The Day Hitler Became Chancellor

80 years ago yesterday, Adolf Hitler, the strange Austrian who headed a movement that combined violent thugs with some of Germany’s leading industrialists, was sworn in as Chancellor of Germany.

His method for achieving this was indicative of the way Hitler had always and would always confront the problems facing him: he gambled everything. The Nazi party, having fought through two expensive election campaigns in 1932, was broke. Though they’d won 33% of the vote in the November election, this was actually down from their 37% high in the July race. The socialist and communist votes, when summed, actually exceeded the Nazi share.

The Center party, which had come in fourth at 11%, was the preferred party of German President von Hindenburg and German elites, but it lacked the support of the German people. The Center hoped to use the deadlock to reestablish themselves by using the strong but ebbing Nazis as a temporary base within a coalition. Thus they offered Hitler the office of Vice-Chancellor.

Leading Nazis assumed that Hitler would leap at the chance. It would give the Nazis a role in government and allow them to replenish their party coffers for another run at Chancellor down the line. But Hitler was not interested in biding time. He insisted on the Chancellorship or nothing.

This made Hitler’s comrades nervous. Surely, they thought, the leaders of the Center Party knew about the state of Nazi finances. All they had to do was wait the Nazis out, another election would be called in 1933, and the Hitler would be done for. But Hitler, like an enraged toddler, stamped his foot, folded his arms and cried, “Chancellor!” (Well, not literally…)

Forces outside Hitler’s control came to his aid. Industrialists, worried about the vote totals of the communists and socialists and concerned they might, with another election, forge a left majority, pressed von Hindenburg to declare a government. In the meantime, the socialists and communists, who’d spent the last fourteen years nursing mutual resentments, failed to find a way to join forces. Former Defense Minister von Schleicher offered the Army and President von Hindenburg a way out. Schleicher would be Chancellor, with the support of Hitler’s rival in the Nazi party, Strasser, and the army. But Hitler made an impassioned speech for his all or nothing strategy that energized his base and isolated Strasser. Shortly thereafter Schleicher and von Hindenburg had a falling out–over one of Schleicher’s ill aimed jokes, apparently–and any hope for Strasser or von Schleicher collapsed.

Next came von Papen, the former Chancellor, with a new bargain. Hitler could be made Chancellor, but his cabinet could have only three Nazis, and only one with portfolio (Wilhelm Frick, at the then-relatively-weak Ministry of the Interior). The rest would be conservatives, with von Papen leading them as Vice Chancellor. This way, the Nazis could be used to eliminate the left as a political force, while the conservatives controlled all the important government posts. Von Schleicher tried to carve out a deal for himself to be made Defense Minister again, but von Papen outmaneuvered him.

And so, on 30 January 1933, Franz von Papen and Adolf Hitler got their wishes. Hitler became Chancellor. Joseph Goebbels describes the day:

Torturing hours of waiting. At last a car draws up. The Leader is coming. A few moments later he is with us. He says nothing and we all remain silent also. His eyes are full of tears. It has come! The Leader is appointed Chancellor of Germany. The final decision has been made. Germany is at a turning-point in her history.

Goebbels said many untrue things over the course of his life, but that last sentence was not among them.

At the end of the day, the SA Stormtroopers marched through the streets of Berlin by torchlight, saluting Hitler as he stood in the window and watched. Germany belonged to him.

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