Ninety years ago—on Jan. 30, 1933—German President Paul von Hindenburg appointed Nazi Party leader Adolf Hitler as chancellor of Germany, setting in motion a chain of events that would lead to the deaths of tens of millions over the next 12 years. Hindenburg, a Prussian aristocrat, general, and World War I hero, had disliked Hitler from their first meeting in October 1931, derisively referring to him as that upstart “Austrian corporal.”
But the 85-year-old president made Hitler the head of government under pressure from his advisers who still believed that the Nazis could be tamed, used to defeat their opponents on the left, and advance the interests of the right-wing military and business elite. Instead, it was Hitler who manipulated them.
In 1930, Germany was a liberal democracy with a weak but moderate coalition government. The Social Democrats were the largest party in the Reichstag. Four years later, Hitler would wield absolute power as the tyrannical führer.
Looking at the parallels
Eminent historians, looking back at Germany in the early 1930s, see parallels with what is happening now with the emergence of authoritarian movements in the U.S. and other countries. Sir Richard J. Evans, a leading expert on the Third Reich, said:
“The story of German politics between 1930 and 1933 is the story of the decline and fall of a democracy. And that is why we are so fascinated because we know what happened afterwards. Germans at the time didn’t know what was going to happen but we know now looking back what a terrible turning point it was.
“And of course democracy is under challenge and under threat in many countries at the moment. We are looking for parallels and that period does have lessons for us if we want to preserve and defend democracy in our own day.”
Evans‘ remarks conclude the first episode of the BBC documentary series, Rise of the Nazis. The episode, titled “Politics,” first aired in September 2019. It details the path by which Hitler became chancellor of Germany. (The documentary is available for PBS and BBC subscribers.)
The documentary makers clearly draw links between what happened back then and the rise of Trumpism. Here’s how Evans describes Hitler’s campaign in the pivotal July 1932 federal elections in which the Nazis made major gains:
“Hitler realizes that if he tells a very simple message it doesn’t matter if they are true or not. The point is that you have to keep repeating them, keep hammering them in. Make Germany great again. Restore the economy. They are empty slogans but they are carrying a message that although vague is very powerful.”
Just substitute “America” for “Germany” and you’ve got a pretty good description of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
The documentary focuses on long-forgotten names such as conservative politicians Kurt von Schleicher and Franz von Papen, who had repeated opportunities to end the threat posed by the Nazis but failed to do so because they put their own political interests over country.
Sen. Mitch McConnell had opportunities to hold Donald Trump accountable, including two Senate impeachment trials, but failed to do so. Instead, he was more focused on approving conservative judges and cutting taxes for the wealthy. Nevertheless, he is now being vilified by Trump and MAGA extremists for compromising with Democrats to pass the infrastructure and Omnibus Appropriations bills.
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Then-Rep. Kevin McCarthy made backroom deals to increase the power of MAGA extremists in the House in his desperate attempt to become speaker. That to some extent mirrors the mistakes made by conservative political leaders in Germany in dealing with the Nazis in the early 1930s.
Today the GOP has turned into an increasingly anti-democracy, authoritarian-leaning political party. And we are only one election away from losing our democracy if we don’t recognize the clear and present danger posed by the GQP. Just look at what Ron DeSantis has done as governor of Florida with his “Don’t Say Gay” law and attempts to erase Black history from school curriculum. In These Times recently described DeSantis as “a half-bright Florida fascist.”
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Tucker Carlson and other right-wingers seem enthralled by Viktor Orban’s autocratic regime in Hungary, which has curtailed press freedoms, reduced the independence of the judiciary, and undermined multiparty democracy. Orban got an enthusiastic reception when he addressed a July 2022 gathering of the Conservative Political Action Conference in Houston.
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So what lessons can we learn from the Nazis’ rise to power? And are there parallels between what happened then and what is happening right before our eyes?
Hitler’s early attempts at power
In November 1923, Hitler lead the failed Munich Beer Hall Putsch in which the fledgling Nazi Party staged a violent attempt to seize power in the southern state of Bavaria and then launch a wider revolution to overthrow the Weimar Republic. The Jan. 6 insurrection instigated by Donald Trump actually came much closer to being successful.
Hitler was arrested and put on trial for treason, but he was not really held accountable. He was sentenced to five years in prison, but served less than a year of his sentence before being pardoned. Hitler then decided to eschew violent revolution. Instead, he devised a new strategy for the Nazis to pretend to be a legitimate political party and work from within to take power and destroy democracy.
For years the Nazis had been viewed as the problematic fringe. The BBC documentary begins with the 1930 election and the Great Depression when Germans were facing severe economic hardships and looking for a change. The Nazis made substantial gains, receiving 18% of the vote, compared to just 2.6% in the previous election.
The Nazis’ success drew the attention of a right-wing aristocratic general, Kurt von Schleicher, who is described in the documentary as “Germany’s ultimate political operative.” Schleicher was concerned about the threat posed to Germany’s conservative elite by the growing power of communists, socialists, and trade unions. He wanted to replace the chancellor, Heinrich Brüning, supported by a moderate coalition, with a right-wing chancellor.
Stephan Malinowski, a German-born historian at the University of Edinburgh, says in the documentary that Schleicher saw the Nazis as having the “kind of street cred” to offer “a part of the German working class on a silver plate.” Schleicher believed that Hitler “could be used to build a right-wing coalition which is based on a common hatred and common enemies that they have.”
Trump also declared he brought more white working class voters to support the GOP in recent elections. In actuality, he did the opposite. White working class support for Republican candidates had been increasing since 1992, reaching a peak of 62% in 2016, but dipped to 59% in 2020.
In September 1931, Hitler was devastated and extremely depressed after his half-niece and reputed lover Geli Raubal killed herself with his revolver in the Munich apartment they shared. Evans said Hitler believed “his whole political career was finished.” But less than a month later, Schleicher arranged for Hitler to meet with Hindenburg. Retired British Gen. Sir Mike Jackson says in the documentary that Hindenburg “was rather dismissive of what he called this Austrian corporal. Hindenburg concludes that Hitler is best suited for the office of postmaster so that he can lick me from behind on my stamps.”
Becoming a political player
But Hitler came out of the meeting elated that he had become a player in the political game and believed he was destined to become chancellor. “Hitler was a narcissist obsessed with power—a belief that he was a man of destiny and all of these things grew over time. He was increasingly ruthless. He was filled with hate, particularly against the Jews. He was in the end a man of violence,” Evans says.
Trump has fanned the flames of hatred toward Latinos, immigrants, Muslims, Black people, Asian Americans, LGBTQ people, and other marginalized groups. In multiple cases, his hateful rhetoric has inspired acts of violence. And who can forget Trump’s defense of the white nationalists, including some neo-Nazis, who protested in August 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia, saying they included “some very fine people”?
Schleicher tried to persuade Hitler to join his right-wing coalition, but the Nazi leader didn’t want to be a junior partner, he wanted to be in charge. So Schleicher got Hitler to accept another deal: He would move up the date of elections so long as the Nazis didn’t vote down a right-wing coalition headed by a new chancellor. Hitler saw the election as a chance to gain a bigger share of the vote.
As president, Hindenburg had the power to appoint and remove a chancellor. Schleicher persuaded Hindenburg to remove Brüning and replace him with Franz von Papen, a Catholic conservative, Prussian aristocrat, and former military officer, on May 30, 1932.
Journalist and historian Giles MacDonogh described Papen as “a little bit of a popinjay” who “in a very Germanic way knew how to play the gentleman, although he has the reputation of someone with a degree of incompetence.”
Schleicher believed that his plan was working and he was in control. But as Malinowski observed, where Schleicher went wrong is that he failed to see “that the Nazis and particularly Hitler were playing their own game.”
Hitler ran a right-wing populist campaign in the July 1932 elections, portraying himself as “a man of the people.” The election results shocked the political establishment. The Nazis’ share of the vote more than doubled to 37%. The Nazis were now the largest party in the Reichstag, and Hitler was demanding to be appointed chancellor.
Schleicher’s position was now much weaker. He and Papen convinced Hindenburg to invoke a clause in the constitution that allowed the president to suspend the Reichstag and rule by presidential decree.
But the Nazis foil their plan. In September 1932, Papen tried to get the speaker’s attention so he could announce the presidential decree dissolving the Reichstag. But the new speaker was Hitler’s deputy, Hermann Göring, who ignored Papen and instead called a vote of no confidence in Papen’s government, which passed overwhelmingly. Papen then called for a new election in early November.
In the November election, the last free and fair election held in Germany until after World War II, the Nazis’ share of the vote actually dropped from 37% to 33%. Schleicher then persuaded Hindenburg in December 1932 to sack Papen as chancellor and give him the post. Papen saw this as a betrayal and that set in motion the end game that brought Hitler to power.
At the end of 1932, Schleicher felt back in control and began to consider options to end Hitler’s political career. He tried to get some Nazi deputies to defect and join his government. The Nazi Party was close to bankruptcy due to all the costly election campaigning. “By the end of 1932, Hitler was at his wit’s end as to what to do. He didn’t seem to be able to get any more votes and the Nazis began to run out of money. People began to desert them. The Nazi Party is weak, it’s declining,” Evans says.
Throwing a lifeline
But Papen then threw a lifeline to Hitler. Papen believed that Hitler could be useful in getting his revenge against Schleicher and allowed him to get back into power. So at a clandestine meeting in January 1933, they brokered a backroom deal to join forces in a coalition government.
Hitler’s Nazis would use their strength in the Reichstag and Papen would use his friendship with Hindenburg to get the president to go along with the deal. Hitler would be the chancellor and Papen the vice chancellor, with most of the Cabinet positions reserved for members of other conservative parties rather than Nazis. “It’s an idea that [Papen] has that the only way to destroy the National Socialists is to give them a bit of power—let’s give them a chance in government to show how dreadful they are, and then the people will lose interest in them,” MacDonogh says.
Hindenburg refused Schleicher’s request to dissolve the Reichstag yet again and grant him emergency powers to rule the country. In January 1933, Schleicher was removed as chancellor. Hindenburg rejected imposing a military dictatorship and made the fateful decision to agree to Papen’s proposal to appoint Hitler as chancellor.
And on Jan. 30, 1933, Hitler for the first time had real power over Germany. “On that evening Hitler has this unshakable self-belief that one way or the other he is going to become Germany’s dictator,” Evans says. “People like Schleicher, Papen, and Hindenburg thought that they could use him. That he’d be easily manipulated. They were, of course, wrong.”
The documentary also tells the story of a heroic Jewish lawyer, Hans Litten, who realized the real threat posed by the Nazis. He tried to hold Hitler and the Nazi Party accountable in court for the street violence dished out by the Storm Troopers (SA) against the Nazis’ political rivals, particularly anti-fascist communists and socialists.
The Storm Troopers are the Nazis’ paramilitary wing, but the party’s political leaders can deny involvement in the street violence. Conservative leaders like Schleicher and Papen turned a blind eye to the Storm Troopers’ violence because the Nazi thugs were targeting the left-wing opposition.
Are their actions comparable at this stage to what the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, and other extreme right-wing groups are doing across the U.S. today? How involved are some Republicans with these groups?
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In the documentary, Baroness Helena Kennedy, a prominent barrister and expert in human rights law, described how Litten intervened in a case in which four Storm Troopers were charged in a 1931 attack on a nightclub full of communists, injuring dozens of people.
“Litten wants to join the dots back to the Nazi Party itself,” Kennedy says. “Hitler is saying he believes in laws, he believes in a rules-based society. And he would never himself speak of violence, using violence. But Hans Litten understood what fascism was about, what Nazism was about. And so he thinks how do we make this case of use in a bigger struggle. And he decides that a summons should be issued to get Hitler before the court.”
In an extraordinary moment, Hitler took the witness stand and denied having any knowledge of what the Storm Troopers on trial were doing. He called them a rogue group. “How often have we heard great leaders saying that somehow this was an out-of-control grouping, that this had nothing to do with them?” Kennedy asks.
Remember this episode was first broadcast in 2019. Last week, five members of the Proud Boys on trial for seditious conspiracy said they intend to subpoena Donald Trump as a witness, although similar requests have been denied in other Jan. 6 trials. But in 1931, Litten was able to cross-examine Hitler for three hours. Hitler continued to deny that the Storm Troopers’ violent attacks were official Nazi policy. Litten then produced a pamphlet that was a guide to Nazi ideology for Storm Trooper recruits, which includes a line that reads: “If the Nazis can’t come to power by democratic means then we make revolution.”
“Litten plays his trump card and he presents it to Hitler. You’re telling us that … you’re running a democratic party,” Kennedy says. “Look at what this pamphlet says. And then Hitler gets angry. From this position of calm leadership he becomes the rather frothing man that we knew he was capable of being.”
Hitler would never forget that day and would exact his revenge on Litten. Litten remained a thorn in the side of the Nazis by pressing cases against Storm Troopers despite being harassed and receiving death threats. In one case he uncovered collusion between the Storm Troopers and the police. A policeman had deliberately left a gun on the bar of a tavern that a Storm Trooper picked up and used to kill a communist activist.
But Litten soon realized that Germany’s legal system was becoming increasingly Nazified. Evidence mysteriously disappeared, and his case regarding collusion between the police and Storm Troopers was dropped by Berlin’s chief prosecutor for lack of evidence. “For Litten, watching this is hell. He sees that the destruction of democracy is taking place before his eyes and no one is stopping it,” Kennedy says.
MacDonogh concludes: “We go back to this time over and over and again because … it informs our current world on a number of planes. But particularly it is a warning to us to prevent things like this from happening again and we ask why wasn’t it that there were no people around who could actually prevent this terrible descent?”
What can we learn?
So let’s remember the past and look at the fate of the key figures in the BBC documentary. This story is told in the second and third episodes of the series, which cover the period from 1933-34: “The First Six Months in Office” and “Night of the Long Knives.“
In the end, Hitler became de facto dictator of Germany within two months of becoming chancellor. At the end of February, an arson attack burned down the Reichstag building, which the Nazis blame on a Dutch communist. In late March, the Reichstag passed an act granting Hitler’s Cabinet the power to enact laws without the consent of the parliament. In July 1933, the Nazi Party was declared the only legal party in Germany.
Hindenburg did nothing to stop the Nazis’ excesses even though as president he had the power to sack the chancellor. He died of lung cancer at the age of 86 on Aug. 2, 1934. Under a law passed by Hitler’s Cabinet, the office of president is abolished upon Hindenburg’s death and its powers merged with those of the chancellor. Hitler is now also the head of state and absolute dictator of Germany.
Schleicher and his wife were shot to death in their home by SS assassins during the Night of the Long Knives from June 30 to July 2, 1934, during which the leadership of the Storm Troopers were also killed.
Papen ended up being quickly marginalized by Hitler. He resigned as vice chancellor a few days after Hindenburg’s death. Papen served as Germany’s ambassador to Austria and paved the way for the 1938 German annexation. He also served as the ambassador to Turkey during World War II. He was acquitted of all charges at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trial. In 1949, a German denazification court sentenced him to time in a labor camp, but Papen was released immediately following appeals. He unsuccessfully tried to restart his political career and died in 1969 at the age of 89.
Litten was arrested at the end of February 1933. He was repeatedly interrogated and tortured over the next five years as he was moved from one concentration camp to another. In February 1938, the 34-year-old Litten hanged himself in the Jewish barracks at the Dachau concentration camp. After the unification of Germany, the lawyers association of Berlin renamed itself as the Hans Litten Bar Association.
Nazism was about the ruthless pursuit of power by sowing hatred and division, finding scapegoats to blame for real economic problems, undermining free and fair elections, and exacting revenge on political opponents. Just consider what extremist MAGA Republicans have already done and say they’d like to do if they ever get full control of the federal government. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has already turned his state into a testing ground for an American-style brand of fascism.
As philosopher George Santayana said in 1905: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."