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Hitler, from Chancellor to Fuhrer

Adolf Hitler, appointed chancellor on January 30, 1933, complained that his government did not have majority support in Parliament and he won from President Hindenburg approval for another round of parliamentary elections.

In late February came the fire at the parliament building attributed to a Communist plot to make revolution. A Communist and unemployed bricklayer, age 24, Marinus van der Lubbe, said he set the fire as a cry to rally the German workers against fascist rule. Communists were arrested and taken away to prison. And the new elections that Hitler wanted were held on March 5th in the crisis atmosphere of law and order under attack. Hitler's National Socialist Party won 43.9 percent of the vote, 288 seats in the Reichstag (Parliament) of a total of 647 seats. The foremost rival to the National Socialists was the Social Democratic Party, which lost 1 seat and held on to 120 seats. And the Communist Party lost 19 seats and held on to 81. Hitler's party not yet a majority, Hitler still needed to be part of a coalition with the German National People's Party (DNVP).

Hitler also wanted emergency powers: the power to enact laws without involvement of the Reichstag. For this he needed a two-thirds vote of approval from Parliament. He gave a big speech to Parliament on March 23, accusing the Social Democrats of having betrayed Germany during the Weimar Republic by letting Germany be dictated to by foreign powers. Responding to a Social Democrat deputy's concern about liberty and human rights, Hitler claimed that his party had stood up for Germany and had been victimized and deprived of liberty and justice along with the German people. He said he wanted emergency powers – the Enabling Act – "for the sake of justice." He looked at deputies of the Social Democratic Party and told them that Germany will be liberated "but not by you." He said "It will always be the first and foremost task of the Government to bring about inner consensus with [President Hindenburg's] aims," and he added that " The rights of the Churches will not be curtailed and their position vis-à-vis the State will not be altered." His speech was cheered by deputies other than the Social Democrats.

The following day (March 24), the two-thirds vote he wanted and needed he received. The only party to oppose the Enabling Act was the Social Democrats. The Communists, whose votes would have prevented a two-thirds majority, were not present. They had been arrested.

On 7 April, a law is passed that forced all "non-Aryans" to retire from the legal profession and civil service. On 21 April the kosher ritual for slaughtering animals and poultry was made illegal. On 26 April, the Gestapo became part of the state's police force. On 10 March, a rally described as a revival of German culture took place outside the University of Berlin. Students caught up in the National Socialist spirit tossed something like 20,000 books onto a bonfire as Hitler's propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, looked on with elation. Among those whose books were burned were H.G. Wells, Havelock Ellis, Sigmund Freud, Prouse, Emile Zola, André Gide, Upton Sinclair, Helen Keller (author of How I Became a Socialist), Margaret Sanger, Jack London, Erich Maria Remarque (author of All Quiet on the Western Front, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and Lenin. As the fire subsided Goebbels spoke to the crowd, saying that "These flames not only illuminate the final end of an old era; they also light up the new."

Hitler used his emergency powers against the Social Democrats and their trade unions. In May and June the Social Democratic Party's headquarters were occupied. The Social Democrats were declared illegal and enemies of the people and the state. More Communists were arrested and imprisoned, along with socialists, liberals and trade unionists – all those deemed by the Hitler regime as dangerous. By the end of the year (1933), the first concentration camps appeared and numbered around fifty. Despite the continued German proclivity toward order and legality, a few of the political prisoners were murdered, and there was a bit of corruption as some officials received money from the friends or relatives of the prisoners for their release.

Books, motion pictures, radio bcasts and the theater were subject to state censorship — while the economy was improving and the public's support for Hitler was holding. Germany's rural and religious conservatives were pleased by what they believed was the weeding out of corruption. Hitler spoke of Germans being an exceptional and superior people, and Germans were inclined to believe it, as had other peoples through the ages in judging themselves.

Of Germany's 17,000 Protestant pastors, 3000 were fervent enough in the support of Hitler to join the German Faith movement. Those supporting National Socialism talked of German science as opposed to Jewish science — Einstein considered as belonging to the latter. There was also talk of German mathematics rising from the superiority of the German spirit. Textbooks were being rewritten. Teachers were conforming. University professors, who had long lectured with enthusiasm about German grandeur and had supported rightwing and nationalist politicians were finding it easy to support National Socialism.

Seeking to win former political enemies, in January 1934 Hitler's Minister of the Interior Hermann Goering appealed to the rise in patriotism and the new spirit of conformity by telling prisoners released from the concentration camp at Dachau to rejoin their places in their communities rather than consider themselves outlaws.

In February it became illegal to advocate monarchy. On 20 March, all the police forces in Germany come under the command of Heinrich Himmler. In May there were treason trials held in secret.

Night of the Long Knives

Meanwhile, anti-capitalist members of Hitler's National Socialist Party were clamoring for Hitler to extend his revolution. Among them was Ernst Roehm (Röhm), leader of the Brown Shirts. He was feeling powerful – his Brown Shirts now numbering 2.5 million. Hitler proposed at a cabinet meeting that the Brown Shirts be made the foundation of a new people's army. Army leaders protested and appealed to President Hindenburg. At cabinet meetings, Roehm and the head of the army, von Blomberg, argued. Unexpressed in these debates was the disgust that Army leaders had for the homosexuality of Roehm and the clique of men surrounded him. Army leaders wanted professional soldiers, not street rowdies. Hitler sided with the Army, and Army leaders endorsed Hitler as successor to President Hindenburg. Joseph Goebbels and others were warning Hitler of the danger of Roehm's "morally objectional" character while Roehm belonged to a homosexual organization called the League for Human Rights. Roehm held that if Nazi Party members performed their official duties well, they were entitled to private lives that might include "loving homosexual relationships." In June came the crackdown against Roehm and the anti-capitalists.

On the night of June 30, Goering and Himmler's SS-led raids against Roehm and others across Germany. It was to be known as the Night of the Long Knives. It was to be known among Germans as the Roehm Putsch. Roehm, his lieutenants and some other Brown Shirts were executed. And the opportunity was taken to eliminate some who had offended the National Socialist movement, including von Kahr, the former Bavarian state commissioner who crushed Hitler's attempted coup in 1923. Kahr's body was hacked to pieces and thrown into a swamp. The former chancellor, Heinrich Brüning, escaped death by having fled the country sometime before. The leftist Nazi, Gregor Strasser, was executed, as was another former chancellor, General Kurt von Schleicher. Erich Klausener, the leader of Catholic Action in Berlin was shot dead in his office by a squad SS men apparently acting on the orders of Goering. And there were incidents of mistaken identity. The bodies of those killed by mistake were returned to their wives with apologies.

On July 1, Hindenburg publicly thanked Hitler for his "determined action and gallant personal intervention," which, he said had "nipped treason in the bud and rescued the German people from great danger." The following day, von Blomberg gave Hitler the congratulations of the cabinet. In a speech before the Reichstag Hitler justified his purge by accusing the Brown Shirts of preparing to seize Berlin. Hitler announced that 67 had died, 61 of them shot, including nineteen Brown Shirt leaders – thirteen, he said, for resisting arrest. Three, he claimed, had committed suicide. Said Hitler:

If anyone reproaches me and asks why I did not resort to the regular courts of justice, then all I can say is this: in this hour I was responsible for the fate of the German people, and thereby I became the supreme judge of the German people. Everyone must know for all future time that if he raises his hand to strike the state then certain death is his lot.

Hitler becomes Führer

On August 2, President Hindenburg died of old age. A plebiscite was held on August 19 that overwhelmingly endorsed Hitler as Hindenburg's successor. Hitler did not care for the title of President – a left over from the German republic that came into being in 1918. Nor did he care for the title of Chancellor. He preferred Führer (Leader), and that is what he would be called. His cabinet passed a law declaring the presidency dormant. Hitler no longer had someone above him to worry about. He was now the supreme authority.

To appease criticism of his rule, he announced amnesty for 27,000 camp inmates. Germans believed the period of arrests was at an end, and they felt comfort in the realization that only a small fraction of the population had been arrested. Membership in Germany's National Socialist party continued to grow, as people wished to identify with Hitler's regime, express their patriotism or advance their position.

Economic Recovery

Serving Hitler's government was a right-of-center economist, Hjalmar Schacht. During 1930-32, like other nationalists on the right, who wanted to make Germany great again, he had helped raise funds for Hitler. He had been opposed to the economic policies of the Social Democrats and was among those asking Hindenburg to appoint as Chancellor the enemy of the Social Democrats, Adolf Hitler. He then served Hitler's government as President of the National Bank (Reichsbank), and the day after President Hindenburg died, Hitler appointed him Minister of Economics. But Schacht was never a member of the National Socialist Party, and he disagreed with what he called "unlawful activities" against Germany's Jewish minority.

Like other economies, Germany's economy had hit bottom in 1932. The strategy for recovery was largely Schacht's. He was willing to ignore free-market liberalism. He told a US journalist he was going to correct the excesses of capitalism. He forbade the sending of money out of Germany, reduced foreign trade largely to barter agreements and put strict limits on imports. Under Schacht, private industry was compelled to reinvest its profits in manufacturing approved by the state. And crucial to Germany's recovery was government spending, much of it on public works, the most visible of which was a new highway system – the autobahn – which the army wanted for more efficient movements within Germany. There was also an electrification program and government investment in industry. One-third of Germany's income had as its source government payments and investments – almost three times the percentage being spent by the US government. And, as in Sweden, the government debt that Schacht was creating was quickly offset by the recovery in revenues that came with the rise of the economy.

Without independent trade unions, Germany could keep its wages low and its prices stable. The government drafted men between the ages of nineteen and twenty-five to work on government projects, and tax incentives were introduced to persuade women to leave the labor force and leave more jobs for the men, to return to what was considered traditional for German women: cooking, children and attending church (küche, kinder und kirche). Hitler's economy remained low in productivity. There was little incentive to innovate (the usual incentive for innovation being high profits, which in Germany were heavily taxed.) But unemployment fell dramatically, and business optimism returned. Germany's industrial product rose above in 1929 level and was rising rapidly (Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, p 299). And Germany's farmers were prospering.

German workers had the right to try their employers in special courts in order to protect themselves from abuse. German workers felt more secure, and some were saying that Hitler had saved them from starvation. The German people were grateful to Hitler for what they saw as his economic recovery.

Continuing Repression

In 1935, jazz was described as having Negro or Jewish origin and was banned. Also that year a Prussian administrative court ruled that the Gestapo's actions were not subject to judicial review. Germany's defense lawyers had to have the approval from a National Socialist official to represent a client. A few lawyers were sent to concentration camps after trying to represent someone out of favor with Hitler's regime. Among them was the lawyer who had represented the widow of Dr. Klausener, the Catholic Action Leader who had been murdered during the purge of 1934.

Tensions had been developing between Hitler's regime and some people of faith, and, in July 1935, political activities by Catholics were outlawed. Some Catholics and Protestants expressed their discomfort with "the paganism" among the National Socialists, and Hitler tried to appease this opinion by repudiating paganism and holding to his claim that he would lead the German nation along the path of positive Christianity. But soon his propaganda minister, Dr. Goebbels, came to the defense of the National Socialists and denied that Hitler had made any repudiation.

In September 1935 came the Nuremberg Laws that denied the rights of citizenship to Jews and reduced them to the status of "subjects." These laws forbade marriage and extramarital relations between Jews and "Aryans." Jews were forbidden from employing an Aryan female under the age of thirty-five as a servant. Other edicts forbade Jews to shop in gentile stores, or gentiles to shop in Jewish stores. Jews could not attend movies, theaters or stroll in public parks. The majority of the Germans felt unaffected by all this and let it pass. And Hitler promised that signs suggesting hostility to Jews in Germany would be removed in time for the Olympic games – which were to be held in 1936 in Berlin.

More on this subject: "The Press in the Third Reich"

CONTINUE READING: Steps toward War: 1935-38

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