Hijacking Democracy: The Rise of National Socialism in Weimar Germany

By Jonathan Lanz

Edited by Kiki Sham and Alexandra Stafford

Jonathan is currently a junior at Georgetown University with a major in history and minor in Jewish Civilization. Originally from Jericho, New York, his research centers around Holocaust history and genocide studies. Specifically, Jonathan is interested in the sociological aspects of genocide: how ordinary men and women can commit extraordinary acts of atrocity given the right circumstances. Outside of his role as Editor-in-Chief of the Georgetown Journal of History, Jonathan works as a research assistant for Georgetown’s Center for Jewish Civilization. After graduation, Jonathan plans to pursue graduate work in modern German history. 

The rise and reign of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party was a period marred by a massive wave of extremism and violence, and by the horrifying practice of mass extermination. Despite the violence which thus characterized the Nazi period, the long-desired thousand-year Reich was not born out of extreme violence. Rather, it was the electoral result of a democratic system. The Weimar Republic (“the Republic”) and its explosive failure represent key case studies in any examination of the historical development of democratic political systems. Germany’s first democratic experiment acted as a transitional period between an era of elitist monarchy and a period of totalitarian dictatorship. The Weimar Republic failed to prevent the rise of radical political movements on both the right and the left of the political spectrum.

The Weimar Republic was proclaimed by Social Democrat Philipp Scheidemann on 9 November 1918, and was Germany’s first experience of a truly competitive party system. In line with developments throughout the rest of the world, the Republic extended suffrage to both men and women.[1] Following the Great War, in which Germany lost 1.8 million of its citizens, the Weimar system was meant to include minorities and those on the political fringes of the party-system.[2] Yet it was this notion of political inclusion that would later destroy the Republic and pave the way for totalitarian dictatorship in Germany. The consolidation of political power in Germany during the early 1930s by the Nazi Party can be attributed to the pattern of partisan politics in government. Moreover, this process of political polarization was only aided by the high degree of civic participation in the German political process during the early 1930s.

Before conducting a thorough historical analysis of the consolidation of political power under the Nazi Regime, it is essential to provide a description of the party-system in Weimar Germany. The Weimar Republic had a multi-party parliamentary system and its governing power was derived from a coalition-building process.[3] The National Socialist German Workers Party, more commonly known as the Nazi Party , was one of the smallest political parties in the Weimar system, throughout most of the Weimar period. Led by Adolf Hitler, the NSDAP promoted  policies based on right-wing nationalism and anti-Semitism. Additionally, many Germans saw the NSDAP as a “fresh force” that could find innovative solutions to Germany’s economic problems.[4] It is important to note that for many Germans, the Nazis were not merely a political party, but rather a national movement. Many Germans considered the Nazi movement to be a revolutionary force that would eliminate corruption and elitism from the government. At its core, the Nazi movement was a populist campaign to “reform” the German government. Historian A.J.P. Taylor described the movement as, “… action without thought.”[5] The Nazi movement represented salvation to a nation that was beaten in the Great War and was humiliated by being forced to pay war reparations. These monetary reparations, as stipulated in the Treaty of Versailles, were intended to be Germany’s “punishment” for starting the war. Hitler preyed on Germans’ feelings of resentment and humiliation, and used the democratic process in order to destroy the Weimar Republic from the inside. It is important to note, however, that the NSDAP was not a major player in German politics until the elections of 1932. For most of its early life, the National Socialist Party played a minor role in German politics.

However, there were many other political parties active in the Weimar Republic. For instance, the Social Democratic Party dominated German democratic politics throughout the 1920s and thus controlled Germany for the majority of the Weimar period. Like its counterparts, the SPD believed in the expansion of social welfare programs.[6] In addition, in 1933, the SPD was the only major party to vote against the Enabling Act.[7] Passed by the Reichstag on 23 March 1933, the Enabling Act suspended most civil liberties of German citizens and transferred all power of the federal government to the Reichskanzler [Chancellor], who, at that time, was Adolf Hitler[8]

After the SPD, the second most popular party during most of the Weimar period was the Centre Party, also known as Zentrum. The Centrists were largely Catholic and were a key voting bloc that contributed to the consolidation of German political power in the early 1930s. In fact, the Zentrum gave Hitler the majority he needed to pass the Enabling Act in 1933.[9] The final two major political parties in the Weimar system were the German National People’s Party (DNVP), which was a coalition partner of the Nazi Party after the elections of 1932, and the Communist Party (KPD), which the Nazi party blamed for corrupting the “German way of life.”[10]

For the vast majority of its existence, between 1919 and 1933, the Weimar Republic was controlled by the Social Democratic Party, led by its founder Friedrich Ebert.[11] In addition, the Social Democrats were the first leaders of the republic. While the SPD did not rule Weimar Germany uninterruptedly, it was only during the formative years of the Third Reich, in 1930-1933, that the Social Democrats faced significant electoral challenges. The first democratic election in Weimar Germany was held to elect delegates to a constitutional convention on 19 January 1919, in which the Social Democrats won a plurality of the vote, followed by the Catholic Centrist Party. At the time, the Nazi Party did not even exist. The first session of the Weimar Republic’s constitutionally elected Assembly opened on February 9, 1919 and elected SPD leader Friedrich Ebert president. In turn, Ebert appointed Philip Scheidemann chancellor and directed him to form a cabinet.[12] However, after being forced to sign the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919, Scheidemann submitted his resignation to President Ebert, and was replaced by fellow SPD leader Gustav Bauer.[13] This pattern of chancellors resigning due to popular pressure was something the Nazi Party exploited in later years, with Adolf Hitler effectively forcing President Paul von Hindenburg to appoint him chancellor after the resignation of Franz von Papen.

The document that, perhaps, truly foreshadowed the rise of the Nazi Party was the Treaty of Versailles, forced upon Germany by the victorious Entente powers. Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles blamed Germany for the causes and outcomes of the war and thus spurred German citizens to find radical solutions to their economic problems.[14] By 1929, a worldwide stock market crash was underway and Germany was experiencing high levels of unemployment.[15] It was under these circumstances that the stage was set for the consolidation of political power under Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party.

The Nazi Party was able to gain, hold, and consolidate power in Germany primarily through the federal elections held between 1932 and 1933. The onset of the Great Depression brought the Nazis electoral victory, as the NSDAP appealed to a wide range of Germans from the bourgeoisie to unemployed workers.[16] At the time, it could be argued that a vote for the Nazi movement was a vote to balance out communism, as the Nazi Party singled out the KPD in many electoral attacks. The Nazi Party’s use of scapegoats to further their political goals also extended to other minorities in German society, such as Jews, the Roma, and those who were physically and mentally disabled.[17] Perhaps the most effective political tool used by Nazi leaders was the ability to play politicians off one another. The NSDAP used party politics, such as the rivalry between DNVP and SPD leaders, to simultaneously consolidate their base of power and weaken other political movements such as the KPD.

The NSDAP initially gained electoral dominance in the first election of the Reichstag on 30 May 1932. In order to prevent the seizure of power by the Nazi Party, President Paul von Hindenburg ignored the election results. Instead of appointing Adolf Hitler chancellor, Hindenburg renewed the term of the largely unpopular centrist Franz von Papen.[18] However, without the support of parliament, von Papen was nothing more than a lame duck. The fact that President von Hindenburg ignored the preferences of the German electorate gave the Nazi Party and its allies leverage to pressure Hindenburg into dissolving parliament and calling new elections. Nevertheless, these were not the final days of Franz von Papen. He later played an integral role in ceding power to the NSDAP when, in January 1933, von Papen made a deal with Hitler in order to convince President Hindenburg to appoint Hitler Chancellor.[19] Von Papen grossly underestimated the power and political finesse of the Nazi leadership. Adolf Hitler and his allies used the system of partisan politics that existed in Weimar Germany in order to seize and consolidate political power.

When discussing the role of partisan politics in the Nazi seizure of power, it is also important to mention the influence of propaganda over the German electorate in the early 1930s. Few of the thirteen million Germans who voted for Hitler ever heard him speak, therefore propaganda posters were an important factor in swaying ordinary Germans to join the Nazi movement.[20] Indeed, propaganda was a powerful means for increasing the popularity of Nazi candidates. One notable poster, published by Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels in 1933, stated “Wir haben das Wählen Satt![21] [We are tired of elections!] This poster not only encouraged German citizens to vote for Hitler, but also acknowledged the frustration that many citizens had with partisan politics. By voting for the Nazi list on the ballot, the poster suggested, the German people would be electing a “man above politics,” and the constant necessity of holding elections would be eliminated. Another such poster, published in 1933, shows the hand of Hitler reaching up towards a hammer exclaiming Arbeit! [Work!][22] Whether it was persuading German voters to vote for the Nazi Party, or lying to Jews and the disabled about their true fate, Hitler and the Nazis masterfully used propaganda to further their political and social goals.

Under the influence of this era of mass propaganda, the final openly-contested election was held in Weimar Germany on 5 March 1933. The Nazi Party won 43.9% of the popular vote, while its allies received 8%.[23] The combined votes of these two blocs gave the NSDAP a majority in the Reichstag. However, the Nazis and their supporters still fell short of the two-thirds majority needed to change the Weimar Constitution. For this, they eventually relied on a series of national tragedies and the support of the Zentrum.

The first of these “national tragedies” was the arson attack that severely damaged the Reichstag, the German parliament building. The Nazis blamed the Communist party for the fire, which occurred on 27 February 1933; the widespread arrests of high-level members of the KPD followed.[24] The Nazi Party, after completing a supposedly independent investigation, claimed that Dutch communist Marinus van der Lubbe set the fire to attack “the capitalist German system.”[25] While there is some evidence to suggest that the arson was actually a false-flag attack organized by the National Socialists, this theory cannot be proven.[26] The largest and most long-lasting result of this fire was the passing of the Reichstag Fire Decree, on 28 February 1933, which inaugurated a state of emergency and a system of martial law that would exist until the end of the war in 1945.[27] Wilhelm Frick, the Nazi Minister of Interior in Hitler’s cabinet, justified the passage of this decree by citing Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution, which allowed the President to take action in times of emergency without legislative consent.[28] Furthermore, Hitler’s cabinet used this decree to indefinitely suspended all personal rights and freedoms, including freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of the press.

There was also another, more ominous result of the Reichstag Fire Decree. On 20 March 1933, Munich Police President Heinrich Himmler used the decree to establish the first concentration camp near Dachau. This camp was established with the goal of containing communists and socialists in German society.[29] Within a year, similar facilities appeared all over Germany. While these early concentration camps cannot be compared to the extermination centers later developed by the Nazi regime, it is important to note that that President von Hindenburg and upper-level officials in the Weimar government supported the policies which established these facilities.[30] Even in its early days, the Nazi regime had the support of the German population and non-Nazi political figures in its desire to isolate those who they considered undesirables.

The moment when the NSDAP finally gained power has such significance in German history that there is a specific word that refers to the event, Machtergreifung. This roughly translates into “seizure of power.” On 30 January 1933, Hitler was, through constitutional means, given the chancellorship by Reich President von Hindenburg. Hitler’s ability to become Reichskanzler was no doubt due to his deft political maneuvering and utilization of the weaknesses present in the Weimar political system. In fact, President von Hindenburg had strong feelings of personal animosity towards Hitler, with Hindenburg quoted as saying, “You will not think it possible, gentlemen [Hindenburg’s advisors], that I should appoint this Austrian lance-corporal chancellor?”[31]

Since 1930, von Hindenburg had increasingly used Article 48 of the Weimar constitution in order to bypass legislative will in the form of “emergency decrees.”[32] Even in the final days of Weimar Democracy, Hitler simply followed the precedent set by Hindenburg when he began to act without the consent of the Reichstag. Nazi officials did not reveal their true intentions until it was too late to stop the Nazi movement from seizing power.[33] Some historians, when considering the era of Machtergreifung, argue that parliamentary democracy ended in Germany in 1930, before the elections held in 1932-1933. However, this argument is not necessarily valid, as free and fair elections were held in Germany throughout the early-1930s. Nevertheless, it is clear that the Nazi Party garnered political support by playing off the system of partisan politics that existed in Weimar Germany.[34]

Whenever historians consider the rise of the Nazi regime, their research usually centers around a package of legislation that, for all intents and purposes, marked the official birth of the Third Reich: The Enabling Act. As the Nazi Party did not have the two-thirds majority needed to pass the act, which effectively suspended the Weimar constitution, they solicited the support of the Catholic Centrists led by Ludwig Kaas.[35] Right before this crucial vote, Adolf Hitler made an impassioned speech to the Reichstag declaring that the rights of Catholics would be protected under his administration; Zentrum believed him and supported the act.[36]

Later that day, President Paul von Hindenburg signed The Enabling Act and the Third Reich was born. Once the Enabling Act was signed into law, German political change quickly sped up. Instead of playing the political game, Hitler’s cabinet was immediately replaced by an all-Nazi cabinet, and within a matter of days, political parties began to be outlawed. On 14 July 1933, NSDAP was declared to be the only legal political party in Germany.[37] From one perspective, the passage of the Enabling Act marked the legal end of the democratic experiment in Germany. However, the Nazis would have one more challenge before they legally exterminated Weimar’s democratic system: the presence of President Paul von Hindenburg.

The period between the Enabling Act and Paul von Hindenburg’s death is known as Gleichschaltung, or “synchronization of power.” Immediately after the passage of the Enabling Act, Hitler began to strip the German states of their power and consolidated all federal power under his rule.[38] Other than the weak check provided by the power of President von Hindenburg, Adolf Hitler was dictator of Germany. However, when President von Hindenburg died in August 1934, Hitler combined the offices of Chancellor and President, styling himself as Führer.[39] As a “cherry on top of the cake,” a plebiscite was held in August 1934; this publicly confirmed Hitler’s position as sole leader of Germany.[40] The legal takeover of German democratic government was finally complete.

Within a couple of years, the Nazi Party was able to work within the democratic system to destroy the Weimar Republic from the inside. What makes the rise of the Third Reich so important to study is that the Nazis never took power by force. In fact, every action taken by the NSDAP was supported by a large portion of the German people. Rather than seizing power through a coup d’état or other forceful methods, the politically adept Hitler took his time to hijack democracy piece by piece. When considering contemporary political parties, it is important to remember that a leading political movement has more power than simply the ability to rule. Rather, it has the ability to completely and utterly destroy the systems that created it. The rise of the Nazi party is a perfect example of this phenomenon.

Bibliography

Biddiss, Michael D. The Age of the Masses: Ideas and Society in Europe since 1870. New York: Harper & Row, 1978.

Carsten, F. L. The Rise of Fascism. 2nd ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.

Gay, Peter. Weimar Culture: The Outsider as Insider. New York: W.W. Norton, 2001.

German Bundestag. “History of the German Bundestag.” Deutscher Bundestag. Last modified March 2006. http://www.bundestag.de/htdocs_e/artandhistory/history.

Heineman, John L. “Propaganda Posters.” Propaganda Posters- Weimar Republic. http://www.bc.edu/bc_org/avp/cas/his/CoreArt/prop/propmain.html.

Kershaw, Ian. Hitler. 2nd ed. Harlow, England: Longman, 2001.

Taylor, A. J. P. The Course of German History: A Survey of the Development of Germany since 1815. New York: Coward-McCann, 1946.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “Decree of the Reich President for the Protection of the People and the State.” Holocaust Encyclopedia. Last modified January 29, 2016. https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10007888.

Endnotes

[1] Peter Gay, Weimar Culture: The Outsider as Insider (New York: W.W. Norton, 2001), 147.

[2] Gay, Weimar Culture: The Outsider, 147.

[3]  “History of the German Bundestag,” Deutscher Bundestag, last modified March 2006, http://www.bundestag.de/htdocs_e/artandhistory/history.

[4] “History of the German,” Deutscher Bundestag.

[5] A. J. P Taylor, The Course of German History: A Survey of the Development of Germany since 1815 (New York: Coward-McCann, 1946), 206.

[6] “History of the German,” Deutscher Bundestag.

[7] Ian Kershaw, Hitler, 2nd ed. (Harlow, England: Longman, 2001), 76.

[8] Ibid.

[9] “History of the German,” Deutscher Bundestag.

[10] “History of the German,” Deutscher Bundestag.

[11] Gay, Weimar Culture: The Outsider, 148.

[12] Gay, Weimar Culture: The Outsider, 149.

[13] Gay, Weimar Culture: The Outsider, 150.

[14] Gay, Weimar Culture: The Outsider, 150-51.

[15] Gay, Weimar Culture: The Outsider, 159.

[16] Michael D. Biddiss, The Age of the Masses: Ideas and Society in Europe since 1870 (New York: Harper & Row, 1978), 193.

[17]  John L. Heineman, “Propaganda Posters,” Propaganda Posters- Weimar Republic, http://www.bc.edu/bc_org/avp/cas/his/CoreArt/prop/propmain.html.

[18] Gay, Weimar Culture: The Outsider, 161.

[19] Gay, Weimar Culture: The Outsider, 163.

[20] Kershaw, Hitler, 53.

[21] Heineman, “Propaganda Posters,” Propaganda Posters- Weimar Republic.

[22] Ibid. What makes this poster so unique is that it is the first widespread mention of the the phrase Arbeit in German propaganda. This phrase would later come back in a much darker way, through the phrase Arbeit Macht Frei [Work makes free], which the Nazi regime deceptively put on the gates of concentration camps in order to suggest to prisoners that if they worked hard enough, they would one day be set free.

[23] Kershaw, Hitler, 76.

[24] Kershaw, Hitler, 70.

[25] F. L. Carsten, The Rise of Fascism, 2nd ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), 153.

[26] Ibid.

[27] “Decree of the Reich President for the Protection of the People and the State,” Holocaust Encyclopedia, last modified January 29, 2016, https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10007888.

[28] Kershaw, Hitler, 75.

[29] Kershaw, Hitler, 76.

[30] Kershaw, Hitler, 76.

[31] Carsten, The Rise of Fascism, 151.

[32] Kershaw, Hitler, 61.

[33] Kershaw, Hitler, 123.

[34] Taylor, The Course of German, 205.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Kershaw, Hitler, 103.

[37] Kershaw, Hitler, 77.

[38] Gay, Weimar Culture: The Outsider, 163.

[39] Biddiss, The Age of the Masses, 194.

[40] Kershaw, Hitler, 124.