomas Rogers