Becoming Hitler

Hitler’s Thirty Days to Power: January 1933

by Henry Ashby Turner Jr.
Addison-Wesley, 255 pp., $25.00

Nazi Germany and the Jews: Volume One: The Years of Persecution, 1933-1939

by Saul Friedländer
HarperCollins, 436 pp., $30.00

Confronting the Nazi Past: New Debates on Modern German History

edited by Michael Burleigh
St. Martin’s, 198 pp., $35.00

We are understandably reluctant to attribute world-shaking events to trivial causes. In our historical explanations we are biased in favor of great impersonal forces and long-term trends and dominant political and cultural developments, and are uneasy with the contingent, the unexpected, and the accidental. Thus, in trying to understand Adolf Hitler’s coming to power in Germany at the end of January 1933, we are apt to look for its roots in the evolution of German politics since the failure of the revolutions of 1848 and in such things as the domination of German politics in the late nineteenth century by a feudal elite and a nationalistic middle class; and we are also likely to cite the social tensions caused by the rise of a militant working-class movement, the weakness and fragmentation of German liberalism, the susceptibility of part of the population to pseudoscientific theories of race, a foreign policy that was prone to military adventurism, and the horrendous and lasting effects of the military collapse of 1918.

The trouble with this kind of explanation is that it tends to be deterministic and to give the impression that what happened had to happen and that there were no alternatives. In his absorbing new book about the politics of the month of January 1933, Henry Ashby Turner refuses to believe this. Of the remote historical factors he writes:

…Although [they] may in many cases have been necessary to the outcome, they were not sufficient. They can help to understand how the Third Reich became a possibility, but they cannot explain how it became a reality.

They throw no light, for example, on the problem that is at the core of Turner’s book: namely, how it was that a politician whose fortunes had slumped so drastically that on January 1, 1933, respected journals were describing him as a spent force was, only four weeks later, sworn in as chancellor of the republic he was to destroy. This fateful reversal of fortune was not, Turner insists, inevitable, but rather the result of chance occurrences, of accident and luck, and of the passions and follies of a small group of politicians, chief among whom were the presi-dent of the republic, Paul von Hindenburg, his son Oskar, and his chief of staff, Otto Meissner, the current and former chancellors, Kurt von Schleicher and Franz von Papen, and the head of the Nationalist Party, Alfred Hugenberg.

Hitler’s troubles at the end of 1932 were serious and promised to become worse. In the November Reichstag elections, the Nazi Party received two million fewer votes than in the elections of July 1932, and it lost thirty-four Reichstag seats. After three years of unbroken success, this was the party’s first serious setback, and it was a staggering one, particularly since it came at a time when the Nazis were suffering from financial troubles and from growing discontent among the membership with Hitler’s all-or-nothing strategy of refusing to make any power-sharing deal with other parties that …

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