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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 did not put the chancellorship in his hands.

The resignation of Gregor Strasser as head of the party’s organizational apparatus on December 8 opened up the possibility of a wider defection, and at the same time a bitter dispute between the leader of the Franconian SA and the local Gauleiter showed that there were limits to the loyalty of the party’s paramilitary forces. These were difficulties that the chancellor, General Kurt von Schleicher, a man with a well-earned reputation for political maneuver, could be counted upon to exploit. Meanwhile, there were signs that the long economic depression that had created the conditions for the remarkable growth of the Nazi Party since 1930 was beginning to lift, a circumstance that made any new resort to the polls a risky proposition.

Only someone who was absolutely persuaded that he was chosen by destiny to be Germany’s leader could have remained undaunted in these circumstances, but Hitler did so, and destiny, in the form of Franz von Papen, now came to his aid. Still smarting over the failure of his own chancellorship, which he blamed on Schleicher’s intrigues, Papen was bent upon revenge and, after a speech in the Herrenklub in Berlin in which he expressed disappointment over the failure of re-cent attempts to bring the Nazis into the cabinet, he had a talk with the Cologne banker Kurt von Schröder, a Nazi sympathizer, in which he revealed his feelings about Schleicher, said that they were shared by President von Hindenburg, and hinted that he would be willing to meet with the Nazi leader.

These intimations led to an invitation to Hitler to meet with the former chancellor in Schröder’s house in Cologne on January 4. For the Nazi leader this was a pure stroke of luck, an unexpected jackpot. Papen and he agreed quickly on the necessity of replacing the Schleicher cabinet with one based on a union of Nazis and nationalistic conservatives that would govern by emergency decrees under the authority of the president and would destroy the leftist parties once and for all. Although they differed on the question of who should become chancellor in such a government (here Hitler was as unmoveable as ever), they undertook to remain in touch. This represented a major breakthrough for Hitler. In a stroke, Turner writes, it ended his political isolation and made him

a major factor in a drastically altered political constellation. He had at last breached the protective ring of advisers that had previously shielded the ultimate arbiter of power—President von Hindenburg—from him. He now had an offer of alliance from a former chancellor whose policies in office had won him the admiration of influential conservative circles and the affection of the head of state.

Indeed, the Nazi leader was now in a position in which he was no longer required to do anything but sit tight, foreswear dangerous initiatives, and take advantage of the illusions and the irresponsibility of the other actors in the political drama. Turner’s book gives a circumstantial and fascinating account of how they played into his hands.

The key figure in the game was the old Field Marshal, for it was he who appointed chancellors and provided them with the emergency decrees that enabled them to govern when they lacked Reichstag support. Hindenburg was now eighty-five years old, and not as vigorous in body and mind as he had once been. After Hitler came to power, the story went around that, on the night of January 30, 1933, as he stood on the balcony of the Reich Chancellery and watched the columns of jubilant brownshirts passing underneath, he had turned to his chief of staff, Otto Meissner, and said, “Ludendorff, I hadn’t realized we had taken so many Russian prisoners.” This was unfair. The President’s mind was clear enough. He was aware of the prerogatives and duties of his office and could defend them with impressive authority. On the other hand, he preferred to be surrounded by people with good manners who deferred to him; he was susceptible to flattery, and his old-fashioned sense of honor inclined him to believe what people told him.

He had a deep affection for Franz von Papen, who, he once said, always showed him true feudal loyalty, and he was uncomfortable with Papen’s successor Schleicher, who had no gifts of deference. It is perhaps not surprising then that when Papen, who continued to have access to the President’s office after his dismissal, gave him a misleading account of the Cologne meeting, saying that Hitler was no longer demanding the chancellorship and was ready to consider a coalition with conservative forces, Hindenburg authorized him to remain secretly in contact with him, despite his personal aversion for the Nazi leader and despite the fact that this virtually made him a member of a conspiracy against his own chancellor.

Until the latter half of 1932, the driving force in this backstairs intrigue, Franz von Papen, had been better known for his skills as a gentleman jockey than for intellectual achievement. Writing about him at the time of his appointment as chancellor, the French ambassador André François-Poncet described Papen as having

the distinction of not being taken at all seriously either by his friends or his enemies. His face bears the mark of an ineradicable frivolity of which he has never been able to rid himself. As for the rest, he is not a personality of the first rank…. He is regarded as superficial, mischief-making, deceitful, ambitious, vain, crafty, given to intrigue.

None of these characteristics, except the first, was a handicap in the game Papen had chosen to play, but his superficiality prevented him from having any appreciation of the potential consequences of his actions. His determination to bring Schleicher down closed his mind to all other considerations, and when he failed to persuade Hitler to give up his insistence on becoming chancellor, he blithely set about the task of persuading Hugenberg and the Nationalists, the President’s closest advisers, Oskar von Hindenburg and Otto Meissner, and the Field Marshal himself to accept Hitler as head of the government. This was not an easy task, and it required all of Papen’s considerable resources of mendacity to accomplish it, so that, in the end, he won Hindenburg’s assent only by allowing him to believe that Hitler would govern by parliamentary rather than presidential authority, and would require no emergency decrees—an assurance that was shown to be completely false after the Nazi leader was sworn in.

More than sixty years after the fact, one is still struck by Papen’s essential frivolity, his unwavering belief that he was the brightest boy in the class, and his complete faith in his ability to control Hitler once he was in power. When Ewald von Kleist-Schmenzin, who was later to lose his life for his activities opposing the Nazis, tried at the last moment to persuade Papen of the danger of making Hitler chancellor, Papen answered, “What do you want? I have the confidence of Hindenburg. In two months we’ll have pushed Hitler so far into a corner that he’ll squeal.”

Perhaps Turner’s most original pages are those that deal with Schleicher, whose behavior during the crisis of his chancellorship has always puzzled historians. Kurt von Schleicher was generally considered to be the political general par excellence. In 1928, he had been appointed head of the Reichswehr’s Ministeramt, a liaison body between the army and the Reich ministries and political parties, and had acquired considerable influence in the decision-making process. It was he who in 1930 devised the plan to overcome the deadlock of the political parties by the appointment of cabinets composed of members who were unhampered by a narrow conception of party loyalty and who governed from the standpoint of the national interest alone, relying for their authority upon the support of the president and his emergency powers. Schleicher had a prominent part in the formation of the government of Heinrich Brüning, the leader of the Catholic Center Party, in May 1930 and of the Papen cabinet in June 1932, as he did in the fall of both. When he succeeded Papen in November, he was generally expected to be a strong chancellor. This proved not to be true.

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