Before the onset of the Great Depression in Germany in 1929–1930, the National Socialist German Workers' Party (or Nazi Party for short) was a small party on the radical right of the German political spectrum. In the Reichstag (parliament) elections of May 2, 1928, the Nazis received only 2.6 percent of the national vote, a proportionate decline from 1924, when the Nazis received 3 percent of the vote. As a result of the election, a "Grand Coalition" of Germany's Social Democratic, Catholic Center, German Democratic, and German People's parties governed Weimar Germany into the first six months of the economic downturn.
During 1930–1933, the mood in Germany was grim. The worldwide economic depression had hit the country hard, and millions of people were out of work. The unemployed were joined by millions of others who linked the Depression to Germany's national humiliation after defeat in World War 1. Many Germans perceived the parliamentary government coalition as weak and unable to alleviate the economic crisis. Widespread economic misery, fear, and perception of worse times to come, as well as anger and impatience with the apparent failure of the government to manage the crisis, offered fertile ground for the rise of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party.
Hitler was a powerful and spellbinding orator who, by tapping into the anger and helplessness felt by a large number of voters, attracted a wide following of Germans desperate for change. Nazi electoral propaganda promised to pull Germany out of the Depression. The Nazis pledged to restore German cultural values, reverse the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles, turn back the perceived threat of a Communist uprising, put the German people back to work, and restore Germany to its "rightful position" as a world power. Hitler and other Nazi propagandists were highly successful in directing the population's anger and fear against the Jews; against the Marxists (Communists and Social Democrats); and against those the Nazis held responsible for signing both the armistice of November 1918 and the Versailles treaty, and for establishing the parliamentary republic. Hitler and the Nazis often referred to the latter as "November criminals."
Hitler and other Nazi speakers carefully tailored their speeches to each audience. For example, when speaking to businessmen, the Nazis downplayed antisemitism and instead emphasized anti-communism and the return of German colonies lost through the Treaty of Versailles. When addressed to soldiers, veterans, or other nationalist interest groups, Nazi propaganda emphasized military buildup and return of other territories lost after Versailles. Nazi speakers assured farmers in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein that a Nazi government would prop up falling agricultural prices. Pensioners all over Germany were told that both the amounts and the buying power of their monthly checks would remain stable.
Using a deadlock among the partners in the "Grand Coalition" as an excuse, Center party politician and Reich Chancellor Heinrich Bruening induced the aging Reich President, World War I Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, to dissolve the parliament in July 1930 and schedule new elections for September 1930. To dissolve the parliament, the president used Article 48 of the German constitution. This Article permitted the German government to govern without parliamentary consent and was to be applied only in cases of direct national emergency.
Bruening miscalculated the mood of the nation after six months of economic depression. The Nazis won 18.3 percent of the vote and became the second largest political party in the country.
For two years, repeatedly resorting to Article 48 to issue presidential decrees, the Bruening government sought and failed to build a parliamentary majority that would exclude Social Democrats, Communists, and Nazis. In 1932, Hindenburg dismissed Bruening and appointed Franz von Papen, a former diplomat and Center party politician, as chancellor. Papen dissolved the Reichstag again, but the July 1932 elections brought the Nazi party 37.3 percent of the popular vote, making it the largest political party in Germany. The Communists (taking votes from the Social Democrats in the increasingly desperate economic climate) received 14.3 percent of the vote. As a result, more than half the deputies in the 1932 Reichstag had publicly committed themselves to ending parliamentary democracy.
When Papen was unable to obtain a parliamentary majority to govern, his opponents among President Hindenburg's advisers forced him to resign. His successor, General Kurt von Schleicher, dissolved the Reichstag again. In the ensuing elections in November 1932, the Nazis lost ground, winning 33.1 percent of the vote. The Communists, however gained votes, winning 16.9 percent. As a result, the small circle around President Hindenburg came to believe, by the end of 1932, that the Nazi party was Germany's only hope to forestall political chaos ending in a Communist takeover. Nazi negotiators and propagandists did much to enhance this impression.
On January 30, 1933, President Hindenburg appointed Adolf Hitler chancellor of Germany. Hitler was not appointed chancellor as the result of an electoral victory with a popular mandate, but instead as the result of a constitutionally questionable deal among a small group of conservative German politicians who had given up on parliamentary rule. They hoped to use Hitler's popularity with the masses to buttress a return to conservative authoritarian rule, perhaps even a monarchy. Within two years, however, Hitler and the Nazis outmaneuvered Germany's conservative politicians to consolidate a radical Nazi dictatorship completely subordinate to Hitler's personal will.
Critical Thinking Questions
- How did the German constitution contribute to the Nazi rise to power?
- What pressures and motivations led some officials to arrange for the appointment of Hitler as chancellor?
- What do you consider to be the ideal priorities of government officials to uphold, particularly in times of crisis?
- How can knowledge of the events in Germany and Europe before the Nazis came to power help citizens today respond to threats of genocide and mass atrocity in the world?