Robert Harris’ use of primary Nazi sources in Fatherland fascinated me to find out more about how the Nazis ran their state in the years before the war. I was interested in knowing the details of legislation and the methods used to implement that legislation at a practical level. So I went in search of Richard Evans’ Nazi trilogy and bought a rather expensive leather bound edition off EBay. I was tempted to skip straight to the second title, the Third Reich in Power, but maintained my discipline enough to begin at the beginning.
The Coming of the Third Reich, answered one of the more fundamental questions I’ve always had about modern history. Was ‘democracy’ to blame for the rise of the Nazis?
Evans details the complex social, political and economic machinations that the Nazis brilliantly harnessed to their advantage, out-maneuvering their opponents, and when necessary using force to get their way.
Although always an unstable entity, it would be the advent of the Depression in 1929 that plunged the Weimar Republic into a crisis it would not recover from. The economic conditions lead to an increased polarisation of German society and politics. The growth of the Communists on one end and the Nazis on the other end. This polarisation made it difficult for any government to hold long enough and elections were common place.
In the 1928 election, the Nazis achieved less than 3% of the vote and the Communists just 10%. In 1930, with the economy tattered, the situation had changed dramatically. The Nazis achieved an 18% vote, the communists 13%. By 1932, in the first of two elections held that year, the Nazis officially became the biggest party in the Bundestag winning 37% of the vote, the communist vote increasing to 14%. In the second of the elections that year, the Nazis suffered their first setback. Losing 4% of the vote, achieving 33%. The communist vote peaking at 17%.
With the worst of the depression behind Germany, this may have marked the point where the Nazi and Communist threat began to abate. Unfortunately with the political polarisation so intense, the political centre was unable to hold and in early 1933, Hitler, leader of the largest party in the Bundestag, was appointed Chancellor.
The centre-right rather than working with the centre and centre-left to stave off the threat of the far right and far left, worked instead with Hitler, thinking they could control and manipulate him into a restoration of the monarchy and a curbing of the power of the Bundestag.
They were very wrong, underestimating the ambition and intelligence of the man.
With the apparatus of state in his hand, Hitler convinced President Hindenburg to call an election, hoping to solidify his position.
The 1933 election, infamous in many respects, saw the National Socialists use mass propaganda, rallies, radio broadcasts and public announcements to get their message out. They also had a large paramilitary known as the Brown Shirts, who used intimidation and violence as they pleased, essentially a law unto themselves. They shut down opposition newspapers and opposition meetings. Violence had become quite common.
A few days before the election, the Reichstag was arsoned by Dutch Communist/Anarchist Marinus van der Lubbe. Although some historians believe that the Nazis had planned the fire and used Lubbe as either their pawn or scapegoat, Evans rejects this theory, believing as the German courts later found, Lubbe had worked alone. Hitler, whether aware of the fire beforehand or not, used the situation to his advantage and convinced President Hindenburg to issue the Reichstag Fire Decree. It suspended several sections of the constitution, including the suppression of civil liberties and the Nazis used it prosecute those who opposed them.
Hitler, used the Reichstag Fire to substantiate his claim that the Communists were planning on taking over the government and that Germany was now threatened. Although the Communists were not banned, their deputies were being arrested and attacked, so while their names may have been on the ballot paper, they would never take their seats in the Reichstag.
On the day of the election, thousands of Nazi Brown Shirts were sent to ‘supervise’ the vote. According to Evans ‘ they patrolled and marched menacingly through the streets, while the Party and the Steel Helmets organised motor transport to get people to the polling stations. ” Imagine the intimidation those voting must have felt.
With all this skullduggery and violence, the Nazis could still not convince a majority of Germans to vote for them, receiving 43.91% of the vote, with a high turnout of 89%.
Not all Germans were Nazis and many went far opposing them, even to their deaths.
The lack of majority was of small consequence. Within a few weeks, the Enabling Act was passed giving Cabinet, which the Nazis effectively controlled, the power to make decisions without the authority of the Bundestag, for four years. Hitler now had the unrestricted power he desired to transform the German state.
How the Act managed to pass at all, considering the lack of Nazi majority, is the subject of historical debate and Evans explores the complex motivations and intentions that lead to the decision.
By the end of 1933, Hitler had firmly established control and the Weimar Republic was now disappeared.
Looking back, and hindsight is always a wonderful thing, the failure of the Weimar republic came down to one thing, a lack of belief. While this may sound simplistic, I urge your ear. Not enough Germans were willing to defend their republic, because not enough Germans believed in their republic.
The historical and cultural ties that are necessary for the existence of any institution, especially one that seeks the submission of her citizens, were not entirely prevalent in Weimar Germany. For much of their history the German peoples had been governed by Monarchs and Emperors, not Chancellors and Presidents. The abolition of the monarchy after the First World War, left behind a vacuum of power that the Weimar Republic attempted to fill but ultimately failed in doing so. This was by no means an inevitability, but the political, social and economic climate of the period made it very difficult.
The republic had too many enemies. The Communists viewed it as a capitalist, bourgeois concoction that had to be revolted against. Almost forgotten today, the Communists also experienced exponential growth throughout the final years of the republic. Many of their intentions for Germany were similar to that of Nazis. The end of the republic, the creation of a one-party state, the use of violence and force. Their growth placed enormous pressure on the centre-left Social Democrats, who had easily been the major party of Weimar Germany, severely restricting their ability to hold off the Nazi threat.
The Centre-Right, although originally partners in the Weimar Republic, came to seek the restoration of the monarchy and a return to Germany’s pre-war style of government. Had they believed in the republic they would never have sought an alliance with Hitler, an individual who made his disdain for the republic virulenty clear. In thinking that Hitler was their pawn, the centre-right was blind to the truth; the Nazi leader had used them to springboard his ambitions. There is something almost tragic about it.
As for the Nazis, they perceived the republic as a foreign imposition. They opposed the communists, the capitalists, the monarchists and the Jews. They sought the creation of a Greater Germany, with a social hierarchy that placed the Aryan peoples firmly in the prime.
Ultimately only the Social Democrats were willing to defend the Weimar Republic. They had been central to its creation and function. Unfortunately for them, by 1933 they were not strong enough to prevent the Nazi onslaught.
One further point of interest from this book, related to language. Whenever possible, Evans used the English rather than the German title. For example, Hitler is not Führer, he is leader. As Evans explains, ‘retaining the German is a form of mystification, even romanticisation which ought to be avoided.’
In the end, the Nazi takeover of power was by no means democratic. It was violent and oppressive and unique. May we learn from that lesson.