The Political Maneuvers of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis

From the Lecture series: A History of Hitler's Empire, 2nd Edition

By Thomas Childers, Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania

In 1933, Adolf Hitler found himself at the right place, at the right time, and at the right confluence of circumstances. This was the period of extraordinary transformation of the old democratic Weimar Republic into a state with totalitarian aspirations. What were the factors behind this change?

Adolf Hitler giving a speech.
After the disastrous results of the November 1932 elections, Hitler and other senior Nazi leaders had realized that they were walking on thin ice. (Image: Bundesarchiv/CC-BY-SA/ 3.0/Public domain)

The Tenuous Popularity of the Nazis

The Nazis themselves saw their as very tenuous. They realized that they had a hardcore stable support among certain elements of the German mittelstand, or middle class. But the millions who had poured into the party to vote for it—not become members, which required dues and service to the party—probably gave their crisis-related vote of protest. It was not a commitment to the National Socialist ideology.

The outcome of the November 1932 elections revealed that Nazi popularity in free elections could not necessarily be maintained at the July 1932 levels. The Nazis and their leaders understood that one could only make contradictory promises to people for so long, or to ask them to vote against the liberals or the conservatives.

One might get a voter to do that once or twice, or maybe even three times. But unless one comes into power and is able to change something, then that constituency will have a tendency to decompose. And, that’s what it looked like had happened.

This is a transcript from the video series A History of Hitler’s Empire, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Negative Campaigning of the Nazis

The NSDAP’s constituency was too diverse, its promises too contradictory, its appeal too negative. The Nazis emphasized on negative campaigning—what was wrong with the Weimar system. They repeatedly said that the republic was corrupt and it couldn’t solve the economic problems. It had failed Germany in every way.

The NSDAP held out a positive vision of a classless society, a volksgemeinschaft, but that positive view tended to move to the side. In an interview with an American journalist, Gregor Strasser, the second in command of the NSDAP, was asked, “We understand what the NSDAP is against, but what’s it for? Americans don’t understand this.” Strasser, without missing a beat, said, “We’re for the opposite of what exists today.” That was a credible response in the circumstances of 1932.

There were plenty of people out there who were enthusiastic Nazis and supported the ideas, or what they thought were the ideas of National Socialism. But these weren’t the people that transformed the NSDAP from a small splinter party on the lunatic fringes of German politics; they’d been there all the time.

It was the others, the ordinary proverbial man and woman in the street who weren’t necessary evil or criminal, who thought, “Well, why not? Everything else has failed. What can these guys do that will be worse?”

Learn more about the economic crisis in Germany from 1929 to 1932.

The Fears and Hopes of the Nazis

Contrary to the image of an irresistible political movement being swept into power by grassroots support—the view that Nazis had tried to project—the NSDAP’s electoral support was highly unstable that could be maintained for only a limited period of time and under severe economic conditions.

This is what the people who were making the cold, hardheaded calculations in the propaganda department of the NSDAP thought. In a top-secret memorandum drawn up by Joseph Goebbels and his propaganda staff in December 1932, he said, “We’ve blown it.” It ends on a high note, as these things always had to:

Above all else, it must not come to a new election the results would be disastrous. But the reverses of the party can be turned around, and the NSDAP can bounce back, if Adolf Hitler succeeds in making himself the head of a political movement in power, head of the German government.

Favorable Circumstances for the Nazis

In December of 1932, nothing looked less likely than that. The party seemed to be coming apart in the regional elections. But even if the Nazi constituency was volatile and unstable, even if it was largely a protest vote, there were not many alternatives at that time.

After those elections, Franz von Papen, the chancellor of Germany, was unceremoniously booted out. He had no support, now that the Communists and the Nazis had a majority. President Paul von Hindenburg reluctantly turned power over to Papen’s Minister of Defense, General Kurt von Schleicher.

Schleicher’s Hopeless Strategies

A photo of General Kurt von Schleicher.
General Kurt von Schleicher failed to form a new government in December 1932. (Image: Bundesarchiv/CC-BY-SA/ 3.0/Public domain)

Schleicher believed that he could woo the Nazis, he could bring them into the government somehow, or coax rebellious Nazis away—those who were becoming disillusioned with the party. He believed he could win support among labor unions. He also thought that he will be able to woo support away from Hitler. It wasn’t likely to happen.

Nonetheless, he pronounced an economic policy that was beyond liberalism and Marxism. Nobody could figure our exactly what it was, and Schleicher was unable to generate any sort of enthusiasm in the population at all. By January, it was clear that he had failed in his attempt to form a new government.

Learn more about the Nazi breakthrough.

The Political Intrigue against Schleicher

Papen, who had remained on as an adviser to Hindenburg, had decided that the thing to do was to intrigue against Schleicher and get him out.

Papen then, working behind the scenes, engineered a meeting between Hitler and various conservative leaders. Hitler agreed, he was now more malleable; he’d lost the election in November. Hitler agreed to go into a coalition government with Papen.

Hitler would supply the rank and file, the popular support, and Papen would supply Hindenburg. He could convince the old gentleman to go along with this.

On January 30, 1933, Schleicher was forced to resign. They hadn’t agreed about who was going to be chancellor. At the last second, in effect, Hitler was saying, “I’ll take my marbles and go home. I’m chancellor; I’m not going to be vice-chancellor.” And Papen agreed.

So on January 30, the impossible seemed to have happened; a party that had had less than 3 percent of the vote in the spring of 1928 had now managed to maneuver itself into power.

Common Questions about the political Maneuvers of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis

Q: When did Adolf Hitler become the chancellor of Germany?

Adolf Hitler became the chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933.

Q: What was the negative campaigning of the Nazis?

The Nazis emphasized what was wrong with the Weimar system. They repeatedly said that the republic was corrupt and it couldn’t solve the economic problems. And that it had failed Germany in every way.

Q: How did Adolf Hitler become the chancellor of Germany?

In December 1932, Adolf Hitler joined hands with Franz von Papen who wanted to get General Kurt von Schleicher out of the German political scene. When Schleicher was forced to resign, Papen agreed to let Hitler become the chancellor of Germany.

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