Hitler becoming Chancellor of Germany 85 years ago this month was not inevitable. Despite the Nazi’s leader’s mesmeric oratory, despite eight million Germans unemployed – a third of the workforce – and despite political instability. There were three Chancellors in 1932 and two unscheduled general elections.
In November and December 1932 Nazi support was on the wane. The extremist party’s vote fell four percent in the 6 November election since the 31 July poll which translated to a loss of 34 seats. In the weeks after the November poll, the party’s vote fell in state and municipal elections. Internal rifts deepened in December. Hitler and Gregor Strasser, one of his closest followers, clashed over the party’s political strategy to gain power. The storm troopers were disregarding orders, there had been resignations from the party and its financial position was dire.
King-maker Von Papen far right
In his paper, Was Hitler’s Seizure of Power on January 30, 1933, Inevitable? professor Eberhard Kolb writes: “At the end of 1932, numerous intelligent political commentators believed that the danger of a National Socialist seizure of power had been warded off. While there had been a general feeling that Hitler was at the gates in the period before November 1932, there was now a broad shift in public opinion.”
Yet a month later the mentally unstable Hitler was Chancellor. Historian Marcel Bois argues in Jacobin magazine: “Hitler’s rise to power was by no means inevitable, but rather the outcome of both specific historical conditions as well as the actions (and inactions) of various social forces.”
One of the “social forces” was the former chancellor Franz von Papen. He was a career diplomat, dilettante and dealer in duplicity. And he was an aristocrat like the president Paul von Hindenburg. Von Papen ingratiated himself with the 85-year-old president and his inner circle.
Get to know people and use them was von Papen’s modus operandi, according to his biographer Tibor Koeves. In his book Satan in Top Hat, he is unequivocal about who is to blame for Hitler’s ascension.
“It is a moot question whether National Socialism might or might not have come into power without Franz von Papen’s helping hand. The fact is that a few weeks before he was nominated, Hitler told Goebbels that if the Party (sic) broke up, as seemed possible at the time, he would immediately shoot himself … The man who turned the tables in six weeks’ time transformed a bankrupt, disunited, declining movement into an instrument of power was Franz von Papen.”
Von Papen was a wealthy aristocrat with numerous wealthy contacts. Koeves writes von Papen persuaded Nazi party funders to stop when he was chancellor (1 June 1932 – 17 November 1932). In late December 1932, he turned the money flow back on.
Von Papen played Hitler and von Hindenburg. As chancellor Kurt von von Schleicher was negotiating the future of Germany's government, von Papen was negotiating with Hitler. The Nazi leader agreed to settle for the chancellorship, and the ministries for Germany’s biggest state, Prussia, the interior and a new one, aviation. He also promised to respect the rights of the president, the Reichstag and the press and to make von Papen vice chancellor.
Von Papen persuaded Hindenburg’s advisors his head of office, Dr Otto Meissner, his son and aide de camp Oskar Hitler would deliver a right-wing government that would be in in the interests of the aristocracy. And he claimed he would be the “power behind the throne”.
Von Papen had demonstrated throughout his career his interests were paramount. There’s no reason to believe his actions that December-January 85 years ago were motivated by anything other than satisfying his desire for power.
Von Papen was aided and abetted by others in bringing the monstrous Nazis to power. The elderly and far from mentally sharp president von Hindenburg was one of the ultimate arbiter whose responsibility cannot be denied.
There was another way out of the stalemate – the subject for another post.