The Long View: Hitler's Thirty Days to Power
More Nazi Germany alternative history from John. The occasion for his speculations this time is a sober historical analysis of the political fecklessness that brought Hitler to the Chancellorship of Germany in 1933. In short, the responsible adults in Germany felt that a dictatorship was a good idea, and they picked Hitler to keep the chair warm while they dickered about who it should be.
A moment of clarity on the part of any of the senior political figures involved gives us an excellent departure point for alternative history. The twentieth century was going to be a bad one in almost any conceivable history, but there were at least some better alternatives that might have been possible.
Hitler's Thirty Days to Power: January 1933
by Henry Ashby Turner, Jr.
272 pages, $25.00
There are any number of theories explaining why the Nazi regime was inevitable. Cultural or economic determinism seem to serve about as well for this purpose. Some historians have detected a peculiar flaw in German culture that made the country peculiarly susceptible to antisemitic fascism. (Daniel Goldhagen argued for a form of this interpretation in his "Hitler's Willing Executioners.") A widely-accepted view is that Hitler was a creature of German big business who just got a little out of hand once he got into office, though in fact support for this thesis is thin in the record. What these explanations have in common is the search for a cause worthy of the effect. Nazi Germany was, of course, a Big Thing, and so it seems reasonable that it should have a big cause.
This book by Henry Ashby Turner, Jr., a Stille' professor of history at Yale most noted for his study of the role of big business in the advent of the Nazi regime, takes a wholly different approach. This is a day-by-day, indeed sometimes an hour-by-hour, account of the actions of the leaders of Germany during the weeks leading up to Hitler's appointment as chancellor on January 30, 1933. By examining the negotiations that led to the fateful swearing-in ceremony in President Paul von Hindenburg's office, Turner purports to show that the advent of the Nazis to power was in fact largely a matter of dumb luck.
Turner does not deny the role of large, impersonal forces in the establishment of the Nazi regime. Certainly the economic depression of the 1930s and German cultural predilections made Nazi Germany possible. Turner's point is that they did not make it inevitable, or even particularly likely. Unusually for a serious historian, but with more than enough justification in this case, he gives us a long speculation on what in fact was the most probable outcome at the time. We are thus treated to an examination of ten or twenty years of German history that never happened, but that would have happened had it not been for the folly and incompetence of three or four German politicians. As Turner points out, the twentieth century without Hitler would have been a very different time. Still, one may wonder whether it would have been quite as different as he suggests.
Since the beginning of the Depression three years before November, 1932, the Nazis had seemed like the wave of the future. They were a negligible sect at the time of Hitler's release from Landsberg prison in 1925, where he had been sentenced after attempting a farcical coup. When the brief prosperity of the Weimar period ended, however, the Nazi party changed the political map of Germany. They absorbed many of the adherents of the smaller right-wing parties, making themselves the chief vehicle for protest votes. The established parties, the Communists, the Social Democrats and the Catholic Center, seemed helpless to cope, or even to match the Nazis in innovative campaign technique.
The acme of Nazi voting success came in the July parliamentary elections, when their percentage of the vote reached the high thirty percent range. This made them the largest party in the federal Reichstag, though far short of a majority. The chancellor at that time, Heinrich Bruening, was a respected, fatally stubborn member of the minority Catholic Center. He was also a presidential appointee, since he could not count on majority legislative support. Under the Weimar constitution, it was possible for a chancellor to conduct a government with just the backing of the president's emergency powers, provided the Reichstag did not actually return a vote of no-confidence against him. Eventually, however, his policies of fiscal austerity caused his fall from office. After Bruening, no chancellor was able to count even on the toleration of a parliamentary majority. Thus, by the summer of 1932, Germany had already ceased to be a functioning parliamentary democracy. Law was increasingly made by President Hindenberg's emergency decrees. A more explicit form of dictatorship seemed not just reasonable, but inevitable.
Then there was a pause. Nazi electoral success in early '30s did not depend, as many people charged at the time, on subsidies by bankers and industrialists eager to set up a dictatorship friendly to capitalism. The Nazis did have some wealthy sympathizers, notably the great industrialist, Fritz Thyssen. Still, to a surprising degree they were a shoestring operation, supported by generous membership contributions and the time and labor of their members (many of whom, after all, were not otherwise employed at the time). The problem with this kind of organization, of course, is that it is a kind of pyramid scheme. As long as the membership keeps growing, more money comes in to fund the drive for new members. When growth falters, however, the whole structure is in danger of collapse. That is very much what happened to the Nazi party when its share of the popular vote dropped by over 10% in the next round of elections in November.
Why did this happen? The simplest answer may be that their natural share of the electorate was about a third. There have been many profiles of the "Nazi voter." This creature was more likely to be Protestant than Catholic, more likely rural than urban, more likely to run a farm or small business than to work in a factory. The Nazi electorate was even disproportionately female. In any event, the percentage of the population likely to find Hitler and his organization attractive was large but limited. Their ability to attract protest votes outside their natural constituencies diminished after they became the largest parliamentary party. The Nazis then, as far as the public was concerned, had become part of the establishment, and so had to take part of the blame for the continuing dysfunction of the government and the economy.
Though still the largest party in the Reichstag, they no longer looked like the inevitable party of the future, and members who had already devoted a great deal of time and money to the Nazi cause began to drift away. Nazi stormtroopers took to the streets, not to intimidate their opponents, but to beg donations from passersby. Farsighted observers began to surmise that the window of opportunity for the Nazis had closed, since by the end of 1932 the German economy was plainly beginning to recover. All that the leaders of Germany had to do was exercise a little prudence and common sense for another six months. By then the political crisis occasioned by the Depression would have been solved.
Unfortunately, neither prudence nor common sense were conspicuous features of Franz von Papen, President Hindenberg's next appointee after the dismissal of Bruening. Whatever else the November elections may have proven, they left the Reichstag more fractured than ever. Papen was another member of the Center Party, but unlike Bruening could not count on their support, since he had accepted the chancellorship without the party's permission. He did little to any purpose during his few weeks in office, though he did succeed in alienating labor by various decrees. He toyed with schemes for a temporary dictatorship. Since these would probably not have worked but would have required the cooperation the president, their chief effect would have been to deprive the Weimar Republic of what little legitimacy it still possessed. His chief accomplishment, one that would prove fatal for Germany and the world, was in gaining the lasting trust and affection of President Hindenberg and his son, Oskar. Without a functioning Reichstag, Hindenberg was in effect the government of Germany. That fact, and the fact that the old man was likely to take any advice that Papen gave him, were the decisive elements in the events of January, 1933.
The chancellor during this period was Kurt von Schleicher, a career officer and longtime minister of defense who retained that portfolio even while chancellor. For years, he had been regarded as the power behind the throne of German politics. He had arranged for the appointment and dismissal of both Bruening and Papen. He was largely responsible for long-term foreign policy and strategic planning, areas where he met with some success. Despite the ministerial instability of the Weimar era, the Republic had succeeded in freeing itself from most of the onerous conditions imposed by the Allies at the end of the First World War. These things were achieved in no small measure because of the continuity in policy engineered by Schleicher and his colleagues. However, as Turner remarks, Schleicher seems to have "risen to the level of his incompetence" by actually becoming chancellor himself.
Schleicher lacked the sycophantic skills of Papen, so necessary to staying on the right side of Hindenberg. He deluded himself into believing that he did not need them, since he had an elaborate scheme for gaining the acquiescence, if not quite the active support, of a majority of the Reichstag. His plan had too many moving parts. It involved splitting off the moderate wing of the Nazi Party under Gregor Strasser and getting at least some labor support from the Catholic trade unions. When these things failed to materialize, all he could suggest to the displeased Hindenberg was that Reichstag should be dissolved and no new elections scheduled, despite the constitutional requirement for elections within 60 days. As Turner also remarks, a better general would have prepared a more plausible line of retreat.
This explains why Schleicher was kicked out, but how did Hitler get in? Turner's answer is that the proximate cause of the advent of Adolf Hitler to the chancellorship was the spite of Franz von Papen. Papen was humiliated by the way his old friend Schleicher had engineered his removal from office. Papen, and Hindenberg, would have preferred another Papen chancellorship when it became clear that Schleicher could not muster the parliamentary support he had promised. However, even Papen had to acknowledge that such a step would simply have returned the political state of the country to what it had been in November, when Papen's attempts to rule in opposition to the Reichstag had provoked threats of civil war. Very well then, Papen made it his business to find someone else to replace Schleicher, someone Papen could be sure of controlling. He hit upon what seemed the obvious solution, the hapless ideologue Hitler.
Probably no one else could have prevailed on Hindenberg to appoint Hitler chancellor. As leader of the largest parliamentary party since July, he had of course been the obvious candidate to be asked to form a conventional majority government. Despite the notorious dislike that Hindenberg had taken to Hitler, the president had in fact offered him just this opportunity in the fall of 1932. Hitler declined. Part of the reason was practical. The Nazis were, was we have seen, far from having a majority themselves, and the closest thing to a parliamentary ally they could claim was the absurd Alfred Hugenberg's German-National Party, which tended to get smaller in each election as the Nazis ate them alive. The deeper reason, however, was that Hitler did not want to be beholden to any parliamentary coalition. Perhaps he would not really have been happy even with a majority Nazi Reichstag. What he wanted was to be a presidential chancellor, like Bruening and Papen and Schleicher. This would permit him to act quickly and radically, without reference even to what his own party thought. Though it seemed irrational, he held out for these terms from the disastrous parliamentary elections of November through the disintegration of the Schleicher government in January. Papen saw to it that Hitler got just those terms. In return, Papen got the meaningless post of deputy chancellor in the new cabinet and the appointment of various make-weight aristocrats to other ministerial posts. Hitler's cabinet, of course, never actually functioned.
Turner spends several pages assigning praise and blame to the non-Nazis who contrived to bring Hitler to power. The most guilty, in his estimation, was President von Hindenberg himself. Turner finds no basis for the widespread belief that the mind of the octogenarian president was fading in early 1933. Rather, Turner asserts that Hindenberg had as much vanity as integrity. He favored ministers who would flatter him and shield him from all criticism. He routinely dispensed with his presidential chancellors when they needed his authority to take unpopular measures. Maybe his job was too much for a man of his age, but he had sought and won reelection in 1932. It was no one's fault he was president but his own.
Papen's guilt, and that of the other people around the president, is perhaps mitigated by the fact that the chancellorship of the Weimar Republic had long since ceased to be an altogether serious job. Parliamentary and, later, presidential chancellors routinely replaced each other after a few months. There seemed little reason to believe that a Hitler government would prove to be any more durable. Papen hoped to replace Hitler in short order. (For that matter, the Communists looked forward to a Nazi regime as "capitalism's last throw," which might be followed by a revolutionary situation.) Turner reviews the scant media attention given to Hitler's appointment at the time. Hardly anyone seemed to realize that Hitler was not a normal politician, and that his government would not be a normal government.
Nevertheless, informed people knew that the Weimar constitutional system could no longer be made to work. Some kind of authoritarian regime was widely expected, one that might retain the form of the Republic but that would in fact be a modified dictatorship. To some extent, this was just what Hitler did. He ruled on the strength of an "enabling act," passed in March by a Reichstag denuded of its recalcitrant members. There never was such a thing as a "Nazi Constitution." Hitler was not the person that the German establishment wanted to take these steps: people like Papen simply wanted him to keep the chancellor's seat warm for the real dictator, once they had selected him. Folly of this magnitude is rare in any land or age.
This brings us to the might-have-beens. Turner sometimes seems to suggest that it was the world's tragedy that Schleicher did not aspire to become military dictator himself. Turner is sure that Schleicher or someone like him could have done this, parlaying an initial appointment as presidential chancellor into a durable post-democratic regime. According to Turner, nothing like the Second World War would then have occurred, either in Europe or the Pacific. (Turner takes care to point out that Japanese expansionism in the '30s and '40s was predicated on the preoccupation of the European colonial powers with their own security troubles, the chief of which was Nazi Germany.) Had there been no Nazis, Turner believes, a revanchist Germany would have fought a war to recover the corridor to East Prussia from Poland, perhaps with the cooperation of the Soviet Union. Aside from that, however, he does not think that the other elements of the Nazi agenda would have occurred. The annexation of Austria, the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, and above all the extermination of the Jews were Nazi preoccupations. No other German government would have conceived of such things, much less attempted them.
Eventually, of course, the military regime would have ended, perhaps as the Franco regime did in Spain, without much fuss. With eastern Europe unconquered by the Soviet Union, there would have been no occasion for the Cold War. For that matter, atomic weapons would have gone uninvented, since the Manhattan Project was specifically conceived to stop Hitler. All in all, Turner suggests, we have been living in far from the best of all possible worlds, since what actually happened was far from what was most likely to have happened.
Maybe, but if we are speculating on this level, then let us speculate further. Perhaps the total sum of human misery in the world could have been greatly reduced if a few meetings in January of 1933 had gone less well, or if certain politicians had achieved their adolescent dream and gotten into art school. On the other hand, perhaps there is a law of the conservation of catastrophe in human history. Perhaps if there had been no Nazi regime, the Communist assessment of Germany's future might have been correct. A Soviet Germany would proven just as disruptive for Europe as the Nazi one was. Even the war against Russia might have occurred in such a case, since the USSR and Red Germany would have been in immediate competition for leadership of the world communist movement.
More plausible than a Communist revolution in Germany, however, would have been the civil war that many had come to fear by the end of 1932. In addition to the Nazis, the Communists and the Social Democrats all had substantial fighting forces, more than enough to give Germany's small post-Versailles army something to worry about. (For that matter, the army would have found a formidable foe even in the Prussian police.) Despite an improving economy, the Weimar party system still might not have been salvageable. Schleicher was not anxious to become military dictator, perhaps, because he knew that establishing such a regime would have been more easily said than done. Hitler could do it because he had a substantial party behind him. Schleicher, in contrast, could have relied on nothing but the state's institutional authority. It is easy to imagine Germany unraveling rather like Spain did a few years later. The Nazis might then have succeeded in fighting their way to power, as Nazis like Ernst Roehm had intended all along.
For that matter, one wonders whether a rightist dictatorship in Germany would have been as prudent as Turner suggests. The historian Fritz Fischer, remember, started a famous "battle of the historians" in the 1960s by arguing, plausibly, that Imperial Germany had entertained hegemonic ambitions comparable to those of the Nazi regime. Even without a Blitzkrieg into France, a German invasion of Poland could still have set off a general European war in stages, in something like the scenario H.G. Wells describes in his 1933 novel, "Things to Come." There were many landmines strewn across Europe in those years. Maybe not only Hitler could have set them off.
All of this is simply to suggest that some kind of Second World War was fairly likely even without the Nazis. The First World War had ended in a truce, a pause for a breath that could not be held forever. Nevertheless, one does not doubt that Turner's basic intuition is correct. The Nazis were not a normal political phenomenon, and the war they waged did not have normal goals. The Holocaust did not have to happen, and even the conventional features of a second round of world war need not have been so widespread or so devastating as what happened in fact. Taken in this way, Turner's excursion into alternate history holds a valuable insight for statesmen. Even if you can't be blamed for preventing the bad from happening, you can be blamed for failing to prevent he worst.
Copyright © 1997 by John J. Reilly