U.S. officials wish to demonize someone, they
inevitably compare him to Adolf Hitler. The message
immediately resonates with people because everyone
knows that Hitler was a brutal dictator.
how many people know how Hitler actually became
a dictator? My bet is, very few. I'd also bet
that more than a few people would be surprised
at how he pulled it off, especially given that
after World War I Germany had become a democratic
story of how Hitler became a dictator is set forth
in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, by William
Shirer, on which this article is based.
the presidential election held on March 13, 1932,
there were four candidates: the incumbent, Field
Marshall Paul von Hindenburg, Hitler, and two
minor candidates, Ernst Thaelmann and Theodore
Duesterberg. The results were:
49.6 percent Hitler 30.1 percent Thaelmann 13.2
percent Duesterberg 6.8 percent
the risk of belaboring the obvious, almost 70
percent of the German people voted against Hitler,
causing his supporter Joseph Goebbels, who would
later become Hitler's minister of propaganda,
to lament in his journal, ³We're beaten; terrible
outlook. Party circles badly depressed and dejected."
Hindenberg had not received a majority of the
vote, however, a runoff election had to be held
among the top three vote-getters. On April 19,
1932, the runoff results were:
53.0 percent Hitler 36.8 percent Thaelmann 10.2
even though Hitler's vote total had risen, he
still had been decisively rejected by the German
June 1, 1932, Hindenberg appointed Franz von Papen
as chancellor of Germany, whom Shirer described
as an ³unexpected and ludicrous figure." Papen
immediately dissolved the Reichstag (the national
congress) and called for new elections, the third
legislative election in five months.
and his fellow members of the National Socialist
(Nazi) Party, who were determined to bring down
the republic and establish dictatorial rule in
Germany, did everything they could to create chaos
in the streets, including initiating political
violence and murder. The situation got so bad
that martial law was proclaimed in Berlin.
though Hitler had badly lost the presidential
election, he was drawing ever-larger crowds during
the congressional election. As Shirer points out,
one day, July 27, he spoke to 60,000 persons in
Brandenburg, to nearly as many in Potsdam, and
that evening to 120,000 massed in the giant Grunewald
Stadium in Berlin while outside an additional
100,000 heard his voice by loudspeaker.
rise to power
July 31, 1932, election produced a major victory
for Hitler's National Socialist Party. The party
won 230 seats in the Reichstag, making it Germany's
largest political party, but it still fell short
of a majority in the 608-member body.
the basis of that victory, Hitler demanded that
President Hindenburg appoint him chancellor and
place him in complete control of the state. Otto
von Meissner, who worked for Hindenburg, later
testified at Nuremberg,
replied that because of the tense situation he
could not in good conscience risk transferring
the power of government to a new party such as
the National Socialists, which did not command
a majority and which was intolerant, noisy and
deadlocks in the Reichstag soon brought a new
election, this one in November 6, 1932. In that
election, the Nazis lost two million votes and
34 seats. Thus, even though the National Socialist
Party was still the largest political party, it
had clearly lost ground among the voters.
to remedy the chaos and the deadlocks, Hindenburg
fired Papen and appointed an army general named
Kurt von Schleicher as the new German chancellor.
Unable to secure a majority coalition in the Reichstag,
however, Schleicher finally tendered his resignation
to Hindenburg, 57 days after he had been appointed.
January 10, 1933, President Hindenburg appointed
Adolf Hitler chancellor of Germany. Although the
National Socialists never captured more than 37
percent of the national vote, and even though
they still held a minority of cabinet posts and
fewer than 50 percent of the seats in the Reichstag,
Hitler and the Nazis set out to to consolidate
their power. With Hitler as chancellor, that proved
to be a fairly easy task.
February 27, Hitler was enjoying supper at the
Goebbels home when the telephone rang with an
emergency message: ³The Reichstag is on fire!"
Hitler and Goebbels rushed to the fire, where
they encountered Hermann Goering, who would later
become Hitler's air minister. Goering was shouting
at the top of his lungs,
is the beginning of the Communist revolution!
We must not wait a minute. We will show no mercy.
Every Communist official must be shot, where he
is found. Every Communist deputy must this very
day be strung up.
day after the fire, the Prussian government announced
that it had found communist publications stating,
buildings, museums, mansions and essential plants
were to be burned down... . Women and children
were to be sent in front of terrorist groups....
The burning of the Reichstag was to be the signal
for a bloody insurrection and civil war.... It
has been ascertained that today was to have seen
throughout Germany terrorist acts against individual
persons, against private property, and against
the life and limb of the peaceful population,
and also the beginning of general civil war.
how was Goering so certain that the fire had been
set by communist terrorists? Arrested on the spot
was a Dutch communist named Marinus van der Lubbe.
Most historians now believe that van der Lubbe
was actually duped by the Nazis into setting the
fire and probably was even assisted by them, without
his realizing it.
would Hitler and his associates turn a blind eye
to an impending terrorist attack on their national
congressional building or actually assist with
such a horrific deed? Because they knew what government
officials have known throughout history ‹ that
during extreme national emergencies, people are
most scared and thus much more willing to surrender
their liberties in return for ³security." And
that's exactly what happened during the Reichstag
day after the fire, Hitler persuaded President
Hindenburg to issue a decree entitled, ³For the
Protection of the People and the State." Justified
as a ³defensive measure against Communist acts
of violence endangering the state," the decree
suspended the constitutional guarantees pertaining
to civil liberties:
on personal liberty, on the right of free expression
of opinion, including freedom of the press; on
the rights of assembly and association; and violations
of the privacy of postal, telegraphic and telephonic
communications; and warrants for house searches,
orders for confiscations as well as restrictions
on property, are also permissible beyond the legal
limits otherwise prescribed.
weeks after the Reichstag fire, Hitler requested
the Reichstag to temporarily delegate its powers
to him so that he could adequately deal with the
crisis. Denouncing opponents to his request, Hitler
shouted, ³Germany will be free, but not through
you!" When the vote was taken, the result was
441 for and 84 against, giving Hitler the two-thirds
majority he needed to suspend the German constitution.
On March 23, 1933, what has gone down in German
history as the ³Enabling Act" made Hitler dictator
of Germany, freed of all legislative and constitutional
judiciary under Hitler
of the most dramatic consequences was in the judicial
arena. Shirer points out,
the Weimar Constitution judges were independent,
subject only to the law, protected from arbitrary
removal and bound at least in theory by Article
109 to safeguard equality before the law.
fact, in the Reichstag terrorist case, while the
court convicted van der Lubbe of the crime (who
was executed), three other defendants, all communists,
were acquitted, which infuriated Hitler and Goering.
Within a month, the Nazis had transferred jurisdiction
over treason cases from the Supreme Court to a
new People's Court, which, as Shirer points out,
soon became the most dreaded tribunal in the land.
It consisted of two professional judges and five
others chosen from among party officials, the
S.S. and the armed forces, thus giving the latter
a majority vote. There was no appeal from its
decisions or sentences and usually its sessions
were held in camera. Occasionally, however, for
propaganda purposes when relatively light sentences
were to be given, the foreign correspondents were
invited to attend.
of the Reichstag terrorist defendants, who had
angered Goering during the trial with a severe
cross-examination of Goering, did not benefit
from his acquittal. Shirer explains:
German communist leader was immediately taken
into ³protective custody," where he remained until
his death during the second war.
addition to the People's Court, which handled
treason cases, the Nazis also set up the Special
Court, which handled cases of political crimes
or ³insidious attacks against the government."
These courts consisted of three judges, who invariably
had to be trusted party members, without a jury.
A Nazi prosecutor had the choice of bringing action
in such cases before either an ordinary court
or the Special Court, and invariably he chose
the latter, for obvious reasons. Defense lawyers
before this court, as before the Volksgerichtshof,
had to be approved by Nazi officials. Sometimes
even if they were approved they fared badly. Thus
the lawyers who attempted to represent the widow
of Dr. Klausener, the Catholic Action leader murdered
in the Blood Purge, in her suit for damages against
the State were whisked off to Sachsenhausen concentration
camp, where they were kept until they formally
withdrew the action. Even lenient treatment by
the Special Court was no guarantee for the defendant,
however, as Pastor Martin Niemoeller discovered
when he was acquitted of major political charges
and sentenced to time served for minor charges.
Leaving the courtroom, Niemoeller was taken into
custody by the Gestapo and taken to a concentration
Nazis also implemented a legal concept called
Schultzhaft or ³protective custody" which enabled
them to arrest and incarcerate people without
charging them with a crime. As Shirer put it,
Protective custody did not protect a man from
possible harm, as it did in more civilized countries.
It punished him by putting him behind barbed wire.
August 2, 1934, Hindenburg died, and the title
of president was abolished. Hitler's title became
Fuehrer and Reich Chancellor. Not surprisingly,
he used the initial four-year ³temporary" grant
of emergency powers that had been given to him
by the Enabling Act to consolidate his omnipotent
control over the entire country.
the new order
enough, even though his dictatorship very quickly
became complete, Hitler returned to the Reichstag
every four years to renew the ³temporary" delegation
of emergency powers that it had given him to deal
with the Reichstag-arson crisis. Needless to say,
the Reichstag rubber-stamped each of his requests.
their part, the German people quickly accepted
the new order of things. Keep in mind that the
average non-Jewish German was pretty much unaffected
by the new laws and decrees. As long as a German
citizen kept his head down, worked hard, took
care of his family, sent his children to the public
schools and the Hitler Youth organization, and,
most important, didn't involve himself in political
dissent against the government, a visit by the
Gestapo was very unlikely.
in mind also that, while the Nazis established
concentration camps in the 1930s, the number of
inmates ranged in the thousands. It wouldn't be
until the 1940s that the death camps and the gas
chambers that killed millions would be implemented.
Describing how the average German adapted to the
new order, Shirer writes:
overwhelming majority of Germans did not seem
to mind that their personal freedom had been taken
away, that so much of culture had been destroyed
and replaced with a mindless barbarism, or that
their life and work had become regimented to a
degree never before experienced even by a people
accustomed for generations to a great deal of
regimentation.... The Nazi terror in the early
years affected the lives of relatively few Germans
and a newly arrived observer was somewhat surprised
to see that the people of this country did not
seem to feel that they were being cowed.... On
the contrary, they supported it with genuine enthusiasm.
Somehow it imbued them with a new hope and a new
confidence and an astonishing faith in the future
of their country."
Hornberger is founder and president of The Future
of Freedom Foundation. Send him email.
article originally appeared in the March 2004
edition of Freedom Daily.
Posted: July 20, 2004