When Hitler Took Charge

By Philip Scranton
February 11, 2013 11:07 AM EST
Adolf Hitler shakes hands with German President Paul von Hindenburg in 1934.
Source: Getty Images
Adolf Hitler shakes hands with German President Paul von Hindenburg in 1934.

By fall 1932, Germany’s explosive political and economic turmoil, triggered by the Great Depression, seemed to be calming down. Although more than one third of the workforce had been unemployed early that year, the economy was now showing signs of life. The number of jobless dropped by almost half a million from June to October.

Better yet, the rampaging National Socialist Party’s fortunes looked to be slumping. Adolf Hitler, the party's leader, had lost in the April presidential election to aging Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg. Then in the November national election, the Nazis lost 34 of their 230 parliamentary seats, receiving just 12 million of the 36 million votes cast.

But Germans were far from finished with the National Socialists. In December 1932, unemployment increased to 650,000 jobless. The next month, the Nazis triumphed in the local Lippe-Detmold provincial election, increasing the party's representation from one to nine seats. “We swear to continue this fight until our goal is reached and we have erected a new Germany,” Hitler said.

Hitler demanded dictatorial powers so he could rise above party squabbling and get moving on policies to reduce unemployment (or so he claimed). He abandoned this, however, when von Hindenburg offered him, as head of the largest Reichstag delegation, the chancellorship from which Franz von Papen had resigned the previous week. A Cabinet would be created by the Nazis in partnership with the Nationalists, the country's other right-wing party.

Hitler's most surprising Cabinet appointment was Alfred Hugenberg, "a fiery Nationalist politician," to two ministries: economy and agriculture. Hugenberg was "an arch-capitalist -- though with leanings toward anarchy -- financier, industrialist and newspaper publisher," the New York Times wrote. He abhorred labor unions but was also "in strongest discord with the economic doctrines of the Nazi movement."

It was strange that Hitler, an arch-proponent of government power, selected someone hostile to government and opposed to his economic policies as economy minister -- unless this choice was to be a temporary expedient. The Economist wrote that the whole process was bizarre, and that Hitler had been brought into office by the same personal intrigues that overthrew his predecessors. "To state this unquestionable fact is to give full measure of the political instability of Germany at this moment."

Within days, Hermann Goering, whom Hitler had appointed minister without portfolio, banned all demonstrations by communists, suspended publication of a social-democratic newspaper and dissolved all local councils. Next, an emergency decree muzzled the German press and banned foreign newspapers critical of the Reich. New elections for the Reichstag were ordered for March. Murders of socialists, communists and dissenters escalated.

Germany's New Order was taking root.

(Philip Scranton is a Board of Governors professor of the history of industry and technology at Rutgers University, Camden, and the editor-in-chief of Enterprise and Society. He writes "This Week in the Great Depression" for the Echoes blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Read more from Echoes, Bloomberg View's economic history blog.

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