The End of Government by Parliamentary Consent

Chancellor Heinrich Brüning, leader of the Catholic Center Party and its sister, the Bavarian People’s Party, which represented nearly 15 % of the vote, sought to form a coalition capable of passing legislation in the Reichstag (Parliament) with delegates from splinter parties (12%), including his erstwhile coalition partners, and the conservative nationalist German National People’s Party (7%). With each local and national election through 1931 and 1932, constituents of the government shrank. Under Chancellors Franz von Papen (June 1932-October 1932) and General Kurt von Schleicher (October 1932-January 1933), barely 10 per cent of voters supported the government. Electoral weakness, refusal to work with the Social Democrats, and illusions about taming the Nazis induced Brüning, von Papen, and von Schleicher to govern by emergency presidential decree, effectively terminating the practice of government by parliamentary consent.

Growth of the Nazi Party and its Formations

Constant electioneering between 1930 and 1933 swelled the membership of the NSDAP to 129,563 in September 1930 and 450,000 in summer 1932. Numbering fewer than 77,000 in January 1931, the SA increased its membership to 260,000 at the end of 1931 and to more than 400,000 in 1932. Numbering less than 300 men when Heinrich Himmler took over as Reichsführer SS in January 1929, SS membership soared to 52,000 four years later. Increasing reliance of the political parties on paramilitary formations to protect their leaders and events during election campaigns encouraged street violence and resulting casualties. Nazi strategy encouraged initiation of violence to intimidate or distract political rivals, leaving Hitler plausible deniability to claim that he pursued power through legal means and to blame the violence on the opponents of the Nazis or on crisis conditions inherent in the weakness and corruption of Weimar democracy. Although Nazi formations often provoked violence, Communist, Social Democratic, and German Nationalist paramilitaries responded in kind.  

Hitler’s Personal Charisma and Modern Electoral Practices

No political party leader rivaled Hitler’s personal charisma in addressing large crowds, small groups, or individuals, or the appeal the Nazis generated with modern electoral practices:

  • market research to identify concerns and hopes of potential voting groups and incorporation of those concerns and hopes into stump speeches
  • air transport to move Hitler and other Nazi speakers around the country quickly during elections
  • massive, carefully choreographed rallies throughout the country, reaching across traditional boundaries of class, education, region, income, religion, age and gender

In addition to two national elections for the Reichstag (parliament) in July and November 1932, Hitler ran for President against the incumbent, Field Marshall Paul von Hindenburg, in April 1932. Although he lost, he obtained 36.8% of the vote.    

Government by Emergency Decree

Intrigues among President Hindenburg’s inner circle of advisors and failure to govern against the background of the worsening economic depression toppled the Brüning government on May 30, 1932. Two days later, Hindenburg appointed Franz von Papen Chancellor. An alienated Catholic Center politician with close ties to the German Nationalist People’s Party, von Papen secured Hitler’s promise to tolerate his government by lifting a recent ban on the SA and SS. Even while deploring it, von Papen used the consequent acceleration of street violence on July 20 to overthrow the democratically elected Prussian State Government by emergency decree, replacing it with an unelected administration, an example that Hitler would use eight months later to eliminate autonomy in the state governments.

Hitler and the July 31, 1932, Elections

Hitler overcame personal, political, and legal issues that threatened his leadership of the NSDAP and his viability as a German leader in 1930-1932. On February 25, 1932, the Braunschweig State Ministry of the Interior, in Nazi hands since spring 1931, appointed Hitler as state government councilor. This automatically conferred upon Hitler the German citizenship needed in order to run for president.

Assisted by SA Chief of Staff Ernst Röhm, Berlin Gauleiter and NSDAP propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels, and the Berlin SS, Hitler survived a rebellion of the Berlin and East Prussian SA under SA Deputy Chief of Staff Walter Stennes in April 1931. He overcame a revolt in the NSDAP led by Otto Strasser, who had opposed the Führer on his search for conservative bourgeois allies after 1929 and over Nazi foreign policy aims and alliances in 1930. In addition to persistent rumors of his Jewish ancestry, Hitler weathered a scandal generated by unsubstantiated rumors of sexual abuse linked to the suicide of his niece, Angela “Geli” Raubal, under his roof on September 12, 1931.

The elections of July 31, 1932 were an extraordinary triumph for Hitler. The NSDAP captured 37.3% of the vote, becoming the largest party in German history. Drawing voters away from the Social Democrats as the economic depression deepened following the collapse of the German banking system in 1931, the Communists received 14.3% of the vote, rendering government by parliamentary consent mathematically impossible without an agreement with either the Socialists or the Nazis. Combined with Hitler’s rejection of the Vice-Chancellorship and von Hindenburg’s refusal to appoint the Nazi leader Chancellor, these electoral results shattered von Papen’s illusion of forming a governing majority. Inability to govern, increasing economic collapse and political isolation, and a parliamentary vote of no-confidence (backed by both Nazis and Communists) in September 1932 forced von Papen to dissolve the Reichstag and call new elections for November 6.  

Hitler and the November 6, 1932, Elections

The November 6 results were both a political and financial setback for Hitler and the Nazi Party. The Nazi share of the vote dropped to 33.1 %. Most of the lost voters migrated to the Communists (16.9%) and the German National People’s Party (8.3%). Worse still, Hindenburg’s continued refusal to appoint Hitler Chancellor, and bankruptcy in NSDAP finances blunted the sense of inevitability of coming to power that Hitler had projected since 1930, indicating that the NSDAP may have peaked in the share of the electorate that his appeal could elicit.

When former General Kurt von Schleicher, one of Hindenburg’s advisors, came forward with a plan to split the Nazi Party, luring its leftwing working class faction under Party Political Organization Leader Gregor Strasser into a non-partisan government of “experts” with von Schleicher himself as Chancellor, Hindenburg agreed, dismissing von Papen on November 17. The political anti-climax left the Nazi leadership in serious crisis—Hitler himself spoke of suicide during the last weeks of 1932.

Resenting von Schleicher’s intrigues to replace him, von Papen and his German Nationalist allies around Hindenburg, however, perceived Nazi losses as an opportunity to oust von Schleicher and return to power riding on a chastened Nazi popularity. So confident was von Papen that German conservatives and nationalists could control the Nazis that he was prepared to offer Hitler the Chancellorship in a Nazi-Nationalist coalition.  

Hitler’s Appointment as Chancellor of Germany

In January 1933, representatives of Papen and Hitler agreed on a new government with Hitler as Chancellor, von Papen as Vice Chancellor, and Nazi leader Wilhelm Frick as Minister of the Interior. The remaining cabinet positions would go to German Nationalist People’s Party politicians or non-affiliated “experts.” Though Hindenburg greeted this solution with distaste, von Papen’s argument that Germany was out of alternatives induced him to appoint Hitler Chancellor on January 30, 1933, formally burying the corpse of a parliamentary democracy whose spirit and essence had died 30 months previously.