IN Berlin 90 years ago today – January 30, 1933 – one of the most far-reaching and fateful events in modern history unfolded. Shortly after noon on that cold winter’s day, Adolf Hitler was sworn in as Chancellor of Germany by President Paul von Hindenburg.
The 43-year-old Nazi leader formally vowed: ‘I will employ my strength for the welfare of the German people, protect the constitution and laws of the German people, conscientiously discharge the duties imposed on me, and conduct my affairs of office impartially and with justice to everyone.’
Never did words ring more hollow. From then on, Hitler ruthlessly set Germany along the road that led in September 1939 to what Winston Churchill called ‘the greatest tragedy’ in the history of mankind – the Second World War.
After their Fuhrer’s inauguration, the Nazis celebrated wildly in the streets of Berlin. That night, thousands of stormtroopers carrying swastika banners and chanting ‘Sieg Heil!’ staged a torchlight procession through the Brandenburg Gate and along the Unter den Linden. They were joined by throngs of Berliners as they made their way to the Reich Chancellery, where a spotlight picked out Hitler standing at a window.
Hitler’s propaganda chief Josef Goebbels wrote in his diary: ‘It has come! The Fuhrer is appointed Chancellor… just like a fairytale. The final decision has been made. Germany is at a turning point in her history … Germany has awakened.’
Hitler’s rise from obscurity to the pinnacle of power was remarkable. Born in Braunau am Inn, Austria, in April 1889, the son of a Customs official, he moved to Vienna in 1908 hoping to study at the Academy of Fine Arts. Rejected because of his lack of talent, he ended up a homeless, embittered down-and-out, developing a rabid nationalist and anti-Semitic world view.
He moved to Munich in 1913 and the following year joined the German Army when the Great War broke out. After Germany’s defeat in 1918, he found his talents for political demagoguery and in 1921 became leader of the Munich-based NSDAP – the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, the Nazi Party.
Following the failure of his shambolic Munich beer hall putsch in 1923 – for which he served eight months in prison – Hitler decided to use legitimate means via the ballot box to destroy the fledgling Weimar Republic. At first, the Nazis made little impact on the electorate. But following the Wall Street crash of 1929 and the resulting Great Depression, millions of Germans, ravaged by inflation, unemployment, hunger and poverty, voted for them. By 1932, Hitler controlled the largest party in the Reichstag.
President Hindenburg – an 85-year-old Great War field marshal who detested Hitler, the upstart ‘Austrian corporal’ – was unwilling to hand him power. But thanks to manoeuvring by a former chancellor, Franz von Papen, he changed his mind.
Papen persuaded the president that Hitler should be given the top job, but a conservative cabinet with Nazi ministers in a minority should also be created, meaning Hitler could be controlled and marginalised. He is said to have told a colleague: ‘We have hired him for our act. Within two months we will have pushed Hitler so far in the corner that he’ll squeak.’
How wrong Papen was. Within two months, Hitler had Germany firmly in his grip. After the Reichstag building was set ablaze on February 20 – allegedly by a Dutch communist – the new Chancellor suspended civil liberties and had communists and other political opponents arrested.
On March 23, the Nazi-dominated Reichstag, purged of Leftist members, passed the Enabling Act, giving Hitler a free hand to create and enforce laws as he saw fit. He became the absolute dictator of Germany and would remain so until he committed suicide in his Berlin bunker on April 30, 1945, having wreaked death and destruction which encompassed the globe.
It was not as if Germany, and the world, had not been warned about Hitler … by Hitler. As long ago as 1925 in his rambling autobiographical manifesto Mein Kampf, he had set out his programme – the overturning of the Versailles Treaty, expulsion of the Jews and the expansion of Germany eastwards to create Lebensraum (living space) for the master race. Many dismissed this as a rant. But Hitler meant every word.
And now, thanks to a tawdry backroom deal with the reactionaries he despised, he and his legions of political gangsters had become masters of a great, modern, advanced European state with all its military, social, industrial and economic might, resources and potential. With such formidable means at his disposal, Hitler could finally make his murderous Mein Kampf visions become dreadful reality.
In February 1933, General Erich Ludendorff, who had been Hindenburg’s deputy during the Great War – and had once supported Hitler – told the president in a telegram: ‘By appointing Hitler Chancellor of the Reich you have handed over our sacred German Fatherland to one of the greatest demagogues of all time. I prophesy to you that this evil man will plunge our Reich into the abyss and will inflict immeasurable woe on our nation. Future generations will curse you in your grave for this action.’
Ludendorff’s warning came far too late. But it would be devastatingly vindicated.
In his classic 1960 book The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, author William L Shirer incisively sums up the situation, emphasising how Hitler did not seize power in Germany, but was handed it legally by men who arrogantly thought he would be a useful dupe.
He wrote: ‘In the former Austrian vagabond the conservative classes thought they had found a man who, while remaining their prisoner, would help them attain their goals.
‘The destruction of the Republic was only the first step. What they wanted was an authoritarian Germany which at home would put an end to democratic “nonsense” and the power of the trade unions and in the foreign sphere undo the verdict of 1918, tear off the shackles of Versailles, rebuild a great army and with its military power restore the country to its place in the sun.
‘These were Hitler’s aims too. And though he brought what the conservatives had lacked, a mass following, the Right was sure that he would remain in its pocket – was he not outnumbered eight to three in the Reich cabinet? Such a commanding position also would allow the conservatives, or so they thought, to achieve their ends without the barbarism of unadulterated Nazism. Admittedly, they were decent, God-fearing men, according to their lights.
‘The Hohenzollern Empire had been built on the armed triumphs of Prussia, the German Republic on the defeat by the Allies after a great war. But the Third Reich owed nothing to the fortunes of war or to foreign influence. It was inaugurated in peacetime, and peacefully, by the Germans themselves, out of both their weaknesses and their strengths.
‘The Germans imposed Nazi tyranny on themselves. Many of them, perhaps a majority, did not quite realise it at that noon hour of January 30, 1933, when President Hindenburg, acting in a perfectly constitutional manner, entrusted the chancellorship to Adolf Hitler. But they were soon to learn.’