A Day That Lives in Infamy: Remember January 30.

(This post winds up on a science-ish blog because of my long history with Albert Einstein, in the course of which I did the work that enables me to write what follows.)

As this New York Times piece reminded me, seventy five years ago, this was a truly bad day. Just past noon (about six hours ago, Berlin time) on January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler took an oath administered by President Paul von Hindenburg, and assumed the office of Chancellor of Germany.

That this would be a disaster was obvious to some. General Erich Ludendorff knew both the players in that disastrous moment. He had been, with Hindenburg, the leader of the de facto military junta that ran Germany in the last years of the so-call “Great” War, and he had conspired with Hitler in the Beer Hall putsch of 1923. After Hitler became chancellor, Ludendorff wrote to the President in despair: “I solemny predict that this accursed man will cast our Reich in the abyss…Future generations will damn you in your grave for what you have done.”

Albert Einstein also undertood what Hitler’s rise meant, much earlier than most. He and Winston Churchill, then in the political wilderness, commiserated in the summer of 1933, and that September, Einstein’s frustration with the world’s myopia burst out in a newspaper interview: “I cannot understand the passive response of the whole civilized world to this modern barbarism,” he said. “Does not the world see that Hitler is aiming at war?” (From Abraham Pais, Einstein Lived Here.)

Einstein, of course, was right, which doesn’t surprise me — I hear he was a pretty smart guy.

But what I want to emphasize here is one lesson I learned in the writing of that tome that seems to me to have resonance in other circumstances, even ours now, perhaps.

That is: Hitler’s ascension to the chancellorship was a disaster—but not an inevitable one.

He certainly did his part to reach that pinnacle, but there were literally dozens of points at which he could have been stopped – even up to the last months and weeks. The outcome turned on many factors of course, but certainly among them were the inaction of those who might have defended the German republic throughout its troubled birth and early years; and then, at the end, the disastrous folly of those who were trying to destroy it for their own ends – and hoped to turn Hitler to their purposes.

From which I conclude:

It doesn’t only require active, purposeful malice to incinerate a civil society (h/t Balloon Juice). Aloof disdain and especially pure self-interested stupidity act as accelerants to the bonfire. (I had a couple of links there – but I don’t want to Godwinize this post, so fill in the blanks as you will).

Remember January 30.

(If you want a little more on the background to the tragedy or errors that propelled Hitler to power, go to the jump for an excerpt from my bookthat talks a little bit about the disastrous choices made by a range of German political actors in the early thirties that created the opening Hitler took. There is a lot more to the story, in versions written by many others, of course – but this gives a bitter taste of the events in question.)

Image: Brandenburg Gate Quadriga at night. Photo by Johann Gottfried Schadow, used under a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.5 license.

Update: tweaked a little for readability (horrible word).

The actual record of events in 1931 and 1932 includes several key turning points at which he could have been stopped altogether. That he was not turned on the failures of both his nominal allies and of his enemies.

Chief among Hitler’s foes were, of course the Communists of the KPD. The economic crisis had helped them at the polls too, just as it had boosted the Nazis. Following the 1930 elections, their seventy-seven Reichstag delegates were only outnumbered by the Social Democrats and the Nazis. Their leadership, however, was at once inept and ultimately self-destructive. Cynical and stupid, they formed a common cause with the National Socialists. On the surface, the interests of the two radical parties were the same: both wanted to destroy the democratic functioning of the Republic to pave the way for a new, revolutionary regime. Street fights between KPD and Nazi gangs were often setups, pre-arranged in order to help make real the impression of lawlessness that governed Berlin in 1932. The two parties joined in the Reichstag to block any significant legislation, particularly if it were intended to improve Germany’s dire economic condition. The KPD seems to have believed itself at the vanguard of history. Apparently, all it thought it needed to do was to create a crisis, any crisis, and power would flow to it. Such calculations provided a ghastly echo of Liebknecht’s fatal mistakes in 1919. The outcome was the same and for the same reason. In 1932, as at the end of the war, the radical left failed to count the guns arrayed against them – and their leader, Ernst Thälmann, would pay for that error with his death in the Buchenwald concentration camp.

But if the KPD conspired towards its own destruction, the direct route to power for Hitler lay through the destruction of the established right wing, the more or less legitimate government of the Weimar Republic itself. There, a series of would-be statesmen committed blunder after blunder. In 1930 and 1931, Chancellor Brüning demonstrated his stunning incompetence. He sought to shore up his position after his debacle in the election of 1930 by seeking some foreign policy success, hoping to extract from France and Britain concessions on reparations payments demanded under the terms of the Versailles Treaty. These requests mutated into insistence that the Rhineland be returned to full German control. Such demands were calculated to please nationalist sentiments at home, but they were a red flag to Britain and especially to France, always aware of the threat of a resurgent Germany. The approach was rejected out of hand. Brüning was instructed to take his claims to the World Court, which ruled against him, and the resulting damage was irreversible. He looked weak at home, while his bluster on the international scene alienated all those who could have given him any kind of face-saving concession. Meanwhile, his government’s neglect of the economic collapse earned Brüning a fatal nickname. He was now known as “the hunger Chancellor.”

By early 1932, he had run out of options, losing the support of the business community, the remnants of the parties representing the political center, and most importantly, of the army. The final blow came that spring, when, much too late, he tried to counteract the Nazi rise by banning the SA and the newer, even more brutal SS. The army chief, General Kurt von Schleicher, orchestrated a calculated campaign of opposition and persuaded President Hindenburg, now aged and with his term of office running out, to depose Brüning. That was one key missed chance, for if the army had backed the ban, Hitler would have lost both the physical ability to impose his will by force and the chance to appropriate the prestige of the military. Schleicher hand-picked the new chancellor, the disastrous Franz von Papen. Papen was famously a mediocrity, an opportunistic conservative politician with good connections to both Germany’s Catholic community and to its business elite. He supplied virtually all the remaining opportunities Hitler would need. Schleicher had intended to utilize the new chancellor as a puppet, an aristocratic stalking horse for the army to use to overwhelm the upstart Hitler. Instead, Papen turned out to be “a smiling frivolous dilettante,” in Harry Kessler’s words, who “in six months…did more harm than any preceding chancellor had ever accomplished in so short a time.”

Papen’s key delusion was that he could use the Nazis and then discard them at will. To avoid a vote of confidence in the Reichstag, he had to promise the Nazis that he would call new elections for the summer, and as an extra bonus, he lifted Hindenburg’s ban against public appearances by men in SA and SS uniforms. The move amounted to an a open invitation to murder. Within five weeks, ninety-nine people lay dead and over one thousand were injured in fighting in Prussia alone. Such mayhem, of course, formed a central argument in the three electoral campaigns in the early months of 1932. First came presidential elections in March, when for the first time, Hitler ran for the highest office in Republican Germany. The run off pitted him against the incumbent, Hindenburg, and the Communist, Thälmann — and the final vote had been far closer than anyone had expected. Hindenburg won, but his total of 19.4 million votes gave him a much smaller margin against the combined totals of 13.4 million for Hitler and 3.7 million for Thälmann than in either of his previous victories. Next came the April elections for control of state parliaments, which left the Nazis in commanding positions in virtually every region of the country. Finally, in the Reichstag elections in July, the Nazis used the chaos in the streets to argue that only a truly strong man could save Germany — only Hitler. The tactic worked. The elections ended with the National Socialists holding 230 seats in the Reichstag, up from 107 in 1930. The Nazis were now the largest political party in the chamber.

Thus emboldened, Hitler went to Schleicher and Papen to demand the chancellorship for himself. But here he overplayed his hand. Hindenburg was deeply insulted that he should have been challenged for the presidency and flatly rejected the idea of a Hitler chancellorship. As Hitler biographer Ian Kershaw has pointed out, that should have been that. With Hindenburg’s backing, Schleicher and Papen should have been able to bar Hitler indefinitely, especially as, in yet another election on November 6, the Nazis actually suffered a loss of support, doing well in Berlin but dropping two million votes and thirty-four seats in the Reichstag (though they still retained the most seats, with the Communists second). But Hitler persisted in his demand for total authority, and Hindenburg, continuing to defend the Republic, wrote to him that “a presidential cabinet led by you would develop necessarily into a party dictatorship with all its consequences for an extraordinary accentuation of the conflicts in the German people.”

Brave words by a man not usually remembered as defender of pluralism. But he could not make them stick. Schleicher and Papen had fallen out irretrievably. Despite Hindenburg’s antipathy to him, Schleicher was able to force his way into the chancellorship. Papen then began to agitate for a return to power in coalition with the Nazi party. In early January, 1933, Schleicher sought to defuse the threat by seeking a dissolution of the Reichstag and the right to rule Germany by decree — a move he had opposed when Papen had proposed it months before. Hindenburg turned him down flat. Schleicher could call new elections if he chose, but the president refused to allow his chancellor to rule as a dictator. Meanwhile, Papen continued to meet with Hitler to forge a coalition between the Nazis and conservative Parliamentary parties, negotiations brokered by right-wing business leaders. Schleicher, faced with Hindenburg’s virtually complete lack of confidence in him, resigned on January 28. Papen now agreed to serve in a new government in which Hitler would be chancellor. Hindenburg, feeling the pressure from several sides, finally gave in. Hitler still had never won an election outright; by most measures, his support was dwindling, and those who had observed him at close quarters recognized, as Hindenburg had, that a Hitler government would almost certainly turn into a violent dictatorship. Nonetheless, at 11:00 in the morning on Monday, the 30th of January, 1933, he was formally sworn in as chancellor of the German Republic.

The Great Man theory of history has come in for much abuse over the years. Most famously, Tolstoy railed against it in War and Peace, in which he tried to demonstrate that Napoleon the man was an insignificant actor in the actual events that decided his disastrous Russian campaign. In kindred arguments, Hegel’s idea of history and its Marxist heirs emphasized a logic to history, progress achieved by the clash of forces too large and impersonal for any one person to affect. Reworked, ideologically cleansed, extended and re-analyzed, such approaches are now ordinary tools for historians — and they are not all wrong, far from it. But at certain times and in particular places, there can be no doubt that the individual matters, that the life or death, the rise or fall of a single person reverberates through the experience of untold, unnamed millions.

From Einstein in Berlin, pp. 404-408.

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One Comment on “A Day That Lives in Infamy: Remember January 30.”

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